The Ultimate Arrival

Spoiler Alert: This post contains a major spoiler of a current movie with a similar name.

***

If you’d known the future, would you change anything?

In the movie Arrival, what’s most moving for me is at the end, when we realize, ah-ha! Dr. Louise Banks has seen it beforehand—knowing full well that years later, her husband Ian will leave her, and her dear daughter Hannah will die of illness at a young age—she still chooses to embark on this journey of love and motherhood, a small idea to illustrate a bit of the Ultimate Arrival.

In the words of the story writer Ted Chiang:

“From the beginning I knew my destination, and I chose my route accordingly.”

arrival-1

And here’s another life…

If you’d known that you’d be born in a smelly horse stable, had to flee from a death threat on your life while still an infant, and later, you’d be misunderstood, criticized, rejected, plotted against, deserted and denied by your intimate friends, betrayed, beaten, spat upon, taunted, and finally hung on the cross with just three nails holding you up until death of asphyxiation, and that’s after living a short life of only 33 years, would you rather not be born?

Yet, He chose to arrive.

***

The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

— Madeleine L’Engle

***

Other Related Posts:

Arrival: From Short Story to Film (a spoiler-free review)

Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

Reading the Season: Arti’s Annual Christmas Reads 

Reading the Season: Silence by Shusaku Endo

Click for ‘Silence’ movie review and thoughts.

For this year’s Reading the Season, I’ve chosen Shusaku Endo’s masterpiece Silence. Unlike previous years, it’s not as pleasing and exulting a read at Christmas time.  Rather, it’s unsettling and disturbing. It will interfere with your festive mood. It presents an excruciating dilemma that we hope we may never need to confront, and a question that more likely for us to face: Where is God during our suffering?

silence

Why so unpleasant a read at this time? We’re all busy with our festivities. Who would want to think about such a somber question? Director Martin Scorsese thinks it’s seasonal; Dec. 23 is the day his adaptation of Silence will be released in North America. Mind you, before showing here, it will first premiere at the Vatican. What a diversion of Christmas over there.

Thanks to Scorsese, I dug out Endo’s book and reread it. This time around, it’s even more disturbing for me. However, I also see the light seeping through the cracks of a broken human scene. I sure hope Scorsese’s film — twenty-five years brewing in the director’s heart — can lead to some quiet meditation amidst the cacophony bombarding us these days.

Historical Note

First off, very crucial before reading Silence is to establish a frame of reference; this is furnished by the Historical Note at the beginning of the book. Christianity was introduced to Japan by Francis Xavier in 1549. It was very well received at that point, despite an expulsion order later in 1587 by the Shogun Hideyoshi and the subsequent crucifixion of twenty-six Japanese Christians and European missionaries. By 1600, there were an estimated 300,000 Christian converts living in Japan.

By the time the second expulsion order was issued in 1614, however, the Christian Church in Japan was driven underground. Warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu was resolute in wiping out all traces of Christianity that from 1614 to 1640, an estimated five to six thousand Christians were killed. He later found out martyrdom wasn’t as effective an eradication measure as forced apostasy, especially with leaders of the faith, so torture was widely used towards that end.

crucifixion

In 1632, the Catholic world was shocked to learn that the stalwart leader of the Jesuits mission in Japan, Father Christovao Ferreira, had disavowed his faith and become an apostate after being tortured at ‘the pit’ in Nagasaki. No news of him came after that.

Upon this setting Endo begins his story. The historical novel describes the journey of one fervent young priest from Portugal, Father Sebastian Rodrigues, who has had the privilege to be taught and mentored by Father Ferreira years before. Upon hearing Ferreira’s apostasy, and with the reluctant approval of the Jesuit Superior, Rodrigues and fellow priest Father Francisco Garrpe board a ship and sail all the way to Japan to look for their beloved teacher and to investigate the situation. They have been forewarned, the magistrate Inoue is ruthless.

While still on the ship, the priests encounter Kichijiro, a sly, cowardly, and ambiguous figure who later will wade on shore ahead to guide them to some hidden Christians. For a while, the two Fathers have to hide themselves in a hut on a mountain during the day, and minister to the needs of Japanese believers who, despite the danger, come to seek them out for spiritual matters at night.

Later Kichijiro leads them to a nearby island to meet with more hidden believers. To the welcoming relief of the villagers, the fathers secretly conduct mass and baptism despite the risks. The evasive Kichijiro hangs around like a phantom nemesis.

The people suffer greatly under the rule of magistrate Inoue, yes, that Inoue who Rodrigues was forewarned. He extracts from the poor peasants harsh revenues and infuse the utmost fear into those of the Christian faith with his deathly measures. Rodrigues observes that “The persecutions of Christians make their faces expressionless. They cannot register on their faces any sorrow —nor even joy. The long years of secrecy have made the faces of these Christians like masks. This is indeed bitter and sad.”

Never before has Rodrigues felt so deeply about the meaningfulness of his mission:

“… like water flowing into dry earth … For the first time they have met men who treated them like human beings. It was the human kindness and charity of the fathers that touched their hearts.”

But such a firm conviction begins to shatter when Rodrigues comes closer and closer to the reality of persecution. No, not just of his own, but those of the Japanese peasants, his flock. Many are faithful to the end. When discovered, they would be tied on trees in the shape of a cross at the seashore, the rising tide slowly consumed their bodies after two or three days.

