Our Civilization and its Discontents

Talking Picture, directed by Portuguese Manoel de Oliveira, 2003

Written on a Sunday, February 26, 2006, at the end of a badly started (and badly continued) week.

“Anxiety, work pressure, events, thoughts and readings with no clear direction, solipsism, our flaws seen in the mirror of those we love. Last but not least, the uneasiness of moving about a city with a gloomy indistinct threat hanging over [Al Qaeda had just menaced the Vatican at the time of this writing.]“

“Woke up early and watched A talking picture on TV (Um Filme Falado, 2003,) written and directed by the 96-year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira.”

“Joana and her mother Rosa Maria (Leonor Silveira), history professor at a university in Lisbon, embark on a cruise ship directed to Bombay to meet Rosa Maria’s husband, an airline pilot. Now and then a new woman joins the cruise, both famous and lonely: Catherine Deneuve (a French businesswoman), Stefania Sandrelli (an Italian ex-supermodel) and Irene Papas (a Greek singer and actress). The ship captain (US actor John Malkovich) gallantly invites the three divas to dine at his table. Later Joana and Rosa Maria are also invited so the whole cast of actors (and bunch of characters) is now together.”

A Talking Picture by  Manoel de Oliveira

“Surreal in this movie is the fact that every character speaks in his/her own language: Portuguese and English the captain plus mother and daughter; Greek, French and Italian the three divas, all of them though perfectly understanding each other. This weird language thing, while making the movie hard for the public, gives life to a fascinating cosmopolitan symposium, the various tongues contributing to the effect.”

“We better understand the title of the movie (A talking picture) since here actually deep and disillusioned dialogues on the Western civilization unfold (its origins, meaning and future) like in a dialectic multilingual story, while the cruise ship slowly crosses the Mediterranean surrounded by some of its most ancient (and fascinating) cities: Marseille, Athens, Naples, Constantinople (Istanbul) etc., not without a last-days-of-Pompeii touch.”

“Joana and her mother had often gone off the ship to visit many places. Stopping once at a mosque in Istanbul, if I well remember, Joana asks her mother whether Catholics and Muslims are still at war. “No – replies Rosa Maria – this happened in the Middle Ages” (a newspaper headline places the film action in July 2001 … a little before the Twin-towers attack)”. Here below you can see Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a Wikimedia Commons image.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Gnu Free Documentation License

“The same night of the multilingual conversation the captain informs the crew that two time bombs placed by terrorists are about to explode. Confusion ensues and the passengers are requested to evacuate the ship in all hurry. However Maria realizes that her daughter is still on board so she gets back on the ship and finally finding her the two women try to escape with a lifeboat, although all lifeboats are far and gone. The captain spots them on deck from the sea and yells for them to jump, but the two women disappear in the explosion – they being so beautiful, the image of life itself -, a blast we only see as bright light reflected on the aghast face of the captain, while the credits flow down …”

“A few hours before the bombs explode the Greek singer (Irene Papas) had chanted an inspired sad melody lamenting how the Greek civilization had been swept away …

as the flowers of the orange tree
swept away by the cold north wind …”

“…a clear metaphor of our own Western world that could be swept away. Well, swept away seems a stupidity to me, although signals are clear that the world balance is about to change.”

Foreseeing such change, what Bush (and Blair) after all meant to do but try to better position their chess pieces on the world chessboard, with the aim of delaying Western decline (but foolishly screwing it all up, the process having been probably accelerated instead)? In this sense this enchanting movie seems even more appropriate to me).”

“Beautiful, minimalistic, despite some rigidity which nonetheless is part of its charm. And, incredible to say, written and directed by a man in his mid-90s, who was born when Franklin D. Roosevelt was at the White House!” (W. Addiego)

Catherine Deneuve at Cannes in 2000, by Rita Molnár, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license

Italian version

PS
W. Addiego (San Francisco Chronicle) also adds in his review: “The film is stripped down in a way only mature artists can achieve … Though it may resemble an extremely austere travelogue, A Talking Picture is much more. Behind the deceptive air of artlessness, it offers a cutting portrait of civilization — our civilization — and its discontents.”

Religion, Fear, Power

Crucifixion by Diego Velázquez (17th century). Public Domain

I told you a few times I do not want to talk about religion though I have to contradict myself because I’ll ponder religion a bit today together with a few concepts dancing around it.

“Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear” argues Sir Bertrand Russell in Why I Am Not A Christian, a lecture delivered on March 1927 and published on that same year.

“It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death [...].”

Bertrand Russel, from book cover “The Quotable Bertrand Russell”. Fair Use

“In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts. Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a better place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it”.

“The real reason why people accept religion has anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds.”

ψ

Interesting what Russell says about fear, a crucial factor, probably, in the birth of religion.

There are other aspects though. If it is because of fear that we create and accept a great almighty father that protects us, an ally, as Russell says, fear is also fear of hell, fear of divine punishment.

This is why we obey to catechism and to the clergy. We are not focusing here so much on the reasons why religion was born. We are rather focusing on power.

Gutenberg Bible. GNU Free Documentation License

I don’t believe it is by chance that the fear of God is one of the fundamental concepts the Old Testament reshapes in thousands and thousands of different ways. The fear of God is the true guide of every virtuous man, argues the Bible tirelessly.

An idea that wouldn’t be conceivable today, if it weren’t for the suspicion, a strong suspicion, that fear is still used nowadays in exactly the same way as it was in the past: to make us weak and obedient.

ψ

An American friend meant something similar when talking not of religion but of mass media.

“You look at newspapers and almost every headline is scary. Here, there, scary, scary ….”.

A tragic example is the way George W. Bush and the neocons have implacably exploited the horror produced by the atrocious attack to the Twin Towers.

Twin Towers attack. Public Domain

Italian version


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