Sunday, April 14, 2013

No--The Chilean Oscar Nominee

Rated R. Our ratings: V -5; L -7; S/N -2. Running time: 1 hour 58 min. (English Subtitled)

The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites,  and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.
Exodus 1:13-17

Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker,
   but those who are kind to the needy honour him. 
The wicked are overthrown by their evildoing,
   but the righteous find a refuge in their integrity.
Proverbs 14:31-32

Although the Hebrew midwives were at the bottom of society in ancient Egypt, they were brave enough to exercise the one power that they did have, the power of saying “No” to Pharaoh’s murderous command. Chilean film director Pablo Larrain's film claims that an advertising campaign concocted by the same pitchman who was selling a drink called Freedom would also lead to the freedom of his people by convincing them that if enough of them said “No” at an upcoming plebiscite, they could oust the dictator who had destroyed their democracy.

In 1988 dictator Augusto Pinoceht's police still rule the streets.
Sony Pictures Classics

       In 1988 the people of Chile had suffered under the harsh military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet for 15 years. Thousands of them had been shot and imprisoned for even being suspected of opposing the regime. Pressured by foreign governments, the Pope, human rights groups, and even by the requirement of Pinochet’s own constitution, the General called for an election in which the people had two choices—a “Yes” to continue the dictator in office for 8 more years; a “No” for those who wanted to restore democracy. Pinochet is supremely confident that the people will support an extension of his term of office.
Director Pablo Larrain and screenwriter Pedro Peirano’s film, in turn based on an unpublished play by Antonio Skarmeta, is difficult to watch at first because of its technique. The director used old video cameras to shoot the action so that they blend in more with the actual TV footage of the time that he uses so frequently. More irritating is that in most scenes the cameras are hand-held, providing mostly close ups and medium shots that are jerky and unsettling. However, the story is so engrossing that we get over any irritations, and we marvel at the premise that the creator of cheesy TV commercials could have such a vital role in the ousting of a brutal dictator.

     The film begins with RenĂ© Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) pitching to clients his commercial for their beer, ironically named in view of what will unfold. “Freedom.” They are puzzled by the unorthodox razzle-dazzle approach, especially the use of a mime. He employs advertising jargon from North America to explain to them “the social context” of their product. Rene is very much a member of the new generation, riding his skateboard back and forth to work. Because of his reputation for creativity it is to him that the coalition of opposition parties turn to direct their TV campaign to convince the public to vote “No” in the referendum. The government has given both sides 15 minutes airtime to make their case during the 4 weeks of the campaign.

     At first Rene’s former activist wife Veronica (Antonia Zegers), who has left him because she despises his work of selling frivolous products to the wealthy, scorns his freelance campaign because of the widespread belief that the election is rigged. Rene also has to convince the opposition politicians that a light, positive approach is better than a heavy-handed one using scenes of past beatings and imprisonment. They are sceptical, especially when he uses that mime again, and one of the leaders walks out in disgust when Rene shows them his ad. The opposition politicians are convinced that the election is a fraud, so they see it merely as an opportunity to make their case to the people before the government’s iron curtain of censorship descends again. Rene, asking do they want to win the election, convinces them that his campaign can indeed lead to victory by stirring the large group of apolitical TV viewers to go to the polls and vote.

     Inspired by the “We Are the World” campaign, Rene hires famous singers to sing a tuneful jingo “Happiness is coming, Chile!” Filled with upbeat images akin to those in Coke commercials, his presentations paint a picture of the bright future that could return to Chile if the people vote “No.” The word is incorporated into a logo that includes a rainbow, the latter representing the 17 opposition parties. Stan Freburg-like humour is employed in skits, such as that of a couple in bed, one of whom continually responds with “No” to her lover’s request. In another a comedian is bombarded with pleas to say “Yes,” but instead opens his mouth on which is pasted to his tongue the rainbow logos and “No.”

     Much of the film shows the alternating meetings of the two campaign committees, that of the General’s agents disdaining the opposition’s seemingly frivolous approach, until polls begin to show once inactive members of the public supporting the “No” side. The actual videos of both the “Yes” and the “No” campaigns are interspersed throughout the story. At one meeting the “Yes” committee members complain that all of the talented, best-known artists are working for the other side. Even internationally known Hollywood stars contribute their services—we see the actual ads featuring Jane Fonda, Christopher Reeve, and Richard Dreyfus.

     Adding to the tension is the fact that Rene’s ad agency boss Lucho (Alfredo Castro) heads up Pinochet’s campaign. However, Rene is apparently so valuable at the agency that he is not fired over his freelance work. More dangerous are the anonymous phone calls and threats he begins to receive. He becomes so worried that he takes his young son, of whom he has custody, to stay with Veronica—who now regards him with more respect. Matters become so tense that at the end, when a large majority of the people do vote “NO,” Rene and his colleagues fear that the government dictatorship will resort to its old violent tactics and refuse to give up power.

