Thursday, 24 February 2011

The Rite

I have a film review of the new exorcism horror film, The Rite, in this week's edition of The Tablet. Below is a taster of the review. For the full review go to The Tablet.

The Rite is a horror film that wants to be taken seriously. Opening with a quotation from Pope John Paul II signals this ambition: “The battle against the Devil, which is the principal task of Saint Michael the Archangel, is still being fought today, because the Devil is still alive and active in the world.”

Inspired by Matt Baglio’s non-fiction book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, the screenwriter, Michael Petroni, claims to anchor his fictional narrative in these documented accounts of demonic possession. Petroni treats the existence of the supernatural realm without any hint of irony. From the outset, The Rite promises real theological intelligence and to be more than a sub genre remake of William Friedkin’s 1973 classic, The Exorcist.

The film’s opening sequence introduces Michael Novak (Colin O’Donoghue), a mortician’s son, who decides to enter seminary instead of becoming a partner in the family firm. As a deacon, Michael comes to believe that his vocation was an escape from his morose father and the fact that he could not afford a college education. He also begins to doubt his own faith and decides to leave. However, the seminary Rector witnesses Michael ministering to a woman fatally wounded in a car accident and impressed by this, persuades him to join a course in Rome that is training a crack team of exorcists.

Here Michael is introduced to a curmudgeonly Welsh Jesuit, Father Lucas Trevant played by Anthony Hopkins. This veteran exorcist may use unconventional methods but his record of success is almost unblemished and his fame has spread across the city. Lucas invites the sceptical deacon to attend the exorcism of a young pregnant woman. As she tears at her scalp and her eyes roll back, Lucas’s mobile phone rings. “I can’t talk now. I’m in the middle of something,” the Jesuit whispers. And when the session comes to an anticlimactic conclusion, Lucas asks Michael, “What did you expect? Spinning heads? Pea soup?” At this point, Michael’s conviction that these phenomena have a psychological explanation remains intact. “Choosing not to believe in the Devil won’t protect you from him,” Lucas warns his novice.

Neither O’Donoghue or Hopkins are able to find convincing priestly identities for their characters. There is never any sense that these priests have an interior spiritual life. The doubts they articulate feel like manufactured add-ons with none of the ambivalence associated with true spiritual struggle. No number of prayers mumbled in Latin can convince us that these men are anything more than clerical caricatures.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Cloning and Never Let Me Go

Spoiler Alert

Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 Booker prize nominated novel, Never Let Me Go, has just been made into a film. The book is a subtle meditation on what it means to be a person. The film adaptation, while not able to match the philosophical nuances of the book, approaches the complex subject matter with visual and narrative restraint. The book is a classic. The film is worth catching.

Never Let Me Go is the story of a love-triangle between Kathy, Tommy and Ruth (played in the film by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Kiera Knightley) which goes back to their school days at Hailsham. On the surface, the students of Hailsham are well groomed, well behaved and appear to have a charmed public school life. Yet, there are tell-tale signs that this institution has more disturbing intentions. There is a neurotic emphasis on the health of the children. Smoking behind the bike sheds is a mortal sin. There are apocryphal tales of the violent things that have happened to students who escaped beyond the school boundaries. The natural, unaffected joy that children bring to a school is absent here and replaced with an atmosphere of impending despair. Play is manufactured. Creativity is a social experiment. Hailsham is an educational limbo.

It transpires that the children at Hailsham are clones and are waiting to be used as adult organ donors. This is their sole purpose in life. The functional purpose that society has decided for them. They have been created to act as nothing more than biological spare part machines. Yet, of course, these clones are not robots, they have souls and they can love. These are the distinguishing features of a person. We are present to ourselves in self-conscious autonomy, yet we only possess ourselves fully when we give ourselves to the dynamism of love. This is not a passing pleasure or emotion, but the very meaning of our being alive, an awakening of our sense of being. All love is self-surrender and self-fulfillment.

Kathy, Tommy and Ruth have heard a rumour that love can defer their fate. Couples who can prove they are in love will be given some extra years before they must start donating their organs. But the threesome also realise themselves as persons when they fall in and out of love with each other. This is the primal and first of all impulses in the heart of being. Love is the intuitive sense that we are not to be instrumentalised but that each person has an obscure, living depth that must not be manipulated or destroyed.

