'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Film Notes: The Wind That Shakes the Barley/Army of Shadows 

The Wind That Shakes the Barley is Ken Loach's communitarian epic about the struggle of the Irish Republican Army to liberate Ireland from the British, while Army of Shadows is Jean-Pierre Melville's intimate classic about the French Resistance, based significantly upon his own experience. I had the opportunity to see The Wind That Shakes the Barley yesterday, while I saw Army of Shadows during its limited US release a couple of months ago.

Predictably, as each profiles indigenous resistance to foreign occupation, the films share a number of common concerns. Stylistically, I prefer the claustrophobic, psychoanalytical perspective of Melville in Army over Loach's more viewer friendly naturalistic narrative, but this is just my subjective quibble. The Wind is excellent, winning the coveted Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and Army, released in France in 1969 (and the US in 2006), is a superlative one.

Each has, as a central theme, the consequences of armed resistance upon those nationalistic enough, and idealistic enough, to cross the line into the use of violence to liberate one's country from occupation. In The Wind, the protagonist is the character of Damien O'Donohue, potrayed by Cillian Murphy, while in Army, the movie is anchored by the brilliant performance of one of the great actors in the history of French cinema, Lino Ventura, in the role of civil engineer, and resistance leader, Philippe Gerbier. O'Donohue aspires to help his people as a doctor before making an agonized decison to join the IRA. Gerbier applies his technical insight and organizational skills to the task of creating an underground network against the Nazis.

In short, while Gerbier and O'Donohue have very different temperments, partially attributable to age (Gerbier is a middle-aged Gaullist, O'Donohue a young Irish nationalist), they are both educated professionals. Gerbier is a bourgeois, O'Donohue is an emerging one. Neither anticipates that life in the resistance will radicalize them and destroy their social identity. Both find themselves irretrievably separated from the people that they committed themselves to liberate. Melville and Loach recognized this seemingly inescapable paradox of armed resistance, in the words of novelist Thomas Wolfe, you can't go home again.

Each film presents this process in a unique way because the transformation is dependent upon the specific historical circumstances. In The Wind, the IRA is supported by much of the Irish populace, so O'Donohue persists in the illusion that his participation in it is merely an extension of the community in which he has lived all his life, which is quite understandable, given that his initial refusal to join was condemned by most, if not all, of his family and friends. Conversely, Gerbier is isolated, Vichy France is a treacherous world where nothing is as it seems, where you run into a barber shop in desperation in the late night hours to escape the Nazis and the proprietor, whom you've never met, comes out to give you a shave, and thus, an alibi, to escape arrest.

Even so, both Gerbier and O'Donohue discover that life in the underground requires the creation of a covert identity that eventually supercedes your public one. It is a remorseless experience, one piercingly displayed in Fassbinder's classic about left wing violence in Germany in the 1970s, The Third Generation, most powerfully in that harrowing scene where the former middle class teacher, now Baader-Meinhof type terrorist, Susanne Gast, played by Hanna Schygulla, seeks to remember her new name by hypnotically reciting it in front of a mirror as she puts on lipstick.

Accordingly, O'Donohue will never serve his neighbors as a doctor; Gerbier will never design civilian projects for post-war France. Each discovers that resistance involves not only the use of violence against the enemy, but against your own people as well, people that you know and love, and once they shatter the bonds of kinship in the service of an abstract ideal like liberation, nationalism and independence, they are personally doomed.

In The Wind, there is a whiff of anarchism in the tragedy of O'Donohue, perhaps, things would have turned out differently if he could have embraced a world beyond nationalism, a world without borders, a world of people instead of nationalities. Loach implies that the true revolution is not a nationalistic one, but rather, one of class, one that will resonate among all peoples. Meanwhile, in Army, the message is much narrower, more Gaullist, fitting with its theme of alienation. France was saved by the nihilistic sacrifice of those who participated in the resistance, people like Gerbier, people who lost not only their lives, but their souls as well.

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