Avant-garde films searching for lost fatherhood

Avant-garde films searching for lost fatherhood

The father figure in the two generational works of art: “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Tree of Life”

There are works of literature and film that, in addition to being timeless, portray the greatest problems of their generation. In my opinion, this is the case with To Kill a Mockingbird, the first and only novel of Harper Lee published in 1960. This Pulitzer Prize winning novel was then magnificently adapted to cinema with the same title. Gregory Peck played such a convincing Atticus that it won him an Oscar that same year.

The Tree of Life is a film produced by Terrence Malick fifty years later during an era that felt the deleterious effects of the sexual revolution and the spread of the gender ideology. Among these is the misrepresentation of one of the most vital relational experiences to the formation of personal identity: paternity.

It’s a fact that fatherhood is compromised in today’s culture, be that in daily life or in art, which reflects life in a more or less deformed or deforming manner. It’s a fact that art’s representations stretch beyond that of life, sometimes morbidly without giving solutions or opening doors to hope. This reality discussed in a study published on our site that analyzes the image of paternity in the Italian press: “The current crisis of paternity emerges in an evident way from the negative roles and tone continuously attributed to the father through the diverse artistic representations” (Studnicki).

There are some artists who shed light that allows us to better understand ourselves and the world in which we live. This will continue as will keep happening as long as there burns a flame of humanity within the artist. Surely this light, though accessible by all, must be sought out using the right “glasses” that allow one to perceive it.

I have selected these two masterpieces, which I highly recommend to our leaders, because they are epochal at dealing the subject of paternity. I present these with some indications to orient their reading or viewing.

To Kill a Mockingbird

The story tells how Atticus Finch, a widower and lawyer from the small town of Maycomb County (Alabama) divided by racism in the thirties, accepts to defend a young black man accused of raping a white woman. A majority of the townspeople try to convince Atticus to renounce the case, but he decides to stick with it.

The theme is apparently the denial of racism fought with the sheer strength of conscience of an honest, normal, serene, and lonely lawyer. Though he fails to save the innocent man, he manages to awaken the dormant consciences of his fellow citizens. Moreover, he sows the seed of a new way of seeing life in his two children, particularly in his mischievous and lively seven-year old daughter Scout, who tells the story from a child’s point of view. “Atticus Finch didn’t do anything that could possibly arouse admiration in anyone… he never went hunting, he didn’t play poker, or fish, or drink, or smoke. He sat in the living room and read.” This is how Harper Lee- through Scout- described the main character of his renowned novel.

The contrast between the racial tension that permeated everyday life in the town and in the main characters, and the candid understanding of the world through the eyes of a young girl, is narratively almost insurmountable. Harper Lee wrote only one novel. But even if he had only done this, his life would have given us a priceless gift.

The two children, as they play in the neighborhood and attend the local school, begin to discover the adult world, with all of its perplexities of the latent conflicts, the embedded injustices in the social customs, the pain, and the loneliness. Their eyes begin to open to the apparent normality of the “peaceful” life in a rural town. Their father does not interfere with their games, nor does he lecture them. He intervenes very little, and only when necessary. But his lessons, and above all his example, mark indelible criteria for living an upright life, both for the big and small dilemmas of life and human relationships. For example, he seems oblivious to his children’s’ comments and games, distracted by his nightly reading of the paper after dinner. However, his occasional comment to clarify, explain, or correct, without meddling in his children’s world, show his children that he listens to them and is there for them to give them security.

This is the role of the father, of fatherhood, so necessary for the integral formation of personal identity, which is in continual progression. The novel is written in the sixties, but takes place in the thirties. There were, as there are always, dishonorable fathers. The real culprit that raped his own daughter, who unjustly accused the “negro” defended by Atticus in order to hide his own abuse, is a good example. The idea, the ideal of fatherhood, was not questioned at that time.

The girl, tired of her schoolmates’ mockery for her dad’s decision to “get into trouble” against everyone else’s opinion, asks her dad to relent and not defend the “negro”. Atticus Finch calmly responds with “I don’t want to make an enemy of anyone, Scout, but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself”. Here’s a teaching about the dignity of conscience that reaches the seven-year old Scout. These terms “dignity” and “conscience” are too abstract for a child, but their meaning can already be grasped.

