Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Postman (Il Postino) -- the power of words

Director: Michael Radford, 1994.

The ancient Greek poet Euripides once said, "The tongue is mightier than the blade." In the 19th century Edward Bulwer-Lytton recoined this phrase as "The pen is mightier than the sword." In The Postman, Radford brings to center stage the power of words in the form of poetry to sculpt a romance and win a woman's heart.

Writer Massimo Troisi stars as Mario Ruoppolo, a nondescript unemployed fisherman's son who detests fishing. Living on a remote Italian island in 1952, there is little work to be had. But when Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) comes to the island in exile from his native Chile, a part-time postman is needed to carry the copious quantity of fan-mail, mostly from females, to his hilltop villa. Mario gets the job and begins the daily bike-ride to deliver the mail to his one customer.

The film is loosely based on Neruda's actual stay in a villa on the island of Capri in 1952. Neruda was a lifelong communist and poet. Widely considered one of the greatest and most influential poets of the 20th century, he wrote poems in a variety of styles including love and romance. In 1971 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Postman focuses on the growing friendship between Mario and Neruda. As they grow closer Neruda helps Mario to appreciate poetry and discover metaphor by seeing things around him in his wonderful island enviroment.

When Mario sees the beautiful Beatrice Russo (Maria Grazia Cucinotta) his heart is captured but his tongue is tied. The shy postman cannot say more than 5 words to her though he wants to woo her. Calling on his friend Neruda, he learns the power of poetry to win her heart. Despite an unexpected and somewhat anticlimactic conclusion, the film is a lyrical ode to love.

Troisi brings an underplayed sense of the everyman to this role. Tall, thin and unprepossessing he is a quiet hero who many in the audience can relate to. No Brad Pitt, he is a leaner John Cusack. The true-life tragedy of The Postman is that Troisi had a known heart condition requiring surgery. But he postponed this so he could finish the film and then the very day after completing the movie he died of a fatal heart attack. This film lives on as his legacy.

The Postman is first and foremost a beautiful love story: the shy postman seeking to win the love of the village belle. Love is a marvellous motivator to cause men to slay dragons, to fight fires, to do things they never dreamed possible. Love is in the heart of men and is at the core of God (1 Jn. 4:16). In the story, Mario's dragon is his timidity and he must conquer this to give voice to his emotions and feelings.

At one point in the film, Mario asks Neruda to explain poetry. In a gentle response, Neruda says: "When you explain poetry, it becomes banal. Better than any explanation is the experience of feelings that poetry can reveal to a nature open enough to understand it." Poetry is all about beauty and feelings. There is a power in a poem that cannot be captured by logical description or even prose. Neruda knows this. And he teaches Mario to become a poet like himself. Yet even knowing this, I find myself to be a philistine when it comes to poetry. Perhaps it is my scientific, rationalistic background, but I don't appreciate poetry. I may be one of those people who, as Neruda says, is not open to comprehend. Perhaps it will come with age and maturity.

Certainly The Postman underscores the power of words when combined in careful composition. Many are the martyrs who have died by the sword yet whose words continue, changing lives for decades or even centuries. Words have the power to transcend time and space.

The power of words is also a biblical concept. The writer of Hebrews says (4:12): "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." The word of God here can do more than a normal sword. The word of God is also the means of creation. In Genesis 1, God spoke and his words brought into being the various aspects that we call creation.
The power of words is seen most clearly in the Word. John begins his gospel with a parallel to Genesis 1:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life and that life was the light of men. (Jn. 1:1-4)
Here, the Word is pointing to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. His is the power of life. He offers this life and his resurrection power to all will listen. John makes this clear just a few verses later (1:12): "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." Whether you are a poetry-lover or a philistine, the power of words can impact you in a life-changing way if you embrace Jesus, the Word of God and master-poet!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Monday, April 27, 2009

Happy-Go-Lucky --a positive approach to life

Director: Mike Leigh, 2008.

How do you approach life? Are you a "glass-half-full" type of person? Or is the glass half-empty? For Poppy Cross (a superb performance from Sally Hawkins), the protagonist, the glass is half-full even when it is almost empty! She looks on the bright side of everything.

Mike Leigh sets the tone at the very beginning. Sally locks her bicycle against a railing in Camden, London, and enters a bookstore. The first book she pulls out to look at -- "The Road to Reality." Poppy comments, "Definitely, don't want to go there!" She is living above the level of reality. Then, when she emerges to find her bike stolen, she doesn't fret or scream. Instead, she merely regrets getting no chance to say farewell to her trusty two-wheeled friend. Losing her bike allows Leigh to throw in a recurring plot element -- driving lessons with instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan).

Happy-go-lucky describes Poppy to a tee. She is 30 and single, living with Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), a long-time friend. Where Zoe is cynical and sarcastic, Poppy is cheery and cheeky. She is playful and funny, and she brings this sense of vivaciousness to her job as a primary schoolteacher.

Happy-Go-Lucky is a road trip on the journey of Poppy's life. There is not much in the way of plot but it offers a glimpse into her character and those around her. It is a slice-of-life story focusing on several events that she encounters; it shows how she handles life. Nothing will zap her attitude. For Brits and Anglophiles this is a funny movie. Those who don't understand or enjoy the British sense of humor might find it a little slow.

Poppy's life purpose is clear: to be happy. But there is more than that.
When Zoe tells her, "You can't make everyone happy," she replies, "There's no harm in trying that Zoe, is there?" She is a positive spirit trying to bring that aura to those around her.

In a way Mike Leigh offers two contrasting views of life. Poppy is carefree, ready to live on the edge, even talking to strangers. She is apparently happy with her life. Those around her act as foils. Her married but melancholy pregnant sister tells her she needs to get a mortgage, a marriage and kids. At her age, this is a must. But is it really? Scott, her driving instructor, reiterates this. He thinks she needs to settle down, she needs to behave like an adult. But Scott is a stressed out soul, who is visibly wound up tighter than a Swiss watch spring. Who is he to give this kind of advice to someone happier than himself?

The British are proverbially known for their stiff-upper-lip. And Scott and the sister are this and more. They cannot "go with the flow" and enjoy life. More than that, they seem to need to control others. Poppy, epitomizing those who are living happily, seems to be an affront to them. Perhaps Poppy acts as a mirror, metaphorically, that makes them see themselves for what they are, and this is not pretty.

Clearly Poppy represents a positive approach to life. Her attitude is one that is seemingly invincible. Nothing can shake her. As Jesus-followers, we ought to have this kind of mindset. Life is there to be lived, embraced and enjoyed. We know Jesus loves us. As Paul says, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Rom. 8:31). Paul goes on in this same passage:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38-39)
With all this in mind, we should certainly try to be more like Poppy than Scott.

