"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Casablanca: What Makes a Film into a Classic?

Like books and songs, many movies have been made that cannot escape their particular time. In writing my academic book, for example, I aspired to speak beyond those living to generations not yet born because my aim was the production of knowledge beyond mere artifacts of the world in which I live. I knew that the verdict on whether the text passes that crucial test could only come long after my own death. Among films, even though Casablanca is a film immersed in, and thus reflecting its time—the context in 1942 being of course World War II—the film transcends all that to resonate in the following century. In his oral commentary, Rudy Behlmer argues that the film “transcends time.” He goes on to provide us with a list of the usual suspects behind what lies behind the making of a classic.

Firstly, the interplay of the characters still resonates, in that it means something to people outside of that context and is thus still able to illicit emotional responses. In this sense, the film still lives. For example, being torn between two lovers is hardly a dated concept, as the experience renews itself in each generation. Rick’s dejected mood following being betrayed while in love is also something that resonates with many people, and undoubtedly in generations to come. Unfortunately, even a corrupt public official, personified as Louis in the film, is all too familiar to us today, whereas Laslo’s willingness to sacrifice for a higher purpose is largely lost in all the tussle of the business-oriented, consumerist cultures today. Yet the salience of the ideals—sacrifice and renunciation in fighting the good fight against the bad guys—still resonate because ideals themselves are timeless.

Secondly, although Laslo and Louis may be too cliché, Bogart’s character (Rick) is both complex and dynamic (i.e., follows a character arc). As Behlmer puts it, “he is not a bad guy . . . He was an idealist, lost it, and then regained it.” Additionally, Elsa is not some stereotypical love object, and she undergoes changes as well. She becomes caught in the emotional struggle of loving two men in different ways or for different reasons. Rick too is conflicted, most notably whether to send Elsa on with her husband. In fact, as Roger Ebert points out in his oral commentary, the German-expressionistic lighting being associated with the two characters on screen sends a message of emotional turmoil to the viewer’s subconscious. Both this multi-layered approach and internal emotional conflict itself help the film resonate with viewers in any era.

Lastly, the build-up of suspense, owing in part to the difficulty a first-time viewer has in predicting the ending, points to the plot itself as contributing to the film having become a classic. Weaving together strands from melodrama (i.e., plot-driven), drama (i.e., character-driven), comedy, and suspense-thriller helps the film itself avoid stereotyping and provides it with a certain multivalency—a term that Margaret Mead applies to symbol. Perhaps having a multidimensionality renders a film more interesting, and in this respect too makes it more likely that a film will survive into succeeding eras.

In Socrates’s dialogues, both narrative and dialogue of course are salient. In reading them, I noticed that very little that only an ancient Greek would be familiar with is in the texts. The orientation being philosophical, timeless ideas are major players, and, in The Apology at least, the narrative of an innocent man being put on trial and sentenced to death still resonates. In fact, early Christian theologians such as Jerome and Tertullian wrote of Socrates as anticipating Christianity as a “Christ figure.” In fact, the notion of the immortality of the soul comes from Socrates’s Meno (pre-bodily existence being necessary for us to be able to recall knowledge not taught). In short, avoiding things that people in other epochs could not know and privileging ideals and principles that transcend a particular time and place may be vital ingredients to making a film into a classic.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Pope Francis Excommunicates the Mafia:Theological Lessons from “The Godfather”

As though a lamb going into a lion’s den, Pope Francis journeyed to Sibari in southern Italy on the Summer Solstice of 2014 to castigate the Italian mafia, and more specifically the Ndrangheta crime group, as an example of “the adoration of evil.”  He added that “(t)hose who in their lives follow this path of evil, as mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated.”[1] Presumably so too are the mafia families in other European states, and in the American states as well. As laudable as such excommunicating is, the fact that such murderous thugs have regarded themselves as Catholics, and, more generally as Christian, points to a more profound need for reform within the religion itself. In this essay, I draw on The Godfather saga to present this argument.

Under the pope's order, Michael of the fictional Corleone family would not be able to stand as godfather to his sister’s child. In the film, Michael had ordered the murder of his godson’s father, and various other such orders were being carried out even as the baptism was taking place. Doubtless many viewers came to associate the Roman Catholic Church is a “look the other way” stance even before the clerical pedophilia story reached the light of day.

Ominously for Pope Francis, Pope John Paul had been the last Roman pope to preach openly against the mob back in 1993. That pope died shortly after becoming the pontiff. As The Godfather, Part 3 suggests, that pope’s death may have been contrived by the mob eager to keep the Vatican Bank free of prying reform. Asked in an interview shortly before his trip to southern Italy about his relative lack of security, Pope Francis said that at his age he had comparatively little to lose. In his view, the members of the Mafiosi have a lot to lose in a salvific sense.

In The Godfather, Part 3, Michael goes to the Vatican to speak to a humble Cardinal who would become the pope who is murdered. During the conversation in a courtyard, the priest seizes the moment by inviting the godfather to confess his sins. “I always have time to save souls,” the cleric offers. “What is the point of confessing if I don’t repent,” the mobster replies. “What have you got to lose?” the priest counters. Finally, Michael confesses to having given the order to kill his elder brother. Fittingly, the camera shows a solid pillar of stone between the humble religious man and the man guilty of fratricide, and the flowers may portend both the hope extended by the priest and the death of the other man’s soul.

The formal words absolution, said in authoritative-sounding Latin, is belied by what the priest himself says to Michael. “Your sins and terrible, and it is just that you suffer; your life could be redeemed, but I know that you don’t believe that; you will not change.”  Before the confession, the Cardinal had bemoaned the lack of progress that Christianity had made in Europe. Breaking open a small stone that had been in a small fountain, the red-clad cleric likened the still-dry inside of the stone to Europe, which had been immersed in Christianity for centuries yet little had so far penetrated. So too, the godfather, like his father before him, had gone through rituals in Church yet the principles and values preached and lived out by Jesus had not penetrated those two souls. Even popes have contravened even well-known principles, as for instance the four who promised salvation to Christians willing to fight in the Crusades instead of loving the enemy, turning the other cheek, and offering even more to those who take.  

Even though excommunicating members of the Mafiosi is entirely appropriate and fitting, at least as long as they refuse to change, the religion’s own pliability is itself a problem in need of an audacious leader willing to speak truth to power, or dogma in this case. Jesus says in the Gospels that he came to preach on the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, yet even early Church leaders such as the Apostles have relegated those principles in favor of attention on Christology as being the religion’s litmus test.  

Clearly, daylight between valuing the principles and believing the Creedal identity claim shows what must be a rather loose coupling; for a Christian can act in ways that contradict the deemphasized teachings without much fear of charges of hypocrisy as long as the Christological belief is correct. I submit that precisely this fault-line running through the history of Christianity is largely responsible for the fact that the religion has not penetrated Europe in spite of a presence there for almost two millennia. The “wriggle room” that exists between a cognitive assent to an identity claim and valuing principles advocated by Jesus has also made it possible for the Mafiosi members to regard themselves as Christians in spite of violently contravening the principles and values of the Kingdom of God. 

In The Godfather, Michael gives his cognitive assent during the baptism ritual to the existence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even as his murderous orders are being carried out antithetical to Jesus’s principle of loving one’s enemy. Had the latter received such creedal treatment from the outset in historical Christianity, perhaps Pope Francis’s announcement of excommunication in 2014 would have been preceded by many others directed against those who harass, threaten, and murder for a living.

[1] Reuters, “Pope Excommunicates Mafiosi,” The Huffington Post, June 21, 2014.