Sunday, April 28, 2013

Life of Pi -- faith and story, sin and surrender

Director: Ang Lee, 2012 (PG)

Many had said that French-Canadaian author Yann Martel’s best-selling novel, “Life of Pi,” was unfilmable. It appeared that way until Ang Lee turned it into a spectacular movie last year. But the visual splendor isn’t quite supported by thematic integrity. The themes of faith and testing, of sin and surrender, and ultimately of story resound but ultimately in discordant fashion.

The movie opens with an older Pi (Irfan Khan) being visited by an unnamed Writer (Rafe Spall). This man wants to hear Pi’s story, a story he hopes will lead him to belief in God. And quite a story it is, although whether he comes to faith is unclear. Cutting between flashbacks of the younger Pi (Suraf Sharma) and his current self, Pi narrates a story for the ages.

The first act is set in Pondicherry in French-occupied India. His father owns a zoo, and Pi learns first-hand about the wildness and danger of the animals, especially a Bengal tiger strangely named Richard Parker. But when they fall on hard times, his father determines to take his family on a freighter across the Pacific to Canada where he will sell them and make a fresh start.

At the end of the first act the freighter is struck by a freak storm, and the ship goes under. Before it sinks, Pi is thrown into a lifeboat where he eventually finds four animals as co-castaways: Richard Parker, an orangutan, a zebra and a hyena. Fighting for survival among the high seas, soon only Pi and Parker are left alive. Both wary of the other, they form an uneasy coexistence for the 227 days that they are adrift.

Coexistence, particularly of faith, is an initial theme. In India as a boy, Pi is raised a Hindu, the religion of his family. But through a dare by his brother, he steals into a Catholic church to drink the holy water and finds himself listening to the priest. In so doing, he becomes a Christian. But his prayer to his Hindu God illustrates his syncretism: “Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ.” A little later he comes across a mosque and adopts Islam as another religion, so these three coexist in his belief system. Indeed, he declares, “Faith is a house with many rooms.”

Director Lee, in an interview with the late Roger Ebert, commented: “I believe the thing we call faith or God is our emotional attachment to the unknown. I’m Chinese; I believe in the Taoist Buddha. We don’t talk about a deity, which is very much like this book; we’re not talking about religion but God in the abstract sense, something to overpower you.” So, in his view this faith on display is an abstract faith, in an abstract God, not one specific and concrete, even personal.

But this idea of multiple faiths coexisting, or of all faith-roads leading to the same God, is clearly wrong. Anyone who has explored the tenets of these religions understands that they have contradictory positions. They cannot be held together in tension.  In fact, Jesus in his last meal before his crucifixion, told his disciples, ““I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). This claim is quite exclusive. Jesus did not say he is one way amongst many. He did not say people may come to God through Vishnu or Buddha. No, he said he was the only and unique way to come to God. True biblical faith cannot be compromised by syncretistic worship or belief in other gods or ways. Lee is wrong. In fact, Pi’s father, in an early scene, states a truth that is supposed to be negated by the later narrative, but that actually underscores our biblical understanding: “Believing in everything is the same as believing in nothing.”

Despite his faulty theology here, Lee’s film offers other aspect or illustrations of faith, even for the Christian faith. The adult Pi, reflecting back on his adventurous journey, comments on faith: “After all, you cannot know the strength of your faith until it is tested.” And tested it was, throughout the many months he was afloat with just the tiger as his wild companion.

The New Testament writers spoke of faith’s testing. James said, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (Jas. 1:2-3). Paul said that “suffering produces perseverance” (Rom. 5:3), and Pi’s testing, like ours, involved significant suffering. And Peter talked of adding to faith a list of virtues that included perseverance and ended in love (2 Pet. 1:5-7).

The second act is the very heart of the story. Lee uses computer generated imagery to create the tiger as well as other images that form a veritable feast for the eyes. Indeed, the visual splendor is so sumptuous that to some degree it detracts from the very story and its themes. It is a film that bears seeing again, to catch the story elements.

Midway through this act, Pi finds himself and the lifeboat aground on a magical island, a floating island that is populated by meerkats and fresh-water lakes. Enjoying the wonder of this isle, Pi swims and drinks until he is refreshed. But the island is fashioned in the shape of Vishnu or a person. And as darkness descends, the island transforms into a carnivorous creation, seeking to devour its inhabitants.

