19 November 2014

A Sicilian Romance, by Ann Radcliffe

This is one of Radcliffe's earlier novels, and it's obvious that she is still perfecting her craft. It's a surprisingly creaky book, all seams and stuffing. Abrupt jumps in time and space, people conveniently happening across each other when they were seemingly lost forever (and can in no way be found by other people looking for them), and a rather ineffective effort to make mysterious occurrences seem supernatural. Whereas in later works it will be suggested that her protagonists are border-line delusional, eager to see the supernatural everywhere they look, in this novel the characters strongly RESIST that interpretation, even when it is explicitly suggested. It's the servants who immediately see everything as otherworldly, but other characters specifically deny this view (even when it seems absurd for them to do so). But none of that really matters that much: the real suspense in the story is whether or not Julia will be forced to marry against her will. This further strengthens my sense that the explained supernatural, seemingly Ann Radcliffe's most defining trait, is largely beside the point in her novels. She is much more interested in the moral behavior of her characters, and whether evil is punished by a kind of invisible hand of justice. These are old-school romances with supernatural window-dressing. And this one, to be frank, is one of her weaker efforts.

18 November 2014

Artful, by Ali Smith

This collections of lectures -- or should I say essays -- or should I say stories -- or should I say, well, I just don't know, because it is such a dazzlingly creative work that I haven't the faintest idea how one would characterize it. A narrator is visited by (or imagines the return of) her dead lover, who was a lecturer in literature. She discusses things like time and plot and form, and is also well-versed in poetry, or maybe she is just relating the lover's lectures, or maybe both. Occasionally she inserts bits of poetry or quotes from Oliver Twist and it is stunning, how something about the context makes you stop and read them so carefully, and marvel at the density of expression, how tightly packed a poem is. The observations about literature are mostly quite pleasant and interesting, as are the interactions, or are they imagined? with the lover, and the musings about love and loss and getting on with your life.

All in all, a wonderful tribute to art and relationships. Just incredible. Savour it.


Calvary begins quite dramatically: a man comes to confession, tells the priest there that he was molested by a priest for many years as a child, that the man who did it is dead, and that he intends to kill his current confessor -- precisely because he has never done anyone wrong. Killing a bad priest is old news, he says. But a good, one, now that'll get people talking. The man gives the priest time to say his goodbyes and set his affairs in order, saying that he'll expect to meet him on the beach in a week's time.

The film then chronicles the priest's doings during that suspenseful week, as he goes about his business in his village. What made the movie so fantastic, to me, is the way it subtly transforms into a meditation on the Catholic church's role -- both good and bad -- in society. It does not excuse or shy away from the extreme suffering the Church has caused, not only in the sexual abuses, but also more simply, through ignorance or dogmatism. The main character's fellow priest is a narrow-minded idiot, quick to condemn, close-minded and greedy. Many of the villagers openly despise the church, and in their interactions with the priest, one gets a sense of past harms they have suffered at its hands.

At the same time, however, our hero seems like a genuinely good man, one who is imperfect but thoughtful, and who mostly strives to do the right thing. It is this, combined with his genuine interest in and concern for others, that makes him a kind of moral anchor in his small but chaotic world. If a person is lost or struggling, they will have someone to turn to, no matter what. At one point there's a great bit of dialogue between the two priests, where one notes that the sins people confess are increasingly horrific and bizarre, and that he even had to look a word up recently to understand the depravity being described. It's a nice nod to both the psychological toll that the work of being a confessor would exact, but also an interesting way of raising the question as to whether someone who lives largely apart from the everyday world is qualified (perhaps is best qualified, mind you) to listen to the woes of someone embroiled in it.

What is striking about the film, to me, is the way that it also emphasizes personal responsibility. My boyfriend felt that the priest didn't seem to want to help most of the people in the movie, but to me it rather seemed like he wasn't willing to do the work for them, or be a quick fix. If someone genuinely felt remorse and wanted to make a change, he was there. If they simply wanted a stamp of approval, he refused it. It was in some ways a very passive role in terms of moral leadership, but simultaneously, the very presence of a priest is in some ways a visible instantiation of a moral beacon, or at least a reminder of sorts, giving people something to aspire to.

Overall, a very interesting film, often quite funny and occasionally very moving. Also just unbelievably gorgeous to look at -- stunning cinematography. Very much worth seeing.