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Listening to the voice of God

16 December 2016

Stephen Brown on current film releases

On a journey: Victor Ezenfis, Natacha Régnier, and Fabrizio Rongione in The Son of Joseph

On a journey: Victor Ezenfis, Natacha Régnier, and Fabrizio Rongione in The Son of Joseph

IT IS a wise child that knows its own father. In The Son of Joseph (Cert. 12A), the teenager Vincent (Victor Ezenfis) rather wishes he didn’t. He lives in Paris with his mother, Marie (Natacha Régnier), a gentle soul who has always refused to tell him. It turns out to be Oscar Pormenor: Mathieu Amalric (Quantum of Solace, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), playing an over-the-top villain with lines such as “Satan, ruler of the world, protect me from ballbreakers.”

The film’s first chapter is titled The Sacrifice of Abraham. Oscar has sacrificed the joy of a father’s relationship with his son. He has indulged material lusts at the cost of his immortal soul. In effect, he worships the Golden Calf — the title given to another chapter.

All this is in keeping with Eugène Green’s other work. In The Portuguese Nun (Arts, 28 January 2011), Sister Irma Joana declares that God has long been under siege from the forces of rationalism. Green’s latest work — for me, film of the year — explores how we in the West have lost touch with our roots, be they religious, moral, or cultural.

A large reproduction of Caravaggio’s The Sacrifice of Abraham adorns Vincent’s bedroom. His plans to kill Oscar in a similar manner to the painting are thwarted by what he perceives as angelic light. Later on, Vincent questions his newfound adult friend Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione, who is best-known for his work with the Dardenne Brothers, co-producers of the film). “Do you think Abraham was right to sacrifice his son? Even if God asked him to?” “The voice he heard was his own,” Joseph replies. And the angel? “That was the voice of God. We must listen to the voice of God. He is in us.”

A visit to the Louvre provides an opportunity to view Philippe de Champagne’s The Dead Christ. “It’s sad,” Vincent says. Joseph disagrees. Jesus dies because he hears the voice of God. We witness a glow of serenity in characters attending to that inner voice, even when things go wrong for them.

Stylistically, Green is a follower of Robert Bresson’s filmmaking. People pause before speaking, looking directly at one another and often straight to camera. As recipients of their gaze, we contemplate the spiritual beauty of each character — not that this movie is heavy-going: there are witty touches throughout. I particularly liked the closing credit that assures us that Gargantua the rat, from the opening scene, has given up filming and now lives at its Côte d’Azur villa.

One could argue that The Son of Joseph is all about locating what is authentic amid the dross of a society that has lost its way or has yet to find it. Though unconditionally loved by his mother, Vincent has thrashed around in search of meaning and happiness. Thankfully, Joseph, a wounded healer, rescues him. The crowning point of a film full of biblical references is that of Marie, dressed in azure-blue clothing, often associated with the BVM, being lifted on a donkey by Joseph as they start finding a way home. We’re being invited to follow.

IT IS no accident, of course, that The Birth of a Nation (Cert. 15) has the same title as D. W. Griffith’s 1915 classic. It’s a film in dialogue with the silent-era one. Instead of stereotyping the African American male as sexually predatory, the new work sees the 1831 uprising of slaves as giving slow birth to a new kind of nation, one of racial equality. Those needing protection this time round are abused female slaves with no recourse to law.

Film scholars have vainly tried to produce a critique of Griffith’s film in a manner similar to Leni Riefenstahl’s paean to Nazism, Triumph of the Will (1938), admiring their undeniable aesthetic qualities and all but ignoring the underlying racist ideology. In each case, one is left with a nasty taste in the mouth. And so one is again with this new Birth of the Nation movie. The disgust arises, however, for rather different reasons.

Nat Turner, child of a black slave in Virginia, is made aware of Christianity by the mistress of the plantation. He is taught to read the Bible. One may wonder which parts of it sank in: certainly not, at this stage, those notions of freedom to be found in Exodus, for example. When he is an adult, landowners capitalise on his biblical knowledge to preach fellow slaves a gospel of subservience. Perhaps he is biding his time, as we have seen his father driven off and his wife raped, before he rebels.

Heavenly visions of being the Chosen One also have something to do with it. How things then develop and end, from a dramatic point of view, is, unfortunately, entirely predictable. The way in which this real-life incident is told is the equivalent of filming by numbers: oppression and cruelty leading to revolt. Nate Parker (who plays Turner) also wrote the screenplay, produced, and directed the film. The lack of other senior personnel in the project may give us a clue to its stodginess. There are no counterbalances offering valuable correctives to Parker’s artistic vision.

In recent years, we have had 12 Years a Slave and the even better Django Unchained to remind us of a shameful past. The one twist in the current film which could have redeemed it — Turner, the Baptist preacher, believes himself to be ordained for some great purpose — gives way to injured male pride as the spur. Slave-owners in these kinds of film readily quote the Bible to justify oppression. Here was a chance to explore an early application of liberation theology, complete with its agenda of economic reforms. Instead, we glimpse Turner’s ethereal destiny to bring about the Kingdom of heaven on earth.

Nominally a Christ-figure, Turner is less than messianic, more an avenger. As a timely protest against institutionalised racism and hatred, it may just about work. Perversely, as the US gives birth to a new era, it could simply confirm current fears of religiously inspired violence without ever questioning why it may be occurring.

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