Two Days And One Night

Who knows what the original title of “Deux jours, une nuit” means, but this morning I watched Two Days and One Night and it was the best possible use of a Thursday before lunchtime that I can think of.

It tells the story of Sandra, who is recovering from depression, and one Friday evening gets a phone call from her friend at work explaining she is about to be laid off. The boss put a proposition to the staff. They can either get their annual bonuses, or Sandra can stay. All but two of the sixteen factory floor workers vote to lay Sandra off and to get their €1000.

What follows is very simple. After her friend Juliette convinces the boss to run a secret ballot after the weekend, the film consists of the Dardenne brothers’ camera following Sandra – played with astounding brilliance by Marion Cotillard – as she wrestles with herself to go and plead with her colleagues to vote for her and against their bonus.

Marion Cotillard as Sandra

There wasn’t a moment where I felt bored and at the end of it I realised it was as compelling and clear a picture of the plight of the worker as I can remember seeing in my time. The film isn’t an uplifting story about the triumph of the human spirit. It isn’t a sentimental escape from the material problems that vex our cities. It is a profoundly humanistic depiction of the forces that pull and stretch and toss the people who are just wrestling to put food on the dinner table and get their kids through school.

Our jokes about first world problems are certainly hackneyed, but they might be callous too.

There is a scene where Sandra goes to see her colleague Hichim. The electricity is gone in the apartment building. She walks the stairs, flight after flight, the picture of exhausted dejection, climbing to reach a peak where she does not know if she will be welcome, in the dark now and facing future darkness. It is a simple 30 seconds of camera-work, but it is a better description of the economic world most people in the EU live in than anything I’ve ever encountered from a politician. She climbs because if she doesn’t climb, she’ll lose her house; but even climbing, she might still lose her house. She climbs to secure the basic dignity of having a job and a role and a thing to do, but to do it, she must humiliate herself by throwing herself on the mercy of people as taxed and strained as she is.

Here are three very brief thoughts by which I hope to convince you to go watch this before it leaves the cinema or to load it up on Netflix or whatever it is that people who don’t use torrents use.

1) The boss is always above the fray. Literally, in the final scene, his pristine and spacious office is on the first floor. He never gets dirtied by the fight that is the lives of these workers.

2) The workers are distant from the place they work. Sandra has to take a bus all over the city. Her husband drives her up hills and out into the countryside, she visits suburbs and flats in slums. The task of making money to get by dislocates the workers from their physical environment.

3) The world that the worker is forced to live in is agonistic. It is a battle. Many of the colleagues phrase the ballot in terms of “losing their bonus”. They have been convinced this world is one of scarcity and therefore it becomes one of desperate scarcity. Worker tears away at worker, the son lashes out at the father, the world is so shaped by capitalism and globalisation that we sacrifice our colleagues for a little more comfort.

If I say that Two Days One Night is a 90 minute illustration of Marx’s theory of alienation you might yawn and decide that sounds too lofty, or too earnest, or too damn boring to squander an evening on. It is not. Sandra, in her depression, laments that she does not even exist. Marx told us that the alienated worker:

only feels himself freely active in his animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.

Capitalism dehumanises us. This film is a portrait of that process that manages to be fully and totally human. It is splendid.

Your Correspondent, At the end Sandra reminded him of a bird singing

Wolf Of Wall Street Review

The cult of capitalism will die this way; first as comedy and then as farce. But it will feel like it takes forever.

It is not even close to the greatest Scorcese has done but that makes this obscene, stylish and finely acted film something that could be damn impressive in the long-term.

Like, even longer than the never-ending running time.

Your Correspondent, You buy until you die.

Best Films I Saw In 2013

There are certain fancypants film reviewers who tell you that 2013 was a vintage year for the cinema. I haven’t seen Her, The Act of Killing, 12 Years a Slave or Pain and Gain so maybe I am judging too fast. But there were many weeks my Cineworld megapass card stayed firmly in my wallet because all there was to watch was yet more crappy horror movies or tedious childrens’ cartoons. But there were a handful of fantastic films that continue to linger with me.

The Way Way Back
This is probably the movie that Wife-unit and I enjoyed the most during the year. It has everything you want in a summer movie, except giant robots who fight in the sea. Sam Rockwell’s performance is effortlessly brilliant as ever. The supporting cast is stellar. And the fundamental story is true and funny and heart-warming. I wrote about it earlier here.

