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The women of Wellesley in Mona Lisa Smile (courtesy photo)

An unsettling smile in the face of conservatism

O ne of its graduates calls Wellesley "the most conservative college in the nation." Visiting it during a snowy Christmas break, a California man describes the women's school as an "elitist icebox." Although she has always longed to teach there, Katherine Watson, a 31-year-old novice art historian, terms Wellesley "a finishing school disguised as a college." She arrives on campus in the fall of 1953 determined "to make a difference."

Departing from the standard syllabus, which her bright students have already mastered anyway, Katherine introduces them to unsettling modern paintings by Chaim Soutine, Pablo Picasso, and Jackson Pollock. She transforms what was supposed to have been a survey of art history into a continuing catechism on "What Is Art?" But the biggest difference the academic interloper makes is in persuading her privileged young charges to think about their roles in a society that has bred them to be matrons. "Your sole responsibility," proclaims the instructor in a required etiquette class, "will be taking care of your husband and your children." Markedly unmarried, Katherine challenges the notion that matrimony is the highest condition to which her students can aspire. She clashes with Wellesley administrators, alumnae, and students.

Mona Lisa Smile
Dir. Mike Newell; writ. Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal; feat. Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson (PG-13)
It goes without saying that 1953, when Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed, was a year of political repression in the United States - or at least it must, since Mona Lisa Smile makes no mention of Joseph McCarthy or J. Edgar Hoover. In the film, the Wellesley nurse, a 20-year veteran, is fired for distributing contraceptives, and Katherine is admonished for improper relations with an Italian professor. Her most outrageous act is to coax a student into applying to law school, against the wishes of her fiancé. Even in 1953, when it was still not possible to dance a waltz at Texas Christian University or see a black face at the University of Texas, Wellesley, whose graduates have included such free spirits as Madeline Albright, Nora Eprhon, and Hillary Rodham, was not necessarily the most conservative college in the nation. But director Mike Newell portrays it as an ivied cloister of vapid rituals during the waning glory of the Protestant ascendancy - Giselle Levy (Gyllenhaal), a token Jew and the campus rebel, is referred to by the blueblood battle-ax who heads the alumnae association as "the New York kike." Katherine's battle plan is clear, and so is the outcome, including a lesson in how teachers must also allow themselves to learn.

It is not merely a lack of makeup that sets Julia Roberts apart from the pretty women of Wellesley, or Erin Brockovich. Her own Mona Lisa smile, like the one in Leonardo's portrait of La Gioconda that Katherine brings to class, is not a simper of submission. It is a sovereign grin, worn by Wellesley students who endure art history with Katherine Watson. •

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