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Good Reasons to Talk About Priests

Scene from the movie "Of Gods and Men"

From Spain to France and Iran: cinema and the men of God

Last update: 2018-02-05 12:47:54

Revolutions (also) begin like this: from a short trailer of a very short Spanish film downloaded 200 thousand times from Internet, from about seventy cinemas forced to interrupt the showing of films in 3D to make room for a documentary.






After a shocking opening, which sketches the crucifixion of a priest with a short cartoon, appears the face of the author, Juan Manole Cotelo, who says: “The experts have clearly explained to me that if I publicly crucifix a priest I will have enormous success. They also told me that if I speak well about a priest it will be me that will be crucified. Well, I have a problem: I met a really good priest, yes I did. And I would like to tell you about it.”






In this way, regardless of the commonplaces and Zapatero, The last summit (La ultima cima) starts, a documentary about don Pablo, who died at the age of 42. Cotelo explains the reasons for his interest: “He is not a paedophile, he is not a womaniser, he is not a thief, he is not an exorcist, he is not a missionary in the forest. Nothing more and nothing less than a good priest.” A remark by don Pablo during a conference reveals the secret of this man: “It is wonderful to use reason. One can discover the reasonability of the faith.” And it is all beginning to add up.






Let us take stock of this magic little word, reason, definitely exiled from the recent political and cultural news, and let us move on to a second example. This time it is France, home of laicité, to speak about the film which is surprisingly selling out in cinemas, after winning the Jury prize at the last Cannes Film Festival, an Oscar nomination and a word of mouth that has forced the distributor to double the copies for a public exceeding two million.






The film is Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux) by Xavier Beauvois: it is about a story that took place in 1996 in Algeria, where a small group of Cistercian monks who live in the monastery of Tibhirine are kidnapped by terrorists of the Armed Islamic Group and barbarically killed.[1] Seven men involved in their daily work and prayer, a simple and all so human friendship with their Muslim neighbours: the growing tension in the film avoids the use of violent scenes, leaving even the final sacrifice, death by decapitation, out of view. Instead the tension is in the choice of the monks, the motives to flee or to stay, quietly discussed in the refectory.






Three couples and a betrayal



The most recent Iranian films also try to cling to reason, with varying results. As already happened years ago with the Chinese films, now it is the Iranians that are sweeping up the prizes at the European film festivals. And it is impressive to see how, without directly touching on political issues, they anticipate or confirm that serious fracture in the Islamic theocracy, reported in the news with the recent revolts in Tehran.






An example for everyone, About Elly, the film by Asghar Farhadi, winner of the Silver Bear for director at Berlin, which tells the story of the weekend by the sea of a group of young people in their thirties, old university friends. The three couples, accompanied by their children, are joined by two singletons, or almost: Ahmad, who divorced from his wife in Germany, and a young junior school teacher, Elly.






The women wear chadors without any self-consciousness at all, they laugh and joke about the new couple that could be formed during the holiday. The language is a little stilted but, instead of on the Caspian Sea, we could just as well be anywhere on the Mediterranean. This is until Elly disappears and, during their search for her, her friends discover that she is engaged. At this point modernity and reason vanish, the film becomes something else, a violent day of reckoning with the incomprehensible rules of a separate world.






Nobody calls the police for fear of admitting their complicity in Elly’s potential betrayal, forgotten laws appear and honour and prison are mentioned. Everyone is against everyone at the end of an infernal weekend, bogged down, like the wheels of the car in the sand on the shores of nothing.






The disorientation produced in the spectator by the film of the Iranian nouvelle vague, but generally by the cinema of the Islamic states, is similar to what was experienced during the second half of the last century with the cinema of the East.






Questions of identity nipped in the bud, obscure or over-clear metaphors for the European palate, an anguishing sense of precariousness that spills over into cultural relativism. And one author alone is not enough, however great, to throw light on a dictatorship of one single thought that deeply affects styles and language.






Stalin forced politics into films but also films onto reality, if we can trust Khrushchev’s account of how, after the war, having decided to put new taxes on the starving countryside, the soviet dictator used the example of the abundance paraded by his propaganda films. It is not just a question of censorship but quite the reverse.






In an ethical state, a state that claims to be the only source of ethics, censorship is hardly necessary. And this is true for enlightened Europe, Spain or France or wherever, when common nihilist thought passes itself off as presumed neutrality.






We have seen this in the two small examples mentioned above. But reason, when awakened, causes earthquakes. This is what Cotelo says, the director of The last summit:






To investigate a priest is risky. You begin with a priest, then you start asking about all priests. You want to know more about faith and then you start asking yourself about the whole Church. And you end up asking yourself what God has to do with all this. The problem is that then you want to share this thing. What you have discovered is something serious. You are in serious trouble.






Laugh and cry



We find a paradoxical way out in a young Rumanian cineaste, Radu Mihaileanu who, with a basic filmography – only three films, very different one from the other, Train of life, Live and become, The concert – writes a sort of summation of post-modern identity. From Moscow to Israel, from Paris to Sudan, salvation is amid mixed races and disguise.






Mihaileanu’s is a cultural operation which, carried out in the short space of about ten years, has a much greater value than that of the single films. It starts with Train of life, in ’98. The protagonists are the inhabitants of a small Jewish village in the Eastern Europe of ’41. Giving credit to the idea of the village idiot, they dress up as Nazis and deportees to save their lives and organise a colourful train journey towards no man’s land. It is funny to see Nazis and Jews praying together. But laughing, as the director says, “is another way of crying.” And there are tears for the Ethiopian boy, Shlomo, who in the film Live and become (Va, vis et deviens, 2005), flees from the Sudan to reach Israel. Shlomo is Christian, but the Israelis in 1984 save the Ethiopians of Jewish origin, the Falasha.






So his mother puts him on the train to Jerusalem. Pretending to be an orphan and Jewish, black among whites, Shlomo will in the end find his roots. “The fulfilment of his destiny” says Mihaileanu “is simply to become a man.” The violinist Anne Marie, who has never known her father, is also to discover her destiny: “I have been searching for my parents’ eyes since I was a little girl, in the streets, everywhere” she says. “When I play I would like to feel their eyes on me, just for a moment, just a moment.”






This wish will come true when an unlikely Bolshoi orchestra arrives at the Théâtre du Châtelet: during the concert, Anne Marie will rediscover her identity and her father, thanks to a fake conductor, a true musician, removed from his position by Brezhnev. In the middle of all this is the film, a hilarious whirl of misunderstandings between Moscow and Paris, thousands of disguises, a great passion for man’s destiny.






[1] See. Henry Quinson, ‘Tibhirine: offrire la propria morte per far vivere l'opera di un Altro’, Oasis, 4, 2006, 90-92.

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