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American Pastoral

Are wounds of the Newark riots still open? Read our verdict of Ewan McGregor's debut as a director, a film packed with social woes and family taboos

An Anglo-Saxon hybrid of Almodovar’s Julieta (2016) and Nanni Moretti’s The Son’s Room (2001), that’s the best way of describing American Pastoral. Likewise the other two films, it depicts the story of parents who are struggling to survive after the disappearance of their children. Instead of having a Spanish melodramatic flavour, or an operatic Italian trauma, McGregor’s feature is based on Philip Roth’s novel, which sets the familiar tragedy using the Newark riots of 1967 as a background.

It is the first feature directed by actor Ewan McGregor, who described the task as “an incredible responsibility”. He also plays the main role Seymour “Swede” Levov, a once legendary high school athlete, whose beloved daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) disappears after being accused of bombing a post office. Swede is a character that is broken by the loss of his daughter. The film explores guilt and taboos, such as incest, in a very touching way. McGregor confesses: “I was so attached to this role because I experienced other kinds of loss as a parent”. He has four daughters.

Apart from bringing to surface parenting issues, American Pastoral revisits some important social fights that occurred in the ‘60s. The anti-war movement during the Vietnam war is one of them and probably the most famous one. The Newark riots is another: Newark was one of the cities across the country where social convulsion broke out in the late 1960s. Years of poverty and discrimination had created frustration in many black communities. A black cab driver was pulled over and badly beaten by the police. When the riot ended, the area had been devastated. More than 45 years has passed, and it now seems Newark tried to overcome the historical wounds in favour of a message of renaissance. The event is still the spark of smoldering resentment.

The tension that arises between the couple after the disappearance of the daughter is a symbol of the complexity of family roles. How to be lovers again if your child is not around? How to search for something authentic for yourself if you are not sure your daughter is a criminal or not? Mother Dawn (played by Jennifer Connelly) has to deal with the challenge of reinventing her role as a wife. She literally goes mad. She was too beautiful and young when she got married. She adopted her husband’s faith and now it seems that her past choices were wrong. Her identity crisis is compelling.

The film reveals an aspect of the American dream that was rudely interrupted after World War II. It deconstructs our ideals and exposes our vulnerabilities. We are left with the same feeling of the daughter Merry: having to face the reality and being the child who is stuttering in fright.

American Pastoral is out in cinemas on November 10th.

You can watch the film trailer right here:


By Maysa Monção - 23-09-2016

Maysa Monção is a Brazilian writer, teacher, translator, editor and art performer who currently lives in London. She has a Masters Degree in Film Studies from Tor Vergata University in Rome, Italy, ...

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