Monthly Archives: February 2012

Contrast is the Driving Force of The Seventh Seal

In Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, he wrestles with the idea of the existence and the role of God in everyday life.  It is the story of a knight returning from the Holy Crusades with a lack of faith.  The knight finds himself playing a game of chess against Death to prologue his life long enough to find answers to his holy questions that still resonate with him after his journey.  The film thrives on ironic contrasts in its religious investigation.  These religious contrasts are a prime theme in the film, but instead of being overbearing and obvious, they are the glue holding together the lost souls looking for answers.

The film addresses the question about God and Death.  Death seems certain no matter what, but one of the questions that Antonius wants answered is “where is God?”  Antonius’ experience throughout the film answers this question, but the contrasting theme in the film is set up in the first shots in the motion picture.  From 01:41-01:53, one can see an empty sky and then the same sky with a single black crow flying in the sky.  This crow represents Death and its omnipresence in the empty sky, which represents the limit to which one can find God and religion.

Crow flying in the sky (Time Stamp: 01:50)

Antonius is the chief character in the film, but not the only one of interest.  Each character is related to the knight’s quest in his search for religious answers.  The main question that Antonius wants to answer is the meaning of life and, in contrast, death.  The other characters are in contrast with the knight to the way the knight has chosen to deal with a problem that every human being must confront in one way or another.

Soon after Antonius’ chess game begins with Death, the knight gets involved with a traveling group of people.  There is a contrast among the group of cheerful traveling actors with Antonius’ seriousness:  Jof and Mia contain more pleasantry and sunshine than anything else in the film.  Together, their show stands in stark contrast to the surrounding misery.  Jof even has a vision of the Virgin Mary and Christ.  Together, Jof and Mia find God anywhere they can and whenever they can.  In the end, all the other characters in the film are ultimately unable to escape Death, but Jof and Mia are spared.  The thought of this dichotomy tortures Antonius.

Another contrasting element in the film is the condemnation of organized Christianity and not God himself.  The priests that walk by Jof and Mia condemn their performance and come across as dogmatic and apocalyptic.  Therefore, they do not worship God, but one that they have made up out of their own traditions, evil ways, and bitterness.  This is the opposite answer to Antonius’ question of the meaning of life.  One cannot find religion within the church’s walls, even though that is where Antonius knows God to exist.

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Heroes and Villains in Gladiator

Gladiator is a film that deals with extreme displays of heroism, of bravery and sacrifice, loyalty and honor – but also acts of extreme villainy.  The character of Commodus serves as a foil for the protagonist Maximus, emphasizing Maximus’s heroic characteristics: his moral rectitude, his wisdom, and his devotion to family and friends.

At the beginning of the film, Quintus remarks to Maximus, “People should know when they’re conquered.”  Maximus replies “Would you, Quintus?  Would I?”  While Quintus shows haughty disdain for the barbarians of Germania, Maximus recognizes their shared humanity and their shared proneness to foolhardy displays of pride.  Throughout the film, Maximus displays a capacity for sympathy and an ability to unite with others, in contrast with Commodus, who isolates himself from others.  When he is forced to fight in the ring for the first time, chained to Juba, he works with Juba to ensure that they both survive, unlike some of the other gladiators, who disregard their partners or even cut off their hands.  When he fights in the Coliseum, he organizes the gladiators to ensure the best chance of survival and even saves the life of another gladiator, putting himself in danger.

1:22:24

1:00:20

He is always admired by his comrades, from the beginning, when he is a respected general, to the end, when he is a lowly gladiator standing up to the emperor of Rome.  Commodus, on the other hand, takes every chance he gets to ensure that he is not respected.  When he first becomes emperor  and meets with the Senate, he threatens Gracchus and alienates the whole Senate when he has a temper tantrum and storms out.  He sees nobody as his equal, and thinks he is fit to be a dictator of Rome.

I found it interesting that another way in which there is a contrast between Maximum and Commodus is their behavior towards their family.  There is very different imagery associated with the families of the two men.  Maximus has dreams of his wife and son and keeps figurines of them with him at all times, always hoping for the time when he can be reunited with them.

44:35

34:37

Commodus has very different images associated with family – he has major daddy issues, to say the least.  I think that Joaquin Phoenix definitely deserved his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for this film – he plays Commodus with the exact level of creepiness to make the audience very uncomfortable.  At the time stamp marked above (34:37), a shot of a statue is shown looking on as Commodus murders his father, emphasizing the disconnect between Commodus and any familial love and affection.  Later on, Commodus is pictured in bed with his sister Lucilla, although she makes sure he never gets to act on his sexual feelings for her.  Lucilla’s son Lucius seems to be another object of Commodus’s misplaced sexual desire.  As a side note, I found it interesting that Commodus is portrayed as a sexual deviant, considering some of the homoerotic undertones present in Spartacus, the forefather of this film.  Both Commodus and Crassus have abnormal sexual desires, considering the far less accepting attitude towards homosexuality when Spartacus was made.

