Friday, October 28, 2011

The Ides of March -- death of idealism, birth of moral compromise

Director: George Clooney, 2011. (R)

The closing scene mirrors the opening: the same person sits in front of TV cameras in a large room. Yet as he looks coldly at the camera in the final frame, we realize he is not the same person. Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling, Lars and the Real Girl) has changed. And the film follows the change in his character, a dark deterioration of his soul.

This political drama, directed by George Clooney from his own screenplay, focuses not on the two political parties, but on the two leading Democrats vying to run for President in 2012. The story, then, centers not on politics per se, but on the impact of politics on the characters at the center of the storm.

George Clooney (The American) plays one of these candidates, Governor Mike Morris, a charismatic and likeable politician whose manifesto inspires hope. He has ideals and plans to make the world a better place. Paul Zara (the excellent and schlumpy Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote) leads his campaign, supported by press manager Meyers, the thirty-year-old who is not quite young, not quite old. In contrast, Morris’ opponent, Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell), is a bible-thumper from the south; yet his campaign is led by the sleazy Tom Duffy (another wonderful character actor, Paul Giamatti, Duplicity). These form the main characters, although Evan Rachel Ward (Across the Universe) shows up as sexy intern Molly, and Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler) plays Ida Horowicz, a jaded journalist who looks out for herself. And Jeffrey Wright (Source Code) has a minor role as Senator Thompson, a key politician whose favor will carry the nomination. He plays his cards close to his chest.

"The Ides of March" usually refers to the day (March 15) when Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by a group of his senators. Here, though, I think it refers to a different death, the death of idealism or innocence as found in Meyers. At the start, he states passionately that he works for Morris because he believes in the candidate and his ideals. He sees Morris as the one man who can make a difference in America, and even in the world. Meyers places his hope in Morris. But as the film progresses, his hope slowly deteriorates and he begins to compromise his own morals.

It is tempting to place our trust in a specific person, or even in people. Whether that person is a politician or a friend, a husband or a lover, we believe they will change the world or simply change our world. Yet, the truth is that everyone will let us down at some point. Even the best of friends will breach a trust and we will find ourselves disappointed at best, devastated and deeply damaged at worst. When we look to a sinful and broken person to be the provider of hope, we can be sure to find that hope lost. Sin has ensured that. We all stand condemned as sinners (Rom. 3:23). There is no exception (Rom. 3:10). But there is a person who will not disappoint, who we can trust to not let us down – Jesus. He is the sinless son of God (1 Pet. 2:22) who promised us life if we will follow him (Jn. 10:10), a life that will include suffering on the earth (Rom. 8:17) but which will be bereft of tears and sorrow in heaven (Rev. 21:4). In him all the promises of God are a resounding yes (2 Cor. 1:20). He is no politician, changing his words and his allies as the winds blow. No, he is our faithful and true redeemer (Gal. 3:13). He is the one person we can and should turn to.

In the first act, Meyers’ idealism stands in center stage. He follows Morris like a hound-dog with media-savvy ideas. It seems the film is about the two candidates. But two events turn the film into a compelling drama, a gripping character study full of intrigue and deception. The first occurs when Meyers makes a mistake and enters a meeting he should have avoided. The second occurs when he sleeps with the intern. There, he discovers a secret, one that shatters his idealism. In one moment, his carefully constructed world comes crashing down. Later, he confronts Molly and tells her that in the big leagues you get only one shot and one mistake sends you back home. This seems cold and callous, yet it comes full circle as he himself has had made the mistake that bans him from the big game.

Meyers has it right, though, when he says to one character that the mistake was not an accident but a choice. Mistakes have consequences but imply no moral involvement. When we see them as a choice that we made, we are forced to accept our moral accountability. When we lay the grid of “choice” back over the film, or even over our lives, we see things more clearly, we understand that all is not well with the souls of the major characters, or with our own soul. Our bent is to sin. Our choices tend to be selfish and self-protective.