This island forms a metaphor for sin itself. Sin appears attractive and appealing, winning us by tempting our desires, just as Satan masquerades as an angel of light to deceive us (2 Cor. 11:14). But this masks sin’s very deceitfulness (Heb. 3:13). And with the darkness comes the danger. Sin emerges most clearly when the light is absent. This word picture of light and darkness comes across most clearly in the epistle of John, where he declares, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn. 1:5).

In another scene in this second act, the lifeboat is tossed around by the waves during a lightning storm. Pi stands, arms held high above his head, and cries out to God, presumably Vishnu (as he laters says “Thank you Lord Vishnu” for saving him), “What else do you want from me? I’ve surrendered everything.”

Surrender is another biblical theme that is subsumed into faith. The hymnist coined the phrase, “I surrender all” as an illustration of the biblical concept of giving ourselves wholly over to God. In Christ we give up our old lives to take on his new life, poured out through the Holy Spirit into us. We ourselves cry out, “Thank you Lord Jesus Christ” as he is the one who has actually saved us (2 Tim. 1:9).

In the third act, the rescued Pi finds himself in a hospital bed. When he is visited by insurance agents trying to make sense of the shipwreck, he recounts the story we have seen in act two. When he is finished, they denounce it. So he tells them another story, essentially the same one but devoid of God and animals, a faithless fable.

The prologue and the conclusion present  contrasting views of humanity. Whereas the Writer wanted to hear a story so he might believe in God, the two Insurance Agents wanted to hear a rationalistic story, one without God since they do not believe in him. This relates to how we tell our stories and the story of the gospel. From a Christian perspective, we look at life through the spectacles of faith and we see the hand of God at work in every area of our lives. We recognize the presence of God everywhere (Acts 17:24). But those who refute God, look at life through darkened lenses that obscure the patterns of God. Where they might view him, their brains refuse to accept the evidence of a deity. Instead, they seek after rationalistic interpretations of events. They choose the godless story.

In the closing scene, Pi asks the Writer: “So, which story do you prefer?” The Writer thinks and then answers with a smile, “The one with the tiger. That’s the better story.” And Pi says, “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”

Which story do you prefer in your life?

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Fabulous turn-out and discussion for Mosaic's Spring Screening of Life of Pi

We had a great turnout for the Spring movie group showing of Life of Pi last night, a stunning visual feast. If anything, the beauty of the film distracts just a little from the movie's message, which focuses on faith and story.

A total of fifteen people watched the movie on the temporary big screen. Big thanks to Ward Jenkins for getting the technical details of how to use Scott's equipment and for showing up early to set-up the screen and HD projector. With a Blu-ray disc, this enabled us to enjoy the movie in all its glory. The photo gives an indication of what it was like. It felt as if we were in a private screening at a movie theater, but with free coffee and muffins!

The evening concluded with a short and spontaneous discussion of the film: short, since we started the film at 7pm and the kids present were getting tired by 9:15; and spontaneous because people wanted to immediately discuss the last line of the film and interact with the deep faith metaphors present. I was surprised and intrigued that a teen shared deep insight into the symbolism of sin seen in the floating island. I learned a lot from this discussion, which will feed into my review of the film coming next week.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Life of Pi -- Screening at Mosaic Church on Friday 4/26 at 7pm

This Friday we will be showing Life of Pi, Ang Lee's multiple-Oscar winner adventure based on the best-selling book. The movie carries a PG rating and is generally family friendly (suitable for kids 10 and above). There will be no child care.
  • What: Life of Pi (127 mins)
  • Rating: PG
  • When: Friday 4/26/12, 7:00pm
  • Where: Mosaic Church
We'll show the movie in the sanctuary at 7pm and plan on hanging out in the church for a half-hour or so after the screening to interact about the film. 

Hope to see you on Friday.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Conviction -- sibling bonds and hidden wrongs

Conviction Movie Poster

Director: Tony Goldwyn, 2010 (R)

Conviction tells the true life story of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) and her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell, Moon). His conviction for murder births her conviction of purpose: to dedicate her life to prove his innocence.

