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In New Films From Israel and Sri Lanka, Faith Struggles in the Shadows

In New Films From Israel and Sri Lanka, Faith Struggles in the Shadows

The article was produced as part of the 2015 Locarno Critics Academy. Learn more about this year’s class here.

Religion is a story we choose to believe in. Though it is told as a kind of fairy tale in which good battles evil, often narrated by prophets in a patronizing tone, religion is a more challenging question of faith than it might appear to be. It is no wonder that movies dealing with such an ambitious topic resort to fables and allegories, including several from this year’s Locarno Film Festival.

Two films in particular from the International Competition, “Dark in the White Light” (Vimukthi Jayasundra) and “Tikkun” (Avishai Sivan) deal with the most pressing question for the faithful: life after death. The most profound rite of passage, death, is treated differently by different religions (Buddhism and Judaism), yet similarly in relation to God: the believer shouldn’t defy His will.

”Dark in the White Light” describes several connected stories. The focus is on a Buddhist monk, who seeks enlightenment, and his opposite in terms of character: a corrupt doctor who is accomplice to illegal kidney transplants. The variety of characters include a charlatan who organizes the illegal trafficking of organs, a student who wants to become a doctor, and the silent driver, who is the ally of the unscrupulous doctor. Sri Lankan director Vimukthi Jayasundra deals with a round story, framed within a discussion between villagers in the jungle, as if a legend or a myth has come to life on screen. It seems the dark interlaced stories we just saw are a product of their oral culture, stories ignorant people tell about the afterlife.

Some characters are so briefly depicted that they might be identified with one another. Jayasundra works with doubles, as if reincarnation gives each one another chance. The medical student who gave up his studies, realizing how little doctors know about life and death, is doubled by the abject character of the doctor, who assaults prostitutes and even rapes his helpless patients. The young monk is doubled by the one who reaches Nirvana in the jungle. Jayasundra’s characters come in pairs, and the ones who don’t have a correspondent are just agents of the Angel of Death.

Jayasundra’s style has changed from the contemplative contemporary cinema in “The Forsaken Land” to a darker type of filming. He is now more interested in the construction of intricate plots and the gradual changes in his characters. He says in the movie’s press kit, “We often think of the world in terms of rigid distinctions between life and death, body and mind, spirituality and materiality. But I have always been interested in questioning those fixed totalities, exploring their complex intersections and the political as well as philosophical issues underlying them. In this regard we can see this film as an exploration of one and the same character in its multiple guises.” In this regard, he explores the character who doesn’t want to see what is beneath death, the doctor, for whom death comes as a relief after a meaningless life, and one who cares about the afterlife, the monk. Death is just a concept. For one, it is important because he is seeking God, and for the other, death comes as a punishment for the ruthless life he chose.

As in “Tikkun,” wide framing and the single take are Jayasundra’s choices in unusual situations. Important moments of pure violence occur in the extreme background of a frame; key dramatic moments break the slow pace of the movie. The aesthetic is symbolic: The doctor looks indifferently at a fetus in a jar; the monk is dressed in a powerful orange robe; a woman who is raped is filmed while she is banged against the window of a car. We are speaking about a very organic film; the sounds of wind and the movement of leaves accompany this fable with beautiful poetic contrabass and violoncello. Kim Ki-duk’s “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring” is similar in terms of relating to the Buddhist cycle of life. Moments of cruelty break the peaceful, organically filmed image in a similar way and the nature blends with the ferocity of the character of the doctor. Jayasundra fails to achieve the same poetic, conceptual art as Kim’s, but provides a full, complex story. The humanity of this heinous surgeon, his impotence in front of death, his fight with his own demons, his struggle with his weakness, avarice and other sins, are beautifully depicted by his perpetual shouts of despair and inutility. The symbolic contrast between fire and orange and this dark, unbearable feeling of resignation is sometimes too allegorical, even if it’s assumed.

“Tikkun” is also a depiction of a crisis of faith, which achieves a more profound insight with less obviousness. Using powerful black and white, Avisai Sivan tells the story of a Hasidic Jew who doubts his belief in God after a near-death experience. He explores the questioning of faith through Haim-Aron (Aharon Traitel), a fervent Yeshiva student. He is often depicted as a solitary figure, absorbed by his studies and shot in very crowded settings full of books. His faith consumes him in a journey from devotion to doubt.

Haim-Aron is almost fanatical, fasting and purifying to the point of exaggeration. The only time he fails by the rules of his religion is when he masturbates in the shower, and his gesture is punished as he falls in the bathtub, clinically dead. After the pointless intervention of the paramedics, Haim is brought to life by his loving father, who can’t let go and resuscitates him. This experience marks leads him to question his faith, but we don’t know if his lost appetite for religious studies is a consequence of what he did or didn’t experience in his short passage through death.

While in “Dark in the White Light” Jayasundra brings to the table the randomness and irrationality of death and our powerlessness against it, Sivan chooses to raise deeper questions. Through this modern allegory, Sivan introduces some controversial questions: Is there life after death? Which is the meaning of life? Is God’s will above everything? How far should love for God go? How do you separate paternal feelings from incorruptible faith? While in the Old Testament God tested Abraham’s faith by requesting him to sacrifice his own son, Haim-Aron’s father isn’t prepared to do it. Abraham was willing to give up his son and a merciful God stopped him, so instead he burnt a ram caught in a thicket as a sacrifice. For his irrefutable faith, he was blessed with many descendants and prosperity.

By flouting God’s will, Haim’s father is faced with the fear he didn’t do the right thing. Unlike Lazarus, another biblical character risen from the dead, Haim is not rewarded by death. His father breaks the spiritual equilibrium by defying God’s will, and the transfiguration of his son is another consequence of breaking this rule. At some point the father even claims his son has “two souls in a lifetime.” 

According to the strict rules of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Haim-Aron acts with immodesty. He stops eating meat, which is an affront to his father who is a kosher butcher. He starts to hitchhike and is even tempted by prostitutes. Haim-Aron’s resurrection is his second birth into a more honest, earthly kind of understanding divinity. The realistic way to deal with any kind of religion is the constant doubt of the believer, his struggle to obey and to live by rules which don’t necessarily seem logical or rational. Certainties are left behind, and this is unacceptable for Haim-Aron’s family, who hesitates between tradition and paternal love.

The camera strikingly depicts Haim-Aron in his solitude, wandering the streets of Me’a She’arim, one of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem, or illustrating him with the calm gaze of fixed camera shots in the midst of the night. Traitel successfully portrays this confused soul in his search for a meaning. Haim-Aron’s father dreams of killing his son in order to re-establish the order of the universe, and his inner voice communicates via an alligator emerging from the toilet. Closer to Lynchian imagery, the alligator is matched by a surreal apparition of a horse on the streets of the neighborhood or a disturbing scene of Haim-Aron molesting a dead body in the mist, Avishai manages to provoke and to raise questions.

Both films address natural doubts because religion is a concept of choice. We also choose to believe in life after death. The significance we give death depends on tradition and personal devotion. The character’s actions, morally or socially accepted, are relative, which this is why “Tikkun,” the Jewish concept of atoning for past wrongdoing after death, is a universal one, expressed equally in Jayasundra’s film.

In the end, neither “Tikkun” nor “Dark in the White Light” tries to criticize social aspects of particular religions, but to analyze the concept of death and its meaning. In “Tikkun,” the believers learned their lesson: they should abide by God’s will. It is pointless to resist. Resistance is pointless in “Dark in the White Light” as well: we are condemned to repeat the past.

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