Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Devil's Double

MPAA  (R) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert’s Review -

The Devil’s Double (directed by Lee Tamahori, screenplay co-written by Michael Thomas and Latif Yahia, based on the autobiographical book by the same name by Latif Yahia with assistance of Karl Wendl) is about true story of Latif Yahia (played in the movie by Dominic Cooper) who during the regime of Saddam Hussein (played in the movie by Philip Quast) was extracted from the Iraqi military and forced to serve as a body double to Hussein’s psychopathic son Uday (played in the movie by Dominic Cooper as well).

If the totalitarian bosses of recent history were often ruthless and evil, the children of these dictators have often been remembered of being even worse.  In this regard, I would recommend an article by Franklin Foer of Slate Magazine who goes through the sordid stories of the adult children of notorious recent dictators.  Many/most of these children of dictators grew-up to have alcohol and gambling problems as well as _torture and rape_ problems.  Uday Hussein, for example, as head of the Iraqi Olympic Community was said to have tortured the members of Iraq’s national soccer team after losing a qualifying matchNicu Ceausescu, son of Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu also had a thing for Olympic athletes, apparently making his rounds of Romania’s medal-winning women’s gymnastics team when “dad” was still in power.  To be sure, Nicu wouldn’t torture the women athletes; he’d just sleep with (rape) them.  It’s generally been “good to be the king” (or the king’s son...).

So then, this is the world that Latif found himself brought into.  Extracted from the front during the Iran-Iraq War by Iraqi intelligence, because it was noted that he looked “a lot like” Uday Hussein, he was given by Uday an offer he could not refuse.  Even though given “a chance to think about it,” that chance Latif found out, was to be taken in the solitude of a prison cell.  Eventually, Latif gave in and after the making of some special dentures (to make his teeth look like Uday's) and apparently a number of minor surgical alterations on his face, voila, Latif got to play Uday for as long as he could stand it / his luck lasted.

What was the life of a “son of a god?”  Well, certainly God or Allah and their various "quaint moral strictures" (like Moslems aren’t supposed to drink alcohol, to say nothing of "thou shalt not kill, covet or commit adultery") didn’t matter for much.  The booze, the coke and the women flowed freely.  At one party in some private club in Baghdad during the lead-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Uday demanded that all his guests “take off their clothes,” and soon enough, male / female, most of the party-goers were naked.  Parents take note: If it wasn’t obvious to you already, this movie _really isn’t_ for the kids.

Uday also had a thing for young brides and even school girls.  Documented was a case where Uday watching a lovely wedding reception at some resort on the outskirts of Baghdad proceeded to come over and take (and soon afterwards rape) the bride.  In the movie, she proceeded to commit suicide, jumping off a balcony onto the wedding reception (still going on) below.  Uday would also drive his Italian sports car around Baghdad looking for teenage school-girls abduct.  Later, he’d have his assistants literally dispose of the bodies in the desert outside of town.

How much can a bystander (or even a forced body-double with a gun to his head) take?  Well when Uday had Latif go out _in his stead_ to talk down a particularly angry parent who had lost a teenage daughter in this way, Latif took out a knife and proceeded to slit his own wrists.  For his attempted suicide, Latif was dumped on the doorsteps of his parents’ home who had not seen or heard from him in 9-years (They had been told that Latif died during the Iran-Iraq War).

But anyone who’s ever watched or read a mafia tale knows that it’s not _that_ easy to leave an “outfit” like this.  The rest of the movie is about Latif’s attempt to "get out of Dodge.”

Perhaps the one difference between a purely mafia outfit and a political one is that other assistants / henchmen in a regime like this do come to have qualms as well.  So Latif does occasionally get some unanticipated help from people that, on the surface, one wouldn’t expect. (This same motif/insight was also present in the recent movie There be Dragons about Opus Dei founder St. Josemaria Escriva, set during the chaos and carnage of the Spanish Civil War and it _may_ be worth pursuing/reflecting on this in the future – not everybody associated with an evil regime is necessarily evil and people even in such evil circumstances are capable of unexpected kindness and change).

All in all, The Devil’s Double makes for a viscerally graphic (gold and blood drenched) movie.  Movies like Scarface and Goodfellas as well as the movies of Quentin Tarantino come to mind.  Parents, the R-rating is definitely appropriate and the movie is definitely not for kids / preteens.  Still, The Devil’s Double is mostly historical (Some of the scenes, particularly near the end, feel like they were “adapted” to fit the needs of a telling a compelling and coherent story, much like a criticism that could be made of recent cable television series like The Tudors or The Borgias).  And the story does make note of some of the complexities of the various characters in the story.  Nobody, including Uday or his father, is portrayed completely one-dimensionally. 

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