Saturday, August 27, 2005

The Edges of the Lord

I've never really been able to write one of those clever don't-give-anything-away-but-make-you-want-to-watch-it movie reviews, so I won't pretend to try. So, I'll call this a movie analysis: if you want to watch the flick for the suspense of the drama, stop now.

The Edges of the Lord is written and directed by Yurek Bogayevicz, who does indie stuff. The DVD box says "In the tradition of Life is Beautiful" which I think means its about Jewish redemption/survival in the midst of WWII. It was released in Europe in 2001, but in the US went straight to DVD and only recently came out (in my Blockbuster it was in the new releases section!). It is set in WWII rural Poland, post Blitzkrieg.

A Jew struggles to retain his identity (which literally means to not lose his life). Romic (Haley Joe Osment)'s Jewish parents find a polish farmer who is willing to take him as a cousin "from the city" and hide him by integrating him with his family. The story centers around the ongoing dramatic tension of avoiding discovery by the Nazi's and the struggles of Romic to be accepted by the other children of the village.

There are a lot of things that the film makes the viewer think about. Most bothersome to me is the issue of a movie on "disturbed children". Not only was there a "fast forward" scene (the female child lead gets raped), ie., bothersome for one to watch. But in these sorts of movies, all I can sit there and think about is the fact that these kids have now role-played raping, getting raped and watching it. Nice. It makes me ill to think about the effects of that on anyone's development, especially now as a parent: "Dear, lets send Johnny to role play in this nice movie with a few murder and rape scenes, I think he'll get a lot out of it, and it will probably help him to develop into a better person." This parent would, of course, think my spanking my child is also the greatest sin I could possibly commit upon their psyche. But, enough on the ethics of child-actors.

Let me say positively about the movie that it is set in (I assume filmed where it pretends to be) the Polish countryside, which is really beautiful. I have only had one Polish friend with an authentic polish accent (ie., not raised in either US or UK), and it was delightful to hear the accent again (though I think the actors attempted to reflect a more countryside way of speaking). The acting itself was also quite good, especially for a movie that centers around kids. We recently watched (don't ask) 5 Children and It which had a lot of those moments where you feel like you need to help the kids say their lines, this one didn't have any of those.

Rose, who now has a NEW SITE -- the Earthlink Torg-us-borg is dead due to financial considerations (free versus not free)--and I spent over an hour discussing the central message/philosophy of the movie, and it is that which I will try to communicate.

The religious conflict of the movie is the Jewish boy trying to appear to be a Roman Catholic Pole. In that conflict, the two religions are presented in charicatures, which play out the theological theme of salvation. "Judaism" is a pratical religion which attempts to save by physically saving (ie., you literally save someone by stopping them from getting killed, or keeping them fed, etc.). This is set up in the initial scene when Romic's father is making him memorize the Rosary:

Fader, how can I say dis?

Do not vorry, Got vill unterstand.

Very practical: God is interested in preserving lives.

Christianity, on the other hand, is a very non-practical system. Early in the movie, Wilem Dafoe (the priest is never given a name in the movie besides "Fader") is instructing the children in the catechism when someone runs up saying that Germans are about to kill one of the kids' (Maria, the child female interest) parents. Apparently at this time you can get killed either for hiding Jews or for having pigs: this is a case of the latter. The priest rushes over, and the Nazi commander offers him a game: he has one minute to catch a pig: if he does, one of the parents live. If in the next minute he catches another pig the second parent can live. Dafoe feebly tries to catch a pig the first minute, fails and is so overwhelmed when the first parent is shot, he simply sits and stares as the second minute ticks by. In the next scene, Romic (Haley Joe's character, the Jewish boy) sees the priest whipping himself in penance. The priest may in some mystical sense be able to save his soul, but when it really matters he has no power (or will) to save his flock, his people, his family.

This is also played out by the youngest child in Romic's adopted family, Tolo. In the catechism class, the priest assigns a role-play and Tolo ends up being Jesus. He literally takes on the role, convincing the other children to let him baptize them (which of course Jesus never did but whatever) and then to crucify him (no they don't kill him). Tolo is innocence, or purity of heart, incarnate, which seems to be the writer/director's vision of the Christian message. But the whole point is that innocence really can't be incarnate: the priest is ethereal, and Tolo is half, if not fully, mad. More on how this plays out later.

On the other hand "Judaism" looks to the family and tries to save the family, again literally. I have "Judaism" in quotes because it is the writer's vision of, and because the Polish Farmer who adopts Romic lives out this vision, despite his creedal Catholicism. This father is shot by a neighbor in a complicated episode involving the sale of a contraband swine, but suffice it to say that he died trying to protect his family (it was getting too dangerous to keep the pig any longer) and feed his family: literal salvation. He only failed because he was betrayed by someone who should have been a friend. [[Aside: an interesting parallel to Judas: when you're really trying to save someone, a Judas can really stop you.]]

