August 07, 2008


Leila is an Iranian film about a human dilemma: how to live with infertility? Leila and her husband cannot have a child as Leila is infertile. The story concerns their battle with Leila's condition and their love. It concerns the way that these two young people relate to each other and their nobility in doing that is astonishing. Both of them seek to become a sacrafice for the other: Leila tries to get her husband to remarry, her husband tells her that he will not have children unless those children are hers. In short left to themselves these two strongly in love would live happily childless: but that is not the situation, that alternative is not open to them because of family and social pressures around them.

The film opens and closes with the same scene: a table laid with Iranian pudding and a large crowd of both sexes gathered around it. That pressure bears down on the pair throughout the film: they never have a moment's privacy and their feelings are ambushed by the self righteous relatives who surround them. In particular there is his mother. She constantly pressures Leila into forcing her husband to find a wife who can supply a child. She constantly reminds Leila that the virtue of women is in having sons to follow them. It is not a healthy perspective on life: and it is one created by the fact that through her son, she obtains the status that she cannot obtain any other way. This talented woman therefore drives her son's marriage to destruction through intimidating his bride because this is the way that she can maintain her role in society, her status.

Its a sad slight movie: there are some wonderful shots within it. But the major impression I left with was the tragedy of social pressure and the way that it forced Leila to leave her husband. At the end of the film Leila takes refuge in muteness: she retreats into the stronghold of herself, driven there by a society that values women by their wombs and relies on family pressure to suffocate the individual.

August 04, 2008

The Virgin Spring

You saw it
God you saw it
The death of an innocent child and my vengeance
You allowed it to happen
I don't understand you
I don't understand you
And yet still I ask you for forgiveness

These words lie at the heart of the Virgin Spring and constitute its theme. The events of the film are horrific- they begin with rape and end with the murder of several men and a child. There are acts of petty maliciousness and great crimes- but at the centre of the film lies the question of where guilt for those crimes, for that maliciousness lies. Is it more guilty to will or to commit a crime? Is it more guilty to love too much or love not at all? Those questions dominate this modern retelling of Job: and they are set against a vision of Sweden in transition between the pagan and the Christian, between Odin and Christ.

This paragraph contains some spoilers- for which I apologise. Karin, a young pretty girl, is adored by her parents and she is incredibly wealthy. Her foster sister however is not so fortunate and lives in a world of resentment. Her parents are torn apart by their attitude to her- by whether they spoil her or are jealous of her secretly. The entire household is Christian save for the foster sister- Karin and the other girl then go out to deliver candles to the church across the forest. On the way they are divided from each other. Karin is kidnapped by wandering herdsmen raped and murdered. Those herdsmen then come to take shelter with her father- and give her mother Karin's clothes as a thanks giving present- and vengeance is taken.

By telling you the story, I have not told you anything. Bergman's filming gives this a depth that the mere tale does not have. Ang Lee, whose film career started by being inspired from the Virgin Spring, says that the crucial thing about the film is its silences, its serenity. I would agree. It is the serenity of Karin's attitude as she rides through the forest to her doom that makes her doom so shatteringly shocking. Her parents are serene in their faith. The sense that this is a retelling of Job is compounded by this fact: for of course in the biblical account Job too was serene and the Devil tested him by vanquishing that serenity. So too here, you could describe the events of this film in terms of serenity being challenged by illfortune-God testing faith by exposing it to all the hardness of the world. Karin is all her mother has- and she is murdered- can her mother be faithful still?

Can any of us be faithful after that? Can any of us find faith in the century in which Auschwitz, Belsen and Dachau have happened? I once heard Rowan Williams asked by John Humphries how people prayed in Auschwitz- what they expected and whether their faith was diminished by the fact that no aid came. God saw it- God watched it- and God let it happen. Should we let something of that sort happen- we would be guilty of it- that is definitely Karin's foster sister's attitude, she lets the rape happen, she doesn't fling a stone in her hand at the rapists and hence she is guilty of it. Is God any less guilty? That question proceeds out of anguish of course- but anguish and our sentiments towards anguish are the root of all morality psychologically. We suffer in sympathy with Karin's parents who suffer in sympathy with their defiled daughter, does God and if so why does he not intervene? If Karin's foster sister 'saw it and willed it to happen' then so did the almighty who might have stopped it and knew it must happen.

