For decades, the cinema of critics and arthouse journals has been defined by non-conformity. But as the line between ‘festival films’ and ‘popular films’ becomes porous, if not blurry, has non-conformity acquired new connotations? Can God laugh His way to the Box Office?
There’s a tacit rule that applies when art – on canvas, paper or celluloid – is being judged: the merit of one’s work is directly proportional to the number of people baying for one’s blood. In cinema, the statute is simpler – a secular film is the product of a liberal mind, religious reflection is the domain of the rightist. However, even as cosmopolitan crowds shy away from the question of faith, cinema can remind us that it’s one of the most important dilemmas in our lives. As if to hint that God has a place in the Box Office, in 2011, three films which dealt largely with the idea of religion and its place in society were considered shoo-ins for the Academy Awards, and two are still in the running for nominations.
The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick evokes a sense of being lost in space and time, of searching for a spiritual context to the tangible realities of life. A Separation by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi studies the tension in the religion-law-society equation by precipitating an extraordinary, but plausible, turn of events in the lives of two families in Tehran. Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope) by Italian director Nanni Moretti is something of a pragmatic allegory, questioning the infallibility of God through the fallibility of His representative on earth.
Through their exploration of the dynamic between creed and culture, consciously in the case of Moretti, subtly in the case of Farhadi, and dreamily in the case of Malick, all three directors raised their share of eyebrows and ovations in their respective countries. But when the individual viewer, perhaps looking in from the outside, perhaps embedded in the society the film pertains to, is done marvelling at the narrative of these stories, s/he is struck by the boldness of their themes. More so because, with these films, the directors inhabit uncomfortable places in the collective conscious of their countries.
Asghar Farhadi is a rare thing in an industry that finds itself at the forefront of demand for social change in Iran – a director who has not been penalised by the ultra-conservative regime. Over the last decade or so, some of Iran’s biggest names have been silenced, but they haven’t been quiet about it. Acclaimed directors like Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf (who is himself in exile from Iran) were vocal in their support of Jafar Panahi (director of the poignant-yet-funny Offside), who was arrested for allegedly making an anti-regime film. Supporters of Panahi say the charge was fabricated, and that the arrest was actually for supporting the Green Movement in Iran.
Farhadi got himself into trouble for saying at an award ceremony in 2010 that he would like to see Makhmalbaf and Panahi return to Iranian cinema. He was banned from making A Separation, which he had started work on. Farhadi did what was unthinkable for an Iranian director in that situation – he apologised, and was allowed to resume filming.
In a country where an actress (Marzieh Vafamehr) was sentenced to a year in prison and 90 lashes, ostensibly for filming without the necessary permissions in Tehran, but believed to be for appearing without a headscarf in the film My Tehran for Sale, it’s hard to make bold statements. And Farhadi, like other filmmakers who have managed to stay on and work in Iran, relies on subtext to do this.
In A Separation, the oppressive nature of government control is evident at the start – Simin (Leila Hatami), whose coloured hair, nicely-cut clothes, and fashionably-worn headscarf indicate she’s from the upper middle-class, is petitioning an unseen judge to grant her divorce from her husband Nader (Peyman Maadi), if he refuses to relocate abroad with her. Why does she want to go abroad? Because she doesn’t want their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) growing up “in these circumstances”. Simin looks away when the judge asks her to explain the “circumstances”. She evades the question when he asks, “Are you saying the children growing up in this country don’t have a future?” Nader’s refusal to move abroad seems to have more to do with anxiety for his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who has Alzheimer’s, than love for his homeland.
As Simin moves out of their home, awaiting the outcome of the petition, working-class woman Razieh (Sareh Bayat) is hired to take care of Nader’s ailing father. Razieh is troubled by religious taboos from the start – as nurse, can she touch a man who is not her husband, even if he is an octogenarian who needs her help to walk? Her problems are compounded by a devout, headstrong, temperamental husband Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini), whom she seems terrified of.
When an argument between two characters, spurred on by righteous anger on both sides, turns unintentionally violent, one of them is left facing a charge of murder. And the viewers wonder: What would we have done if the careless act of an instant could ruin the rest of our lives? What if we could only be saved by not just lying ourselves, but making our children lie for us? And what if we were on the other side? What if we had to choose between accepting blood money that could pay off our debts, and revealing a secret that could exonerate the accused? Is it easier to battle one’s conscience when one is not afraid of heavenly retribution? Does protecting the people we care about matter more when we’re not sure God exists? Eventually, the Quran will be the undoing of one of the characters, and this raises more questions – but Farhadi refrains from providing answers; he only hints that there is no right or wrong answer.
