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Hope for sinners on the silver screen

04 March 2016

Stephen Brown on the view from above


IN HIS seminal book of interviews, François Truffaut asked Alfred Hitchcock whether he accepted the description of himself as a Catholic artist. The director offers an evasive reply. We know, however, from sound recordings of these discussions that Hitchcock demanded that they stop the tape, presumably playing for time.

As the new documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut (Cert. 12A), demonstrates, it is left to other filmmakers to answer the question for him. Martin Scorsese describes that scene in The Birds when the petrol station goes up in flames as apocalyptic, “a cleansing of the earth”. The French director Olivier Assayas considers the aerial view of the explosion “transcendent”, with images that capture the invisible: “a spirituality of occasion”.

They are not, of course, the first to discern a Catholic sensibility in the Master of Suspense’s output. As well as Truffaut and his mentor André Bazin at Cahiers du Cinéma magazine, writers such as Chabrol, Rohmer, and Godard were saying all this back in the 1950s, long before they became New Wave directors.

Scorsese, a former seminarian, even suggests that the overhead camera angle used in so many Hitchcock films is about taking a divine, omniscient view of life, relocating human perspectives in the light of eternity. All the films, he says, have a religious element.

This opinion is supported by Arnaud Desplechin, whose own pictures, such as A Christmas Tale, speak of the almost religious sense of passion found in Hitchcock’s movies. Most protagonists are divided characters, refusing to reveal a secret self until overcome by a powerful declaration of Love.

In Marnie, for instance, the husband’s (occasionally inappropriate) persistence eventually unlocks the fear inside his wife. Vertigo describes a fetishistic, obsessive passion that involves suffering, death, and resurrection of sorts. It feels significant that the grand finale is played out in a church.

The documentary points us towards a couple of films where Hitchcock’s faith is made clear. In I Confess, a penitent seeks absolution for a murder he has committed. Father Michael (Montgomery Clift), bound by the seal of the confessional, becomes an accessory after the fact. He is in danger of paying the price of someone else’s sin when circumstantial evidence points to his own guilt.

To clinch the argument, Hitchcock/Truffaut draws on The Wrong Man, based on a true incident. The Henry Fonda character is charged with a hold-up. Truffaut tells Hitchcock that it would be impossible for a non-Catholic to film it in the way that he does. It is the stuff of nightmares that we are found guilty of something we didn’t do — a plot Hitchcock frequently uses, as in, for example, The 39 Steps, Saboteur, and North by Northwest. Innocent people undergo Christ-like agony before ultimately being redeemed.

Truffaut’s concluded that there was a powerful scent of Original Sin in all Hitchcock’s movies. This new documentary goes further and suggests that, while everyone may fall (often from a great height in the films), grace abounds, often manifested in the strangest of ways.


DAVID LEON’s remarkable film Orthodox (Cert. 18) closes with “Maybe, just maybe, I’ve come home,” sung on the soundtrack, and going on to express the hope that God will take him as the boy he was, not the man he has become.

We have seen Benjamin Levy, an Orthodox Jew, go through a great deal of heartache from childhood onwards, and it has taken its toll on his morals. Orthodox asks to what extent people of faith should merge with the dominant culture in which they find themselves.

It ought, perhaps, to be a dilemma for all beliefs. Benjamin is bullied at school for looking different. In self-defence, he takes up boxing, which immediately alienates him from the tradition in which he has been brought up. Almost disowned by his father, he is befriended by the gym owner Reg Shannon (Michael Smiley).

Shannon is a crook who, under the guise of father-figure, grooms Levy to do things that make him feel accepted by others. The trouble is that these are criminal acts. The adult Levy is played by Stephen Graham, more brooding than we saw him, for instance, in This is England. He is as good as ever on vulnerability, but we could have done with more of the rage that he displayed then. For a time, it seems as if the love of a good Gentile woman, Alice (Rebecca Callard), and their two young sons will win out over his damaging past; but worse is to come.

There is a recurring image of pent-up greyhounds waiting for the traps to fly open and the race to start. It is an apt metaphor in regard to ourselves. When, in all its fullness, does life begin, and do we appreciate opportunities enough as they occur? Yes and no. Alice and the boys have been a gratefully acknowledged blessing. He has been invited to the ball, and, as if to demonstrate this, one of the film’s tenderest moments comes when husband and wife dance together in the kitchen.

On the other hand, Goldberg (Christopher Fairbank), a powerful businessman in the Jewish community, with blood on his hands, reminds Levy that, like Job, he has been dealt some bad cards, but he has also made bad choices. Levy can see it for himself in Daniel (Giacomo Mancini), a young Jew drifting in much the same way into Shannon’s clutches. It spurs Levy into rescue and self-renewal.

The film offers the results of upbringings both religious and secular, producing flawed but normal human beings, Jewish or otherwise. It is not so much that faith doesn’t make any difference to people’s behaviour as a strong sense of people failing to do the good they wish to. The faith-values of those who went before us keep tugging at our sleeve, even if our nurturing wasn’t all that it could have been.

Ultimately, Orthodox beckons its characters towards an understanding of Fatherhood which transcends our earthly existence — that even when we are still far off, there’s One who yearns to greet and bring us home, who re-members (the hyphen’s deliberate) the child we were, no matter how tarnished we may have become.


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