The tragedy is not something that is repairable. Running through this film is the sense of the fragility of human life. At one point one of the villains hands the mother her daughter's cloak and says 'skilfull hands like yours will know how to make it whole again' but of course nothing can make Karin whole again. Nothing can make her a virgin again. Nothing can make her alive again. Her foster sister envies that perfection- the sexual perfection in particular (she is pregnant with an anonymous man's child)- and points out early on that one infraction would lose that perfection. Virginity like life is easily lost and can never be recovered and in a society like medieval Sweden that is important. But what is the key to this is not the nature of the loss but that all human losses are really small deaths- we cannot do anything to repair them. We work and labour hard to make things work but they are destroyed, swept away in an instant and never return.

Religion should comfort us in this situation reminding us that there are eternal things. But again does it? Religion should supply us with an answer, with a fortitude to help us through these things. But as soon as his daughter is dead, the father's behaviour becomes pagan- in his rage he is a Beserker not a saint and kills rather than forgives. Furthermore the consolation does not arrive- for both mother and father the consolation is not what religion brings- their daughter's death is painful, it cuts to the quick and will never be assuaged. Rather it provides- and we come back to the quotation at the beggining of the passage a language to describe their feelings- a language to describe their guilt for what has happened. God is a device for them to appeal to a principle of kindness in the harsh northern skies and frosty winters- God is a device to find some kindness in a bleak and barren world. But when the world becomes bleak and barren itself, all there is is to beleive without hope of God's existance or his kindness- all there is is fealty without the knowledge of any aid arriving- like a squadron on the outer reaches of an empire, overrun and almost to die, these characters stand imploring hope from the capital, dying without it but with the word of Rome upon their lips.

The problem for these soldiers is that ultimately they are not sure whether it is their fault that their daughter has died. It might possibly be- they have been selfish in their love for her, neglecting others- or is it the fault of the murderers and the rapists who did the deed or of the foster sister who willed the deed. Bergman leaves us in no doubt that all of these people are culpable, but provides us with reasons to understand why all of them (the parents, one of the rapists a small boy and the foster sister) are in a certain sense to be understood and pitied. Amongst the rapists, two are mere villains- evil men who are totally to blame- but one a boy cannot be held accountable for the actions of the other two particularly as they violently threaten him- and tries furthermore to bury Karin. The problem is dual- the two rapists are undeniably expressions of pure evil (in one exchange with Karin their language mirrors that of the wolf to red riding hood) but how should we cope with that in our world- what resources do we have to understand and deal with evil- can we forgive and if not, are we thrown back to the Old Testament where an eye meets an eye and a life a life?

The promise of the New Testament was an emancipatory one- it excuses us from revenge and calls us to forgiveness- even of pure evil, we must so Christ says turn the other cheek. But how should we? And how guilty are we when we do not? How far do we perpetuate a realm of violence when we do not? Furthermore the demands of religion are just as exacting under the Gospel- how should we love God more than man? Are we called upon to rejoice in Karin's death as part of the unfolding providence that governs the world? Are her parents being told by the omnipotent that they cared too much for their daughter and need to cleave to him instead of spoiling her? Is a jealous God, a good God? Job answered all these questions- this film reopens them. How far are we guilty of a crime just by thinking of it- in Mark to be guilty of adultery is to look upon a woman with lust in your eyes- so is the foster sister guilty of rape? She feels herself so to be. The film does not offer answers at all- and perhaps some of those questions are not capable of answering- but they are dark questions which go to the heart of the human condition.

