Posts Tagged religion

Earth (Dovzhenko, 1930)

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Communism is great. At least, that’s what Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth appears to argue on the surface. Reviled in some quarters as little more than Stalinist propaganda, and dismissed by Stalin himself as not being Stalinist enough, Dovzhenko’s stirring paean to the natural world has found itself the victim of libellous and slanderous claims ever since its controversial release some eighty years ago. Credit the director then, for crafting a film that sustains such accusations despite conforming to its preordained function (a celebratory brochure for the collectivisations that were a crucial component in the First Five-Year Plan). Earth‘s threadbare narrative completes its designated task with aplomb: a straightforward tale of heroes (socialist peasants) vs. villains (capitalist kulaks) that features a solid dose of class warfare and concludes with a triumphant affirmation of communism as an instigator of positive, radical change. The problem therefore lies with Dovzhenko’s presentation of this material, which restyles the text’s Soviet proselytism into a universal, philosophical treatise that ruminates upon the transience of mortality. The director subsequently incorporates the fervent ideological conflicts of his era into a wider, pantheistic framework that exalts Mother Nature as society’s pre-eminent driving force alongside – or, perhaps even above – the Party itself. Today, the film’s propagandistic tendencies threaten to render it an intriguing historical relic, but its numerous aesthetic and thematic nuances offer an alternative outlook: that of Earth as a timeless, essential work of art.

There exists within the discussion of cinema an understandable tendency to lump Dovzhenko’s oeuvre alongside those of his Soviet contemporaries; the formalist inclinations of Eisenstein and Vertov presumably offering an easy point of commonality to complement their shared ‘nationality’. But whilst Dovzhenko certainly utilises the theoretical frameworks advocated by his estimable peers, his Earth finds itself prone to sentimental impulses that enervate such comparisons. Consider the film’s bookending sequences, ripe with images of outstanding beauty: flocculent cloads, rain-drenched apples, windswept wheat-fields – simple, evocative tributes to the wonders of nature that nestle themselves firmly inside the viewer’s psyche. The director draws from the organic allure of such visuals, using them to reorient the film’s introductory death scene to the point of exquisite absurdity: a village elder ends up confronting his fate on a bed of wild fruit, bathed in the gorgeous radiance of the morning sun. Nary has the act of dying seemed so beguiling, viewed here as an opportunity to be absolved directly by Gaia herself. And therein lies the deviance of the Earth‘s approach, for where his compatriots chose to electrify their audiences with the kinetic furore of their editing, Dovzhenko spends much of his time actively tempering the ferocity of this revolutionary spirit, preferring instead to embed his own montages within the cyclical, apolitical revolutions of the cosmos (just as it begins with a death, the film concludes with a birth).

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Not unexpectedly, Dovzhenko embeds some Party policy within this spiritual roundelay in an attempt to appease the powers that be. Accordingly, the emergence of the kolkhoz is viewed through a near-Darwinian lens; an evolutionary necessity, born to nudge humanity further along the road towards enlightenment. Evolution however, can be a painful and elongated process – something which the director explores with surprising depth thanks to the generational conflicts that intensify his subtexts. From the aforementioned opening sequence (which posits the old man’s death against the indifference of youngsters playing in the fields) to the weight that’s afforded to the ideological tensions between a father and son (the former is initially sceptical of collectivisation, whilst the latter is one of its strongest proponents), Earth is brimming with friction between past and present, tradition and modernity. These differences brew to an ire and, erred on by the Marxist doctrines upon which the entire conceit is built, overflow into an obstreperous dismissal of the religious orthodoxy that enfeebled yesterday’s peasantry. The director’s denunciation steers clear of outright hostility however – religion is merely another of those archaic afflictions weaned out by the eternal cycle of natural regeneration. In a society on the verge of industrialisation, the maledictions of hysterical preachers (“Punish them, God! Punish them!”) eventually fade into obsolescence behind a vociferous congregation of class unity.

