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Religion and Society

Spies and Super-heroes Dominate the World but do not Cancel the Power of Destiny

With the Eiffel Tower transformed into a minaret, Los Angeles destroyed for no reason, and Batman hunting Osama, some people ask what will happen to us. A purgatory where we will expiate our sins, a final virus, electromagnetic charges that will make us all good or a divine island which, like the planet Solaris of Tarkovskij, will be ready to satisfy our most deeply hidden desires?

Europe has a destiny and so does America: they must either become Muslim or declare war on Muslims'. This proclamation was made by Muhammar Gheddafi in front of the TV cameras of Al Jazeera on 8 May. There was nothing bellicose in the tones used by the Colonel: 'We have fifty million Muslims in Europe and we will transform Europe into a Muslim continent within a few decades'. This was an observation; indeed a rather realistic one. And it is curious that it was specifically Gheddafi who pronounced the word that Europe, refusing to follow any move towards universality, has removed 'destiny'. Europe, indeed the West, has removed it, and it is cinema that has to relate the consequences.

 

Were we to take films as a criterion for a judgement on our times and on those times that are still to come, we could deduce that the apocalypse is near, indeed, that it is already here. But to destiny, to the mysterious nexus between our daily life and its meaning, reference is never made, reference is no longer made, by cinema. Not even when the language that is chosen is that of science fiction, not even when the subject is the end of the world. One title may be taken at random, directly from the last Cannes film festival: 'Southland Tales' by the thirty-year old Richard Kelly, the author-revelation on the eve of 11 September of 'Donnie Darko', a small film on death which made a great deal of money at the box office. Kelly tells us the story of the world which in 2008 disappears 'with a mere breath'. An atomic attack on Los Angeles, a new source of energy which changes people's perception of the real, and in the middle of everything Iraq, freedom denied, the coffins of soldiers that are covered with the stars and stripes, the return of Communism, and bullets made out of white phosphorous. In order to narrate his disquieting 11 September, Oliver Stone, appeals during the first twenty-six minutes of the film 'World Trade Center', which was presented at the Cannes film festival, to the 'Buddhist spirit' as a help in bearing the 'fragility of life', whereas Paul Greengrass, the maker of 'United 93', the film on the passengers who rebelled against the terrorists and foiled the attack on Washington, speaks about the 'politics of hope'. Words that sound empty, with images as fragments of a broken story. And hope drowns in an anxiety that does not manage to intercept the real drama, the right question.

 

Certainly, the answer will not come from Italy. Rachid Benhadj lives here. She has Italian citizenship and is of Moroccan origins. In 'Il pane nudo' ('Naked Bread') she tells the story of the writer Choukri, who died in November 2005 and was a candidate for the Nobel prize, as well as being the friend of such major names as Genet, Williams and Bowles. In the film a young boy, Mohamed, escapes from ignorance and a new life opens up for him. The assumption is that 'many problems of the Arab world, including first of all terrorism, are the children of ignorance and therefore of misery and poverty'. Another willing spirit is Raul Bova, the handsome and possible actor who has interpreted and produced the first work of the Tunisian Mohsen Melliti, who has been a political exile in Italy for fifteen years. 'Io, l'altro' ('I, the Other') tells the story of a friendship born at sea, the friendship of a Sicilian fisherman and a Tunisian, Yousef, who has been broken by the seed of suspicion after the attacks in Madrid. The end has a surprise, obviously: we are all 'brothers of Italy'. Beyond the results (the film is currently being completed), the suspicion is in effect a good insight.