This neighbor family is the embodiment of the evil parallel to "Judaism": envy (whereas the Nazi's are the evil parallel to "Christianity": blind adherence to an ideology). They set up much of the story's drama, especially the final scene, which I will now skip to.

The two boys in the neighbor family spend their evenings hiding out by the train tracks, watching for Jews jumping from the concentration camp trains that go by. They then sneak up and rob them. When Vladek (the older brother in Romic's new family) learns that it is these boys' father who killed his own, he gets a gun and hides out also by the tracks. A robbery of Jews commences, Vladek steps out of the trees and demands that the Jews be let go, and ends up shooting the neighbor boy, partly in vengence for his fathers' death.

Romic is horrified and realizes what this will mean when people come (having heard shots). He grabs the gun and tells Vladek to run. In a quick series of events, the Nazis show up, but think that Romic has been robbing the Jews. He is acclaimed as a hero. The next day, Romic must choose between literally saving himself and robbing more Jews for the humor of the Nazi commanders, or spiritually saving himself and admitting his race. He chooses the former, which immediately puts him in a situation to save Vladek who had been mistakenly caught as a runaway Jew.

Romic has thus, like his father and like Vladek's father, decided that "Judaism" is superior to "Christianity": you are responsible for your family and it is they who you must at all costs preserve from death. This is salvation. The littlest brother, Tolo, on the other hand volunteers for no reason to be a Jew (he has now fully accepted his role as Jesus the Jew) and goes off to concentration camp. He saves no one, but his spiritual innocence is absolutely perfect.

The title and central image of the movie has to do with communion. Verbally, throughout the beginning of the movie, communion is discussed with the emphasis that it is the literal body (the priest cuts himself in the catechism class to drive the point home). This is further developed in a beautifully shot scene: in the sacristy amid shafts of light, Romic and the priest discuss his situation while the priest makes communion wafers. This is done (I had never seen the process before) by taking perfectly square sheets of wafers and using a cookie cutter to press the circles out of them. This leaves behind funny shaped little crosses, x's, or stars from the left over bits. The priest casually offers one to Romic, who in great fear refuses (he has very carefully learned the lesson of real presence).

Don't vorry, I never bless de edges.

Romic then lays out a little piece of wafer (from the Edges)for all of those who have died so far: his parents, Vladek and Tolo's father, etc. etc. (Interestingly, this is a visual parallel to the Eastern rite preparation of communion). What is important is that all of these have lived in the category of "Judaism". At the end of the movie, in one of those scenes where the director slows down the frames to signal that he thinks this moment is really important, Romic is offered communion and the priest gives him one of the "star"-shaped Edges: keeping him on the Edge (ie., preserving his Judaism), another visual parallel to his Jewishness: being marked with a star.

Thus the point: Innocence, even innocence incarnate--in Jesus, Tolo, the Priest (though hes a bit questionable) and the Wafers--is inadequate to do anything in the world, and actually serves to indirectly damn people by convincing them that these ethereal rites have any meaning. Those who actually save others are not innocent: they have to make real choices, and select those they can save (primarily their family). But they can and will save you from untimely death by the sweat of their brow.

Of course the dichotomy that the director sets up is a false one, created by limiting Christianity to ideology. To use the terms of Jaroslav Pelikan, the Priests' Christianity is one of "traditionalism" rather than living tradition. Or put another (visual) way, the director sees the Priests' Christianity as worshipping an idol, because what is there is what is there: if you don't see how a wafer can save you from the Nazis (or from starvation or from murder or from rape) that's because it can't, and that is what matters.

Therefore, the pure essence of "Christianity" (ie., living like Jesus) is comprimised when you try to save anyone through blood sweat and tears: therefore such salvation is called "Judaism" as it can no longer be that of Jesus. The presentation is coherent but unfair because it entirely relies on its (debateable) premise: Christianity is an ideology, and like all ideologies (Nazism) it blinds one to the brotherhood of men and the implications of that.

As Rose pointed out to me, this presentation of Christianity is the same as that of those who said to Jesus, "If you claimed you could save others, why don't you come down and save yourself?!" Christianity has real-world power--the ultimate: resurrection--but it also has other-world concerns and goals that at times madden even those who profess the faith. This does not relegate Christianity to the mere ideological, but is the reality of the sacramental: divine and human.

An artisticly brilliant film that should be seen as a challenge (in both senses of the word) to believers in an Incarnate God.

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