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Religion and Society

Searching for Someone to Run with in a World that is Hell and Heaven

In the award-winning fairy-tale, The Millionaire, reality bursts in almost by chance and in all its details, and ends up getting confused with the stories of present day life. Meanwhile, from Poland to Israel, from Iran to America, the need spreads to go over the pain of the past in order to understand who one can really start again with

Nothing new under the sun at the Oscars. The Millionaire wins, an English fairy tale in Indian style, full of melodrama: poverty and nobility in Mumbai. The story that Danny Boyle took from the novel Slumdog Millionaire is about a young boy living in a slum who manages to win the most famous quiz game in the world. Nothing new under the sun: the hope of a humiliated and offended people is entrusted, once again, to single heroism, to luck. But the film needs to be spoken about because, in the unlikely event that it took home an armful of awards, reality bursts in.



An event which, from Hollywood to Bollywood, seldom happens and creates paradoxes. Despite the wild naturalism of the scenes, in fact, there’s not much reality at all in this film that Salman Rushdie fiercely defined as ‘absurd‘. But it happens that, hounded out of the door of sentiment, the real comes back in through the window. Thus the terrorist attacks of last November in Mumbai, signed by Islamic fundamentalism, conditions the translators of the film to such an extent that in the Italian version, when the mother of the protagonist, the young boy Jamal, is beaten to death, an off-screen voice shouts “They’re Muslims, let’s run for it!”. In the original version the victims are in reality Muslims and the pogrom is the work of a Hindu band (the fundamentalism which, over the last months, has also massacred hundreds of Christians in India).



What the voice really shouts is: “They’re Muslims, get them!”. But nobody notices this. The film is of course about other things.



Instead, we need to speak about the fact that religious freedom, as John Paul II used to say, is the proof of other freedoms. And how it is possible to become forgetful, to the point that the senseless massacre, on a river bank where the women do their washing, becomes a practically unnoticed detail in a widely distributed Anglo-American film about India, the country of a hundred nations, a hundred dialects, a thousand religions. The alternative is the irreverent secularism of Religulous, the new film by the American comedian Bill Maher and director Larry Charles (he also directed Borat), who waste time and money for an agnostic cruise between Jerusalem and Rome, stopping by the Muslims in Amsterdam and the Mormons in Utah: a film that ridicules all the faiths in the name of a very presumed and presumptuous reason. And if we really want to laugh about the hell into which the world has fallen, still better is the blockbuster comedy in Egypt, Hassan and Morkos by Rami Imam, where the reciprocal prejudices between Christians and Muslims start the game of ambiguities.



If The millionaire gets by chance to the point of touching on the sore spot of history, there is a great number of films in which the rereading of the past becomes more or less a conscious demand for identity. It happens in America, in Poland, even in Iran. It happens in Israel, where a new generation of directors are discovering that not always keeping quiet about what one cannot speak about is the only course to take: at times, it is the right language that is missing. Thus the voices multiply of those who do not want to be crushed by that past that never passes, who hate Hamas but also the Wall, who cannot shut their eyes but are afraid to open them. With the example of Persepolis, the cartoon which enabled Marjane Satrapi to tell the story of her life and the life of Iran, between two revolutions, there is the arrival of cartoons to explain history. The most recent example is Zona chiusa, a short film on Gaza that has been drawing viewers for some time now on Youtube. Yoni Goodman is the director, once artist for Valzer con Bashir, nominated for an Oscar for the direction of Ari Zelman: a cartoon on the repressed memory of the Sabra and Chatila massacre. Israel was acquitted for the Lebanese massacre, which caused 700 official victims (even if the film evokes the passive complicity of Sharon, at that time Minister of Defence): on the Gaza conflict, on the other hand, history still has to write the word end. But we are history: in this way, in 90 seconds, a bitter flash shows us the daily life of a figure in t-shirt and jeans: man, child, Jew, Palestinian, who knows. A person, who is trying to leave the strip of land locked between sky and sea. Large hands hinder his attempts to escape, sinking the boat and putting up walls. And while the grenades explode more and more closely, a little blue bird flying in and out of the rubble ends up in a cage.



Not only war, not only cartoons. There are those who change the tune by speaking about non-political places in which hope can be born again. In the film by Eran Riklis, there is a certain place, The lemon garden which grows all round the house of a widow on the West Bank. We are on the boundary between Israel and the occupied territories. The trees have to be taken out because opposite lives the Israeli Defence Minister and there are fears concerning his safety. That is all there is to the story, but the film unfolds among the glances exchanged between Mira, the minister’s wife, and Salma, the Palestinian widow: women, mothers, lovers, strong in their vivid memory.



Coming into the Picture once More



Oded Davidoff also leaves news writing to draw inspiration from the great talent of David Grossman’s writing for his Someone to run with, a story of a sentimental education to life. Because today we begin again from here, writes Grossman to his son Uri, killed in the Lebanon: “I am not even capable of saying aloud how much you were someone to run with for me”. The war is not spoken about also because, says Grossman, “we, our family, have already lost it”. But about a strange, unprecedented education towards peace, in the meeting of the boys Assaf and Tamar, confused and fleeing towards a megalopolis never seen before, Jerusalem. Alive, chaotic, drugged, atrociously normal.



Who, instead, does not let himself be crushed by the past and is coming into the picture once more is a young Pole of 83, Andrzej Wajda. With a lesson in love and style, the originator of Danton rereads the story of his country after a period of 60 years. ‘Tradition is a prophecy addressed to the past’ writes Berdjaev. The best review of Katyn, the film nominated for an Oscar in 2008 which, reconciling itself with the past, opens up to a future at peace. “Poland is part of Europe”, says Wajda, “Where is the boundary of western Europe? I say that Europe ends as far as the gothic churches reach”. We are in 1940 when Poland suffers a double invasion: the Soviets arrive from the east, the Nazis from the west. The first breathtaking part of the film shows the Polish people fleeing over a bridge which is already a no man’s land. Among the 22,000 official prisoners that are massacred with a blow on the back of the neck and thrown into a mass grave, there is also the director’s father, Jacob. The Poles know all too well who it was and why: but it will take 60 years to open up that grave, together with the Soviet archives. Sixty years in which, with the good peace of the world, the slaughter is attributed to the Nazis.



Cinema has now really said everything there is to say about them. But until today it had kept silent about the Soviet infamy. Wajda opens a closed door and never mind if the film – in the new world which, like the old one, leaves history to be rewritten by the victors – is distributed little and badly. “Normal relations between Poland and the former Soviet Union will not be possible until the truth is told about this crime”. The truth is a recipe that heals the wounds of history: it is not an optional but the root of value, at the heart of experiences, which we can share and transmit. What is truth, in this film edited with an emotion that can even be felt in the imperfect passages? There is an object that becomes a symbol in Katyn, rolled up in the hands of one of the bodies that are moved. It is a rosary of dark wooden beads. We had already seen it in another film of Wajda’s 40 years ago, Landscape after the battle. While the prisoners, at the end of the war, run in all directions from the field to the joyous notes of Vivaldi, the rosary gets entangled in the barbed wire. A man stops: panting, his hand numb with cold, slowly disentangles it from the wire. Probably the rosary is the same one as then. And it might be Wajda’s, a man who doesn’t throw anything away.



Emma Neri

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