Friday, October 12, 2012

Glasses Ever Darkly

Religious skeptics have a long history of reexamining religious phenomenons through an ever changing lens of science. Some of these thinkers attempt to construct a middle path between the two perspectives, demonstrating how science is simply a natural outflowing of Divine Providence. Others use a more antagonistic method, employing science as a conflicting explanation for what was once believed to be miraculous or supernatural. One such example of this latter approach is the 1922 film Haxan:Witchcraft through the Ages. Made by the underrated Danish director Benjamin Christensen, this silent movies explores the history of witchcraft in Europe. While the film begins with a series of images tracing the iconography of the Devil to pre-Christian times, it soon settles into the Medieval period. What follows are a series of reenactments depicting the staples of witchcraft folklore: the local village witch, the Black Mass, black cats, demonically possessed nuns, etc. These visually stunning sequences seek to recreate a world where any tiny physical detail could be viewed as some potent for deep distress, and superstitions could be fatal, especially during a visit from itinerant witch-hunters. Christensen clearly holds to the view of Medieval Europe as The Dark Ages devoid of any science or reason (there is even a short segment demonstrating the cruel fate of medical students brazen enough to study cadavers). This attitude towards religion is reinforced in the final section of the film. Here Christensen revisits the extraordinary occurrences of earlier centuries, and explains them away by using the, then current, prism of Psychoanalysis. In such a manner, the possessed nun who disfigures images of her Lord Jesus is compared to a high class society shoplifter. Both commit their crimes unconsciously, in an attempt to strike out against an environment within which they feel powerless. They are simply sleepwalking through a life that they do not understand. Such individuals should not be feared or condemned, but pitied. Circumstances have made them who they are, and sympathetic treatment will help. Prejudice will only make the situation worse, until you have not one distressed nun, who has slid into disillusion, but an entire convent which has lost its reason.

As I stated above, perspectives shift over time, so that 90 years later, Christensen's linking of witchcraft and hysteria may seem more simplistic than profound. After all, in the intervening years we have witnessed many types of "illnesses" swept under the catch-all rug of  "hysteria." In fact, many contemporary thinkers, including some within psychology, would smirk at the thought of Psychoanalysis being labeled a "science" instead of merely another philosophy, another set of theoretical beliefs. Probing for a deeper understanding often leads to a more complicated portrait, which, in turn, leads me to Beyond the Hills.

Beyond the Hills, which I viewed last weekend at the New York Film Festival, is the most recent movie by the Romanian director Christian Mungiu. It centers on the relationship between two young women who bonded deeply while living in an orphanage. (The film implies that their relationship may have included lesbian elements, but leaves the matter up to the viewer's interpretation). At the beginning of the film Alina is returning to Romania after living abroad in Germany for three years; the reason for her return is to visit her former companion, Voichita, who is now a nun in a local monastery. Alina has been troubled lately, and wants her old friend to accompany her back to Germany. Voichita is willing, but the priest in charge refuses to grant her leave. As the tension between the two women grows, so does Alina's mental distress, which quickly comes to include violent outbursts and attacks against the priest and other nuns. Mungiu never offers a clinical diagnosis of Alina's condition, yet it would appear to be some sort of bipolar disorder or even schizophrenia. (Once again, the reality of mental illness is much uglier than in the rose-tinted world of Ron Howard). The priest and nuns wish to help Alina, but have been given precious little guidance from the doctors which examine Alina after a suicide attempt and violent attack on the community. Left to fend for themselves, they ultimately resort to their own frame of reference: the young woman must be possessed by the devil. In such a way, Mungiu, like Christensen, presents how supernatural lore of old might have quite concrete roots in today's accepted science. Unlike the earlier director, however, Mungiu, does not scapegoat believers for their faith. When tragedy arrives, the priest is the only person anywhere in the film to take responsibility for what has occurred. He may have been wrong to do what he did, but at least his compassion moved him to try something, which is much more than can be said for any secular authority (civil service or medical) who had an opportunities to intervene in Alina's life. At the Q&A after the screening, Mungiu explained that he wished to examine the consequences of indifference, and make us think twice about those troubled souls who we ignore every day with a shrug of our shoulders. In such a way, Mungiu is working in the same tradition as Christensen, whose film is also a plea for sympathy towards those whose thoughts and actions are not easily understood. (Finally, it should be noted that both directors' took their inspiration from recorded incidents; in the case of Beyond the Hills, it was events which occurred less than a decade ago).

Taken together, these two films demonstrate a shared interest in understanding the human experience in order to gain a deeper compassion for those in need of assistance. The fact that one film may be more nuanced than the other simply shows how that search for understanding is a perpetual process of growth. After all, who can predict how thinkers a century from will consider our most profound thoughts on human behavior? We cannot. We can only continue searching for a deeper answer, acknowledging that our comprehension shall never be complete, that the glass will always remain somewhat darkly . . .