The social and cultural landscape has changed. It is not necessary to explain it in detail: moms by choice, surrogate mothers, homosexual fathers that commission their children, test-tube babies…and the variants continue to multiply. The various predicaments that follow are described quite well by Elizabeth Marquardt in One Parent or Five? A Global Look at the Today’s New Intentional Families, accurately summarized by Aceprensa, 85/11 (November 23, 2011). Ultimately the authors of suspicion (Nieztche, Freud and Marx) kill God, and as a consequence, kill the father. It is no wonder that Terrence Malick, the avant-garde author who doesn’t receive much media attention and makes few, but high quality, films, directed a movie about the paternity of God, origin of all paternity, in order to recuperate the father figure. For him, as certainly for all, there are no shortcuts.

The Tree of Life.

Terrence Malick’s film, winner various film awards including the Golden Palm at the Cannes’ 2011 Film Festival, is not a simple film. Many were fascinated by its visual poetry and the beauty of the music. Many others were deceived or didn’t understand it. I recommend watching it at least two times, or if not possible, to read this article written by Enrique Fuster: “ Ten Keys to Understanding The Tree of Life ” (Spanish only), to understand the complete narrative structure so as not to get lost in the first viewing of the film.

The film synopsis: In the United States, during the fifties, Jack (Hunter McCracken) is a boy that lives with his parents and siblings. While his mother, Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) incarnates love and tenderness, his father (Brad Pitt) represents severity, which he believes to be necessary to teaching his child how to face a hostile world. That process of formation extends from childhood to adulthood. That is when Jack (Sean Penn) recalls the transcendental moments of his childhood and tries to understand what influence they had on him and to what point they have determined his life.

Under this apparently simple canvass, Alberto Fijo comments “very few times has cinema spoken of God, of fatherhood, of motherhood, of filiation, of fraternity, of marriage, of freedom, of sin, of grace, of freedom, and of the mystery of pain, with the suggestive capacity of this film, which is clearly much more than an abstract and disinterested reflection and incorporates a lot of personal experience” ( Fila siete – Spanish only). Much is clarified in the beginning of the film, which opens with an entire biblical quotation from the book of Job, 38: 4-7:

Where were you when I put the earth on its base?

Say, if you have knowledge.

By whom were its measures fixed? Say, if you have wisdom;

or by whom was the line stretched out over it?

On what were its pillars based, or who put down its angle-stone,

When the morning stars made songs together,

and all the sons of the gods gave cries of joy?

Various male voices in the background recite, “mother…father…brother…”. Such an introduction culminates with a woman’s voice that situates the two coordinates of the film: “there are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace.” The same voice warns us, “you have to choose which one you’ll follow.” And she explains that the way of grace does not fear pain nor flees from sacrifices, while the way of nature tends toward self-gratification and self-affirmation over the others. Fortunately, we have been given the possibility to return at any moment- even in the last- to the way of grace.

Around 1960 Mrs. O’Brien faces these dilemmas, highlighted by the overwhelming challenge of suffering. She cries out to God with heartbreaking sincerity because she feels incapable of overcoming her despair over the death of her youngest of three children. “He is now in God’s hands”, says her husband to console her. “But hasn’t he always been in God’s hands?”, she responds with astonishing lucidity.

A similar anguish to that of the mother’s grips her eldest son Jack (Sean Penn), an unsatisfied successful executive who feels empty and longs to reconnect with his roots and with God. To do this, he remembers with God his childhood and youth, brightened by the happy escapades with his siblings and overshadowed by his progressive distancing from his father- a man of integrity, pious and kind, but authoritative in treating his children with excessive rigidity.

The movie is a continual dialogue of the characters with God voiced-over images of creation, flashbacks of life’s memories, and light- a light that infuses everything, with an excellent musical selection and soundtrack. It is as if the characters were dancing to a visual symphony.

Fuster and Fijo have a point. The key to understanding Malick’s perspective is the book of Job, where God responds to man’s question to the meaning of suffering and of his life. But it must be read from the beginning: “The Lord answered Job out of the storm and said: who is this who darkens counsel with words of ignorance? Gird up your loins now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers! Where were you….?” But above all, it must be read from the end: from the sequences of Paradise that begin with the passing through the door into the rocky desert, with the adult Jack arriving there, following his brother and searching for himself. The God of the film goes well beyond the God of the book of Job: he is not just a Creator, he is a magnanimous and providing Father who holds all of our loves, our sorrows, our relationships, and every moment of our lives, in his hands.

A film this powerful was necessary to artistically reclaim the Origin of fatherhood which we have lost.