 

A person who specifically does not give way to ambiguity is Renzo Martinelli, a very angry Italian. He has made a film 'Il mercante di pietre' ('The Stone Merchant'), that is so politically incorrect that the least that can happen to him is a fatwa here in Italy from the critics more than from the Muslims. Martinelli criticises everyone, the Islamic insurgents, obviously, but also resigned and blind Catholics. How can we say he is wrong? Then, however, he gets lost amongst the sleeping cells of the Al Quaeda network in Italy; he gets immersed in a torbid story of sex between a woman the unknowing killer, the 'dove' and a lying merchant; he gets stuck on the handicap of a scholar, the victim of a large number of attacks. At the end, the film turns out to be a dream that is really impossible: it tells the story of the other 11 September, that of 1683, when a Capuchin friar, Marco d'Aviano, managed to stop the Turkish troops that were besieging Vienna. 'I am sorry to say so but democracy may not be the right answer', stresses Martinelli. And so? What is the right answer? And above all, what is the question?

 

Because there is a problem. And while at Cannes,Vincent Cassell, when opening the festival, masks it with the evening dress of 'France, the land of welcome' where 'people of all origins live together, with the same problems and the same growth', in the outskirts of cities shots are heard. The problem exists, even without arriving at the futuristic Paris of 2048 which, according to the Russian writer Chudinova, will be Muslim, with the Eiffel Tour transformed into the highest minaret of the world and Notre Dame like St. Sophia in Istanbul the 'Mosque of Our Lady of Paris', the title of her novel in fact. Only that the problem is here. Beginning with Iran. Indeed, for them it is even graver. These are the words of Marjane Satrapi, the author of a successful series of cartoons published throughout the world Persepolis. The story of a nine-year old girl forced by the revolution to wear the veil, of an adolescent in exile, of a woman on the run, is already a film that will be released next year: the most weighty French production of the season, with Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux.

 

Those who stay behind in Teheran do what they can: the small film by the Iranian, Jafar Panahi, 'Offside', wins the Jury Prize in Berlin. It seems bizarre, given the times, to make a film on a football match. But amongst the thousand prohibitions retrieved under Ahmadinejad there is also that on the presence of women at stadiums. Thus five young women become prisoners of the police for having tried, dressed as men, to enter the stadium to see the match for Iran's qualification for the World Cup of 2006. And they have to undergo the 'torture' of listening to the cries of the crowd without being able to see anything. To sum up: one laughs in a bitter way.

 

And there are those who do not laugh at all: Muslim young people. When things go well, as in Saudi Arabia, they get the Simpsons, but censored, without beer, swear words or hot dogs. If things go badly, and they go very badly, they cannot even turn to Batman. Above all now that the author Frank Miller has decided to send Batman off to hunt for Bin Laden. The work 'Holy Terror' will come out in America next year and then we will wait for the film. But it is not likely that there will see it in Kuwait. No Batman, no Superman, who 'represents the Judeo-Christian archetype of the individual with enormous powers who acts on his own, masked and isolated', says the businessman Naif al-Mutawa. In their place he proposes 'The 99', Islamic super-heroes of the thirteenth century who defended the Great Arab Empire against the Mongols: 99, like the qualities attributed by the Koran to God. Comics aimed at Islam will enrich the bookshelves which at the present time have only 'Middle East Heroes' published by the Egyptian Ak Comics: four superheroes who defend the Arabs (but only the Arabs) against evil. Whereas young Jordanians have to be content with a cartoon strongly wanted by Queen Rania who has even promoted it personally in the United States. 'Ben e Izzy', thirteen episodes for children between the ages of six and eleven, tells the story of the multicultural, tolerant, educational and politically very correct friendship of a young Jordanian with a Yankee.

 

But let us go back to destiny. The good news comes from the television. Fortunately, there is 'Lost', a mega-cult series which has reached its third edition in America and in European countries is between its first and second editions. Here, too, tragedies are a serious matter: a group of castaways, catapulted onto a tropical island by a plane crash, have to deal with the difficulties of the present and with accounts left unsettled in the past. The good news is that America meets the challenge that Europe has dropped. And although it is true that in the way in which Hollywood talks about things of the spirit there is always something of the ingenuous and which, as Eric Rohmer writes, 'troubles New York no less than Paris', one cannot but applaud a very gripping serial that brings to the fore the accursed questions: where do I come from? Who am I? Where am I going?

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