Saturday, January 3, 2009

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban -- time and truth

Director: Alfonso Cuarón, 2004.

This is the third installment of the Harry Potter saga. After directing the first two Chris Columbus handed over the reins to Cuarón. He later directed Children of Men, a post-apocalyptic vision where children are no longer born. Here, he brings that same moody approach to this project. The Potter series is clearly evolving and growing.

The child stars are also growing and evolving. All the main characters, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), are now in their teens and in the midst of puberty. They are looking bigger. No longer are they the young kids of year one at Hogwarts. Even their acting is better. Evidently practice makes perfect; well at least better. the earlier films, this third year starts stormily. Though it must be late summer or early fall, the Hogwarts express makes its way north through a portentous rainstorm. To add to the gloom and doom, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the murderer and supporter of Voldemort, has escaped from Azkaban and is on the loose. Harry has been told that Black wants to kill him, since doing so will enable Lord Voldemort, He-who-shall-not-be-named and He-who-has-not-yet-been-seen, to regain his power and return. Where the first two movies took too long to get to the main plot, this one is up-front and early. Black against Potter. The escaped prisoner of Azkaban wants blood and vengeance for 12 years spent inside.

Another element added early is the presence of the dementors. These fearsome guards from Azkaban can suck hope, joy and even the soul from a person. As the Hogwarts express fights through the dark night, a dementor descends to the train, causing windows to ice over and fear to spread inside. Coming into Harry's compartment, they start to suck away his hope. Only the help of Professor Lupin (David Thewliss, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), the new defense against the dark arts teacher, saves Harry. But this is a taste of things to come, since dementors have been sent to Hogwarts to guard each entrance against Black. tells Harry later about dementors, "They feed on every good feeling, every happy memory until a person is left with nothing but his worst experiences." Dementors sound strangely like demons. And Satan and his demons want to suck life and all that is fundamentally good from people. When all that is left is the bad, the evil, the worst experiences of one's life, hopelessness and despair rule. No wonder the dementor's kiss is so threatening and dreadful. The biblical antidote to this is found in Paul's writings to the Philippians. He says, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things" (Phil. 4:8). When our minds are filled with positive thoughts, when we commit our worries and cares to God in prayer "the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:7).

Even the first entrance into Hogwarts is dark. The Hogwarts Choir greets us to a rendition of, "Double, double, toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble! Something wicked this way comes!" Taken from the witches chant in Macbeth, here is another omen. Wickedness is coming. Black is coming. Prisoner of Azkaban introduces us to Buckbeak the Hippogriff, a flying magical creature cared for by Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), who is teaching a class for the first time. It also adds the Marauder's Map, a device for knowing who is where in the school. Hogsmeade, the local village, is seen for the first time. And Michael Gambon appears as Professor Dumbledore, replacing the late Richard Harris.

One of the themes of the film is time. From the scenes of Hogwarts main entrance to the clock tower, time keeps recurring. The pendulum swings slowly at the entryway, seen each time students come and go. Harry sits in the clock-tower looking out through the clock-works at what is changing in his world. And a plot-device involving time helps the heroes at the climax.

Despite being billed as a children's movie, this is an entertaining film even for adults. The narrative continues what was started but adds some insight into the night of Harry's parents' death. And not everything is as it seems. The truth is difficult to find., truth is another underlying theme of this movie. As Hermione says to Dumbledore, late in the film, "We know the truth. Please believe us." And then in the denouement, Harry says to Lupin, "None of it made any difference." Lupin replies, "Didn't make any difference? Harry, it made all the difference in the world! You helped discover the truth." Here are two widely divergent perspectives on what happened. Harry's expectations were dashed. But he did discover truth. He did learn more about what happened to his parents. And this did move the overall story arc along towards its eventual conclusion.

Sometimes we can think nothing happened, that our lives have made no difference. Despite all the work, even some adventures, we can succumb to this despairing delusion. But if we have brought truth into the light of day, then we have indeed made a difference. There is truth. Even when others decry truth, as Pilate did 2000 years ago (John 18:38) and postmoderns do again today, truth still is there waiting to be discovered. Jesus said "I am the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6). He is waiting to be discovered. The one who discovers Jesus will find a difference in life.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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