     What happens is so surprising and refreshing that Chile should be added to the list of Iron Curtain nations that overthrew their tyranny non-violently, as well as those more recently in North Africa. The overall events are true, but the story is fictional, and according to its critics, very simplistic, leaving out many persons and intense work by other groups that made possible the Chilean revolution. However, as a political movie extolling the power of people saying “No,” the film is a delight. (I kept thinking of Thoreau’s “Essay on Civil Disobedience” while watching it. If you want to learn more about the actual history of the revolution, then you should go to the long article “Oscars: Real History Behind the Film 'No'“ edited by Peter Kornbluh at the following site: We can be thankful that the film’s Oscar nomination has brought it to greater public attention than such a foreign language film usually receives.

For Reflection/Discussion
1. In what ways is this film similar to Argo? How does the main character in each movie use unorthodox measures to achieve his goal?
2. What do you think of the visual symbols: such as the name of the beverage Rene is selling “Freedom; “ the mime;” the use of a rainbow; the constant employment of the large graphic  “No”? The use of the soap opera stars and the helicopter atop the tall building?  Theater of the absurd, maybe, but--?
3. How do the various characters’ view of Rene change during the course of the film? What does Veronica overlook in Rene at first when he takes on the “No” campaign: after all, who is the head of the “Yes” campaign? What could this portend for Rene’s future career?
4. Our Age of Enlightenment Founding Fathers maintained that in public discourse the side employing the facts (truth) in a rational argument would win: but does Rene’s campaign follow this? How is what he calls his society’s “the social context” very different from the 18th/19th centuries? How are images as important, or mores so, than rational arguments in today’s world? (You might think back on political ads in our own nation: do they appeal to the mind or to our emotions?
5. Why did Rene not want to use scenes and stories of Pinochet’s past brutal tactics in the campaign? What effect did he think, and fear, these would have upon the minds of the majority of people who did not participate in the political process? How was his campaign ironically a positive, rather than a negative one, despite the logos?
6. How did you feel at the end of the film? As a believer where did you see the God of the prophets at work in the story?

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Bible, Fifth Week

The Bible episodes really did improve, the half covering the New Testament being far superior to the first, where it seemed to be the stories containing R-rated elements—violence and sex—that drew the producers’ interest. Although there are still points to quibble about—and I will raise some of them later—for the most part I felt a sense of relief as the series concluded with what it calls “the apostle John” exiled on the island of Patmos. This latter was an important part of my relief because of the artistic restraint in dealing with John and his Book of Revelation. More on this a little later also.

I am glad the fifth week’s episodes were so good, because during the first commercial break I discovered that Turner Classic Movies was airing The Robe. I kept going back to this enjoyable classic during the remaining breaks, and was very tempted to stay with it. Only my promise to finish blogging about the Bible made me return, for which I am glad, Episodes 9 & 10 being well worth watching.

The trials before the Sanhedrin and Pilate were well staged, with actors Adrian Schiller and Greg Hicks as High Priest Caiaphas and Governor Pontius Pilate respectively excellent in their roles. The one is convincingly shrewd and manipulative as the wily priest, and the other arrogant and well aware of his authority. Dieogo Morgado was not quite up to their level, his Jesus at one time being very vacant-eyed and perhaps a little too subdued: this Christ was not as pictured in the Gospel of John, calm and very much in control despite his captivity. However, during the scourging his cries and moans conveys well his humanity. Jesus might be the Son of God, but his suffering was not play-acting.
Mercifully the scourging was a lot briefer than in Mel Gibson’s The Passion, but the depiction was just as effective. The sense of frustration and agony that Mary—a non-Biblical but dramatically effective touch—feels is well depicted. Her frustration because the iron grate of the gate kept her from rushing to her son’s side, and agony over the pain of seeing him suffering such injustice. It is interesting that they showed Pilate going to Jesus in his cell, rather than bringing him into the audience room with his accusers.

The Gospel of Matthew’s mention of Pilate’s wife and her dream is expanded so that we see her in several scenes. In this version Pilate has no excuse for his miscarriage of justice, having been given fair warning by his wife. When it came to presenting Jesus and Barabbas to the crowd, the speculative episode of the temple guards vetting the crowd was a good touch. By rejecting admission to the courtyard of all known supporters of Jesus (no doubt at the insistence of Caiaphas) insured that the mob could easily be manipulated by the priests. When Pilate, obviously wanting to release Jesus, tries to argue with priests and crowd about choosing either Jesus or Barabbas for release, I was glad that Matthew 27:25 was left out. This is the passage that has been so widely misused by anti-Semites because the mob says, while Pilate is washing his hands,” His blood be on us and on our children!’ There should be no charge that this film is anti-Semitic, as was done in the case of The Passion.

