It might be a little early in 1997 to talk about the miniseries of the year, but "Joseph Conrad's Nostromo," which begins tomorrow night on PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre," is as lavish, large and engaging as anything I've seen since A&E;'s "Pride and Prejudice" last January.
Filmed on location in Cartagena, Colombia, and set in the 1890s, the six-hour epic has: a jungle, harbor, city, silver mine, mountains, two armies, two revolutions, a band of outlaws and a cast talented enough to stock two or three of the kinds of miniseries made on commercial networks these days.
Colin Firth ("Pride and Prejudice" and "The English Patient") stars as Charles Gould, a young Englishman who returns to the fictional country of Costaguana to reopen his family's silver mine 10 years after a revolution in which his father was killed. Accompanying him is his idealistic bride, Amelia, played by the luminous Serena Scott Thomas.
The other starring role belongs to Claudio Amendola as Nostromo, which means "our man" in the best and worst colonialist sense of the term. Nostromo is chief of the dockworkers in Costaguana's port city of Sulaco and the man the European mine owners count on to get their business done.
He is proud, mysterious and seemingly incorruptible -- a life force that animates and seems capable of elevating all that it touches, until it touches the silver dug from the mountains by the people of Costaguana for their European masters.
Nostromo is entrusted by Gould with a fortune in silver bullion as revolutionaries march on Sulaco. The struggle for Nostromo's soul once the country appears to be saved and the silver lost is at the center of this saga of greed, exploitation, betrayal, death, desire and revolution.
Enriching that struggle are performances by Albert Finney, as an alcoholic doctor in Sulaco who expects the worst of his fellow man, and Claudia Cardinale, as an innkeeper who nurtures Nostromo like a mother, betting her daughters' futures on his better angels and sense of honor.
Finney is simply stunning. It isn't clear whether his Dr. Monygham is mad from the ravages of alcohol or the torture he suffered during Costaguana's last revolution, but Finney makes that madness so real and strong that it becomes its own kind of life force in the film. In Finney's hands, the reaction of the besotted, seemingly broken Dr. Monygham to the beauty, promise and apparent goodness of Amelia Gould becomes so psychologically charged that it could make for a fine film in its own right. But, here, as in Conrad's 1904 novel, it is only a sidelight to the main business, which producer Fernando Ghia describes as twofold.
"On one level, 'Nostromo' is a kind of South American Western with good guys and bad guys and a hidden treasure. But, on another level, it's a powerful allegory about Third World exploitation," Ghia said in a recent interview.
The producer believes Conrad's novel is an enlightened one that captures the way small South American countries, which "still had a chance to be great" at the end of the 19th century, were exploited by European colonialists. But, as Nigerian author Chinua Achebe points out in his essay, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness," it is never that cut and dried with Conrad when it comes to colonialism, ethnicity and people of color.
In that regard, things to think about as you watch "Nostromo" include the way people of color tend to be one-dimensional -- and often that dimension is negative. Their subjugation to Europeans is regularly presented as self-evident -- as in the fact that Nostromo, an Italian, should be foreman of the dockworkers.
Furthermore, ethnicity within the European community of Costaguana is often highly stereotyped using negative depictions -- the Irishman as drunk (Monygham) and the Italian as "hot-blooded" (Nostromo).
The most troubling depiction for me was that of Senor Hirsch (Allan Coduner) as a despicable, sniveling coward who is referred to as "the Jew." While Monygham and Nostromo are taken well beyond the stereotypes to become rich characterizations, Hirsch is not. He is also the only character referred to by the ethnic or religious group to which he belongs.
This is not to condemn "Nostromo," which was after all written at the turn of the century. In many other ways, it is every bit the great novel the producers and PBS claim it to be.
As to whether modern adaptations should pass on such negative depictions of otherness found in the original is far too complicated a question to resolve in the space of a preview.
In the end, PBS' "Nostromo" is an eyeful of rich settings, great acting and high drama. Enjoy the panorama and performances. Question the politics.
What: six-hour miniseries
When: 9 p.m. tomorrow, Monday and Tuesday
Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26)
Who: Colin Firth, Serena Scott Thomas, Claudio Amendola, Albert Finney
Pub Date: 1/04/97