Mona Lisa Smile.
Women’s advancement stifled despite academic milestones.

by Jonas Cukierman

I have to be honest, when I heard I was going to see a movie with Julia Roberts
in it, I wasn’t too excited or impressed. However, as Mona
Lisa Smile begins to express its content, it not only becomes more interesting, but the
performances of Roberts and company- Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst and Maggie Gyllenhaal
are nothing short of superior.

The film takes place at Wellesley College in
1953; a time and a place steeped in such tradition and formality, that at times you think you’re visiting the Vatican.
Julia Roberts is Ms. Watson, an independent and free spirited Art
History teacher just in from California. The culture shock is not so much New England itself,
rather, it is the sternmindedness of the faculty and students which at first
completely steamrolls her before she has even presented herself on the first
day of school. The tension and a certain sense of drowning are hard to swallow
as Ms. Watson tries to acclimate herself in a place that is more like a
pedagogical fortress, than an institution of higher learning.

Mona Lisa Smile is an allegory that speaks of the fact that nothing is ever what it seems on
the surface. Great examples of this occur throughout the film as Ms. Watson’s
students struggle tirelessly with the issues curtailing women of that time.

Mona Lisa… is an extraordinary period
film on several degrees. On one level, there is the incredible atmosphere that
reins you into the 1950s. Between the immaculately tailored fashions and the
big soirées, to the advertisements and television shows of the departed era,
there is little to be desired after also factoring in the cinematography and
majestic sets.

Nevertheless, on the second and most important level, there
is the underpinning of life in a time of conformity, and a place where women
(educated or not) face few prospects and are expected to live the status quo.

Ms. Watson’s character develops brilliantly, because she too finds herself grappling with a system of rigid
standards where nobody is spared. Moreover, as if things are not tough enough,
she goes nose-to-nose with an ever-present complacency that vows to keep her
students from pursuing a life outside of making a home, making babies, and
basting the chicken while ironing Mona Lisa Smile is a great study in the art of fighting back. A story about women, but also
men, this film is about a glorious and transitional time in our history. It’s
about a time that tested the limits of one’s ideals, and challenged the daring
to free their minds

This picture may give the impression that feminism is its
driving force. This is however untrue. Mona Lisa
Smile does not preach, it confronts. Lastly, one the key factors in the success of this movie is the sensitivity in which director Mike
Newell captures the human condition. With such films as Donnie
Brasco and Enchanted April under his belt, there couldn’t be a better
person at the helm.

Visit the Madeleine K. Albright Institute


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