Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Scorsese: Faith Under Pressure (Sight & Sound)

From Scorsese: Faith Under Pressure .
by Ian Christie, Sight & Sound, November 2006.

The director talks to Ian Christie about his twin obsessions with the underworld and the Catholic church, and his hope of continuing his exploration of faith and temptation in an adaptation of Japanese novel Silence

I had gone to New York to talk to Scorsese not about THE DEPARTED, which was still under wraps nearing the end of its long post-production, but about his plans to make a very different film. SILENCE is a novel by Japanese writer Shusaku Endo (1923-1996), which Scorsese has had an option on for over 15 years. Set in the 17th century, it uses the story of the Jesuit missionaries who came to Japan and suffered torture and martyrdom for their faith as a basis for exploring the apparent conflict between traditional Japanese and Western Christian values. Endo was a Japanese Catholic, and Scorsese believes that he has an important message for the modern world: a message that Scorsese, the son of Sicilian Catholics and raised in New York, has been struggling to define for himself ever since he first ventured outside Little Italy.

The novel was proposed to him by one of the churchmen who gathered in 1988 to give their views on the controversial THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Paul Moore, then Episcopal archbishop of New York, found Scorsese's film, to his surprise, “Christologically correct". Scorsese laughs as he recalls the phrase, not because he didn't value such unexpected praise, but because he knows that he was working on a more naïve level. Still under the influence of Pasolini’s gritty 1964 GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW, and burning with a desire to re-create the drama and iconography of the passion that he had loved since his days as an altar boy, his THE LAST TEMPTATION aimed to involve a contemporary audience in the challenge posed to Christ's incarnation, because Kazantzakis' novel provided a framework by telling the gospel story from Jesus point of view, as a carpenter who recognizes his destiny and fights against it. In fact, this meant taking the idea of the incarnation - of Christ as truly human - seriously, rather than as a theological given.

But what really made THE LAST TEMPTATION a matter for debate was Kazantzakis' big question: what if Christ was tempted to abandon his mission at the last moment, to step down from the cross and settle for a normal life? This is the "last temptation", and as we're led to believe that Jesus has fallen for it, it's as if we too are being tested.

Scorsese agrees that the saddest irony is that while THE LAST TEMPTATION probably makes most sense to committed Christians, the majority have never seen it, having been warned to stay away by their priests and ministers. He is well aware that the whole congregations who were bused to Mel Gibson's 2004 PASSION OF THE CHRIST were the same people told not to watch his picture. He respects Gibson’s convictions, but regards his PASSION as "more like going to pray" than posing questions about what Christ and Christianity mean today. And he's still hopeful that THE LAST TEMPTATION will reach a new, less prejudiced audience when it eventually appears on DVD.

After the archbishop gave SILENCE to Scorsese it took a year for him to read it, which he finally did while he was in Japan to appear as van Gogh in Kurosawa’s elegaic fantasy DREAMS. Deeply moved by Endo's portrayal of Christian faith being tested, he arranged a deal to film the novel through the Italian company Cecci Gori and started writing the script with his longtime collaborator Jay Cocks while working on CAPE FEAR (1991). In retrospect, the timing is significant, since this was one of the films Scorsese had agreed to make it return for Universal backing LAST TEMPTATION. He still looks back on the period of CAPE FEAR and CASINO (1995) with a shudder, even if some, like me, regard the latter as a malign masterpiece that explores the lure of evil with an almost Miltonic grandeur.

Scorsese's eventual salvation appeared in the form of KUNDUN (1997), a film that came as a script by Melissa Mathieson and was acceptable to his new studio Disney. The challenge of telling the Dalai Lama's early life story absorbed some of the frustration he felt while unable to pursue Silence. Apart from its specifically Buddhist dimensions, it offered the theme of a young man trying to lead a good life amid obstacles and temptations - which seems to be the underlying template of almost all Scorsese's work. And from the Dalai Lama Scorsese learned a distinction that gave him a new insight into Endo: "having faith is very different from being spiritually evolved."

Spiritual quests

By now Scorsese felt he was beginning to grasp the profound challenge Endo posed to conventional Western Christianity. "SILENCE was the answer to the void I felt after THE LAST TEMPTATION. What I found there was this great compassion for Judas and for Mary Magdalene, and the idea of Jesus not as someone who glows in the dark, but as someone who's afraid to die - remember how he reacts when Lazarus reaches out from the grave." But he was still no closer to being able to make the film, even though his next project to tackle another spiritual quest, in a less exotic form of Nicolas Cage scouring the streets of what had once been known as Hell's Kitchen for human wreckage to save. BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (1999) appealed to Scorsese not only as a New Yorker but also as a contemporary take on the theme of his hero Roberto Rossellini had explored in EUROPA 51. There Ingrid Bergman is driven to give up a pampered life and devote herself to helping others in the desolation of postwar Europe. In the more skeptical and hallucinatory BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, based on the story of a real paramedic, Cage's character Frank is torn between an almost messianic belief he must save people in the acceptance that he's “only a witness”.

Probably the most remarkable aspect of BRINGING OUT THE DEAD is the visions Frank experiences, especially the recurrent one of the street waif Rose, whom he failed to save. Scorsese now thinks the realization of these visions may have been too concrete, but insists that he could never go about making a film like this in a "Protestant" way - despite his respect for Bergman - where the visions would remain wholly subjective. "That's not me: I have to show them, even if they're clumsy. I think you really do see these things."

The following year Scorsese was offered the unexpected opportunity to realize his dream of creating a fresco of his city's earliest period as a battleground between competing factions in GANGS OF NEW YORK. But even in this sprawling epic there is something of his continuing spiritual quest, as the new Irish-Catholic immigrants are shown assuming the religious identity they would still have a century later, when young Martin was educated by their descendents, the Irish nuns of St. Patrick's School, and especially by the charismatic Father Principe. It was this young priest, arriving in Little Italy in 1953, who opened a youthful Scorsese's eyes to a wider world, and also encouraged him to see that apparently contemporary films could have a religious meaning: he described the battered Brando leading the dockers back to work in ON THE WATERFRONT as "a kind of Calvary".

This sense of the world permeated with the drama of Catholicism - in which "the actual transubstantiation is real, better than any movie: it actually becomes the body of Christ" - is palpable in Scorsese's earliest filmmaking. In WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1968) a church statute literally bleeds before Harvey Keitel's guilt-torn J.R. The same Keitel famously speaks of atoning for sins on the street rather than in church in the opening words of MEAN STREETS (1973). Scorsese still recalls vividly the naïve "faith of youth, which came from my own inward nature, protecting myself as I was growing up. That's when I read Graham Greene's The Heart Of The Matter." But he has since lived through four turbulent decades in the history of the Catholic Church that has seen its authority and integrity challenged on all sides. After the promise of reform launched by the council known as Vatican II in the early 1960s, the church has increasingly set its face against modernization. This has left many Catholics of Scorsese's generation disappointed and angry, especially as financial and sexual scandals have revealed an organization seemingly more concerned with self protective secrecy than with Christian candor.

Compassion and authenticity

Such revelations haven't driven Scorsese to abandon the church but rather to become clearer about separating the earthly institution from its role as - well, what exactly? He has been greatly impressed by Garry Wills’ 2002 bestseller “Why I Am A Catholic” and supports Wells’ wish to insist on a core set of beliefs quite distinct from the "man-made church" of the Vatican. Scorsese says he's neither a radical Catholic nor even a "good" one by normal standards. Yet he is clearly preoccupied by the question of faith: "how can anyone have faith in the modern world? We saw the explosion of interest in spirituality in the 1960s. Maybe it was driven by drugs to some extent, but at least it was exploring, questioning-and now that's been completely shut down. Still, we have to do everything possible to keep asking questions."

Indeed, it's a question of how to live one's life with compassion and, as the existentialists would say, authenticity, that has kept SILENCE on his agenda for over 15 years. It wasn't until the editing of THE DEPARTED that Scorsese and Cocks finally wrote a script he considers workable. The crux of Endo's novel appears to be the drama of torture and doubt that leads the captive father Rodrigues towards committing apostasy - publicly renouncing his faith. What Scorsese has come to realize, after living with the book and studying Endo's other work, is that "Rodrigues thinks he's Jesus, but in the end he discovers he's Judas." The starring role he has envisaged in his own story in fact belongs to the cowardly Japanese convert Kichijiro, "truly disgusting human being" who keeps falling short of his ideals and asking for forgiveness. Rodrigues is forced to recognize that Christianity true to Christ's example demands he grant Kichijiro forgiveness - and, as Endo writes, only when he overcomes his repulsion does "the face of Christ look straight into his" and fill him with shame as he realizes his failure.

This devastating work, hailed by Graham Greene as "one of the finest novels of our time", allows Scorsese to pursue his concern with "what Jesus meant" (the title of another influential Garry Wills book) in a dramatic form as challenging as Kazantzakis’s THE LAST TEMPTATION. He also thinks the issues the novel raises are more relevant than ever today. “If you have real faith, then of course you want to make other people as convinced as you are - go out and save their souls! But you can't impose your beliefs on another culture unless you understand that culture properly, which takes time and compassion. Once the Catholic Church was pretty certain of its rightness, as was Islam, and perhaps the Pentecostal Christians today. I can understand that feeling ‘it's for their own good’, but I resist it. Endo thought the Christianity that would have the most chance in Japan was the feminine side - not the God of judgment but of forgiveness. And I'm interested in how the traditional cultures of Japan, Korea and China accept the evanescence of life in the inevitability of destruction."

