BOOKS AND ARTS DECEMBER 11, 2009
The Wedding Song
Act of God
The pace is adagio, the temper contemplative, so it is all the more surprising that the subject is Emperor Hirohito of Japan during the brief period between Hiroshima and surrender. The Sun was made by the Russian director Alexander Sokurov, who is noted, among other reasons, for the slow tempo of his films. Except for his feature-length careering through the Hermitage in St. Petersburg (Russian Ark), he has often chosen to meditate on shots, making that meditation part of the picture’s progress. The Sun is quite different. This film never consciously pauses in the former Sokurov style, yet the atmosphere in which the action occurs seems contrapuntally thoughtful.
With a screenplay by Yuri Arabov, the film is unique immediately because it deals with human divinity. Though Hirohito often says that he has a body like everyone else, and though we see the dailiness of his life, to his staff, and to the people of Japan, he is descended from the sun and is a god. So his divine being requires the deliberate rhythm of the film: it could hardly hurry. Obliquely, the way that he is regarded is a reminder that the fury of the Japanese armed forces in World War II had its base in religious fervor unknown elsewhere. The idolized Hitler was a familiar figure to his zealots; Hirohito, though sometimes seen by the Japanese, was never even actually heard by them until the end of the war.
Sokurov explores the behavior of a god after his country is atom-bombed, as defeat closes in. For a brief time Hirohito maintains both his mortality and his godhead. At the start of the picture, he is awakened and dressed, is told his agenda for the day. It includes all aspects of his being. He attends a military meeting and tells some opposing generals that he doesn’t want the war pursued. (After he leaves they continue to argue.) Then the other Hirohito visits a marine biology lab and investigates a crab--this lab is a favorite of his. Then he writes to his son and looks through family photo albums. He even has an album of Hollywood stars, though he says later that he doesn’t care for cinema. The day ticks on and on. We see an individual trapped between tradition and reality, not to draw sympathy from us but a sense of fate growling at the gate of past centuries.
Though he dreams later of Hiroshima, though he sees some bomb damage in Tokyo from his limousine, it is only after General MacArthur is established in Tokyo that the texture of Hirohito’s life begins to change. MacArthur invites him to call, instead of calling on him. Hirohito accepts, knowing what acceptance means. (They converse in English: Hirohito knows several languages.) When the emperor leaves, MacArthur remains seated, and no staff member is on hand to open the door. This is the only time that we see the emperor open a door for himself. Later MacArthur invites him to dinner, just the two of them; smokes a cigar with him; and then sends him a box of Hershey bars.
MacArthur, we feel, is moving cagily. He wants to bring the divinity down to earth at the same time that he doesn’t want to anger the Japanese people. The schism seems fused when at last the emperor-god speaks on the radio--the first time that his people have heard him--to declare an end to the war and to renounce his divinity. He then agrees to be photographed, and when he appears in front of the palace, unattended, in a suit and homburg, the U.S. Army photographers don’t at first realize that he is the emperor.
The fascination of this film is not only that all its contradictions are true but that we see an immense historical change embodied in one slight figure. Issey Ogata, who plays Hirohito, creates a man who, versed in the world, understands the pathos of his power. Sokurov, whose own country has had its sanguine encounters with Japan, helps Ogata to step out of the chronicles into rueful oddity. The film has some curious lip-synching at times--inexplicable because the Japanese actors speak their own language. Nonetheless, The Sun is clearly the work of a director with exceptional curiosities and resources.
There has been no shortage of films from the Middle East about emotional attachment between a Jew and a Muslim, usually a man and a woman. In The Wedding Song the attachment is between two nubile girls--not lesbian, simply sisterly love--and the place is an Arab city, Tunis, during the German occupation in 1942. Written by its director, Karin Albou, who also plays a major role, The Wedding Song explores the contrasts and conflicts we might expect, and it illuminates them all, but it also opens an even larger matter.
