Exploring the world through global cinema

Posts tagged “religion

Second Coming

Sean Astin and Miranda de Pencier in the 1995 adaptation of 'Harrison Bergeron'.

America in the not-too-distant future: young Harrison Bergeron is a constant source of concern to his parents. Despite his best efforts, he continues to display above-average intelligence in a world where everyone is expected to be equal. For some reason, his government-regulated headband isn’t suppressing his higher brain functions the way everyone else’s does. Fortunately, the local physician has the answer: lobotomy. Bergeron is then given one night to enjoy his natural talents before they are surgically removed for good. That evening, he discovers the truth of the world around him – not so long ago, the world was a very different place, where intelligence was not regulated and people were free to be different. More disturbing than that however, is the reason why everything changed.

Harrison Bergeron is a 1995 adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut short story of the same name. Purists decry it as an unfaithful interpretation of the original, but in fact, it has much to recommend it, providing a strong social commentary on state control and media manipulation. When watching it, I was reminded of everything from Margaret Attwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to ‘Brave New World’, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, The Stepford Wives and even The Matrix. It’s worth a look.

“I was reminded of everything from Margaret Attwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to ‘Brave New World’, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, The Stepford Wives and even The Matrix.”

Last week, World On Film went amorously Catalonian, but not within the borders of the one country that claims the culture for its own: Andorra. That, however, is rectified this week with the short film…

Don’t Take The Name Of God In Vain

(1999) Director: Josep Guirao

“I seem to remember Sherlock Holmes telling Dr. Watson that when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains must be the truth. If we apply that to Jeremiah, the one thing that remains is that there’s no way in hell that he can be a normal man with normal abilities–if he’s a man at all.” Excerpt from The Branch by Mike Resnick

Grim assembly: shadowy religious leaders recreate the Council of Nicaea.

In Andorra of the year 2046, a powerful gang lord assembles a group of religious leaders, demanding to know what it takes to be a true messiah. Meanwhile, lying imprisoned in a garage somewhere nearby is a man who claims to be the son of God. But is this really the messiah everyone was waiting for? Such is the premise of the short film, ‘Don’t Take The Name Of God In Vain’, which in the very beginning, claims to be “Dedicated to those who died in the name of a god, even though his name was never spoken.” The effort is based on the 1984 sci-fi novel ‘The Branch’ by Mike Resnick, something I have yet to read and therefore am judging the film purely on its own merits.

The storyline is certainly an interesting one, and the premise asks questions some of the more credulous among us would do well to ponder. However, even at just 32 minutes, the execution is about 10 minutes too long and cheaply melodramatic. With a subject matter such as this, it certainly ought to be stirring. The script as executed feels slightly ‘Dan Brown’ – excessively didactic without ringing true, and having rather foolishly worked my way through The Lost Symbol recently, the overblown lecturing smarts all the more. The first half of the film is quite literally a group of two-dimensional stereotypes arguing about the qualities of a messiah, and it’s not until 20 minutes in that we finally see what the fuss is really about. It might have been better as a two-hander between the man insisting divine credentials and the one persecuting him, through which his claim to holy fame is slowly revealed. Or in other words, if you’ve only got the budget for a single set stage play, it’s probably best to be cautiously realistic. Pau Baredo as the chief antagonist is definitely reaching for the OTT trophy, when a more controlled performance would have been far more effective, although the rest of the cast are just as willing to yell into the microphone. It’s fairly apparent that all involved are meant to be caricatures, but this is a story demanding of greater subtlety. On the plus side, director Josep Guirao knows his financial limits and makes good use of low lighting and simple props.

An ancient battle re-enacted.

“The script as executed feels slightly ‘Dan Brown’ – excessively didactic without ringing true”

Nonetheless, while the Catalan commentary on the Second Coming may lack finesse, ‘Don’t Take The Name Of God In Vain’ has inspired me to give ‘The Branch’ a spin. If it also treads the Brown path, I may just have to cut Guirao some slack. Having skimmed through the source material on Google Books, I do at least know that the film is a very truncated adaptation, budgetarily-challenged and depicting principally its interpretation of the climax. This paradoxically makes it seem both overlong and rushed at the same time – clearly a novel requiring more than just a couple of euros and a warehouse downtown to bring it properly to life.

Where I Live (Compensation for the short review above)

Where I live, the multiplex cinemas are exactly the same as yours – giant, self-contained enclaves filled with escalators and dim neon lights designed to banish the world outside. Within, you will find the same kiosks selling chocolate covered sugar bullets, caffeine and snow-covered popcorn at prices designed to belittle you for your weak glucose-dripping willpower. And yet, where you live, the owners of these cinematic honey traps take a very dim view of externally-bought consumables. After all, if you’ve already passed beyond their escalators and neon facade, they feel justified in securing exclusive rights to your wallets. Not that this stops many a visitor from secreting illicit outside snacks about their person never to be seen until the lights go down. These very words have been typed by the voice of experience.

The people have spoken: a typical snack bar in a Korean cinema complex.

Yet I was astonished to discover that where I live, people actually complained about it to the point where the nation’s cineplexes backed down. No longer did a Dunkin Donuts bag have to be hastily shoved under a jumper before the pimply ticket-tearer clapped his eyes upon you. It wasn’t a problem if you sauntered in with a bag of cheap popcorn unmolested by icing sugar from the local supermarket. Bottles of cola purchased elsewhere could be waved around with the stage-acted conspicuousness of Mr Bean and his pencils in the exam sketch, instead of those giant overpriced cylinders of ice cubes doused with only a slightly greater portion of fluid than is today allowable inside the cabin of a commercial aeroplane.

“Bottles of cola purchased elsewhere could be waved around with the stage-acted conspicuousness of Mr Bean and his pencils in the exam sketch”

Ah, but what of that overpriced selection of multicoloured plastic-wrapped caloric diabetes samplers from the cinema’s own snack bars? There I sat in the dim blue foyer, waiting to go and see Inception, staring in wonder at the completely unpopulated serving counter beyond which one solitary striped-shirted minion of cinematic side-dishes attempted in vain to look busy by scribbling ink onto a clipboard, while surreptitious slurping could be heard all around me. I knew they hadn’t pestered her for their sugar fixes. I almost felt sorry for her. Almost.

Where I live is South Korea and this is the power of collective complaint.

It’ll never last.

Coming Up Next

Snippets of life in modern Angola as World On Film investigates the long and short of the short offering, Moments Of Glory.

Long Black Veil

The long journey begins with  ‘Osama’, a 2003 Afghan drama shot on location in Kabul, written and directed by Siddiq Barmak. Click below to view the official trailer:

Acts Of Desperation

‘Osama’ attempts to give a snapshot of life in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, focusing chiefly upon a young girl forced to disguise herself as a boy in order to put food on the table for her family, of whom all the male members have been killed. Women were forbidden to work under Taliban law, and the film makes clear the terror and hopelessness of a war-torn world held under an oppressive medieval, religious doctrine. Billed as the first Afghan film following the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, it is perhaps inevitable that they should be the subject. For the most part, I was entirely drawn into the bleak and unjust landscape of ‘Osama’, although the film is not without some faults, with certain key elements not adequately explored and an ending that for me did not entirely work.

The oppressive nature of the Taliban is fully-realised on screen.

Filmed on location in Kabul, ‘Osama’ needs do little to show the horrors of war – the evidence is all around and the locals are so used to it that many have never known anything different. The complete undermining of Afghan civilisation by the Taliban is omnipresent in every scene where they are not in frame. Their introduction is potently out of shot, highlighting the facelessness with which they are viewed. To an extent, it is a shame that their motives and background are never explored in any depth, sometimes reducing them to the level of fanatical religious boogeymen – propaganda-like in its execution, which has the unfortunate result of oversimplifying the film’s discourse. This is not a question of sympathy, but of avoiding demonisation and the same level of ignorance practiced by the overlords under scrutiny. Unless of course Barmak was suggesting that the Taliban’s two-dimensional nature is the sum-total of their being, which I don’t think was the case.

It is perfectly understandable, however – the treatment the Afghans received, the complete destruction of both their lives and any semblance of hope they may have had will naturally colour their opinions of their oppressors, in much the same way that the most rational of Holocaust survivors have simply been pushed to too horrible an extreme to even want to bother with objectivity. It could even be argued that a film delivering a message about extremism must be similarly one-sided in its presentation if the audience, far-removed, are even going to begin to appreciate the point being made. Coming halfway towards understanding the effect of sustained terror on the psyche is the furthest an outsider may manage. At the same time, however, the only way to defuse this hatred and prevent it from perpetuating endlessly throughout history is to avoid demonising the enemy. In the end, it may be the greatest struggle of all.

” ‘Osama’ needs do little to show the horrors of war – the evidence is all around and the locals are so used to it that many have never known anything different”

Marina Golbahari as 'Osama' goes beyond acting - she's clearly been there.

And importantly, the skewed approach does not undermine the film’s central aim: to portray the total subjugation of women, leading to a life of oppression, poverty and destitution, wherein there is no chance of escape. Central to this is the young girl herself, who at no time convinces in her attempts to hide her identity making the conclusion to her storyline inevitable. It’s entirely believable that this practice would have been perpetuated by a desperate people in a world where only men have any authority whatsoever, yet since the producers are keen to make it clear that women are the the greatest victims of Taliban rule, any such attempt is utterly impossible. The absolute terror and misery conveyed by Marina Golbahari as the title character is powerful and convincing, yet horrifying precisely because it is so. Obtaining his cast from the general public, director Siddiq Barmak has something of a mixed bag, with some performers unable to match their contemporaries, yet Golbahari is clearly not so much acting a lot of the time as reliving. ‘Osama’ simply would not be anywhere near as powerful and occasionally gut-wrenching as it is without her efforts.

“The absolute terror and misery conveyed by Marina Golbahari as the title character is powerful and convincing, yet horrifying precisely because it is so.”

The film’s ending took me back to the sheer hopelessness summed up in the climax to Joan Chen’s ‘Xiu Xiu’, depicting the forced relocation of youths during the Chinese Cultural revolution. Yet in ‘Osama’, I found the film’s closing to be somewhat abrupt and lacking. Apparently, Barmak did have an alternate ending in mind that he later felt would undermine the story’s theme. On the one hand, it could be argued that ongoing misery has no ending, yet it doesn’t change my feeling that the credits rolled too soon. This is ironic really, as I felt the film’s overall length was more than enough to get its message across, and ironic further still, considering that for the central characters, there is no ending to their suffering. Or it may be that I simply didn’t want to accept the final scene as an ending.

Destitute Afghan war widows are punished for staging a right-to-work rally.

However, ‘Osama’ does not fail to convey its message, not to mention at least some of the horrors suffered by the story’s victims, for I don’t think anyone on this side of the screen could ever truly understand unless they had seen it for themselves. Storywise, I felt it needed further development of certain elements and more thought into some of the editing, but its central aim to invoke feelings of disgust and despair at the destruction of lives in the aim of ignorance and fanaticism is firmly intact. If you’ve never seen an Afghan film before, this is not a bad place to start.

Coming up next on World On Film: the Albanian comedy, ‘Slogans’.