The Rain People (Francis Ford Coppola / U.S., 1969):

Away from the studio for the New Hollywood -- Francis Ford Coppola heads to the open spaces for a feminine version of Dennis Hopper's biker-cowboy wandering that same year. Where Easy Rider found open-air escape in fatalist dropping out, Coppola's pensive heroine (Shirley Knight), a Long Island housewife impulsively ditching family and home, has to do with pushy flashbacks, motel rooms and unrealized affairs. So displaced she frequently takes to referring to herself in the third person, Knight is repressed from the start, awake in bed under snoozing hubby's heavy arm as garbage trucks noiselessly prowl gray suburbia outside. A morning shower, a visit to her folks, and she's outta there to sort things out, one roadside stop at a time -- "I got you all wrong... I got me all wrong" is an emblematic lament. Tentative trekking in front and back of the camera, for this is Coppola shorn of the maestro's twirling cape, on the road with handheld equipment and improvised scenario, as exposed and vulnerable as his protagonist. Ambivalence toward family is already in place, however, Italian wedding rammed oppressively against the lens before a tunnel ride segues into a blinding white fade: nesting or roaming, domesticity or independence, going back home or contemplating a quickie with buff hitchhiker James Caan? From sensual to maternal, since Caan's a footballer made helpless from gridiron pummeling and a plate in his head, thus a dry-run for the baby forming inside her, and reminder of, rather than escape from, home. Hothead motorcycle cop Robert Duvall completes the triangulation, bound to end in tragedy since, as Caan stammers, "when the Rain People cry, they disappear altogether" -- like mirror reflections turned prismatic and caged critters, add-water metaphors for the film-school graduate. Self-consciously sensitive, Coppola charts a perilous new freedom, both in people's lives and in the industry, the emotional inquiry scored delicately to the traffic sounds outside a phone booth and attuned to Knight's selfish-scared-neurotic-luminous traveler, looking to break connections only to find, in a randy widower's trailer park, the inescapability of responsibility. With Marya Zimmet, Tom Aldredge, Laurie Crews, Margaret Fairchild, and Andrew Duncan.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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