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God's Country
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God's Country

God's Country (1986) is a poignant portrait of middle America rendered exotic and fresh through the vantage of renowned French director Louis Malle's lens. In the Minnesota town of Glencoe, Malle attends weddings, interviews an energetic elderly woman tending her garden, a young woman who frankly discusses her sex life and decision to give up a baby for adoption years ago, a cow inseminator, a farm family and a housewife-turned playwright whose latest production is "Much Ado About Corn." Beginning in 1979 Malle started documenting the lives of the citizens. He ventured into small town pharmacies, a Dairy Queen, the Glencoe State Bank, and in the process created an absorbing series of character studies about small town life and this group of German American descendents obsessed with lawn mowing and church going.

Six years later, Malle returns to find a community reeling from the fallout of Ronald Reagan's presidency and the local effect on decimated family farms and businesses threatened with or experiencing foreclosure. The economic trickle-down of politics in the lives of ordinary Americans makes the film as applicable today as it was in 1986.

Made between the release of Pretty Baby (1978) and the filming of Atlantic City (1980), God's Country shows the range of the director's interests. Initially PBS offered to fund a documentary on any aspect of America for airing on television. Malle chose Disneyland but when the company demanded final cut, he backed out. His next subject was on a mega-mall in Minneapolis but once on site, he decided to switch. It was Malle's strategy to make the actual filming the main component, an exploratory, organic approach to filmmaking. Malle spent the next three weeks driving around Minnesota in search of an interesting subject.

And it was in Glencoe, Minnesota, population 5,000, sixty miles west of Minneapolis, that he found it. While Glencoe celebrated its yearly town fair Malle observed its residents and rituals and found what he had been looking for. "I fell in love with these people," he later said.

According to Malles' production assistant James Bruce (in The Films of Louis Malle: A Critical Analysis by Nathan Southern and Jacques Weissgerber), "[Louis] found it fascinating, because ...it was so different than what he came from...He was so charming that people wanted to talk to him. And they trusted him immediately."

God's Country opens with Malle quizzing an elderly woman, Mrs. Litzau, about her garden exploding with flowers and visible from the road. Though some of the townsfolk might fit within a stereotype, like the assistant chief of police Rod Petticore, who once in uniform has the officious air of a born functionary, others are remarkable for their inability to be pegged. Reverend Chapman, of the First Congregational Church of Glencoe is, for instance eloquent and insightful about the reasons why his constituents experience marital problems and divorce. Beneath Glencoe's charm, Malle also uncovers secrets: thinly disguised racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia. And yet Malle manages to present a warm but flawed portrait of the town's many contradictions, enjoying the company of its citizens even while acknowledging their flaws.

Six years later Malle returns to Glencoe to find things both changed and remarkably static. In her nineties Mrs. Beneke is still enthusiastically tending her own garden but an increasing bitterness is present in the words of farmers like Mr. Thalman, the owner of Thalman's Seeds, who blames the Jews and the Reagan administration for his problems. Arnold Beneke, a dignified local lawyer whose son in the Sixties was a political subversive, ends his state-of-the-nation views on a downbeat note, "the philosophy of greed...it's horrible."

Never widely reviewed by critics, God's Country was called "poignant" by Leonard Maltin and The New York Times stated it was "entirely engrossing." European critics were more lavish with their praises and more attuned to and disgusted by the element of racism in the film.

Producer: Vincent Malle
Director: Louis Malle
Cinematography: Charlie Clifton, Louis Malle
Film Editing: James Bruce
Cast: Louis Malle (Narrator).
C-95m. Letterboxed.

by Felicia Feaster

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