From Genesis to the Apocalypse

  • February 12, 2007
academyawardThe most important information in the bookends of the Bible, Genesis and Apocalypse, is the stuff that tells us who we are. Identity is one of the most deeply religious questions we can ask.

Each of the five films nominated for best picture in this year’s Academy Awards — to be handed out Feb. 25 — is about Genesis and Apocalypse — beginnings and endings and what they mean. In the ways these movies talk about identity, they also address the religious imaginations of their audiences.

Babel is the most ambitious and overtly biblical of the films. The title tells us director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu believes Gen. 11:1-9 still tells us who we are. Through the deeply interlocking tragedies of four families spread out from downtown Tokyo to rural Morocco, the Mexican director shows us precisely how our technology-driven, globalized civilization is the same fractured humanity that walked away from the great tower of Babel.

We join each story after a crack up. From the first scene we know the movie inhabits the territory of the aftermath. The American couple is blindly seeking to restore their marriage, the Mexican family is torn apart by the U.S. border and poverty, the Moroccan family is struggling to remain who they are as the world leaves them behind, and most achingly a Japanese father tries to understand his deaf daughter who mourns her mother and wants desperately to be loved.

As the film careens around the globe the stories converge and build towards four deeply personal, familial apocalypses.

It might be odd to think of a movie as hilarious as Little Miss Sunshine as an apocalypse, but the story of how a family struggles together to get their youngest daughter to the finals of a statewide beauty pageant is an apocalypse in a precise sense. The story pushes its characters through a crisis — a crisis which defines who they are.

The intelligent and quirky eldest son starts off with a definition of his family he has learned from his father. “Divorce? Bankruptcy? Suicide? You guys are... losers!” Dwayne screams at his family in his first spoken lines halfway through the movie.

But the ultimate definition of Dwayne’s family comes with his little sister’s naive and complete destruction of the beauty pageant at the end. With the whole family dancing  together to Rick James’s “Superfreak,” Little Miss Sunshine shows us what humanity is by comparing it to a cheap imitation.

It isn’t the violence, though it’s certainly gut wrenching violence, which defines the apocalypse of Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima. The defining apocalypse of this film is the moment when the Japanese soldiers discover the true identity of their American enemy through the words of a mother to her son.

As their commanding officer translates a letter from the American mother to her son, the men remember that they have families. They remember who they are as they see the young American die.

The Queen is another family drama, about a family which discovers its definition of itself is seriously out of line with how the world sees them. The telling moment comes  when Elizabeth gets her Land Rover stuck in the middle of a river. Alone and quite helpless she weeps. She has had her image of herself taken from her by the newspapers and television cameras. She has lost her identity.

When she gets it back again at the end of the film it’s not quite the same.

But the Queen knows the value of the kindness she has received because she has also experienced cruelty at the hands of the media and her subjects.

The Departed is again a family apocalypse that starts off with an appreciation of genesis.

With the exceptions of Jack Nicholson’s criminal Frank Costello and Mark Wahlberg’s cop Dignam, each of the characters in this baroquely violent Martin Scorsese movie have to live with the identity handed them by their origins. Dignam and Costello each pretend to have come from nowhere, and make it their business to define the people around them.

In a duel of cell phones and police procedures, all these identities shift. Some even evaporate. The men who inhabit the lonely precincts of suspicion and revenge long for loyalty, connection and a sense of themselves they remember from growing up in families, neighbourhoods and the church.

As pistols punctuate the end of the movie, Scorsese seems to be screaming at his audience that violence and contempt for one another are the ultimate identity theft. Our real identity is lost when we turn our backs on our genesis — family, friends, the church and everything that proclaims love first.

In the 1970s classic Apocalypse Now, director Francis Ford Coppolla painted a picture of apocalypse on an epic, national scale. This year’s Academy Award nominees are each intimate portraits of families. Hollywood has given us tales of apocalypse and genesis which remind us of who we are, and who we should be.

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