Postage for Pakistan and other parts of the planet

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Lessons learned from a movie

Over the last few nights, I watched a German film, Nowhere in Africa. It concerns a Jewish family that leaves Germany in 1937 before it's too late to get out. They settle in Kenya on a farm, and the story is largely about the sacrifices we make in life, painful sacrifices, but sacrifices we make either because we have to or because we choose to do so out of love. And in this film, it is just as often the latter which are made as the former.

So first lesson learned: Love is not love without sacrifice. If sacrifice is missing, or, if you prefer, dying to ourselves for the good of another is missing, then love is mere sentiment (and probably self-delusional sentiment at that). More likely, we use people in the name of love. "If you loved me, you would gratify my desires in XYZ way." There are occasions where that statement can be born out of a legitimate need (I'm starving; you have food; I don't. If you really loved me, you would take care of me, someone who hasn't the ability to take care of themselves). Just as often, however, (if not more) it is a manipulative attempt to gain our own ends. People are never means; they are always ends. The realization of this and the acting on it is often the beginning of happiness. I'm speaking to myself, as well, incidentally.

In one scene, the mother and daughter are discussing why they had to leave home, and the mother says that it's because the Nazis hate the Jews. And the daughter says, "You and papa aren't really Jewish," to which the mother replies, "Judaism has never been so important for Papa and me. We thought we were as German as anyone could be. German culture, the language ... that was home to us.... Do you remember Uncle Saloman and Aunt Ruth?  Of course they're different they live according to the Jewish religion, and that makes them different."

Well, you could transpose that to our own situation, couldn't you? What makes us different? Does anything? I grew up in a household where there was no difference than our next door neighbors, the Llewelyns, good people but not at all Catholic. A lot of people could say, "We're not really Catholic. Catholicism has never been so important for us. We go to Mass on Sunday," or "We go to Mass on Christmas and Easter. We thought we were as American as anyone could be. American culture, the language ... that is home to us." Which may be true, but it's not a culture that will breed vocations or make a better, more beautiful world for us and our progeny if it is not a culture informed by first principles, right values, and virtue. Only by building a Catholic culture in the home will do that, no?

One way we can do that is by encouraging our sons to serve at the altar. I think of Bl. Carlos Manuel Cecilio Rodriguez y Santiago, the first United States citizen to be beatified. For him, being an altar boy was not something he only did as a boy but continued to do throughout his life. Serving at the altar was just another opportunity to serve the Lord. Some boys, once they get confirmed or once they get to high school or once they graduate from high school, that's it. They will never serve at Our Lord's altar again, and it's too bad. Actually, it's tragic because a) no man is ever too old to serve Christ at the altar and b) it is such an honor and privilege and blessing. Why not try it and see, sir?

Some lines in the movie puzzled me. For instance, during the aforementioned scene, the mother says, "Tolerance doesn't mean that everyone is the same. That'd be stupid." Maybe it was a bad translation from the German. These lines could be taken to mean any number of things, but I wasn't able to come up with any certain meaning. Have you? Please share.

The father also says something very interesting at one point: "This land saved our lives, but it isn't our nation." If we are headed toward a persecution of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, as several prominent, mainstream people believe, if we, too, flee somewhere, will we say the same thing? Or will we adapt and assimilate? I suppose it depends, eh?

Finally, near the end of the film, the wife asks her husband, "Do you love me?" to which he replies, "If you will let me."

That answer very much seems to miss the mark. The definition of love is that it is an act of the will that constantly seeks the good of the one who is its object. To some extent I get what he is saying: I can't love you if you don't let me in, if you treat me like a "leper," as he accuses her of doing at one point. At some point, we can only be rejected from giving a gift for so long before it becomes increasingly difficult to keep giving.

On the other hand, we can always seek the good of another, even if it is to only always treat them with kindness, to never ascent to anything that would be to their detriment, or that would be sinful, and to, at the very least, pray for them.

All told, the movie was involving enough that I didn't say, "This is pointless," and turn it off. As with many foreign films, however, its pace was slower than that which we in the US are accustomed. Then again, life in most foreign lands is slower than that which we in the US are accustomed, at least in my experience. You typically won't find Americans as a matter of habit or culture taking a break in the middle of the day or eating their meals in a very languid, leisurely meals so as to prolong our experience of another's company. Italians, Spaniards, etc., they do that, and I envy them for it. Man is made for relationship (as Aristotle wrote, "Man is a social being and only in his propher sphere when associated with his fellow man"), and in America, we have built our culture on separateness, on individuality.

OK, I digress. There is upper nudity, both on the the part of the wife, the teenage daughter, and the African women, but with one exception, none of it is titilating. You see rear male and female nudity on the part of the husband and wife, but in the context of the story, I didn't mind (except when the wife departs the shower in another part of the film; as a man, I didn't need to see that, but then I recognize that what immediately follows drives home the part that this woman isn't in Kansas anymore, Toto). The film makes clear this couple hadn't made love with each other once since coming to Africa, and as soon as they learn the war is over, life bursts upon them, shall we say. It wasn't offensive, but I wouldn't let anyone but adults see it.

The one thing I really loved about the film, however, is the innocence. The innocence in the movie is wonderful. For instance, the pre-pubescent or adolescent daughter Regina does not want to get her school uniform dirty, but she does want to climb a tree with a boy her age who is very handsome. So what does she do? She takes off her white blouse (she has no breasts for which to wear a bra) and climbs the tree. This is not a prelude to a sexual coming of age, as it would be in every one of our wretched films. It's just two kids climbing a tree. They are naked without shame, just like Genesis 2.

We also learn she often spends the night in this boy's family one room hut. Again, while we get the sense that they like each other, it is not something titilating or prurient. He is her best friend. It's just two kids having a sleep over. It's all so natural.

Finally, the daughter, whose love for the African cook and housekeeper, a man with 1,000 watt smile, is deep and immense, comes to him one night to talk. In the end, she turns off the kerosene lamp and the two cuddle and fall asleep in his bed. In a different film, this would be the setting for something terrible, filthy, and awful. In this film, it is just a young girl, a child seeking security and reassurance from those she knows love her and will protect her. Nothing bad happens. Nothing disturbing. He is for her like another parent, and as such, he is a port in the storm.

Innocence. Sigh. It's all so desperately missing in our culture, and it was so bracing and surprising and yet gratifying and beautiful to see. It was like being in a lush, all-enveloping oasis in the midst of a tremendous desert.

I'd probably give Nowhere in Africa three stars.

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