Mona Lisa Smile, written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal
For some reason, Mona Lisa Smile has failed to awe, mesmerize critics, members of the Academy of Motion Pictures and of the Foreign Press in Hollywood.
Nevertheless, this is a brilliant film, with a phenomenal, stellar cast of radiant women; indeed, it may look like such a gathering of female talent has seldom been put together in such a memorable film:
Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin and Marcia Gay Harden.
In a few ways, this motion picture reminds one of the stupendous Dead Poets Society – the note on this masterpiece is here: http://notesaboutfilms.blogspot.ro/2018/03/dead-poets-society-by-tom-schulman.html
Julia Roberts plays Katherine Ann Watson in Mona Lisa Smile, who is the woman equivalent of John Keating, both genius teachers, trying to help their students to Think, free themselves of the shackles of retrograde, conservative, stifling dogmas, understand what they want from the world and shape their future, find their calling and Flow in their future, happy existences.
Psychology studies demonstrate how important it is for one’s happiness to find the calling, which is at the intersection of liking, what one is good at and what has meaning, an equation that, once solved would mean that you are free to do what you love and provide for the family at the same time.
Flow or “Being in the Zone” is a state of near bliss, described by the quintessential thinker and professor Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and which is most often obtained at the most demanding moments in a profession, when time changes significance, concentration is at a maximum and challenges are met by skills.
Only the college where the action takes place is a bastion of conservatism, leaders of Wellesley demand that the program of teaching are obeyed religiously, in the same manner in which in Dead Poets Society, rules and regulations were paramount and tradition was much more important that creativity, free thinking and liberty.
Katherine Ann Watson becomes a teacher at this prestigious, if fundamental, college and she will teach Art under very hostile circumstances, given the attitude of the administration of the school, but more importantly, given the opaqueness of the girls attending the class.
They have intelligence, skills, curiosity, love of learning, courage to some extent, perspective- if a flawed one in certain departments, persistence, hardworking attitude and plenty of other skills, with some strange flaws, including a lack of open –mindedness, before this exceptional teacher arrives.
When she has her first lesson, the new teacher seems to be defeated by a class that had already looked in the manual and the extra curriculum material specified, is very well aware of all the slides, they know what the ancient paintings on the walls of the famous French cave of Lascaux mean, statues from Babylon and everything there is to know and that is mentioned in the textbook.
The girls are evidently talented, love to read and do their homework- and not just that, but they go above and beyond their duty, willing to prove their intelligence, abilities and understanding- however, they present all their impressive knowledge with arrogance, self- sufficiency in some cases, a child’s spoiled attitude and finally with the request that they continue with independent studies, if the new instructor has nothing new to bring to the table…
This is the 1950s and perhaps the most important subject here is the position of women in society, their achieved equality in some –maybe mainly juridical- terms (?)- while in the psyche of the population- many segments anyway- the woman’s role was still to work at home, wait for the husband to come from work- he was the only provider for most families- with a cooked meal and take care of children and housework.
After all, America has elected- incredibly- a womanizer, philanderer who has been cheating not just on his wife, but on his lover and who is recorded on tape as manifesting a middle age attitude towards the opposite sex – from his outrageous rants on the infamous bus- grabbing genitals and the rest- to the interview in which he says that if he comes home and the food is not ready he jumps to the roof…
The heroine brings provocation and new challenge into the life of her pupils, and not just in the form of new, different, nontraditional, shocking art, but also nudging the girls in the direction of independent thinking, of the famous “Know Thyself, understanding themselves, finding their own values, systems of beliefs and getting out of a kitchen that was so much a prison.
Alas, the school system in this college and others at that time- and in large parts of the Islamic and other fundamentalist parts of the world today- insisted on creating housewives, women whose fundamental- if not only reason to learn- role was to be good wives, mothers and house workers, without any consideration- indeed, disdain was more like it- for a career, this last word was anathema.
There are conflicts and even some of the girls still think- or maybe better said they don’t- in the old, antiquated manner, dreaming of a husband and children, they get engaged and then married to abusive, cheating husbands or just allow their partner to think of him as the provider and the only one whose career, professional life matters- the wife cannot have any notion of working out of her home, can she?
The film is endearing, worthwhile, clever, engaging, compassionate, provoking , educating – large parts of the audience will learn something about Soutine, meat with worms as art, Pollock and essentially:
What is art? What makes the difference between meat on canvas and an artwork?