21 June, 2009

Two films with--dare I say it?--Christian sacrifice

Too often, films with Christian themes are overly sentimental, if not saccharine. Not these two.

1. Gran Torino

It was not without trepidation that I watched Clint Eastwood's latest film. Many of his films that I've watched over the last few years have struck me as nihilistic (Mystic River, for example) or glorifying adultery (The Bridges of Madison County). I understand that one cannot measure the quality of a film only by its moral content, and they are extremely well-made films, but when I heard of the objections raised to Million Dollar Baby in some quarters, I concluded that I didn't want to watch it.

Gran Torino is completely different from other Eastwood films I've seen, and I suspect that Eastwood is one of the few directors who could have made it. Walt Kowalski, played by Eastwood with delicious gusto, is a retired employee of the Ford Motor Corporation who expresses antipathy towards immigrants and change, especially the sort of immigrants ("gooks") and the change (foreign cars, white flight, teenagers' fashions, gangs) that surround him. That the movie turns this man into a kind of hero without really changing these aspects of his personality is remarkable.

If you've heard anything about the film, you probably know that Kowalski meets, and takes under his wing, a H'mong teenager who has suffered harassment at the hands of local gangs. What I didn't hear, and you might not have heard, is that:

  • Kowalski initially catches Thao trying to steal his car as part of an initiation into the gang. Thao isn't all that enthusiastic about the gang, preferring reading and gardening, which earns him the scorn of every other H'mong who knows him—not only his cousin who leads the gang and saves him at least once from another gang, but also the scorn of his mother, his sister, and his elderly grandmother—who remarks that if only his sister would marry, they'd finally have a man in the house again.
  • Kowalski's "rescue" of Thao from a second attempt to coerce him into an initiation ritual is more of a threat, delivered from behind the barrel of a loaded gun, to blow off the head of anyone gets on his lawn, Thao included.
  • Kowalski subsequently takes Thao under his wing only because the H'mong neighbors won't leave him alone with their gratitude for "saving" Thao, and he hopes this will get them off his back.
All of this is developed with abundant racial epithets delivered from both sides—mostly from Kowalski, but the remarks delivered in H'mong by Thao's grandmother, who has an amazing ability to spit large quantities of colored liquid, are priceless.

These are only a few of the surprises I found. My favorite, however, is the ending: a Christ-like sacrifice that, for me, lifted the film to the level of being a "Christian" film, more so than many of those products that wear the label "Christian" on their sleeve.

The Catholic bishops' movie reviewer was unimpressed, but you have to take that with a grain of salt.

And now to a film with a completely different kind of racial intolerance:

2. Beyond the Gates

You know the story of the Rwandan genocide; you know what will happen in films set at the outbreak of the crimes; and you know how such a film must end. Somehow, this film still finds light and inspiration in the story, thanks to a Christ-like sacrifice.

It's also a beautifully-made film. The images of a steadily growing crowd of Interahamwe thugs gathering outside a Catholic school, dancing and blowing whistles while listening to the exhortations of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines is genuinely creepy—especially the whistles.

I've heard on occasion that Catholic Hutus in Rwanda at best did nothing to stop the Rwandan genocide, and at worst gave the Interahamwe a hand in massacring Tutsis. I've also heard several times that Catholics died defending Tutsis from the Interahamwe. In one particularly memorable example, a mission priest told my Arizona parish of a monastery where Hutus and Tutsis lived together, and when the Interahamwe came, died together.

Which is it? Probably both: life is complicated, and Christ's Church is filled with both the wheat and the chaff, even if some contemporary post-Vatican II priests prefer that Jesus didn't mean what he said he meant by that parable. (No exaggeration.)

The film slightly botches an explanation of Christ's presence in the Eucharist, suggesting that it is no different from God's presence everywhere at all times, but it also highlights the importance of the Mass and the Eucharist in Christian life for both the priest (based on a real person) and the people.

One thing I found interesting in the film was the characterization by a BBC viewer of the difference between the Bosnian genocide and the Rwandan genocide (from memory, perhaps not verbatim):
When I saw an old Bosnian woman face-down in the mud, I thought, "That could be my mother." When I see an old Rwandan woman face-down in the mud, I don't think that. I think only, "There's another dead African.
For myself, I don't feel that way now, and I wonder whether I felt that way at the time.

I'm also not entirely sure that it's accurate to say that "whites" did anything to avert the Bosnian genocide and war; to my recollection, there was a lot of dithering, evasion of responsibility, and questionable value of UN peacekeeping, just as in Rwanda. Wikipedia does not appear to disagree. That said, since the mid-90s there have been at least two major, high-quality films about the Rwandan genocide, Beyond the Gates and Hotel Rwanda. How many major, high-quality films have been made about the Bosnian genocide?

The Academy Awards had more important things to do in 2006 than recognize this film, but I guess that's not surprising, considering the much more important fare they had on their plate that year. (Yes, I'm being sarcastic. I haven't been impressed with the Academy Awards for a long, long time.)

The Catholic bishops' movie reviewer liked it, but you have to take that with a grain of salt. ;-)


Clemens said...

Not exactly about the Bosnian genocide, but about the Bosniak/Serb conflict: "No Mans Land." It was a very powerful movie with a biting, savage humor, that ended on what you might say was a nihilistic note. It was made by a Bosnian film maker. Did not have a very big release in this country.

In one scene a French peacekeeper is assigned a German bomb expert to defuse a mine. When the Frenchman discovers that the German doesn't speak French, he asks "But you speak English of course?" The German replies: "Of course." (IIRC)

jack perry said...

Watched it, and I had it in mind when I wrote the post. I agree that it was nihilistic; to be honest I didn't much care for it.

Clemens said...

Carmen and I liked it a lot. The ending, nihilism and all, seemed like the only way for the film to express its disgust with the well intentioned efforts of everyone to do nothing effective.