Saturday, 23 January 2010

The Road - a different account of God and love in the ruins

I went to see The Road last night. I was on my own in London, and walking home through the dark puddled streets after the late showing, I felt nervous in a way I rarely do in this city. I was gripped by a deep sense of melancholy about human nature, by a feeling of how little trust and communion there is among us, and by a fearful suspicion of my fellow human beings.

But need it be so, or have our imaginations become infected by a vicious individualism and an evolutionary ethos in which survival of the fittest is the only creed we know and the only value we live by?

Of course not. Every one of us knows that isn't true, if we stop and reflect for just one moment on the nature of our daily lives. Most of us go through our lives in a spirit of trust, not of suspicion and defensiveness, because most of our encounters with others affirm that trust. We remember occasions of betrayal, violence and malice because for most people these are the exception rather than the rule of our lives.

But does all that break down in situations of extreme social or domestic stress? Is it true that human beings revert to a kind of savage despair when things go seriously wrong? My last blog reflected on media representations of Haiti as a place of lawlessness and corruption, whereas the photographs tell a different story of solidarity and shared sorrow. A few years ago, Jewish theologian Melissa Raphael wrote a book on the narratives of women survivors of the Holocaust, The Female Face of God in Auschwitz, in which she argues that these are not marked by the atheist nihilism of many of the male writings which have come to epitomise post-Holocaust reflection on God and the world, but by a sense of the shared presence of God and of mutual dependence on one another in the most extreme imaginable conditions of betrayal and violence. How much of our present ethical and spiritual malaise in our relationships with one another and with nature might be because this capacity to express the co-dependence and care which are present even in extreme situations, has been overriden by a more aggressive and competitive ethos of survival at all costs?

Cormac McCarthy offers us a bleak dyspeptic view of the solitary male individual struggling to survive in a hostile world, and films such as No Country for Old Men and The Road translate these dark parables into visual nightmares which haunt the mind - although The Road has none of the satire of No Country for Old Men. Many have observed that The Road is ultimately a film about redemption, as the unnamed man (harrowingly played by Viggo Mortensen) and his small son (an astonishingly nuanced and sustained performance by Kodi Smit-McPhee), make their way through a landscape devastated by some dimly glimpsed catastrophe which evokes all our well-founded fears for what might lie just ahead, whether the conflagration and ruin are caused by the immediate human activity of nuclear war, or the less immediate but no less human activity of environmental destruction.

Father and son trudge through a sulphurous world without birdsong, vegetation or human kindness, sustaining one another by a boundless love tormented by loss (I am reminded of the photograph of a father and child I posted in my last blog), constantly threatened by the cannibalistic gangs which prowl the charred woods and scenes of urban ruin looking for children to eat. The man has frequent flashbacks to his wife (Charlize Theron) who, unable to bear the fear of the raping mobs, chose to go outside and freeze to death, rather than to eke out survival against such dread and despair.

The son, we learn at the beginning, represents the voice of God for the father, and there is something in the portrayal of the child's unfailing faith in humankind and persistent desire that they should remain 'the good guys', which lifts this film out of its dystopian misery and whispers of grace and love in the ruins - just as those photos of Haiti do. When the father indulges in a searing moment of retribution - Michael K. Williams gives a cameo performance which offers perhaps the most stunning visual moments of the film - the son becomes the voice of conscience and kindness. How far is the film an existentialist parable about life played out in the wilderness of history against the horizon of eternity? The sea is the goal of this film's bleak pilgrimage, and yet there is nothing there but more ruination, not the blue imagined sea of their dreams but an endless grey desolation lapping against the far horizons of time and place, and a journey which must go on with no apparent destination in sight.

I think 'redemption' is too decisive a word for what this film offers. 'Hope' seems to me a more appropriate word. It's my favourite word, 'hope'. It's more realistic and radical than optimism, for it is realized in the very act of experiencing it, whereas optimism must achieve its ends to be legitimated and people can do terrible things to one another in seeking to live out their optimistic ambitions. In other words, optimism is about the future whereas hope is primarily a quality of the here and now. It's hope that lets people love even when redemption may not be at hand - Albert Camus' The Plague and its forerunner in the figure of Dostoyevsky's Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov express what this quality of hope amounts to and what it can achieve, not by pointing to a better tomorrow or a rosy hereafter, but by saying what a difference love can make in the present, never mind what lies ahead tomorrow or at the end of time.

Yes, I left the cinema feeling uneasy, but with an elusive sense of hope too. Can we refocus our gaze so that, when we look at the world, we concentrate not on evidence of trust betrayed and goodness surrendered, but rather on those who sustain trust and goodness against all the odds? The Road is a film about the power of human love and, to coin a phrase, 'the audacity of hope'. The camera lingers with tender sorrow on the vulnerability and trust of the child and the anguished love of the father even as it shows us a human world surrendered to brutality, and that lingering gaze is the vision of hope. If the ruin of the world and our role within it is not inevitable, then we too need to refocus our gaze - and the media could play no small part in this - in order to ask, not why are so many people so bad, but in order to ask what it is that allows some people (many more than we realize) to be so good.

I walked home through the midnight streets of London and I passed ordinary people like me, doing ordinary things. Sometimes, the boys in hoods turn out to be gangsters, but most of the time they are just kids doing what kids do. Most of the time, the man who walks quickly up behind you is simply hurrying home to his wife and kids, not trying to rape you or rob you. (Even so, guys, I wish you wouldn't do that! If you must rush up to overtake a woman on her own late at night, cross the road or at least give her a wide berth).

Saint Paul says that love is greater than faith and hope, but in the end, aren't those words synonymous?

1 comment:

  1. I read the book Tina and it left me utterly desolate. So much so I can't bring myself to see the film. I like your analysis of God as the small child, ever trusting and loving. I suppose if The Road is prophetic, and sometime in the future we will experience the annihilation of humanity, then is it of any comfort that slowly the earth will recover and carry on, life will return albeit in a different way than before, but without us?


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