Tuesday, 22 June 2010

il vangelo secondo matteo

What better text to make a social point in any context, what better christ figure than Christ himself? Let's make this again, today dear non-professionals, hopers and paupers, let's name our socially unjust stage, let's shoot this in Burma, let's shoot this in Singapore, let's pick our battle and play out our story, let us with irreligious urgency plumb the bottomless and potent relevance of the Christ story. I was very taken with this piece, in every way.

Pasolini confidently wields the text wholesale, almost unabridged, the result is over-long, intentionally so perhaps, adding attrition to his battle with Catholicism. Scene after scene of southern Italian poverty make the text more real than history and more effective than abstracted polemic, in his relentless documentary portrayal of timeless truth played out in the now.

I posed, if perhaps there were any other comparable text against which you could pin down authorities and mock them by so close a rendering of their scriptures? Is there an environmentalist's holy book by whose consensus of approval one could leverage some critique against its pharisees, one against whose ideals film could paint the hypocrisy? Jesus and Pasolini were able to have more varied fun with their cause because the religious leaders they targeted and the population they were defending were both so deeply familiar with a single text.

So the socially critical dimension of the film is a rich vein to mine and model after. He is given license to preach so, for my viewing at least, chiefly by the exquisite photography he tells it through. Every single frame is a photograph, it is bold and deeply human portraiture throughout, it is a beautifully compassionate unhurried photography with an innate feel for man in the landscape, with a delight in texture as the loosely-woven fabric of veils in the wind and the startling eyes of the angel and the fishing nets and desert and crumbling stone walls captured in vivid contrast. I love it.

If it is too far to argue from the film that Jesus was a Marxist, perhaps we can say that he was at least a Neorealist of this Italian tradition. That when Jesus came to cast for his masterpiece, he selected non-professionals, locals and the poor. Go, do likewise Christian, in your film and art and architecture.

Following this midnight viewing we unpacked a little the potential for film to effect change in this our 'Che t-shirt' generation. Pasolini's Gospel of Matthew was never 'popular' cinema, despite beautifully and urgently addressing popular themes. Could it be, should it be? Can we observe any fruit from the tired mode of Gore's and Moore's awareness raising? I would argue that raising awareness is not enough and has never been enough. On social issues and injustice, film ought to equip the willing, confront the stubborn and unsettle the comfortable. Film should (and is uniquely positioned to be able to) shatter the stories we live within, to remake our tired and selfish mythologies, and go on to re-write the narratives which make up the substance of those pre-suppositions out of which our social problems arise. And be popular at the same time.

Some reviews take exception to the use of inappropriate music in this. Maybe. It is a beautiful soundtrack though, and Missa Luba and Motherless Child, I wouldn't have changed anything. I thought it odd to rush the sermon on the mount, I thought it odd to make the crucifixion so sanitised. The woes are suitably angry at hypocrisy and it is refreshing to see a shouting Jesus. Full screen faces, equally, refreshingly confrontational, unabashedly human. A great film.

“I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.” - Pasolini


keep the river on your right

What a human being is Tobias Schneebaum, fearless, gentle, inquisitive, he is in the end, all that recommends this clumsily compiled documentary. There is a certain sadness at the wasted opportunity this unsure and meandering film represents that does a disservice to the strength of the single-minded pursuit that sent Schneebaum into the jungle those years ago. The film gives us very little of the cannibalism its sensationalist subtitle claims, very little painting from its painter, very little anthropology from its anthropologist – there is much to be disappointed by.

Further, for that part of his life we are given some view into, one comes away carrying something of his burden of regret, it is not a triumphant ending to the life of a man who achieved so much. In one monologue he elaborates on that peace which we all look for, and which he professes to have found, in these visits, in these places, through these relationships - certainly he has found space to be his own man but he appears as one who has grown old with things unfinished and uncertain. It is not sympathetic to an LGBT community who might seek a hero in his life and frustratingly the film gives very little context or background or discussion of the motives for, and the outcomes of, his jungle adventures.

As a meditation on ageing it achieves a measure of subtly, treating its subject with compassion. Its lack of firm direction does allow one to enjoy the whole as the fleeting memories as they might have been remembered. The film confronts the difficulties of revisiting places which have formed us, places, on the recollections of which Schneebaum has formed his career. And to a certain extent it is not coy about the tensions of documentary making and the part played by producers in coercing Schneebaum on these slightly exhausting treks.