The second act depicts Meyer’s deterioration into moral compromise. And we see that all the characters, including Morris, are players, seeking to play even as they in turn are being played. At the end, Stephen’s transformation is evident in his interaction with Ida, the journalist. Earlier she had told him their “friendship” was a superficial mask that allowed each to get ahead: she got the scoop from him, and he got a positive write-up from her. Friendship had nothing to do with it. Now, as he walks as an insider past the cordon that is stopping her, she asks him, “Hey, Steve. I’m still your friend, right?” He stops, and coolly gazes at her before replying, “You’re my best friend, Ida.” He has fallen from idealism.

Yet one thing is troubling. For a thirty-year-old who has masterminded the press campaigns for a number of politicians, it is difficult to understand how Meyers could have remained dewy-eyed and innocent. Even lesser politics than presidential nominations would have tarnished the innocence he carried. This idealism is implausible, although it allows for his fall from the grace.

Clooney adapted this material from Beau Willimon’s 2008 stage play entitled “Farragut North”. And this explains the depth of characters present. Christianity Today reviewer Josh Hurst commented,
“it’s essentially an action movie, one that moves so quickly and takes so many sharp turns you’ll leave finger impressions all over your theater seat and leave feeling a little whiplashed. And yet the thrills all come through character development and intense conversations; there are no scenes of violence here, no guns, no car chases.”
The strength of the film is indeed its acting. With a cast this stellar, that is to be expected.

If you like political intrigue and strong character-driven films, this is one for you. But it is dark and somewhat depressing, offering little in the way of hope. The cleanest character is a manipulator, who lies for a living. Instead, it presents the inevitability of the corruption of ideals in the absence of a rock, like Jesus. Be warned about The Ides of March!

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Mighty Macs -- teamwork, commitment and dreams

Director: Tim Chambers, 2011. (G)

What was the last movie you saw whose main characters were a married Baptist woman and a pretty young nun who drank together in a bar? If you can’t remember, why not see this one where these two become the coaching force behind a women’s collegiate basketball team. Written, directed and produced by Tim Chambers, The Mighty Macs is a feel-good family film that is wholesome and engaging. Despite a “by-the-numbers” approach, it elicits a strong emotional appeal as it carries us along the journey of an underdog team. Based on the true story of the Mighty Macs, the film keeps us enthralled, even if the end is known, till the last buzzer sounds and the champion is crowned.

The year is 1971, a time when women mostly stayed at home while their husbands worked. But like Rita O’Grady in Made in Dagenham, a contemporary film also centered on an inspiring and liberating woman, Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino, Watchmen) is a woman ahead of her time. Recently married, she decides to apply for the coaching position at Immaculata College in Philadelphia, a small Catholic school not known for their sports programs. Offered the position by Mother Superior (Ellen Burstyn, The Fountain), she discovers the obstacles that stand in her way: there is no gym, she has little support from the school’s administration, and the school is in dire financial straits. Worse yet, the students aren’t overly interested in a basketball team.

But team is what the film is about. And with the first national championship for women’s basketball at stake, teamwork is what is needed. Right from the start, Coach Rush tells the team that trust and teamwork are what win a championship.

Teamwork is the first value in this values-oriented sports drama. In an era when we emulate stars, the franchise players, The Mighty Macs calls us back to our place among others. Coach Rush tells her team to destroy ego. There is no I in TEAM. Five good players working in perfect synchronism with one another are better than five excellent players working apart. Whatever teams we find ourselves in, whether in sports or work, focusing on the team above self is a sure recipe for success. The apostle Paul tells us “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Phil. 2:3-4). This is the foundation of teamwork.

As the team begins to gel, Coach Rush needs an assistant and she finds one in the young Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton, W). A former player, she agrees to work with the team and finds her downcast view of life in the convent uplifted and changed.

Change and commitment are two more positive values stressed in the film. Sister Sunday comments, “Change is vital.” It is, but it is conjoined to commitment. They go hand in hand. To win, the players had to want it, they had to be committed. But they needed to change, to improve. And that took sacrifice, and was painful.

No one likes change. Well, most people don’t like it. But without change we die. Growth is change. We cannot reach our goals if we do not embrace change. We cannot realize our dreams unless we are committed to them and push through any and all obstacles that come our way.

