The Sweet Hereafter

on October 10, 1997 by Lael Loewenstein
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   After his tenure on the Cannes jury last year, Atom Egoyan returned to the Riviera on the other side of the dais with the much-anticipated "The Sweet Hereafter." And he didn't disappoint: One of the few films to be widely praised at this year's fest, "The Sweet Hereafter" garnered several prizes, including the Grand Jury nod. A stirring portrait of a community struggling to heal in the wake of a crisis, the film--based on the novel by Russell Banks--is distinguished by an array of fine performances, Egoyan's signature evocative camera work, and a story that leaves one thinking without heavy-handed moralizing.
   In the fictional town of Sam Dent, Canada, a school bus has swerved off an icy road into a frozen lake, leaving dozens of children dead and others injured. In the accident's aftermath, the townspeople each react differently, some looking for a party to blame, others mourning quietly. As if to profit from their grief, a big-city lawyer ("The Fifth Element's" Ian Holm) comes to town looking for clients to sue the bus company and promising to make them rich. The lawsuit, however, threatens to divide the townspeople even further. Just when the suit appears to be solid, one survivor's crisis of conscience leads her to make a decision that will lead her to the "sweet hereafter," a realm for those who are at peace with their fate.
   As attorney Mitchell Stephens, Holm is superb, worming his way into the grieving families' homes with slippery charm and inflated promises. Compelled to speak, the residents of Sam Dent each narrate their different versions of events in intriguing "Rashomon" style. Egoyan weaves together the various voiceover narrations into a richly detailed quilt of subjective impressions, memories and beliefs. To his credit, he doesn't actually show the accident until late in the film, having already built up considerable anticipation through characters' partial flashbacks. Likewise, he varies the texture by juxtaposing intimate close-ups of characters in conversation with sweeping aerial shots of the bus speeding toward its demise in a snowy landscape. Finally, and most importantly, "The Sweet Hereafter" manages to impart a moral without delivering a sermon. A call to individual as well as community responsibility, it is a particularly apt tale in an era of lawsuits and finger-pointing.    Starring Ian Holm, Sarah Polley and Maury Chaykin. Directed and written by Atom Egoyan. Produced by Camelia Frieberg and Atom Egoyan. A Fine Line release. Drama. Rated R for sexuality and some language. Running time: 100 min. Screened at Cannes. Won the Grand Jury Prize, the Ecumenical Prize and the Fipresci Critics Prize.
Tags: Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Maury Chaykin, Atom Egoyan, Camelia Frieberg, Fine Line, Drama, crisis, survivors, fate, Canad
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