But the task of persuading financiers, a studio and actorsto embark on such a spiritual quest remains formidable. Might Daniel Day-Lewis be tempted to return to Scorsese's fold to contribute his unique brand of intensity to the older priest, already accused of apostasy? Might this also be a chance for Scorsese to work with younger European actors, if the new Hollywood spurns his unfashionable choice of subject? Could he find a way of stepping off the superhighway of big-budget productions to work once again on the scale of AFTER HOURS (1985) and THE LAST TEMPTATION (or indeed the ultra-low-budget TAXI DRIVER, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year)? Such decisions aren't easy for a director who has fought so long to establish his authority and keep control of his career, in a world where budgets proclaim clout.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


MOSQUITO COAST (1986, Peter Weir, wr Paul Schrader, fr Paul Theroux)
God had left the world incomplete, he said, and it was man's job to understand how it worked, to tinker with it, and to finish it. I think that was why he hated missionaries so much - because they taught people to put up with their earthly burdens. For father, there were no burdens that couldn't be fitted with a set of wheels, or rudders, or a system of pulleys.

I was so put off by what I took to be the film's virulent missionary bashing – it came out in a time when the culture's hatred of evangelists, particularly cross-cultural ones, was epidemic – I couldn't see whatever strengths it may have had. That may be the movie, or it may only be the movie's central character, whose triumphalist scientism is in any case most definitely weighed in the balance and found wanting. I think the axe being ground is meant to fell western imperialism, including the whole missionary endeavour. But that's a complex issue with truths on both sides, and this film isn't interested in such subtleties: more diatribe than dialectic, MOSQUITO COAST gives us an uncharacteristically shrill Peter Weir.


DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989, USA, Peter Weir)
We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.

John Keating is one of those life-changing idealistic teachers who challenge us to break free of commonplace thinking so we can live extraordinary lives. If you see this film when you're private school age, it may become a lifetime favourite, a thrilling call to intellectual and artistic arms – unless, that is, you revisit it a decade or so later, and happen to notice that Keating's classes are more style than content. Clearly distraught when his own adolescent love affair with the film came to a heart-breaking end, Gareth Higgins points out that while Keating may inspire Neil Parry to seize the day, "quite what he is supposed to do with the day once he has seized it, we are not sure." Roger Ebert despises it on similar grounds, but I'm still not sure why some folks get quite so cranky about it. Why should it need to be more intellectually rigorous or practically minded than "A Midsummer Night's Dream", which the Dead Poets perform and which plays out the same archetypal conflict between age and youth, law and liberty, ancestral tradition and poetic impulse, head and heart, conformity and independence? Anyway, it feels good that Bob Jewett's got my back: he finds resonance with II Timothy, "To link faith so completely with ancestral tradition, whether Jewish or Christian, whether maternal or paternal, diminishes the revolutionary power of faith." Rodge wants intellectual content, Gareth wants an action plan, but me, I'm content to take it as a fairly adolescent-minded story about (and perhaps for) adolescents, a "be not conformed to this world" coming-of-age tale about the power of poetry and theatre to knock rich kids off their ontological treadmills. At least it beats PORKY'S.



THE LAST WAVE (1977, Australia, Peter Wier)
Why didn't you tell me there were mysteries?
David, my whole life has been about a mystery.
No! You stood in that church and explained them away! Dad, I've been taken with some sort of otherness, and I don't know what to do. We've lost our dreams. And they come back, and we don't know what they mean.

David Burton is a wealthy corporate tax lawyer called on to provide legal aid to five aboriginal men charged with murder. As he tries to penetrate the mystery surrounding the man's death, he is drawn deeper and deeper into the Mysteries in his own dreams, in global weather changes, in the spiritual beliefs of this ancient people.

When I saw the film in its day, I was (to use a phrase of the time) blown away. Instead of heading straight home after the credits, I wandered the neighbourhood for a long time, not so much trying to figure this one out as to live for a while in its "unfigurables," to let its potent atmostphere and evocation of spiritual questions resonate. I felt I had been brought into fleeting contact with elusive realities I couldn't explain, which the film thankfully didn't try to explain, and that I would lapse back into something smaller if I let them slip away forgotten.

Watching it again a quarter century later, the film's power was diminished. Partly because that happens with second viewings of movies built around suspense and mystery. Partly because some production elements have not aged well. Maybe mostly because I was seeing the film in my own home on a muddy videotape, not projected on the glorious big screen of my beloved local repertory cinema. (The Ridge, in case you're ever in Vancouver to visit.) I strongly encourage you to seek out the reputedly superb Criterion DVD release if you want to give this one a chance to work its magic: Weir makes much use of darkness in the film (and sudden silences), and you'll want a good clean transfer to really let this one come alive.

Nevertheless, the next morning I am again haunted by this film: it grows again in recollection, its power is in the shape of its story, scraps of dialogue, sudden arresting images, and the things it rearranges inside you. While I'd forgotten most of the details, I marvel especially at the way it has shaped my perceptions of the world over the ensuing years: I was startled to see that key images and ideas had found their way into one of my own plays a decade and a half later, completely unrecognized and quite transformed, but unmistakeable. (People ask artists who thier "influences" are, and artists usually brush the question asied, or reduce it instead to the more answerable question, "what other artists to you like?" We brush it aside because we usually don't know, and it's usually best that way. Let unconscious things stay unconscious, that's what I say.)

This is quintessential Peter Weir, the partner piece to the even more ethereal PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. His signature films are liminal films, standing on the threshold between two worlds. Weir makes movies about what happens when worlds collide, and in his most deeply felt and personal works (mostly the early, Aussie ones) those collisions shatter worldviews and provide the opportunity to glimpse yet another world, beyond. THE LAST WAVE is full of shadows – "a dream is a shadow of something real" – and we're reminded of the Wayang shadow-plays in THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY. It begins to dawn on David that his well-ordered and comfortable life may be an illusion, he bings to recollect moments when he's suspected there may be something beyond what he can see and touch, and we think of Truman Burbank. A city man, a man of the law, finds himself among another kind of people, a people who order their lives around other less malleable laws, eternal spiritual truths that seem irrelevant to modern life, until he finds those assumptions radically shaken by what he witnesses.

THE LAST WAVE has been criticized for being unclear or "hard to understand," but that misses the film's whole point – and its strategy. A western man is threatened by spiritual realities his materialist, rationalist culture has not equipped him to understand, and it is essential that we share his confusion and dread as events and images from the aboriginal "dreamtime" wash over his well-ordered world. We want explanations, but isn't the core of the film the insistence that some things are inexplicable?

Biblical prophets associate the end of an age with a stirring of supernatural, prophetic gifts: "'In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.... I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below."

While we comfort ourselves with the partial truth that those words have already been fulfilled, all prophecy – like art, like Truth – is "a subtle and evasive commodity." One reads Joel's words and is struck with a sense that their fulfillment is both now and not yet. Whatever studious rationalism we may bring to these things, ours ultimately is a supernatural religion, and an apocalyptic one. In some undisclosed season the day will come – whether to us individually, or to our culture, or to all Creation – when we will have to hold hard to Joel's final words, the words that THE LAST WAVE doesn't provide us: terrible times of chaos will surely come, "And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."



FEARLESS (1993, USA, Peter Wier, screenplay Rafael Yglesias)
We used to live in tribes, and when a tribe suffered a disaster – an exploding mountain, the shaking of the earth, a great flood – they would sit around fires and retell the event. Stories of death, desturction, escape, and rescue. That's why we're here today. Would someone tell us their story?

FEARLESS is a film about rebirth, about a man untimely ripp'd from imminent death who finds himself fully alive for the first time. "Behold, all things are become new" – the look and feel of water flowing through his hands, the texture of spittle mixed with dust, the taste of a strawberry. In the midst of a horrific airplane crash Max Klein has discovered an uncanny peace, and now he can't return to his old life, won't take up his responsibilities as a successful architect, as a husband and father. He flees the jangle of media questions that cast him as a fearless hero who saved fellow passengers – "Follow me to the light!" – but he flees them not because they're probably making him out to be something he's not, but because they've maybe got it right. His former fears are gone, his old vulnerabilities are gone, the only fear that remains is the fear of losing his grip on this dazzling new life. (Notice the sudden and significant moments of panic in Max's sea of calm, the flashes of light, the testing of fears.) "Old things are passed away" – even, it seems, his love for his wife and son. And because he discovers in this reborn life a terrible aversion to speaking anything but raw, unprocessed truth, Max refuses to hide his alienation, and their marriage begins to die an untimely death.

Rafael Yglesias, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel, never allows this bemusing, conflicting story to stop puzzling us. Neither is Weir interested in explaining things away, in solving Mysteries, so we are kept in a state of suspension from beginning to end. We can't help but respond to this glorious experience of new life, yet we can't let go of the sense that there's something wrong here. We are never allowed to easily settle for this new life, to agree that it must replace the old. Isabella Rossellini plays Max's virtually widowed wife, a marvel of casting and performance: she is gorgeous, tough, vulnerable, a truth-speaker in her own right and the wisest person in the film, who will fight to get her husband back, but only so far. We cannot understand how he could be so disinterested in her, how he can go on damaging her with his prodigal (misplaced?) love and his thoughtless truths?