Daring to dream is the film’s tagline. A key scene involves the main player, Trish Starkey (Katie Hayek). Coming from a poor family, she approaches Coach Rush privately to inform her she has gotten a part-time job. She wants to be able to practice with the team on a limited basis. But Coach Rush tells her she must choose one or the other. The team requires complete commitment, not part-time participation. Then she asks Trish if working at the store is her dream. Obviously, it is not. Daring to dream requires stepping out in faith and making the commitments needed.

Do we dare to dream? Are we prepared to look above and beyond our current existence and see something bigger and better, like Rush? Or are we trapped in the here and now, eking out a sterile survival like Trish almost did? Are we so settled into our ruts that we refuse to change? Dreams motivate. Dreams inspire. Dreams move us forward.

Dreams drive us to discipline. In a key pep talk to the team, Coach Rush quotes Paul’s comments on athletics: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24). Because of the teamwork, she tells them they deserve to win, to attain their dreams. They have made the sacrifices, they have changed together.

As the film progresses, the underdog Macs go from being lackluster losers to competing to finally winning. Their rivalry with Maryland reveals a secret in Coach Rush’s past and gives them opportunity to banish the ghosts of the past. Of course as with most Cinderella-sports films, while the Macs don’t appear to have a prayer, their commitment and teamwork prove that such appearances can be wrong. Even if they play in outdated uniforms with second-hand sneakers, their heart is in the right place and the “W’s” appear in the box-score.

Gugino and Shelton have excellent chemistry as the two women pushed together to change the Mighty Macs. They are the heart of the film and they win us over. The players are largely unknowns and that plays to the concept of teamwork over ego. Their acting is adequate alone but remarkably acceptable together. And this turns an ordinary sports film into an uplifting charmer, one that runs over with sentiment and energy. I must admit I shed a few tears along the way.

My favorite scene occurs in a bar where Coach Rush and Sister Sunday stop for a beer on the way home from a game. Letting her habit fall and her hair down, Sister Sunday recounts the story of her unconventional journey to the convent. They are from different faith backgrounds but both believe in the Lord Jesus. And my favorite line comes when Sister Sunday says, “Jesus likes to dance”. That was her reason for becoming a nun.

What does this mean? I think it refers to the fact that Jesus is not a humorless rule-keeping, fun-avoiding fuddy-duddy. He wants to live life to the fullest just as he wants this for us, too (Jn. 10:10). Sister Sunday points to the wedding at Cana in Galilee (Jn. 2) where Jesus turned water into wine when the wine ran out. He was deeply involved in this celebration of life. He enjoyed the victories, he laughed with his friends. But he was also committed to his mission and vision and poured himself into that (Matt. 16:21). We can, no we must, see Jesus as the Savior who leads, who loves, who dances and who dreams. And we must dare to believe!

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Hanna -- coldness of life apart from family

Director: Joe Wright, 2011. (R)

“I just missed your heart.” The main character Hanna (Saoirse Ronan, Atonement) utters this line to open and close the film. And it aptly sums up the movie: it has no heart. Moreover, the characters seem heartless, cold and detached. None display enough emotion to warrant the viewer caring about what happens to any of them.

We meet Hanna in the wilds of Finland, where she and her father Erik (Eric Bana, Star Trek) live an isolated life, existing on the barest essentials. No electricity, running water or central heating, they hunt their food and chop their wood. He teaches her multiple languages, and facts from the encyclopedia while putting her through rigorous physical training. She is being groomed as an assassin. Erik comes at her by day and by night to attack her with knife or bow, fists or feet, to ensure that she can defend herself against attack. Not what you’d call the normal upbringing for an American teenager.

Hanna has come of age, though. She is ready to face the big bad world. When she challenges Erik about this, he puts a radio transmitter on the table and tells her she can push the button that will send a signal out to the world. More specifically, it will alert Melissa (Cate Blanchett, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), a high ranking CIA operative who wants both Erik and Hanna dead. Of course, Hanna presses the button, that sets of a three-way chase that is the body of the film.

Erik departs alone to Germany, telling Hanna to follow him later. Melissa sends a military team to capture Hanna. But when she eventually escapes her captors, Melissa sends Isaacs (Tom Hollander), a dirty ops man and his two team members to follow Hanna, and track Erik.