This is the most Oscar-worthy film I saw this year. I already rambled extensively about it here, but for me this isn’t about special effects and action, although it is gloriously tense. Continuing on from Children of Men, the director Alfonso Cuarón has produced a profound spiritual reflection. This time, the film is about prayer. Or at least, that’s what I’m saying.


Mud is another film about multi-generational friendship between men. But this is much darker. Much more like Stand By Me than the Station Agent. It is a story about a boat caught up in some trees and a man who wants to make it up with the lady he loves. The best ones are always straightforward, right?

Elefante Blanco
To remind you that I am a real life intellectual poser, here is a subtitled film about priests trying to make a difference. The priests are really good friends; maybe there is a theme developing here? Here is more extensive waffle on the topic.

To The Wonder
So on top of being an intellectual poser, I’m a pretentious wanker too because while everyone else thought this was an extended perfume commercial, I was convinced that it was a profound reflection on ministry, doubt, faith and love, as well was being proof that I was right all along by telling you all that Rachel McAdams is a brilliant actress. You probably will hate it, but I could re-watch it constantly. Here’s more pretentious buffoonery on the topic.

Other movies that were really good include Nebraska, Saving Mr. Banks, Captain Philips, Les Miserables, Star Trek Into Darkness, Blackfish, Rush, and perhaps most especially, Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

Your Correspondent, Has got kind of a big personality, with his flashy clothes and his Woody Allen swagger.

Film Review: The Way Way Back

We can now declare that the three best films of the year deal with friendship between men. First there was the tragic Elefante Blanco. Then there was the haunting Mud. Now we have the simply charming The Way Way Back.

Sam Rockwell cements his place as the most under-rated actor going. Here he plays a character that manages a water park but also manages to be the greatest youth pastor in history, taking care of the troubled and lonely 14 year old Duncan.

That’s all you need to know. It is charming. It has Sam Rockwell. It is about a man who is a friend to a boy on the edge of manhood.

Also, while we’re at it, it has a terrifyingly convincing turn from Steve Carell and Allison Janney is even better than you are used to expecting from her. The plot is simple and uncontrived. The dialogue sparkles. It is a lovely film. Catch it in the cinema with friends before it leaves.

Your Correspondent, Wants to be a friend to all the 3s of the world.

One Line Review: The Great Gatsby

While this movie stretches the traditional definition of what a film is and it betrays a drunk disregard to the beauty of the material, it does conclusively prove that our pop music is as good as the stuff that they came up with back in the 1920s.

Your Correspondent, He is simultaneously, the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.

Film Review: White Elephant

Right here in the prologue, let me give you my verdict:

This is a film you should track down and watch.

Especially if you are one of the very many Christians who read this blog: please, track down this movie, put your phone away, close over the laptop, draw the curtains, exile distraction and watch this film.

In the rest of what follows, spoilers (if such a term applies) will be shared so come back to read this after watching the film, if you’re the kind of person who thinks movies are ruined by being able to tell what comes next.
In our age, films involving priests as primary characters are rarely satisfying. They are sometimes very good but they usually involve two key character dynamics and one major over-riding point. The character tensions are: how hard it is for a principled individual to work under a hierarchy and how impossible it is to commit to celibacy. The major over-riding point of films involving priests tends to be anti-clerical. Priests are bad and worse, priesthood itself is bad.

In White Elephant you have the character tensions but you do not have the major over-riding point. This places it in a rare group of movies which includes the greatest film I’ve ever seen about vocation, Of Gods And Men, and the recently over-looked Malick movie, To The Wonder. White Elephant tells the story of two dear friends who happen to be priests. The older friend has brought the younger friend, recovering from injuries sustained in a largely undiscussed massacre in the Amazon where a colleague was martyred, to work with him in a massive Argentinian slum, based around the carcass of an unfinished, half constructed super hospital.

The film depicts three communities, interwoven together, overlapping and inter-penetrating. At the heart of the film is the community of priests, centred around Fr. Julian. It includes a volunteer named Cruz who teaches the boys of the favela practical skills, and a driven, compassionate social worker, Luciana, who is played brilliantly by Martina Gusman. These are people of faith* who are possessed by a missional purpose. They want to see the young people of the slum rise out of it. They want to see the dignity of the older people in the slum restored. They want to be enemies of no one. They pray together and they eat together. This is a rare, unflinching look at Christian ministry in community.

The second community the film records is the slum itself, the district of Villa Virgin. The depiction of the city is neither tuned to evoke a sentimental response nor used as a menacing piece of exotica. It is what it is – the result of human beings living close together. There are good things and bad things quite independent of the horrendous decay.

