Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Bello Makes ‘The Sisters’ Worth Watching

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday May 19, 2006

The Sisters, opening today (Friday) at Shattuck Cinemas, is an adaptation of a play by Richard Alfieri, which was in turn derived from Anton Chekhov’s play The Three Sisters. Alfieri himself wrote the screenplay, and that fact may be largely responsible for the film’s undoing. 

The Sisters is a highly literate movie, in the sense that its characters are highly literate, highly articulate and endlessly chatty. Other than that, it’s really a simple family drama, examining the threads that bind and constrict three sisters and a brother. But this is not quite your average family. All are somehow involved, like their late father, in academia, or at least in rather academic professions, making them educated, ruthlessly ambitious and more than a little smug.  

The story takes place in New York and begins with a birthday party for the baby of the family, a college student whom the two elder sisters have essentially raised. Guests at the party, held in the university’s faculty lounge, include two other professors and a visiting professor who knew the girls when they were children but hasn’t seen them since.  

This gathering—Act 1—becomes a cauldron of volatile emotions, establishing the relationships between the characters and setting the stage for a series of confrontations, confessions and recriminations that quickly unravel the family’s carefully constructed myths. 

The first half-hour is pretty rough going, not because of its content but because of its form. Alfieri and director Arthur Allan Seidelman have essentially put the stage play directly on screen, resulting in a stagy and excessively verbose film, with the actors pitching their performances toward the cheap seats. The dialogue is constant, using words, words and more words to say what a glance, a pause or a gesture could have expressed so much more simply and effectively. 

Though it may have been a more successful film had it been rendered more cinematically, the filmed-play technique is a valid stylistic choice, and might have worked much better had the filmmakers stuck to it. But ultimately Alfieri and Seidelman give in and make a few tepid concessions to the cinema.  

For instance, virtually the entire film takes place in the faculty lounge. However, the filmmakers attempt to paper over this with unnecessary flashbacks and cutaways. Gaps between scenes and acts are papered over as well, with clichéd montage sequences of turning leaves and couples removing their clothing used to communicate the passage of time and the changing of relationships, whereas a simple fade-out and fade-in would have sufficed. 

There are many examples of stage plays successfully transferred to the screen without these compromises. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? comes to mind, a film that made excellent use of a single set and of highly educated and verbose characters. The Sisters could have used some of that confidence, locking its characters in that lounge for two hours and letting them have at it. Instead, the brief excursions outside the hall only serve to remind us of the artifice of the exercise. 

The highlight is Maria Bello. She carries the film, forging through the material with charm, beauty and charisma, bringing to life the character of Marcia—proud, angry and fierce, yet battered, fragile and slightly unhinged.  

Marcia flaunts her intelligence, her wit and her beauty, yet Bello does an excellent job of revealing that that very beauty is in fact the source of much of Marcia’s pain. We learn that she has always been something of an ornament adorning the men in her life: a surrogate society matron for her widowed father; a charming companion to her esteemed psychiatrist husband; an object to be displayed. 

Marcia can be coy and seductive in flirtation, then doubly so by preemptively admitting to her coyness. Then doubly so again as she drapes herself across a sofa, like a patient on a psychiatrist’s couch, revealing—along with plenty of skin—the motivations and agony behind that coyness and seduction. This is all she knows how to do; it is both her survival technique and a trap she longs to escape. She puts herself on display, either physically or emotionally, at every opportunity; it is a role she has played for so long that she can no longer do anything else. Though she considers herself brutally honest, her outbursts and insults are little more than melodrama. Marcia is so enthralled by her own pain and her own drama—and her public performances of that drama—that she really has little understanding of her siblings. She has a few insights into them, but her badgering displays of self-absorption have only driven them into protective foxholes. What’s really at work here is not honesty at all; it’s deception, self-preservation and vitriol. 

Most of the other actors do well enough with the material they’ve been given, but they’re essentially just playing types, marking time until each is granted one soul-baring expository scene to reveal their characters’ motivations and secrets—secrets which are rarely very surprising or insightful. Like much of the film, these details seem perhaps a little too rote—off-the-shelf Freudian explanations for characters who should and could be so much more interesting. 

The Sisters was probably engaging and energetic on stage, and might have been on screen, but what we’re left with is a half-hearted hybrid of stage and screen, labored yet lacking, overwrought and underthought. 




Written by Richard Alfieri.  

Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman. 

Starring Maria Bello, Mary Stuart Masterson, Erika Christensen, Tony Goldwyn, Steven Culp, Rip Torn, Erik McCormak, Chris O’Donnell.  

Playing at Shattuck Cinemas.