The idea of religion and its diktats is a far more overt theme in Moretti’s Habemus Papam. While Moretti is an outspoken political Leftist, and unapologetic atheist, this could be the first film in which he engages in theological debate so explicitly. The film does not discuss the political issue of vested interest in the Vatican, except perhaps in an oblique manner, symbolised by a bizarre volleyball tournament. It barely makes a passing reference to the relevance of the mandate that Catholic priests stay celibate. What is does, through a psychiatrist who is not a believer (played by Nanni Moretti himself), is to portray the Cardinals as humans, and analyse the dichotomy between who they really are and who they’re expected to be.
It would be easy to call Habemus Papam an it’s-lonely-at-the-top story. The Pope cannot speak of his conundrum to anyone, and the psychiatrist never tires of ranting that his fellow-psychiatrist wife left him because she couldn’t bear to be second-best. It is easier still to focus on the eccentric humour in the story, and call it a spoof: the PR machinery that carries out the damage control, the Cardinals who sulk because they’re not allowed to go sightseeing, the papal hopeful who hates to lose. But for all its eye rolls at the clergy, the film throws up a valid question – can God be wrong? And if God makes mistakes, who covers up for Him?
Long before organised religion became the norm, there was the Big Bang. And that’s where Terrence Malick takes us in his intensely elemental, wistfully personal film The Tree of Life, a movie that has befuddled critics by combining illustrations of Darwinian evolution with the portrayal of family life in the Bible Belt. The film opens with a tantalising flame flickering slowly as a halting voiceover whispers, “There are two ways through life: the way of nature...and the way of grace.”
With snatches of dialogue, long gazes into the sky, harmonic movements, and shots of nature at its most terrible and most tranquil, there is a real threat of the beauty of the film overwhelming its subject – but, somehow, that doesn’t happen. The imagery and the introspection, the music and the monologues make a cohesive whole, coming together to entrance the viewer.
One could interpret it as a coming-of-age story, following Jack (Hunter McCracken) from infancy into adulthood (Sean Penn), through the cruelty of childhood and the realisation of sexuality in adolescence. But the vast sweep of the film makes it about something larger, and the Creator, whom the flame just may symbolise, is an ephemeral but powerful presence throughout. Manifested as a gust of wind, a torrential downpour, an Arctic expanse, a desolate landscape, a gigantic wave, as a domineering father, a gentle mother, a smile on a child’s face, this Creator is primordial and yet, contained.
Reviews of The Tree of Life have spoken of its religious symbolism, and interpreted nearly every frame to unravel its metaphors – the glass lift that shuts Jack out from the world while allowing him to observe it, the sandy Heaven where everyone reunites, the water that signifies baptism...But in a story where imagination, wishful thinking and reality merge, can we really know what the director intended? And is that as important as what we feel?
When one watches this film, without the baggage of a Christian or American upbringing, every scene unfolds as a tableau. They could be scenes of joy or of sorrow; but the opening minutes ensure that the sadness is predominant – there is a sense of loss, a feeling of how-happy-we-were, the contemplation of a face that we will never see with wrinkles and white hair, the tenderness of a smile we only have memories of.
How little the universe matters to us, how little its celestial bodies and single-cell organisms, as we swaddle our children in cloth and cuddle up to our parents for comfort, one thinks. Does the sun matter but for the curious frown on a toddler’s face as he squints up at it? Does the rain matter but for the abandon of dancing with your family in the backyard, in a rare moment when age bows down to impulse? And there is a sense of wonder, that these enormous bodies of gas and rock that spin in synchronised circles were Created by the same Being who fit together the vertebrae of the tiniest carp fish and the mightiest dinosaurs.
All three films use music to broaden their canvas. The score for A Separation is about as influenced by the West as its female lead, and virtually carried by the piano. Habemus Papam uses operatic music that emphasises the grand scale of the happenings within the Vatican. The Tree of Life enhances the mesmerising cinematography with the exalting music of Berlioz’s Requiem, Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, Bedrich Smetana’s The Moldau, along with pieces by Francois Couperin, Mahler, Bach, and several others.Perhaps the reason these films have universal appeal, despite the specificity of their main settings, is that the spiritual questions they raise are pertinent to all of us. And this allows them to weave several aspects of human weakness into the fabric of their stories, without straying from the pattern. Maybe that’s why the juxtaposition of a pagan flame with a quote from the Book of Job doesn’t seem incongruous. Maybe God has a place in niche cinema after all.