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Acting as the agent for all this development is an unassuming tractor. Cast alternately as a saviour by the farmers and an adversary by the kulaks for the very same reason (its potential to erase social inequality between the two groups), its messianic arrival is captured in a frenetic montage where the entire agricultural community – livestock included – awaits in fervent anticipation as the vehicle (a surrogate for modernisation) makes its painfully slow encroachment upon the village. In a new, mechanised age, man-made creations assume a disproportionate significance in relation to their masters: “WE WILL PROSPER WITH MACHINES!”, exclaims a villager; “This is the end!”, mourns a kulak. The question therefore arises as to how Dovzhenko himself views all this commotion. Although the jubilation of the peasantry proves well-founded as a result of the increased productivity engineered by their new acquisition, the director’s montages provide scope for ambivalence. For all its anti-clericalism, Earth remains a curiously metaphysical film: a pastoral cine-poem whose rural landscapes are infused with the palpable presence of paganistic wraiths (wheat-fields have never seemed so alive). Dovzhenko, moreover, isn’t above taking discreet potshots at his government, with an early dialogue exchange appearing to query the validity of the Soviet Labour Medal. Thus, the extended sequence in which he charts the tractor’s gargantuan capability to plough offers a cause for alarm, particularly given that it’s contrasted against a farmer wielding his primitive (but comparatively innocent) sickle. The director’s rhythmic editing focuses on the destruction that these new machines can wreak upon the serene, diffident earth, and overtly questions man’s abuse of his symbiosis with nature. An early precursor to current ecological movements this could well be – especially during an extraordinary funeral procession where the branches of apple trees and the leaves of sunflower plants actually caress an embalmed corpse in a credible act of grief – but Dovzhenko’s text is unavoidably as dialectic as it is bucolic: he reveres and yearns for the modest past, but he recognises that a new future must be forged if his comrades are to progress.

Riddled with ambiguities and complexities that belie its citizenship, Earth is at its most galvanising as an affirmation of the human spirit. “Propaganda” is a slur that befits, but one that refuses to account for the uncharacteristic warmth that heartens the work. Dovzhenko’s socialist anger has a winning sense of humour: consider the peasants who feel compelled to urinate into the tractor’s radiator, or the ridiculous graphic matching that attempts to twin cows with kulaks. Throughout the film, the director displays a commitment to emotional matter that invigorates his class-conscious lyricism; dispensing entirely with establishing shots and relocating his narrative’s momentum to the forthright, honest close-ups of isolated faces. Always, Dovzhenko spares time to outline the human costs of his drama, and never more so than in his corybantic finale which interweaves birth and death, politics and religion, despair and ecstasy into a stupefying montage that belatedly unleashes the revolutionary zeal that he’d previously repressed. It’s a perfectly-executed climax, and a resounding tribute to the potential of cinema itself. Yet the honour of Earth‘s greatest montage must surely go to that which is also its simplest. After nightfall, the narrative’s nominal hero opts to take a casual stroll through his village following a day in which his dream of mass production (and consequently, class parity) became a reality. Brimming with joy and pride, he spontaneously begins to substitute walking for dancing, and then proceeds to caper into the surrounding fields, his feet restless with sheer elation. Dovzhenko captures this impulsion and, in an inspired move, refuses to let go – engulfing his audience in his protagonist’s euphoria, and following his sentimental journey through to its complete realisation; all the while cutting to increasingly distanced vantage points that memorialise his surrounding homeland. This apparent divergence serves as a reminder of the bliss that progressive change can offer, yet it draws its poignancy from the benefit of our hindsight: Earth was filmed in the director’s native Ukraine – once the “breadbasket of Europe”, and the republic which suffered most of all under the Holodomor, an event that occurred as a direct result of the policies that the film exalts. The bitter irony of life after the film’s closing frame is devastating, but rather than detracting from Dovzhenko’s central message, history has done him a favour and movingly eulogised it: once upon a time, there was hope.

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Devi (S. Ray, 1960)

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A colourless, classical sculpture appears on screen in close-up. Shaped like a head, faintly visible contours reveal the most basic of facial features amidst its blankness. A shrill, orchestral arrangement disturbs the peace, instantly spawning a sense of unease; the discernible jitters of the handheld camera doing little to alleviate the tension. Suddenly, those foreboding musical strains morph into the more traditional, comforting sounds of sitars and sarods and, out of nowhere, the blank model acquires a visage. Once faint contours now become boldly delineated, though the most notable revision is the presence of a perturbing third eye. Alas, it appears that this is Kali – the feared and revered Hindu goddess. Though the now charming score encourages us to view her amicably, her claustrophobically direct glare into her audience nonetheless induces anxiety. Suddenly (again), the baritone howls of a distant organ jolt the soundscape and Kali morphs once more. Now embellished with shimmering jewellery and ornate headgear, the newly-decorated idol maintains her inscrutable, unsettling glare. The string accompaniment is augmented synchronously; the rhythmic, percussive chants of thundering tabla frenzying the aural experience until the music collapses from its own velocity and devolves into the sound of voluminous bell-ringing. Finally, we’re pulled away from Kali’s gaze and obliged to view her in a high-angle shot that exposes the full extent of her luxurious aureola (not to mention her intimidating ten-armed body). The frame subsequently dissolves as the camera zooms out, revealing both the temple that houses her and the (numerous) subjects that worship her. Meanwhile, those frenzied tabla return to the soundtrack, this time diegetically as musicians and dancers come to dominate the foreground, intensifying the festive atmosphere.

