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Don’t grab for an atlas; Matobo isn’t real. Neither is the Ku dialect understood by only a handful of people marching through the halls of the United Nations in the political thriller The Interpreter. Though they may seem as authentic as a Newsweek pictorial, the war-torn African nation, its language and its complex sociopolitical back story have been created exclusively for the film, which stars Nicole Kidman as interpreter Silvia Broome, a Matobo native who carries around closely guarded secrets along with her U.N. security pass.
One night Sylvia accidentally overhears part of a conversation in Ku pointing to an assassination plot. The target: Matobo’s president, Edmond Zuwanie. Once a hero and liberator of his people, Zuwanie has spent recent decades propagating hideous crimes against them and faces serious penalties if tried in the international community.
He plans to visit the U.N. to spin his genocide as simply a response to terrorism. Perhaps if he can convince the world’s ambassadors that he wants peace and democracy for his country, he can escape justice. He must first escape assassination. But who is plotting against Zuwanie? It could be either of two rivals from his country eager to seize control. Or maybe a military rebel. Or a vengeful expatriate.
Whoever it is, federal agent Tobin Keller—struggling with the recent loss of his wife—needs to figure out the plot and keep the murder from happening on American soil. His first assignment is to learn all that he can from Silvia. But the more he finds out, the more reason he has to distrust her. Is she a victim ... or a suspect?
Silvia and Keller show compassion for one another and the losses they’ve suffered. The good guys generally value life, whereas the villains—be they assassins or politicians—don’t. A leader gives an impassioned speech about human rights being essential to a culture’s prosperity. People are willing to die for a worthy cause. Zuwanie reminisces about being welcomed to New York a hero many years earlier, perhaps mournful that selfish tyranny has since tarnished his legacy.
The filmmakers consider diplomacy a better course of action than violence. They also put a lot of emphasis on mercy and forgiveness. Silvia describes a custom in which her people bind a murderer and dump him in the river, leaving it up to the victim’s family to either let the culprit drown or swim out and rescue him. She says, “Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.” Keller grapples with whether or not he could show mercy to his wife’s lover had the man survived a careless car wreck that caused her death. A friend who let Silvia down asks for her forgiveness, albeit in a suicide note. In the end, even Silvia struggles to forgive the one responsible for her family’s cruel fate, but takes the high road. (For a biblical perspective, read Romans 12:17-21, Colossians 3:13 and Luke 23:32-34.)
Silvia’s culture is superstitious about mentioning the names of the deceased. Blessed with good fortune, a cop blurts, “Thank you, God!”
Dancers at a club are dressed immodestly. One appears ready to give a foreign dignitary a lap dance, but is sent away by a federal agent. Police mention that a phone number found in a suspect’s apartment is for a phone-sex hotline. Keller talks about his late wife’s chronic unfaithfulness. Silvia refers to having lost “a lover” to the conflict back home.
After bearing witness to a mass grave, two African men are machine-gunned to death by adolescents (one victim gets finished off at close range). Bodies are discovered following murders (several slumped on the floor, another stuffed in a closet) and a suicide (a man sitting in a bloody bath). Keller and an assassin exchange gunfire in an apartment. A terrorist sets off a bomb on a city bus, killing nearly 20 innocent people and wounding many others. Silvia tells the painful tale of how her family died after driving over a land mine. Keller describes how his wife and her lover perished in an automobile accident. A woman relates having killed a boy in self-defense. A man is suffocated with a pillow. Several men get shot or are threatened at gunpoint.
Crude or Profane Language
About 15 profanities, including a half-dozen s-words and four abuses of the Lord’s name ("g--d--n" and “Jesus” are each said twice).
Drug and Alcohol Content
To deal with stress Keller drinks whiskey at a bar. In other scenes he also instinctively turns to alcohol. He warns a fellow agent smoking cigarettes, “Those things’ll kill ya.”
Other Negative Elements
Depending on one’s view of the United Nations, viewers may be galled by the positive PR the organization receives via drippy speeches extolling its noble purpose. Silvia admits to telling lies but for the “right” reasons, suggesting that ends justify means. Though not sexualized, a photograph of a native boy briefly exposes side nudity.
Credibly written and superbly acted, The Interpreter is a taut thinking man’s thriller. Director Sydney Pollack has created a bustling head game that doesn’t resort to pointless detours or red herrings that seem illogical upon reflection. Revelations are, for the most part, unforced and well-timed. And, in the end, everything makes sense—not just from a logistical, connect-the-plot-dots perspective, but from a human one.
Sure, the film—the first ever shot inside the United Nations—is propelled by poignant political intrigue, but it’s sustained by genuine characters, flawed yet heroic. Under Pollack’s direction, Kidman and co-star Sean Penn are terrific as tightly wound professionals and wounded human beings desperately needing each other’s confidence, yet unsure how forthcoming they can afford to be. The ramifications are personal as well as global, which raises the stakes and makes us want them to come clean. As for the supporting players, I haven’t been so invested in an anonymous team of federal agents since The Fugitive.
Pollack told Entertainment Weekly, “Every time I am directing, I question why I’m doing it again. It’s like hitting yourself in the forehead with a hammer.” I actually contemplated such self-flagellation after watching his last feature, 1999's Random Hearts. Clearly this one wasn’t nearly as painful, although The Interpreter does include disturbing moments of violence and profanity.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Nicole Kidman as Silvia Broome; Sean Penn as Tobin Keller; Catherine Keener as Dot Woods; Jesper Christensen as Nils Lud; Yvan Attal as Philippe; Earl Cameron as Edmond Zuwanie; George Harris as Kuman-Kuman; Yusaf Gatewood as Doug; Hugo Speer as Simon Broome; Byron Utley as Jean Gamba
Sydney Pollack ( Random Hearts)