Buddhism for Smarties

I caught Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy last night at my local Pointy-Head Movie House. (Friends left me on my own for this one. I have such wise friends.) There was a decent Monday night audience for this documentary, which had been a four-and-a-half hour series and has been re-edited to 134 minutes. It’s a loving portrait of the practices of Tibetan Buddhism – and not the historical survey that I must have been hoping for – and I’d have had to be better rested than I was not to experience the film as a desperate clutching to consciousness. (And not the pure and higher reality of the Buddha Amitabha. I mean staying awake. And I never snooze in front of a video display. (Almost.))

This is s-l-o-w. It makes Iranian cinema look manic. Great swatches of the film are simply shot records of monastic rituals that outsiders, including Tibetans not in the priestly castes, have likely never seen. It’s a wonderful ethnological and religious studies archive, but as a moving picture, well, not much moves. (The rather chubby chief priest of one of the monasteries endeared himself to me not only by sudden little smiles but also by evident difficulty in keeping his eyes open at times. I empathized.) As a primer on Buddhism it’ll be opaque to many people. The endless subtitled translations of the moaning chants began to blur together for me, and I’m someone with an interest in sacred scriptures. I’d have been very apprehensive, after about half an hour, if any of my Movie Night invitees had shown up.

And yet. When I walked out, I felt quite disoriented. Such devotion and unhurried deliberation do move me. This priestly caste, the institution of these specialists in spiritualilty, does strike me as a cultural phenomenon whose usefulness is fading, if not entirely abrogated by social evolution. But there is beauty there, and some of it is even apparent to a sleepy-headed Westerner like me.

Twin Billed Terrorism

It was necessary to get away from Frank and Gordon (God help me, but I liked dem beavers) and the rest of the Olympic circus on my television, and the mighty Mayfair Cinema gave me a perfect excuse. (I’m normally a Bytowne Cinema loyalist, but the twin bill was tough to resist. Capital readers, these are Ottawa’s two best ways to see the best films. Check ’em out, and then you’ll be glad you read this.)

Yes, it was double-header terrorism: Steven Spielberg’s Munich and a film by the Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad called Paradise Now. I staggered out of the Mayfair feeling a bit bludgeoned, and on the 360 degree lookout for spies and assassins and suicide bombing candidates. Almost everybody I saw was a suspect, and why not?

Munich is anything but subtle in its effect, though it tries to be nuanced in its discussion of the ethics of violence. We follow the hand-picked Avenging Angel of the Israeli secret police, the Mossad, as he systematically (though uncertainly) exterminates the Palestinians behind the Munich Olympic massacre of 1972. At least, Avner (laconically played by Eric Bana) is assured that the disturbingly human, even charming men that he incinerates, ventilates and mutilates are, indeed, the bad guys. He wonders. He asks questions. He and his team keep on blasting.

Spielberg is at great pains to do two main things. First, he does not want to come across as a Jewish apologist for Israeli policies. We recall the full horror of Munich in documentary footage (Peter Jennings on the ground for ABC) and painful recreations of the hostage-taking and the killings of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches. However, Munich insists that we  also get to know the Palestinian victims of Israeli revenge (beyond the several hundred Palestinian peasants killed in the air assaults that immediately followed the Munich conflagration). One is a literary scholar. Another is a diplomat with a lovely French wife and an adorable daughter. A third is an altogether likable guy who shares some hotel balcony chit-chat with Avner.

Mr. Spielberg’s second imperative is to stun us with the violence of their various demises, and that of the dozens of other graphically depicted bits of savagery in the film. It works. We’re supposed to be compromised by the gulf between the carnage and the (often) appealing camaraderie of Avner’s team, just as we are by the presentation of sympathetic characters on the Palestinian side. (Spielberg includes, for example, a most unlikely tête à tête in a stairwell between Avner and a young, preternaturally eloquent operative who delivers the Palestinian side of the story.) So, moral ambiguity is the order of the day, and the doubtful utility of violence is hammered at in an extraordinarily violent way.

And yes, I was stunned, but somehow not too deeply moved; riveted, but not very involved. Acting takes a distant third place to spectacle and philosophical debate, though Geoffrey Rush as Avner’s shadowy chief is terrific, and Daniel Craig is compelling as the blunt, remorseless thug of the Israeli team (and not only because we’re wondering how those bright blue eyes and blonde hair became so furiously Zionist). But though we are required to sympathize with Avner—his ghostly heroic father, his cold mother, his radiantly pregnant and pretty wife—I didn’t, much. It’s just a massively ambitious movie that can’t quite sustain the weight of all that it is trying to be and do. And those monologues! Still, it is strong and thoughtful stuff.

It was Paradise Now that really took me in. It’s ambitious, too; it’s the story of two young men from Nablus getting ready to die for the Palestinian cause. Their chance for martyrdom arrives, and we watch their preparations with fascination, dismay and even a few quiet laughs. (For Israelis, though, I’m sure the dismay was torturous and the humour rather bitter.) In blunt contrast to Munich, the violence is implicit. Hany Abu-Assad shows us life in Palestine, without some of the obvious tugging at heartstrings that Spielberg is prone to. Against the war-ruined (but often lively) backdrop of Nablus — everything was filmed there and in Bethlehem, if I remember rightly — we are shown the lives of Khaled (Ali Suliman) and Saïd (Kais Nashef), a couple of car mechanics and close friends who are shuffling through their fairly pointless days.

Khaled is excitable — the closest thing to violence in the film is him taking a crowbar to a difficult customer’s front fender — while Saïd, the still centre of the movie, is quiet and diffident. He eventually emerges from his morose silence to quietly but powerfully speak the thematic heart of the piece. Yes, it’s another monologue, unfortunately, and the only real misstep in the film. “A life without dignity is worthless,” he tells a militant leader, trying to convince him to allow the suicide operation set for Tel Aviv to go forward after a false start. I couldn’t believe the silence of this father confessor, but I did understood the deep sadness in Saïd’s eyes. In this picture, we are shown the hopeless lethargy and the chronic indignation that can make suicide bombing seem a worthy option, but it is far from propaganda. Abu-Hassad, with his frank depiction of the clumsiness and hypocrisy of the “martyrdom operation” recruiters, as well as a brief but fiery rebuttal of violence by Saïd’s pretty new friend, Suha (Lubna Azabal), is no advocate for terrorism.

The quiet balance of the director’s approach is what allows Warner Independent Productions to promote Paradise Now with the tag line, “From the most unexpected place, comes a bold new call for peace.” I’m not sure that’s what the movie is, because aside from one stagey soliloquy, it mainly does what any good storyteller should. It shows, it doesn’t tell. I guess that’s what Spielberg tried to do with the special effects violence, though it becomes too blatant. Munich falters when he lapses into telling, and this is one of the reasons I found myself more moved and intrigued by the more gentle yet deeply suspenseful arc of Paradise Now. Both are eminently worth seeing, but I’m not sure if I’d recommend a double bill.