Director Joe Wright has done period pieces before, helming Atonement in 2007, so clearly knows how to create stylish films. But even that Oscar-nominated film was cold, with characters who seemed unrelatable. In Atonement, the best character was played by Saoirse Ronan, the main character here. But Wright seems a little lost with an action thriller. He gets the pacing wrong, fills the screen with people with no personalities and flubs the story. The plot, what there is of it, remains a cipher, unresolved at the conclusion. In a word, it seems pointless.

Melissa is a cold and callous killer. Hanna is a young and robotic killer. Erik is a cynical killer. Isaacs and team are sadistic killers. You get the picture.

Along the way, Hanna meets a liberal English family travelling across North Africa and Europe. Their teen-aged daughter Sophie (Jessica Barden) wants to befriend Hanna but does not realize how unaccustomed to relationships Hanna is. As she spends time with Sophie and her family, she shares some moments of tenderness, and the film offers some moments of levity. But even these seemed forced and somewhat extreme.

Early in the film, as they face their isolation, Erik tells Hanna they have everything they need. She denies this, telling him she craves something more. She never says what it is, but the contrast of Erik and Hana with the RV-traveling family underscores her real need: tenderness and love.

A family that focuses on utilitarian pragmatism, teaching survival skills and language lessons but ignores love and friendship, is no family, just a shell. The apostle Paul spoke of love in 1 Cor. 13: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (verse 1). He went on, “Love never fails” (v.8), and then concludes this love chapter with these words (v.13): “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” We may need to learn to hunt and fight and that will keep us alive. But life without love is empty and meaningless. That is Hanna’s life. That is Hanna!

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Made in Dagenham -- leadership and equality

Director: Nigel Cole, 2010. (R)

Many people will ask two questions of this movie up front: where is Dagenham? And what is made in Dagenham? Well, Dagenham is a suburb of London, and in the 1960s Ford cars were made in Dagenham. Indeed, Ford Motor Company was one of the largest private employers in the United Kingdom and carried some clout with the Prime Minister, Mr. Harold Wilson, and his cabinet. More than this, though, they employed thousands of men but only 187 women.

Made in Dagenham presents the true story of these women, focused on Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins, Happy Go Lucky), a normal working-class mother and wife, who took on this giant and won. It is a David vs Goliath story that has tremendous heart, and much of this goes to the stellar casting. Hawkins delights as Rita, giving her a lightness of spirit that charms and endears, even as she fights valiantly for what she believes in. Bob Hoskins provides excellent support as the union rep Albert Passingham who sees the potential in Rita when no one else does, including her husband Eddie (Daniel Mays).

Rita and her fellow female workers sew car seat upholstery as machinists. They slave away in sweatshop conditions, literally, having to strip down to bra and panties in the heat, and having to put up umbrellas to catch the drips when it rains.

Since these women have been reclassified as unskilled, rather than semi-skilled, workers they decide to stand up to management. Albert takes shop steward Connie (Geraldine James) and Rita as his team to present their claims to the snotty managers. When the “old-boys school” manner takes over and management offers empty promises, Rita interrupts the chief union rep, speaking her mind. And she tells the managers the truth, setting the stage for a strike by the women, something no one believed would happen.

With this, Albert realizes Rita is a natural leader. Taking her aside, he tells her why he, alone, of all the men supports the women. He shares a heart-felt story of his youth. And she picks up the baton, becoming the leader he envisions, even though it undermines her marriage and family.

Rita offers a wonderful picture of leadership. Not looking for such a position, it found her and she rose to the occasion. People often claim that leaders are born not made, but leaders can learn and be groomed. Leadership is a talent that can be developed. In Rita’s case, she becomes visibly stronger as her opportunities to speak increase. Her leadership flows from her passion, commitment and integrity. She is reminiscent of David, the second King of the Israelites in the Old Testament. He, too, fought a giant, and he, too, was not seen as a leader initially. When God sent Samuel to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as king, Jesse thought of his older and bigger sons. Even Samuel looked at the outward appearance (1 Sam. 16:6ff). But God had chosen David, and groomed him. Indeed, he had “sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people” (1 Sam. 13:14). We all possess some talent in leadership, and may find the opportunity to demonstrate it, especially if we stand prepared.

