Monday, 4 November 2013

Cinematic insights from Egypt, Poland and here at home

The Square, which tells the unfinished story of the Egyptian revolution of 2011 and beyond, shows how the army made sure it was itself the principal beneficiary of the mass uprising against Mubarak. The generals hated the idea of having to share the spoils of the Egyptian dictatorship with Mubarak’s son, and the sudden outpouring of mass resistance to the regime played nicely into their plans to interrupt the dynastic succession. Once Mubarak was toppled, they had what they wanted, promised democracy and sent everyone home.

The film then displays how the Muslim Brotherhood got played by the army and confused electoral victory and formal officeholding with power. It’s pretty depressing to see the missteps on the civilian side, the Brotherhood’s sectarian ambitions and disdain for dissent coupled with the secular liberals’ cluelessness about how to organize themselves and channel their mass base into a political structure. In the end both sides endorsed the use of the army’s ruthlessness against each other, and the prospects for democracy in Egypt today are not bright—although the story is far from over.

But documentary is not the only way to perceive what is churning away within a culture. In the Name of . . . is an unsettling new Polish film that grapples with sex and Catholicism and says something oddly encouraging about how that society is absorbing conflicting influences in its third post-communist decade. The tale is that of a well-meaning young priest torn between his authentic vocation for service and his homoerotic desire. Casual brutishness seems to spring from the soil in the film where children lace their cruelty towards anyone showing signs of weakness with interchangeable anti-Semitic and homophobic taunts.

The story takes place in a sort of rural halfway house for delinquent teenaged boys, and in this atmosphere of sullen hostility, Catholic practice and belief appear as a dissonant force, potentially humanizing but also hypocritical, as embodied by Father Adam himself. In one telling scene a tough newcomer, himself fond of sex with his fellow inmates, is asked by the priest what he seeks and answers with a penetrating glare, ‘The same thing you do, Father.’ How the movie resolves the clash of Catholic ideology and more indulgent modern attitudes toward sexual expression (see Pope Francis I) is a neat twist—which I won’t ruin.

So what does the recent output from Hollywood tell us about ourselves? Gravity, an amazing technical feat, gets us to focus on ‘how did they do that?’ and marvel at its effects, our very American default reaction. Bullock and Clooney float around in outer space and struggle against technological obstacles to their safe return. It’s a bit of Robinson Crusoe and a dozen other survivor tales.

But by placing Gravity side by side with Robert Redford’s marvelous survival-at-sea story All Is Lost, which I did on successive weekends, I perceived a common thread. Both Bullock and Redford fight their way to solid ground while staring at the terrifyingly indifferent natural world and a chilling silence from human civilization. Bullock can’t get anyone on her radio; Redford sends up a flare to passing container ships, but no human face or voice responds to either of them.

If we take these films as statements about the societies they portray, Egyptians are buffeted by their cruel politics, and the Poles are wondering what to do with their Catholic identity, a questioned institutional church and modern sexuality. What about us? Perhaps we Americans see ourselves as adrift and alone, unable to rely on the technological marvels that once promised security and safe docking.

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