(Photo from soundtrackcollector.com)
Okay, so we can’t have our chocolate-covered ants and eat them too. This film — based on Kuki Gallmann’s journey from sunny Italy to the parched, untamed wilds of Kenya — labors under the camera’s love affair with model-turned-actress Kim Basinger. There are more shots of her than of the African countryside — and the latter usually focus on a dead or dying animal.
Adapted from Gallmann’s compelling autobiography in which the writer understated her importance, the reverse is true for the film. Kim Basinger, as Kuki, takes to snakes like a trooper and successfully stands her ground against an elephant having a late night snack in her garden. She’s in every scene except two but most are never brought to fruition, making it difficult for viewers to connect on an emotional level with Kuki or any other character. Aside from the beauty magazine location-shoot aura and the vehement anti-poacher theme, it’s a collection of short vignettes. Here a vignette, there a vignette…everywhere a vignette.
In the film, Kuki suffers a debilitating car accident in her native Italy (in the book, one leg was crippled for years) and starts a new life with new husband, Paolo (Vincent Perez). They move to Kenya in the early ‘70s where she balks at managing a large ranch during his self-indulgent absences. Her son, and eventually a daughter, are raised in this challenging milieu — and she buries two family members in the dusty, red ground.
There are two scenes that briefly cast the spell that is Africa. The first occurs one hour into the movie when a tribal chief responds in English to her overtures in Swahili: “The missionaries told me about the Europeans when I was a child and I tell my children these same stories.” Kuki’s stories to her family are about Africa, she shares. Then…nothing. The movie’s historical gap that yawns wider than a hippopotamus’s mouth is left unfilled.
The second scene occurs when Kuki and her son are circling Paolo’s burial site in a small plane (Basinger gives an over-the-top performance as a mourner) and a stirring, melodic song in Swahili swells the theater. (Some of the background music is actually comprised of very short, dramatic orchestral bursts more suitable for the stage.)
Kuki Gallmann’s autobiography, first published in 1991, was written as a therapeutic tool and not intended for publication. That it was permitted to be translated to a screenplay, albeit with some interesting changes, is remarkable. Her 100,000-acre ranch in Kenya is now a conservationist’s idea of heaven. But the movie is only a bird’s eye view — or should we say a white man’s view — of a country with a fascinating past and an extremely perilous future.
(Columbia Pictures. Rated PG-13: partial nudity; bloody animals; brief violence. )
(Written by C.E. Chambers and published May 16, 2000 in The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition.)