The main issue involved lends weight to the plot. When Rita learns that even if they are regraded as semi-skilled, the women will earn an appalling fraction of the men’s wages, the stakes are raised. No longer is it a matter of pay grade; now it is a matter of pay equality. Rita lifts the banner high for women everywhere, and her peers follow her. Leadership in action!

Three scenes stand out, all highly emotional. In the first, Rita toils despondently at home, her family now opposed to her strike, when an acquaintance Lisa (Rosamund Pike, An Education) comes to her flat. Lisa, whose husband is one of the managers opposing Rita, tells her: “I’m Lisa Burnett. I’m 31 years old and I have a first class honors degree from one of the finest universities in the world [Cambridge], and my husband treats me like I’m a fool.” At her middle-class home, she is merely a trophy wife, yet she sees the value of what Rita is doing. She understands she is making history. What an encouragement from an unlikely source. Even the best leaders will face the darkness of the soul and can use encouragement.

Then there is a scene late in the film between Rita and Eddie. Rita has just delivered the speech of her life, despite the fact that hours before she argued with Eddie about her involvement. He had berated and belittled her. Now, he comes to her and emotionally apologizes, offering his belated but whole-hearted support.

The third scene involves Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), Harold Wilson’s Secretary of State. She rises from her desk and tells her two dunderheaded assistants: “I am what is known as a fiery redhead. Now, I hate to make this a matter of appearance and go all womanly on you, but there you have it. And me standing up like this is in fact just that redheaded fieriness leaping to the fore. Credence? I will give credence to their cause. My God! Their cause already has credence. It is equal pay. Equal pay is common justice.” The top female politician understands and supports Rita’s cause.

The thrust of the ethics involved focuses on equality and dignity of women. In the eyes of God, man and woman stand equal in personhood and being. Both are formed in his image (Gen. 1:26). Both deserve equal pay for equal work. Rita’s leadership forged the way for a bill in English Parliament that enabled this. Yet, still today in many countries women are treated as second-class citizens, earning less than male workers. Even in the United States, Census Bureau data shows that in 2008 women earned in general 77% of what men earned. Four decades after Rita O’Grady, American women are still not getting equal pay! The Paycheck Fairness Act approved by the House of Representatives in 2009, which would expand the scope of equal pay, failed to pass Senate and continues to be debated in Congress even today. Sadly, such injustice and inequality is still the state of the union.

Made in Dagenham offers dual benefits: excellent entertainment and ethical enlightenment. Not many films can stake that claim. And when most things carry the tag, “Made in China”, it is a blessing to remember a time when products were “Made in England”!

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"The Ides of March" -- this Saturday 10/15/11, 4:45 at CTC!

I have firmed up the time of the first movie group meeting this Saturday:

  • What: The Ides of March (rated R)
  • Where: Century Theater, Clackamas Town Center
  • Showtime: 4:45 pm
  • Meet: at the theater lobby at 4:25pm
  • Who: movie-lovers from Mosaic Church and friends
  • Discussion: Clackamas Town Center Food Court
Directde by George Clooney, and starring him and Ryan Gosling, this looks to be a terrific political thriller. Check out the trailer: 

We'd love to see you there. If you are running late, don't worry. Come find a seat and find us in the lobby after the show: look for the "Mosaic Faith and Film Connect Group" sign. We'll pick up discussion in the food court after we have bought some refreshments.

See you Saturday!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Manon of the Spring (Manon des sources) -- revenge or resolving injustice?

Director: Claude Berri, 1986. (PG-13) 

Ten years on from Jean de Florette, all has changed. The Soubeyrans, Cesar (Yves Montand) and nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil), now own the Florette land in Provence, France. They have used the spring of water on that land to irrigate the carnation farm and they are thriving. Life is good to them. Manon (Emmanuelle Beart, 8 Women), on the other hand, remains in the Provence countryside living the lonely life of a goat-herder, apart from her mother, who has returned to her former life as an opera singer.