We might called the third community the “Enemies”, although the point of Fr. Julian and Fr. Nicholas’ work is that the people we want to blame must instead be embraced. So the State in the form of an obstructionist city council and a brutal police force are included in this number, as are the two rival drug gangs that vie for control of the district. The plot of the film is nothing more than the interaction of the three main character, Fr. Julian, Fr. Nichols and Luciana, with the different communities that make up Villa Virgin.

* The notes on the film from the Cannes Festival last year describe Luciana as an atheist. Unless I passed out at some point, this is never suggested in the film. In fact, prominently placed above her desk in her office is an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. One might speculate that this shines light on what faith means in a secular age. Many jump to a conclusion that because a character doesn’t appear in scenes where “devotion” occurs, we imagine that they must be irreligious. The underlying idea revealed in this assumption is that religious faith is a gloss that sits on top of a more primal, universally shared idea of what it means to be a human. Unless I missed some explicit signal somewhere, the reviewers** who have come to this “Luciana is atheist” conclusion are reading stuff into the film that isn’t actually there in a way that allows us to read out of their reviews a lot about the hidden assumptions of our age.

** One could further speculate that the critical dullness elicited by To The Wonder is also at work in responses to White Elephant. An idea of faith as a set of outmoded metaphysical commitments that some people have and that might possibly be of social benefit in some settings can be found again and again (good example here). This is a serious journalistic deficit. Imagine how crippled a film reviewer would be if they believed politics was nothing more than elections?

The film does fall into the trap of nodding towards the hierarchical structure of the Catholic church as an obstacle to the ministry being carried out. However, this nod is restrained. Fr. Julian and his team seek to work under the authority of their bishop. This is at times frustrating. The depiction of hierarchy is still negative, but it is viewed realistically.

The film also falls into the trap of depicting celibacy as almost impossible. This is a pity. But the way that it is done is wonderful, if just taken for what it is. Fr. Nicholas doesn’t fall out of celibacy because celibacy is a horrendous burden, but because friendship is desirable. The sex scene and subsequent relationship scenes that ensue are actually profoundly touching because what is communicated is the hunger for the other, not in some tacky counterfeit idea of a physical urge that can’t be resisted but in the sense of an attraction to the beauty of the other self. Falling out of celibacy is not a torturous existential crisis so much as a thing that happens because he loves his friend and desires her and she him. It is not a deficit in the path he is walking but a surplus in her beauty that possesses him. The falling out of celibacy creates internal contradictions but it doesn’t destroy his vocation.

The reason why I want my Christian friends to watch this film is threefold. Firstly, it is a very good, gripping, thought provoking drama. It is superbly acted, it is restrained, it is interesting. These are rare and good things.

Secondly, the film is an informed attempt to show us what it means to do Kingdom of God work embedded in a community. The protagonists are embedded in their community of faith but they live and dress and speak like the community that makes up the favela. Christians mis-use the word incarnational when they are describing this kind of work. What White Elephant offers us is a depiction of what this kind of community based ministry should look like. It is representational, not incarnational. Worship and mission and social justice work are not segmented. It is integrated. This film manages to do all this without being in any way propagandistic.

Thirdly, the film shows us what our right stance should be towards politics, power and the State. We do not resist the State, any more than we seek to resist the drug dealers. We neither want the State overturned nor see that as our job, regardless of how unjust it is. Equally, we neither want the drug dealers extinguished nor see that as our job, in spite of the damage they inflict. Rather we witness to the State that we are citizens of a different Kingdom. The Argentine flag is a recurring motif in the film. Everyone except Fr. Nicholas is Argentinian and his Belgian origin is much discussed because to be foreign is to be strange. But the Christians in this film demonstrate in their words and their deeds that they are holding the State we call Argentina to account by the standards of the in-breaking Kingdom of God, which is their true home and the entity to which they owe allegiance. If that higher allegiance means they must shelter those that the law of the land deem criminal, then so be it. If that higher allegiance means that they must seek to restrain violence against the State even when they wish they could lash out, then so be it. If that higher allegiance calls them to martyrdom, then so be it.

Final point: The soundtrack kicks in with some stirring stuff at important moments.

Your Correspondent, A cool name for his dog would be “Bark Obama”

One Line Review: This Must Be The Place

While I am more than inclined to love movies set in Dublin (especially featuring shots on a street my friend used to live on), this quiet and unusual film about guilt and regret and trauma comes alive when David Byrne (is there anything he wouldn’t make come alive?) begins to sing and from there it gets very interesting indeed.