Never Let Me Go never succumbs to sci-fi sensationalism. Both the novel and film are beautifully understated and this adds to the moral chill factor and sense of tragedy. It is the passive acceptance of cloning – both by those cloned and those involved in the process – and the lack of ethical debate that gives Never Let Me Go an authentic tone. The medical police state is unquestioningly accepted(except by one brave teacher who is quickly removed from Hailsham and branded a “subversive”). There is a passive resignation that this is how it is meant to be and that the proposed medical benefits outweigh the invasive manipulation and destruction of human life.

All this feels real and possible because we recognise (consciously or unconsciously) that the abuse of the person is happening in our own time. In 2000, Pope John Paul II addressed the 18th International Congress of the Transplantation Society where he highlighted the dangers of creating human life as though it were a medical product:

...methods that fail to respect the dignity and value of the person must always be avoided. I am thinking in particular of attempts at human cloning with a view to obtaining organs for transplants: these techniques, insofar as they involve the manipluation and destruction of human embryos, are not morally acceptable, even when the proposed end is good in itself.

Since that warning, the destruction of persons who are intrinsically valuable in themselves has become a routine part of contemporary culture. This has happened without us barely noticing. Not science fiction but reality. Now that is really frightening.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

On Friendship II.

My previous blog was about friendship and it seems that I’m not the only one thinking about this at present. In a recent article (The Times February 7), Cosmo Landesman reflects on the fragility of friendship. Is this due to our friendships becoming more and more “virtual” due to social networking sites and less “real”? Is it the pressures and pace of contemporary living that make giving time to friends increasingly difficult? Landesman writes:

The sad truth is that my friends and I are seeing less of each other than ever before. I wonder: do my friends notice this change? Do they care? Do I?

Much has been written about the shallow and ephemeral nature of online friendships found through social network sites such as Facebook. But back in the real, offline world friendships – at least mine – are changing for the worse. Once, there was a clear division between on and offline friendships. Not now.

The great paradox of our time is that today we’ve never had so much technology – the Internet, e-mails, tweets, texts – to bring us closer to our friends. And yet we have been so distant from them. We can all stay in touch all the time – but we never seem to have the time to actually see each other.

...I believe that friendship has an etiquette of its own, and it has cost me dearly. I once had a beautiful, super-smart, sexy girlfriend – but she would never return my phone calls. It drove me nuts and so I had to end our relationship.

Friends like to tell you: I’ll be there for you. But I don’t want them to be there for me, I want them to return my phone calls and respond to invites to dinner! In other words, I want to feel that our friendship is important, and that it is shown in small acts of thoughtfulness.

I sometimes wonder, if I didn’t make the effort to see certain friends, would they make the effort to see me? So I called one of my oldest and dearest friends to ask him that question for this piece. He hasn’t returned my call – that was two days ago – so I don’t know the answer.

Friends! Who needs them?

Unfortunately, I do.

Is all this just the whimpering cry of some middle-aged neurotic? Or, the rose tinted longing for some golden age of friendship that may or may not have existed? Is friendship possible in our crooked times?

Landesman’s anxieties have been shared by everyone who takes friendship seriously. Friendships are fragile and complex ways of relating. This is, in part, because the desire “to become one instead of two” in friendship is not the same as the unity that lovers seek. Whereas lovers strive to obliterate the distance that separates them by fusing themselves one to another, friendship cherishes the distance that exists between two individuals. What unifies friends is the discipline and effort of maintaining their mutual distance in love. If that distance is threatened by desire, domination or possessiveness then the friendship will begin to corrode and disintegrate.

“The simple fact of having pleasure in thinking in the same way as the beloved being, or in any case the fact of desiring such an agreement of opinion, “ writes the French thinker, Simone Weill, “attacks the purity of friendship at the same time as its intellectual integrity. It is very frequent. But at the same time pure friendship is rare.”

Friendship delights in the fact that there are two distinct persons involved in a loving relationship. The two friends consent to remain two and to celebrate not only the things they share in common, but above all their differences. Friendships are possibly the only relationships where individuals do not have to disguise or compromise their differences. They have the rare liberty of being themselves. It is the difference and space that exists between them that gives them the freedom to hide nothing and fear nothing. Friendship is, in the words of St Augustine, "sweet beyond all the sweetness of life that I had experienced." That is why they are important, precious and very rare.