This joins something of a growing series of films, that have come to me recently, which connect in their explorations of the ways in which sexual desire and frustration find an allegory in empire and cultural imposition and the novelties of geographic exploration. Keep the River feeling the need to state explicitly that which Black Narcissus was happy to leave unspoken, but even then we are left to infer from this film what actually happened in the jungle.

What role did the intimate homosexual relationships play in his access to these tribes, in his survival and in his adoption? Does this model for anthropological research offer a basis of trust, an economy of exchange, a mode of research in and of itself? Can we argue out of silence that it doesn't? Oh frustrating film, on the tip of asking a dozen questions, content however to simply poke at taboos.


Thursday, 17 June 2010

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

black narcissus

My most recent couchsurfer came bearing this gift of a film, as well as the magnificent Le Ciel et la Boue, two bafflingly apt films examining otherness and empire, gender and faith.. Dear friends, taste and see that couchsurfing is good. This challenging film is visually rich, psychologically intense and carried powerfully by the performances of these women limited to the frame of their veil for expression.

Nuns on film. Here at the line of overdone parody, nuns present low hanging targets for caricature, for having risked to articulate their Way, they leave it open to scrutiny, criticism and presumptuous misrepresentation. I want to forgive, for its age, its appearance as simply blithe pot-shots taken by convent sceptics, attacks as are now taken for granted in our resolutely-post post-Christendom, maybe, but probably such parody is as old as holiness itself. How then does this film advance the conversation? And, as with Cracks, what accounts for our fascination in film with these laboratories for the bottled human condition?

Cloistering and the boundaries of community. As one who likes to defer to an idealised monasticism as a casestudy for moderating culture’s present unfettered individualism, this film would caution me against such reactive self-definitions to any community I hope in. But a film which explicitly states that survival/salvation is found in the old general’s isolation or Dean’s indifference would say that. We have contrasted the risk of welcoming the stranger and the relative security of Dean who “loves no one..” and it offers no help in navigating a middle way.

Altruism and incarnation. "What would Jesus have done?" asks Dean to Clodagh regarding evicting the holy man under the tree. Go Christian, answer that, wwjhd? This film goes beyond a Christ-but-not-his-followers admiration, to a Christ-to-spite-his-followers position, tearing down idealised theologies of patronising incarnation. Image’s review still hopes to draw a Christ out of the nuns’ service, I cannot see more than good intentions. This critique of altruism is furthered in the rice-Christians, locals paid to attend the school and dispensary - in this their prostitution is complete, aptly located in this former palace of sexual exploitation, now with a divine license to normalise dependency.

Gender of empire. Those with a deeper, broader and longer liberal arts education than I would better be able to summon the vocabulary developed for critiquing the gendered nature of colonialism. I need help to understand the scene of the stolen gold chain, the theft and its punishment appear fabricated (by who and why?), in order to give space for the young general to demonstrate that he is a ‘real man’. Real men, it seems, beat their women; colonialism is a male-culture’s subjugation of female-nature. The young general, who began with the hope of learning the ways of the colonial powers from the nuns, now with some irony, becomes fully like them, complicit in their shallow altruism motivated not by justice but by frustrated lust. Too far?

Gender of Jesus. "Jesus was a man?" ... "No, he took the image of a man" If man is inevitably and only the man of empire, then the nuns (and the sympathies of the directors?) must de-man Jesus to hope in him. In the face of the various practical and cultural hurdles the nuns’ mission fails, and for me the question ‘why?’ is the enduring wrestle.. It would be more than one could argue from the film, that an errant Christology was to blame. Anyone?

Architecture as a character. There is a spirit of Place which carries the echoes of transgression, here made blunt in the murals, and more subtly in the awkward re-appropriation of spaces. Among the forces which the film-makers conjure to contend with the mission of these sisters, the building is one, in all of its obstinate thereness, in all of its doors, screens, and disarray.

Why ‘Narcissus’? Marcia (why would you ever watch a film with less than two pairs of eyes) noted the important visual similarity between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth. Which completes an interpretation of narcissism in this film as that consuming jealous preoccupation with one’s own likeness leading to death. This fits, although I do then need help again adding that up with the scent which takes its name and the motive behind the young general not wanting to smell of himself. Perhaps we can see narcissism in all efforts to go on conforming the other to one’s self, better to polish that surface of Other in which we seek ourselves reflected.

Anyways. A fascinating film, deservedly in that Top100, a bitter assault not simply against nunneries but against that colonial complicity latent still in a large part of contemporary Christian mission, a critique that demands an answer.


Wednesday, 9 June 2010