Slumdog Millionaire
Fox Searchlight
At the Michigan

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

4.5 out of 5 Stars

Danny Boyle’s widely acclaimed “Slumdog Millionaire” is as good as everyone says, if not better. Like “Juno” last year and “Little Miss Sunshine” the year before, it’s this year’s unofficial “little-indie-that-could.” Seeing and discussing the film is at once a validation of one’s personal taste as well as an expression of awareness about the cultural importance of cinema. As the awards season hits its stride, omnipresent buzz about this little movie with a big heart is inevitable.

“Slumdog” is the story of Jamal Malik (various actors, including Dev Patel, TV’s “Skins”), an orphan of the streets who becomes a contestant on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be Millionaire?” The film begins with a brutal interrogation scene where police officers, assuming that Jamal cheated on the show, violently attempt to coerce him into confessing. Their assumption that he used sinister methods is justified by the question “How could a slumdog possibly succeed?”

The officers pull up a tape of Jamal on the show and inquire as to how he could possibly have known each of the correct responses he gave. Between the questions, the film cuts to show one of Jamal’s experiences in the slums of Mumbai – struggling through a sea of feces to meet India’s greatest movie star; the brutal killing of his mother in an anti-Muslim massacre; making a living with his brother Salim (various actors) as an unauthorized tour guide at the Taj Mahal. In these flashbacks, we see how Jamal’s tribulations have given him the necessary knowledge to answer the questions on the show. Jamal’s life experiences lead him to “Millionaire” and, ultimately, to his true love, Latika (various actresses, including newcomer Freida Pinto).

Juxtaposing vibrant, surrealistic colors with the palpable grit of the slums, “Slumdog” is both an authentic depiction of India’s struggles with poverty and hardship and a fairy tale about the will to overcome impossible circumstances. Against all odds, Jamal is constantly driven by his deep-seated belief that he will be reunited with Latika.

In many ways, “Slumdog” closely recalls Fernando Meirelles’s 2002 film “City of God,” set in Rio de Janeiro. Both portray life in impoverished slums in hyper-real cinematic style, complete with dynamic camerawork and editing. But “City of God” was realized by a native Brazilian, whereas Boyle is a Briton in foreign territory. Boyle’s foreign perspective raised concerns that he would turn Mumbai into a sort of imaginary technicolor playground.

But the director conquered these doubts with deft control of the film’s visual language, exploring Mumbai as a fantasy setting while maintaining the fidelity of the city and its life. There is a magnificent beauty to the cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle (“The Last King of Scotland”); he captures Mumbai in a manner that effectively communicates its identity as a sprawling Indian metropolis.

Though critics may be overdoing it slightly, trumpeting “Slumdog” as “miraculous” (Chicago Sun-Times) and “life-affirming” (The Village Voice), among other fulsome remarks, “Slumdog” is an undeniably great film — surely one of the year’s best.

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