All actors are good at pretending. Only the best are good at pretending to pretend. An average actor can portray a doctor. It takes more than an average actor to portray a doctor practicing without a license or to portray a salesman selling a product he has never heard of.

The subject of pretense, lying as close as it does to the originating impulse of the theater, is an irresistible one for playwrights and actors. Think of all the artful deceivers in Shakespeare. But film surpasses theater as a medium for pretended pretense, because pretense breaks down first in small ways-an elusive something about the eyes, an involuntary twitch at the mouth, and film is unequaled in capturing these fleeting moments of self-betrayal.

It is just here that Steven Soderbergh's much-praised film "Traffic" most succeeds-here rather than in its alleged realism about the drug trade. Soderbergh calls on Michael Douglas to portray a man pretending to be a careerist Washington politico, while secretly his heart-or part of a divided heart-is back home with his troubled family. Benicio Del Toro pretends to be a terminally corrupt Tijuana policeman, while secretly his heart-or, again, part of a divided heart-is with the penniless neighborhood kids who have no place to play ball. The more usual case, certainly in Shakespeare, is the evil man pretending to be good. Soderbergh reverses figure and field, background and foreground, connecting with American moviegoers who find that their own best instincts, not their worst, are the ones they reveal at greatest risk.

This is only one, and perhaps not the deepest, of the reversals Soderbergh puts in play. The classic Hollywood plot, a cliché re-enacted in movies as different as "Erin Brockovich" and "Schindler's List," tells the story of a good person, against enormous odds, defeating an evil system. A few preeningly tough-minded directors--Oliver Stone comes to mind--break with the cliché to present the evil system unredeemed by the victorious good person. In the end, the result is as empty. The victories of good over evil are in the big picture nearly inconsiderable, so small that the system is certainly far from defeated. Yet they are large enough to transform the lives of those who win them.

Hearing this film praised for its allegedly accurate and unflinching portrayal of torture by corrupt Mexican policemen or, more plausibly, of hedonism among American teenagers, I have found myself entering one silent objection after another. The real world does not, after all, have an arty yellowish cast in Tijuana and a cool bluish cast in Washington, nor does the real world come with background music by a composer like Cliff Martinez. Martinez' signature sound is a tone so deep it can scarcely be heard, produced not by an orchestra but, as it seems, by the earth itself where the Gates of Hell yawn open.

On first hearing Martinez' bowels-of-the-earth rumble, I was reminded of the opening chorus of J.S. Bach's "St. Matthew Passion." In that masterpiece of church music, two organs together hold a low E-minor "pedal point" beneath two orchestras, two adult choirs, and a soaring boys' choir. The dark, low note, held and held and held, expresses grief and menace and apprehension and warning all at once. It drapes in black all the sounds of the choral voices sweeping over it.

So also does Martinez' score drape in black the three stories that Stephen Gaghan's screenplay twines over it. Soderbergh's victories are real victories, but the suggestion in the score-the film's secret life-is that those victories will more likely be reversed by subsequent defeats than reinforced by further victories.

The realism of "Traffic," then, is not a feat of verisimilitude, but of moral honesty, an honesty artistically (and therefore artificially) rendered. Moreover, the film achieves its authenticity as a North American morality play not by opening its heart in daring candor but by hiding it in wordless invisibility. The film matters, in the end, because on either side of the border, this is how conscience usually makes its way: signaling what it dare not say to the allies it so badly needs, silently hoping the signal will be recognized in time.

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