Rossellini is magnificent. Watch what she goes through in the course of a single scene when Carla – a fellow crash survivor who's become the centre of Max's new life – appears at her door. "I thought we should talk." Rosie Perez earned an Oscar nom for the reckless abandon of a raging grief that's sometimes surprised by joy, but it's Roberto and Ingrid's little girl who astonishes with an understated virtuosity that eluded the trophy mongers. (Ain't it the way....) Jeff Bridges has never been better than in this portrayal of a cipher of a man both alive and dead, balancing an eerily detached calm with a curious sense of wonder and engagement. From moment to moment, we're unsure whether Max is lost or saved, narcissist or saviour, deluded or divine.

Our perceptions constantly shift between the glory of Max's liberty, a vital engagement with life ready to pour himself out for the almost-lost Carla – heck, I want some of what he's got! – and the horror of his agonizing indifference to this glorious woman and confused son who love him. (Actually, I feel like I do have some of what he's got, for better and for worse: the film bears uncanny similarities to the early days of my own conversion, when the glories of new life in Christ distracted me from the old, when truth-telling and self-sacrifice became obsessions, and friends and family struggled to accept these sudden other-worldly changes, and I struggled to understand their reservations. Even now, decades later, I see in Max my own tensions between living in the world and living in the Kingdom of God. Must I really hate father and mother, abandon home and family?)

Klein's actions, indeed his state of being – are as inscrutable to us as they apparently are to himself. Is he some sort of messiah, a healer, a saviour? He's got the wounds, the followers, and he drinks the deadly thing and it does not hurt him. Or is he in some liberating, destructive sort of denial, a post-traumatic shock that deadens him to his old life while opening up a new? Has he been touched by God, or is he playing god? Winsomely selfless, or alarmingly selfish? Is he invulnerable to life's hurts, or does he only think he is? Can he – should he – save Carla, if it means he may lose his marriage, his home, his family? And what about those of us who taste new life? What sort of sacrifices might we be called on to make, what risks to take? When is it that voice the voice of Yahweh on Moriah, and when is it someother mountaintop voice, out in the wilderness, saying "Cast yourself down..."? When an angel comes from God, the first words out of his mouth are likely to be something along the lines of "Fear not" – but sometimes devils come as angels of light, don't they.

In the first and most interesting phase of his career, director Peter Weir was obsessed with ordinary westerners suddently confronted with spiritual realities beyond their well-ordered worldviews – pragmatic, career-oriented, pretty-much-materialist Horatios contronted with undeniable evidence that there's more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in their philosophies; the survivors of that fateful PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, David Burton in THE LAST WAVE, Guy Hamilton in THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY. Once Weir moved to America that preoccupation faded into the background as budgets got bigger and Hollywood did what Hollywood does, though we still see colliding realities with spiritual fallout in later pieces like WITNESS and THE TRUMAN SHOW. FEARLESS is the one American Weir that returns undeniably to his native land – not Australia, but rather that liminal place between earth and heaven where ordinary people are torn between old and new, immanent and transcendent, between what is human and what is Other. If all of Weir is about strangers in strange lands, then this is the one where a man visits the undiscovered country, "from whose bourne no traveller returns."

There are so many things to love, or at least appreciate, in this dense and complex movie – only its story-line is straightforward and uncluttered, to allow room for nuance and resonance of theme and image, choice and consequence. The glories of the common, everyday, sensual, physical world that coinhere with a strange spiritual transcendence. That masterful opening, mystical and disorienting – what is it about cornfields! Mothers who get their babies back, mothers who don't: women who want to be wives, boys who want to be sons. The juxtapositions of noise and silence – notice how selective Weir is with sound effects, what we hear and what we do not. Shadows on screens that remind us of THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, suggesting spiritual realities that hover just the other side of a paper-thin wall, lit from Somewhere Else. Moments of slow motion, flashes of light, flame, tunnels leading to light or darkness, life or death. The transcendent earthiness of Hieronymous Bosch and Rene Magritte and Andy Goldsworthy, all staring at the brink of the Unknown, the apt as can be music of the Gypsey Kings and Henrik Gorecki and U2.

For all its artistic strengths, whether the film ultimately succeeds or fails with individual viewers may have everything to do with how much they see themselves in its central character. Is Max's experience strange or familiar? Is he invigorated and invigorating, engaged and engaging, or is he alienated and alienating? He curses God, he acknowledges God, he plays God. This is a man who will do whatever desperate thing he must do to hold on to this ecstatic new life: if he loses it, he loses everything. Is that supremely selfish, or sublimely self-transcending? Is he gaining his life or losing it, or both? Is the kingdom of heaven really like that? Do you have to seize it by force? What must we sacrifice to find it, to keep it? Is Max a dead man, a ghost? Or newborn, truly alive for the first time? Or is he just not dead? Is Rosie's God dead, or listening, or incapable of answering her prayers? Or does He come through in the end? Who's her best friend, Jesus or Max or neither or both of the above?

This many ambiguities and ambivalences mark a film that's great to talk about (argue about), and the richness of its artistry provides plenty of detail to stimulate conversation. To some, Max will seem a monster, to others a mortally wounded man in a particularly virulent strain of denial – for them, FEARLESS runs the risk of being a story without a likeable character at its centre. We may admire such films, but we do not love them: instead of entering into the movie's world in the vicarious shoes of a protagonist who is at least a bit like us, we stand outside and observe. But to others, Max is a man caught between two worlds, a man faced with the terrible quandary of holding on to one Good so tightly that he risks losing another. Those who see themselves torn in that kind of spiritual "Sophie's Choice" of the spirit may find this one of those movies of a lifetime, that tells a rarely-told tale they're hungry to hear.



THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY (1982, Australia, Peter Weir)
What then must we do?

1965. A time of violent political turmoil in Southeast Asia. Indonesian President Sukarno has declared this "the year of living dangerously," and as Australian journalist Guy Hamilton steps off the plane to face his first overseas assignment, a tall white man confronted with Jakarta in all its threat and strangeness. Watchful soldiers with automatic weapons. Uniforms everywhere, Asian faces, unintelligible language. Hand-scrawled posters; Go to hell. U.S. Out. CRUSH British and U.S. Imperialism. And a strangely-inflected, almost croaking narrator comments, "You're an enemy here Hamilton, like all Westerners. President Sukarno tells the West to go to hell. And today, Sukarno is the voice of the Third World."

Soon we will meet the owner of that voice, a half-Chinese, half-Australian photographer named Billy Kwan who takes the new journalist under his wing and offers a partnership: "That's what I've always wanted, a real partnership... We'll make a great team old man. You for the words, me for the pictures. I can be your eyes."

But who is this Billy Kwan? And what is the real nature of their relationship, which forms the heart of the film? Kwan is the first character we meet, even before Hamilton touches down, a curiously small man who must reach up from his chair to methodically type information about the new man into some sort of file. He secures a partnership with the Australian journalist by instantly procuring an exclusive interview with the head of the Communist Party. A dwarf, neither Western nor Asian, he seems outside the inner circle of foreign journalists who gather at the Wayang bar, as he seems an outsider in every context we see him in. Yet he apparently has access everywhere, information about everyone, and can move through the dangerous streets of Jakarta unharmed and unnoticed.

If there is mystery about Billy's political intentions, there is also something about the personal aspect of this friendship which makes us increasingly uneasy. He seems too eager to win Hamilton's friendship, and when he wonders whether Hamilton might be "the unmet friend," we have the sense that this isolated little man is trying to fit the newcomer into some personal mythology he has created – an intuition which is substantiated when Billy describes the characters of the sacred Wayang shadow plays;
KWAN: Look at Prince Arjuna. He's a hero. But he can also be fickle and selfish.... This is the Princess Srikandi, noble and proud. But headstrong Arjuna will fall in love with her."
GUY: And who's this one?
KWAN: Ah, he's very special. The dwarf Semar.
GUY: What does he do?
KWAN: He serves the prince.

The correspondence with the two men – at least in Billy's mind – is unmistakable, and in the next line of dialogue he introduces "my Jilly," the third character in this strange little triangle. Through the ensuing scenes he pulls strings to bring Hamilton and the beautiful young woman together, as we become increasingly aware not only of the little man's attraction to Jill Bryant – "I asked her to marry me once: she turned me down" – but also of his almost absurd identification with Guy Hamilton; " We're friends, aren't we? Make a good team. Even look alike. It's true, it's been noticed. Got the same colored eyes."

But there are further complexities here. As much as Billy plays out the role of the servant to his friend Guy, he also sees himself as mentor. When he first leads the newcomer through the dangerous, impoverished streets of Jakarta, he is clearly functioning as something more than a tour guide;
BILLY: And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?
GUY: What's that?
BILLY: It's from Luke, chapter three, verse ten. What then must we do? Tolstoy asked the same question. He wrote a book with that title. He got so upset about the poverty in Moscow that he went one night into the poorest section and just gave away all his money. You could do that now. Five American dollars would be a fortune to one of these people.
GUY: Wouldn't do any good, just be a drop in the ocean.
BILLY: Ahh, that's the same conclusion Tolstoy came to, I disagree.
GUY: Oh, what's your solution?
BILLY: Well, I support the view that you just don't think about the major issues. You do whatever you can about the misery that's in front of you. Add your light to the sum of light. You think that's naive, don't you?
GUY: Yep.
BILLY: It's alright, most journalists do.
GUY: We can't afford to get involved.
BILLY: Typical journo's answer. (Voice Over) You're ambitious, self-contained, moderate to conservative in politics, and despite your naivete, I sense a potential, something immediately apparent, a possibility - could you be the un-met friend?
And when we come to learn that Billy goes regularly – and it seems, secretly - to visit a destitute widow and her ailing little boy, it is clear that his compassion and faith have real substance.

