Monday, July 29, 2013

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (or: The average American and some thoughts on translation)

If there's one thing that can lighten up your heart and restore your faith in humanity that's a Frank Capra movie. I had previously watched You Can't Take it With You and It's a Wonderful Life (a great movie in its simplicity and one of the sweetest ones ever), so it was with great delight that I made myself comfortable one evening and sat through another James Stewart performance.

It's always been clear to me how Mr. Capra worked on that idea of the simple American, the common man with no high ambitions apart from living a quiet and tranquil life with family and friends: the average American. And although this wasn't new to me, watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington bothered me and made me think a little bit more about the subject.

 Now, if you haven't seen the film, basically it's about a group of politicians who have to name a candidate for senator right away, someone they can easily manipulate and popular enough to gather voters. For that, our naïve Mr. Smith (James Stewart) is named: a man loved by children for his work as the head of a group of scouts. That is: an honourable man.

Of course, something goes wrong along the way, Jefferson Smith understands he's in a nest of vipers and is basically the only person who's not comitted to defending private interests. He fights that the way he can, of course using not violence, but speech and a dosis of humor.

He's the man who goes back to the Constitution, to the founding fathers and the so called pillars of the United States. By calling him the average American, the idea emerging from all this is that the common man opposes himself deeply to politicians and to the games of interests. It absolves the people and blames a group for everything that is wrong in a country, creating an idea of the idealistic and yet simple American man.

Of course, we do know that politics are dirty and most have no idea what goes on behind the curtains. For that, the movie has its merits when it apparently seems to want to call everybody and say: "Hey, pay attention! There's some monkey business being made here!". Nevertheless, it separates politics from everyday life and portrays it as something that belongs solely to Washington and some strict social circles outside of it. It is as if participating in neighborhood activities weren't politics at all.

One thing I did like about the movie though was the female character, Clarissa Saunders, played by Jean Arthur. I didn't expect a whole lot of feminism, sure, but it was nice to see a woman taking charge, helping and almost leading the poor new senator. She was the strong character in the movie, the counterpoint to the naïvité of Jeff Smith, the one who held the knowledge and knew how to use it.

On a curiosity note, the title of this movie went through a complete change when being realeased in Brazil. It wasn't a translation at all of the original title, but a rather different one: A Mulher Faz o Homem, which translates to something like "the woman makes the man".

The film was commercialized in Brazil from a totally different perspective. While the original title focused on Mr. Smith and his doings in Washington, in Brazilian portuguese all eyes turned to Miss Saunders and her ability to turn the table and help transform an underdog into a brave and historical figure. And that sure made the experience of seeing this movie different for a number of people, which goes to show how the selection of words we use when talking about anything is not at all random and carries an idea with it: be it the average American or the attention to the woman.

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