Go to Homepage   Mona Lisa Smile: Da Vinci and Ambiguity

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Columbia TriStar (DVD), ASIN B0001ADAVK

This film plunges its audience into the era of McCarthyism, blacklisting, and frightened conformity. As evidence that homogenization continues, fewer than sixty women's colleges now survive in America. By contrast, in 1953, a female crème de la crème swarmed to institutions like Wellesley, the film's setting.

dvd: the secret lives of dentists Reviewers who prepped audiences for a superficial romance did Mona Lisa Smile a disservice -- and obviously didn't watch it all the way to the end. But the film doesn't come across as a feminist tract. It never contends that career ambitions and domesticity blissfully cohabit in the same society -- or the same psyche.

The storyline pits women against each other at every level. Mothers intimidate daughters to move straight out of their childhood home and into a man's. In this environment, marriage becomes the surest method for parents retaining control over children. Women tend to intone and swirl like Hollywood starlets. Their female friends endlessly connive for the roles in the spotlight -- meaning, the lady on the CEO's arm. If they can knock their sisters out of the competition, they hesitate not a minute. All of these tendencies come to fruition at Wellesley, legendary member of the Seven Sisters, the counterpart of the once all male Ivy League.

Into this hornet's nest, walks the belated ingénue: Katherine Watson, a first-time Professor of Art History, AKA Julia Roberts. The credibility of her character depends on the social isolation resulting from years spent pursuing the Ph.D. Hers remains unfinished, for more reasons than one. As a California native, she descends upon the East Coast elite like a missionary from the Land of Sunshine and Endless Idealism.

To her consternation, however, all her highfalutin students (Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnefer Goodwyn, et al.) already know every painting and all the data in their textbooks. What remains for her to do? Even today, experienced pedagogues can face this nightmare -- and it ranks right up there with the comic neurosis over appearing naked in public.

When Watson changes the syllabus, she automatically conflicts with her Chair, her Dean, and every girl who spent the summer proving she belonged on top of the academic pile. Attempts to encourage her charges to apply to law school result in embarrassing arguments with fiancées. Resurrecting her own social life only introduces her to faculty members who spurn Lucy Ricardo while faithfully watching her show. Rebelling pits her against conspiracies that become visible only with blueprints. In spite of an atmosphere that seems to nurture vipers, she clings to her vision of art as the surest route to human liberation. As a result, her students admire her individuality -- which they glimpse like a comet through a telescope.

This movie, then, works a new angle on the confidence we place in our culture. If we descend from witches such as these high-prancing devotees of conformity, what role does education play in our progressive schemes? De we truly believe that human beings can multitask every day? The best and brightest give Katherine a race for her life. Take Mona Lisa Smile home for an advanced degree!

Meg Curtis

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