The ultimate punishment is ‘the pit’. Believers are tied up and suspended upside down above a pit. Blood would flow out of their eyes, ears, nose and the slits on the neck. They would be literally drip dry into a slow death through several days.

fumieA way out of such torture is to trample on the fumie. The fumie is a wooden plaque with a copper plate on which the image of Christ was artfully engraved. A person’s willingness to trample on the fumie is Inoue’s way of testing if one belongs to the outlawed Christian religion. It is also a convenient way to turn a believer into an apostate upon the threat of torture and death. One only needs to put one’s foot on the fumie, trample or even just step on it, then one can be released immediately, a most easy and convenient ‘formality’ to show one’s denunciation of faith. This was what happened to Father Ferriera.

The officials would say: “I’m not telling you to trample with sincerity and conviction. This is only a formality. Just putting your foot on the thing won’t hurt your convictions.”

To a believer, this may sound like a temptation, or self-deception. Or, is it a necessary choice to survive?

In this historically based novel, Shusaku Endo (1923 – 1996), a Japanese Catholic, paints a vivid picture of the crisis of faith in the face of extreme suffering, the doubts that often lie hidden even in the most devout. In the midst of persecutions, where is God? Why is He silent?  Endo is not depicting so much about the hubris of foreign missionaries coming with the hope and optimism to preach and convert, but just the opposite, he has exposed the lowest state a believer, let alone a priest, can possibly experience, the utter humiliation of being the one to denounce and betray his God, albeit under duress.

The duress is horrific indeed. The priest sees no glorious martyrdom but is witness to unbearable torture of these peasants. For several nights, the screams and moans of five Christian villagers accompany him in his sleepless nights. Father Rodrigues is thus being dragged into the ultimate dilemma: He only needs to place his foot on the fumie and all five of these suffering peasants will be released right away.

In a court of law, a statement or action made under duress cannot stand as evidence to lay blame, as the subject is under threat and coercion like Father Rodrigues is here. But in the court of the priest’s conscience, it is an ironclad verdict: Apostasy!

As he is struggling with this painful dilemma, trample on it and denounce his faith or five peasants will be suspended in the pit till death, Father Rodrigues seems to encounter an epiphany. Seeing the well-trodden, blacken face of the Christ image on the fumie, the priest hears a voice breaking through the silence:

“‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’

The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.”

Indeed, the allusion to Peter’s denial of Christ three times before the cock crows points to Christ’s forgiveness, the light that sheds through the cracks of human failure. After his denial, Peter later served his Lord with transformed fervency and love. Yes, even the Rock, upon whom the Church was to be built, had once denied Christ.

When I first read Silence a few years ago I could not accept Rodrigues’s action. This time around, I’ve come to see that Endo is not discussing theology here, but depicting an imaginary scenario. In the darkest hour of a believer’s journey—likely Endo’s own as well—when a devout is entrapped in an excruciating dilemma like being suspended in the deep pit of spiritual conflicts, Endo draws our attention to the response of a compassionate Christ.

As to the seeming silence of God, Endo lets us hear these internal dialogues:

‘Lord, I resented your silence.’
‘I was not silent. I suffered beside you.’

At the humble manger some two thousand years ago, God had spoken, with a birth that pierced the darkness of that silent night.

***

Reading the Season of Christmas Past:

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

***

Risen for Hope

The photo was taken just yesterday. Due to illness in the family, I’ve been staying mostly indoor as a caregiver. Yesterday was the first time I went out to greet spring and the birds. A Downy Woodpecker darted right into frame.

DSC_0614 (1)

While we’re enjoying an early spring this year, there had been times when it felt like spring would never come. A few years ago, I wrote this poem at Easter, when winter lingered and spring seemed so far away… and it was already April.

**

April is the month of empty dreams
Half the days gone
waiting for words and spring
still frozen ground
and on the screen
a frigid page as white as snow.

Brown could be the color of hope
After the white
for all I know
green is too much to wish for
I’m contented to see a patch
of dry and withered brown.

The sun is a perpetual sign
that there’s still hope
But it’s no herald of the seasons
for its presence comforts all year long
warming my blank and barren state
as I await for words and spring.

But Easter is an apt reminder
that The Word had come
spoken clear to half-frozen ears
His body hung on a lifeless tree
Blood and water flowed
onto parched and dusty earth

So what if no words come to me
That dreaded writer’s block
reigning the winter of sterility
numbing senses,
snatching thoughts,
seizing any sign of spring.

It’s not about a post or a blog,
Or even buds and melting snow.
The Word had come
lived and loved among us,
broken, bled, died and rose,
melting frozen hearts to greet
a new dawn and eternal Spring.

– by Arti, April 2011

  ***

We look not towards the climate, but the Christ.

Happy Easter to all!

 

 

Reading the Season: The Book of Ruth

For the past seven years, I’ve a special post at Christmas which I’d named Reading the Season, just to help me dwell on the Reason behind all the festivities. Some past authors I’d read include Marilynne Robinson, C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Luci Shaw. This year I’m going back to the source material, The Bible, for my Christmas read. And no, my selection isn’t from Luke 2, which Linus so eloquently delivers every year in the delightful A Charlie Brown Christmas.

