Sunday 18th May, 2003

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Concocted drama and ocean shells

Secrets of the Shells is a drama waiting to happen.

The most dramatic moment in this new Tony Maharaj film, now showing at the multiplexes, comes actually in its opening sequence, as Laurel Wiley, the unheroic heroine’s scuba-clad feet are caught in a fisherman’s (Chuck Jeffrey) net.

After that, little else rises to the occasion, very much like the star boy, Paul, played by Richard Norton.

There is nothing psychological or thrilling in this, billed as a psychological thriller; little fatal about the attraction, and not much mayhem, either, as the promotional material suggests.

The dialogue is empty, sometimes hardly making sense at all. The conversations are in fact reminiscent of some of the things we have come to expect out of the mouth of politician’s.

Indeed, some of its utterances make statements like Prime Minister Patrick Manning’s that he’ll leave sex to the experts, or Panday’s that he is now ready to do charity work (duh?) sound like philosophy.

The unheroic heroine exhibits little acting skills. The deadpan expression on her face, and voice, hold steady through the range of emotions the movie hints at – love, happiness, sorrow, dissatisfaction, hysteria, joy, passion.

Errol Fabien in a minor role exhibits perhaps the best talent of the cast, all the members of which are tightly confined to old fashioned stereotypes of race and gender – the Afro-Caribbean male native, sexy, stupid and savage; the exotic Afro-Caribbean woman who suffers in silence; the Caucasian, sexually deprived female/conqueror, and the ineffectual Caucasian male.

The most psychotic thing about the movie is the obsessive presence of shells, in their various shapes, colours and sizes, everywhere, in virtually every scene, in images at times suggestive of male and female genitalia that can provoke the anti-condomisation lobby to call for a ban on shells, instead.

Loudly hinting at profundity or mystery, but never yielding it, the movie leaves viewers wondering when the surprise twist of plot will come; wondering and waiting, not to breaking point, but to the point of exasperation.

Secret of the Shells climaxes with a whimper (and niggling disbelief of “that’s it?”) rather than a cathartic shout of satisfaction.

But for all its shortcomings, the movie allows one to sit back and soak in the incredible beauty of Trinidad it presents through its scenes; the kind that you are sometimes reminded of when you turn a corner and your breath catches at the nearness of the hills of the Northern Range and you could believe hilltop and heaven must be related, and you marvel that it’s Trinidad that gave both birth; or the wonder that returns after the first showers when the landscape suddenly turns green, as if defying botanists and their theories of germination and growth as little leaves peep through branches, only a few hours earlier condemned as dead.

The movie draws its strength from this natural ecstasy, mesmerising despite – or perhaps especially because of – its familiarity: The wall of coconut palms on both sides of the road seemingly blocking off the negatives of the outside world, folding you in and inviting you through its path to the sea in the drive to Mayaro, where most of the movie is set; or the serenity observed from the Maracas lookout, of the North Coast bays wreathe, waves teasingly kissing the shoreline to retreat and return again.

That needed no contrivance, few camera tricks, and little cinematographic technique. The camera infuses new life into the everyday scenes of Trinidad – the marketplace, the expansive seashore, the village dances…

Tony Maharaj may have achieved his objective yet, of this being a showcase of the potential of Trinidad as a location for films, even as it allows us to see ourselves through the eyes of others.

And so mirrored, we can also renew appreciation of the place, and remind ourselves of why we fiercely defend it to foreign critics; and reawaken our sensitivities that have become numbed into finding one hype after another into which we can deflect all the pressing issues of the day.

One can only speculate at what Maharaj and his crew could have done with a larger budget and State and administrative support for the effort; or why successive Governments have been all rhetoric and rather reticent on support for a movie industry; speculate that they feel threatened it may take attention away from politicians as the spotlight turns on “Triniwood” instead – the Mayaro village dancers, the market vendors, the fisherman, as shown in Secrets; towards the things that make us beautiful, and not the ugliness held up as a mirror of ourselves by the politicians.

Herein, perhaps, lies the secret of those shells.

©2003-2004 Trinidad Publishing Company Limited

Designed by: Randall Rajkumar-Maharaj · Updated daily by: Sheahan Farrell