In the first film Cesar focused on the land, and acquired it through deceptive means at the cost of Florette’s family. Here, though, his focus is on family, not land. As an elderly bachelor, he wants Ugolin to find a woman to marry to continue the Soubeyran name. Of course, when he by chance stumbles on Manon, bathing in a spring, he falls in love and decides this is the woman for him. Meanwhile, Manon has eyes for the new young school-teacher Bernard (Hippolyte Girardot).

An early scene sets the tone for the characters in this love triangle, and it is centered on gift-giving. Ugolin has secretly given Manon a snared rabbit. Bernard wants to give her his pocket knife, but she does not want to accept. Finally, she accepts the knife as long as Bernard takes the rabbit. She is unknowingly rejecting Ugolin and his secret and somewhat deceptive advances.

Like Jean de Florette, Manon of the Spring moves at a majestic pace with a cinematic beauty. This time, though, the story begins with the understanding of the injustice done to Manon and her family. The film stands alone, but when seen as the conclusion of the earlier film, it truly carries the weight of an epic, spanning four generations of a family.

Two accidental discoveries disrupt Manon’s life and put her on a path that intersects Cesar and Ugolin. First, in saving a goat that has fallen down into a cave, Manon finds the source of the spring water: here is the water of life for the Soubeyrans and indeed the whole village. Second, she overhears two villagers discussing how Cesar cheated Jean de Florette out of his land. With these two secrets available to her, Manon plots revenge, blocking the spring and bringing a drought on the village and the land.

Is Manon’s motive revenge? Revenge focuses on exacting punishment for a wrong done by someone, but carries a negative connotation. It is usually done with a vindictive spirit. Scripture warns, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Certainly, there is an aspect of revenge here. But in the broader context of the two films, there is a sense of justice prevailing. Injustice occurred in the first film. But injustice is always wrong, being a misuse of power to take from someone what God has given. God hates injustice: “for with the LORD our God there is no injustice” (2 Chron. 19:7). And since the whole village had some knowledge of the existence of Florette’s spring, they are guilty of Cesar’s injustice to some degree, accomplices after the fact. Manon seeks justice on all who have been implicated.

As Manon’s scheme progresses and the story unfolds with inexorable justice, the Soubeyrans come face to face with tragedy themselves. Furthermore, when the film comes to its climax, Cesar learns a secret that radically shifts his perspective. Just as the first film ended with a shocking ending that left the viewer hanging, Manon of the Spring ends with a surprise that brings real satisfaction. Indeed, this secret illustrates poignantly the biblical truth that God brings “the punishment for the parents’ sins into the laps of their children after them” (Jer. 32:18). The sins of the Soubeyrans’ ancestors have been visited on the children.

The reference to Jeremiah omitted the first part of the verse about God, namely that “You show love to thousands”. And he does. God is a God of love and justice. In Manon of the Spring, injustice is righted and no doubt God is pleased. Justice always results in acts of compassion by God (2 Cor. 1:3) and judgment from God (Jer. 5:26-29). Here, the conclusion shows both, through one event that ironically brings regret to Cesar and rapture to Manon.

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Jean de Florette -- unseen enemies, unseen solutions

Director: Claude Berri, 1986 (NR) 

A pastoral scene emerges at the start of Jean de Florette, a slow but beautiful French film. The rustic beauty of a sleepy French village in 1920s Provence appears tranquil, almost idyllic. But this belies the truth: the greed inherent in man can destroy life, turning a prosperous farm into a dry and dusty ruin.

This is the story of two families, the Soubeyrans and the Florettes. They are the old and the new, the cynical and the modern. Cesar Soubeyran (Yves Montand) is the old bachelor running his vineyard, living alone, a sad life. When his nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) returns from military service, Ugolin has a dream of developing a carnation farm. But this dream is stillborn since they have no water on their land. They need a well or a spring; this is what their neighbor has. But he won’t share with them or sell his land to them. And, despite his age, Cesar is not afraid to get his hands dirtied with blood.

When the hunchback Jean de Florette (Gerard Depardieu) and his family, wife Aimee Cadoret (Elisabeth Depardieu, Gerard’s former wife) and daughter Manon Cadoret (Ernestine Mazurowna), move into the farm they inherit next to Soubeyran, they have a dream of raising rabbits. Jean has a modern plan, relying on statistics and methods. And he has money to carry him through the initial set-up years. But, like Cesar, he needs water. Unbeknownst to him, the two Soubeyrans have blocked his spring and are waiting for a drought to force him to sell.