I reread the little love story in The Book of Ruth, one of the earliest parallels pointing to the Christmas story. This time I found it particularly relevant. So here it goes…

moonrise

 

A long time ago in a land far, far away a man named Elimelech and his wife Naomi, together with their two sons Mahlon and Chilion, had to pack up and leave their hometown of Bethlehem in Judah to escape from a famine in the land. As migrants, they travelled to a foreign country called Moab.

Alas, Elimelech died soon after and left behind Naomi and their two sons. Years passed, the sons married two Moabite gals, Orpah and Ruth. Could it be the food there, for not long after Naomi’s two sons also died. Bitter and despondent, Naomi sent her two daughters-in-law back to their own family and began her lone journey to return to Bethlehem.

But Ruth was adamant to follow Naomi back to where she came from with this moving vow:

Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.

Touched by her loyalty, Naomi let Ruth travel with her back to Bethlehem. She was like a migrant all over again. To the people there Naomi, if anyone still recognized her, was now widowed, sonless, bitter and destitute. The two women didn’t even have a refugee camp to take shelter.

To survive, Ruth went out to the fields to glean the grains left by the harvesters. It happened that they were in the fields of a kind landowner Boaz, who after noticing Ruth and hearing of her love for her mother-in-law, told his workers to leave more grains in the fields for her to glean. Yes, it just happened that she’d come to the right field.

When Naomi learned of Boaz, she saw a glimpse of hope. Definitely this was more than the food bank; this generous landowner actually was a relative belonging to her late husband’s clan. Out of desperation, she sent Ruth on a risky mission: to go to Boaz at night and approach him tactfully, letting him know of their ties in kinship.

Lo and behold, Boaz, an honourable and compassionate man, was harbouring a deep and ardent love for Ruth. That night, though surprised to see Ruth, he received her readily and with respect, restraining and keeping his torrid passion well under wraps, umm like… Mr. Darcy.

According to the law of the land, the closest relative had the first right to redeem the lands that Naomi’s late husband Elimelech had sold and to marry Ruth to carry on the family line. But lo, Boaz wasn’t that person; instead, he did the honourable thing, extending the first right of redemption to the closest relative, yes, like umm… Mr. Collins.

And it happened that Mr. Collins was willing to buy back the land but wait a minute, he couldn’t take Ruth as a wife. There could be reverberations, for Ruth was a foreigner, a Moabite. Further, the land was for her to continue with Naomi’s family ownership, and would not be under his name. “I pass,” he said in the sight of ten elder witnesses. Phew!

So only then did Boaz declare not only his willingness to redeem the land once owned by Elimelech, but also his desire to take Ruth as his wife to save her from destitute, poverty, and childlessness. How marvellous it was that Boaz, a legit kinsman redeemer according to the laws, was also truly, madly, and deeply in love with his redeemed.

And we are definitely indebted to the two lovers for producing the line of descendants, for Ruth later became the great grandmother of David, from whose ancestral line generations later came Jesus.

With this beautiful ending I come back to Christmas 2015, and ponder on the lowly birth of Christ at the manger, to become our Kinsman for the ultimate purpose as Redeemer.

“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us… full of grace and truth.”  – John 1:14

DSC_0034

**

The Risk of Birth

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

                              – Madeleine L’Engle

***

Previous ‘Reading The Season’ Posts:

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

Staying Awake in the Garden

I came across this image in Biola University’s Lent Project. It is by the Austrian children’s book illustrator Lisbeth Zwerger. Among several awards she had won, Zwerger received the acclaimed Hans Christian Andersen Medal for illustration—the highest international award given for “lasting contributions to children’s literature”.

Staying Awake in GG

Its title is Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, from her book Stories From the Bible. Without condescension, Zwerger’s image speaks with clarity such that a child can easily grasp its essence. Three people dozing off, each against a tree. From a distance, under a massive dark cloud, a tiny, lone figure walking towards the ominous void. The illustration is perhaps one of the rarer perspectives that accompanies this narrative:

“Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”    – Matthew 26: 36 – 46

What struck me is how modern the feel; these three guys could be anyone. And they are so casual too, like, barefoot in the park. Considering the horrific mission their Master is facing, their body language speaks avoidance, indifference, and, even betrayal. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak – blame it on the good supper – they’re totally oblivious while their Master in a distance, alone, is fighting the most anguished battle of his life.

Are these guys named Peter, James and John? Why, they could be you and me.

***

Leviathan: The Beast Within Us

The Chinese have a saying – while we’re at foreign language films – ‘A tyrannical government is more ferocious than the tiger’. That Leviathan is selected as the official entry from Russia to the Oscar race baffles me. But I can also see those in power there just may not be bothered by small town corruptions which the film depicts, for they must be more focused on the larger picture that carries greater magnitude, the scenery in Crimea.

Leviathan, that monstrous beast the priest in the film quotes to the main character Kolya is from the book of Job in the Bible. While the context in the Biblical passage is about the Creator’s might over the huge creature, it is a metaphor with layered meaning in writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film: A citizen against a powerful mayor vying for his home property, and the monstrous beast inside the characters with which they all have to wrestle.