I think Transfarmer's house is the last one on the right, but I might be wrong

Your Correspondent, Gratitude is the most beautiful thing of all.

Beasts of the Southern Wild and To The Wonder

* While neither of these movies are plot-driven, here be spoilers below. *

Both Beasts of the Southern Wild and To The Wonder are movies you are meant to be mildly embarrassed to love. The reason is that both of them are drenched in something like the uncoolness of fairy tales. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a visual feast that has alligators in it. Therefore it is compared to Terence Malick movies. To The Wonder is a Terence Malick movie and as such is a visual feast. In this one, at least, there is no alligator.

Fairy tales aren’t cool. We’re meant to think movies about marriages breaking up and teachers being addicted to heroin are cool cos those things are real. Priests suffering the dark night of the soul and girls making sense of the universe? What is more real than that? But it is a “visual feast”, so we are primed for sentimentality.

In Beasts of the Southern Wild, the little girl, Hushpuppy, is pursued throughout by vast mythical prehistoric creates called aurochs. Their oncoming presence casts a shadow over everything that happens to her.

Beast of the Southern Wild

In To The Wonder, a priest, Fr. Quintana, is pursued relentlessly by doubts about his vocation. The retreating presence of God casts a shadow over everything that he does.

To The Wonder

These movies are easily discarded as fripperies for the pseudo-intellectual. Maybe they are. Neither movie is without fault. But watching them together is illuminating.

As I have said, both are kinds of fairytales so they are kind of uncool. Both of them share a picture of Creation as a Cosmos. Hushpuppy believes that everything is connected. The characters in To The Wonder are striving to make any sort of a connection – with themselves, with each other, with God. But the Cosmos-view of the two movies is subtly, if significantly different. Both perceive some kind of integral, holistic sense to the universe. Neither movie leaves us under the impression that matter is all there is and matter is all that matters. But To The Wonder, as with all Malick movies, has more hope.

Hushpuppy’s Cosmos-perspectice is that: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the entire universe will get busted.”

In Malick’s movies no one thinks this. All the pieces can be out of whack and the “Love that loves us” will still make things right. I wanted To The Wonder to end differently. I wanted Neil to be changed by his friendship with Fr. Quintana so much that he and Marina could be happy. I am spoiling nothing by saying that doesn’t happen. But to close the story off like that is too neat and too easy. Instead, Neil ends happy, but elsewhere. Because all the small busted pieces won’t bust the entire universe.

Which is not to say that Beasts of the Southern Wild is a stupid movie. It isn’t! It is beautiful and funny and in its own way, true. When Hushpuppy’s moment finally comes and she says to her fears, “You’re my friend, kind of” something lovely is depicted in a lovely way that redoubles the loveliness. Those haunting fears that chase us down, they spur us on.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a better reviewed movie. Maybe that is because movie critics are better able to judge a film than I can. Or maybe in retrospect, the movies Malick has made will continue to attract careful watchers, who when they listen, will find something unique. Beasts of the Southern Wild is unashamedly and impressively a movie that shares the philosophy of a six year old girl. But our philosophies mature. They go past the silliness of Marina’s Italian friend Anna who sees nothing of value in the small Oklahoma town they find themselves in.

And there, To The Wonder, directed by a man who translated Heidegger, is shown to be a deeper (not necessarily better or more enjoyable) (and maybe this is a worthless prize to win when talking about films anyway) movie. Hushpuppy and Wink look over at industrial New Orleans and see ugliness. They refrain from using tools when they can. Civilization itself is unvcivilized.

But when the Parisian Marina arrives in Smalltown USA, she is taken by it. The movie starts on the sophisticated streets of old Europe but it plays out on the plains which she declares “honest”. The humdrum of human settlement, domestication, civilization is a part of the “wonder”, not something that mars it. This reverence for nature in the midst of suburbia survives even as her marriage doesn’t.

The stark dichotomies between the “innocent wilderness” and the “fishtank without water” of urbanity in Beasts of the Southern Wild makes the philosophical perspective easier to digest. This is an irony. Because the movie that is at peace with the supermarket “Everything is so clean!” is the movie that gets closer down to the raw marrow of reality.

Of course, I haven’t eaten a real meal in three days due to the Winter Vomiting Bug so I could just be full of crap.

Your Correspondent, His obese toddler did his stepfather’s make-over.