Faith and Hope

in 23rd Haifa International Film Festival

by Vladimir Ignatovski

Festival selectors are limited in their choice by what is offered by the current film production — they do not make the films, they only choose from what is available. And yet, a well-selected program reveals the criteria, taste and aesthetic preferences of those who organize a festival. This was proved by the competitive New Director program at the 23rd festival in Haifa, 2007. Both audience and professionals had the chance to see the work of people taking their first steps in feature movies. Some had experience from different movie productions, others were just venturing into the cinema world, but everybody clearly showed individuality not just in terms of professional skills, but in terms of personal points of view, both artistic and ethical. Films, created in different parts of the world, took part in a sort of dialogue on the screen of Haifa. I could formulate its topic as “a conversation about Faith and Hope, about the power of moral arguments and the limits of their impact”.

Bhavna Talwar’s Dharm is based on a classical dramatic situation. The main character is a priest in a Hindu temple, who stands up for the purity of faith and human dignity, but his own principles are put to a test. He finds an abandoned child. Gradually, the disciplined heart of the man totally devoted to his religion, softens, and the love for the little boy fills his life. Then the dramatic change: the child’s mother turns out to be a Muslim. She abandoned him to save his life at the time of ethnic conflicts between Hindus and Muslims. The main character in Dharm faces a dramatic dilemma: to keep the child that won his love and gave new meaning to his life, or to follow strict religious rules. He goes through a real catharsis, both physical and spiritual, and chooses to keep to his religious duty. But when a new wave of violence comes, he is forced to face the raging crowd coming to destroy and kill. He does it not only to save a human life, but to prove what was written in the Vedas: “Manayta Paramo Dharma” (“Humanity is the true religion”). The end of the movie in which a man standing against a frenzied crowd manages to stop violence, armed with Faith alone, resembles the happy ending of a folk tale.

Ethnic tensions are obviously a topical issue in today’s world. The conflicts are the background not only of Dharm, but also in Goodbye, Southern City (Proshaj, yuzhny gorod) by Oleg Safaraliyev, where the tension between Azeris and Armenians that shook the country after the dissolving of the former USSR, is just a vague background for sketchily presented conflicts. The message of Dharm met its absolute opposite, represented in Euphoria (Eyforia) by Ivan Vyrvpaev — certainly the most complete movie in the program. The intentionally fragmented rhythm of the story corresponds to the characters’ failure to express their feelings. The brief moment of freedom, the euphoria of emotions and inspiration from the rush of love is brutally stopped by a meaningless act of violence. A story that looks much more realistic and true as the background of current events.

If Bhavna Talwar’s movie sounds like a folk legend about the power of Faith in Reason and Good, Stanislav Mucha’s Hope (Nadzieja) would be a parable. The project is part of the artistic heritage of Krzysztof Kieslowski. Together with the scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz, the great director wanted to make a trilogy on three themes: faith, hope and love. Hope is the last product of Kieslowski’s unrealized intentions, after Tom Tykwer and Danis Tanovic’s movies. Unfortunately, we don’t see the depth and tension of thought, typical of the director of Decalogue. They are both replaced by a criminal intrigue. The main character, Franciszek, uses blackmail to restore justice and to bring the organizer of the stealing of a valuable painting from a Warsaw church to return it. He seems sent from Heaven, capable of foreseeing the blowing up of his car, to survive, when the mafia tries to eliminate him — a real saint, naively determined in his intentions, incorrupt, purposeful. Actually the protagonist only becomes hesitant when he receives a warning from above — only the opening of the spare parachute saves the young man, who loves testing destiny by skydiving. But the movie doesn’t supply an answer to the question about the price of restored justice, the means of its achievement, the compromise, the repentance, the forgiveness.

Hope is inevitably connected to the eternal faith of the little man in the miracle that would change his miserable existence. Enrique Fernandes’ The Pope’s Toilet (El bano del papa) actually continues the tradition of neo realism not only through the subject of the movie, but through the way of its screen interpretation. The characters live in Melo, a small town on the border of Uruguay and Brazil. They smuggle for a living — they buy everything from Brazil: food, cigarettes, whiskey, even TV sets, and smuggle it on bicycles across the border, chased by corrupted border guards. A ray of hope shines in the poor life of Melo — Pope John Paul II is coming to a visit. The media foresee a flow of hundreds of thousands of believers. And the people of Melo see the chance of their lives. They borrow money, they buy hundreds of kilograms of meat and flour, they make heaps of chorizos, and they bake, knit souvenirs. And the protagonist’s idea is especially exotic and promising — he builds a toilet for the tourists. And as always, the bright hopes of little men fall apart before their eyes: the Pope arrives; he says his formal words about faith, understanding, humanism … and leaves. Only a hundred of believers come to Melo. The miracle does not happen; the citizens are not blessed with sudden wealth. They remain alone and broke among piles of rotten food. It’s a wonderful, unpretentious movie, deeply humane and sad, looking into the life of the little men who are always poor and never lose their faith in miracles.

Edited by Steven Yates