Leviathan Movie Poster

Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is an apt parallel of a modern day Job in the sense of the misfortunes he encounters. The little guy is no match for a greedy and powerful mayor and a corrupt system when it comes to holding on to what he legally owns, his home on a piece of  land by the shoreline in the coastal town of Pribrezhny. Even his lawyer friend Dimitry (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who has come all the way from Moscow to advocate for him, falls victim to the small town mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov).

The seemingly idyllic setting of Kolya’s coastal home is apparently an illusion. The cinematography is stunning and probing at the same time, for apart from the scenic serenity, there are also broken and derelict boats discarded on the shore, as well as carcasses of sea creatures, in particular, a whale-like skeleton that we the audience would gasp upon seeing but that the local residents don’t even take a second look. Their lives are intertwined with the Leviathan, however skeletal its remains.

But Kolya is not Job. He is hotheaded and impulsive. Apart from fighting the external beast of the mayoral hostile take-over of his home property, Kolya has to keep his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) at bay from his lawyer friend Dimitry, as well as bring up teenaged son Roman (Sergey Pokhodaev) on a path he himself is at a loss in finding. The worst is yet to come though. We empathize with Kolya, a man so trapped, he is unable to find a way out other than drowning his misery in alcohol. The church is not helping either, why, its most powerful congregation member is the mayor himself.

Too far and remote a film to identify? The setting maybe, but not the story. Leviathan resonates with the human condition it depicts, the Leviathans within us that we have to wrestle wherever we may be. Not just Kolya, but every character is crying for a redemptive way out of his or her predicament, unless blind as the mayor who basks in his own schemes. With the nuanced performance of the cast, we have the pleasure to appreciate a production superbly crafted, and that’s what gratifies when watching a film well made, despite the subject matter.

Leviathan has won 2014 Cannes Film Festival’s Best Screenplay Award, and last month the Golden Globe’s Best Foreign Language Film. This Sunday at the Oscars, Leviathan has a good chance of grabbing the coveted prize in its category, Best Foreign Language Film of the Year.

My pick? Still rooting for Ida, for its positive choice at the end.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

***

My Reviews of 2015 Oscar Nominated Films:

Ida

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Whiplash

Gone Girl 

Interstellar and Ida

Reading The Season: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Every year before Christmas, I read something that can draw me closer to the meaning of the Season. Amidst the busyness of the festivities, I try to carve out a piece of quiet. I name these annual posts Reading The Season. You can click on the links at the bottom for previous entries, dating back to 2008. This year, the publication of Marilynne Robinson’s third Gilead book, Lila, is a most timely read.

GileadGilead (2004) – Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critic Circle Award winning novel introduces us to the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. We hear the gentle voice of the narrator, the ageing Rev. John Ames, as he writes a letter to his seven-year-old son Robby, leaving a legacy of family heritage, love, forgiveness, and serenity.

HomeHome (2008) – Based on the same Gilead characters, but from a different point of view allowing us privy to the household of the Rev. Robert Boughton, John Ames’s life long-friend. Glory, Boughton’s daughter, comes home to take care of her ailing father. She is there when her brother Jack returns after an absence of twenty years. The black sheep of the family, Jack’s estranged self yearns for reconciliation like a prodigal. The book, in all its complexities and depiction of alienation, escape, return and lost yet again, suggests home may not be a solace as sweet as one hopes.

Lila

Lila (2014) – Robinson’s newest, and 2014 National Book Award finalist. It is the third novel based on the characters in the town of Gilead, offering yet another point of view. But one can just read it on its own, albeit best to have read Gilead first, then the kind face of John Ames can be conjured up more readily. In this book, the perspective is from Ames’s much younger wife Lila, at first lonely and desolate, slowly drifting into place.

**

Lila Dahl

At the outset, we see Lila as an unwanted child, “cold”, ‘all cried out’. She is rescued by Doll, a destitute woman herself yet still has room in her heart for an abandoned little girl. Doll wraps Lila into her shawl and decides to bring her up. “Lila was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.” Lila later takes up Doll’s name as Dahl.

The two joins a small group of itinerant field workers led by Doane, living in camps out in the open. But the Depression breaks up the cohesive work party. Lila is later left on her own and for a little while, works in a brothel in St. Louis. Knowing she can’t stay there for long, she slips out one night, escaping from a blackhole of hopelessness.

After that she finds herself a cleaning job at a hotel, from which she has to escape again after seeing her nemesis whom she first encounters while in the brothel. She packs her bag and leaves town, taking rides from strangers going to wherever they drop her. Ultimately, Lila drifts to the outskirt of Gilead, finds an abandoned shack and takes shelter there. She cleans up the shack for a place to sleep, having no plans except to find odd jobs in the town yonder, earn enough money, then moves on, maybe to Sioux City.

Lila lives a life of poverty, loneliness and fear, mistrusting everyone. Doll may have been like a mother to her but she too has her own rough life and struggles. Doll knifes and kills a man who might be Lila’s own father, could well be out of protecting Lila. She is later jailed, leaving the knife in Lila’s possession. Lila keeps it with her all the years as a memento, a murder weapon, yes, but also a symbol of Doll’s loving protection and Lila’s own desolate past.

One day walking into Gilead Lila stumbles into a church to escape the rain, that is the turning point of her life. She sees the old man at the pulpit, the Rev. John Ames, and, he sees her.

