WHOSE side is a hospital chaplain on: his or her employer’s, or that of the patients and hospital staff? This is probably the wrong question, but the film Breathe (Cert. 12A) prompted me to ask it. It is not that the chaplain played by Roger Ashton-Griffiths has a huge role. It’s just he poses the dilemma whether padres are part of the solution or the problem. You will have to decide for yourself. Andy Serkis (Gollum in Lord of the Rings) manages in his feature directorial debut to tug heartstrings, and yet presents both despair and hope as providential.
Breathe, “based on an inspiring true story”, is the tale of Robin Cavendish played by Andrew Garfield, star of Hacksaw Ridge (Arts, 3 February) and Silence (Arts, 6 January), who is paralysed by polio. It is the 1950s, and the medical attitude is largely one of resignation to an incurable disease. In terms of Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer, it is for patients and doctors to accept the things they cannot change.
Permanent hospitalisation is the only solution, advice that Robin’s wife, Diana (Claire Foy, The Crown, Wolf Hall), isn’t prepared to accept. She finds courage to change the things she can, daringly arranging escape from an institution that has made Cavendish suicidal. The film then depicts how the couple overcome disability in various remarkable ways.
There are several films in the same genre, from My Left Foot to The Theory of Everything, where mind, will, and technology enable someone to continue living life in all its fullness. The difference in this film is due to the Roman Catholic writer William Nicholson (Les Misérables, Gladiator). While he tends to brush over the mundane aspects of coping which paraplegics and carers experience, what he excels at is celebrating life itself, instead of mere existence. If prison (or hospital) bars do not a prison make, then neither does a wheelchair, albeit a supercharged one fitting for the previously adventurous, athletic character that Robin was.
In classic style, though, it is the love of a good woman which gives him courage when the world is tough. Foy’s feisty performance more than matches Garfield’s victim-cum-conqueror. At times, I was reminded of the 2011 French film Untouchable, likewise based on a true story, in which an unlikely carer lures his patient into previously unthinkable activities from hang-gliding to internet dating. That film plays it for laughs. This one is more grandstanding. Not only must Robin be saved from medical incarceration and inertia, but so must others. He and Diana become pioneers of hope for other sufferers.
It is all very laudable, but in the process Serkis loosens his grip on what has hitherto been largely an unsentimental appreciation of Robin’s achievements. It is clearly a pro-life film, almost Franciscan in its mood, one in which even assisted dying in the form of Sister Death may have its part, and most characters (with the possible exception of hospital authorities) are instruments of God’s peace.
As one obituary said, “It’s a strange irony, though professing to be an unbeliever himself, [Robin] had the capacity for making other people feel closer to God.” Confronted with despair and darkness, Breathe sows hope and light.
ACCORDING to the closing credits of Libera Nos (Deliver Us) (Cert. 15), exorcism is increasing. Federica Di Giacomo’s film (original title Liberami), released in cinemas and on DVD to coincide with Hallowe’en, is set almost entirely in Sicily. We are shown the ministry of deliverance conducted by Fr Cataldo Migliazzo and his Franciscan Brothers.
Central is the Tuesday Mass of Liberation. People come seeking relief from the torment that they or their relatives are experiencing. Often conventional medical treatments, physical and psychological, have already been tried. Cataldo is clear that the source of their problems is Satan the Destroyer. One schoolboy seems to have some variation of Tourette’s syndrome, scatologically rude to everyone. Cataldo doesn’t immediately perform an exorcism, but berates his parents for falling short in their Christianity. Remedy that and all may be well.
The director’s tongue occasionally wanders into her cheek. She records a woman who appears obsessed with religion. “Next time I hear you talk about Jesus, I’ll hit you with my umbrella,” her companion threatens. Cataldo even exorcises a noisy Satan over the phone, at the end of which they wish one another Happy Christmas.
We witness some very troubled people in scenes reminiscent of the film The Exorcist (1973). Satanic possession occurs, Cataldo says, when Christians stray from their faith. The theology of these priests is dualistic: there is God and there is the devil. It is a perfectly traditional explanation, and the Mass of Liberation employs the baptismal rite’s questions and responses, including those about rejecting the devil and all his works.