Leigh's film gives a number of interesting and funny vignettes into Poppy's life. Her adventures in driving drive Scott to the brink of sanity, though he doesn't quite jump off the edge. She jumps like a toddler on a trampoline. A friend takes her to Flamenco dance lessons where she stands out as a person willing to be different. She witnesses one of her students bullying another and intervenes as a friend more than a teacher and gets him help. She is a kind and generous person who has an overabundance to give to those around her. She has an optimism that is contagious.

Although annoying at times, Poppy has a zest for life that is plain to see. But what is the root of her happiness? Is it real? Or is it simply escapist, her attempt to run from reality? Although the opening scene may lead us to think the latter, I believe Poppy's warmth and zeal come from her sincerity. She is real. She is true. She does not try to hide behind a mask. She loves her job. She loves her friends. She enjoys life. She is who you see.

As viewers we relate to Poppy because of her openness and authenticity. We see a person whose approach to life is not only to be commended but copied. Christians especially have every reason to be like Poppy. Thanks to Jesus, we "have life, and have it to the full" (Jn. 10:10). But regardless of our faith, if we all lived a little more like Poppy, this world would be a happier and better place.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, April 24, 2009

Talk to Her (Hable con Ella) -- delusions and dialogues

Director: Pedro Almodóvar, 2002.

Midway through Talk to Her a ballet teacher says to one of the main characters, "Nothing is simple." This is true of life and it is true of this movie. A beautifully layered drama that combines elements of tragedy, comedy and romance, Talk to Her has plenty of material to make people think. Some viewers will no doubt be shocked by some of the content, especially the surreal silent movie within the movie. But others will find Almodóvar's film challenging and provocative at the same time as being artful and imaginative. The Academy found it creative enough to award him the 2003 Best Original Screenplay Oscar.

The movie opens in a small theater where Marco (Dario Grandinetti) is watching an emotional dance performance. Moved to tears, his sensitivity is noticed by Benigni (Javier Camara), the stranger sitting next to him. Later their paths will cross and a friendship will emerge that will make Marco, at least, a better man.

Marco, a journalist, begins a relationship with Lydia (Rosario Flores), a female bullfighter. But it takes a tragic turn when she is savagely gored by a bull in the ring. Comatose, she is taken to a private hospital where she lays still, a vegetative victim to violence. Marco can only wait by her side.

It is in this hospital that Marco runs into Benigni, a male nurse and caregiver to Alicia (Leonor Watling), a ballet student who has been in a coma for four years. Benigni is a quiet-spoken man, almost effeminate, possibly homosexual. Remembering seeing Marco cry at the dance show, Benigni initiates their friendship. He shows Marco how he is lovingly caring for Alicia, massaging her, stroking her, reading to her, and talking to her as if she were conscious.

Craig Detweiler, in his book "Into the Dark," focuses a chapter on this movie and provides an insightful analysis. He says, "Almodóvar challenges us to look closer, to judge characters not by their orientations (or our assumptions) but by their actions." Indeed since the director is gay we might expect Benigni's friendship with Marco to move toward the sexual, but Almodóvar defies stereotypes. Where caregivers are normally female, they are male here. Where men are usually bullfighters, Lydia is the show-woman here. And where the female is most often the one who does more talking in a relationship, here it is the men who must talk. The two sylphs simply lay like silent specters, still yet impacting the men.

Interestingly, in one scene Marco is talking with Lydia in a car on the way to a bull fight but he is not really talking to her. He is more talking to himself in her presence. She comments that they need to talk after the fight. It is only after she descends into a coma that Marco really begins to talk to her.

Detweiler adds, "Hablo con ella" is about two men learning to communicate." As such it makes us consider our own modes of communication. Talk to Her challenges men to reflect on our conversations with our friends and our partners. Are we really talking to them? Are we listening to what our wife or partner may be saying? Or are we speaking but not listening, more interested in a monologue? Are we prepared to have a true two-way discourse? Marco needed the shock of seeing his woman comatose to do this.

As the movie unfolds, it uses flashbacks to reveal layers of the principle characters. Benigni in particular is not what he appears. He seems to be benign and caring but he is delusional. The object of his love, the comatose Alicia, barely knows him. This love is unrequited. Benigni has manufactured a romance in his head and comes to believe in this fabrication. How much of our inner conversation, what we say to ourselves, is real? Do we ever delude ourselves into a affirming a reality that is a figment of our own imagination? To some degree, we do. We put our slant on what happens to us. We bring a subjective perspective to our life. That is all too evident in witness testimony in court where those who see the same event report it differently. Although some of that is simply subconscious, there is also the "spin" we put on things at work and at home so we appear better than we should. The more we spin, the more we believe our own press releases. This is dangerous, for us and others.

In Talk to Her, Benigni's delusions becomes dangerous for Alicia, though she is no position to do anything about it. As Benigni has started to do things in his spare time that she would have liked, he sees a surreal silent movie, "The Shrinking Lover." This movie within a movie includes a bizarre sexual encounter, but is used by Almodóvar as a plot device to communicate what is going on in Benigni's real life.

The state of the two comatose women highlights the ethical dilemma medicine finds itself in today. The 2004 film Million Dollar Baby put boxer Maggie (Hilary Swank) in a quadriplegic position wishing to take her own life but unable to do so. Hence she pleaded with her trainer Frankie (Clint Eastwood) to do the unthinkable. Assisted suicide was the ethical conundrum. But Talk to Her puts the victim in a state where no conversation can occur. In a coma, the person lays as though dead. The question, then, becomes is she alive? What is life? And should it be maintained mechanically via medical technology, even if there appears to be no brain activity and no possibility of such? Is life more than the physical body?

Life is complex. Biblically, life is more than merely physical. There is an immaterial aspect, soul or spirit (1 Thess. 5:23). But if the brain is dead, is the soul or spirit present? Or is it waiting for release with physical death to go be in its future state, whether heaven or hell? Do we have the right to "pull the plug" on such a comatose person? The arguments have raged both before and after Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was removed. Certainly, pulling back such mechanistic modes of keeping a person alive may prevent a possible future miraculous intervention by the divine Healer.

The ballet teacher raises another key point when she is visiting Alicia in the hospital and talking to Benigni. She says she is going to Geneva to conduct a ballet about war, where male dancers are soldiers who die and ballerinas emerge, as their souls. Life is emerging from death. Benigi's actions later bring life but a cost to himself and others. Jesus said that a seed has to die before life can come forth (Jn. 12:24). He was speaking of the death to self that we must undergo if we want to live the true life offered in him. Life emerges from death (Rom. 8:13).

In the end Almodóvar leaves us questioning how we feel towards Benigni. Marco has grown in his sensitivity and his communication. But Benigni has brought good out of evil. Is this right? When such good comes from an abhorrent act how should we treat the victim? And how should we treat the culprit? What if the culprit is delusional, does that make any difference? These are questions that are left hanging for us to ponder. Will our faith emerge stronger for such a pondering, that is for each of us to consider.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Road Home (Wo de fu qin mu qin ) -- honoring traditions

Director: Yimou Zhang, 1999.