Bergman stands with Bresson as one of the great directors about religion in the 20th Century and perhaps this film more than the Seventh Seal or than his faith trilogy is his triumph in that sense. It portrays religion as an answer to anguish, a comfort in the dark. But it also questions how far religion can be a comforter. In dedicating their future lives to the construction of a church how far are the two parents diminished by their daughter's death, the foster child arguably is the only one who comes out of the film more whole as she is purged of her jealousy- they are purged of their love and reminded that all human things die- they are forced to take Augustine's advice to never love humans too much as humans fail at the end and fall. Is this the message of a loving God- that only he deserves our love? Bergman captures all of this because his camera is so deeply sympathetic- we see this tragedy and dilemma unfold before our eyes- he points his camera at people's backs, allowing the characters privacy, he gives us silence to think and feel.

Religion emerges from this film as a mode of being and coping- the questions it answers dive to the deepest anxieties of humanity, both philosophical and emotional- but ultimately religion is a way for people to cope. At the end of the tale the father resolves to build a church on the spot that Karin was raped and murdered, and songs of harmony ripple through as Karin's body, its smile seraphic is washed- but nothing can quite expunge from my mind the agony of the rape and murder or the anguish of the parents.

August 03, 2008

What happened in 1399?

In 1399 Henry Boilingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, landed in England to reclaim his lands, confiscated by the crown on the death of his father John of Gaunt, the previous Duke, and to re-establish the rights of the peerage against the crown. Henry landed with very few followers- but amongst them was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Arundel the former Chancellor of England- and he had notable supporters in the nobility of the north of England. Both the Neville Earl of Westmorland and the Percies rallied to his standard. The regent of England, the King's uncle Edmund Langley Duke of York surrendered, the King himself, Richard II was in Ireland and brought his army back to Wales. Attempting to march them north to his own palitinate of Cheshire, Richard lost most of his forces to desertion and in the end was easily captured. Henry was crowned King of England- and Richard was sent to Pontefract Castle, the bloody retirement home of English royalty, where his grandfather Edward II had been murdered and Richard too died a year later in mysterious circumstances. Henry IV was King of England and the Lancastrian dynasty had begun. The story seems simple enough- and yet it reflects wider historical realities both within its own time and about the English crown's position in English history.

Why did Richard II fall? English history is punctuated by the fall of Kings- 1215, 1258, 1327, 1399, 1461, 1485, 1649, 1688 and 1776 are dates that punctuate English history (and yes in 1776 the American revolution was a phenomenon created within the English crown). We will pass on to why the English crown was so unstable. But the reasons for 1399 lie in the situation of the 14th Century: just because a crown has historically been unstable or a regime has does not explain why it is now unstable. Indeed England proves this: after 1688 with the exceptions of the Jacobite rebellion and hte American civil war, the English state has been remarkably stable. To the extent that patriotic English men have boasted of its stability- something that seems in the early modern and medieval era quite laughable. 1399 arose therefore out of the peculiar circumstances of Richard II's reign. I have outlined below Richard's view of the English monarchy- it is worth turning for a moment to the view of those that opposed Richard, to Henry of Lancaster, the Percies and Nevilles.

Henry knew when he came to England in 1399 about two characters- both called Thomas. One was his predecessor as Duke of Lancaster- the other was his uncle Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. Henry's aim when he returned to England was to restore the nobility to its rights. Lancaster and Gloucester too had aimed for this purpose. The rights of the English nobility were the rights to counsel Kings, the rights to participate in law making, the rights to their land before the law and the right to non-arbitrary government. The content of that prescription was vague- but the idea of it existed and was important. Henry's rebellion fits into a pattern of medieval rebellion that spread through continental Europe and the British Isles- rebellion became a way of protecting local jurisdiction and protesting. This ran from what E.P. Thompson called the moral economy- ie riots say to reduce the price of bread in Preston in 1791 all the way to the Pilgrimage of Grace to protest against the Change of religion in the 1530s. Richard had faced down two such protests before- the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and the baronial revolt of 1386-7.