Essentially, THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY is about one man's passion to see another man come alive, politically and spiritually. When he says he will be Hamilton's eyes, he means to do much more than simply supply photos to accompany the reporter's newspaper articles (notice that it is the reporter's eye that is damaged when he tries to gain entry to the palace after Billy's death, that his ultimate change of heart occurs while lying blindfolded, that he begins removing the blindfold as soon as he decides on his final course of action, and that he risks his eye by so doing.) Not only will Billy reveal open the eyes of the career-oriented Western journalist to the harsh realities of Third World life, he seeks to quicken his friend's perception of the spiritual world all around them. As they approach Billy Kwan's house for the first time, Guy is spooked by the eerie creaking around them: Billy tells him it's the bamboo, but goes on to say
BILLY: There is a spirit here. I hear him outside at night. Came inside one night and spilled some bottles of developer.
GUY: Do you really believe that stuff?
BILLY: Absolutely, old man. The unseen is all around us. Particularly here in Java.
A number of times during the following events, when Billy Kwan or the spiritual world are mentioned, we hear similar creaking sounds: when he comes to Hamilton's office unannounced, it is a bamboo-like creaking of the door which startles Hamilton and announces Billy's presence.

This is, of course, prime Peter Weir territory – a western materialist is pulled out of the world he takes for granted and confronted with spiritual mysteries in a world he doesn't understand. Particularly in the director's earlier films we see this theme again and again; the school girls in PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, David Burton in THE LAST WAVE, John Booker in WITNESS, the Max Klein in FEARLESS. At a special showing of THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY for the Director's Guild of America presented in his honour, Weir said he wasn't very interested in the politics of the Sukarno coup:
I loved the line in the book, 'You become like a child again when you first go to Asia.' It's that sense of wonder that everything is new, everything is unknown — there's a kind of mystery in everything.

In the film, we hear this expressed in Billy's voice-over (taken directly from the novel) as he first leads Guy through the streets of Jakarta;
Most of us become children again when we enter the slums of Asia. And last night I watched you walk back into childhood, with all its opposite intensities...
Indeed, this theme of "becoming as a little child" reverberates through C.J. Koch's novel more explicitly than in the film, where they must be rendered visually. In significant ways the film is not the book, but there is clearly a congruence between Billy's often childlike physicality – sitting cross-legged on the desk, or being lifted to Hamilton's shoulders to take photographs of the PKI demonstration – which are visual equivalents to lines such as this description of their initial meeting;
"The cameraman extended his hand, tilting his head back and offering his broad Chinese grin.... The spiky head only just reached his elbow; it was as though the new man walked with a strange child." (pg 7)
Indeed, the sense that Hamilton and Billy are alike in being new men / children is a frequent theme in the novel, right from the opening paragraph; "It brings out the curious child in us to encounter one of these little people."

The central metaphor for the inter-relation of supernatural and material realities is brilliantly cinematic: the Wayang shadow-puppet play. Immediately we are thrust into this strange, indecipherably foreign, supernatural world as sacred gamelan music plays and the opening titles are projected over a performance of one of these ancient spiritual stories.
BILLY: Their shadows are souls. The screen is heaven. You must watch their shadows, not the puppets.
We hear children laughing at the shadowy events being projected onto the screen in front of them – a remarkable metaphor not only for the way everyday flesh and blood events carry spiritual significance, but also for the art of film itself, where flickering projections of darkness and light evoke stories that can be filled with spiritual truth.

This motif recurs often throughout the film. The walls of the Wayang bar, where the journalists meet to socialize and swap leads, are decorated with light-box scenes from the sacred shadow plays, evoking a complex set of metaphors and questions about the insubstantiality of the stories the journalists report, the spiritual implications of their activities and relationships, and a sense that even in their place of retreat from the heat and chaos of Jakarta they are being observed not only by something distinctly Asian, but by supernatural presences they never recognize. When Guy Hamilton first goes into the ABS broadcast office, gamelan music plays as we remain outside and see his silhouette projected onto an opaque window pane in precise parallel with the shadow plays, and when Jill comes to bring him news of the impending revolution, the camera is framed exactly the same as they kiss, silhouetted against that same pane of glass. When Hamilton radios his news stories, we see the images of the Asian characters reflected indistinctly in the glass window of the sound-proof broadcast booth.

Much of the Wayang imagery has to do with Billy, who is himself a puppet-master – as is Sukarno, the other hero with whom Billy so closely identifies;
The puppet master is a priest. That's why they call Sukarno the great puppet master. Balancing the left with the right... The right in constant struggle with the left. The forces of light and darkness in endless balance....
All of this imagery comes together in the sequence where the question of Billy's trustworthiness is brought to the surface by Guy, then (in a certain sense) resolved as we see Billy go in secret to help a widow and her dying son. As Billy bandages the cut his friend received during the PKI demonstration, Guy discovers the files, and confronts Billy;
Who you working for, Billy?
For you.
The Communists? The CIA?
Stop it.
Who are you working for? Why the hell do you keep a file on me?
I keep files on just about everybody.
What for? Why?
That's my business.
Look, if you're an operative for someone else—
I'm not.
Well how am I supposed to know that?
You're just going to have to trust me, aren't you?
We cut directly to Billy working on his files, the voice-over causing us to further question how trustworthy Billy might be – not so much for his possible political secrets as for his psychological ones. Again, what's been implied is now brought to the surface. Just as the three Wayang puppets are among his most prized possessions, he seeks to orchestrate the lives of his friends, invisible like the priest behind the screen. As Semar the dwarf, Billy may exist primarily to serve his master Arjuna, but unseen, he is also the puppet-master, shaping the stories of his friends' lives. He works for Hamilton, but he is also working Hamilton. As Kwan manipulates his files, he comments,
Here on the quiet page I'm master, just as I'm master in the darkroom, stirring my prints in the magic developing bath. I shuffle like cards the lives I deal with. Their faces stare out at me. People who will become other people. People who will become old, betray their dreams, become ghosts.
This cuts directly to Billy making his way through the slums of Jakarta: the gamelan plays, and he is silhouetted against fires, or his shadow projected onto walls. Once again we are moved to trust him – note how our perceptions of his character are also an incessant interplay of darkness and light – as we see his evident compassion, unselfish and practical, for this widow and her dying boy. And as he tries to cheer this child lying at the doorway between life and death, Billy manipulates a mechanical toy, its gestures strangely evocative of the shadow puppets seen during the opening title sequence. And then we see him again making an entry in his file;
Her tragedy is repeated a million times in this city. What then must we do? We must give love to whomever God has placed in our path.
And our trust in this strange man is deepened as we see his awareness that there is a transcendent puppet-master who shaping the stories even of earthly priests and puppet-masters, intentionally placing others in the path of his compassion.

In their final conflict, when Billy accuses Guy of betrayal in filing the PKI arms shipment story that Jill gave him, Guy confronts Billy with the arrogance and delusional nature of the puppet-master role he has chosen for himself;
BILLY: I would have given up the world for her. You won't even give up one story.... I gave her to you, and now I'm taking her back.
GUY: You gave her to me? For Christ's sake, you mad little bastard. You think you can control people's lives just cause you've got them in your bloody files?
BILLY: I believed in you. I thought you were a man of light, that's why I gave you those stories you think are so important. I made you see things. I'll be your eyes. I made you feel something about what you write. I gave you my trust. So did Jill. I created you.
Perhaps in seeking to be God's agent, Billy has made himself a god – it is interesting to note that Semar, the dwarf character in the Wayang, "is also a god in disguise. My patron. The patron of all dwarfs." (pg 83)

In any case, Guy's accusations precipitate an agonizing crisis. Billy agonizes through his own Golgotha alone in his room, playing his opera records, staring at the photos of the mother and her now-dead son, at the eyes of Asian people he has photographed, sobbing "Oh my God, my God, my God" as he types, over and over, "What then must we do?"

This culminates in Billy's final desperate act. In something of a violation of his politic of compassion, simply to act charitably toward whomever God brings in his path and leave aside overt political actions, he resorts to an explicitly political act by trying to confront his other fallen hero by scrawling a large white banner – "Sukarno, feed your people!" – which he will hang out the window of the Hotel Indonesia just as the President arrives. Inevitably, Billy is killed in the act: ironically, the banner is removed before Sukarno even sees it. But Billy dies with a smile, looking up into the face of Guy Hamilton. Has he finally found, in this self-sacrificial death, the answer to his haunting question, "What then must we do?" Or does he simply see love in the face of his grief-stricken friend?

This final act of sacrificial love, which may be the doorway to his friend's redemption, raises the question whether Billy may be something of a Christ figure. Lloyd Baugh thinks so: "Billy Kwan in Peter Weir's 1982 film THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY acts as master and guide for Guy Hamilton, in the end paying for Hamilton's salvation with his life." Certainly this notion is introduced early in the film, when he quietly challenges Pete's use of the cemetery prostitutes;
BILLY: Starvation's a great aphrodisiac.
PETE: Keep it up, Billy, keep it up. We'll just nail you to the old cross, huh? Besides, he can afford to be virtuous, you know. He's holding hands with the best looking chick in town.
BILLY: She's a friend Curtis.
PETE: Sure she is Billy.
BILLY: You'd find that kind of relationship hard to understand, wouldn't you Curtis?
PETE: Oh get me the nails, I'm going to hang the little bastard up right now.
There are other hints and suggestions: when another journalist is astonished that Billy correctly identifies the stranger in the bar as "the new ABS man," another character remarks "The guy knows everything."