At the start Arab children actually do sing a wedding song that recurs throughout the picture--sometimes apt, sometimes sadly not. Then we see a belly dancer who is part of the engagement party for two Muslim cousins, Khaled and Nour. The latter lives across a courtyard from Myriam, her dear Jewish friend. Myriam is not engaged, but her mother, played by Albou, is trying to alter that. The war hastens her. The Allies have bombed Tunis--we see and hear some of the raid--and the authorities have levied a heavy fine on the Jews of Tunis to pay for the damage. (Since the entire war was craftily engineered by Jews, say the authorities, the Jews of Tunis should pay for the havoc that other Jews caused.) Myriam’s mother wants her to marry a wealthy Jewish doctor, an older man, who can help with her share of the city’s fine.
The double story plays itself out in cultural contrasts between its two strands, with somewhat more attention to Nour because she wants to be with her fiancé and Myriam doesn’t even like her proposed fiancé. We see some Muslim practices and attitudes toward women (including an explicit scene in which a bride-to-be has her pubic hair removed so that she will have a satin skin for her groom). Khaled and Nour are themselves too impatient to wait until marriage for sex, which leads to a wedding-night trick. Nour is supposed to be deflowered that night. Khaled nicks her ankle with a knife and stains a sheet, which is then passed out the door to a group of waiting women who sing and celebrate.
Myriam’s story is otherwise settled. But engaging as the two stories are, including their quarrels and reconciliations, what Albou has essentially and embracingly evoked here is a suffusing atmosphere of femaleness. Males abound in the film, but the communion of women prevails. The very scent in the air is of the beings of women, physical, emotional, unarticulated but understood.
From the opening belly dance through the depilation to the marital maneuverings of Myriam’s mother, we move in a world where men seem both the raison d’être of the stories and intruders. Albou keeps the camera so close to female faces so much of the time that we are enclosed in a wave of gender. The cinematographer, Laurent Brunet, tints many shots with a hint of blue that deepens the intimacy.
Olympe Borval plays Nour with understanding and heat. Lizzie Brocheré is even more skilled as Myriam. Albou herself, as Myriam’s mother, has strength and presence. They and all the others negotiate the turns and crannies of the stories with conviction, but ultimately what we are left with is the aura of femininity.
One invaluable function of the documentary is to reveal the interest in commonplaces. Such a film was a German documentary about dust last year. Act of God is a documentary about lightning by Jennifer Baichwal. I have myself been keen on the subject of lightning ever since I was fifteen, when I had a summer job on a dairy farm in upstate New York. After a severe thunderstorm one night, I went up the hill next morning to get the cows for milking and found one of them prone and, seemingly, inflated. She had been struck by lightning. Her hide was untouched, but it was as if she had been made of rubber and had been blown up. The stroke had in fact incinerated her insides.
Lightning always reminds me of that cow, of chance as fact. Baichwal’s film underscores this view. She investigates lightning strikes and the lightning-struck--and those who have witnessed the phenomenon. The film is bookended by the novelist Paul Auster. He says at the beginning that when he was fourteen, at a summer camp, he and some other boys were trapped in a severe storm. The film finishes with Auster telling us that a boy who was only a few feet from him was killed, that it was only a few seconds’ movement that took the other boy and not him. The randomness, the happenstance, the sense of space as possible enemy are the subjects of the intervening film.
Baichwal has traveled for her material-all of which, though anyone’s chance of being hit is only one out of 700,000, is sobering. In France we visit a museum of objects that have been struck by lightning. In Las Vegas we meet a man who was struck by lightning, was severely injured, recovered, and became a spiritualist teacher. In Cuba there is a group, descended from Africans, who see lightning as an African god from an earlier religion who still has the power to vent his anger below. In Mexico we meet survivors of a lightning storm that killed several children gathered around a gigantic cross on top of a hill. (We later see the cross being taken down and moved away. This shot may not have been meant to have implications, but it can’t escape them.)
Inevitably there are many shots of lightning flashes, but more startling are the shots of stormy skies. Views of the sky in films are usually sunny--sunrise, sunsets, etc. Stormy skies have an entirely different character--almost like beautiful warnings. In any case, Baichwal’s film brings us safely close to a danger that, as I happen to know, we never think about until it strikes somewhere, as it always can.
Stanley Kauffman is the film critic of The New Republic.