Friday, August 17, 2007


THE CELEBRATION ("FESTEN," 1998, Denmark, Thomas Vinterberg, with Mogens Rukov)
"At the feast of fools humour can sometimes be cruel
but under certain conditions you have to forget the rules."
Bruce Cockburn

Jesus' gospel is mostly about forgiveness, reconciliation, the common sense recognition that there ain't nobobody perfect, and our relationship with God has nothing to do with the impossibility of us "measuring up." God loves us, loves who we are, died to make peace with the parts of who we are that He cannot love. Free gift. Grace.

Which is all very reassuring. And not surprisingly, that's the Bible neighbourhood where I like to spend most of my time. Hanging out with my buddy, Jesus.

Except now and then I happen to wander down one of the darker alleys of the New Testament, find myself on the wrong side of town. Justice, the bad news side of the good news. Where Jesus is less chipper. Where the guy who came to rescue sinners dons the black robes and takes his seat at the right hand of God, "from whence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead." At which time I'll be glad it's Him holding the gavel. But I'm betting gladness won't be the predominant emotion. "There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the rooftops."

Like his countryman Lars von Trier, Tomas Vinterberg looks around him and sees the wicked prosper, and finds himself compelled to don the robes of Amos, or Jeremiah, or Jesus on a bad day. One night the two melancholy Danes sat down and drew up a manifesto that stripped away all the machineries that had begun to interfere with the essence of film-making, a rigorous cinematic Reformation that would free them from the distracting clutter of massive crews and bloated budgets and return them to the fundamentals of their art: director, camera, actors, story. Hand held camera, no artificial light, no soundtrack music or post-production sound effects.

That reformers' passion informs not only the style but also the substance of the first film made under the "Dogme 95" manifesto. FESTEN strips away not only commercial movie-making niceties but social pretension in its story of a family gathering among privileged hoteliers and restauranteurs. The clan comes together to feast in celebration of the sixtieth birthday of their patriarch, and does a serviceable job of being pleasant about the recent funeral of the man's daughter. And thus do the funeral baked meats coldly furnish forth the birthday table.

Relationships among the three surviving siblings are disquieting; unremarked cruelties alternate with inappropriate sexuality. Something is indeed rotten, but of course, this is not the occasion to dwell on such things – (nor has it been for three or four decades, but never mind) – we're here to party! The story's juxtapositions are so stark the whole thing plays out as dark, uneasy comedy, even farce. The celebrations proceed, griefs and conflicts are masked, until...

Christian, twin brother of the young woman whose funeral was so recently celebrated, stands at the banquet table and offers a toast. A "home truth" speech. There's that all-too-recognizeable general laughter at childhood reminiscences and revelations which aren't particularly funny, but the crowd laughs because they're meant to and they want it all to work. Until he comes to the part of the story that simply isn't funny, and the laughter stops. "Then he'd put us across the green couch that's been thrown out now and raped us. Abused us sexually. Had sex with his little ones. What a guy!"

The tone continues to veer between horror and farce, and we are as disoriented as the dinner guests, alternating between disbelief and dreadful conviction. Anyone who has spoken an unacceptable truth and weathered the absurd consequences, or been unexpectedly confronted with absurd accusations which may well be nothing but the product of some inexplicable mental disease, will find this film both unerringly and agonizingly truthful. Justice is either bad news or good: depends which side of it you're on.

The time will come when Jesus' warnings, and the iconoclasm of the Danes, and the prophetic words of Bruce Cockburn will all be fulfilled; "It's time for the silent criers to he beld in love. It's time for the ones who dig graves for them to get that final shove."

Oh Lord, have mercy on us all.


Available at Videomatica

Mike Hertenstein's terrific survey of the Dogme movement can be found at the Flickerings Festival website.

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