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Film reviews: Outside the City, My Mother (Omé), and Guest of Honour

by
12 June 2020

Stephen Brown reviews a look at Trappists in the UK, and other films

A still from Outside the City

A still from Outside the City

OUTSIDE THE CITY (Cert. PG) is a timely film about social distancing. Trappist monks at Mount St Bernard Abbey, Leicestershire, have practised it for years. The director, Nick Hamer, had privileged access to the monastery, which was established in 1835. The majority of the men are now over 80. The post-war complement of 75 has been reduced to a third of that number. Their Benedictine rule decrees that they live by the work of their hands and regard each day as an opportunity to begin again.

On that basis, beer could be their salvation. Under the Abbot Fr Erik Varden’s guidance, the community decided to install a brewery. It may be the UK’s first Trappist one of its kind, but they’re following the age-old example of their Continental brothers. In the film, making ale is a metaphor. It is a wholly natural expression of the monks’ cenobitic life, which emphasises activities requiring collective co-operation. Through communal hard labour, they strive to transfigure life’s raw ingredients into something that one connoisseur of the religious order’s beverage describes as “divine”.

Several things go wrong with their brewing plans. The community’s sole postulant draws a spiritual parallel. As with life outside, there are setbacks to the Community’s aspirations. “The world is not as it should be,” he says. “In that sense there’s an offering of prayer which needs to be made for that. Strangely, I think there would be more vocations if people knew this.”

A frail older and possibly dying community member tells us early in the film “Now I don’t pray. Prayer is the atmosphere in which I live. The presence of God is something I’m aware of all the time.” In essence, the brethren’s lives defy materialism: no storing up treasures on earth; rather, a letting go. “The less you have,” says one, “the more liberty you have.”

It is little wonder that they rise at three a.m. with all the abbey’s various tasks to fulfil. We are shown acts of worship (including those with a substantial lay congregation), fellowship, and general contact with the outside world. We are told about rather than witness the monks’ times of silence. This may be unfortunate, as the key element that many associate Trappists with is absent on screen. As such, it significantly differs from two previous films — Into Great Silence (Arts, 19 January 2007) and No Greater Love (Arts, 9 April 2010) — both of which show scenes of this aspect of religious life.

Perhaps because of their average age, the interviewees particularly cherish Benedict’s instruction to keep death daily before their eyes. If there is change and decay in all around they see, these men understand it as the progenitor of new and different life. We watch graves regularly being dug. Will it be the brewing that prospers and saves the community? or that fresh (non-monastic) ways are found for expressing the deep truths these Trappists uphold? God only knows.

We must forget ourselves, they remind us, to give ourselves to God. Relying on God’s grace, they say, is the paramount vocation of us all.

Outside the City is released on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and there will be a DVD follow-up.

 

MY MOTHER (Omé), is a Lebanese short about Elias (Jack Aboud El Jannah), a nine-year-old coping with the death of a parent. His father tells him that Jesus must have needed her more than they do. The boy is encouraged to pray. “Does Jesus understand Arabic?” “Yes,” says his father. “And Chinese?” asks the boy.

Jack Aboud El Jannah as Elias in Omé

Satisfied as to the Lord’s omniscience, Elias visits church, asking for mother’s return. Dissatisfied, he abducts Mary’s statue, telling the crucifix: “When you restore my mother, I’ll restore yours.” He befriends the effigy, offering it tea for warmth.

Various disasters are perceived by priest and villagers as God’s punishment. It all gets out of hand. Elias, saddened and bewildered by the turn of events, has struggled at church to learn the Commandments. If he had succeeded, perhaps stealing would be out of the question. But then we wouldn’t have Wassim Geagea’s touching story of what loss can do to us, whatever our age. This film is worth a quarter of an hour of anybody’s time to watch.

In the Huesca International Film Festival (12-20 June), which is online. See www.huesca-filmfestival.com

 

SELF-ACCUSATION, survivor’s guilt, misperceived observations, and a persistent search for truth all come tumbling out in Guest of Honour (Cert. 15), now online from Curzon Home Cinema. These are laid before Father Greg (Luke Wilson) by Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira), the bereaved daughter of her father, Jim (played in flashbacks by David Thewlis).

The director, Atom Egoyan, has been along much of this route before. Adoration (Arts, 5 February 2010) presented viewers with more than one possible version of events, each open to scrutiny. Like soap in the bath, accuracy is a slippery customer. An Egoyan film from 2005 is actually entitled Where the Truth Lies. The lack of a question mark may presuppose that it can be located. That was then. It could it be that the set of Chinese boxes which he now offers is finally an acknowledgement that only God knows.

Veronica is a former high-school music teacher who, having pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting one of her male pupils, serves a full custodial sentence. She tells her father that it’s what she deserves after what she has done — “the truth I have to live with”. Except that she didn’t do anything criminal. Remaining in prison without remission represents a form of penal substitution. Veronica is paying the price for someone else, a sin for which she feels responsible.

Laysla De Oliveira as Veronica in Guest of Honour

More than once, she had been blind to what was really happening. Like many a confessor or counsellor, Father Greg has the task of unravelling whether there is anything to substantiate these feelings of guilt. In any event, that is only one strand of the film’s treatise on humanity’s inability to see through a glass clearly. Mirror imagery — divided, distorted, puzzling reflections — regularly occurs, including a final shot.

Jim may likewise be full of self-delusion even when considering that he has done his utmost to make the best of difficult situations. He is a Toronto health-and-safety restaurant inspector, and the title of the film comes from his thinking that he is the guest of honour at a private function held by its Armenian owners. In a drunken speech, he refers to a prior visit when he believed that the rabbit meat hadn’t been safely processed. “What I saw wasn’t what it was.”

We the viewers, together with the guests, all know that he had correctly seen the truth of the matter. A little bit of flattery, and his judgement is impaired. The rabbit (Veronica’s pet one in particular) is used rather clumsily as a symbol for those who burrow below the surface to a world where the truth lies. Most people seem to prefer that some things hidden will never be made known.

Egoyan remains uneasy about the consequences resulting from what we know only in part about ourselves. Perhaps that is why he uses Father Greg as a deus ex machina who doesn’t need to rely on Veronica’s perceptions. He already has other information throwing light on the subject, literally pulling the rabbit out of the hat. This is a questionable sleight of hand when, up to then, wonderment at the mystery of human existence had been an enthralling piece of magic.

www.curzonhomecinema.com

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