Oleanna (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Consider this situation: two people approach an intersection from different vantage points. When an accident occurs, they both observe the same facts, yet afterwards their versions of events differ considerably. Neither is lying; rather, it is the subjective rather than the objective element of their account which is unique to each witness. This sort of difference of perspectives (albeit in other circumstances) is one theme explored by writer/director David Mamet in Oleanna.

Sexual harassment is certainly an issue of some importance in today's society. While it's easy to attack the issue from an obvious point-of-view (e.g., Michael Crichton's Disclosure), Mamet has decided against something so clean cut. Instead, he frames his story around a series of incidents that could be viewed as either completely innocent or not. Ultimately, perhaps the question in Oleanna is not whether sexual harassment has been committed, but exactly who is persecuting whom.

Given equal time and treatment as the sexual harassment case is an examination of the significance of today's college education. What value is there in a typical college education? Is it more important to go through the expected routines -- taking notes, reading texts, and passing exams -- than it is to have one's intellect stimulated and one's interests awakened? To use Mamet's words, "Is higher education useful?"

As titles go, this one is rather obscure. Oleanna refers to a folk story about how a man (named Ole) and his wife (Anna) bought acres of swampland then sold it as farmland to those who were willing to invest their lives' savings. Once the money had been collected, the pair vanished and the buyers were left with worthless property. This became known as the "Oleanna swindle." For Mamet, higher education may be today's "Oleanna swindle."

Faithfully adapted by the director from his own play (which began its worldwide run in 1992), Oleanna is a two-character piece. For the most part, the dynamics are played out in a series of rooms on an unnamed northeastern college campus. The only two speaking parts belong to William H. Macy as a middle-aged professor and Debra Eisenstadt as Carol, a student who comes to him to discuss why she's failing his course.

Needless to say, these characters are central to Mamet's presentation of certain themes. Their relationship is developed through three acts, each showing a new phase of their interaction. In some ways, the progression of Oleanna is more like that of a psychological thriller than a drama. The film spirals in on itself, twisting from sanity and reason to primal emotion.

In the first act, Carol approaches the professor (who is left unnamed) for help. She's failing his course. Instead of giving her conventional advice, the professor explains to Carol his entire philosophy of education. She is offended by some of what he says, and they argue, but their eventual parting seems to be amicable.

Act two, however, reveals that Carol has filed a protest against the professor, accusing him of sexual harassment. Her charges are accurate in fact, but neither intent nor context are considered. Bolstered by a group of nameless, faceless supporters, Carol is no longer the nervous, uncertain girl of act one. And, as her self-assurances waxes, the professor's wanes.

As is always the case, Mamet's dialogue has a rhythm and cadence all its own. Early in the film, this, combined with a sluggish tone, causes Oleanna to seem staged and unnatural. Later, however, as the pace builds, the strengths of what the actors are saying -- and how they're saying it -- outstrip the weaknesses. By photographing Oleanna using dim lighting frequently designed to hood the eyes, motives, and feelings of the characters, cinematographer Andrezej Sekula (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) enhances the sense of claustrophobia created by Mamet's restrictive setting. By the end of the movie, we in the audience feel as trapped as the characters on screen.

Oleanna probes deeply into some of the darker facets of human interaction, and anything with this keen an edge will cause discomfort. Three out of four "characteristic" movie-goers are likely to view this as a bad movie (too slow, too pedantic, too stilted). Oleanna, however, is no more intended for that crowd than are they for it. This film has been made for those willing to look beneath the surface to see a taut, intellectual sparring match where there is no absolute truth. For such an audience, this picture will leave an indelible imprint.

Oleanna (United States, 1994)

Director: David Mamet
Cast: William H. Macy, Debra Eisenstadt
Screenplay: David Mamet, based on his play
Cinematography: Andrezej Sekula
Music: Rebecca Pidgeon
U.S. Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Company
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 1994-11-04
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Profanity, Violence, Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1