Clearly, though, we don't want to take this too far. It could be said that, more than actually being a messiah figure, Billy had a messiah complex. But that is too negative a judgment on this complex character. To some degree, anyone who tries to follow Christ will aspire to be like their master, to do things that Christ did: and certainly, self-sacrifice is central to the way that Jesus taught and modeled.

But this in turn raises the question, was Billy a follower of Jesus? He quotes from the gospels, and is deeply affected by one of the most explicitly religious books by the Christian writer, Leo Tolstoy. For all the aspects of Eastern religious thought he also seems to have incorporated into his belief system, I couldn't help seeing Billy as a fellow Christian when I first saw the film – an impression that was substantiated when I subsequently read the novel. When talking with Guy about his personal response to poverty and suffering, Billy prefaces his thoughts with the phrase "Of course there's always the Christian point of view, to which I usually subscribe." He reads Teilhard de Chardin, the Catholic mystic, and next to the Wayang puppets on Billy's wall hung a plain crucifix. Asked about his concern for the poor, he responds "As a Christian, I have to be concerned about them – they're my brothers" (pg 96). But as unabashed as he is about identifying himself as a Christian, he goes on to say;
I'm a convert. But I don't think the Faith is much good unless it's passionate. Lately I have a feeling the Church has spent its passion. If it has, it's no place for me. There's something rather fine about Islam, don't you think? The passion's still there. I'm attracted to it.... Religion's no good without passion. That's why I left the Methodists. Yeah, I even tried them at one stage.... When I see these people living like stray dogs I get angry. I think a Christian should get angry. I'm a Christian radical, if you like." (pp 96, 98)
These details are external to the world of the film, and don't bear directly on it. Still, for all it necessarily trims out of the novel, the movie script plays straight with to the material it can keep – the novelist is one of the three credited screenwriters, along with David Williamson and Peter Weir himself. Suffice it to say that the suggestions of Billy's Christianity are born out by the source novel, as are the ambiguities and contradictions we also see.

There is a fundamental tension in Billy that has to do with his dwarfism, and the way that has excluded him from many things. He is Chinese and Australian, both eastern and western, and yet neither. He says in a voice-over as he works on Hamilton's file, cutting out his friend's figure, puppet-like, from a photograph, "I find we have something else in common. We are divided men.... We're not quite at home in the world."

Is Billy a Christ-figure? Sort of. Is he a Christian? Mostly. But where does the film itself come down, in the final analysis. The answer is as evasive as the answers to the previous questions.

Perhaps the film is itself profoundly eastern, and to attempt to "Christianize" would be to falsify it, to miss its point. The controlling image of the film is that of the Wayang shadow play: describing it for Guy, Billy says " In the west we want answers for everything. Everything is right or wrong, or good or bad. But in the Wayang, no such final conclusions exist." Guy's journey toward spiritual awakening culminates in his own long dark night of the soul, blindfolded, lying on his back in Billy's apartment, his future – even his survival – uncertain in the midst of the political chaos the country has descended to. The bamboo creaks, he mutters to himself, he hears Billy's voice quoting from the Wayang: "All is clouded by desire." Then his ABS assistant arrives, tells Guy of the failure of the Communist coup. Guy listens to Kumar's words, so reminiscent of Billy's;
KUMAR: Am I a stupid man? Then why should I live like a poor man all my life, when stupid people in your country live well?
GUY: Good question.
KUMAR: Mr Billy Kwan was right. Westerners do not have answers anymore. Water from the moon.
GUY: What does that mean, Kumar?
KUMAR: It's an old Javanese saying. It means something one cannot ever have.
And after a moment's silence, Hamilton knows what he must do. Unwrapping the bandage from his eyes, he pursuades Kumar to drive him to the airport to fulfill his promise to Jill. Kumar doesn't understand this sudden resolve;
KUMAR: Why do you have to leave now? You can stay and write all the stories you want.
And Hamilton offers no response, except to put on his shirt and pick up his shoulder bag. In the background, we see Billy Kwan's Bible on an empty shelf.
KUMAR: I hope to catch a plane is worth losing your eye.
And they are off.

So what's the resolution of it all? That final answers – political, moral, relational, spiritual – are water from the moon, "something one cannot ever have"? Are the forces of darkness and light, of left and right, in endless balance? Is the western idea wrong, that "everything is right or wrong, good or bad"? Is nothing ultimately good or bad? Or is it only that not everything can be summed up easily?

I don't know. Like many works of art, THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY raises complex, important questions but refuses to provide us the answers. I don't know "what the film is saying," or if it is saying anything. Maybe it's only asking.

But I do know that I am left with the indelible picture of Billy Kwan. A passionate, flawed man, hungry to find spiritual reality and to extend human mercy. He sought to serve God, to awaken others to God and to spiritual realities. In the process, he was tempted to play God, began to think of himself as a god, and yielding to that unacknowledged temptation cost him what he most craved; trust, partnership, friendship. Confronted with that fact, grieved by the impossibility of making things work as he wished them to be, he gave himself up to death, and in so doing found that the things he sought were accomplished.


One writer comments that THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY loses its way toward the end. This isn't every viewer's experience, and I wonder if this has to do with how much weight different audience members give to different aspects of the story. Neither the love story nor the final proving of Guy Hamilton's character are ultimately resolved until the final image of the film: even once Guy has made his choice to leave "the stories" behind and keep his promise to meet Jill on the plane, the six minutes remaining until that final moment are filled with danger and momentum, as the journalist and his driver make their way through a city in the grips of violence, past columns of military vehicles and road-side executions, through check points and ultimately the chaos of a third world, military-controlled airport as hundreds struggle to catch the last planes out of Jakarta.

Still, as high as the stakes are, as skilful as the story-telling and editing may be, as much as we yearn for Hamilton to succeed once he's made his choice to put human relationship and a promise above his career and his "addiction to risk," there's a sense in which he is simply living out what Billy Kwan had hoped for him. And Billy is gone from the story. And with him, for some viewers, the real heart of the film.

The fundamental question every script writer must ask – and is constantly asked during the process of writing – is, Who is the main character? Whose story is this? Because once that character's journey is resolved, the movie is over. You'd better tie up all the other story lines first, because once we know if the "throughline character" succeeds at getting what they need, every person in the theatre senses the show is over and it's time to head for the parkade.

Two questions help decide whose story THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY might be: Who do we care most about? And who drives the action forward? The answer to first question can be very subjective, a judgement call – some audience members may find the story of Guy Hamilton's gradual awakening gets their sympathies most, while others are most drawn to the powerful love story - but for my money, it's Billy Kwan who grabs hold, in all his mystery, yearning, and idealism. The answer to the second question is usually much clearer – and in this movie, for all Guy Hamilton's initiative and relentless drive, it's Billy Kwan who moves the events of the story forward. In John Hanrahan's biography of Mel Gibson, the actor notes that, while " my face had to be in it, from the first to the last frame." Indeed, his picture is on every poster – alone, or with his romantic opposite, Sigourney Weaver. Their names are above the title. The tagline – "A love caught in the fire of revolution" – tells us whose story the marketers think we'll want to see. And truly, the film charts the journey of Gibson's character from his arrival at the Jakarta airport, his first overseas posting, to his desperate departure from that same airport, a changed man, tape recorder abandoned like a shed skin.

But Gibson goes on to comment that portraying the character presented him with a challenge "because Hamilton never initiated anything.... He really is a reactor: he reacts to all these things done to him." For all his star appeal, and for all the character's essential energy and drive, it isn't "his movie."

But Peter Weir points to the story's real centre in an interview he gave to the Directors Guild of America when he said "the Billy Kwan character was the great creation of the novelist. Being half-Asian, half-Caucasian, he had a kind of understanding of both worlds yet belonged to neither...." It is Billy's hopes for the characters that we come to share: it is Billy who manipulates circumstances to challenge Hamilton's careerism and western materialism, who engineers the romance between Guy and Jill, and whose final act ultimately leads to Guy's change of heart.

Structurally, on the page, Billy Kwan is the film's central character. It is at least as important to consider, though, how it plays out on the screen. How do the performances of the actors shape our perception? Who draws our focus?

One of the film's great successes was the casting of its two romantic leads. Gibson's biggest role to date had been in Weir's GALLIPOLI, a powerful performance in a powerful, beautifully crafted film – but that film was not a mainstream, commercial film, and Gibson wasn't yet the star he was to become, in part because of THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY. Sigourney Weaver had played Ripley in ALIEN, so she was well known, but that looks bigger in hindsight than it was: the franchise hadn't been established yet, and in that initial film – the first in what ended up being a series with Weaver as the star – the emergent heroism of her character was almost a gag: "quote from Weaver interview." Weir's new movie was blessed by the potent screen presence and smouldering chemistry of two soon-to-be-stars stepping together into the spotlight.

