Thursday, June 28, 2012

Pretty Girls with Candles and Coca Cola: Secular Grace in Modern Cinema

I should preface any discussion of “grace” with the admission that I don’t know that much about the topic.  I am not a Christian, or rather, I haven’t been since a half-hearted religious education was visited upon me in childhood, during which we did not discuss grace or much of anything at all, actually.  All I remember from it is the arboreal story of Zacharias the tax collector, which was apparently thought to be a sinful occupation, and so when Zacharias hears that Jesus was coming, he climbs up a tree to hide from him.  Well, the townsfolk gather around Jesus and they bombard him with dinner invites, but Jesus says, “The one I want to dine with is Zacharias.” And everyone’s all like, “Whaaaa? But Zacharias is a sinful tax collector!” And I believe Jesus responded with something to the effect of, “Yeah, so he needs me more than you people do.” And then I don’t remember what happens next, although I assume that Zacharias is reconciled with the Lord.  All I really remember from the story with any clarity is the image of Zacharias hiding in the tree.

So what I know about grace in the Christian sense—grace, which is agape in Greek and (I believe) caritas in Latin—I have gleaned from books and movies (mostly from books) and from my friends with theology degrees (and I think I have a grand total of one of those).  But what is grace? As I understand it, grace is divine love, bestowed upon you not through any merit on your part, but purely through the benevolence of God.  It is unearned love.  And because of this, it is unexpected.  I think we can extend the concept of grace beyond the religious realm, and perhaps see it is as unexpected tranquility and beauty in a fucked up or despair-inducing situation.  Perhaps despair is key; grace is the sudden respite bestowed upon a person in despair.  Let’s look at the underlying theme in that Rihanna song, the one with the with the chorus, “We found love in a hopeless place.” They didn’t make love, they did not cultivate love, but rather, they found it, it was just there, it was presented to them as a veritable gift, they did nothing to earn it or bring it about.  And the environment (a hopeless place) made this discovery of love all the more unlikely.  Grace, perhaps?
The concept of grace in its more secular applications occurred to me recently while watching Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2011 film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.  This Turkish masterpiece (and honestly, if the regular reader of this blog thinks that I throw around the word “masterpiece” too frequently, he or she should bear in mind that I have good taste in films (not to boast excessively), I can sniff out the good ones and avoid the bad ones, so I rarely find myself watching shit and frequently find myself watching really good movies.  So the opportunities to review shitty movies are few and far between and the opportunities to review masterpieces occurs with pleasant frequency), I say, this Turkish masterpiece depicts a day or two in the life of a group of law-enforcement figures (police officers, a prosecutor, a doctor) as they drive through a rural backwater with two confessed murderers and try to determine where the murderers buried the body of their victim.  It’s less a police procedural and more an “existential dread” kind of movie; if Antonioni were to make a police movie, it would probably look something like this.
Now, there’s a wonderful scene where the police and their prisoners have been driving around for half the night, with thunder and the threat of rain constantly in the background, going to different spots where the body might be buried (the murderers buried the body in the dark, and they’d been drinking, so it’s hard for them to reconstruct where exactly they left their victim).  They decide to take a break and pay a visit to the mayor of a nearby town, who is known for his hospitality.  So they go to his house—more of a rambling compound, really—and it’s like a wonderful sanctuary from their frustrating search and the persistent ominous weather.  The atmosphere inside the mayor’s house is warm and safe.  He feeds the cops and even feeds the two murderers, although when one of them asks for a cola, a police officer interrupts and says, “He can have water.”
Well, as the night plods on, the power goes out, and the would-be revelers are plunged into darkness.  The mayor summons his daughter to bring candles and drinks for the guests.  And here’s where the moment of grace occurs: the daughter enters the room carrying a tray with a large candle in its center, flanked by drinks, and it illuminates her face in the darkness and she’s incredibly beautiful, less in a sexual sense and more in an angelic sense, and all eyes are on her, both those of the the murderers and the police.  And she makes the rounds passing out drinks and you can tell everyone is grateful for the mere sight of her.  And then she takes it even further, and the tears rose to my eyes at this point, because she discreetly provides the thirsty murderer with the cola he wanted earlier.  Agape! Unearned, unexpected grace!  And when she comes to offer a drink to the other murderer, he too is moved to tears and lingers on her angelic face in the candlelight.  Grace!
The angelic girl.  Isn't the composition perfect? It looks like a painting!
It’s probably the most beautiful scene in the movie and I immediately thought of another example of cinematic grace, this one from Francis Ford Coppola’s 2009 film Tetro (which I might have been the only person to see).  I won’t go into plot details, but this movie has a central couple played by Maribel Verdú (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Pan’s Labyrinth) and Vincent Gallo (The Brown Bunny, where he convinced Chloe Sevigny to fellate him for his art, Promises Written in Water, a film which Gallo has decided not to release to the unwashed masses, who wouldn’t understand it; no, seriously, he directed this movie, showed it at one film festival, and now he’s going to lock it up just to spite the plebs, who don’t deserve it.  And he wonders why people think he’s an asshole.  Anyway, carrying on,) as I was saying, we have Verdú and Gallo; Gallo is an American who’s had a really shitty life and he’s fled to Argentina, where he takes up with Verdú and they fall in love and live together, and he has clearly found in her a sanctuary from all the shit in the world.  And there is a beautiful scene of the two of them in bed together, I believe post-coital (it’s been a few years since I saw this movie), and he kisses her body and kisses her hand (like a very self-conscious gentleman) and he says several times, with tenderness and gratitude, “Gracias, gracias.” Gracias for what?  Gracias for letting me fuck you, it was hot? I don’t think so.  No, gracias for making my life livable, for giving me so much love and so much beauty, which I fundamentally don’t think I’ve done anything to deserve, nobody deserves your love, it is benevolent and out of all proportion to what I could give to you.

Vincent Gallo with Maribel Verdú, whom he
    doesn't deserve and he knows it, but there's grace for you.
So what Gallo finds from Verdú is grace, and, what with the strong sexual element involved here, a grace far removed from the concept’s original religious context.  It is worth noting that the grace in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, also revolves around a woman.  In contrast to Tetro, however, the connection between religion and grace hasn’t been completely severed in Ceylan’s film.  As I mentioned before, the beauty of the candle-bearing girl partakes more of the angelic than the erotic, and the men who are captivated by her respond in kind.  Theirs is an asexual affection, and the way they equate her with an angel (at least one of the police officers says it outright), suggests that their understanding of the grace she provides is still semi-religious in nature.  And here is an area which would benefit from more research: how would these Turks understand the concept of grace? How does grace work in Islam (if Islam even has the concept; maybe they don’t need it; I know they don’t believe in original sin, which is certainly an improvement on the Christian conception of the matter)?  And given Turkey’s strong tradition of secularism, how would a Turkish Muslim approach the subject? I should imagine with a great deal more skepticism than would his Saudi counterpart.  But this is just speculation and anyway, we mustn’t make sweeping generalizations (“The Turkish Muslim does this, the Saudi Muslim does that”), as there are just too many god damn people for generalizations about religious or national groups to have much correspondence to reality; certainly it’s dehumanizing, and every person should be looked at as an individual first and then, if necessary, as a Turk or a Muslim or as a secularist or whatever).  Anyway, maybe we can discuss this issue in another blog post, or someone who’s educated about the matter can post their understanding of it in the comments section (that’s what it’s there for; use it).

Agape is a beautiful concept (or at least, what I think agape to be is a beautiful concept).  On this shitty planet, trapped in these fragile bodies (soft machines, William Burroughs called them), with our fragile psyches, it is hard not to be attracted by the prospect of overflowing, undeserved, and selfless love.  I think these two cinematic examples that I’ve discussed here indicate that grace is not just for the religious; we secular humanists (or whatever it is we want to call ourselves) can enjoy it as well.

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