August 2nd, 2004

Anti-war

I doubt if there's such a thing as an anti-war movie.

War is so exciting. And so damn pretty too. All that running about. All those explosions. The movie camera is in love with war.

Can you imagine a director approaching a battle scene and thinking- now I've got to make this really grungey and boring and dull?

Look at Kubrick. He hates war, but he's in love with the rituals of the military. That was a real drill sergeant he employed for the first half of Full Metal Jacket.

Saving Private Ryan? Get real. It's in love with the "greatest generation" and the two battle sequences are among the most exciting rides in the history of cinema.

And don't get me started on Apocalypse Now. If there was ever a hymn to the joys of having too much testosterone, this is it. Watch out girlie-men, here come the dudes!

And Peckinpah. Did you ever see Cross of Iron? Our hero walks out on his girlfriend to get back to the men he loves. Shagging is for wimps, real men get their highs from balletic, slow-motion violence.

Even honourable, humanist movies like Le Grand Illusion and All Quiet on the Western Front get a little soppy about the camaraderie of the trenches and the mess hall.

Bergman's Shame is as close as it gets. Here's the civilian's eye view. War is chaotic and stupid and it reduces "civilized" human beings to the level of beasts. Even so we get hooked into a story of quest and survival. This is Bergman at his most conventional and conventionally entertaining.

War, I'm told by those who've been in it, is mostly boredom and dread. A guy who was in the first Gulf War told me about sitting in the turret of his tank and watching day dawn over the desert after a night without sleep and thinking, there's got to be a better game than this. Could the movies give us that sequence? I don't think they could. They'd transmute it into something else. The waiting would turn into Hitchcockian suspense and we'd be thinking, OK, OK, I can sit this out because sooner or later I'm going to be rewarded with some really big bangs.

Bergman's En Passion aka The Passion of Anna

The Passion of Anna is not the passion of Anna. That title was wished on the movie by American distributors who wanted to suggest it was a Swedish sex romp. The original title is simply En Passion.

We've had the Passion according to Mark, the Passion according to Matthew, Luke and John. Now here's the Passion according to Ingmar.

So it's a religious film. A Christian film. The symbolism is all in place. First thing we hear are sheep bells. First thing we see are sheep.

But if it's a Passion there ought to be a Christ. Is Anna a Christ? Hardly. She's an uptight god-botherer. Is Andreas a Christ? This is slightly more plausible; the first we see of him he's doing carpentry- but he's a carpenter who does a botched job- therefore a false Christ. And is there really anything Christ-like about his anomie and self-contempt?

No, Bergman is playing a game with us. He has hidden his Christ among the supporting cast. The main characters overlook him and because we have been directed/misdirected to concentrate on them, we the audience miss him too.

He is a good man (explicitly a good Samaritan who saves Andreas' life) who is falsely accused, and then commits suicide after being roughed up and humiliated by vigilantes.

They know not what they do.

And that's what the film's about. The foreground figures are so engrossed in their own trivial sufferings that they miss the significance of what is going on in their midst. I've seen medieval and renaissance paintings and carvings that make the same point. Jesus hangs on the cross and at the foot of it a mass of ordinary people carry on with their utterly ordinary lives.

Anna has a dream. A young man is being hustled away to execution. She falls at the feet of the young man's mother and is pushed away. She doesn't get it. Neither do we.

As the hanged man lies on the bed a shaft of sunlight suddenly illuminates his face.

A Passion is a baffling, frustrating experience. Why are we being asked to spend so much time with these infuriatingly self-absorbed characters? It seems hopeless, pointless, the most gratuitously depressing of all Bergman's films. But that's because we share the characters obtuseness. Like them, we're missing what's in plain view.

There is goodness in the world, there is hope. It has taken the form of a bronchitic old man with a history of mental illness.

Remember the Zeffirelli Jesus of Nazareth with Robert Powell? At an early stage in the planning of that project Bergman was approached to direct. He said he'd like to do a modern dress version on Faro. The producers and backers swiftly lost interest.

History records that that movie was never made.

Oh, but it was.