Nevertheless, it is Linda Hunt – unnamed even now on the front of the DVD package, her picture not included on the cover of the edition of the novel released to coincide with the film – who won critical accolades and an Academy Award for her portrayal of Billy Kwan. Partly, of course, in recognition of the extraordinary accomplishment, a woman playing a man's role. But anyone who might wonder if the kudos were due to the novelty of the stunt rather than real artistic accomplishment will forget that qualm once the movie has been viewed. This is a magnificent performance of an unforgettable and utterly original character, filled with passion, restraint, feeling and intelligence. She incarnates all the "opposite intensities" of this wise child: strength and vulnerability, insight and delusion, experience and naivete, self-deification and self-sacrifice.

Peter Weir's films are films about Mystery, about spiritual and human questions without simple definitive answers. In the Wayang shadow play, its eternal balance of light and darkness and its testimony to things unseen, he finds a central metaphor for these supernatural probings. And in Billy Kwan he finds a remarkable embodiment of these contradictions, and of this spiritual yearning, an unforgettable centre for one of his finest films.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

the da vinci code

Never did see this one, my feelings ranging from indifferent to hostile. But the dvd just came out, or is about to come out, or something, and some word ought to be entered into the public record. For my spokesperson, I have selected Kevin Jackson of Sight & Sound: his ruminations appeared in the July issue.

Since it is hardly an arcane and closely guarded secret that Ron Howard's adaptation of Dan Brown's THE DA VINCI CODE is achingly dull, it seems only sporting to note some of the ways in which the film significantly improves on the book.

One, the viewer does not have to wade through Brown's execrable prose; the merits of this deletion can hardly be overstated.

Two, though Hanks brings no more than a slighly baffled Everyguy decency and an unusual, medium-long haircut to the role of Robert Langdon, said to be a professor of "religious symbology," he is far more likeable and less of a pompous bore than his prose counterpart, who (the fact is embarrassingly obvious within about two pages) is an adolescent dream version of the author himself ("a dark stubble was shrouding the strong jaw and dimpled chin... His female colleagues insisted the grey only accented his bookish appeal..." Phwoar, missus.)

Three, similarly, though Audrey Tautou, playing cryptographer Sophie Neveu, is given almost nothing to do with her part except look worried and dismayed, she is... well, Audrey Tautou. Red-blooded chaps will not find it too hard to stay awake during her scenes. ...

...Purists might find (Howard's) decision to stage the Council of Nicaea as a cross between closing time at the New York stock exchange and a football riot a trifle dubious, but there is an undeniable frisson in seeing the tenets of Christianity being thrashed out in hooligan manner...

Just when things almost get cracking, it's time to stop dead for yet more specious drivel about the Knights Templar. The result is stodgy, but also confusing, at least for those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the book: after the screening I attended, the auditorium echoed with questions like "so who was the monk in the car?" and "doesn't the Louvre have security cameras?"

Theological debate was notably absent; the Catholic Church will probably remain unshaken for quite a while yet.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Nov 29: Ken Priebe on Stop Motion Animation

A presentation & panel discussion at the Vancouver International Film Centre
Wed Nov 29, 7:30pm (6:30 book signing)

More details

Ken Priebe is a new film buddy of mine - he showed up one night at the movie group that meets occasionally at our house (kinda like a book club, but with... you get the idea). It was fabulous! We were looking at IRON GIANT that night, an animated classic that Ken has spent a lot of time with. See, he's an animator himself, and he brought incredible insight into the film and its themes, on top of all kinds of detail about the craft of the film.

Ken's also a regular contributor to Hollywood Jesus - well, less regular now that he and his wife have created a new little animated feature of their own, who needs regular feeding, cleaning and entertainment - and I've really enjoyed his pieces in the two published annual review anthologies from HJ, in which Ken brings a distinctly Christian perspective to HOME ON THE RANGE, GARDEN STATE and MARCH OF THE PENGUINS. (Wish he could have joined me at the HAPPY FEET preview! I'm reviewing it this week for CT Movies).

Ken also teaches 2D and stop-motion animation - in fact, he wrote the book on sto-mo! Quite literally. “The Art of Stop-Motion Animation” went into print this summer, and is already the textbook for courses on making movies like WALLACE & GROMIT.

You can join Ken and other industry professionals for a presentation and panel discussion on all that kinda stuff at the VIFC on Nov 29.


Ken Priebe
Ken earned a BFA from the University of Michigan, where he studied art and film and directed several independent animation shorts. He has worked as an animator for several childrens' games and freelance projects for Hasbro Interactive and other independent filmmakers. Ken currently works in admissions at VanArts and teaches part-time courses in 2D and Stop-Motion Animation.

joyeux noel

I've often wondered about this one. Anybody seen it? New at Videomatica

JOYEUX NOEL (Coming Nov 14/06) (2005)
Cast List: Diane Kruger Benno Fürmann Guillaume Canet Dany Boon
Director : Christian Carion
Based on a true story, "Joyeux Noel" is an inspired tale of peace and hope
in a time of deep conflict. On the Western Front, German soldiers are
fighting their French and English counterparts with the Christmas season
quickly approaching. Against the orders of their superior officers, the
front-line officers on each side call a truce on Christmas Eve to share in
a private game of football and a night of peace. Christian Carion's film
was Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-nominated for Best Foreign Language
Feature Film. --JA

Saturday, November 11, 2006


Movie projects in development, in production, in post-production or in limbo. Maybe someday we'll get to see them.

Updated May 28 2007

Anne Rice, the vampire lady? Sting's evocative "Moon Over Bourbon Street" was inspired by her "Interview With The Vampire", so I checked out the novel. The opening chapters struck me as fine literary writing, before the book devolved into something more generic and commercial. Word is she's become a Christian, and all of a sudden everybody seems to be reading her fictionalized recreation of Jesus' childhood years, and declaring it worthy.
Anyhow, there's a film deal now.
(More here)

Yet another Jesus movie - Mel, what hast thou wrought? Definitely the strangest of the new batch, from Lukas Moodysson. (More here) Updated Nov 21

Bad boy Abel Ferrara's entry in the Jesus Movie Derby that Uncle Mel revved up. Seen on screens big and small in Europe, but nothing outside the festivals here in North America. Check out the whole saga here.

Scott Derrickson is developing an adaptation of John Milton's Paradise Lost. PTC: "Joining the conceptual team is none other than artist Wayne Barlowe, whose book BARLOWE'S INFERNO has given readers a nightmarish and fascinating look at hell . . . . The painter/illustrator has also lent designs on a number of Hollywood projects, notably Guillermo del Toro's BLADE II and HELLBOY. "One of the first things I did was to go after Stuart and Wayne; I liked Stuart's writing skills and Wayne's visual skills," the director says. "INFERNO was the reason I was so passionate about trying to get Wayne involved, and I knew that if PARADISE LOST was going to work, it'd have to have that kind of visual imagination."

Film Comment, May-June 2006: "Donna Woolfolk Cross's historical novel, Pope Joan, has been translated into 23 languages and, in Germany, is number one on the long-term bestseller list. The book tells the tale of a ninth-century Englishwoman who posed as a man to become a monk, and the subsequent road she traveled that eventually led to her securing the title of His Holiness. (The truth of the story remains subject to controversy.) Some may recall the 1972 version of the story starring Liv Ullmann - and now Volker Schlondorff has a film adaptation in development." Years back I read a stage treatment of the story, briefly considered it for Pacific Theatre.
Schlondorff's THE NINTH DAY, about a WW2 priest pressured to stop opposing the Nazis, is now available on DVD.

I'm pretty qualmy about Tim LaHaye's books ("Left Behind," "Right Behind," etc), so my enthusiasm for Upcoming Jesus Movie Project #387 is a tad muted. But I figure you all deserve to be in the know...

PTC reports that The Hollywood Reporter says Jon Voight and Lolita Davidovich are currently shooting a film called September Dawn in Alberta: "a love story set against the 19th century massacre of a wagon train of settlers in Utah at the hands of a renegade Mormon group. Voight plays the leader of the renegade Mormon faction, while Davidovich is a member of the wagon train who stands up to Voight's threats."

Summer 2006: Currently filming on location in Rwanda, a Canadian feature-film treatment of the story of Romeo Dallaire, the French Canadian head of the UN mission at the time of the genocide. After the original documentary by the same title, then HOTEL RWANDA, then SHOOTING DOGS, you start to wonder if there aren't other atrocities film-makers might turn their attention to. Still, Rwanda deserves all the attention it can get. And certainly Dallaire is a compelling figure. A Catholic, he was asked whether he still believes in God after his shattering experiences, and he replied that he did - after all, he'd shaken hands with the devil. Globe & Mail, Aug 5: "Dupuis, having prepared for his latest role with instruction from Dallaire, says he's playing the retired general more like a priest at the start of a spiritual odyssey. . . ."

"Scorsese is turning his sights to a story of missionaries in 17th century Japan. "Silence" is a long-cherished project that he hopes to shoot partially in Japan in summer 2008. Although it's a period piece, Scorsese thinks it has lessons for America today. "It raises a lot of questions about foreign cultures coming in and imposing their way of thinking on another culture they know nothing about," Scorsese told The Associated Press on Thursday -- raising his eyebrows just to make the point absolutely clear." Associated Press, May 24 2007

Jason Goode writes: " Ron, While you are building your book with reviews of soul food movies, I thought I'd recommend one that you probably haven't seen: SOLITUDE by Robin Schlaht (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0281206/). Robin is a
Regina based filmmaker who I got to know while living in Sask and we've been in touch ever since. Solitude is beautiful film about 3 lives that intersect at a Saskatchewan monastery. The film had a great festival life, but it was never released on DVD (perhaps in the future)."

untitled Dardenne Jesus film
Doug Cummings: "in his newly published diary, Luc Dardenne mentions a couple of times that he and Jean-Pierre are thinking about making a Jesus film. I don't have it with me at the moment, but he writes something like, 'this would not be the story of his life, but a snapshot of his reality; the faces, places, bodies, and interactions of his world' or somethign like that. He insisted they'd shoot it in Israel."

untitled "Inherit The Wind" project
Film Comment, May-June 2006: "The 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, in which substitute science teacher John T. Scopes was basically charged with heresy for teaching evolution to Tennessee high-school students, has been resurrected. Paramount has hired the prolific scribe Ronald Harwood (who won an Oscar not too long ago for his screenplay for THE PIANIST) to create a contemporary Scopes script based on the proceedings of the 2004 Dover Area School District case in Pennsylvania. Siding with blue-state ethos, the presiding U.S. district court judge barred the teaching of 'intelligent design' in the classroom, and accused the thinly veiled creationists of 'breath-taking inanity.'"

untitled Von Trier Dreyer project
Film Comment, May-June 2006: "Lars von Trier is making a documentary about one of his favorite films (no, not THE SOUND OF MUSIC): Danish master Carl Th. Dreyer's 1964 swan song, GERTRUD."

Peter Chattaway: "Paramount Pictures is headed to Sunday school with the purchase of the A.J. Jacobs novel The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Obey the Bible as Literally as Possible. The studio has taken the book to Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment, which will serve as the producer of the adaptation. Living Biblically will be published by Simon & Schuster in fall 2006. In the book, Jacobs, an editor-at-large at Esquire magazine, spent a year of his life trying to live, literally, by the rules set forth in both the Old and New Testaments."


Was slated for NY/LA opening September 8. No sign of a Vancouver screening yet.

With all the twelve step language in the blurb, I wonder how the good old Higher Power will come into this one? I hear it's pretty raw, and suspect Sherry's jail-cell religion is mostly something she drops like hot jewelry once she's out of The Big House. Still, as I'm wont to say, you never know. In any event, this business of living out your best intentions, following through on a change of heart, is always close to my heart.
"Three years after entering prison for robbery as a 19-year-old heroin addict, Sherry Swanson (Maggie Gyllenhaal) begins her first day of freedom, clean and sober. A model prisoner who has undergone personal transformation, she immediately sets out to regain custody of her young daughter Alexis. Unprepared for the demands of the world she's stepped back into, Sherry's hopes of staying clean, getting a job, and becoming a responsible mother are challenged by the realities of unemployment, halfway houses, and parole restrictions. Bobby and Lynn's concerns about Sherry's ability to care for Alexis, and her inability to prove them wrong, threaten to destroy the already delicate relationship she has with her daughter, as well as her newfound sobriety."

mary (ferrara)

Godard meets Arcand?
The saga of Abel Ferrara's MARY, still not released in North America...

Film Comment, Nov/Dec 2004
Vincent Gallo Superstar. Yes, he of The Brown Bunny will partake in a film delving into the psyche of our Lord Jesus Christ, and yes, Abel Ferrara, our baddest cinematic lieutenant, will direct. Gallo will play two roles in Mary, one as the director of a controversial (you don't say?) film depicting the life of Christ - and the other, we assume, will give him yet another cross to bear. Sarah Polley will play the titular virgin."

Hollywood Reporter, August 2005
Modine will also be in Toronto to tout "Mary," in which he plays an independent director casting himself as Jesus Christ in his film. Abel Ferrara directs the drama that includes Juliette Binoche as an actress playing Mary Magdalene. The drama will first bow in Venice before having its North American premiere in Toronto.

Venice Festival, Summer 2005
"U.S. director Abel Ferrara won the Jury Grand Prix for "Mary," starring Juliette Binoche as an actress haunted by the figure of Mary Magdalene after having played her on screen."

But here's the reaction from Variety when MARY screens at the 2005 Toronto Fest
"Maverick helmer Abel Ferrara's Catholic angstfest "Mary" met with considerable disbelief after its first Venice screening, but the Ferrara faithful will recognize a partial return to form after several disappointments. Not quite a standout like "Bad Lieutenant," but hardly a dud like "New Rose Hotel," "Mary" reps a sincere grapple with faith and redemption in cynical times. Tricky construction, nesting a film within the film, hits plenty of duff notes. But passionate turns from Forest Whitaker and Juliette Binoche could be the touch of grace needed to get pic a distribution blessing after ancillary-only releases for the last few Ferrara pics.

Cocky American film director Tony Childress (Matthew Modine, amusingly channeling Ferrara's persona) finishes helming a revisionist biblical drama shot in Italy called "This Is My Blood," that stars him as Jesus and major Euro star Marie Palesi (Binoche) as Mary Magdalene. Portions show Mary not as a prostitute but rather a full fledged disciple locked in a power struggle with fellow-disciple Peter, and feature an intense perf by Binoche/Marie.

Having gone deep into the role, Marie has had some kind of spiritual epiphany. When it's time to strike the set, she refuses to go home and sets out for Jerusalem.

A year later in Gotham, Ted Younger (Whitaker) hosts a slightly implausible weeklong, primetime nightly network TV special examining the historical truth about Jesus. Various experts (played by real-life scholars such as Jean-Yves Leloup, Amos Luzzatto and Elaine Pagels) and clergy discuss alternative gospels or issues in theology on the show.

Younger goes to see a press screening of "This Is My Blood" introduced by Childress. Younger asks Childress to appear on his show to discuss the film, which looks set to reap similar controversy to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Younger would also like to book Marie on the show, but Childress claims not to know where to find her. . . ."

Summer '06, word of a potential US distributor, and PTC comments
"Jeffrey Wells says the eventual DVD release should include Rafi Pitts's Not Guilty (2003), a documentary about Ferrara, as a bonus feature. Personally, I think it would be even more appropriate to package the film with Alex Grazioli's Odyssey in Rome (2005), which chronicles the making of Mary."

Paste mag is dismissive...
Over-the-top Biblical mess intrigues as only Abel Ferrara can

Louder and more chaotic than its material seems to warrant, Abel Ferrara’s Mary seems like the condensed version of a much larger movie. It includes scenes from a religious epic, TV interviews, street fights, limo rides, infidelity, hypocrisy, apostasy and conversion, but at a mere 83 minutes it’s over before it really begins.

Forest Whitaker plays a TV host examining the historical Jesus on a nightly broadcast, and Matthew Modine is the director and star of an unconventional Biblical film. Modine agrees to appear on Whitaker’s show, boosting both their careers, but one person they can’t yoke to their PR efforts is Juliette Binoche who plays Mary Magdalene in Modine’s movie. She’s been so transformed by the experience that at the shoot’s end she drops everything and heads to Jerusalem.

Very little of this mess works in any conventional sense, but as the performances begin to redline — as Whitaker bottoms out and begs God to save his child and Binoche takes to the water like a fisher of men — the movie examines the relationship between performance and contrition. All the characters are actors; some are trying to open a channel to God while others are putting on a show intended to earn some grace. It’s a fitting topic for Ferrara, whose movies frequently embrace the same contradictions. They’re all here in Mary — the excess, the guilt and the search for truth. Intriguingly jumbled with some assembly required.

And now Matt Page tells us there's a European DVD available through Amazon (in France).

But still no sign of MARY round about these here parts...

resurrection (2007)

I'm pretty qualmy about Tim LaHaye's books ("Left Behind," "Right Behind," etc), so my enthusiasm for Upcoming Jesus Movie Project #387 is a tad muted. But I figure you all deserve to be in the know...
June 08, 2006: Paul Bond, The Hollywood Reporter

"Picking up where the biblical story of Jesus Christ's passion leaves off, Screen Gems is angling for an Eastertime release of a feature film tentatively titled "The Resurrection," people familiar with the project confirmed Wednesday. Using the Bible for its source material, RESURRECTION will tell the story of Jesus Christ beginning the day he died on the cross and ending about 40 days later with his ascension into heaven.

According to insiders, Screen Gems, headed by Clint Culpepper, commissioned a script several months ago from Lionel Chetwynd, the veteran screenwriter, producer and director whose credits include THE HANOI HILTON for the big screen and the Emmy-nominated TV movie "Ike: Countdown to D-Day." Set to produce is Tim LaHaye, co-author of the best-selling "Left Behind" series of books. A popular minister and frequent TV news pundit, RESURRECTION will mark LaHaye's first foray into mainstream filmmaking.

In mining biblical material, those behind the project hope to tap into the same vein that so richly rewarded Mel Gibson for his self-funded "The Passion of the Christ." The 2004 release earned $612 million in worldwide boxoffice receipts, making it one of the 30 most-popular films of all time.

"THE PASSION ends with Jesus being taken from the cross, and THE RESURRECTION opens with the empty cross," a person familiar with the script said. According to the Bible, women who visited the tomb of Jesus Christ three days after his crucifixion found it empty, and his disciples and other acquaintances, including Mary Magdalene, encountered him postresurrection on various occasions during a 40-day period. The film will focus on these dramatic encounters and their implications for the Roman garrison in Judea and the broader Roman Empire, insiders said. "This is not a fanciful rendering. It's a serious attempt to understand the Roman world in which Christ moved and the Christian era was born," a person familiar with the project said."


REQUIEM (2006, Germany, Hans-Christian Schmid, Bernd Lange)

A restrained and understated treatment of the same events that inspired THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, dramatizing the tragic exorcism in 1976 of a young German university student whose "demonic" manifestations may have been supernatural in origin, or may have been some form of epilepsy. The fascination of the Derrickson film lay in the interaction between the director's Christian convictions about the reality of evil and genre expectations raised by fictionalizing the story in the guise of a commercial horror pic. Though also fictionalized, REQUIEM sticks much closer to the historical events, employing a matter-of-fact cinematic style that elicits more sorrow than terror, resulting in a sympathetic psychological study that refuses to come down on either side of the natural / supernatural debate, leaving the viewer with the same agonized perplexity one might experience in the face of such events in real life. Both films are anchored by stage actresses in breakout turns: Jennifer Carpenter delivers a body-blow physical performance in the title role of Emily Rose, while Sandra Hueller's tightly contained uber-naturalism as Michaela Klingler won her the Berlin Festival’s Silver Bear. A rigorous, heart-breaking film: if not exactly faith-affirming, still highly recommended.


perfume (tykwer)

Limited release December 8, wide release Jan 5

I know this looks like just another horror/depravity/murder/thriller picture, and that may be all it is. Two things, though.

A few years back, a theologically-inclined buddy insisted I read the source novel for its real insights into the nature of sin and salvation: it's not an amoral novel, but a moral novel that shows the reality and consequences of evil – rather like Doctor Faustus, or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Even better, it's being directed by Tom Tykwer, so it's sure to be something much more thoughtful and substantial than a typical exploitative thriller: he directed the brilliant RUN LOLA RUN, which I (and theologian Robert K Johnston, in his book on Ecclesiastes and film) consider profoundly spiritual, as well as its "follow-up" THE PRINCESS & THE WARRIOR (on similar themes). Tykwer was also chosen to direct the first of the HEAVEN/HELL/PURGATORY series of films which were to have been the next projects of European director Krystof Kieslowski, who was completely concerned with moral / spiritual issues: his THREE COLORS trilogy and his DECALOGUE series (which looked closely at each of the Ten Commandments) regularly place right near the top of the Arts & Faith Spiritually Significant Films poll.

Saw the trailer last night when I went to see THE QUEEN, and Liz and I both agreed, you can tell this is the biggest-budgeted German film ever: the money's all up there on the screen. Looked more Gothic Lush than Tykwerian, but you never know...

nina's house

"Quietly magnificent, if classically told, tale of tentative, incremental readjustment by young Jews who survived the horrors of WWII, LA MAISON DE NINA takes place between Sept 1944 and Jan 1946 in an orphanage housed in a chateau outside Paris. ... Starting in 1944, in the wake of the Liberation, and continuing into the '60s, "houses of hope" were established to lend a semblance of continuity to the lives of youngsters orphaned by the war. Dembo, born in 1948, went to summer camp in one such establishment, where he observed some of the people who had lived there since the war – and the real-life Nina who inspired his script. ... Conflicts are keenly portrayed between the initial residents (who lean toward secular Jewish pride) versus the boys and young men from points East, including Poland and Romania, who survived the camps. Latter feel obliged to assert the faith of their exterminated fathers and revive their rituals. ...

"Jean (Alexis Pivot) still plays classical piano but is no longer comforted by the music; Sylvie (Adele Csech) and her little brother, Georges (Jeremy Sitbon), dream of their mother every night; Izik (Gaspard Ulliel) has gone mute; Gabriel (Vincent Rottiers) discovers one of his parents survived the war, yet can't rejoice; and Leiser (David Mambouch, a standout) needs to re-connect with the teachings of the Torah. ... Precise dates are superimposed to indicate such momentous events as the fall of Berlin and Hitler's suicide, the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima and the founding of the United Nations. All are contrasted with the smaller but equally momentous events at the chateau."

jesus camp

Though it's only in limited release (hasn't yet reached Vancouver), that hasn't stopped this one from garnering lots of attention. For example, over at CT Movies;
Jesus Camp Sparks Controversy
Brainwashed In The Blood
On Fire At Jesus Camp
Jesus Camp Shuts Down

Some comments from Peter Chattaway:
"BOYS OF BARAKA filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady screened their latest effort, JESUS CAMP, in the International Documentary Competition, to a packed house in Lower Manhattan. The emotional doc from A&E IndieFilms profiles "Kids on Fire," a summer camp in Devil's Lake, North Dakota devoted to inspiring children towards a deeper devotion to the evangelical Christian movement. Organizer Becky Fischer, who has dedicated her life to spread her religious beliefs to the young, is a polarizing yet affable figure who is likely viewed as a hero to some and frightening to others. Backers of the film told indieWIRE that the film can play to audiences on either side of the political spectrum, and quite frankly, it's true.

"[The Christian right] feel empowered right now and they gave us a lot of access - more than had we done [the film] some years earlier," said co-director Heidi Ewing following the film's screening Thursday. Ewing and Grady said that Ms. Fischer had seen the film and was pleased with its content, although, unfortunately, she was not present for the screening because she was attending a charismatic conference in Los Angeles. "Becky saw the film and loved it," chimed the directing duo.

One particularly inflammatory scene in the film takes place at a revival meeting at the camp lead by Fischer and her associates, in front of well over 100 children. Fischer takes a life-size standup photo of President Bush to the stage, with a large American flag in the background, and asks the crowd to raise their hands towards him as they begin to chant for him to appoint conservative judges to the Supreme Court. Fischer and her fellow evangelicals view Bush as their primary hope to push their right wing agenda regarding abortion rights, prayer in school, and gay rights, and the film captures the emotional devotion instilled on a new young generation of evangelicals. Many in the mostly liberal New York audience could be overheard saying that the film should be a call to arms for people on the left side of the cultural/political divide. The evangelicals, however, are reveling that their message has become an entrenched and potentially irreversible reality."

And then Peter tells us the latest news: Jesus Camp Back To Haunt Ted Haggard

(While you're waiting for this one to arrive, you could always rent HELL HOUSE.)

the virgin spring

THE VIRGIN SPRING (Jungfrukällan, Sweden 1959)
Pacific Cinematheque
Thu Dec 21 – 7:30 pm
Fri Dec 22 – 9:20 pm
Cinematheque: "Winner of the 1960 Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, The Virgin Spring is one of the most powerful and important works in the Bergman canon, and the film with which the great Sven Nykvist became the director's regular cinematographer. Based on a 13th-century folk ballad, and offering (like Bergman's earlier The Seventh Seal ) an immaculate recreation of a barbarous and superstitious medieval milieu, the film stars Max von Sydow as Töre, a wealthy landowner whose beloved virgin daughter is brutally raped and murdered while on a religious pilgrimage. A twist of fate finds the three killers seeking shelter at Töre's farm; when he discovers their responsibility for his daughter's death, he exacts a vengeance of Biblical proportions. The film ends on a hauntingly hopeful note suggestive of divine forgiveness; with his "faith" trilogy of Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence , Bergman would soon forswear the existence of the divine altogether. The Virgin Spring won the International Critics Prize at Cannes, where it (and Buñuel's The Young One ) was announced as "too good to be judged" in the competition for the Palme d'Or. "One of Bergman's finest films, certainly a masterpiece" ( James Monaco). B&W, 35mm, in Swedish with English subtitles. 88 mins.

fanny and alexander

Pacific Cinematheque
Saturday, December 23 – 7:30 pm
Wednesday, December 27 – 7:30 pm
Friday, December 29 – 7:30 pm

I've got a bit of a chip on my shoulder about Ingmar Bergman. Sure he gets the obligatory name-check when people talk spiritual film, but Ingmar's world (at least, starting around 1960) is more God-haunted than God-blest, and since you only get to haunt stuff once you're dead, what's that tell you? Something about his dad, I'm thinking.

FANNY & ALEXANDER at least leaves behind the pervasive angst (though of course the baddie is a minister) and celebrates not only life but also the theatre. So I'm down with that.
Cinematheque: "An enchanting, life-affirming, celebratory evocation of childhood and the magic of theatre, Bergman's wonderful Fanny and Alexander won four Academy Awards, including the Swedish master's third Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and Sven Nykvist's second for Best Cinematography (the first was for Bergman's Cries and Whispers ). Fanny and Alexander begins during Christmas 1907, with ten-year-old Alexander and younger sister Fanny enjoying the warmth and good humour of their ebullient, eccentric, and prosperous extended family. Their lives will soon take a less happy turn, however, with the death of their actor father and the remarriage of their mother to a strict, puritanical Protestant minister. Bergman's semi-autobiographical tale is shot in glowing images by long-time collaborator Nykvist, who effectively contrasts the rich, warm hues of the children's old environment with the stark coldness of their new stepfather's home, and whose snow-bound exteriors capture the landscapes of provincial Sweden with Brueghellian expertise. Fanny and Alexander is also something of a summation and compendium of Bergman's career in the cinema, touching on many of his characteristic themes, and replete with references to many of his other works. It may also be Bergman's most opulent and optimistic film — something of a surprise, perhaps, from a director whose work has long been synonymous with Scandinavian austerity and angst. "A sustained triumph . . .For those who have kept faith with Bergman it is an inexpressible relief to find that despair has not gained the upper hand" ( Sight and Sound ). Colour, 35mm, in Swedish with English subtitles. 189 mins."