Issue 185 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Dir: Antonia Bird
One of the most startling features of British society in the last few years has been the virtual collapse of public support for many established institutions in the face of scandal and exposure of hypocrisy. Events in the last few months have shown that the Christian churches are not exempt from this--from the scandal around the Bishop of Galway's love child and the outing of the Anglican Bishop of London, to the outrageous cover up and protection of priests committing child sex abuse in Ireland.
This makes Priest, a new film written by Jimmy McGovern, a very topical, controversial and interesting watch. It centres on the moral dilemmas facing a young Roman Catholic priest, Greg, trying to apply the strict codes and articles of faith he fervently advocates to the poverty stricken, working class Liverpool parish to which he is assigned. He preaches Thatcherite individual responsibility and attacks the moral laxitude of the parish priest Matthew, who lives with their housekeeper and whose sermon 'sounds like a party political broadcast for the Labour Party'. This unbending preaching only serves to increase Greg's rank hypocrisy when he begins a love affair with Graham, whom he meets in a gay pub.
The film takes us through the twists and turns of Greg's dilemmas and his questioning of his vocation; in the process, reinforcing not only the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church but also the gap between its harsh morality and basic compassion, love and humanity. When Greg is exposed as gay we see this gap get bigger and bigger, as the hypocrites line up to attack him. Alongside the absurdities of a ruthless, careerist bishop and a priest who converses only in Latin, Greg is shaken by his inability to deal with a 14 year old who tells him in confession that she is being sexually abused by her father.
Though largely very good at condemning the Catholic Church and its teachings, here the film misses the chance to stick the boot in about its rigid moralising about sex and the family--which helps to create the conditions for abuse and then leads it to deny, ignore or indeed cover up incest and abuse. Instead it is the girl's father who is portrayed as a calculating, manipulative and evil monster--rather than the powerless, desperate and repressed man he would be in reality.
Moreover, I'm not really sure that a character like the lefty priest Matthew--who offers Greg a way to solve his dilemmas and redemption--would really survive in the Catholic Church and that liberation theology was ever taken quite as far as he does.
Despite these criticisms, overall I really enjoyed this film. It was well made, had good acting, the sex scenes were done brilliantly and they even sang 'The Fields of Athenry'. Most of all, Cardinal Hume would hate every minute of it.
Dir: Arne Glimcher
'Three strikes and you're out', is the latest slogan from the law and order brigade in the United States. It means a mandatory life sentence for anyone convicted of three 'violent' felonies. For a man recently found guilty of stealing a slice of pizza in California it means a minimum life term of 25 years in prison--this is presumably what Tony Blair means by 'tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime'.
In the United States, however, being tough on crime over the last 15 years has seen the prison population triple to over a million. It is now the only advanced industrialised country to employ capital punishment.
A film that centres round a young black man fighting for his innocence from death row has a potent contemporary meaning. Just Cause tells the story of liberal lawyer Paul Armstrong (Sean Connery) fighting to get a young black man, Bobby Earl Ferguson, released from death row. Armstrong is opposed to the death penalty. He then encounters Southern small town prejudices in which the complexities of race, family ties and the desire of the local population to secure a conviction for a particularly gruesome sexual attack and murder of a young schoolgirl hinders his fight for justice.
The most difficult barrier Armstrong encounters comes from the local police who beat Bobby Earl while in custody and obtain his confession after a round of Russian roulette. Armstrong is then involved in a fight against time to obtain the necessary evidence to spare the man's life--and the viewer becomes embroiled in the question of Bobby Earl's innocence.
Unfortunately, what starts as a film sympathetic to the plight of the prisoner and the lawyer ends up being a veiled attack on the liberal attitudes that Connery represents. Bobby Earl's fellow prisoners on death row are portrayed as nothing other than psychotic maniacs, and we are meant to feel sympathy for the police.
'What about the victims?' is always the cry that arises when there is a debate over law and order, and in Just Cause we are presented with gruesome pictures of a horrific death. But what good it does the victim if the wrong person is convicted is never answered.
The recently released Shawshank Redemption portrays the life of the other victims, the prisoners, who are left to rot in America's jails. This film shows Hollywood can be sympathetic to the plight of the prisoners. It shows the possibility of black and white unity in jail, the brutal treatment of the corrupt guards, and the ability of the prisoners to fight for a degree of dignity.
Which is why Just Cause is so disappointing. In the current climate over law and order, it contains a deeply reactionary message which does nothing to resist the right wing arguments that have so annoyingly become accepted as 'common sense' in the debate.
Dir: Ricardo Larrain
This is the first feature length film by Chilean director Ricardo Larrain. It is the story of Ramiro, a maths teacher exiled to a remote and desolate village on the country's frontier for committing a minor act of resistance to the authorities in the last days of the military regime. The village is a bleak frontier between the modern world and the ancient world of the Mapuche Indians, where life is dominated by nature and the elements and survival is a balancing act poised between struggle against the forces of nature and cooperation with them.
Ramiro is confronted with feelings of loneliness, loss of identity and physical and emotional isolation from everything that made him what he is. Added to this he is subjected to harassment by a petty and self important local official who insists that he signs an attendance book every eight hours to stop him escaping--not that there is anywhere he could escape to.
The tremendous sense of isolation is reflected in the pace and look of the film which takes spectacular advantage of the windswept surroundings.
Ramiro, is forced to consider his place in the world and his own internal frontiers. He eventually forms an intense and passionate relationship with another exile, Maite--a tragic and enigmatic figure who with her ancient father is a refugee from the Spanish Civil War.
The exiles' relationship is a source of outrage to the local authorities who redouble their efforts to make the lives of the unhappy couple more miserable still, but their continuing intimacy is in itself an act of defiance.
The narrative is full of oblique references to the outside world that banished them to this place, but apart from the two secret policemen who escort him into exile and the local official there is little direct allusion to the political reality of Chile at that time, rather a sense of menace and foreboding is invoked.
Ironically, Ramiro seems to find some sense of home in exile, partly through his complex and deep relationship with Maite.
However, the village is threatened by natural disaster in the shape of a giant tidal wave which could destroy the village and all its inhabitants. Impending doom seems to sharpen Ramiro's mind and he is forced to confront reality in a dramatic climax.
Maite's and Ramiro's differing responses to the crisis reflect the stark choice open to them, to turn inwards to nostalgia and death or to struggle, to live, albeit in confusion and far from satisfied.
Because this is a film which deals with individuals and their inner struggles, it has to deal with the outside world through the feelings and perceptions of those individuals, which it does with subtlety and humour.
When Ramiro tells Maite's father that the authorities didn't shoot him because 'maths teachers aren't dangerous', the old man insists that he is dangerous and goes on to castigate the dictatorship, complaining that 'even the fascists can't do their jobs properly these days'.
The themes of trust and personal solidarity are also explored through Ramiro's relationship with a local man who is a diver obsessed with finding the cause of the tidal wave by searching in the icy seas that threaten the village. His idealism and tenacity stand in stark contrast to Maite's resignation and introspection.
The experience of exile so changes Ramiro that when he is offered his freedom he is unsure what to do, whether to stay with Maite who refuses to leave, or return to a 'normality' which has now become so strange and distant to him that it seems to offer another form of exile.
Humour and drama combine in this film which explores both personal and universal themes. It is a subtle and powerful exploration of the resilience of the human spirit. It's well worth watching.
Dir: Gillian Armstrong
It's such a relief to see a film which challenges the recent anti-women tendency of some of the stuff coming out of Hollywood--a tribute, however feeble, to feminine independence.
The American Civil War forms the background to Louisa May Alcott's novel based on her own family life, and the film brings the novel vividly to life. The four March girls run their own club in a barn, act out dramas and produce a magazine.
They grudgingly agree to let their neighbour into the club on the grounds that he 'isn't a boy--he's Laurie'. Jo, the writer, in horror at the idea of the 'matrimonial fate' of big sister Meg, tries to persuade her not to marry Laurie's steady, boring tutor.
Beth dies after catching scarlet fever from visiting a poor German family, having never felt there was much of a role for her outside the immediate family. She has badly missed Jo, who went to New York and tried to make it as a novelist, writing Gothic novels full of romance and gore.
A German academic friend gives Jo his honest opinion of her stories and says she should write from 'real life', which she duly does. (I couldn't help having a sneaking suspicion that her Gothic novels might have been more exciting.)
Amy has always sworn she will marry for wealth rather than love. She ends up marrying Laurie, who was turned down by Jo. Why must we marry at all?' Jo asked. I quite expected the audience to clap at this point.
There's a wonderful scene in New York with liberal minded young men discussing votes for women and blacks. They are so busy arguing that Jo is unable to get a word in edgeways until her German friend interrupts on her behalf. She makes the point that black men only have got the vote and that all women and blacks should have the vote, not because they are oppressed but because as human beings they should have equal rights with other human beings. (There are no actual black people in the film, by the way.)
Meg refuses to wear the lace pressed on her by other young women going to a ball because all lace is produced by child slavery. The parents are transcendentalists, enlightened people who believe they should strive to achieve perfection in their lives. Jo feels she is flawed and will never manage it but, as her friend kindly points out, 'We are all flawed'.
High drama and universal dilemmas are solved by individuals taking responsibility for their lives, so the conflict of big business and wealth versus love and moral integrity is resolved through honesty and facing up to things rather than attacking the society which causes the conflict in the first place.
It's a sentimental film, nostalgic, funny and thoroughly enjoyable.
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
Dir: Werner Herzog
Tartan Video £15.99
Werner Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is a tale woven around real events. Hauser was a young man who appeared alone in a small town in Germany one day in 1828. He was unable to speak more than a single sentence and was apparently brought up in complete isolation from the outside world.
This is a complex and subtle film and Herzog doesn't settle for easy clichés. Kaspar Hauser is not simply a noble savage or a victim of society. He is, rather, a mixture of these things, and as his relationships with other people flourish and his grasp of language deepens, so his faculties and abilities alter. Over the course of the film Hauser develops from a man who meekly accepts being part of a freak show into a person who can leave a professor of philosophy with egg on his face.
The story of an uncivilised outsider suddenly being exposed to the modern world has been the theme of previous films, including Truffaut's L'Enfant Sauvage, Hugh Hudson's Greystoke and more recently the Jodie Foster vehicle, Nell. But The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser also calls to mind films like Edward Scissorhands and The Elephant Man. This is partly because these films share a certain lyricism, but also because Herzog has made the character of Kaspar Hauser too well rounded to be easily captured by a simple formula. He is treated as, variously, a spectacle for the ignorant, a specimen to be studied, a soul to be saved, a burden on the community, or an object of pity.
This film is, on one level, very much about ideas, and Herzog takes a critical position not so much by attributing some genius to Kaspar Hauser, but by showing how establishment bourgeois thinkers fail to offer a convincing explanation for things.
Hauser lived a short life which was ended in a violent attack by an unknown assailant. Those who had searched most diligently for a solution to the 'enigma' found consolation in the supposed deformities in the dead man's brain and liver which they claimed bore the secret of his peculiar life.
That this is an attitude with which Herzog profoundly disagrees is obvious. He seems to be saying that life cannot be dissected, analysed, and 'solved' in any simplistic way. Theologians, third rate philosophers and the sort of scientists who would today be called sociobiologists fail to understand this, and their empty schemes can't capture Hauser's experiences.
Herzog himself makes no attempt to provide a definitive solution to the enigma, except to hint that this is a condition common to all our lives. In doing so he has made a film of considerable grace, economy and wit.