The carriage of the cross was almost as brutally depicted as in The Passion, the guard almost constantly whipping the bruised and battered Jesus. Mother Mary is there also, played by co-producer Roma Downey. Although very appropriate in the portrayal of the young Mary, she still seems too youthful at this point, very much like those older women in TV commercials aimed at the AARP generation. The best depiction of Mary at the time of the Cross is in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew in which he cast his own mother as Mary, there being no mistaking that she had aged during a time devoid of cosmetics and age-fighting vitamins. To change the subject, did you catch a quick glimpse of Satan in the crowd of onlookers?

The Crucifixion is depicted in all its horror, and it was noticeable that all of the so-called “seven last words of Christ,” gleaned from all four gospels, were used. Especially appreciated was starting out with the most startling of those “words,” those from the Gospel of Luke Christ forgiving his enemies. At the end of the ordeal, when Christ’s body is lowered from the cross, there is a carefully staged “Pieta” in which Mary, flanked by the disciples John and Mary Magdalene, weeps as she holds the body of her son. Meanwhile, much is made of the Gospel of Matthew’s description of a storm and great earthquake shaking the temple and tearing the curtain that veils the inner sanctuary.

The Easter events are considerably condensed (glancing at my watch, I noticed that there was little time left for the Book of Acts, the Epistles, and the Book of Revelation), but rather skillfully done. Peter and Mary rush to the tomb, and when she is alone, the camera shows us from the inside of the tomb looking up when Jesus appears to her. We can understand how, against the bright light outside, she might not recognize her master. Back at the upper room, Thomas is present when Christ appears, but still refusing to believe at first. It is a nice touch that Peter is breaking bread and pouring the wine, referencing the Eucharist that will become the central ritual of the church, when Jesus makes his appearance.

After the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, the scene called Pentecost was done with admirable restraint. I was glad that the filmmakers did not try to emulate any of the countless paintings in which actual tongues of fire are shown over the heads of the disciples. (The Book of Acts sees this description of the presence of the Holy Spirit as a simile, “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” (Acts 2:3) Instead, there is the disciples praying together the Lord’s Prayer when the sound of wind, the cloths being blown about as the disciples speak in foreign tongues that they did not know. Outside the crowd of Jews, gathered for Passover from all over world, hear the disciples proclaiming Christ as Lord in their own languages.

Paul falls off his horse when Jesus appears to him.

 Events move quickly, the introduction of young Steven and his all too quickly following death by stoning, the healing and preaching of Peter and arrest by the authorities, the persecution of Christians by Paul, his conversion, and his widespread ministry to the Gentile world. Peter too is led by the risen Christ to go with the Roman soldier sent by the officer Cornelius to share the gospel. (In the Book of Acts it is strange dream about eating both ritually unclean as well as clean animals that convinces Peter to go to a ritually impure Gentile.) We get a few snatches of Paul’s letters as he dictates one to his scribe, and when Romans come to arrest him, he sends some of them off for delivery.

Below: Peter heals a beggar inJerusalem and then journeys to Antioch
to baptize the Roman officer Cornelius.

The narrator tells us that all of the disciples met death as martyrs, and we see the fate of some of them, including the beheading of James in Jerusalem and the killing of Thomas in India. Then came a very brief depiction of John’s fate on the island of Patmos where the Romans had exiled him. (Although a great many scholars believe this was another man named John, the film maintains it was the disciple.)

                                          The disciple John has been exiled to the island of Patmos when
the resurrected Christ appears to him.

Fortunately, rather than trying with special effects to portray the bizarre apocalyptic visions of the writer, the film emphasizes the real purpose of the Book of Revelation, to bring comfort and strength to John and the persecuted church. Jesus is shown—and as in his other post-resurrection appearances, John can see the nail holes in his hands—declaring that he is “alpha and omega, the beginning and the end,” that he is making all things new.” In response to his master’s promise that he will come again soon, John utters the prayer, “Come!” The effectiveness of this conclusion is only slightly marred by camera moving in for an extreme close up on Jesus eye and then pulling back very quickly to reveal the earth as a globe in a brightly lit up space. It is a no doubt well meant attempt to show that Christ is Lord of the World, but the last shot is so artificial looking that it would have been better had the last thing depicted was the face of Christ. Still, all in all, Episode 10 was very satisfying, showing far better judgment in the selection of material from that in the Old Testament portion of the series.

Two further matters: 
To compare this depiction of the life of Jesus with other films, you can scroll way down the screen where you will find a blog on the top ten Jesus movies.

And, you might want to watch the film mentioned before, The Robe. Based on Lloyd C. Douglas’s novel about what happened to the Roman centurion who won at dice Christ’s robe at his Crucifixion, it is a rewarding film. Best scene is when the centurion travels back to Palestine and meets a woman who sings a beautiful Song of the Resurrection. I remember my seminary New Testament professor saying that it was the most authentic depiction of the way that the early Christians spread the stories about Jesus.