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Book Reviews

Multiculturalism in Flesh and Blood

The wall that separates Jews and Muslims, like the line that passes between ‘the faithful’ and ‘infidels’, has always been particularly generous in providing points of departure for cinema which, in this new season as well, has offered various films. From those which are more charged with hope and prospects to those which are more utopian and on to those which are pure shipwrecks of despair.

There are well-known things which we know about, unknown things which we do not know about and, lastly, The Unknown Known, the great mass of things which we believe we know about and but we do not know about at all. These three categories, to which nearly all the facts of the world belong, are suggested by the impeccable rhetoric of Donald Rumsfield, the architect of the war in Iraq, in a fine documentary by Errol Morris that was shown at Venice Film Festival. And they appear especially to the point, with the exception of the good dosage of cynicism that they bring with them, in order to address a subject sensitive to contemporary news. In the category of the things that are known about, indeed, there is the secularisation of the West: that relativisation of those absolute values that shaped our civilisation and which today have lost their universal character. Amongst the unknown facts that we do not know about, instead, is to be found the destiny of non-Western societies, the pathways they are following. Then there are the very many things that we believe – in error – to know: for example, that all traditions, cultures and religions must follow our own route. And that for them, as well, the consequences that today define the old arid Europe are inevitable, if not to be hoped for: the loss of identity, the disappearance of memory, and the absence of ties and belonging.

 

Cinema is rich in examples, to the point that the habits and rhetoric of multicultural society have created a new genre. Let us take one comedy amongst many: Infidel by Josh Appignanesi. Mahmud, a Muslim, lives in London. Peaceful and moderate, he has a son who is about to marry the girl he loves whose stepfather is the head of a fundamentalist group. Precisely during the days when he has to demonstrate that he is a good believer, he discovers by chance a certificate indicating that he was born Jewish and then adopted by a Muslim family. In order to see his natural father again, he has to identify himself – his accomplice being a Jewish taxi driver – with a culture that is not his. Obviously this endeavour is not very successful and turns out badly, to the great entertainment of the people watching the film who witness a metamorphosis where the stereotype is the triumph of the politically incorrect. Revenge takes the form of a television debate in which his case is defined as an exemplary case. ‘I believe that this man is multiculturalism in person’, observes the expert of the day. ‘He is a hero of our times, a man who points out the road that we should follow to go forward’.

 

 

The Outcomes of an Exchange

 

 

While in London there is great mirth, elsewhere the question seems to be very serious: if different traditions, upbringing and membership are interchangeable; if an external circumstance is enough to suggest the religious experience has nothing or little to do with humanity; and if the roots of coexistence are always elsewhere, what is the identity of a person? Cinema of recent days has offered us an interesting journey on the tightrope of an identity that is dissolving between secularist temptations and ideological drifts. One begins with an age-old conflict that marks the streets of Israel and the West Bank where we encounter a strange couple of brothers who have been separated by history. ‘I am my own worst enemy but I must love myself anyway’, says one of them, the twenty-year-old Joseph Silberg. He is a young Israeli who in the film Le Fils de l'Autre by the French director of Jewish origins Lorraine Lévy is preparing himself for his compulsory military service. During the medical examination he discovers that his blood group is not compatible with that of his parents. A few days of predictable family chaos are sufficient to understand that this young man, who was born in Haifa during the days of the first Gulf War, was swopped in his cradle for Yacine Al Bezaaz, a Palestinian of the occupied territories. ‘Do you know what I thought when I learnt that my life should have been yours? Don’t, waste it Joseph’. The tone of the dialogues enables us to understand that the answer that this melodrama offers to historical paradoxes does not go beyond the boundaries of the politically correct: it is not walls and frontiers that will impede a new relationship between two young people and their hostile families. Secularisation appears to be taken for granted; indeed, it can assure a new model of peaceful coexistence. The basic question, however, remains intact: what are the factors that define the identity of a man? His blood, his religion, his culture?

 

Let us stay in the West Bank with a short film, Bethlehem, which received a prize at Venice at the Days of Authors, the first work of the Israeli writer Yuval Adler who, together with the Palestinian scriptwriter Ali Waked, introduced an interesting theme: that of the double. The drama of the traitor or spy, for love or for force of circumstances; of those who choose what they are and with whom to ally themselves, in the name of values greater than the traditions in which they are born, well lends itself to the account of a conflict, judgement on which is impossible. The protagonist of Bethlehem is the friendship between Sanfur, a very young Palestinian informer, and Razi, the Israeli agent who has recruited him. Sanfur agreed to be a spy in order to save his father from prison and now is trying to protect his brother, a terrorist in the name of God. For his part Razi, who sincerely cares about him, keeps him out of trouble as long as he can. But events impose themselves and feelings are blasted away amidst the smoke of Kalashnikovs and the dust of no-man’s-land.

 

 

From Utopia to Despair

 

 

Who are we, what do we become when the boundaries of the world that we know change, when affective coordinates are broken, when reality becomes frightening and conventions, schemata and ties fall? When words, betrayed by facts, change their form and meaning? We are what we decide to be, answers from Israel Amos Gitai, who has always been enamoured of the idea that cinema can help to transfer utopia into daily reality. Ana Arabia, which at Venice won the Bresson Prize of the Ente dello Spettacolo Foundation, is based on a true story of a woman who was born a Jew in Auschwitz who married an Arab and converted to Islam and thus narrates a sort of oasis of peace that resists in a working-class neighbourhood of Jaffa. In order to describe the coexistence between Jews and Palestinians it offers a long sequence of 85 minutes where life is told with interruptions, live, in the light of the sunset which eliminates differences and reduces contrasts. The project demonstrates its weakness from a narrative point of view, with dialogues like slides and situations created at a desk: of interest is the belief in the possibility of a world apart, amidst orchards and chickens, of a new humanity beyond intolerance and forms of fundamentalism. One only has to want it, says Gitai. And you just have to resign yourself if the price of peace is the relativisation of belonging and faiths, if reality ends up by fading in a day dream.

 

Much more ferocious, nearer to the news, is the Algerian film by Merzak Allouache, Les Terrasses. In the debate on the roots of identity, it is on the opposing side to the one inhabited by Gitau but paradoxically it reaches the same conclusions, telling us that religious devotion does not improve man but is to be identified with a public ideology that is useful in concealing private vices. Different stories are involved in the space of a day on five terraces in Algiers, stories of poverty and of pain, punctuated five times a day by the prayers of the muezzin. A desolate humanity, made up of women who kill so as not to be evicted, religious chiefs who take advantage of innocent girls, Islamic fundamentalists who sell drugs, war veterans shut up in cages, and homosexuals who kill themselves. A world without pity. A hell lit by the blue light of the sea which, climbing over Jewish and Christian cemeteries, reverberates in the city.

 

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