There is a biblical parallel that springs to mind: the story of Ahab’s desire for Naboth’s vineyard, told in 1 Kings 21. The king wanted Naboth’s land but would not take it, so his evil wife Jezebel hired two scoundrels to make slanderous accusations against Naboth that led directly to his execution. When he had been stoned to death, Ahab took the land for himself. Desire births greed which in turn births wicked schemes that ignore the pain that they bring to others.

What underscores the tragic consequences of Cesar’s greed is the behavior of Ugolin. Sent by his uncle to befriend Jean and his family, he gets close to them appearing to be a good neighbor who is at hand to help. In reality he is a spy for his uncle, doing all he can to undermine Jean’s plans.

Jean has two enemies in the film: the Soubeyrans. He sees Ugolin as a friend but misses his true nature. Yet he never even meets Cesar, who remains an unseen foe, one hovering at the periphery of the picture watching and waiting, patient for the fall of Florette.

In real life we often fail to see our real enemy: Satan (2 Cor. 11:14). He roams like a ferocious lion seeking to devour and destroy us (1 Pet. 5:8), yet we cannot see him and so often ignore him. This is a mistake. Visible enemies may have some power but this pales in comparison to that of Satan. On our own we cannot stand in his way. Only in the power of Christ, who has already conquered Satan (Col. 2:15), can we expect victory. But to gain such triumph we must first trust Jesus and then we must accept that we are in the midst of a spiritual war; Satan is the commander of those opposing forces.

Director Berri refuses, however, to sink to melodrama or to rise to suspense. He prefers to lay out the film like a slow walk in the meadows. The characters are clearly on display without hiding their motivations. Though Jean cannot see what is going on, we can. And the long expansive shots in the cinematography capture the idea of the vastness and value of the land, even the difficulty of working the land. This gets to the point of the film: the relentless nature of human greed subjugates the value of the human spirit. It is willing to sacrifice people for the goal of gaining the land and its water. Further, the slow deliberate pace underscores the patience of the greedy as they wait slowly for their schemes to come to fruition.

Two scenes stand out. In one, Jean is forcing his mule and himself to make multiple treks across his land to a neighboring well to carry water back. Like his mule, he is a beast of burden. Seeing his “friend” Ugolin, he asks if he can borrow Ugolin’s mule as well, to make his task easier. Ugolin appears sympathetic, but lies to him and gently refuses to help. Ugolin wants to see him wither and waste away, but Jean does not know this. In another scene, the storm that Jean predicts will come arrives in the middle of the night. Seeing lightning strikes and hearing thunderclaps, Jean throws open his windows and runs out into the rainy night . . . only to discover the rain is falling across the valley, not on his fields. He stands there with his family, looking up into the night sky, and shakes his fist at the heavens and rails at the God who has forsaken him.

The tragedy is that the answer to his problems was staring him in the face. He had a spring, he just didn’t know. How often are we like Jean de Florette? Our problem seems insurmountable, yet the solution is right in front of us, we just can’t see it. Too often, though, we cry against God, seeing him as the enemy, thinking he has put us in the difficult situation and then left us. We blame God. It is his fault.

God is not like this. He does not leave us or forsake us (Matt. 28:20). Quite the opposite in fact. He has promised that “he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (1 Cor. 10:13) We need to trust God and see his hand working in and around us. Paraphrasing Elisha’s prayer in 1 Kings 6, we might pray, “Open our spiritual eyes, LORD, so that we may see” and then we will likely discover the answer to our problems.

Jean de Florette evokes life in the pre-industrial world of rural France and bears watching. But if you do, be aware that it is only part 1 and it ends suddenly, leaving the viewer frustrated at the final turn of events. You had better have part 2 of this epic, Manon of the Spring, ready to bring this to a hopefully more satisfying conclusion.

