A NEW film -
White Elephant (Cert. 15) - set in Buenos Aires,
about dedicated Roman Catholic priests (and their bishop)
ministering in the slums, seems prescient. The director, Pablo
Trapero, and the first Argentinian pope have comparable social
Ever since Trapero's
impressive first feature, Crane World, he has homed in on
the disturbing consequences of corruption at all layers of society.
The title refers to a hospital project abandoned by the authorities
in a shanty town not even mentioned on maps. Gangs employing a
regime of violence and drug-dealing rule the roost.
centres on Fr Julián (Ricardo Darín, best known for The Secret
in Their Eyes) and his new Belgian assistant, Fr Nicolás
(Jérémie Renier). Both have problems. The younger priest is
tortured by guilt, being sole survivor of an Amazonian village
massacre. Julián assures him that dying for these people would have
been easier than living for them - something that he himself is
beginning to feel, because of his own health issues.
As he undergoes a brain
scan, we note his preferential access to medical facilities. He and
Nicolás are from affluent backgrounds. As Luciana (Martina Gusman),
the social worker, says, "So you can both afford to be poor." The
film intends this not as a slur but a rallying cry for the
privileged to work among and for the deprived.
Despite tactful handling
of warring factions, the church project forever runs the risk of
being seen as taking sides. Their bishop is sympathetic but
over-cautious, and we suspect that he is withholding resources
necessary for completion of a social-housing project. This positing
of the institutional Church as at odds with those nearer the ground
comes across a little too pat.
Similarly, the contrast
between the long-suffering Julián and the impulsive Nicolás
descends at times into stereotypes. But Trapero does pull off
something very difficult in cinema. He realises on screen Charles
Péguy's aphorism (never quoted): "Everything begins in mysticism
and ends in politics." The clergy here, against all odds,
faithfully ponder the mystery of the cross, daily wrestling with
how to live that out. The film ranks with Of Gods and Men
as a stunning portrait of Christian faith.
I AM not a great
fan of the director Gus Van Sant. Good Will Hunting
(1997), followed by his shot-by-shot remake of Psycho
(1998), did for me. My Own Private Idaho (1991) is
excellent. But I am uneasy about his attempt to make the feel-good,
social-conscience film Promised Land, now on release
To frack (a
controversial technique for extracting gas and oil from shale) or
not to frack: that is the question put to a poor farming community
in McKinley, Pennsylvania. On the one hand, there are Matt Damon
and Frances McDormand from Global Crosspower Solutions, paving the
way for a deal that offers these no-hopers a land flowing with milk
and honey. On the other, there is Hal Holbrook as a retired
academic, Frank Yates, and John Krasinski, as an environmental
campaigner, Dustin Noble, who urges townspeople to vote against
picking up this seductive windfall.
It is clever
inasmuch as big, attractive Hollywood players represent the money
and the power, leaving lesser-known cast members to be the humble
opposition. I leave you to guess the outcome; but, as an assault on
Frank Capra's populist heritage (Meet John Doe, It's A
Wonderful Life, etc.), it fails. Promised Land, when
it works, operates better as a corporate thriller, and its biblical
overtones add fresh dimensions to the genre.
McDormand (assisted by God's-eye camerawork) represent a subverted
Moses and Aaron. The invitation to lead these people out of
economic misery seems reasonable enough. What the ordinary people
need to realise is that they are already living in a land full of
promise, which, but for the manipulations of big business, has
effectively enslaved them. The task, therefore, is to regain
control of their own destinies. This simplistic antidote insults
Butler is nice, not good. Divine displeasure is ultimately
expressed in the form of a Cecil B. DeMille downpour, after which
sentimentality resolves all dramatic issues. A different Moses
descends to the plain, reminding himself and everyone else what the
Lord requires of them.
FOUR years after The
Gospel According to Matthew (1964), the Marxist existentialist
director Pier Paolo Pasolini presented us with a modern-day Christ.
Theorem (Cert. 15) is doing the rounds again, and
has scrubbed up well.
The first of many shots
of volcanic wasteland accompanies a recitation of Exodus 13.18:
"God led the people about through the way of the wilderness." We
are then treated to a sepia-toned montage of a factory owner and
his family mouth- ing conversations that we never hear. When "The
Visitor" (Terence Stamp) - we never learn his name - mysteriously
descends on this Milanese bourgeois household, the film bursts into
colour, and people's voices are heard. Their drab lives are
transformed by this stranger, who disturbs the comfortable and
comforts the disturbed. In turn, the maid, wife, husband, son, and
daughter are attracted to this character and changed by him.
Stamp disappears a third
of the way through the film. Mozart's Requiem plays as we
are left with people mourning their loss. They acknowledge that
they have been changed, but, while their experience of this visitor
leads some to acts of great piety, it leaves others feeling
abandoned. Liberation becomes confused with libertinism, the work
of Tolstoy and Rimbaud being juxtaposed on screen.
Could it be that
Pasolini, who regarded St Paul as holy, but also as responsible for
institutionalising and falsifying Christianity, has constructed a
parable of what went wrong after the Saviour's ascension? While the
film is capable of a theological meaning, this does not exhaust
Pasolini's lines of enquiry; and herein lies its ingenuity.
The film was made against the background of the 1968 student
uprisings across the Western world, which the director castigated
as posh kids' playing at revolution - a description that could fit
the way these family members use their new-found freedoms. Given
Pasolini's struggles with sexuality, others have read the film as
affirming the resurrection of the body. There is certainly plenty
of eroticism: when the International Catholic Film Office bestowed
a special award at the Venice Film Festival, the Vatican withdrew
it. But, whether Theorem is an allegory about faith,
politics, sex, or all three, the opening quotation reminds us that
it is God who first leads us into the wilderness. How we end up
after being there is another matter.