The Road Home is a beautiful Chinese love story that is slow and simple. With wonderful cinematography it shows the culture and lifestyles of rural Chinese peasants. The pace of life is poetically pedestrian, which is quite a contrast to the frenetic frenzy of urban life in modern-day America.

This story of love and life begins with death. Luo Yesheng, a businessman, returns along the cold and snow-covered road to his home village in northern China. His father, the life-long solo village teacher, has died. When he gets there, he finds out from the village mayor that his mother wants to have traditional burial customs observed for the funeral. As he considers this strange request, Yesheng remembers the story of his parents' romance.

In this flasback story, the village is finally getting a teacher. The one-room school-house is not even finished but the young and handsome Luo Changyu arrives to a hero's welcome. Yesheng's mother, Zhao Di, is just 18, illiterate but full of life. When she sees Changyu she is smitten by love.

In that time, life was hard and characterized by chores and duties. Marriages were arranged by parents, not based on love. Di's discovery of her new passion changes her approach to life. As the men build the school by hand, she weaves a red blanket by hand. This blanket will adorn the rafters as a sign of good luck. Additionally, when the building is finished, she continues to go to the old well to draw her water, since it gives her opportunity to pass the place where her love Changyu works. His voice beckons her, and she is drawn to it like a moth to a flame.

The developing romance between these two young people is shown with subtlety and restraint. Their customs would not permit physical contact. Their politeness and respect for the traditions of the village would not allow them to pursue their relationship without approval. And the politics of the time cause a separation. Yet, their love did not go unnoticed. Di waited on the road between the city and their village for him to return to her during their time apart.

This love that defied the customs of the time led to the first marriage based on love rather than being arranged. The Road Home does not address the pros and cons of the tradition of arranged marriages. To understand that better, we must turn to another film, Arranged. In that one, two young women in modern-day New York are going through arranged marriages. The restrictions of such relationships is countered by the protective wisdom of the parents, who are simply trying to do the best for their children. Scorned as old-fashioned and opposed to self-autonomy, there is still something to be gleaned from the underlying purpose of this form of marriage.

But love is at the heart of the relationship between Di and Changyu. It is clear to all. Eventually they are free to marry and establish a life together in the small village. The boy from the city becomes committed to a woman, a village and a vocation.

To tell this love story Zhang uses vibrant color for the images from yesteryear. In contrast to the beauty of the colorful countryside, the gritty realism of death and its consequent duties are shown in grainy black and white. Like The Wizard of Oz, present day reality is shown in monochrome. In another point of similarity, Oz's theme is "there's no place like home" and Dorothy follows the yellow brick road to find her way home. Both have roads home that are central to the storyline.

The elderly and frail Di wants her husband's body to be carried from the hospital morgue back to the village by foot. The tradition said that in doing so, and in periodically "telling" the dead person what was going on, the body will never forget the road home. Of course such tradition is simply superstition. Yusheng knows this. He is, after all, from the big city where superstitions no longer survive. But he is also a respectful son who understands the need to honor his mother.
Honoring our parents is a clear biblical mandate. In fact, it is the only one of the Ten Commandments that carries with it a promise: "Honor your father and mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you" (Exod. 20:12). Sometimes such honoring means doing things we disagree with. It may mean going the extra mile, or miles, when others would think it foolish. But our parents have spent years of their lives raising us, caring for us, and finally freeing us to live our lives. We can and should respect their wishes as long as we are not asked to do things that are immoral.

In this case, Yusheng realizes this tradition is important to his mother and he complies. As Craig Detweiler says elsewhere, "When the future is uncertain, nothing comforts quite like the past. History [tradition] offers a sense of certainty." Death brings us face-to-face with uncertainty.

Perhaps because she did not maintain the tradition of arranged marriage, Di felt the need to maintain other traditions that were important to her and the older villagers. The younger people in the village thought it rash and expensive and unnecessary. But the road had played a central part in their romance and it was appropriate that this tradition be honored.

The Road Home reminds us of the importance of tradition. Paradoxically, I honor some traditions and reject others. I find myself looking back with fondness to some I grew up with, like Christmas crackers and chocolate Easter bunnies. Some I have transported over the ocean to my new country. Wearing paper hats at the Christmas dinner table may seem silly to some but it is a deep tradition that covers half a century. Yet, I find myself scoffing at the traditions of others that I barely understand. I tend to pooh-pooh the traditions of dress-codes and titles, of tastes in music and style.

Perhaps when I start thinking of criticizing someone else's tradition, I need to remember Yusheng, who, with grace and at great personal cost, undertook a tradition that meant nothing to him, only to his mother. Perhaps I should also remember Yeshua, Jesus, who with grace and at great personal cost fulfilled the traditions and prophecies of his predecessors, which meant everything to his Father. . . and to us.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Bridge (Most) -- Life and death decisions

Director: Bobby Garabedian, 2003.

I don't watch many short films This is partly because I have plenty of full-length features on my shelf waiting to be viewed. Partly, too, because it is hard in 30 minutes to build empathetic characters, navigate a narrative, and reach a satisfying conclusion. Yet, a friend bought this DVD and gave it to me saying it impacted him deeply. That was recommendation enough for me.

The movie opens with a man walking slowly between a set of railroad tracks pondering life. "Maybe I'll discover something. Discover something new." The movie is about his discovery of the fragility of life and relationships, and the need to experience the love that is present. It is about life that comes from death.

The story is simple yet profound. It focuses on a single father (Vladimir Javorsky) who is forced to choose between love and duty. Writer-director Garabedian weaves several other characters into the plot, surprisingly in so short a film. And he takes his time to get to the pivotal scene. But when he does it is powerful indeed.

This story has been around in different versions for sometime. Yet, this is a powerful visual rendering. It could have been cliched and sentimental, but it avoided this easy route. Instead it draws us in with strong and moving story-telling. Indeed, it won the Crystal Heart award at the Heartland Film Festival, a festival that focuses on inspirational films that portray the positive aspects of life.

Javorsky does a fine job in a role where he must communicate so much feeling with so little dialogue. It's all in his expressions. And Ladislav Ondrej gives a good performance as his son, Lada. When Lada accompanies his father to see him at work, controlling the railroad drawbridge over the river, the scene is set for the decision the father has to make.

Czech writer-director Garabedian has made this film as a parable. The bridge is both a bridge to life and a bridge to death. Jesus often taught with parables (Matt. 13), as a way to connect common-place things with his hearers while communicating a moral lesson or truth.

It is clear that The Bridge is a parable of God the Father's sacrifice of his only Son, Jesus (Jn 3:16). Though the parallels break down with in-depth analysis, the cost of the Father's decision is powerfully illustrated here. What agony for him to see his son hang on the cross, dying a terrible and painful death. To avoid this scene would have required interventions, perhaps in the angelic cavalry (Matt. 26:53), or prevention by not sending his Son. But the Fall of mankind required a redeemer. Anything less than the Son's death would have denied humanity's redemption (Heb. 9:22).