Swiftly, we switch to a low-angled (reverential?) shot of a well-groomed male elder, solemn in his prayers, before switching again to Kali – the camera zooming out to reveal her as the recipient of the man’s piety; the scene concluding as he lowers onto his knees and places his head on the ground in deference. This quasi-spiritual interlude finds itself abruptly replaced as the camera once again takes us outside the temple, tracking past the musicians as it makes its way towards a ritual slaughter. A knife is raised in the air, and then…  CUT: to the patriarch of the previous scene, observing the action in silence; CUT: to the tabla again, each drum banged ever more furiously; CUT: to the moment of the strike, the suspended knife now accelerating downwards; and CUT: to fireworks in the night sky, the sound of multiple explosions substituting for the unheard cries of the mammalian victim. We rest temporarily upon the affectionate interactions of a young family enjoying the pyrotechnical extravaganza, only to revert back to Kali’s fate mere seconds later. Now we find her entire form carried along by worshippers in a mind-boggling procession; long shots highlighting the extraordinary numbers involved in the journey. The celebration ends abruptly however, as before we know it the goddess is pushed into a river – the sequence’s final shot lingering upon her inexpressive face as she’s compelled to succumb to the forces of nature.

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In an introduction that lasts little over five minutes, Satyajit Ray establishes the principle concerns of Devi with consummate precision. Though the film will resist another outpouring so ebullient until its wrenching finale, the dynamism behind this early montage ably lays down the foundations upon which the director’s otherwise meditative narrative rests. As the gradual beautification of that initial, blank sculpture suggests, Devi marks an investigation into the construction and destruction of identity – specifically when applied to females and deities. Ray flaunts his credentials as a secular pro-feminist with laudable bravado, castigating the socially-sanctioned moulding of women into man-made idealisations whilst condemning the overwhelming pre-eminence of blind religious devotion in contemporary Bengal (the film unfolds in the 19th-century, but its setting within a relatively isolated rural estate renders it unavoidably atemporal). Somewhat expectedly then, the male elder of the prologue turns out to be a wealthy landowner – a figurehead used by the director to highlight the entrenchment of patriarchal subservience in a society obtusely hung up on outmoded praxes; the man’s gender and his visible affluence guaranteeing him a dangerous degree of influence in local affairs. Thus, when said patriarch decides that his beloved daughter-in-law, Doya, is actually the human reincarnate of the prologue’s Kali (following a “vision” that’s brilliantly executed to accentuate the malevolently ethereal elements within spirituality), both his relatives and his subjects lapse into unquestioning acceptance of his apparition. Ray subsequently forges a socio-religious critique that politicises his text in a manner that invites comparisons with his outspoken Marxist contemporaries in the world of Bengali cinema, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. At its most elementary level, Devi functions as a societal microcosm, a staunchly left-wing perspective of power in action: concentrated within the hands of the privileged few, and imposed upon the disenfranchised masses who acquiesce in the name of supernatural delusions. Of course, educated dissenters exist, in this instance the patriarch’s son, Uma (Doya’s husband), whose enlightened intellectualism appears conceived to indulge the inevitable conflict between tradition and modernity – though the elephantine weight of the former remains nigh-on impossible to repel. As Uma confronts his father with the assertion that he’s “going mad”, the old man responds by invoking his heritage and reciting an ancient Sanskrit poem whose rigid orthodoxy proves as chilling as it does foreboding:

No one is worthier of respect than a father,
If you would honour the gods, honour your father,
The paternal spirit is more radiant than the Sun,
The paternal spirit is more radiant than the ocean,
The paternal spirit encompasses heaven and earth…