John Ames

We know a lot about Ames from Robinson’s first book of Gilead, set in the 1950’s. A Congregationalist pastor in the town, Ames is sixty-seven years old when he first meets Lila, “a big, silvery old man”. Coming from a family tradition of ministers, John Ames is a man with a pastor’s heart.

Ames has had his share of personal grief. He had to bear the death of his beloved wife of his youth and his newborn son as she died in childbirth. Such unspeakable pain he had shared with his best friend Robert Boughton, pastor of the Presbyterian church in Gilead.

Ames and Boughton have been life long friends. They share pastoring advice, discuss foreign policies, debate theological problems, and bear the burden of each other’s family woes. Boughton has his in his son Jack, who takes John Ames’s namesake.

After seeing Lila at the church as she comes in from the rain, Ames keeps her in his heart. Residents of Gilead befriend Lila, giving her jobs, welcoming her in their midst, but Lila is aloof and skeptical, an outsider still. Ames personally engages her to talk and to know her more. One day, he goes to seek her out at the shack. She sees him coming as she walks towards Gilead. There on the path he reaches out to her and promises marriage. An inexplicable love story takes shape.

Sunset

Ames and Lila

“… the old man kept on courting her, like a boy, when she was hard and wary…”

After they are married, however incompatible it looks in Ames’s home, Lila still keeps Doll’s knife with her as a memento and as a symbol of her own tumultuous past, a part of herself. Ames is unperturbed. He lets her keep it, and he even uses it, taking it as a normal tool around the house. Total acceptance.

If condescension is present in the relationship, it is Ames who wants to learn from Lila. His utter humility is what moves her. Barely literate, Lila yearns to know about the Bible, study it and grasp its richness and meaning. They talk about the difficult books of Ezekiel and Job. Ames shares his thoughts about this elusive notion called existence, and listens attentively Lila’s perspective and experiences. Total respect.

Lila has questions rooted in her bitter past, the why’s of misfortunes, cruelty, and the hardships in life. She asks Ames with an inquiring heart. Ames, a pastor of many years, can find no easy answers. He ponders Lila’s queries, and readily and honestly admits his own limitations in knowing, while loving her all the more. Total humility.

Even after they are married, Lila sometimes still conjures up thoughts of leaving. Ames  knows this and gives her the freedom:

… if you ever change your mind, I want you to leave by daylight. I want you to have a train ticket in your hand that will take you right where you want to go, and I want you to take your ring and anything else I have given you. You might want to sell it. That would be all right. It’s yours, not mine… ” He cleared this throat. “You’re my wife,” he said. “I want to take care of you, even if that means someday seeing you to the train.” He leaned forward and looked into her face, almost sternly, so she would know he meant want he said.

She chooses to stay, a genuine response to his love.

When I read the book, I see a tender love story between two utterly incompatible beings, like an allegory and a parallel of the Christmas story, how the Creator God reaches out to take our hand, initiating an unfathomable relationship. Love for the reason of pure love. An unlikely and inexplicable union.

The Christmas Story

I first felt a little uncomfortable about the obvious incongruous pairing of Ames and Lila, yet, their love relation comes to fruition, albeit looking tentative at first. The gap between Ames and Lila is just a crack in the pavement when compared to the abyss separating Creator God and His creation. I see Ames and Lila’s story as an allegory, if you will, a parallel, however meagre, illustrating the joining of two utterly disparate sides.

The essence of the Season is in the reaching out to bridge that huge chasm. As Ames and Lila’s newborn son at the end of the book is an evidence of their love, we too receives a child, born in a manger that day in Bethlehem, a sign of ultimate mending. Total reconciliation.

***

Other Reading the Season Posts:

2020: Jack by Marilynne Robinson

2019: A Hidden Life, a film by Terrence Malick

2018: Madeleine L’Engle’s Poem The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016:  Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013 Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle 

2010: A Widening Light, Poetry by Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season, Madeleine L’Engle 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times, Fleming Rutledge 

2008: A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis

 ***

Ida’s Choice: Thoughts on Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013)

This review is about the acclaimed Polish-born director Pawel Pawlikowski’s newest film Ida (2013)It was screened at TIFF 2013, and since then, at numerous other film festivals. Slowly, it has arrived at the big screens in our cities recently. The following post discusses crucial thematic elements. Therefore, spoiler warning.

***

What forms one’s identity? Is it nationality? Race and ethnicity? Or something that transcends these boundaries? And, does one have a choice?

IDA

At the beginning, Anna’s (Agata Trzebuchowska) Catholicism is chosen for her. Raised in a Polish convent as an orphan, Anna knows no other kind of life. As an 18 year-old novitiate on the verge of taking her vow to become a nun, her Mother Superior tells her she should meet her closest relative. The one living relative she has is her mother’s sister, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza).

Wanda is a hard-drinking, life-weary and tormented soul. Having lived through the horror of the second world war, she is confronted by yet another formidable front in post-war Poland, Soviet Communism. As a state prosecutor and later a judge, Wanda survived by compromising with the oppressive regime. She rises to a respectable position while sending many to their doom.

Poland in the 1960’s saw the beginning of wavering in hardline communism, a loosening up in society. Wanda has now become disillusioned and cynical, immersing in alcohol and one-night stands. With Anna appearing at her doorstep, she has to confront with not only a family’s dreadful past but her own existential present. Her licentious lifestyle is a sharp contrast to Anna’s spiritual devotion. A foil of the sacred and the profane, but not in a dogmatic frame. We see the two learning to appreciate and understand each other in a poignant way.

The sacred and the profane

For Anna, coming out of the convent does not mean only an eye-opener of the real world. From her aunt, she learns that her real name is Ida Lebenstein, and she is a Jew. Her parents were murdered during the Nazi occupation of Poland. She was kept safe in the shelter of the Catholic nuns. Her lineage concealed. Now Anna/Ida has to face with a seemingly incompatible identity, as her aunt bluntly puts it, ‘a Jewish nun’.

Aunt and niece go on a road trip to seek out the graves of Ida’s parents and eventually discover more about their deaths. They begin to know each other in a deeper way. The knowledge and the experience they have with each other may be life affirming for Ida; unfortunately for Wanda, they lead to despair.

While on the road, Wanda picks up a hitch-hiker, a young jazz musician, saxophonist Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik). He opens up yet another window for Anna, that of jazz, Coltrane, and all the rest.

The 80-minute, visually inspiring film is shot in aesthetically stunning black and white cinematography, 1.37:1 Academy Ratio with a square frame; the medium is the message. Austere, minimal, suggestive of harsh, bygone days, and with human characters often in the bottom of the frame, small and insignificant compared to the vast landscape. What is human in the whole scheme of things? How does one define oneself?

Small characters against large landscape

The cinematography reminds me of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. The young priest comes into his first parish, dwarfed and intimidated by the burden of his task, the spiritual warfare for which he is unprepared:

Walking through the woods

Like Bresson, Pawlikowski uses a non-actor for a major role. Agata Trzebuchowska plays Ida. She has never acted before. Pawlikowski found her in a coffee shop. Her portrayal of Anna/Ida is hauntingly authentic. Her face is pristine, yet her gaze is wise beyond her looks. Her aloof expression offers an unspoken evaluation of the world she sees, both in and out of the convent’s walls.

After a pivotal event, Ida tries on her aunt’s dresses, her high heels, smokes her cigarette and imagines another life. In this elegant attire she dances with the Jazz musician Lis. She listens to him play Coltrane on his sax. A whole new world awaits her if she so chooses. But it only entices for a short while. Ida yearns for something deeper, more meaningful. “And then?” she asks Lis several times in response to his offer of coming along with him.

Three characters, three different choices. Wanda chooses a way out that’s tragic.

The young musician Lis chooses jazz and whatever that path might take him. Despite his desire to have Ida come along with him, he does not, or maybe cannot, answer her two-word questions: “And then?” What’s the purpose, after all?

Ida chooses the transcendent over the secular, not that she judges the world, but that she yearns for meaning in the spiritual. It is not so much about choosing Catholicism over her Jewish lineage, but that she has made her own decision in becoming who she is. Ida’s choice is one that surpasses arbitrary, man-made boundaries of race and ethnicity, or the appeal of materials and pleasures; she chooses to devote to her Christ who had sacrificed all.

An image from the beginning of the film vividly comes back to my mind. Anna and three others carrying the Christ statue on their shoulders like a cross:

Carrying Christ

In the final shot we see Ida back in her habit attire. The moving camera captures a resolved and almost rejuvenated face, walking briskly with her little suitcase in hand, heading back to the convent. This place is now a personal choice.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

***

Awards Update:

Feb. 22, 2015: Ida wins The Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year.

Feb. 21, 2015: Ida wins Best Foreign Language Film at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Feb. 8, 2015: Wins BAFTA Best Film not in the English Language

Jan. 15, 2015: 2 Oscar noms, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography

Dec. 11: Golden Globe nom for Best Foreign Language Film

Dec. 7: Ida wins Best Foreign Language Film and Agata Kulesza Best Supporting Actress at the L.A. Film Critics Awards

Dec. 1: Ida wins Best Foreign Language Film from the New York Film Critics Circle

Other posts you might like:

Nebraska: Colour Is Superfluous

Diary of a Country Priest: An Easter Meditation

Diary Of A Country Priest: Film Adaptation

When Easter is the Spring

Quickening

Dead trees draw life
when the days expand and the sun
fulfills its promise, oft delayed
by the clutch of ice.

Clotted, gnarled, knotted twigs
on the trees sense sap and the death
of death. They stretch, begin
to puff green on the end.

We sing new songs
of a Life laid down for rebirth
when Easter is the Spring
and the branch is Christ.

— Mark A. Noll

**

Every new birth is a miracle. I saw two yesterday:

2 Owlets

***

And To All, A Happy Easter!

***

Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966): A Timeless Parable

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted. 

— Isaiah 53:4 ESV

Several days before He is crucified, Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey. I love this scene. If there’s any cognitive dissonance in the crowd, here’s the stark message for their bewilderment. The King for whom they are cheering is not to be a glamorous celebrity. Rather, like the donkey, He comes as a humble servant, one who carries their load, and ultimately, even lays down his life for them. His kingdom belongs to another world.

Marie and Balthazar

 

As with my Easter viewing from previous years, I watch a film by the French auteur Robert Bresson. Bresson’s work has a transcending and spiritual quality that is deeply moving. In Au Hasard Balthazar, he creates an unusual metaphor using a donkey as his protagonist. We follow Balthazar as a young colt, loved by his first owner Marie. We see him grow up, weaving his life among different owners. We also see Marie grow up. Despite her love for Balthazar, she cannot stop the encroachment of evil, or maybe she is simply powerless. She does not defend Balthazar when a gang of young men abuse the donkey, tormenting him, whipping, mocking.

The gang leader is Gérard, whose sadistic, mean streak speaks for human depravity. He would pour gasoline on the road to cause unsuspecting drivers to skid and crash. He and his gang would watch nonchalantly from a distance, gratified that their prank has worked. He steals and deceives. What is a donkey to him if he does not even have the slightest respect for other humans. Once, to prod Balthazar to move forward, Gérard ties a newspaper to his tail and light it on fire.

The Gang

Throughout, Balthazar lives his life quietly in a parallel course to the growing depravity of the humans he serves. He suffers their cruelty in silence, occasionally he would bray in pain, but he continues to bear his load, pull a cart, or do whatever he is prodded to do, even a circus act. Due to neglect and maltreatment, he often becomes ill.

As she grows up, Marie discards childhood innocence and seeks to gratify her sensual pleasures. Against the protest of her parents, she falls for Gérard. She could have another choice, one who offers her genuine love, Jacques, the son of the owner of the farm where Marie and her parents reside. Jacque would come by every summer from the city with his father and sister to stay on the farm. When they were still children, they had spent endearing moments together with Balthazar. Jacques has declared lifelong commitment to Marie. But Gérard is a more instant and attractive outlet for Marie. Ultimately, she is dealt the harshest blow and most degrading abuse from Gérard and his gang as they rape her. Bresson spares us the ugly scene, but in the chilling aftermath, we see the young men walk away, nonchalant, throwing her garments on the ground behind them. After that tragic incident, Marie runs away. Her father is grief stricken, and soon falls ill and dies.

Gérard is unrepentant. After all, it’s self-serving lust he seeks; his callousness is most disturbing. In the last scene, we see he uses Balthazar to do one more job for his gang. They are to smuggle goods across the mountainous border. At night, he loads up his goods on the donkey and leads him to the border. From a distance, he hears gun shots from armed customs police. Gerard and his gang flee, abandoning Balthazar on the mountain. But it’s too late for Balthazar, he has been shot.

The final scene is most moving. In the open field, Balthazar walks slowly, haggard, blood streaming from his leg. He finally lies down, still carrying the goods Gérard has put on him, the load of sin. He breathes his last and quietly dies, alone.

Like Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, Au Hasard Balthazar is an apt meditation for Good Friday. But not just for this one day, their timeless message is like the Easter Season itself, a moveable feast.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

***

Related Posts and Links:

Diary of a Country Priest: A Book For Easter

Diary of a Country Priest: Film Adaptation

Video of Robert Bresson on Au Hasard Balthazar

Homage to Flannery O’Connor: Looking for ‘Intrusions of Grace’ in Films

Today is the birthday of Flannery O’Connor. As a tribute, I’m re-posting a piece I wrote a few years ago entitled “Looking for ‘Intrusions of Grace’ in Films: Pickpocket and Drive”

**

Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them.” — Flannery O’Connor (quoted in my post A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories)

Flannery O’Connor made this remark back in 1963. It was not only a sharp social commentary and prophetic, but to me, it also stands as one of the signs of a good film. Amidst the violence and ugliness a film may depict, the presence of grace, however small, or a mere spot of purity, could bring out a powerful contrast. Usually that is what’s needed to emit a redemptive spark, a glimpse of light pointing to the transcendent.

With this frame of grace among violence, I go back to the films I’ve watched and try to find some good examples. My task proves to be more difficult than I first thought. But after some deep searching through my mental archive, several films came to mind. I’ll just mention two for this post.

Pickpocket (1959)

 

pickpocket movie poster

Robert Bresson’s modern version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Caught in his own desensitized internal world, our protagonist Michel commits acts of theft as a desperate measure to fill the void in his existence. He goes through his days in a haunting vacuum devoid of meaning and emotions. He is unfeeling even towards his own dying mother, reminds me of Meursault in Camus’s The Stranger. Although not an axe murderer like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Michel theorizes that those with superior talents and intelligence, the supermen in society, should be free to disobey laws in certain cases. He is numbed by his own hubris, and stifled by his cold and absurd worldview. Outright violence is not visible here, but we see the battle of wits he engages with the police inspector behind his trails, and we see him struggle in an amoral and meaningless existence.

Grace comes as Jeanne, a neighbor and carer of Michel’s ailing mother. Jeanne lives on her own looking after her younger brother. Her father is a drunk and her mother has deserted them. But she continues to live and care. She accepts her circumstances calmly, and extends kindness to those unrelated to her, caring for Michel’s mother, a neighbor on another floor. She stands as a stark contrast to Michel’s aloofness. At the end of the film, Jeanne came to visit Michel in prison after he was arrested, the two separated by the cold iron bars. For the first time, Michel feels love and wants to reciprocate it. And thus the cathartic ending as he totally melts in the presence of pure love and grace, wrapping up the film with this last line:

“Oh, Jeanne, to reach you at last, what a strange path I had to take.”

 

Pickpocket

 

**

Drive (2011)

A current release that comes with high acclaims. The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or and Nicolas Winding Refn won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival this year (2011). With slick and dashing camera work, the violence in “Drive” is visceral and graphic, a big contrast to the black and white, internal “Pickpocket”. However, I see some parallels between these two films made 50 years apart.

Ryan Gosling is “the Driver”. He does not even have a name. He is an expert stunt driver for movies and works at an autobody shop by day, drives a get-away car in the underworld of crimes by night. Like Michel in “Pickpocket”, he drifts in existence, numb and desensitized to the world around him. That is, until he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan), his neighbor.

Drive 1

 

Mulligan’s almost angelic presence in the film is most effective as a stark contrast to those around her. She lives alone looking after a child and works as a waitress in a diner. She appeals to the Driver by being herself, innocent, taking life as it is, responsible, caring for a child alone while his father is locked up in prison. Irene is a spot of purity in a rough environment. Her mere presence has transformed the Driver. From being aloof the Driver has become engaged emotionally, friendly and protective of both mother and son.

Drive

The plot thickens as Irene’s husband is released from prison and rejoins his family. The Driver is caught in an awkward situation. But he soon realizes that the husband’s resolve for a new start is genuine. The power of transformation is so thorough that the Driver is willing to go out on a limb to help the husband with one last heist in order to break the hold a gang has on the man, his wife and kid. While things go awry terribly and the ending is not as clean-cut as “Pickpocket”, we learn that the Driver remains a changed man from the ephemeral friendship he once had with Irene and her child.

Some might say Mulligan is a miscast, that she’s not “damaged enough”, and would prefer a ‘stronger’ character. I disagree. I feel that Mulligan has portrayed Irene’s innocent persona aptly, and yes, those ethereal dimples can just melt any heart. Hers is the perfect role for exactly the right reason. In the dark underworld of gangs, violence and crimes, she stands out as a tiny source of purity, a spark of grace. It all shows that what may look weak and vulnerable can have transformative power over the strong. A thought that may well be unpopular today.

***

Other related posts from Ripple Effects:

A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

Bernini’s Corpus and Modern Movies

Notes on the Synthesis of Film, Art… Life?

***

Listening for Lent

In the old days, say, six years ago, reading for me was, simply, reading. Holding a book in my hands, read through the printed words, turned the pages manually, feeling the paper at my fingertips. But today, I have several ways to ‘experience’ a book. I can still read in the old traditional way, or download the eBook to my iPad using the app ‘OverDrive’, or, listen to an audiobook, on CD’s or MP3.

As a slow reader, I find listening to audiobooks a time-saving way, albeit I still prefer to hold a book in my hands and see prints on paper. But in this day of multi-tasking, I sometimes listen to audiobooks while driving as I can fit in my reading time. I confess, I could be distracted by the story, or the traffic. But overall, listening to audiobooks while driving is a perfect alternative for me, in lieu of time and space for ‘actual’ reading.

Recently I read an article by T. M. Luhrmann in the New York Times entitled Audiobooks and the Return of Storytelling. This insightful piece introduced me to a different reason for listening to audiobooks.

First off, Luhrmann takes down the generally accepted view that reading with our eyes as ‘more serious, more highbrow’ than listening to a story being told orally. She points to the early childhood experience when way before we could read, we were introduced to stories through listening to them. So maybe such a notion extends to our adult life making us feel that listening to stories is a childlike activity than reading the text on our own.

Many great books were actually oral legends, Luhrmann points out, “… for most of human history literature has been spoken out loud. The Iliad and the Odyssey were sung.” Noted. Can’t say listening to audiobooks is child’s play.

Luhrmann then comes to the crux of her idea. While we listen to an audiobook, we can do something else with our eyes and hands. That’s just obvious, isn’t it? Exactly what I said at the beginning of this post, the benefit of multitasking. But I was too rash to have thought I knew it so. What I read after this was nothing short of an epiphany for me.

No, not while driving, but when Luhrmann is gardening, she listens. Often, she would listen to the Bible. I love what she has to say next (emphasis mine):

Listening to a book is a different sensory experience than reading it. The inner imagining of the story becomes commingled with the outer senses — my hands on the trowel, the scent of tansy in the breeze. The creation of this sensory richness was in fact an explicit goal of the oral reading of the Bible in the medieval European cloister, so that daily tasks would be infused with Scripture, and Scripture would be remembered through ordinary tasks.

Whenever she looks at the “50 polypodium californicas and 50 festuca idahoensis in the dappled light beneath [her] oaks” she would think of “Gatsby’s extraordinary gift for hope.” Why, Luhrmann was listening to Fitzgerald’s novel while planting those the year before. Now looking at the plants would flash upon that inward eye what she had heard.

Of course, that sounds so simple and natural, a kind of classical conditioning, if you will. We fuse our senses and experience. All the more that we should listen to good books or we’ll have bad memories looking at the tasks we’d performed.

And what a wonderful idea Luhrmann had left me with: Scripture-infused daily tasks. That can’t be more apt for Lent.

***

Tanya Marie Luhrmann teaches Anthropology at Stanford.

Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

No Texting for Lent and the End of Solitude

The Dinner by Herman Koch: A Timely Read, for Lent?

Dances With Words

What Makes a Good Audiobook Narrator?

***