Saturday, April 28, 2012

OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d'espions (Cairo, Nest of Spies) -- naivety, political incorrectness and alcohol

Director: Michel Hazanavicius, 2006. (NR) 

Before James Bond there was Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, alias OSS 117. The star of a large series of French books by Jean Bruce in the 1950s, he was transformed into a spy movie star in the late 50s and early 60s, long before Sean Connery took on the 007 role for Hollywood. Some 40 years later, Michel Hazanavicius has resurrected the hero in a hugely funny film that spoofs the 50s films without quite parodying them.

Hazanavicius, who won the best director Oscar this year for last year’s silent black and white film The Artist, combined with his Oscar-winner from that movie and his wife. Jean Dujardin plays OSS 117 with a French mustache and manly build. Indeed, he looks just a little like the early Sean Connery Bond. Opposite him as Larmina, an Egyptian coworker and operative, is Berenice Bejo, the director’s wife who also was in The Artist.

When Hubert’s friend Jack (Philippe Lefebvre), who is a French spy, disappears in Cairo, Hubert is sent there to investigate. As background cover, he takes over a chicken firm run by Jack and is aided by Larmina. Set in 1955, it is the height of the cold war, France is in its fourth republic with a dying colonial empire, and political correctness is unheard of.

Cairo is a nest of spies, with people following people following other people. There is a beautiful femme fatale (Aure Atika) who wants to both seduce and assassinate OSS 117. Paranoia runs rampant. But OSS 117 is unaware of much of what is going on. A naive idiot.

Much of the fun of the film is in the comedic timing. Dujardin displays a wonderful sense of timing, and has marvelous control of his facial and bodily expressions. He can convey whole sentences with a raising of an eyebrow or a guffaw. It is clear that all the actors are enjoying themselves thoroughly. Hazanavicius has captured the atmosphere of the period and pays homage to several film classics, such as Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.

There is little in the way of plot. Various characters and groups show up, including a terrorist Muslim organization, a secret group of Nazis and some Russians. But the plot is superfluous really. The fun is in the journey. With hotel fights, chicken fights, cat fights, and silly alley chases, the action keeps the film moving. But it is OSS 117’s flawed misogynistic character that is the heart of the film. In the middle of a foreign city he displays cutting condescension to the “foreigners” (i.e. non-French people) there, without even realizing what he is doing.

One of the funniest sequences shows flashbacks of him playing on the beach with Jack in headier days. Throwing his head back, mouth wide open and laughing deep belly laughs, he looks like a young Errol Flynn. But his cavorting in the surf with Jack hints at homosexuality in an era when this was frowned upon in the movies. Yet Hubert is homophobic and heterosexual.

His political incorrectness and superiority is most clear in his ignorance of Islam, though he is in an Islamic country. Awakened by the call to prayer, he cries out for the muezzin to be silent and takes matters into his own hands. Then when Larmina refuses a drink, he exclaims, “What stupid religion would forbid alcohol?” And he means it, coming from an atheist.

This insensitivity towards a host country’s religion is shocking today, but less so in the 1950s. Yet, it highlights how important it is to understand culture to refrain from offending. OSS 117 tramples all over such trifles. But as Christians, we are called to “become all things to all people so that by all possible means we [I] might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). That means finding common points of contact, like Paul did with the Greeks in Athens (Acts 17) rather than alienate them by stepping on their traditions or religion.

Yet it also raises a question about religion. Is a religion that forbids alcohol stupid? Well, alcohol is known to add fuel to the fire of violence when taken to excess. It can lead to addiction and is a cause of accident and death when people drive drunk. But a religion that forbids alcohol is by definition a religion based on morality and rules, and not on grace and love.

Does Christianity forbid alcohol? Many Christian denominations frown upon the partaking of alcohol. I was in a church where members were looked down upon if they imbibed. But Jesus speaks clearly about wine, even turning water into wine at the joyous celebration of the wedding in Cana (Jn. 2). Some argue that this is grape juice, but that is a misreading of the text. The context calls out for this to be alcoholic wine. The apostle Paul even instructed his mentee Timothy to “use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Tim. 5:23). This, too, is alcoholic.

Yet, the Bible also vigorously warns against the excesses of alcohol: “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Prov. 20:1). And, “Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat” (Prov. 23:20). Proverbs 23:29-35 paints the picture of a drunken man reeling from the night’s revelry. Paul in the New Testament commands, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). It is a matter of balance, of avoiding excess. Restraint, not restriction, is the right call in Christianity, which itself is a relationship of love with Jesus not a religion.

So, laugh at OSS 117 and let him have his incorrectness. But learn from him and be sensitive to those you are trying to love, trying to touch. His naivety creates his character. Similar naivety today discredits our character.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

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