Why does the woman in Da Vinci’s famous painting smile? The film “Mona Lisa Smile” offers one possible reason, a very profound one.
“Mona Lisa Smile” tells the story of an idealistic art history teacher, Katherine Watson, who comes to Wellesley College for Girls in 1953. Her idealism causes her to believe that she can educate these young women to think for themselves. She soon discovers that most of the girls are interested in two things: making good grades and getting married, not necessarily in that order.
At one point in the film, during a moment of intense frustration, Katherine blurts out to a colleague: “This is not a college for the future leaders of the world. This is a finishing school for the future leaders’ wives.”
There are a couple of subplots. One involves Katherine in an unnecessary romantic story. The other concerns her place of residence, which offers some amusing moments. Ultimately, Katherine’s story is about how she discovers that many women, especially those at Wellesley College in 1953, are not interested in the same life she has chosen, and how she seeks to offer them another option, much to the chagrin of the school’s leadership.
“Smile” also tells the story of several of the students in Katherine’s class. These girls are all moving toward graduation and rapid changes in their lives. Most of these students begin as stereotypes. There is the prudish one, who is already planning her wedding, and the loose one, who is rumored to have slept with one of the male professors.
There is the beautiful and intelligent leader of the class who struggles between her desire to marry and her yearning to go to Yale Law School. Then there is the hefty one, who pines for a boy to call her own.
Some of the plot twists for these young girls are predictable; others are surprising. The screenplay could have taken the simpler route of only focusing on the teacher, or giving all the students expected outcomes in their stories, but instead, there are several interesting stories here.
“Smile” poses some interesting questions about the role of women. It is easy for any open-minded, intelligent person to side with Katherine; after all, she is being portrayed perfectly by Julia Roberts. Besides, few (except certain religious leaders) desire to return to the days of the ’50s, when a woman’s career options were limited to housewife and mother.
Naturally then, Katherine is noble and correct. But then again, there is a moment when the absoluteness of her truth is called into question, and it certainly should give pause to all but the most adamant feminists. So “Smile” is not simply a treatise on the place of women in the work force.
Most people have had one or several teachers who truly inspired them. These are teachers who alter destinies, shape futures or ignite passions for learning. Films like “Dead Poet’s Society,” “Stand and Deliver” and “The Emperor’s Club” pull the heartstrings of audiences because people remember those teachers who meant something to them.
“Mona Lisa Smile” is not a great film; however, it does deserve a place alongside other films about teachers who make a difference in the lives of their students. These films are important because they celebrate the great and essential value of those who teach well—and also remind audiences to appreciate those from whom they learned.
And as a bonus, “Mona Lisa Smile” plants that idea in one’s mind about why the woman is smiling …
Roger Thomas is pastor of First Baptist Church in Ablemarle, N.C.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content and thematic issues
Director: Mike Newell
Writers: Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal
Cast: Katherine Watson: Julia Roberts; Betty Warren: Kirsten Dunst; Joan Brandwyn: Julia Stiles; Giselle Levy: Maggie Gyllenhaal; Connie Baker: Ginnifer Goodwin.
The movie’s official Web site.