Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Tag: Dante

Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller, 2015)

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On the surface, the title Mad Max: Fury Road appears straightforward enough. It indicates, first, that the film belongs to director George Miller’s series of films about Max Rockatansky — a police officer in a dystopic, post-apocalyptic society, who, all too often, is left to fight the forces of chaos and evil alone. Second, it implies that the most recent installment of the franchise is, like its predecessors, a road film at heart, following Max as he wanders about the burned-out Australian landscape. But why, one might wonder, is this road called “Fury Road”? What is the term “fury” — which comes from the Latin furere, meaning “to rage” — given such prominence?

Here, again, a cursory glance at the plot would seem to suffice. As the film opens, Max (now played by Tom Hardy, in a role that once was almost synonymous with Mel Gibson) has been captured by the War Boys — an army of mechanics and car jockeys, who, like kamikazes, only want to serve and to die for a tyrant named Immortan Joe. The material basis for Joe’s rule is his control of the fresh-water supply, but, for those under his thumb, he is a veritable god. A hulking figure, painted white, whose grandeur is preserved by a suit of translucent armor and a menacing mask, Joe has proclaimed himself “redeemer” of the people:

Of course, as this clip makes clear, Joe is no redeemer. Not only does he oppress the masses, but he has enslaved a number of people for his personal use, including five women for “breeding.” With support from a pair of partners known as The Bullet Farmer and The People Eater — the former a military leader and the latter a kind of oil tycoon — Joe’s is a thorough and, it seems, endless reign of despotism. After all, with Max effectively imprisoned, who would be capable of challenging him?

The threat, it turns out, comes from within. One of Joe’s top commanders is a lithe yet fierce woman called Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Tasked with driving a petrol tanker known as the “War Rig,” Furiosa instead dares to escape to an unknown territory known as “The Green Place.” It is an audacious plan, made all the more so by Furiosa’s cargo — namely, Joe’s “wives,” one of which is pregnant with his child. Joe soon realizes that Furiosa has betrayed him, and he sets out in pursuit, accompanied by the War Boys (one of whom is holding Max as his prisoner) in addition to The Bullet Farmer and The People Eater. From this point forward, in an example of cinematic bravado, Fury Road turns into a ninety-minute car chase. It is an exhilarating and almost wearying ride, which, at last, tilts in favor of Furiosa and her crew, particularly once Max escapes and is able to join them.

Still, the central character in the film is not Max but Furiosa — a point that quite clearly harks back to the film’s subtitle, Fury Road. Does this notion of “fury” simply refer to the character Furiosa? Or does Miller have something else in mind? As noted, the Latin verb furere means “to rage,” and it is indeed true that Furiosa is a wrathful figure, devoted to avenging Joe’s abuse of the innocent and the needy. And yet, as Miller surely knows, Furiosa’s name and character also point to Greek mythology and to the mysterious “Erinyes” or “Furies.” Often depicted as three female deities, the Furies were described by Homer as those “that under earth take vengeance” on persons who have deceived others. Later, Dante situated them in Canto IX of his Inferno, where they were said to guard the City of Dis — a place reserved for those who have committed active sins of malevolence, rather than passive sins of weakness. They appear as well in other great works of literature, from Aeschuylus’ Oresteia to (in more veiled form) Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Of course, that Miller would gesture toward the classical tradition in making Fury Road is not surprising in and of itself. Countless other filmmakers have done the same. But what may seem peculiar, especially to contemporary audiences, is that Furiosa evokes theological concerns. As noted, the Furies were goddesses, charged with righting the wrongs of humanity. And, of course, the notion of a divine judge is hardly foreign to the Judeo-Christian tradition. “To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence,” proclaims God in the Hebrew Bible (Deut 32:35). Similarly, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus prophesies a time where he will return as the just adjudicator of the righteous and of the wicked (Mt 25:31-46).

The claim here is not that, in making Fury Road, Miller was thinking of these connections in particular. It is just to say that his chosen theme bears unmistakable theological questions. Can human affairs be truly judged and, if so, by whom? If not, won’t the abuse of tyrants such as Immortan Joe be disregarded or, even worse, viewed as the fundamental prerogative of the powerful? In light of Fury Road‘s critical acclaim and financial success, these questions would seem to remain pressing. On the other hand, as there is increasing consensus that Western society has entered a “post-truth” era, Fury Road‘s popularity appears almost paradoxical. Do we now live after divinity, after judgment, and after truth…except in the movies?

Up next: Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

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Midway through Kenneth Lonergan’s acclaimed film, Manchester by the Sea, sixteen-year-old Patrick Chandler (Lucas Hedges) complains that his mother’s fiancé is “pretty Christian.” He delivers this observation with a hint of adolescent sarcasm, as if being “pretty Christian” is not only peculiar but, indeed, absurd. Listening to him is his uncle, Lee (Casey Affleck), who dryly responds: “You know, we’re Christian, too, right?” It is, in many respects, a throwaway scene — a bit of conversational filler as Lee and Patrick run errands in this picturesque town north of Boston. And yet, as the film unfolds, it takes on increased significance, as Manchester by the Sea is a film about the possibility (or, better yet, the impossibility) of redemption.

Lonergan’s screenplay — which almost certainly will receive an Oscar nomination — is a masterclass in narrative structure, navigating between past and present with devastating economy. The story centers on Lee, a Boston-area handyman, who spends his days doing thankless jobs for apartment clients and his nights in expressionless solitude, beer in hand. Yet, when Lee’s older brother dies of a heart attack, he is called to Manchester-by-the-Sea to handle the funeral arrangements and to assume custody of Patrick. Lee handles the former task with guarded efficiency, as if it were an extension of his job, but the latter task proves far more troubling. Patrick is a challenging responsibility, whose social calendar is as active as his personal life messy, and Lee is faced with the burden of possibly uprooting him from Manchester or leaving him with his alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mol, in a poignant cameo). But there is an additional, and even more dolorous, complication. In a horrifying flashback, it is revealed that Lee and his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams, another likely Oscar nominee), once suffered a catastrophe of incomprehensible proportions, and, in the wake of that event, Lee no longer feels capable of relationships, to say nothing of raising a young man. He simply wants to return to Boston and (quite literally, since he lives in a one-room basement apartment) bury himself underground. What’s more, many of the residents of Manchester feel the same way, effectively rendering the judgment of Job’s wife: “Dost thou still retain thine integrity? Curse God, and die” (Job 2:9).

In the end, then, Manchester by the Sea boils down to this dilemma: will Lee choose to live (with all of the consequences of that decision, from caring for Patrick to reconciling with Randi), or will he choose to die? Indeed, it is a heartrending scenario, made all the more so by Affleck’s mournful performance. And though Lonergan seems to want to avoid neat answers, there is no doubt that his film is, finally, a tragedy. But what is a “tragedy”? It is a term that, despite a curious etymology, refers to “a play or literary work that has an unhappy ending.” In his Poetics, Aristotle argues that good tragedies bear the following characteristics:

  1. A protagonist with a basic flaw (ἁμαρτία) in his or her personality.
  2. A radical change in the protagonist’s fortune (περιπέτεια), due to this flaw.
  3. The consequent revelation or discovery (ἀναγνώρισις) of the protagonist’s true identity.
  4. The arousal of pity and fear in the tragedy’s spectators, which, in turn, brings about their own emotional purification (κάθαρσις).

Manchester by the Sea certainly exhibits the first three of these qualities, and, based on the audible sniffles and sobs in the theater, it achieved the fourth trait as well. Hence, as a formal exercise, it’s hard to conclude that Lonergan’s film is anything but a success. And yet, it is also for that reason that Manchester seemed deficient. It was as if I could hear Lonergan ponder: “What do I have to do to make Lee’s situation truly unbearable — indeed, tragic?” In that sense, I never fully accepted Lee’s περιπέτεια; rather than an organic occurrence, it felt contrived and, when combined with the other calamities facing the Chandler family (divorce, untimely death, unemployment, attempted suicide, alcoholism, ostracism, etc.), pretentiously overblown.

But I had a deeper concern, which recalls the reference to Christianity mentioned at the outset. As a tragedy, Manchester by the Sea effectively forecloses on the redemption of its protagonist: Lee confesses that he “can’t beat” his affliction and chooses to suffer his failure alone. Such a conclusion kindles our pity and fear (as it should), but it contradicts Lee’s profession of Christianity — a faith that, as Dante famously illustrated, is a comedy rather than a tragedy. That is to say, Christianity never stops at the cross but, rather, concludes with the resurrection and the ascension. Yes, it grants the pain of death, but this pain is slowly but surely overcome by love and, indeed, by Life itself. Despite featuring ostensibly Christian characters, Manchester by the Sea never seriously entertains this possibility. Its world is a world bereft of “good news.”

Needless to say, it would be surprising if Lonergan were unaware of this absence. Perhaps he’s commenting on the recalcitrance of human nature in the face of adversity? Perhaps he’s suggesting that, even if the rites and symbols of Christianity remain, we live in the era of the death of God? Whatever the case, in offering a tragedy for contemporary viewers, Manchester by the Sea takes us back in time…before Christianity, when the alluring yet haunting worldviews of Aeschylus and Sophocles reigned — an Oedipus Rex for our age.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)

Much of the buzz surrounding Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman has to do with the director’s technical prowess. The film is largely set in the St. James Theatre in Manhattan, and Iñárritu revels in its labyrinthine structure — his handheld camera following the actors as they dart hither and thither around the place, bounding up narrow stairwells, slipping (or tumbling!) into dressing rooms and break rooms, almost unfailingly accompanied by the chaotic percussionist score of Antonio Sánchez. Moreover, as numerous critics have noted, Iñárritu edits the film as if it were done in a single continuous take, even though it is set over a few days. As the plot barrels toward its denouement, this technique serves to heighten the urgency. We don’t so much observe the anxiety of leading-man Riggan Thompson (an Oscar-worthy Michael Keaton) as experience it ourselves. The medium, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, assumes the message. Indeed, Birdman is the kind of film that epitomizes the very nature of cinematic art: its combination of camerawork, soundtrack, special effects, voiceover, and editing “re-present” life in a way that only film can.

And yet, is there more? Does Birdman have a message beyond Iñárritu’s considerable ability? After all, one reviewer has accused Iñárritu of essentially showing off, foregrounding technical wizardry at the expense of story. It is an interesting criticism, but is it a fair one? On the surface, at least, the plot of Birdman is not hard to comprehend. Riggan is an aging moving star, famed for his portrayal of the superhero “Birdman” but dismissed by critics as a hack. Now, with his career in decline, he has decided to return to his thespian roots, adapting Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for the stage. It is a bold but desperate move. Riggan’s personal life is in shambles, and his cast — led by the difficult “method actor,” Mike Shiner (Edward Norton, brilliant as usual) — is comically helter-skelter. Can Riggan overcome these obstacles? Can he, after years of CGI-enhanced popcorn flicks, deliver the performance of a lifetime and, in turn, silence his critics?

So far, so good. But Iñárritu is not content with such a straightforward narrative. Thus he imbues Riggan with real (or, at least, ostensibly real) superpowers: Riggan does not just play the Birdman but, in fact, seems to be the Birdman. We see him telekinetically smash objects, and he is capable of flight. This conceit could be a grand metaphor, or, as noted, it could be mere silliness on Iñárritu’s part. What is clear is that Iñárritu has no interest in sorting out this question for the viewer — an intention that becomes unmistakable in the film’s final scene.

What, then, are we left with? Part satire, part melodrama, part fantasy, Birdman never claims an identity. It’s a postmodern film for postmodern people, whose cynicism is too flinty for either comedy or tragedy. While another film might depict Riggan’s redemption or his comeuppance, Iñárritu is content to give us neither. But, perhaps, that is the message. In the real world, Iñárritu suggests, things are rarely as they seem: superheroes may be madmen and vice versa. Moreover, there are no objective grounds for deciding between the two. One sees suicide where another sees salvation.

In Iñárritu’s capable hands, Birdman offers a punto de vista worth pondering. Yet, with Christmas fast approaching, it’s also a reminder of an older story — alas, one bearing so much redemptive pathos that Dante, with an earnestness alien to the world of Birdman, called it a “divine comedy.”