Dear Faithful Readers,
Part 3 of 3 of the essay "Finding God in the Films of 2012".
To read from the beginning, where we discuss Les Miserables, The Master, Prometheus, The Grey, and our inspiration for the essay, click here.
*Part 3… *
The Construction of Deity and Cloud Atlas
For all the dismissive criticism labeled against Cloud Atlas for being overwrought, simplistic and too concerned with a lightweight central premise that "we're all connected," there are many other threads that make this a rich film.
In particular, the examination of how faith evolves over time, and how certain experiences are translated by later generations as divine parables that can help us deal with the future. More importantly, the film is a wonderful example of how their misinterpretation tells us everything we need to know about the present.
Most prominent is the story of a young lawyer who witnesses the cruelty of slavery in the 1800s. His journal is the inspiration for a young musician in the 1930s to compose his masterpiece. The musician's forbidden lover finds the diary and adopts it as a metaphor for his own struggles as a closeted homosexual. Years later, he passes the diary to an intrepid reporter involved in a corporate conspiracy. Her young neighbor grows up to adapt that story into a mystery novel, which is published by an editor who undergoes his own imprisonment in an old-folks home. The publisher eventually quotes a line from the book to empower his own escape. The novel is then adapted into a film, where, two hundred years later, the same line ("I will not be subjected to criminal abuse!") becomes the catalyst for inspiring a rebellion in Neo Seoul. Future generations interpret these words as a prophecy from the synthetic being who spoke them, and worship her as a celestial being.
No film since In the Name of the Rose has done such an effective job of exploring the how messengers shape our understanding of the Word of God. Theologies are always thought to be infallible, but their distortion over time will always raise questions about original intent and authenticity. It's the reason there will never be consensus about the existence of God; which God is the true God, in what form spirituality exists, and whether or not _Cloud Atlas _is a good movie.
*The Interpretation of Faith *and The Life of Pi
Ang Lee's Life of Pi delivers the boldest of promises: Pi, the castaway protagonist, has a story that will make us believe in God.
Jesus Christ never made such claims. Priests, rabbis, imams, monks and missionaries in the audience must have been elated: could this one film actually be adopted by all religions to replace a lifetime of sermons? Actually, yes, but only if you're open to believing in… everything.
In Yann Martel's novel, when young Pi is marooned on a life raft with a deadly Bengal Tiger, the reader can understand the story as a fable. But a visual meduim has to present the story more literally on the big screen. Lee, therefore, does a fantastic job of transitioning back and forth between palpable reality and surreal serenity. The harrowing tale may drift into the realm of fantasy, but it's always grounded by emotional truths. And it's the director's ability to maintain these stakes throughout that sells the film's final message.
But how ambiguious are the film's final moments? Many people believe Pi made up the Tiger story to understand his own spiritual journey. Others say he gave the Japanese investigators a more plausible account only to appease their secuar parameters for understanding. However, when offered the choice of which story to report, the Japanese men choose the fantastical one with the Tiger. Is this because they now accept Pi's original account? Or because they simply want to respect his right to believe what he wants? Whatever the case, the important thing is that they show faith in their fellow man.
The audience should also be thankful that M. Night Shyamalan (who originally had the rights) didn't get to make the film --one can easily imagine that he would have simply exploited that last-minute twist for shock value. The beauty of Life of Pi is that it respects your individual beliefs, and promotes the idea that faith is a form of comfort. Even if you take an atheistic approach and simply believe Pi made up the story, it's a damn good story. One that, if nothing else, will make you believe in insurance fraud.
So who ultimately wins the Silver Stamp of the Ecumenical Jury? Let's follow Pi's example and say everyone can judge that for themselves.
Let us know what you think. After all, cinema is our religion.
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