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Four Lions -- suicide-bombers and radical Christianity

Director: Christopher Morris, 2010. (R)   

Four Lions is a funny, often hilarious, black comedy about a most deadly subject: suicide bombers. Given its nature as a parody of Islamic jihadists, it is certain to offend viewers. Of course, radical Muslims are unlikely to watch this, but moderates and followers of other religions with sensitive sensibilities will be affronted. But viewers with a tougher skin or who love spoofs and can follow thick British accents will roar with laughter.

The film focuses on a small group of British terrorist wannabes, living somewhere in the English Midlands. Barry (Nigel Lindsay) is the blond-haired white Islamic convert who thinks he runs the group. But Omar (Riz Ahmed) is the real brains behind this bomb-beholden band of brothers. Along with Waj (Kayvan Novak), Omar’s sheep-like follower, and Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), they meet secretly at one of their homes to plot their attack at the Great Satan of Western Europe. Yet, while the focus is on the ideology of the terrorists, the film really focuses on these four idiots embracing this ideology.

Razor-sharp verbal dialog abounds. For example, Waj excitedly tells Omar, “We’ll blow up something.” When Omar asks, “What we gonna blow up Waj?” he asnwers with complete conviction, “The internet!” Or when Barry’s getaway car almost breaks down due to his lack of maintenance, instead he blames “the parts . . . they’re Jewish. Spark plugs! Jews invented spark plugs to control global traffic.”

The comic set-pieces, too, provide tremendous opportunity for farce and slapstick. When Omar and Waj go to Pakistan to boot camp to become ‘real soldiers’ in the war of terrorism, they cause death and destruction on a grand scale . . . only to their own army. And they get sent back home as failed terrorist graduates. Soldiers they are not! Or there is Faisal’s idea of flying bombs. Instead of hijacking airliners and having them fly into buildings, he is training crows to carry miniature bombs into stores. And rather than target something grandiose like the World Trade Center or perhaps the Houses of Parliament, they are satisfied to bomb Boots, a local pharmacy store.

Yet, Four Lions offers some thoughts on religion and radicalists. The appeal of the jihad and the terrorist cell for some of these lions is camaraderie. They have a common mission and sense of belonging. It underscores the human need for relationship and fitting in. The normal way to meet these needs is through clubs, societies, organizations or churches, where healthy relationships form and foster. When people feel ostracized by society or are indoctrinated to see society as decadent and depraved, they may turn away and seek to destroy this society forming their own “reform group” for this various mission.

What is strange about Omar at least is his very normality, or appearance of such. Married with a child, he would seem to be a successful Muslim in the land he wishes to destroy. He even tells his wife and son that he wants to be a martyr and they are proud of his desire to kill himself and others. From all outward appearances, he would not be a suicide bomber. Yet, like the thriller Arlington Road, Four Lions makes clear that we can be deceived by our neighbors. We could be living next door to a killer or suicide bomber. Those like Barry are much more likely to be picked out by Homeland Security to their outspoken threats.

More than these, though, Four Lions forces us to consider what religious commitment really means. Is a suicide-bomber bent on jihad a better Muslim than a moderate who goes regularly to mosque to pray and worship Allah? Why is killing these “infidels” a sign of religious conviction?

Closer to home, what is true religious commitment in the Christian faith? Is a disciple of Jesus called to be a suicide-bomber? Yes and no. Jesus tells those following him, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). The cross was the Roman implement of death, a painful execution via crucifixion. So Jesus is telling them to put themselves to death, not literally but spiritually. This is a form of suicide, but one that does not kill others. The apostle Paul echoes this idea many times, telling us to “put to death the misdeeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13) or that “we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Cor. 4:11). No, instead disciples of Jesus are to be suicide-lovers, disciples of love. We are to obey the new command he gave us: “Love one another” (Jn. 13:34). And instead of blowing up our enemies, Jesus says “I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).

We might ask, if we want to show our religious devotion to our God how can we do it? This is the question raised by the prophet Micah, centuries before Jesus walked the earth. “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8). There is no justice in suicide bombing or terrorism. Those are unjust and despicable acts. Love, mercy and humility are the true characteristics of a radical follower of the Lord God. These qualities produce life-giving and life-affirming acts rather than bringing death and destruction. Radical Christianity lifts Jesus up, helps those in need, and benefits society positively. Our jihad is against Satan, the true enemy of humanity.

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs