About a month away from Earth Day… A quick overview of recent releases focusing on the performance of a recurring character/protagonist : Nature
Pondering over the following statement in the context of these films and the world(s) that they, indeed, “illuminate”…
Most of us who write …. we write with the expectation that our work will illuminate areas of the world that may be radically different from our readers’ experience, and that this is a good thing”
Joyce Carol Oates, Soul at the White Heat
Opening sequence: from inside the house we see the backyard.
The voice over introduces the theme of memory and loss and time, anchoring the movie in Philosophy instead of Science Fiction.
Terence Malik-like shots conjuring up The Tree of Life and its take on our place on earth within the larger physical world and its genealogy.
From a tree to the next—two branches out of the thematic trunk:
-Physics/the space-time continuum and time travel/ Fermat’s theory
-Cognitive linguistics and the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis
A character remembers the future
A language conditions the way the world is seen and thought
A visitor is perceived as an enemy who has come to destroy us
They come with a “gift”, we hear “weapon”
They come with the future, we trap them into an aggressive present
Us versus Them paradigm revisited from the standpoint of our current media ecology
The spaceship looks like another “machine in the garden”…
Its dwellers moving about like leaves in the wind or trees in some imaginary landscape
Producing sounds that are hardly audible yet convey meaning
Like natural noise we cannot always decipher—yet it is significant.
The heptapods’ shape and environment evoke both liquid and aerial elements The graceful and easy movement of their “logograms” sketching the light dance of leaves or birds, fish or stems.
Different languages are spoken indeed
Different time lines are inhabited indeed
One common point: the future
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Snow and sea water. Silent witnesses to a tragic turn of events.
The loss and the inability to bridge the gap between guilt and love.
The billows cannot prevent the sound of “terrible words” from reaching the man you still love
They cannot muffle the screams of despair
They cannot wash away haunting and obsessive memories
They don’t bring any comfort.
The destroyed house cannot be rebuilt
The waves only bring back pebbles and empty shells.
Soundtrack and camera work: elaborate artistic supplements to the natural effect indicated in the title.
An epiphany of happiness provided by (a) night on the beach
One night followed by others—shown and not shown
Conjured up out of the past, or imagined into the future.
Purity and messiness of human emotions
Surrogate families we create for ourselves
Beach and sand/Glistening water
Words given and taken.
Love retrieved and recovered.
The beautiful park surrounding the mansion as counterpoint (image) to the tragedy
The flowers in the presidential garden? Jackie might be as shy as the forget-me-not kind…
Contrived performance acting out the theatre of love and fidelity, memory and remembering
Rehearsing lines and attitudes (as in the ritual of mourning) or improvising on your script
Collective (political) and individual (intimate) stages.
Planting the seeds of a myth: to inscribe the legacy of one president (Kennedy) into the legacy of another (Lincoln)
Reappropriating the national and the conjugal bond
Does collapse eventually allow for the retrieval of some wholeness?
Red stain on a pink suit: the scar of grief?
The jarring element on the beautiful material crystallizing some dissonance in the public symphony of the nation state, perhaps
Like the red rose in a bed of pink roses.
Exercise in revising and revisiting
Exercise in writing what eludes words
Exercise in planting and letting g(r)o(w)
Contemplating a field and seeing your future in it.
The fragile beauty of the natural world introduced on screen as some interlude—or prelude
Moment of quiet peace and harmony when the human side of things goes wild
When the divide caused by collective hatred, ignorance or prejudice or fear gathers storms and creates havoc—sometimes beyond repair.
Shots and close ups of animal and vegetal life. Alternative mood amidst a pervasive sense of threat and fear and oppression.
Nature ousted out of the urban landscape as a parable for the alienation felt by the Loving family forced into exile
Sense of loss in the wake of the loss of the tie to the country and its fields of an open promise.
The texture of the soil—some viewers remember Mud—offering a glimpse into the materiality/roughness/bumpiness of our existence
And into its ability to record traces and footprints, scars and wounds
And into its power to draw furrows where new seeds can be experimented to thrive and—eventually—yield a different kind of harvest.
I have a dream
Nature appears in its many guises: green or grey, sun-drenched or shrouded in a stubborn mist.
The natural landscape espouses the spiritual landscape: God’s presence is felt at times only.
Natural images to tell the human story
One of the key statements of Endo Shusaku’s novel which provided the basis for Scorsese’s film is: “Japan is a swamp”.
Swamps—literal and figurative—provide no escape for the human creature unfit for/ill suited to its ambivalent structure: water and earth.
Natural wilderness providing occasional shelter, often setting traps.
Natural beauty of the sea distorted to become instrumental in torturing—the tide an effective but innocent bully.
Scalding spring water collected to scorch the surface of the human skin, revealing our vulnerability and exposing our mortal nature
Without the prospect of some material (bodily) return in the Spring.
What else can be totally destroyed?
Hope and faith, maybe.
Promises and ideals, certainly.
Conversion designs and rites of religious worship, also.
The night of the soul described by Saint John of the Cross or Teresa of Calcutta, or numerous other mystics
The feeling that God has withdrawn even if His creation is still visible to the eye, in its awe-inspiring beauty and sublime otherness and aloofness.
Ian Buruma correctly points out that the movie revolves around the issue of transcendence—the supra/natural indeed
Our ability to inhabit this natural landscape without falling under the yoke of its servitude and bondage—literally and figuratively
“The real drama of Silence is not the clash between different sets of gods, but between believers in an absolute metaphysical truth and people whose concerns are confined to this world” (New York Review of Books, February 9, 2017, p. 28).
The swamp of the human heart lost between the inner journey of faith and the externality of observing a ritual.
By reneging (outwardly, if not inwardly of course), the priest can save lives
What is at stake: Losing face or losing faith?
Letting go of the persona to embrace the true role
To be a pastor for the group, allowing and enabling earthly existence to resume?
To be humble enough to accept that God will make Himself known, no matter what the human dealings and actions are?
Is Father Rodriguez’s gesture, in the end, an oblique illustration of Jesus’s words: return to Cesar what belongs to Cesar and return to God what belongs to God?
If human institutions can exert pressure on the human body—as the natural landscape can take a toll on the material body—they have no power, ultimately, over human allegiance to the transcendent.
In this ultimate exercise in humility, it is through renunciation—letting go of this particular mission, yielding to the lay of the land—that the priest will best speak for God’s presence?
Issue of (a) mediation
The interpreter whose task is to mediate between (the) two worlds (Japan/Portugal; Buddhism/Christianity) through 2 people (the inquisitor/Rodriguez): how can he translate two visions of the world?
The priest whose mission is to mediate between God and the world: how can he translate God’s will?
Does Nature translate God’s beauty? Or His aloofness?
Natural wilderness as a counterpoint to the urban wilderness of Scorsese’s early work (Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Gangs of New York).
Calling back to the wilderness of the moral jungle of The Wolf of Wall Street Secular context rehearsing parallel themes
Truth versus corruption
Instrumentalizing in the name of ideas and a vision turned into an ideology, whether it is financial capital or religious credo
What image do you construct of the divinity to whom you convert?
What idols do you promote instead of truth?
What world order do you create in their wake? Bondage or freedom?
How far are you willing to go to sacrifice others in the shaping of a world according to what you believe this ideology is about?
What kind of ecology do you profess?
What ecosystem do you respect, nurture, treasure?
The wilderness is no Eden. In this postlapserian Garden, what are the redemptive elements?
The rugged landscape of memory
The natural lay of the land chartering the recesses, holes and molehills of our remembering, retrieving, forgetting, erasing, concealing.
Until there is no way to get around, or get by.
No way but to climb up and see what there is on the other side—in the far-away, or the far-close
On the horizon of our dreams and projects.
A lion in waiting as a real name (Sheru) hidden in a mispronounced syllable
The place of the senses in identity formation
The sight of the food that triggered repressed memories (and wounds)
The intersection between memory and identity/the crossroad between two possible trails.
“Going back” means jeopardizing the comforts of storytelling
Displacing words and meaning
Disrupting the family narrative Saroo had bought into in order to survive
Refashioning the tentative and acceptable point of origin: “I am from Calcutta”.
The physical gesture of the hand guiding the mouse on screen retraces the actual path followed by memory, it foreshadows the actual moving about of the body on the surface of the earth
It also points to the physical estrangement of the body from its own roots/the dematerialization of the remembering process.
Yet it is only when what the eyes can see on the screen and what the eyes can remember about the physical land (from the physical encounter with it) that the recognition process can truly take place, superseding all the other approximations yielded by mathematical calculations (train speed, number of miles likely covered by the train) and emblematized by all the pins on his map.
He was getting nowhere, in the end
Approximation will not do / will not suffice.
Retrieving the way yields a sense of recovery, harvests a new identity.
Another face-off with nature: A young girl’s vision in a field as the departure point of her life’s journey.
Twelve-year old Sue’s call to adopt instead of having her own child
A call to love differently
Beyond the obvious and immediate bonds of kinship.
The families we create for ourselves beyond the legacy of our own roots
Burden or opportunity? Fate or Chance?
Camera hovering above puny humans in search of themselves on the harsh surface of the land, hesitant as they find themselves trapped in the sheer materiality and folds of nature, on the verge of drowning in Australian waters or Indian sand.
Identity: is it something we create?
Something that is produced and that we inherit?
What is the place of the natural world in our inner projected drama(s)?
Nature as the first listener of the “confession”: the secret—the intimacy of a forbidden love, the privacy of a tabooed conversion.
Nature’s silence echoing the unsaid/the unsayable as invisible as the autumnal air.
The epic journey of Scorsese’s priests resonates with the inner journey of a young communist activist. Barney’s questions are framed against ideological and political battles comparable to those waged during the 17th century in Japan.
Is there something beyond the material reality of our world?
How is the metaphysical realm defined and endowed with meaning?
What role does the supra-natural/spiritual play in the individual and the collective?
What does fidelity to a pledge or a commitment (such as priesthood vows or marriage vows) mean in a world where meaning itself seems to have receded in the face of Evil and human cruelty?
As with Scorsese’s movie, natural interludes punctuate the exploration of the cultural and historical background.
French village life during the German Occupation: surveillance, denunciations, betrayals, reprisals, arbitrary killings, resistance.
And stories of friendship, moments of companionship amidst a daily reality informed by fear and terror.
In contrast, peace of the natural world.
Barney basks in the beauty of the colors of turning leaves; the steady stream of the river whispers, perhaps, and signifies that all things eventually are washed away, even the harshest.
And, often, silence. Again.
God’s (apparent) silence as ten hostages are brutally executed on the public square.
With some flashes of light that point to a beyond, eventually:
Barney’s daughter recovers from her sickness (with or without a silent prayer of intercession from the newly converted Barney: the viewer will decide),
Her husband safely returns from war camp
Dimitri survives and lives on as Barney’s adopted son.
Yet, some questions remain.
The belief in the supra/natural is no guarantee of comfort in life as we experience it on a daily basis, that is: mostly on the horizontal axis and dimension of Nature.
Can the verticality of the other line lift us out of despair, if momentarily, by giving us a hint of the place where, in Teilhard de Chardin’s words, “everything converges”?
Where, perhaps, silence itself turns to music.