Cry me a river

Operatic Man Who Cried muffles emotions

The Man Who Cried begins with a woman (Christina Ricci) literally trying to keep her head above water. Before the opening credits begin, we see her fighting against an unfriendly sea that's not only turbulent, but in some places aflame.

The image suits the cinematic heroines of director Sally Potter. In her adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, an ageless, gender-switching individual rides the currents of time across centuries. The Man Who Cried depicts a young woman buffeted by the waves of modern history, which carry her from Russia to England to Hollywood.

Potter's protagonists face extraordinary developments with quiet stoicism, which isn't to the benefit of either picture. Potter has an admirable ambition, but her films can prove more emotionally narrow than their sprawling stories suggest. In The Man Who Cried, she keeps the audience at arm's length from heartbreaking events, just like the director and her characters seem to be.

As if showing Ricci's character's life flashing before her eyes, the credits reveal her as a young girl (Claudia Lander-Duke) growing up in a Russian shtetl, in scenes shot with remarkable washed-out colors, evoking turn-of-the-century photography. It's 1927 and the girl's father (Oleg Yankovsky) is a beloved cantor who emigrates to America, but with the intent of sending for his family later.

Unfortunately, the shtetl is pillaged and the girl becomes a refugee, mutely witnessing callous killings and terrible deprivations. Hoping to be sent to America, she instead finds herself in England, given a foster family and the new name "Suzie," with only an old photo and a coin to remind her of her former life.

Potter segues to scenes of English school hell, as Suzie's taunted as a "gypsy" by her classmates and gets her Russian words beaten out of her. Growing to adulthood, she becomes an accomplished singer and takes a job with a European chorus line, hoping to save enough money to travel to America herself. She befriends a Russian showgirl named, inevitably, Lola, whom Cate Blanchett plays with a thick, Boris-and-Natasha accent.

An unapologetic gold-digger, Lola sets her sights on Dante (John Turturro), a tempestuous Italian opera singer who gives both women bit parts in his Parisian opera company. Meanwhile, Suzie finds herself drawn to Cesar (Johnny Depp), a silent gypsy horseman who tends to the white steed used in the lavish operas. But with the Germans approaching France — and Suzie's Jewish heritage a secret — historical forces may ruin each woman's plans.

A fascist sympathizer, Dante literally prays for the Germans to invade Paris when his audiences begin disappearing. But later, he's unnerved to find himself singing an aria at an elegant party, with a grinning Nazi as his piano accompanist. Tuturro proves reliably good as unlikable artistes, but here his lip-synching can be a distraction.

Just as Potter paid tribute to the tango in her previous film, The Tango Lesson, here she serves as the film's music producer and writes lyrics for one of its songs. The film's heart lies in its soundtrack and performance sequences, paying tribute not only to opera but traditional Jewish and gypsy compositions.

Potter, who also wrote the screenplay, can offer some memorable sequences, as when Suzie, on a bicycle, chases Cesar and two other horsemen through the streets of Paris. At one point, Lola, longing for stardom, sees a water ballet number in a Busby Berkely film and imagines herself ecstatically paddling in a painfully blue pool. But often the director's compositions have a cold, sterile feel, not unlike the film's of Peter Greenaway but less baroque.

Ricci can engage the audience in a role that seems calculated for constraint. Her huge, staring eyes betray little feeling, but we can intuit that she's keeping more passionate responses under wraps. Suzie doesn't speak much and Cesar has almost no dialogue at all. The affair of Lola and Dante seems doomed, but at least they talk to each other.

The Man Who Cried boasts some lovely locations, performances by the Kronos Quartet on its soundtrack and a nice supporting turn from Harry Dean Stanton as an owlish theater manager. Men do weep by the film's end, but The Man Who Cried saves its passions for its music and otherwise holds emotions in check. By the end, there won't be a damp eye in the house.??