Set in working class Ayer, Massachussetts in 1980, the film opens with scenes of a murder. A victim lies dead from brutal stabbed wounds in her mobile home. Police Officer Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo, Frozen River) comes to arrest Kenny who is suspected of the crime. A known hellion and low-life criminal, Kenny laughs it off and is soon released. The evidence is lacking. But two years later the police come back and have witness testimony from former girlfriends and some bloodwork.

The film alternates between scenes in the present and flashbacks to Kenny and Betty Anne’s childhood years. An absent father and a neglectful mother led to the siblings being placed in numerous foster homes, often separated. Kenny took it on himself to be a protector for his sister, even at a young age and at no care for the cost to his own life. This vacillation is a little jarring and wearying, but it serves to provide a break from the view of Betty Anne’s tedious life in the present.

Because of her upbringing, her devotion is to her brother. And despite his waywardness, Betty Anne is convinced of his innocence of the murder. So, when he is convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, she resolves to free him by getting her law degree. This, despite the fact that she has not even graduated high school. Her husband is adamant she will not do this, as they have kids to raise. But her dedication is to Kenny not her husband. Thankfully, the director chooses to skip her studies for her GED and undergraduate and focus on her life during law school. There, she forms her only friendship, with Abra (Minnie Driver), who also adopts the mantle of freeing Kenny (even though she never knew him).

With the story set, Goldwyn gives us brief views of the court case through flashback, though we know the outcome, simply to focus on the areas that will have to be addressed later.

Rockwell brings a nervous unpredictability to his role as Kenny, spending most of his scenes aging poorly in prison. Swank is convincing as a gritty and determined woman with a single purpose. Minnie Driver offers a little comic relief with a few humorous lines. Juliette Lewis and Melissa Leo round out the cast, but they really have little to do given the screenplay which makes the film somewhat dull.

Although the film seems to laud Betty Anne’s commitment to her cause, it underplays the cost to her family. Biblical theology underscores the preeminence of the marriage relationship. Right from the start, we are told: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen .2:24).  The leaving and cleaving are designed to form a new bond, between man and wife, which should not be broken (Matt. 19:6). The husband-wife relationship should take precedence over a sibling relationship. But here, Betty Anne sacrifices her marriage on the altar of her brother’s conviction, and deems it more important to spend decades of her life working to free him than nurturing her kids and loving her husband. Sibling bonds prove stronger than spousal bonds, the latter which are shattered. The resulting divorce with the kids preferring to be with their father is a natural consequence.

“Most people don’t like to admit they are wrong.” A character late in the film voices this line, which not only summarizes why Kenny has spent 20 years in prison but characterizes humanity’s propensity to pride and self-aggrandizement.

How true this statement is. When we are wrong, and know it, and have taken action on it so others know it, too, we desperately want to be right. Sometimes we want this so much that we make it so, we twist the truth to appear right. But “pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18), and eventually our lies will catch us out. When this happens, we crash and strike bottom. Our house of cards collapses. Better to repent of this proud spirit and acknowledge our mistakes. When we admit our wrongs and seek correction, even forgiveness, we humble ourselves. In this way, we will receive blessing: “The Lord sustains the humble but casts the wicked to the ground” (Psa. 147:6).  Better to take our lumps now, while the humble pie is easy to swallow, and cast ourselves on the mercy of our God Later, when the lies have grown the pie will choke us.

Of course, even from the start we expect the ending. It takes a while to get there, and brings with the anticipated emotional payoff. The film does not focus on Kenny is but one example of people who have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. Rather, it focuses on the commitment of his sister and her conviction of his innocence even in the face of apparent evidence to the contrary. Where it might have taken the opportunity to bring a moral message, it plays it safe and steady, plucking on the heartstrings of human emotion for one person.

What is not stated, even during the credits where photos and text show where Betty Anne is today, is the fact that Kenny died just six months after his release from prison in a freak accident. While his conviction was overturned and hers proved successful, his freedom proved short-lived. At least he died a free man.

 Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Point Break (À Bout Portant) -- desperate man, desperate measures

Director: Fred Cavayé, 2010 (R)

A man is running from a pair of gangsters, clutching his side where blood oozes out. As he descends several flights of stairs, he calls a partner to meet him. Running wounded, he manages to evade his pursuers, until he is involved in a motor accident. As implausible as it seems for a man as wounded as he is, this opening chase summarizes the ensuing film: it will be one long action-packed chase with a plot full of holes. But the action is enough and the film short enough (at 84 minutes) to keep us engaged and not thinking about the plot problems in this French thriller.

This man, Sartet (Roschdy Zem) is a killer and ends up in a coma in the hospital under nurse-in-training Samuel’s (Gilles Lellouche, Tell No One) care. Samuel is studying for his nursing exams while his beautiful and very pregnant wife Nadia (Elena Anaya, Talk to Her) is confined to bed rest at home. When Samuel interrupts an attempt to kill Sartet in his hospital bed, Samuel finds himself hailed as a hero, a status that lasts only until his wife is kidnapped.

With Nadia in the hands of unknown men, Samuel has to somehow get Sartet out of the hospital. In doing so, he finds himself chased by the police as a killer and by the unknown criminals. With nowhere to turn, Samuel is a desperate man willing to take desperate measures, including breaking the law, to find and save his wife.

Despite the far-fetched aspects of the film, Point Break is a full-on adrenaline rush from the very start. With long foot chases throughout, the film is one mad dash to the climax. There are some twists along the way, with suspense enough to balance the action. Its success is apparent in the fact that Hollywood has decided to do an English remake.

Not all is what it seems here. The film reminds me of Tell No One, which also had an everyman hero and which Lellouche acted in. Where Tell No One had a man whose wife was dead and who was contacted to pursue a mystery, Point Break has a man whose wife is alive but facing death. He, too, is told to tell no one and his decision to disobey and tell the police causes the police, under Commander Werner (Gérard Lanvin), to seek his arrest as a cop-killer. Both films show a man desperate and without friends, sought by unknown criminals. Both are good thrillers.

The heart of the film is the question, how far will a desperate man go to protect and save his wife. Will such desperation justify criminal activity, violent action, even murder?

When no one is available to turn to, a desperate man will take desperate action. And it is hard to say what we would do in similar circumstances. But King David did offer another solution in one of his psalms: “Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need; rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me” (Psa. 142:6). He cried out to God when he, too, was in a desperate situation. This was during the time when David was on the run from Saul (1 Sam. 22) and God did protect and provide for him, ultimately giving him the crown as King of Israel.  David was no stranger to violence and even broke a number of laws (like Samuel in the film), but his reliance in desperate times was on God.

We can remember David’s prayer when we are frantic with worry and in the midst of desperation. 

 Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Next Mosaic Screening: Life of Pi

Exciting news! Mosaic's Movie Connect Group is alive! 

Our Spring screening will be Ang Lee's multiple-Oscar winner adventure based on the best-selling book. With stunning imagery and a PG rating, this is generally family friendly (suitable for kids 10 and above). There will be no child care.
  • What: Life of Pi (127 mins)
  • Rating: PG
  • When: Friday 4/26/12, 7:00pm
  • Where: Mosaic Church
We'll show the movie in the sanctuary at 7pm and plan on hanging out in the church for a half-hour or so after the screening to interact about the film. 

So, mark your calendars and plan to join the fun in a couple of weeks. Hope to see you then.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Gosford Park -- social structure and perfect servants

Director: Robert Altman, 2001 (R)

Having spent the last two months catching up on seasons 1 and 2 of Downton Abbey so that I could watch the current one in real-time (as much as it is real-time when viewed on OPB in Oregon even while it has been broadcast in the UK), I am missing my DA fix. Even with the car wreck of a season that was season 3, that had its ups and major downs, I still needed some significant “upstairs-downstairs” action. What better movie to turn to than Robert Altman’s Gosford Park.

After coming up with the idea for the film, Robert Altman needed a strong scriptwriter. Bob Balaban, who plays a Hollywood producer in the film, suggested Julian Fellowes and Altman gave him the opportunity. Fellows, an average actor, turned in a sizzling screenplay, one that won him an Oscar and gave him the chance to pen something that was gestational prior to Downton Abbey, his brainchild almost a decade later.