Watching The Bridge is emotionally tough but inspiringly tender. For Jesus-followers, it reminds us of the sacrifice of the Savior we love and serve. For those not yet yielded to Christ, the denouement highlights the results of this sacrifice, and the life that can be had in Christ. If you have not yet chosen to trust Jesus, cross that bridge to life and put your faith in him. You won't be disappointed!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, April 17, 2009

Pickpocket -- the solitude of a thief

Director: Robert Bresson, 1959.

Watching Pickpocket is a demanding experience. Bresson is a French director who epitomized the minimalist approach to movies where style dominates plot. He seeks to get to the very essence of a scene and leave everything else aside, including extended dialogue. Here he worked from his own screenplay and put in just enough narrative for a compelling story.

Bresson used non-professional actors in his movies and never used them in more than one film. And he called them his "interpreters" or "models" rather than actors. Indeed, he tells them not to act, but to say their lines unemotionally, with minimal theatricality. Here, he also keeps them from smiling. By avoiding close-ups and extensive use of muscial score, he seeks to avoid manipulating the audience. Indeed, he tries to keep them apart from the main characters, thereby minimizing our identification with them and bringing a sense of unease to our viewing. In a sense, this is itself manipulative, but he is doing it to make us work at feeling for ourselves what he is trying to convey.

The story is simple. Michel (Martin LaSalle) is an unemployed and disaffected young intellectual, who may have just come out of prison. Bresson paints very few backstory details, so much is left to the interpretation of the viewer. He goes to the horse race-track to pick someone's pocket and gets caught by the police. Yet, without evidence they let him go. We see him as a thief right from the start. But he is lacking in the "art" of pickpocketry.

Although his friend Jacques (Pierre Leymarie) is trying to help him with contacts of potential employers, Michel does not want to follow up on these. He feels he is superior to that. Further, when he goes to see his mother, he meets Jeanne (Marika Green), a young single neighbor of hers. But, unexpectedly, he won't go into see her. Instead, he gives Jeanne money for his mom. Bresson leaves this unexplained, but this may illuminate a later, subtle, detail.

Instead of taking up Jacques' offer of help, Michel becomes obsessed with stealing, picking pockets. When he finds a professional thief, he attaches himself to him, becoming his apprentice. Kassagi, who plays this thief, was an actual "sleight-of-hand" stage magician, and so some of the thievery tricks shown come from his stage act. There is a montage where these two work with a third pickpocket to hit multiple marks on a train and at a station. This scene is a breathtaking picture of the virtuosity of the thief.

In Bresson's film, Michel is not just a thief but the Thief, an archetype of the criminal. He is a lost soul in transit, a loner with few friends. His solitude and emotional ambivalence is one of the themes of Pickpocket. In an interview, Bresson said, "I wanted people to feel the atmosphere that surrounds a thief. . . . That, and the terrible solitude that is a thief's prison." Michel communicates this solitude perfectly, pushing away those few acquaintances that he has.
Bresson also uses interesting cinematography to make us feel this emotional prison. His framing hems people in. There are multiple lingering shots of doors, open and closed. Michel's hovel of an apartment remains unlocked, without a lock, with the door ajar. This perhaps pictures the freedom that he can choose to embrace. Instead, Michel is already imprisoned in his immoral desire to steal. And that can only lead to actual locked doors.

Other critics have seen the pickpocket's hand metaphorically. The hand reaching out to take a wallet or a watch shows Michel's desire to come close to a person but also the fear of doing so. Alongside his desire to be caught, dwells a desire for judgment and hence an affirmation of existence. This may be reaching a little, but certainly Bresson brings a sense of Dostoyevsky to the film. Roger Ebert has seen echoes of "Crime and Punishment" in Pickpocket, where the protagonist needs money to realize his dream and thinks other should supply it.

Early in the film, Michel voices his philosophy: "Can we not admit that certain skilled men gifted with intelligence, talent or even genius, and thus indispensable to society, rather than stagnate, should be free to disobey laws in certain cases?" He is referring to himself and his belief that he is superior to most men. In his superiority and his obvious need, he sees no issue with petty theft. He believes he will do it only until he gets his feet on the ground. Yet, the police inspector to whom he speaks believes otherwise. Once started there is no stopping.

Obviously, the Bible warns against stealing. One of the Ten Commandments is, "You shall not steal" (Exod. 20:15). The admonition against stealing is repeated in the New Testament (Matt. 19:18). It is an immoral act that is judged, both on earth and in heaven. That is clear.

Michel's question of stealing when in need strikes a little deeper. If a person has no job and no food, is it still wrong to steal? Does survival trump ethics? It is easy to say it is more important to retain our integrity by remaining honest and exploring all possible avenues. But it simply pushes the question one step away. If all avenues dry up, what to do then? Biblically, we might say, with Paul, God will provide all our needs in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:19). And that is true, but it will take faith to hear this. And it does sound trite. Trite but true.

But Michel was not stealing truly for survival. He simply was not prepared to work like other men. He had an inflated ego. He saw himself as more valuable than the marks he hit on. This, of course, is anti-biblical. His value is no more and no less, in the eyes of God, than the victims he preyed on. All have been made in the image of God, and all have been offered the opportunity of redemption by the sacrifice of Jesus.

Despite the darkness of the plot material and the disruptive nature of the method, Bresson leaves us with a glimpse of hope at the end. Michel finally realizes his emotional imprisonment and sees his soulmate. He understands that the route to this revelation was tortuous and twisted. Yet much in life is like this. The importance is finding hope and clinging to it. This final scene blends emotive acting and a synchronized score to underscore the power of hope.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di biciclette) -- father-son relationship

Director: Vittorio De Sica, 1948.

Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, The Bicycle Thief is a tragic story of loss of innocence and humiliation. Widely acclaimed as one of the best Italian movies ever, it is a prime example of neo-realism, a film movement began by Rosselini. Slow and haunting, it is a character study of hope lost.

The film is set in post-WW II Rome, where the city is ravaged and the unemployment is high. Antonio Ricci, like most men, waits patiently day after day for work. One day, his luck changes and he is given a job putting up movie posters around town. The catch is, he must own a bike. He does. Well, he did before he hocked it for cash to survive. When Antonio tells his wife, Maria, she proves to be resourceful. If you can hock a bike for cash, you can hock bed linens for cash to buy back the bike. All is well in the Ricci household as he carries his bike back into the home.

As Antonio prepares for work the next day, Antonio is happier than he has been in a long time. His son Bruno is clearly proud of his papa. There is a skip in Antonio's step and joy in the house. But soon into his first day, his bicycle is stolen. As he sees the thief getting away, Antonio chases him, hapless and helpless. Without a bike his job is in jeopardy and his dreams are shattered.

In the second half of the film, Antonio takes Bruno on a search, with friends, throughout the city. Though he sees the thief several times, and confronts him in a brothel, he cannot get his bike back. He has no proof and the thief no longer has the bike. Bitter disappointment for Antonio.

What makes this film interesting is its use of amateur actors. For the sake realism, De Sica decided not to use professionals. Indeed, his male lead was a simple factory worker at the time he was cast, though he went on to act in other films afterwards. Further, the film was shot totally on location in Rome. One scene, where Bruno is almost run down twice by two separate cars actually happened, and was not scripted.

The greatness of The Bicycle Thief comes from the interplay between father and son, especially as seen from the son's perspective. At first, it is clear that Bruno adores his dad. Antonio is his hero. When he gets the job, both are ecstatic. But that changes after his bike is stolen. Bruno still idolizes his dad, but as the search continues he sees his dad in a new light. Frustration and disappointment are not things a young son expects to see in his father.

We look to our fathers as protectors and providers. For those of us fortunate to have had a good dad, we can recall warm memories of him being there for us. It was likely dad who worked hard to keep a roof over our head and food on the table. We knew he loved us. We knew he would be there for us.

When Antonio finds the thief and confronts him in a dangerous area of town, pretty soon he is surrounded by an angry mob. Antonio's anger almost turns violent, but it is Bruno who recognizes this and goes for help. Seeing one's dad in danger and ready to commit violence is hard for a kid.

With the reality of the permanence of his loss settling in, Antonio finally looks outside himself to see the effect he is having on his son. With Bruno, now anxious and confused, Antonio resignedly says, "Why should I kill myself worrying when I'll end up just as dead?" This is similar to Solomon's advice in Ecclesisates 8:14-15:
There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.
But unlike Solomon's audience, Antonio had no job to return to. Despite this, Antonio was ready to spend what little cash he had left in an expensive restaurant to buy his son's happiness.

It is interesting to compare this Italian film with Life is Beautiful, another Italian film made a half-century later. While Bicycle Thief showed the dad as self-absorbed, somewhat oblivious to the child, Life is Beautiful has a father who is protective of his son to the point of sacrifice. The former film is a serious tragedy with the loss of livelihood; the latter is a comic tragedy with loss of life. Both include loss of innocence.

Indeed, the loss of innocence of Bruno reminds me of another film with a Bruno discovering the truth: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Both films have outstanding performances by the young actors playing Bruno. Their journey from innocence into understanding is subtle and nuanced yet profound. And both films have fathers descending the moral ladder in front of their children.
In the tragically beautiful conclusion, with all hope gone and thoroughly disheartened, Antonio sees his only way out -- to steal a bike himself. Sending Bruno home alone, he takes a bike, not knowing that Bruno missed the streetcar. Chased through the streets by a mob of honest men, Antonio is not fast enough to evade capture. And when he is caught, Bruno is there to see it for himself.

Antonio's humiliation at the end is heart-breaking indeed. A father is supposed to be upright, a person of integrity. He is meant to be a role model for his children. In stealing the bike, Antonio had descended to the same level as the very thief he chased. Bruno sees his dad as a common thief, a person who deserves to do jail time.

The Bicycle Thief is indeed a powerful reminder of the power of a life to influence those around us, especially our children. They see us, even when we think they don't. We may teach them what is right and tell them to do the right things, but our example is what they will remember. If we don't do what we tell them, we will be raising confused and conflicted kids. Moreover, we will be like the Pharisees and hypocrites, wearing masks to hide who we really are. A father's relationship with his son is a precious thing. Yet it is fragile. We must do all we can to protect and nurture it. But above all, our actions speak louder than our words.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire -- destiny and hope

Slumdog Millionaire Artwork

Director: Danny Boyle, 2008.

I had free tickets to see this at a pre-screening in Portland in December when this was an unknown, almost "straight-to-DVD" movie. Then the blizzard of 08 descended on us and I missed the opportunity. Thereafter the awards juggernaught took off and Slumdog Millionaire started collecting trophies like a squirrel collects nuts in the fall. Sweep, baby! In fact, this is the first film since Spielberg's Schindler's List in 1993 to collect the top three trophies, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay, at the top three awards ceremonies: the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs (British Oscars), and the Oscars.

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is an 18 year-old orphan from Mumbai who is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (pronounced 'millonaire'). But Regis-wannabe host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) suspects him of cheating and he is arrested and subjected to police torture. As the Inspector (Irrfan Khan) says, "What can a slumdog possibly know?" Here is the crux of the movie. How can an uneducated kid from the slums possibly do better than the lawyers and doctors who compete but never get this far. A touch of judgmentalism? For sure. A hint of jealousy? Perhaps. Slumdog Millionaire unpacks the answers to a) how he can answer the questions correctly and b) why he wants to do so.

Slumdog is told in episodic fashion, starting when he was a little kid in the slums playing cricket with his older brother Salim on the runways of the local airport. In and out of trouble, they are like Athos and Porthos, two of the three musketeers. But Jamal is the tender-hearted of the two, while Salim is tough and street-wise, always looking for quick cash. When they are orphaned the two must make it on their own with no home, no money and no friends.

Another orphan, Latika, comes along and completes the trio. Latika and Jamal become fast friends, destined for more. But life is hard without parents. Moving to the city's huge trash piles, these three eke out a stinky living until a "savior" comes to rescue them and the other kids. But this is no true savior, this is a gangster who wants to exploit these kids as beggars for his own ends. It is here in the orphanage that Salim learns to use force to survive.

Escaping, Salim and Jamal have to leave Latika behind when they climb aboard a train going anywhere but where they are at. Thus begins their life of petty crime. Stealing, lying, cheating to make money for food, they grow up alone. But Jamal cannot forget Latika. He is smitten and he believes it is written that they will wind up together. Through circumstances they come to a place where Salim makes a fateful choice. And Salim and Jamal depart on two different roads.

Salim takes the path downwards becoming a gangster like those he escaped from. For him, the power of the gun makes him a man. But this path will eventually lead to death and destruction. Biblically, such a life spirals down to the pit (Psa 55:23). In contrast, Jamal is driven by the power of love, of hope. He chooses a path of humility and honesty. Working as a "char-wallah," a tea-boy serving the Indians working at a call center, he speaks the truth and earns an honest wage. Such a way leads to the true path, the narrow way of Jesus, the way of life (Matt. 7:13-14). Theirs is the contrast of brotherly characters and brotherly destinies.

Boyle has done a fine job of making a film of the slums of India that is both gut-wrenching and grittily realistic while still inspiring hope. Contrasting the squalor and hopelessness of the slums and trash heaps with the bright, almost vibrant, colors of the Indian clothes and fabrics, Boyle highlights the humanity present even in such deplorable conditions.

Slumdog Millionaire is tough to watch in places. It reminded me a lot of City of God, the film portraying the Brazilian slums and the gangs that owned that hell-on-earth. But, City of God was overly vicious and violent, while Slumdog is more restrained. Yet, it still portrays the violence of religious intolerance between the Hindus and the Muslims. There is imagery of people being brutally beaten and burned alive, the cruel mutilation and exploitation of innocent orphans, and the torture of Jamal to seek a confession. Yet these are not gratuitous; they add to the story and help to communicate the reasons for the choices the two brothers make. They show the poverty and its implications of life in this rarely-seen part of the world.

At one point the Police Inspector tells Jamal, "Money and women. The reasons for most mistakes in life. Looks like you've mixed up both." But Jamal's cool and nerveless manner in the hot-seat under the TV lights is because he is not motivated by money. For many, the allure of winning the millions on this show is escape, an escape from a confining and constraining way of life. But, in contrast, Jamal is merely driven by hope, the hope of finding his life-long love, Latika.

Danny Boyle has used hope and money as two themes in several of his movies. In his debut film, Shallow Grave, it was the criminal's hope of keeping the cash and finding a new life. But that hope was shallow and degenerated with the disintegrating relationships. Millions saw hope come to the working-class boy who found the money. But in Slumdog the hope is not for money but for love. The money is simply a vehicle to get to the girl. Love trumps loot.

Indeed, hope is a native emotion, a primal urge, a guttural drive. Without hope, the strongest die. With hope, even the weak can survive. Hope is an anchor for the soul (Heb. 6:19). Hope keeps an orphaned Indian going when he is being tortured. Hope keeps us coming back to a dead-end job. Hope for the future enables us to see beyond the daily grind to a future with our Lord in heaven, (Phil. 3:20) a future that awaits all who follow Jesus.

Slumdog Millionaire Publicity StillUltimately, Jamal, a Muslim, believed in destiny. He believes "it's written," namely that he and Latika (Freida Pinto) would be together forever. Destiny, the irresistible course of events, is his dream. As a follower of Jesus, destiny is another term for the sovereign will of God (Rom. 8:28). God is in control of all events, some of which he has foretold in the prophets. The rest cannot be known ahead of time apart from his special revelation.

Slumdog Millionaire, for all the hope it inspires, left me thinking about this idea of "it's written." This is a phrase that occurs at least 70 times in the Bible. In each case it is referring to the written revelation of God. He has revealed himself through the Bible. These revelations are the truth. Where they are prophecies they have been fulfilled or they will be in due time. As Jamal had faith in the idea of his destiny being written, we can have faith in the sovereign God and his written word. We can have hope.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Body of Lies -- the motives of men

Body of Lies Various

Director: Ridley Scott, 2008.

Ridley Scott sets out to tell a story of counter-terrorism with no hidden agendas. Yet that story is suffused with hidden agendas and riddled with lies. As a thriller goes, it works well. But it is not for those with weak stomachs, as the torture scenes are brutal though short.

Scott has directed some of the best movies of the last three decades in multiple genres. He gave us the chilling Alien and the cult classic Blade Runner. Who can forget the road trip of Thelma and Louise? He was nominated for three Best Director Oscars, for Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down, but has never won one. This is not his best, but he has always set the bar high, and does tell a good tale.

Here he is reunited with his Gladiator star, Russell Crowe. Indeed, three of the last four films Crowe has starred in have been directed by Scott (A Good Life, American Gangster, Body of Lies), so Scott knows how to bring the best of him. Playing Ed Hoffman, a CIA controller in Langley, he is a dumpy middle-aged careerist who is always connected to his cell phone. On the other end of the line is Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), his hands and feet in the Middle East. Ferris, the CIA operative on the ground, does the dirty work while Hoffman takes the glory.

As the film opens an explosion occurs in a home in Manchester, England, where Muslim extremists were making bombs. A new campaign of terror is underway led by Muslim cleric Al-Saleem, who is hiding somewhere in the Middle East. With little intelligence to work from, Ferris and Hoffman are in the dark.

Body of Lies Publicity StillThe plot becomes complex and multi-layered as Ferris discovers intel pointing to a safe house in Jordan. When he takes over the local CIA operation in that country, his arrogance emerges. But it is only a mirror of that of his boss, Hoffman. Both men are haughty, but Ferris comes from a perspective of having put his life on the line one too many times, while Hoffman believes he has a superior intellect. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship overlaying a mutual contempt.

But with still insufficient resources, Ferris has to seek the help of Jordanian Head of Security Hani Salaam (Mark Strong). Salaam's one demand is, "Don't lie to me." Of course in this complex world of intel and counter-terrorism, this is hard to do, even to one's friends. Deceit and treachery are in abundance.

What makes Body of Lies interesting is the juxtaposition of the use of technology by the Americans and the eschewing of technology by the terrorists. With eyes in the sky, Hoffman and the CIA can sit in the comfort of their Langley conference room and watch Ferris almost get killed in a gunfight. The satellites, cell phones and computers enable them to watch, listen, and deceive. In contrast, the jihadists have learned that reverting to word of mouth messages and written communications left in dead drops is a way to evade surveillance. The abuse of technology was a central plot point of Eagle Eye, but the avoidance of technology is new.

The heart of the film, though, is the three intelligence men, Ferris, Hoffman and Salaam. And they provide a study in motives. Ferris' motivation is the purest. A man who has seen it all, and done most of it, he is captivated by love. He falls in love with an Iranian beauty, a nurse who treats him for one of his many injuries. Love is the motive for many people. Usually, it is a positive motivation. And in this case, Ferris' love is strong enough that he is willing to sacrifice himself for the life of his beloved. Likewise Jesus loved us enough to willingly go to the cross to give his life for ours. Love is perhaps the most powerful of all motivations.

Hoffman, on the other hand, is driven by success. With a cocky Southern accent, he is jaded and cynical. He trusts no one. All he cares about is the bottom line. He wants results and does not care how he gets them or who gets hurt or killed along the way. Indeed, we wonder if he cares about anything else. We see him with his ubiquitous hands-free headset, not bluetooth but corded (probably for security reasons), talking to Ferris at all times, even while caring for his kids. He does not seem to be involved in his family, he seems to be living for his work. Workaholism is an insidious destroyer of relationships. And when relationships dwindle and die, care and compassion for others usually disappears also. Jesus certainly put relationships over career. He gave up his carpentry when his life mission took center stage. Through Hoffman Body of Lies makes us question our own mission and purpose. Who and what do we really care about? What is our approach to life?

Body of Lies VariousAfter love and success comes truth. Salaam is a man who desires truth. He can work with complexity but cannot abide collusion, at least, where he is the one being deceived. He has the patience to wait for truth, unlike Hoffman whose impatience and in-your-face approach chases the truth away. Truth is indeed a good thing and should be pursued. Jesus said "I am the truth" (Jn. 14:6). In searching for truth we should look first to Christ. In waiting for truth, we should wait on the Lord (Psa. 37:7).

Body of Lies deals with trust and truth. The tagline is "trust no one; deceive everyone." There can be no approach to life more diametrically opposed and antithetical to the gospel than this. Instead, Jesus might say, "trust me and inform everyone."

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Braveheart -- the fight for freedom

Director: Mel Gibson, 1995.

Braveheart is one of those epic films you can come back to time and time again. With a beautiful soundtrack of Scottish music and stunning scenery (Oscar for cinematography) it is a stirring story of one man's fight for freedom and the nation that followed. Not to mention the fact that it captured Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for Gibson.

Some have derided this film for its historical inaccuracies. Certainly some errors are present. For example, Princess Isabelle of France (Sophie Marceau) did not bear Wallace's baby. Nor did the Scots wear kilts until several hundred years after the times of these events. But who can picture a film of Scottish independence without seeing men in kilts in their imaginations! But such criticism misses the point. This is more an historical legend than an authentic biography.

Set in the late 13th century, the prolog gives insight into what drove William Wallace. As a young boy he sees his father and brother ride off to fight the English and never return alive. As he grows up in the care of his uncle, his hatred of these rulers is tempered by his desire to live a simple yet free life in the highlands of his beautiful country.

Returning as a man to his youthful stomping grounds, Wallace (Mel Gibson) is overcome by the love of a woman, Murran (Catherine McCormack). But their secret marriage is barely begun before an English soldier tries to rape her. Wallace attacks and escapes but Murran is caught and executed as a warning to other Scots. With his love gone and his freedom threatened, Wallace's desire for revenge on the English and freedom for the Scots becomes the two driving raisons d'etre of his life.

At first he, a commoner himself, is followed by a rag-tag group of common Scots. But as he wins several battles he comes to the attention of the Scottish nobility. These nobles have more in common with Longshanks, the English King Edward I (Patrick McGoohan), than the Scottish serfs. They have been bribed by the English and have land holdings on both sides of the border. There is much political intrigue and internecine rivalry amongst these Scottish Lords. But Wallace is a plain man who does not play politics. He may be a brilliant tactician when it comes to battles, but he is out of his element in politics and out of his league with these bedfellows.

Wallace is a man of principle. He tells the nobles, "There's a difference between us. You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom." He has put his finger on the purpose of a lord or a king. The king's mission is to govern and lead the people. But he is to do it with integrity and compassion. The later English monarch Elizabeth I epitomized this ideal in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Jesus, the true King of heaven, is the supreme ruler who leads with love. His kingdom is emerging and growing now, but will be ubiquitous eventually. Unlike these earlier kings, his burden is light (Matt. 11:30). He is the ultimate servant-leader.

The battle scenes in Braveheart are spectacular. The camerawork gives the viewer a sense of being in the battle itself. With so much chaos and killing, it is hard to see who is who. Survival is first and foremost. Pretty, it is not. At the culmination of one battle, we see the dead and dying literally littering the battlefield that is soaking up their blood.

Despite Wallace's courage, his quest is eventually quashed not by the strength of the English soldiers but by his lack of compromise and the betrayal of the Scottish lords. The leprous father of Robert the Bruce tells his son (also Robert the Bruce): "You admire this man, this William Wallace. Uncompromising men are easy to admire. He has courage; so does a dog. But it is exactly the ability to compromise that makes a man noble." Wallace was uncompromising in his quest for freedom. The nobles were willing to compromise on anything if it meant their personal gain. Is it possible to lead without compromise? Jesus did. But Jesus was also crucified for his cause.

Compromise and politics seem to go hand in hand. Compromise itself is not wrong. It is its content that is the issue. Compromising on non-essentials is fine. But compromising on our ideals, our character, or our integrity is a form of betrayal.

Betrayal was ultimely the undoing of Wallace. The lords treacherously betrayed him on the battlefield. Worse still, Robert the Bruce betrayed his personal trust. Robert's "wise" father counseled Robert, "All men betray. All lose heart." And so, like Judas, Robert the Bruce led Wallace into a trap and a painful execution.

Indeed, Wallace reminds us somewhat of Uriah. He, too, was a man who would not compromise his principles. A soldier returned from battle, he refused to go find comfort in his wife's arms while his troops were still in mortal danger on the frontlines. His lord, King David, having slept with Uriah's wife Bathsheba, betrayed him by sending him to back to the front with a message to his general to ensure Uriah's death. Betrayal by our friends is worse than capture by our enemies.

But Wallace lived his life for freedom: "It's all for nothing if you don't have freedom." He would rather die a free man than live under the oppressive rule of the English tyrants. And with his death, he inspired Robert the Bruce to lead the Scots to freedom. In a sense, Wallace was a Christ figure. He gave his life for the freedom of his kinfolk. Jesus gave up his position in heaven to come to earth as a man to conquer sin (Phil. 2:6-8). Humanity had been held captive, in bondage to sin (Eph. 2:1) and in need of a liberator, a redeemer. Jesus gave up his life to purchase that freedom (Gal. 5:1). His love for us, the passion of his brave heart bought us liberty. Today, followers of King Jesus can experience true freedom because of his sacrifice.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Manchurian Candidate -- brainwashing and morality

Director: Jonathan Demme, 2004.

Demme, already an Oscar winner for the psycho-chiller The Silence of the Lambs, took a chance at remaking The Manchurian Candidate. The original 1962 John Frankenheimer movie starred Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury, and was a masterpiece in its day. But Demme's bet paid off. His version, set in contemporary America, is every bit as chilling. It is a crackerjack political thriller with great performances from its three key cast members, Denzel Washington, Liev Schrieber and Meryl Streep.

Instead of the Korean War, this rendition begins in the first Gulf War in Kuwait in 1993. Denzel Washington is then Captain Ben Marco, commanding a night recon force. When their sortie hits an ambush all hell breaks loose. In the ensuing gunfire, Marco is knocked out and Sergeant Ray Shaw (Schreiber) saves all but two of the company despite being under heavy fire. For this extreme act of bravery Shaw is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Moving ahead over a decade and it's election time in America. Marco is now a Major. Shaw is a congressman, whose mother Senator Eleanor Shaw (Streep) is pressing the Democratic Party to make her war-hero son the VP nominee instead of elder statesman Senator Jordan (Jon Voight). All seems well. Except Marco is having dreams, the same dream every night of that Kuwait battle. When another soldier (Jeffrey Wright) from his troop confesses to him that he is having this exact same dream, Marco begins to think there is a conspiracy.

The film's soundtrack has a steady cacophony of noise, from radios, televisions, traffic and talking. There is so much sound but no one is listening. Information streams steadily from the CNN newscasts about the elections, yet the people of America do not really know what is going on. Marco certainly doesn't, but as his suspicions deepen, he plunges into a frantic search for the truth.

When he discovers a chip implanted in his shoulder he realizes that he has been brainwashed by an international conglomerate after power. In the original film, Manchurian referenced the Communist North Koreans. Here, Manchuria Global is the conglomerate providing weapons to the Defense department as well as conducting biomedical research. Big Business has replaced ideological enemies.

Denzel Washington, always a solid actor, conveys palpably the panic and anxiety of a war veteran unsure of what is real. Schrieber balances the line between a cold killer and a fresh politician offering new hope to the American people. Streep is almost over-the-top as an over-controlling mother and megalomaniac politician bent on power.

The film is built on the foundation of fear and paranoia present since terrorism has taken center stage. The platform Shaw is running on is campaigning to free America from the grip of this fear. They are offering "security." But there is a difference between real security and feeling safe. Despite his bad dreams, Marco felt safe but was not secure.

As The Manchurian Candidate plays out, it becomes clear someone has messed with the heads of Marco and Shaw. In the war on terror, politics has allied with business in an attempt to win this war. But winning a war by unethical means raises the question of means and ends. Is it right to accomplish moral ends by immoral means? At one point, a politician rebukes the executives of Manchuria Global: "My father, Tyler Prentiss, never asked, 'Is this okay? Is this okay?' He just did what needed to be done." Doing what needs to be done is focusing on the ends and not the means. Where are the checks and balances? Indeed, who defines what the ends are? They may be OK and laudable today, but as power wields its corrupting influence the ends may subtly become less OK tomorrow and immoral by next election year.

Clearly, how we accomplish good ends is as important as the ends themselves. In the Christian faith, the character of the person is as important, perhaps more important, than the goals he accomplishes. If we win the election but lie along the way, trampling on others, even committing crime to become the winner we have lost our integrity.

Who is the real villain in this film? Is it the doctor who has performed unauthorized and unsanctioned biomedical experimentats on these troops without their knowledge or permission? Is it the senator with dynastic ambition strong enough to kill for? Is it the multibillion dollar company looking to make more profit without regard for the collateral damage? Surely it is all three. But could there also be some subtle guilt elsewhere as well? Is it possible that the American people are also indicted for not demanding more accountability from the politicians they elect and the corporations they invest in? We have seen, even recently, the fallout in multiple financial institutions and other companies examples of this failed accountability.

Certainly the unauthorized testing of dangerous implants on the soldiers is unethical. Even in the military, such tests require permission from those involved. But the film also highlights the ethical issues of mind-control, of brainwashing. With implants able to release regulated quantities of chemical and hormones it is possible that such control is no longer mere science fiction. Without the ability to make our own decisions, we are little more than robots. Indeed, theologically we must have free will to be held accountable by God for the sins we have committed. Anything else, and we cannot be deemed responsible. Even though there is a tension between free will and the sovereignty of God, both are crucial tenets of the Christian faith that are held by followers of Jesus.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Under the Bombs (Sous les Bombes) -- the after-effects of war

Director: Pilippe Aractingi, 2007.

The opening scene looks like a clip from a documentary. Is it any wonder. Aractingi shot portions of this film during an actual war.

On July 12 2006 the Israelis started bombing southern Lebanon. The bombings, and this war, lasted 33 days. Lebanese director, filled with anger and hatred of war, started shooting on the 21st day, while bombs were still raining down. Using only two professional actors and no script, he improvised before returning to his home in France to write a script. He returned later, after the war ended, to shoot the remainder of the fictional part of this anti-war film.

Nadu Abou Farhat plays Zeina, a Shiite Muslim returning to Lebanon during a ceasefire in the war. She arrives by boat and looks for a taxi driver to take her to the cities of the south. She is in search of her 6 year-old son, whom she sent to be with her sister. The local taxi drivers will take her to Beirut but no further. It is simply too dangerous. But Tony (Georges Khabbaz), a Christian with an eye for a pretty girl and a nose for money, strikes a deal with her. He will take her where she wants to go in his trusty old Mercedes for $300.

As they undertake this search, Zeina seems to have nothing in common with Tony. She is suffering the fear and anxiety of a parent missing a child. Yet, as the movie unfolds Aractingi makes it clear that they have more in common than they, or we, think. They are drawn together by their common humanity, the love, loss and grief that they have both experienced. Although Tony was initially attracted to Zeina's external beauty, he comes to see past this and eventually puts her needs and desires above his own. The turning point is when she moves from the back-seat of the taxi to the front-seat, to sit alongside him, to be more of a companion than a customer.

This road-trip through desolate Lebanese countryside is striking in its poignancy. With death surrounding them, and the destruction of the infrastructure of roads and bridges causing them to traverse the roads less travelled, frustration creeps in. Knowing you have to cross a river, being able to see the road on the other side, and yet having a chasm where the bridge used to be is the state of helplessness that civilians find themselves in amidst a war-torn zone.

Writer-director Aractingi made the film to testify for the victims of the indiscriminate bombings. Dedicated to those who died under the bombs, most of those who died were crushed to death under the immense weight of the destroyed buildings, Under the Bombs shows the sufferings of war felt by the voiceless civilian casualties. He said in an interview, "I wanted to remind people that war is not about who is right and wrong, but about these people who are completely innocent and in the middle of it."

What makes Under the Bombs compelling is the use of real people in a real war-zone. When we hear a bomb go off, it is an actual bomb, not a safe Hollywood explosive device. It took great risk from the two professional actors and the crew. In one scene, Tony asks if it is safe to walk across the rubble to talk to a couple, wondering if there are any cluster bombs under the bricks. Knowing this is real, we realize the actor is genuinely concerned about losing a limb or his life.

Further, juxtaposing a fictional story of Zeina and Tony against the backdrop of real people makes this account personal. We can relate to the potential tragedy of Zeina's son. Even the improvised script is genuine, coming from those who have lost their own sons and daughters. It is an honest and courageous piece of film-making.

Under the Bombs underscores the difficult choices that people have to make under high stress conditions at a moment's notice. In one scene mothers clutching small kids tell Zeina of their evacuation from a village being bombed. A van was waiting and they had moments to grab kids and jump aboard. One mother had to choose two kids and in doing so, left the rest of her children behind, children she would never see again because they would be buried under the bombs. It makes us consider how people could make such a life and death decision. How could we pick from our children knowing those left behind would die. Could we live with this? Could we live with ourselves?

Instead of a propaganda film, this is a personal picture of the horrors of war. Other films, like Saving Private Ryan or Letters from Iwo Jima, have shown the choas and bloodiness of the battlefield. But those films focused on the soldiers. Here we see widows and orphans, those who suffer and grieve the loss of homes and husbands, fathers and mothers. At the close of an interview Aractingi appropriately summarized his perspective on war, one that is applicable to any war:
War gives rise to traumatized people. People that might respond to their trauma by creating suffering for other people. War is not just an operation that starts and ends during a certain time period. The news talk about it when it happens,
but they forget about the side effects. Those that carry on with all your life.
The side effects are more destructive than the war itself. They create a vicious
circle of endless troubles. War can never be surgical!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs