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This documentary film is narrated by Dustin Hoffman; all other characters play themselves. Five stories (pathographies) introduced as panels from the 14-acre AIDS quilt are interwoven with each other, together with personal photos, newsreels and radio reports to recount the history of the first decade of AIDS in the United States.
Tom was a highly educated and athletic, gay man whose story is told by his lesbian friend and co-parent of his adored little daughter. Rob was a married Afro-American, I.V.-drug-user whose loving wife recounts his battle with drugs as well as his disease and who views her own HIV seropositivity as "God’s will." Jeff’s story is told by his grieving male lover over images of his once golden health.
The parents of twelve-year-old hemophiliac, David, tell the story of his entire life as a rush to consume, from his babyhood forward until the sadness of his last Christmas. The shy, handsome architect, David, is mourned by his bisexual lover, a naval officer at the Pentagon, who now lies dying with the lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma quite visible on his face.
The narrators describe solace they derived from quilting memorial panels for their loved ones. In the final scene, the AIDS quilt lies on the Mall in Washington as names of hundreds of loved ones are read by grieving families and friends.
Harry (Daniel Auteuil) is a successful sales consultant for a large bank, but his marriage is over. After he forgets to pick up his little daughters at the railway station, his wife (Miou-Miou) quite understandably bars him from further contact. Angry, depressed, and driving alone on a wet night, he literally "runs into" Georges (Pascal Duquenne), an adult with trisomy-21.
Georges has escaped the institution where he was placed by his sister at the death of his beloved mother four years ago. Reduced to ineffectiveness and irrational behavior, Harry is simply unable to rid himself of Georges, allows him to take over his life, and accepts him as a friend on equal terms.
Georges draws Harry into an escapade with his fellow inmates that ends in a late-night frolic at a beach carnival and a spectacular display of fireworks for Harry's children that lures the family back. Georges is in love with Nathalie, a fellow inmate also with trisomy-21, and they share wonderful, neatly ironic daydreams of leading roles in a Mongol horde.
But Georges knows that they can never find happiness together. He eats a box of chocolates, to which he is greatly allergic, and calmly steps off the roof of Harry's skyscraper bank. Thanks to Georges, Harry's life is not only restored, it is vastly improved.
The first seven episodes in the made-for-TV series tracing the remarkably credible story of a woman physician in 1890s London. Newly graduated in medicine, Eleanor Bramwell (Jemma Redgrave) is the daughter of Robert (David Calder), a distinguished physician. He would like her to join him in his private practice, but she has other plans. Bright and ambitious, she is well qualified to pursue her goal of surgery; however, these qualities do not protect her from the chauvinism of her male superiors, including the influential and basically well-meaning Sir Herbert Hamilton (Robert Hardy). In anger and frustration, she leaves the academic hospital, garners philanthropic support from Lady Cora Peters (Michele Dotrice Dotrice) and opens the charitable "Thrift Infirmary,"
In a poverty stricken district. There she is joined by the quiet Scots surgeon Dr. Joe Marsham (Kevin McMonagle) and competent Nurse Carr (Ruth Sheen) of crusty exterior and soft core. Together they encounter a series of clinical problems that clearly document not only the medicine and social values of the late Victorian era, but the troubles of those who live and work in poverty.
Living in Bombay, India, Sera (Souad Faress) and Sam (Khodas Wadia), a beautiful Parsee couple who adore dancing, have a son (Firdaus Kanga) who will never grow and never walk because he has osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease). They name him Brit, for his bones. As narrator, Brit says that Sera suffers from the "Parsee disease of anglophilia." But she accepts Brit’s disability.
His father, however, does not; and he continuously appeals to magic, folklore, and religious healers, hoping to find a cure. He professes love for his son, but is never able to forge a confident bond. Brit does not fail to criticize. Sam’s quest leads to a woman scholar who nurtures the boy’s intelligence and encourages him to write a diary and short stories.
Brit’s older sister is his staunchest ally and best friend, but she eventually must leave for a marriage in America. Sam escorts his daughter to America, where he commits suicide on Fifth Avenue. Brit and his mother come to rely heavily on a widow friend and her deaf daughter, "promised" to Brit in childhood.
But the girl is soon spirited away on a wave of romanticism into a life of prostitution. They take a boarder, Cyrus, a gifted and handsome law student who offers Brit a new world of night life, action, dancing, and physical affection; his love leads Brit to like and accept his own body. When his mother dies, Brit becomes a writer and finds a new life and a new lover.
Idealistic, nervous, and rigid, Andrew Manson (Robert Donat) takes his first medical job as an assistant to a doctor in a Welsh mining community. The greedy wife of his invalid employer obliges Manson to hand over most of his earnings. But he finds a local kindred spirit in the outspoken Dr. Denny (Ralph Richardson). In a drunken prank, they blow up the town sewer forcing the unwilling government to repair a notorious source of typhoid.
Manson marries a beautiful school teacher (Rosalind Russell) who leaves her beloved classroom to follow him to an even larger mining town. There he is employed by a group practice run on a capitation basis by the miners. In their evenings, the Mansons investigate the problem of chronic cough in miners, linking it to tuberculosis and coal dust--a discovery that they publish. But suspicious miners destroy their laboratory and force them to London and poverty.
A chance encounter with a wealthy hysteric and an old mate (Rex Harrison) raises Manson’s social standing. He opens a Harley Street practice and makes a fortune. His wife regrets the loss of his ideals and the death of his research. She begs him to remember how happy they were in poverty when each day was a noble challenge to take "the citadel" of life. Denny returns to entice Manson into a new group practice funded by community insurance, but Manson flatly refuses. Denny’s accidental death and a blunder by an elite, unethical Harley Street surgeon bring Andrew back to his idealistic senses.
The film closes with his eloquent self defense against charges of irregular practice for having intervened (successfully) in the case of a little girl with tuberculosis. Manson assists as the child is treated gratis with the controversial new pneumothorax operation administered by an American who does not hold a medical degree. Whether or not Manson keeps his license, the audience is confident that his sense of purpose has been restored and that his wife loves him more than ever. He will return both to the comfortably compatible pursuits of research and serving the sick poor.
As a medical student, Martin Arrowsmith (Ronald Colman) approaches the revered Professor Gottlieb (A. E. Anson) wishing to accelerate his studies into bacteriology research. Gottlieb insists that he complete his clinical training first. But Arrowsmith meets the cheeky nurse Leora (Helen Hayes) and throws over his plans for science in order to earn a marriage-sustaining living as a general practitioner in her native South Dakota.
Assuaging his undying passion for research (in the family kitchen), he takes on the problem of an epidemic of black leg disease of cattle and earns the animus of a veterinarian and the admiration of the Swedish farmers by single-handedly disproving the efficacy of a government serum, developing his own serum, and conducting a controlled trial to prove its worth. His frustrated and unemployed wife--now displaced from her own kitchen--continues to support him, answering always "Yes, Martin. No, Martin. Whatever you say, Martin."
The couple move to New York City where Arrowsmith intends to devote himself full time to science at the side of his old hero Gottlieb in the McGurk Institute (a thinly disguised Rockefeller Institute). In his new laboratory, Arrowsmith utters a prayer for clear vision and humility--a prayer that seems to go unanswered.
Late one snowy night after two years of fruitless work, he discovers that "something" (in the novel, it is bacteriophage) has killed the bacteria he has been incubating. "Is it important, Martin?" asks Leora. He is brutal in his zealous response, his eyes gleaming with the promise of promotion, fame, and fortune. But after days of exhausting labour, he learns that he has been scooped by Felix D’Herelle a (real) researcher at the Pasteur Institute.
Arrowsmith quickly finds a new passion and travels to the Caribbean to conduct research into the effect of a serum on bubonic plague. Gottlieb makes him promise to act like a scientist (not a G.P. or a quack) and to withhold the remedy from half his patients. He tries to convince the colonial authorities of the importance of controlled testing, but is rebuffed with accusations of turning humans into guinea pigs. A black medical graduate of Howard University invites him to a different island where the epidemic is so thick that the people willingly cooperate with the controlled trial.
Leora, who had refused to remain in New York, is now left behind. The film implies clumsily that the now solitary Arrowsmith--ecstatic to be back in the research trenches--has a romantic encounter with Joyce, a beautiful stranded tourist (Myrna Loy). Meanwhile, Leora contracts plague from a cigarette, which has absorbed plague germs from Martin’s sloppy lab technique, and which she smokes because of Martin’s inattention and abandonment. She dies miserably and alone.
Crazed with remorse, Arrowsmith abandons his scientific principles and allows the entire population to be treated with the serum after all. The epidemic is arrested. But Martin knows that his success does not justify his scientific sin. Still grieving for Leora, he returns to New York to much fanfare, but is unable to find absolution from Gottlieb who has just had a stroke. He runs out on his lover, his institute, and a press conference to join a friend who is establishing a Walden-like institute dedicated to pure research in Vermont.