If we are to understand why Lancaster was forced to depose Richard, we need to understand what happened to that second revolt. In the late 1380s, Richard was criticised for promoting favourites, governing poorly, neglecting the nobility and neglecting legal rights. He was forced to execute his leading advisors, appoint nobles to his council and bring in policies they agreed to. One of the leaders in this movement was the King's uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. And the King's uncles, Gloucester, John of Gaunt and York became the governing council assisted by Arundel. By the late 1390s, the King decided to take revenge, despite giving at the time commitments that he never would, upon Gloucester and those that had followed him. Gloucester was murdered in private in Calais, as were his associates where they resided. Richard asserted his own power and destroyed that of those who resisted- part of that was his decision to exile Boilingbroke in 1398 and deprive him of his inheritance when Gaunt died in 1399. The point was that Richard had made it impossible for anyone to trust his word, and that he governed arbitrarily thus making rebellion neccessary. As soon as rebellion became neccessary, Richard needed curbing because the participants would otherwise suffer. In 1399 the lord who rebelled came swiftly to the conclusion that the only curb that could promise security was abdication and hence Richard fell and Henry took the crown. The Lancastrian constitutional revolution boiled down to the notion that the King had left the Kingdom and thus that Parliament awarded that crown and kingdom to the next in line- in a sense it was a similar situation to that which arose in 1688.

But that still throws up the question, why did this happen and keep happening? Richard's untrustworthiness arose out of his personality- like Charles I, Richard beleived that an oath that restricted his monarchical power was not an oath that could bind him. But why ultimately did that matter so much? The reason it mattered was that the English crown held vast powers. Richard was one of the wealthiest Kings ever to rule- in absolute terms adjusted for inflation, the wealthiest monarch in England by a long way. Furthermore he had control over an incredibly extensive and powerful machinery of law and justice- he could use that machinery to create real problems for those that he disliked. With Parliament at his back, the King had an emmense ability to control and adjudicate over the realm. Parliament was used by the Lords- the merciless Parliament condemned many of Richard's favourites to death in the late 80s- but it could also be used by Richard as a court to back his royal authority. Gloucester and the rest were attainted by Parliament under its speaker Sir John Bushy, the King in Parliament as John Selden later said was incredibly powerful and could authorise anything.

Richard's power meant that no lord could survive his anger for long. Henry knew that. He knew that his uncle had been destroyed by Richard's anger, slowly simmering over the years. The lesson was not lost on later rebellious commanders either- Oliver Cromwell knew it and very like Boilingbroke came to the conclusion that the King must die in order that he could survive his own revolution. In 1688 the appeal to William was born out of fear of James- to put chains around a king and stop him doing what he wished was impossible. Hence there could be no division between person and policy- though Sir Thomas More intended in 1526 to create one through the immunity for those debating in Parliament- a queen like Elizabeth and master tactician (the reason why Elizabeth survived was that she knew how and when to give in) used her power to constrain MPs who spoke against her. Kings of England survived when they turned this massive state outwards- like Henry V in France- an example that Henry VIII was keen to emulate. The central fact about the English crown was that its power made its bearer a vulnerable agent- restricting supremacy was not easy- and so the way to rebellion led straight to regicide.

Richard's doom was his inability to roll as Elizabeth did with the punches administered by the gentry and nobility. Ultimately the fact that he used his power to destroy those who had opposed him, nursed his grudges and seemed untrustworthy meant that opposition was not a realistic option. As soon as you doubted, you were in danger, if you went as far as to rebel, your head was forfeit- even if you won, should the crown recover, you would die. And so you have the situation where there is no answer save to seize the crown for yourself. This is one reason that England has had few local rebellions- as Patrick Wormald commented the last rebellion to seek to split England was in 1065 by Earl Tostig of Northumbria- the point is that the power of the English crown and the universal application of law, mean that there were no local privileges or powerbases to hide behind. Continental observors marvelled at the rebelliousness of the English, Richard II knew it well too- but the real lesson of 1399 was that that rebelliousness was a consequence of the power of the crown. Opposition was so dangerous that the only way to save one's head could be to commit regicide.

When Henry of Lancaster landed in 1399, we have no knowledge of whether he immediatly desired the crown, but it must have become evident quite quickly that in order to survive he had to get it.