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And yet, despite the potency of Ray’s criticisms, Devi‘s foremost attribute is its sensitivity. There’s little doubt as to where the director’s allegiance lies in the clash of old and new, but for narrative purposes he nonetheless ensconces himself firmly within the expanses of grey between the opposing viewpoints. His is a cinematic parable that offers a judicious caution: when consumed by our fixation with the desires of ‘higher’ beings, we risk losing sight of the human beings whose needs are surely more pressing – and Devi makes a stern point of demonstrating its commitment to the latter. Though his subtextual web engrossingly interweaves fanaticism and mysticism alongside feminism and rationalism (alongside a surprising acknowledgement of the colonial question), Ray’s approach is marked by observational tranquility in the face of increasingly tumultuous sentiments (one recalls the quiet affection shared by Doya and Uma during the fireworks of the opening sequence), and in doing so he scythes right to the emotive core of his variegated drama. Thus, the patriarch’s vision is treated not with contempt or scrutiny, but with unassuming respect while it’s presented to the viewer as a harrowing epiphany – and so it follows that his insistence upon Doya’s deification is grounded in a genuine belief in the reality of his metaphysical experience. Noting the character’s absence of malice and the sincere presence of love for those whose worlds he’s upending, Ray refuses to damn his father figure, instead channelling his anger towards a system which grants such individuals their immense leverage in the lives of others whilst concurrently disenfranchising those that deviate from the accepted figures of power: namely the object of the father’s worship herself, Doya. Burdened with not only her divinity but also the femininity which forces her subjugation, the film’s titular “goddess” tellingly utters the fewest words of all the film’s leads – and her silence is deafening. Denied access to the education that empowers her husband, Doya finds herself a helpless victim of dogmatic hypocrisy; her precarious fate completely at the mercy of the film’s idealistic males. Naturally, there can be only one conclusion from thereon out. And so it is that as the limitations of religious belief make themselves sorely announced during Devi‘s tragic finale, the everlasting image of the prologue’s drowning goddess assumes a resonance that reverberates throughout the ages.

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The Devils (Russell, 1971)

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“Hark!”, Ken Russell’s devils sing. But just who are the “devils” in 1971’s diabolical reverie of a film? All and sundry will eventually claim that Lucifer is synonymous with one Father Grandier, a charismatic priest and part-time theologian with a gluttonous taste for coitus. Why blame him for it? Savouring his role as an excitable vacationist in a garden of earthly delights, Grandier jovially surrenders to his carnal impulses, going so far as to reinterpret Catholic doctrine to justify his indulgence: Russell’s curious revision of the classic screwball exchange features a repartee between our newlywed protagonist and his spouse as they debate the scriptural merits of chastity, the former adamant in his belief that “even the most innocent lamb is destined for the lustful ram.” A Holy Man this preacher can never be – he preys on impressionable maidens during Confession, substituting absolution for speed dating as he exacts the repressed desires of his adoring devotees (“Now there’s a man worth goin’ to Hell for…”) and devours them as if they were the elixir of life. This fantastically hedonistic adaptation of Christian morality is not without its perils, however: after impregnating one such admirer, our so-called cleric abandons lover and child with icy disregard – Grandier’s mindset thus unclothed as one that’s willing to challenge traditional mores, but not so willing to face the consequences of his actions. With a gaggle of sexually-frustrated nuns driven to near-dementia through their collective appetence for our rock star-as-clergyman, it’s no surprise that the citizens of 17th-century Loudun will come to condemn this covetous Casanova as the Antichrist himself.

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Yet Grandier is – alongside his wife – the only character who remains excluded from Russell’s titular accusation. Indeed, were it possible for angels to exist in the director’s nefarious dystopia then our flawed Father would probably be best placed to fill such celestial boots (if only by default). His introduction as a skilled public orator with a powerful command over his fellow townsfolk suggests that, in a different epoch, he’d achieve renown as a great politician rather than notoriety as a wayward priest; for all his personal failings, Grandier is a man wholly committed to admirable ideals. In an era defined by religious persecution, it is he alone who pleas for tolerance, urging Catholics and Protestants to live alongside one another in peace. It is he alone who rallies to his city’s defence when wealthy barons arrive to tear down the famed fortifications that shelter its inhabitants from external turmoil. And it is he alone who poses an affront to France’s corrupt statesmen – a group of eccentrics intent upon stirring a mass hysteria to further their own fervently prejudiced agendas. Despite his questionable ethics, Grandier’s moral authority over his parishioners is (initially) unconditional – so much so that his nation’s pernicious nobility will desperately contrive to discredit him, thereby clearing the final obstacle in their path towards absolute domination. Russell is judicious in articulating the institutional hypocrisy of the times, blasting the warmongering leaders and early-modern spin doctors that manipulate a precarious order with their chicanery; their unmitigated iniquities ultimately inducing an epidemic of paranoia that will lead only to carnage. (Familiar, some?) It’s these rabid, power-hungry members of the privileged classes who collectively form the director’s Satan incarnate; the naïve civilians who lap up their every fabrication playing the subservient demons who enable the film’s cataclysmic maelstrom to wreak its destruction.