During the Nazi occupation of Paris, the deranged doctor Petiot (Michel Serrault) abuses the trust implied by his profession to "help" frightened Jewish citizens. By day, he conducts his clinic and supports his family with a kindly obsession. By night, he leads his victims from a metro-station rendezvous to his apartment, their worldly possessions dragged in a trailer behind his bicycle. He then administers a "vaccine" and locks the now poisoned refugee in a room to face an agonizing death alone.
The doctor takes the possessions of his victims, and dismembers and incinerates their corpses in a makeshift crematorium in his basement. In March 1944, the nauseating black smoke betrays his activities; however, the now notorious doctor vanishes, abandoning his wife and son. Following the war, he is living incognito as a soldier pursuing war criminals and collaborators. But he is identified by his fascination with the Petiot case and his handwriting. In the final scene, dozens of people stand at a long table silently sorting through clothing, jewelry, books, seeking belongings of their loved ones who became the doctor's victims.
A dark-eyed, ten-year-old Indian pauses for a moment in playing with her friend to explain that she is soon to be married, but would rather stay at home and in school. Her friend announces that she will never get married; she wants to become a policeman. Another smiling child in Yemen wants to be a doctor to help people. She looks forward to wearing the hijab. Little girls with great family burdens, and others who have no families, all expect to become mothers themselves. They talk about their daily routines.
A confident child in Peru cooks, cleans, does laundry, and then washes, dresses and feeds her younger siblings, before putting on her crisp uniform and going off to school. Two shy girls from Africa describe the painful ritual of circumcision--and a "cutting" ceremony is observed from a modest distance. One talks about her separation from her mother and life as a slave.
Interspersed are scenes of the children playing. Commentary emphasizes how soon these little girls must become women and how much of the world's work and how little of its wealth belong to them.
A three-year old girl with globular cheeks patiently allows her calligrapher father to brush letters on her face and lips, as he recounts the story of creation: "And when God saw it was good, he signed it." Gently, he turns her round to sign at the base of her neck. Several years pass with the ritual repeated, accompanied by a cheery song that had been popular when her parents were first in love.
An aunt gives her a diary (or "pillow book"), and so begins N's obsession with writing. The tender scenes are marred by the brusque visits of her father's publisher (Yoshi Oida), with whom he has a sexual relationship. Through the child's eyes, the father is forced to prostitute his body for his written work.
Grown into a beautiful woman, Nagiko (Vivian Wu) escapes an unhappy marriage with the misogynist office boy from the publishing house by fleeing to Hong Kong. She works as a model and seeks solace (and her absent parent) in a perpetual quest for calligraphers who will become her lovers and write on her body.
She tries unsuccessfully to print her own work with the publisher as a kind of revenge for the power he held over her father. Her lover, the polyglot translator, Jerome (Ewan McGregor), urges her to write on his body for "submission" to the reluctant publisher. Jerome is already yet another of the publisher's lovers. Nagiko agrees and the plan works, but she is overcome with jealousy and spurns Jerome.
Counseled by a disingenuous friend, the unhappy Jerome takes a supposedly temporary poison in order to win her back; her affection is restored, but the poison kills him. The publisher exhumes Jerome's body, for a gruesome harvest of his skin and her words. Disconsolate and enraged, Nagiko submits book after book of her work to the publisher, each chapter written on a different male body, some perfect, some dilapidated, all her lovers.
Finally she sends "Book 13, the Executioner" on the sumo-wrestler-like body of a man who slashes the publisher's throat. Nagiko returns to Japan where she gives birth to Jerome's child and the cheerful song of her childhood returns as she writes on the infant's face.
In the year 2000, Nafas (Niloufar Pazira) a 29-year old Afghan-born Canadian journalist travels back to her homeland in search of her sister. The sister was maimed by the long war, and her life under oppressive Taliban rule is no longer worth living; she has resolved to commit suicide on the last solar eclipse of the century.
Dependent for her travels on the uncertain help of men, Nafas encounters many other charismatic women hiding under the seclusion of the burqas. The inquiries she makes to find her sister raise the veil just enough to reveal the torment of Afghan women, deprived of rights, education, and basic health care. A doctor must question his women patients, who are hidden from him by a canvas wall, through a child intermediary; he does not touch them. The ending is inconclusive.