On paper the film is an ensemble murder mystery. But it is so much more than this. It is in part subtle and sarcastic comedy, in other part social commentary. But the screenplay combined with the quality of the acting makes it a cinematic feast, even if it is one that is stewed in a slow-cooker.

It is set in 1932 in a British country manor. The host Sir William McCordie (Michael Gambon) has invited a number of colleagues, friends and family to a weekend pheasant shooting party. All the guests seem to want something from him, mostly money or support. And there is no love lost between most of them, even if they keep their feelings well under control – the so-called British stiff-upper lip.

The first hour of the film introduces us to his guests, and there is a long list of them, including the Hollywood producter and British film star. It is hard to keep track of the characters, but Altman is known for his ensembles and strives to include enough pointers to help the viewers. Each of the guests brings his own “man” or maid, and these socialize and work downstairs alongside Sir William’s own staff led by butler Mr. Jennings (Alan Bates) and the housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Wilson).

The rich cast is a veritable who’s who of British acting, including Kristin Scott Thomas as Lady Sylvia McCordie (wife of Sir William), Clive Owen as one valet, and Emily Watson and Kelly McDonald as two maids. Ryan Phiippe, too, shows up as another valet. But trumping them all is Maggie Smith as Constance Trentham, the sister of the host, who is dependent on her brother for her monthly allowance, an allowance he constantly threatens to terminate. Like her character on Downton Abbey, she is the queen of the sarcastic put-down remark. For example, talking to Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), the actor, on his recent film after another character has fawned all over him, she says: “It must be rather disappointing when something flops like that.” Her barbs are quick and poisonous, but delivered with a soothing smile. And poison is prominently featured in the cinematography as it is ever-present below stairs.

After we have established the situation, Altman throws in a murder mystery for the second act. After a tense dinner where words are thrown like javelins, the host is found dead in his study, apparently stabbed through the heart. Few of the guests grieve; there are too many possible suspects with motive to kill him.

When Inspector Thomson (Stephen Fry) shows up with his constable, they begin an investigation with both social classes. But their investigation itself is a caricature of the social divide. Thomson is a bumbling buffoon, more adept at talking to the rich while his constable works solidly to uncover clues, clues that Thomson seems to care less about. But this murder mystery is less about truly solving the mystery in genre fashion, and more about the situation itself. Altman does end up revealing the murderer from among the many possible suspects, all of whom seem to have some deep dark secret that comes out over the course of the weekend. But the fun is in seeing the characters develop in context.

The main theme of course is the study of the social class system in effect in Britain between the wars. The rich and the poor were divided. There was little middle class at that point, and very few evident here.

Class structure has been present in cultures since the beginning of time. Earlier civilizations embraced slavery as well as the poor and the rich. By the time of the Romans, Jesus said: “The poor you will always have with you” (Matt. 26:11), pointing to the fact that there will always be a class divide while he does not return. Even societies that have strived for equality, such as communism, end up with some segments of the society more equal than others. There always rises a ruling class, even if they are not called by that name. And as a corollary, there is always a ruled class, the poor or working class. How far the divide stretches and how formal it is, determines the effect of the class structure. In the 1930s, it was large and daunting, proving almost impossible to vault. Those in the film who are from a middle class background are put down by those in the upper class.

The other theme that emerges comes from one of the characters late in the film. When someone tells her she has sacrificed her life for her master, she comments: “I’m the perfect servant; I have no life.”

This is a great illustration of biblical truth. Jesus told his followers that they must serve him (Jn. 12:26). The apostle Paul later said we are all slaves to a master: we are either slaves to sin (Rom. 6:17) or slaves to God (Rom. 6:22). If we choose God, which biblically is the preferred choice, we are raised form slavery to servanthood, and later to friendship (Jn. 15;15) and sonship (Jn. 1:12). Yet, as servants we strive to please God as the perfect servant. And in Christ, in a sense, we have no life: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Our new life is a Christ-life. We are like the character in the film, a perfect servant dedicated to serving our heavenly master who we also call Father (Matt. 6:9). Where that person said it in a sad and resigned manner, those of us that choose to follow Jesus can say it in a joyful and aspirational way.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs