WAKING NED DEVINE (1998, Ireland/UK/France/USA, Kirk Jones)
There'd have been a mighty party.
Twice now, several years apart, we've been part of movie groups that meet in our house. Like a book club, but with movies. Both times, one of the films we ended up watching was a charming little British comedy about an Irish town that connives to pull the wool over the corporate eyes of the lottery commission. Both times, coming together after watching the film on our own, someone would say, "I loved it! But I don't see what there'll be to talk about." And each time we ended up talking the night away, and came away feeling we'd only just started getting a handle on this subtle, sublime bit of blarney.
Is the whole thing nothing but a great lark? Or is it a morally bent tale that calls evil good and good evil, wrapping a whole catalog of sins in the pretty paper of lovable faces, quaint scenery and charming accents? Or is it actually a morally perspicacious tale about the transcendent importance of friendship, love and community over little things like money and rules and propriety, as bracing and paradigm-shattering as the trickiest of Jesus's parables?
Fundamentally, this is a story of transformation. "Money changes people" – it's a truism that's repeated many times throughout the film, by many different characters. The great surprise is that, at least this one time, with a little help from Ned Devine, it changes them for the better.
At the centre of the story is a charming rascal who thinks nothing of lying to get what he wants – whether it's a piece of lemon tart or an undeserved piece of the lottery action – a man who touches death, and glimpses eternity, and ends up willing to sacrifice his share of the winnings without thought or hesitation.
What's true of Jackie O'Shea is true of Tulaigh Mhor. Glasses of Guinness are the markers of this town's progress from parsimony to community: at the outset, they're only bought strategically, "to make sure we're best friends when they cash the cheque," but the time comes when the harried pub master rings a bell to stop the commotion, demanding "Who's paying for this now?" A moment's silence, then every hand in the room goes up.
Now this may well be nothing but the over-exhuberant generosity of a roomful of people, newly rich. However much Jackie may invoke the spirit of his departed friend, his progression from coveting and conniving to generosity and communal sharing can mostly be explained by self-preservation – if he doesn't involve the entire village in his plan, he'll likely wind up in prison – and the solidarity of his neighbours may be nothing more than pragmatic self-interest. As Jackie's wife says, the townspeople are joining the scheme "for the money, not for the spirit of Ned Devine." But by this point Jackie is convinced he's serving something beyond himself: "If it's claimed and spent at all, Ned will rest in peace."
The story-tellers are convinced that Jackie's on to something, providing a cosmic frame for their earthy, earthly yarn. The film opens with a panorama of the starry heavens, as an omniscient voice contrasts the unchanging and orderly universe with the randomness of the weekly lottery. Sublime, transcendent images of the heavenly spheres cut abruptly to lotto balls, as luck and fate conspire to single someone out for transformation: "an event that will undoubtedly change their lives forever. Lucky sods." And at the film's ending we stumble with four men and a boy out of a pub and into the early morning light, the last to leave Ned Devine's wake, and ascend high atop a glorious wild sea cliff somewhere in Ireland. They raise their glasses aloft, we circle them in the fog and ascend back toward the heavens as they drink a toast to their divine friend.
But what about all that skulduggery? When you look hard at the thing, isn't it all just a great big swindle? Is it really any more righteous for a gang of fifty-two people to steal seven million pounds than it is for one or two self-interested swindlers? Forget who wins or loses or gets what portion of the "winnings," isn't there a more fundamental problem? The film doesn't take issue with the lottery at all – and anyone who's been exposed to the realities of gambling, and gambling addiction, knows there's a real darkness in that industry, one that openly preys not only on people's dreams, but on their covetousness and compulsions? Not to mention that the film seems completely unconcerned with all sorts of other immorality: no one blinks an eye at the female romantic lead, who seems to have had as many lovers as the woman taken in adultery who was brought before Jesus and told to "Go and sin no more." When characters aren't staying up all night drinking, they're sleeping it off.
It's not just fundy moral watchdogs and swear-counters who have problems with Ned. In a Books & Culture essay " Richard Rorty for the Silver Screen Waking Ned Devine as apologetic for postmodernism," Scholar Crystal Downing calls the picture "incredibly enjoyable – and disturbing," arguing that it "presents a postmodern ethic with such delight that it seems far more attractive than traditional Christianity." Her concern isn't really Guiness or gambling or the occasional misuse of God's name, it's the fact that "community solidarity becomes the highest good." Referencing Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, she reads NED as a fanciful illustration of the neo-pragmatic ethic that what is true "does not correspond to universal moral principles but is contingent on the coherence of a community's vocabulary." Is it wrong to defraud the lottery of seven million pounds? Not if "we" all get together and decide it's okay.
Downing is onto something important here, I think – particularly when she zeroes in on the way the film presents the sole member of the community "who refuses to endorse the rules of the game." Surely it's conceivable that someone in the neighbourhood would have legitimate qualms about the swindle, that there would be some voice within the story to question the goings-on. But those qualms are caricatured in the person of Lizzie Quinn, a misanthropic cat-lady whose greed and self-interest make Jackie a saint by comparison, and who is quickly branded with the label "witch." Downing comments that "this is how witches have often been limned… like Joan of Arc in fifteenth-century France and Goody Proctor in seventeenth-century Salem." Perhaps the film is simply having fun with us at this point – certainly the horror-movie trope of the town rising up to burn the witch is wryly subverted, but Downing (referencing Jean-Francois Lyotard) points out that even this is perfectly in keeping with its postmodern ethic, where any pressure toward conformity would amount to "an act of terror."
Still, the movie gets to eat its sacrificial cake nonetheless. The community is spared the nastiness of having to dirty their hands sacrificing the old goat when tragi-comic timing and (perhaps) a Devine hand unite the angel of blessing (a sneezing Lotto man) with God's returning agent (the priest, back from pilgrimage, his VW van plastered with bumper stickers like "I HEART LOURDES" and "Honk If You Love Jesus") in a brilliantly staged stroke of retribution against the anti-communitarian old crone. While we may cheer her wildly comedic demise – "Ding dong the witch is dead!" – there is at the same time a troubling undercurrent to a sequence that intercuts the rising action of Lizzie's fate with events at the pub, where the townspeople cheer on a wild-eyed fiddler to an eerie crescendo that seems mystically linked with Lizzie's destruction.
There's an undercurrent of something primal here. Perhaps, for all its bedtime prayers and Irish Catholicism, the spirituality of the film isn't in the final analysis Christian at all, but harks back to something pre-Christian, something darker and more akin to what you might find in another small town that's not always kind to outsiders, in THE WICKER MAN.
Or perhaps what we're picking up isn't so much a pre-Christian Celtic paganism as it is a robust – if unfamiliar – Celtic Christianity, that emphasizes hospitality and community and mystery and a certain unabashed earthiness over rules and sin and atonement. One friend, who grew up in a pretty unbending, pretty German protestant church and ended up drawn more to the mysteries he found in liturgy and music and ancient fairy tales, fell head over heels in love with this picture: "For a few years now I have relished the spirit of Patrick - myself having grown up in the shadow of Augustine. This finely spun tale is theology according to the Celtic Church. A few details: Michael's funeral has to be celebrated; he needs to die before Ned's gift can be received. The initial greed is indeed transformed into love, relationship, community. Fatherhood is more important than money. Jim (the lottery-man) is a messenger, an angel of grace; it is through him that the priest is able (albeit unintentionally) to remove the source of evil from their midst. The "witch" blasphemes when she mishandles the loaf of bread and calls it stale - a sin against the Holy Spirit." And more. A fanciful, fairy-tale reading of the film. Sometimes it serves to read a text in the language it was written in.
But if the film is so Christian-friendly, what's with that young priest? He's as ineffectual as he is sweet and winsome: he's nice enough, but has no impact on the community's lemming-like rush toward imagined wealth. But that's not the whole story: it's a sympathetic portrait, one that many a priest-on-assignment could identify with, called on to give a funeral for a man who's better known to every person in the church than he is to yourself. And it's clear his lack of influence in this isolated, insular town is as much the fault of the community as it is his or the church's.
But why is he even in the movie, if not to demonstrate the church's irrelevance? What are we to make of three of the film's most winsome scenes, between the novice priest and the fatherless boy who appears to be the town's only child? "What can you play?" the boy asks, as the priest sits in the empty church picking out notes on the organ.
Nothing really, I just like messing around.Does the scene weigh the professional religious man's faith and find it puny in comparison to the child's robust practicality (and, subsequently, almost mystical connection with the sky and the sea), or are we being ever-so-subtly encouraged to see an affinity between this heaven-hired Father and this son whose fatherhood is a mystery? How are we to perceive this man who works out his vague calling (without earning a cent) among people more interested in lottery payouts than spiritual treasures? What kind of fool is he, anyway? Could he be a holy one? Or are these scenes more about the boy? Or do they simply layer in a quiet counterpoint of transcendence, in a story whose themes might easily be mistaken for worldly ones, but which is aiming for something more heavenly?
Can you play songs about Jesus?
No, I wish I could.
So, did he come to you, then?
Jesus. Well he did in many ways, yes.
But did you see him?
Well not exactly, no.
But you're working for him.
I am. Doing the
best I can.
Do you get paid for it?
Well it's more a payment of the,
spiritual kind, Morris.
Do you think you could be drawn
I don't think so.
Well you never know.
I could work for someone I'd never met, and not get paid for it.
The film begins and ends in the heavens, and makes a point of returning us every now and again to spend time with the only two characters in the county who aren't completely preoccupied with winning and losing. But the movie's most explicit gesture toward transcendence comes at the end of the story's first act, when Michael's and Jackie's boyish games have come up against the reality of death, and Annie suggests they "make room in this day for some prayers." Now Jackie sleeps, and dreams: we hear a choir sing "Lux Aeterna" (Eternal Light), and see Ned in a boat on a golden sea, eating a delicious – and seemingly endless – chicken dinner, like the one Jackie and his cronies used to ingratiate themselves with the town's potential lottery winners. But Ned is all grace and generosity: he simply enjoys his feast, repeatedly offers to share his culinary bounty with his friend Jackie, and trusts the tides to carry them safely to the light – even when their divine dory is grounded high and dry on an improbable rock.
Central to this scene is the briefest of interchanges between the two friends, deftly thrown into prominence by Jackie's perspective on the death shown in the scenes which precede and follow the dream. When Ned was first discovered in his cottage, the winning lottery ticket clutched in his dead hand, Jackie could see it only as a tragic irony: "There'll be cursing in heaven tonight." Even after his revelatory dream, it takes time for Jackie to get past his earth-bound perspective on Ned's situation: "He plays the lotto all his life and dies from the shock of winning it. Can you imagine the anger of his spirit, man?" But this repeated idea brackets the reality of Ned's death, at least from the Devine perspective:
Are you angry, Ned?At its simplest level, perhaps, the film is most profound. When everything else falls away – and, indeed, it will – and all the getting and losing and scheming and spending is done, there will be light, and water, and friends, and a feast.
Not at all. Are you sure you wouldn't like some chicken?
But how can a film that glorifies – or at least delights in – covetousness and fraud have anything to do with the Kingdom of Heaven? To my mind, that's the core question. I'm reminded of Jesus' parable of the crooked accounts receivable guy, who knew he was about to be fired (financial improprieties, it seems) so he went around to all his master's debtors with a stupendous, one-time offer: "You owe the corporation ten thousand bucks? Listen, pay me five grand and we'll call it square." Made himself some friends at the boss's expense, which may have hastened his severance but stood him in good stead when the paycheques ran out. A self-serving, skin-saving con, a liar and a thief.
And Jesus judged the guy, right? Wrong. He said, "The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness… And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations." Pick up a note of something like admiration in his voice?
I think of the time the disciples came to Jesus, concerned that he was risking trouble for not paying his tax. So like everybody's cornball uncle, he pulls a coin from a fish's mouth, as if to say, "Oh yeah, you guys down here care about that stuff, I keep forgetting. Okay, if it's that important to you…" There's a guy, I think, who'd get a kick out of Jackie and Michael. A guy who loved hanging out with the crooks and the fallen women and their fatherless kids, who loved a good story about prodigals come home: "Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it! Let's have a feast and celebrate."
I also wonder what he'd make of the better-than-everybody character who stood outside while everybody else was partying, who ended up dropping the dime and calling the cops to break up the party. "Woe unto you, hypocrites, whited sepulchres…" That sort of thing. A God of parties, a God of judgment, a God of turning everything upside down.
This doesn't negate the other readings of the film, the conundrums and complexities it yields up when we peel away its winsome comic skin and savour the considerably more exotic scents and flavours we find when we bite into this tangy little piece of filmic fruit. For my money, those confounding contradictions aren't problems, they aren't flaws, they're what make this a truly wonderful, truly artistic, truly wise little film, that becomes all the more flavourful (and memorable) the longer you chew on it.
Some truths – the best and deepest truths – don't come down to either/or. Dig in on either side of the question and you'll be wrong: you won't have just half the truth, you'll have none of it. And sometimes the best way – perhaps the only way – to ponder these holy, baffling puzzles is in stories, in comedies, in divine fairy tales like this one. Where self-interest and self-transcendence, greed and generosity, loss and gain, sin and grace, judgment and blessing are all gathered up together in one great, cracking yarn. As Michael himself says when he finally comes clean and tells the whole village the story of Ned Devine, the way Ned himself wanted it: "I'm not a great man for telling things as they are. I've been known to add a little colour to stories and riddles for the benefit of those that'll listen. Yet here tonight I can swear that all I've told you is true."
Well, most of it, anyhow.
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