Optimism? Eva said so.. almost

7. 7. 2009 / Ema Čulík

Davide Ferrario's film Tutta colpa di Giuda, (Blame it all on Judas) titled in English Freedom, left me feeling good. Eva Zaoralová, the creative director of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, introduced it by saying that this was the only non-depressing film in the main competition. Despite being set in a prison, it is almost optimistic. And exactly this non-naive positivity appealed to me.

It's about a young theatre director, Irene Mirkovic, from Serbia, who puts on her own avant-garde pieces, and seems to do quite well with it, and who has become involved in a project to put on a play in a more lenient ward of a Turin prison. On the suggestion of the prison's priest, Iridio, they start working on a production of the Passion, for Easter.

Český překlad tohoto článku je ZDE

She is full of enthusiasm and throws herself into her work head first. Having never read the Gospels, she purchases herself a copy and sits reading them meticulously, trying to understand the story and the meaning- one that she sees in the Catholics of Italy, and which mystifies her somewhat. She makes close connections to the prisoners she is working with, interviewing them all on camera, finding their life story, their interests, their deepest aims. She brings them gifts from her own house. And eventually she packs her things and comes to stay in the prison, in guards' accommodation, for the duration of their preparations for the play.

She takes the prisoners on this journey of faith and art, both of which are rather foreign to them. As the warden (whose name is Libero, meaning 'free' [!] ) says, "In order to live here, they have do play dead. Do you get the paradox?"

We follow them as they all try to create this production, and the process gradually turns into a search for salvation, or a search for what salvation is -- and the question -- what brings salvation? Faith? Or art?

This main conflict lies at the centre of the film, and is treated from many different sides, taking in almost every side of the problem. We have a very explicit verbal conflict between the director and the priest on the subject. "Salvation lies in Faith!" "Religion is slavery!"He had tried to convince her that their two professions are inextricably linked: "Words hold deep meaning. I deal with belief, you deal with make-believe..We are in the same line of work really.." And she was ready to try it -- she took on his suggestion, and plunged into the Gospels, but was troubled by what she read, as it made no sense to her analytical, psychological, academic brain. Though she takes up his project, and follows his advice to concentrate on the human element in the story, her final play does not please him. Apart from the various complexities of getting prisoners to act, and dance, the fact that they keep being released as she is casting them, and that none of them want to play Judas, the main problem lies in the fact that art is questioning set values, and faith is taking these values to be true, though there can be no proof of their existence or truth.

This is not an anti-Christian film. Ferrario and all his characters are extremely respectful of religion, and if they are not believers, they are actively interested in it. What is criticised, or rather poked fun at, is the oppressive formality of the Catholic practice. The nun who takes care of the prisoners is a little questionable in her goodness -- stern and somewhat flippant, she enforces the rules apparently without any real feeling, and has no drive to make any changes. She follows the religion she has given herself to, but her faith in herself and the characters is gone. Father Iridio is good, and speaks eloquently and convincingly about his religion, showing that he does more than rehash set phrases, but has really contemplated the questions that Catholicism raises. And yet. His reluctance to allow Irene and the prisoners' interpretation of the Passion shows that he is only really ready to see things in his own way, though Irene's ideas, which came only from the gospels and speaking honestly to people, and were based on a genuine search for truth, could have brought many more people to faith, or at least to understand it.

As for art. Though Irene is generally its representative, and hence it comes off well for most of the film, there are also characters showing the negative side of it. Irene's boyfriend, for example, who is not faithful to her, nor does he show any interest in anything she is doing, basically because he is a self-obsessed, self-indulgent actor. When she tells him that none of the prisoners want to play Judas, his only reaction is to kiss her ear and say that Judas is a delicious role to play. He is not interested in real people, but only art for itself.

That is not the case with Irene. Perhaps she doesn't even realise it herself at the beginning, but as she works with the prisoners she realises that they will bring the real magic to her play, rather than more formalist avant-garde techniques.