Nowhere do these Roman Catholics entertain the alternative, long-held theological position of monism, which takes the view that, if God is sovereign creator, then there cannot be a supernatural malevolent counterpart. Evil does exist as a metaphysical entity, but not in the personalised form of the devil, even if sometimes it feels that way to souls in anguish. Both dualism and monism have their intellectual weaknesses as well as strengths.
Mostly, these Sicilian exorcists are far too busy taking a pragmatic approach to finesse their theology. Methods include the laying-on of hands, throwing flour over victims’ faces, aspersion, prayers, and calling out of the demons. They bring some measure of relief to those suffering. Sometimes this is no more than palliative. As the result of exorcism, Guilia, a young woman, is freed of distressing convulsions, but remains in a state of disquiet, sensing the demonic lurking within her and biding its time to erupt again. She is desperate for deliverance, but declines attending mass. It bores her.
There is a rather telling scene in Rome. Cataldo attends an international training conference on exorcism. He isolates himself from fellow practitioners. He chooses to eat alone, not participating in the exchange of ideas on deliverance among the younger clergy sitting adjacent to him. It is a hint from the director that mainland notions of exorcism may differ from the extremes practised on the island of Sicily. It would have been instructive to learn about more moderate practices, but this could have deterred thrill-seeking Hallowe’en audiences from bothering with Libera Nos (Deliver Us).
KEN LOACH, film director, is reminiscent of those eighth-century Old Testament prophets, particularly Amos. From Cathy Come Home (1966) to I, Daniel Blake, he has championed the exploited. There is judgement (akin, for example, to Amos 5.11) of those who “trample upon the poor”, and yet there is also, in keeping with chapter 9, the hope of justice. These themes are cogently presented in a new three-disc Blu-ray and DVD box set* of early-1990s films: Riff-Raff, Raining Stones, and Ladybird Ladybird (overall Cert. 18). The issues examined are just as relevant today.
In Riff-Raff (Cert. 15), a Glaswegian jailbird, Stevie (Robert Carlyle), heads south to find work, but discovers and exposes corruption. Ladybird Ladybird (Cert. 18) chronicles a woman’s fight to hold on to her children in the face of bureaucratic high-handedness. Despite these characters’ daily turmoil we’re consistently given a positive view of human potential, with which I doubt readers could argue.
On one occasion when I met Loach, he was describing Ruchill, a run-down Glasgow estate where he had been filming. “The only thing beautiful about it are the people,” he said. A patron of the British Humanist Association, one who knows his Bible, he regularly works with others from Christian backgrounds.
Jim Allen, screenwriter of Raining Stones (Cert. 15), was brought up as a Roman Catholic. In this story set around Middleton, Manchester, Bruce Jones (Les Batttersby in Coronation Street) plays poverty-stricken Bob, struggling to find work to provide for his family. He especially wishes to afford a brand-new first-communion dress and all the accessories for Coleen, his daughter, believing it to be his Christian duty to clothe her in the finest money can buy.
Fr Barry (Tom Hickey) tries to persuade him to accept a second-hand outfit, but Bob’s faith is inextricably bound up with the trappings of religion, not necessarily its substance. His inarticulate attempts to explain what communion is to Coleen bear witness to that. One suspects in this scene that we’re not hearing Bob’s voice but that of Allen, now a sceptic.
The same goes for his father-in-law, Jimmy (Mike Fallon), a kindly man, but with no truck for Christianity. He says that the Church is part of the problem. Bob, though, is resolute. “You have your beliefs. I’ve got mine.” “No, what you’ve got is fear.”
Shades of Amos again: Jimmy tells Bob that individual guilt is destroying him when it’s an unjust system that they need to change. Rather than pennies from heaven pouring down on Bob, “God [sic] knows,” Jimmy says,” it rains stones seven days a week.”
This view of the Church’s colluding with the powerful sounds much brasher than Loach’s nuanced position. He expressed his admiration to me of priests beavering away daily at fighting injustices. Several Loach films feature clergy, or they are thanked in the credits. As we come to see, it is Holy Church that most clearly demonstrates that bias to the poor which Amos proclaimed.
Special features include interviews and a 2006 documentary.
*Three Films by Ken Loach, Blu-ray or DVD box set, available from the BFI Shop. Phone 020 7815 1350. shop.bfi.org.uk