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There is a disease that afflicts Loudun’s residents, one that’s even more virulent than the bubonic terror which, having manifested itself early into the film, acts as an ominous signifier of the oncoming catastrophe. Consider The Devils‘ sets: an exercise in magnificently flamboyant artifice, a grandiose series of architectural blitzkriegs that pits classicism against modernism whilst pristine, caustically-white exteriors threaten to blind the viewer with a façade of innocence (tellingly, Loudun’s cathedral – Russell’s centrepiece – has its interiors swathed in black to emulate the rotting souls of its purportedly devout worshippers). Embedded within these spectacular designs are: crosses. Everywhere. Inescapable. The real plague. Nary a scene passes by without the director somehow implanting this most potent of symbols into his imagery: in the rare instance where it can’t be found within the décor, then it will be conjured with light and shadow; if it cannot be done with optics, then it will be constructed with human bodies (always, there is a solution – for always, there must be a cross). Russell envisions the symbol as a recalcitrant infestation from which there is no escape and, amidst the chaos of his vulgar operatics, its meaning becomes totally debased. No longer is this is a representation of Christ’s benevolent sacrifice – rather, it becomes an imperious instrument of emotional oppression. Religion in this director’s world is conceived as a hotbed of atrocity, subjugation and ephemeral ideals; the purity of faith overwhelmed by the political machinations of scheming superiors: “I pray that I may assist you in the birth of a new France – where church and state are one!” Grandier’s ordeal at the hands of this governmental subterfuge will come to exemplify the disaster that ensues when the two cited Goliaths unite, though the fate of his primary accuser – the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne who heads Loudun’s sex-starved convent – is perhaps even more profound in its tragedy. Russell ensures that this delirious fetishist of a Mother Superior is constantly framed behind bars, emboldening the sexual incarceration that suffocates her deleterious psyche, and inducing ever greater acts of mania from her bruised ego as a result. She, more than any other character, is the embodiment of all that can go wrong when religion is ruthlessly enforced as a social order instead of being embraced by wilful believers.

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The cost of all this repression is devastating. Not least because the director expresses its damage by pushing the film to highs (or lows?) of garish, completely ludicrous excess that remain singular within his medium. The Devils communicates to its audience almost solely through the language of obscenity – and no taboo is left unturned as Russell fashions a boisterous, bombastic and boorish nightmare that upends any comprehension of human decency with its exuberant kitsch and vicious irony. Consider that, in under two hours, we’ll have witnessed: hornets deposited upon open wounds; crocodiles placed between women’s legs; candles being furiously masturbated; exorcisms by way of enemas (and giant clyster syringes); transvestite monarchs recreating Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. It doesn’t end there. The film’s most infamous sequence culminates with the “Rape of Christ” as a swarm of lascivious lunatic-nuns tear down a life-sized statue of their Redeemer and proceed to defile it – the director frenetically cutting between the orgiastic pandemonium and the sight of an onlooking priest, notably aroused by the entire affair. If Hell were really to exist, then surely it would look a little something like this, for in Russell’s vision the notion of “nothing sacred” is actualised to the point of absurdity. When an effeminate King Louis XIII (the director plays fast and loose with historical accuracy) turns up and exposes the possessed nuns and their deranged exorcist as frauds – thereby granting them the opportunity of a reprieve from their madness – the belligerents simply continue with the farce. These pathetic, tortured souls need to maintain their uninhibited masquerade; a lifetime of suppression has left them with bodies crippled by angst, yearning for any semblance of freedom to alleviate the self-created paucity within. In unleashing the full, titanic force of unexpressed desire and unfulfilled dreams, the director articulates the depth of these deficiencies with an understanding that goes so far beyond blasphemy that it reaches a point of spirituality heretofore unseen in the cinema. In this frenzied amalgam of perverse satire, visual panache and frenetic montages, Russell’s most heinous act is also his most beautiful. Positing the reformed Grandier as a contemporary Jesus, he substitutes a crucifix for a stake and rams the comparison down our throats in a cyclone of redemptive hellfire. Having lost everything that he once held dear, the charred priest looks skyward to his Saviour and tearfully decries the fate of his self, his town and his country – knowing full well that in both life and in death he will have achieved only this: fuck all.

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“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen”

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