Recently my wife and I watched Brian De Palma's "Scarface". I had seen it a long time ago, and remembered it as an unimaginative but entertaining movie. This time around was a bit different.
First off, I was taken aback and sort of embarrassed by the film's depiction of Latinos. Granted, I didn't live in Miami in the 1980s, so maybe it really was like the movie shows. But I don't think so. The cast of "Scarface" is mainly non-Latinos playing Latinos, and they all inexplicably talk to one another in (heavily accented) English instead of Spanish. But aside from this, they are shallow, two-dimensional characters, with only a few ticks or gimmicks to differentiate each one beyond the generically avaricious, immoral personalities shared by all. As someone living in Latin America, I was angered to see such offensive caricatures, and frankly ashamed for my wife to see De Palma's silly, unrealistic representation of Latinos. Despite all this, she liked the first part of the movie.
However, both of us were appalled by the bloody, ridiculous ending in which the protagonist goes down in a hail of bullets. Not only is the final scene senselessly violent, but it's a cop-out. Instead of a thoughtful or creative denouement to the storyline, the main character is suddenly killed, thus saving the director and the screenwriter (Oliver Stone!) from exerting themselves too much. It's a mediocre non-climax that tops off a storyline that doesn't differ significantly from any other gangster movie I've ever seen. Peppered throughout the film are a few implausible expository monologues about the relativity of good and evil, and some long shots of ironic images like a Goodyear blimp saying "The World is Yours". Get it? The main character is really greedy and ambitious and wants the whole world. See, it's profound!
The one bright spot in "Scarface" is Al Pacino's acting. No, not the far-out, wild depiction of a crazy, out-of-control character (though he does this and the Cuban accent well). What I was impressed by was how Pacino managed to look tacky and uncouth throughout, even in expensive suits. He perfectly captures a character with no subtlety, tact, culture, or reflection, just pure blind ambition. All the money and flash in the world can't make him seem any more respectable.
Another thing the movie made me think about was how we should depict gangsters. My wife and I criticize "Scarface" because it doesn't explore its characters. They aren't human. Compare this to "The Godfather", in which even criminal masterminds are considered with nuance and depth. However, the last time I saw the Godfather movies a few months ago, I wondered if it really should be considering these people with nuance and depth. In Colombia we have plenty of bad guys--paramilitary murderers, greedy amoral gangsters, deluded extremist insurgents--and frankly I don't give a damn about their family dramas or inner conflicts. They're horrid people that screw up everything they touch in our country, and I don't need to know anything except for what threat they pose to me, and how to avoid it. Surely Pablo Escobar's relationships with his kids and friends had just as much complexity as Vito Corleone's, but I would never sit down to watch a film about them. There are plenty of other things that are much more interesting, without being inherently evil or damaging.
So maybe in the end Brian de Palma does us all a service by making such a boring, mediocre moving about Miami criminals. His depiction of Tony Montana and his travails is neither artful nor realistic, but perhaps he gets at the central point of the gang life. It's bad, without nuance or qualifier. Just bad.