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Classics

Vitality, Struggle and Tenderness: the Most Beautiful Tale is Encounter

In the cinema of today (but also in that of yesterday) what still manages to surprise and move us is the crossing of two human pathways, where the real denominator common to everyone emerges: the need for love and happiness. And it is not just by chance that often a master and a disciple  come to meet at that crossroads

A ghost is wandering around between Europe and the States. It is the ghost of the other, the illegal, the different, the ghost of immigration without integration. Cinema too is feeling the blow. And this would suffice as news, at a time when only Avatars, virtual mercenaries landing on the planet Pandora, seem to arouse any emotion in the public. Something is changing, when a film like Amreeka – the Arabic for America – directed by Cherien Dabis, a Jordanian-Palestinian making his film début, is defined by the Los Angeles Times as ‘the quintessence of American history.’ Something has already changed if in France a small film like Welcome, which tells the story of the friendship between a Kurdish boy and a swimming instructor, takes the fine sum of 10 million euros and spreads around the rest of Europe, preceded by the fame of being a blockbuster. These are just two examples of a considerably longer list that has won awards from the international critics and is applauded by the public of the most prestigious European award-giving organisations.

 

 

There is nothing new about the theme, which the politically correct cinema has been using for years now. It is the approach that is different. There is no more talk of multi-culturalism, for example, also because nobody really knows what it is. The justicialist demagogues disappear and the social exposure that only too frequently took on the moralistic forms of the sermon on the evil West is decreasing. A fresh start is made from stories. And everything becomes simpler, more exciting and true. Amreeka did not win the Independent Spirit Awards because it is about immigration from the Palestine, but because Muna, the actress Nisreen Faour appearing in her first film, is an extraordinary character, an explosive mix of vitality and warmth. It is thanks to this that, fleeing from a nasty husband and the hell of Gaza, with a ticket won in the lottery for a stay in the United States, she finds the promised land in Chicago for herself and her teenage son, who will learn a few things about life from a Jewish teacher.

 

 

4,000 Kilometres on Foot

 

 

What surprises and moves us, still and always, is the meeting between two human pathways, that common denominator that emerges and changes both of them: the need for love and happiness. We are surprised that a hard-hearted adult like Simon (Vincent Lindon), a swimming instructor in the town’s swimming pool, ex-champion, ex-husband, is mirrored in the burning desire of the young boy Bilal who, from Iraq to Calais, dreams of England, the final destination. Bilal is 17, has clocked up 4,000 km on foot in three months, wants to swim across the English Channel to reach his girlfriend Mina in London. And he also wants to get into the Manchester United team. Simon, who lives on the side of the swimming pool and has hung up his medals, who has no memory of this ‘we want everything,’ is struck by a desire for happiness that he recognises as his own, takes him seriously to the point of risking a prison sentence that a recent French law foresees for those who help illegal immigrants, and accompanies him until the end. There is a wonderful phrase in the film, which well explains the audience’s enthusiasm. When questioned by his ex-wife, astonished by his involvement with the Kurdish boy, Simon answers: “He walked 4,000 km to see his girlfriend again. You left me and I didn’t even cross the road to stop you.”

 

 

Talents in the Grass

 

 

This is the question being tackled therefore: not volunteer work, good feelings, the latest political strategies. It is only a question of taking the humanity of others seriously in order to rediscover one’s own. In other words, education is the theme. So an immigrant is worth as much as the son of the striking miner in Mrs. Thatcher’s England, who wants to learn to dance. While Bilal, swimming his heart out, goes to paradise, Billy Eliott, dancing his heart out in Stephen Daldry’s film of the same title, ends up at the London Royal Ballet. Accompanied by a bizarre teacher willing to challenge prejudices just for him, according to which “classical ballet is girls’ stuff.”

 

 

The variations of the story with a happy ending of the meeting of two wounded hearts are practically infinite. The wild Pierre comes to mind, the little orphan with an angel’s voice that in the French film by Barratier, Les Choristes, is led by the affection of Clément the choirmaster to a future as an orchestra conductor. Or the twelve-year old Chuck, with his mother on her fourth marriage and his memory of a crazy father, who dreams of going to West Point and is encouraged by his teacher McLeod, an unprecedented Mel Gibson who in The Man Without a Face, backwards and forwards in front of the camera, hides his disfigured profile and frozen heart in an isolated house in Maine. And we could conclude with the young Jew Mosè who, in 60s Paris, discovers the scent of life and the flowers of the Koran in the sunny shop of the Islamic grocer, Monsieur Ibrahim. It is a delicate story about education by the director François Dupeyron, in which the banality of the teachings inspired by the mystic Sufi is redeemed by Omar Sharif’s sunny liveliness.

 

 

Bad Teachers

 

 

It is not sufficient to take the desire of others seriously, it is necessary to accompany it and support it at one’s own expense. It is a point on which western culture has lost its way, in the illusion that anti-conformism and creative freedom were sufficient to themselves. Two films are about misunderstandings, well represented in the figure of the ‘bad teacher.’ The first is a Hitchcock masterpiece, Rope. In this 1948 film, two boys kill their classmate for fun, to demonstrate the superiority of the intellectual over the rest of the world. And it will be the task of the school master James Stewart to discover, besides their crime, his own truly unforgivable guilt, committed out of vanity and scepticism: that is, of having introduced his boys to a nihilist attitude and then leaving them to translate it into realty. The second title, Dead Poets Society by the Australian Peter Weir, is somewhat more ambiguous. Robin Williams is the mythical Mr. Keating who, just before the 60s, arrives in the austere Welton Academy, a boarding school where the passwords all have a capital letter: Honour, Discipline, Tradition. He teaches his pupils to fight hypocrisy and to go along with their dreams and pushes them to fly alone, putting them against parents and teachers. A glorious ending for the teacher, dismissed by the school but sent off by the pupils standing on their desks to the motto “O Captain! My Captain!” A foregone suicide for the fragile Todd, (Ethan Hawke), left alone in the clash with his authoritarian father.

 

 

The Adventure of Knowing

 

 

There is a last fundamental element in stories of education and extremely rare to find in cinema, since it requires depth and above all the certainty that words coincide with things, and objects with their meaning: the school teacher always introduces us to the knowledge of reality. As in the case of Hitchcock, here too we must think back to a master of cinema, Arthur Penn, and an undeservedly forgotten film of his of 1963, The ­Miracle Worker. Anne Bancroft is the rock of a junior school teacher who takes on the thankless job of introducing Helen, a blind girl, to the relationship between words and objects, to the meaning of the world. In order to do this, she has to overcome a seemingly insurmountable barrier: the affection of the parents who, through love, want to spare their daughter the effort of knowledge. A film like this would be unthinkable today: a beautiful Hollywood actress acting with dark glasses all the time, violent language and screaming, the physical clashes between the young woman and the girl, the fight against destiny that denies life value, tying it down to false pity. Just to add a final comment, the film ends with the little girl exhausted who, holding her hand under a fountain, laboriously spells out the word w-a-t-e-r. It is true, Helen is not a refugee, an illegal immigrant, different: but is there a ­difference?         

 

 

 

 

Emma Neri

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