The Purple Rose of Cairo

Joel Cunningham

The Purple Rose of Cairo, reportedly Woody Allen's favorite of his films, is, more than anything else, a love story. The pertinent parties, however, are not a man and a woman, but a woman and the art of motion pictures. Allen has crafted a bittersweet comic fable that illustrates a film's power to transport an audience; to, for two short hours, eliminate all of life's problems and provide an escape.

Mia Farrow plays Cecilia, a woman living in New Jersey in the 1930s; a New Jersey entrenched in the worst of the Great Depression. Cecilia fares no better than the cityóshe's married to Monk (Aiello), gruff, unemployed, controlling, and abusive. Her only recourse is to go to the movies, which she does, nearly every day after work. The films transport her, and she can talk of little else. She becomes so enamored with one, the titular "Purple Rose" that she sees it four times in a matter of days. So many times, in fact, that she literally catches the eye of one of the on-screen characters, Tom Baxter (Daniels). Tom magically walks off the screen and into the real world, much to the shock of the other patrons (and the annoyance of the other characters in the filmóthey can't finish without him).

Clearly, The Purple Rose of Cairo can be lumped into the "fantasy" category, and it's a well-imagined fantasy at that. Allen's concept works because he runs with it. Once Tom is out, theater owners fear the incident could occur elsewhere, and the actor who played Tom, Gil Shepard (Daniels again) is called to reign in his screen creation. It is Gil's character that drives the latter portion of the film, as Cecilia is forced to choose between a perfect illusion ("I love you. I'm honest, dependable, courageous, romantic, and a great kisser," says Tom. But just because he's written that way), and reality in Gil ("You can't learn to be real. It's like learning to be a midget," he pleads).

Allen's script is full of the wonderful, dry dialogue he is known for, but never is it laugh out loud funny. A gloom hangs over the picture, perhaps because the outcome is inevitable. Allen recognizes the appeal of fiction as a comfort in times of despair, but he is illustrating the danger in forgetting reality.

Allen's direction is quite nice. He plays with the notion of the world of cinema vs. the real world, and the filmed-in-color "real" scenes are so drab and dreary that the bustling black & white world of the film within a film is somehow more vibrant and colorful. Mia Farrow is timid, stuttering, winsome, and loveable in her role. Jeff Daniels aptly switches between hopeless romantic and jaded Hollywood cynic. And watch for Allen favorite Dianne Wiest as a hooker in a very funny encounter with Tom.

Admittedly, I am not very familiar with Allen's body of work, but I found The Purple Rose of Cairo to be a charming commentary on the magic of movies. As war looms, it is more important than ever that people have comforting diversions, the ability to escape into a fantasy world. Allen warns us not to get lost on the way.

Incorporating elements of humor, bittersweet romance, and social commentary, The Purple Rose of Cairo is a typically strong cinematic outing from Woody Allen. It's not a strict comedy, but it does feature some great Allen dialogue. Few films are able to portray the magic of movies so well: their powers to transport us, to create their own realities. This is a favorite of many Allen fans, and it's well worth a look.

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