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.