Cinema, Critics and the Middle East The End of Innocence By Pamela Biénzobas
Ra’s Al Ghul first appeared in a Batman comic book in June 1971. According to DC Comics, his occupation is “international terrorist”. The description on the publisher’s website reads: “Ra’s al Ghul’s plan is simple: to cleanse the Earth through genocide and create a new Eden. For centuries, he has amassed great wealth and power in this campaign.” Thirty-four years after its appearance, the character’s presence (for the first time, it seems) in a Batman film just cannot be taken as a merely literary reference.
What is Ra’s Al Ghul doing in a text on the Taormina Film Festival? Simply that Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins was premièred in the Greek Amphitheatre, in one of the festival’s most popular events. And that the obvious interpretations of the role this Arabic name (that means “The Demon’s Head) plays in a 2005 superproduction added up to the less obvious but not less disturbing interpretations of another name -a Jewish one this time- in another film screened in the Sicilian town.
In Through the Eyes of Another (Gli Occhi dell’Altro), Italian director and screenwriter Gianpaolo Tescari develops a compelling and mostly accomplished insight on a foreign professor’s fears and insecurities when a younger man comes into his home, and therefore close to his partner -also considerably younger. To emphasise the otherness of the innocent intruder, who is only a menace in the protagonist’s paranoid imagination, Tescari made him a Kurd refugee in Italy. But he pushed the obvious cleavage unnecessarily too far by calling the main character David Ismael Grünblatt.
The film does not seem to have further (voluntary) political implications than those helping to insist on the contrasts and differences between both male characters. And in that sense it would be possible to read the racial question as yet another cliché in the film’s privileged/underprivileged opposition, such as blond/dark, rich/poor, successful/struggling. Then again, would that interpretation really be possible?
It is needless to say that the Middle Eastern conflict is a favourite subject in today’s cinema, inspiring an increasing amount of documentary and fiction films, as well as festivals and special programs. And on the other hand, it is clear that racial, moral and political stereotypes and metaphors have been around in movies since the beginning; ignoring subjacent readings in apparently innocent stories has always been a dangerous naivety.
This is nothing new, and we are far from living one of the most politicised moments in (film) history. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the Middle East has become a key issue that affects most international affairs, and for once almost everyone seems to be more or less aware of it. The question is how this awareness affects, and may even determine, the way we look at films. As film critics, or even as simple spectators and citizens, should we or could we even ignore details such as the identification of a morally-charged character as a Jew or an Arab? On the other hand, can the fear of being naïve lead us to a certain level of paranoia that makes us subdue cinematic criteria to external aspects and over-interpret the filmmakers’ intentions?
In other words, is it our mistake or our duty to propose an ideologically-driven reading of this kind of allusions, even if they were included in the film innocently?
The name of David Ismael Grünblatt might be a simple narrative device. And it is a fact that Ra’s Al Ghul was called that way over three decades ago. That’s not the point. Ultimately, that doesn’t really matter.