We see the extreme power of art through the changes that she and the prisoners experience. It is fun! And it can bring new understandings, which not only give us enlightenment, but can help us to live. One of the characters loves music, and has only a harmonica as his voice. When Irene brings him a keyboard from home, he is suddenly constantly singing and rapping and dancing. He has been given a way to make sense of his existence. And the slightly mad prisoner, who drums on everything. His music is a way of letting his voice out, which is trapped by his mental weakness.

So the process goes on -- they work on their production, despite the hurdles of officialdom, Catholic traditionalism, and romantic complications, everything seems to be going well. But then the President announces that all prisoners with less than 3 years to serve are to be released. This is the last straw. Life has finally got in the way.

When Irene gets involved with warden Libero the prisoners lose her trust and refuse to rehearse. When the guard is telling her, he says, "They won't come, they prefer living.." But Irene breaks off her affair, giving precedence to art over living. She lives through her art, through them.

This conflict between life and art presents another side of the central problem, just as the prisoners hiding their posters of naked women under calendars of the Holy Mary shows the conflict of life and faith.

What wins?

Faith doesn't entirely win, because no-one is converted, they do not reach salvation. Art does not win, as the play does not go on, it never reached an audience.

And yet, faith was the driving force behind the project. The discovery of the Gospels, even as a mythology, has drastically affected Irene. It gave a new meaning to the prisoners' experience. And yet, Irene came to the Gospels through her art, she wouldn't have discovered the truth without her artistic interpretation. Years of preaching didn't reach the prisoners, but two months of rehearsals shook the ground under their feet.

And so, does life win? It doesn't, either. At the end of the film, as the camera is panning over the faces of the prisoners just as they are about to leave prison, the fiction breaks down. We hear the voice of the director and the clapper girl. Then we see the prisoners looking over onto the monitor showing the shots of their faces. "How many times did you do it? We did 81 takes?!" Then the bell rings, the guards come over and direct them back to their cells. These real prisoners, who acted in the film, are not liberated. When the fiction, the film -- art -- is over, they are not saved, they have to go back to imprisonment.

The use of this formalistic, self-referential technique breaks down the audience's suspended disbelief. The film stops being a story, and starts being an artistic, philosophical object. It has so much more power now. Especially due to this tragic ending for the prisoners. They will have gone though this whole process, experienced the ideas that are examined in this "fiction", and then returned to their former captive lives. Though I have no doubt that they will have returned dramatically changed.

From the start of the film, Irene's interviews with the prisoners were filmed on mini-DV, while the rest is shot in spotless 35mm. This contrast, and the difference in visual quality, breaks down the film illusion, and draws attention to the medium itself. We never forget that this is a film. And the play inside the film never makes it to the final stage of completion, so we only see a raw and unpolished creative process.

Such self-reference is extremely effective nowadays. The jaded cinema-goer has seen it all, and it takes more and more to make him suspend his disbelief. This morning I watched the 1944 film Cover Girl by Charles Vidor. Though the audience watched the whole film in delight, enchanted by it all, we all burst out laughing when, at the end of the film, Rita Hayworth returned to Gene Kelly, appearing in the doorway of their favourite, sentimentally-significant restaurant, in her wedding dress, the wind rushing through her red curls and wafting the folds of her dress around her. It's too recognisable. Breaking down the fiction and making us consider the form itself gives us something else to think about. This is, for me, one of the things that was missing in Forman's latest offering, Dobře placená procházka. He makes a film version of a play, and yet does not make any comment on it at all. He shows no interest in the massive difference between the two genres, and goes on obliviously, his characters dancing around the giant pink elephant in the middle of the room.

Davide Ferrario is aware of how the film works, and how it works today. He uses the form and the genre, and various formats of such, to make comment not only on the creative process but also on weighty human concerns. Because he does not neglect, as he calls it, "the human element". He combines form with sincere truth, people, and heartfelt emotion. This never turns into a dry philosophical tract, as the characters' discoveries are announced not in preaching, but in song!Art is an amazing thing that helps us to understand ourselves and our lives. But it doesn't give any perfect answer, and it alone can't bring salvation. And faith is an amazing thing that helps us to understand ourselves and our lives, but it, too, does not give any one perfect answer, and it alone can't bring salvation. So you see why this film is optimistic... almost.


Obsah vydání | Úterý 7.7. 2009