1:57:31

Overall, the character of Commodus serves as a foil for Maximus because he emphasizes Maximus’s valor and moral fiber.

 

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Nature in Medea

Medea’s interactions and relationship with the natural world that surrounds her is an important element of Lars Von Trier’s Medea.

The ubiquity and looming presence of nature throughout the movie serves as a striking counterpoint to the intrigues and schemes that surround the titular character after the betrayal of her husband. Medea is constantly oppressed by Jason and his actions, and by the results of those actions; however, the natural world around her is free, beyond the capabilities of any human being to control, manipulate, or take advantage of. In many scenes, Medea is the sole human visible on screen amid a vivid backdrop of nature, perhaps indicating her desire for the liberty of the natural world, a desire that is suppressed by the social circumstances of her current predicament.

”]”In the screenshot above, Medea is symbolically linked to nature, to the skies and clouds in the backdrop of the frame; however, the worried and hurt look on her face intrudes upon her union with nature’s freedom and serves as a reminder of her betrayal by Jason, and the actions she must take to address that betrayal. In a sense, Medea functions as a symbol of nature itself; an entity that must be at its own liberty, and cannot be successfully tamed, oppressed, or unfairly manipulated, and that, should the need arise, can muster an inexorable and unstoppable force to punish those who have wronged it. Medea is nature in a woman’s form; a deadly opponent when wrongfully manipulated, like a river bursting through a manmade dam. Once Jason has set in motion the wheels of her revenge by wronging her and taking advantage of her, effectively imprisoning her in a cell of social injustice, it is beyond anybody’s power to remedy the situation, and the force of her vengeance as she strives to punish him and free herself from his influence is as irresistible as the merciless wind that buffets the characters throughout the film. She is one with nature in spirit, but not in reality; and the fruition of her vengeance is a slow progression towards the harmony of inward and outward identity.

Thus, when Medea completes her vengeance by hanging both of her and Jason’s children, and Jason gazes upon the fruits of his betrayal and manipulation, the natural world couches and contains the terrible sight:

”]”]”

The children, hanging from a tree in a field of golden grass, as the birds chirp, are casualties of Jason’s vain combat with nature incarnate; and now, nature – with Medea as its agent – has swallowed those children up, annihilating them and assimilating them into its being. Similar to a tornado indiscriminately harming both the good and evil, the deserving and the undeserving, Medea’s vengeance against Jason and rebellion against his social oppression is effectively indiscriminate, entailing the slaughter of innocent children to achieve its objective. Those children now hang from a tree, dead – as if the tree had captured them, tied the rope and asphyxiated them to death itself. However, as with the tornado above, the atrocity is not necessarily “evil”; it is, rather, the inevitable and natural reaction to a betrayal as egregious as Jason’s, which merits an equally egregious response. In betraying and bullying Medea, Jason has imprisoned and harassed a force beyond his power to contend against; and when its fury is fully realized, he is entirely helpless as it breaks free and destroys him, like a cornered and caged beast unleashing its indiscriminate wrath on its oppressors.

As Medea departs and Jason suffers from the debilitating effects of Medea’s poison, her natural fury has run its course; and Jason, already dead in spirit, though still dying in body, succumbs to defeat in a windy field of golden grass, swinging his sword vainly against a foe that surrounds him on all sides:

                                                 [Time Stamp: 1:05:58-1:15:57]

It is perhaps at this point that Jason realizes the true identity of his opponent, though that identity had been hidden in the guise of Medea; and acknowledging the inconsequentiality of his resistance to nature itself, he throws his sword in frustration, before collapsing into the grass, utterly annihilated by its power, just as his children were. Medea, the human form of the natural world, stoic, calm, and reflective as she departs for a new life, removes her hat for the first time in the film, allowing her long hair to flow free. With this symbolic act, she has now reconciled her inward identity with her outward identity; though she was previously oppressed by social circumstance, she now possesses the ability to harmonize the spirit with the body, and her thoughts with reality – she is free. In a sense, Jason, Medea, and their two sons have all become one with nature – one voluntarily, and three involuntarily.

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A Gladiators Vengeance

In the grandeur film of the Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott, revenge was one of the key thematic factors that drove various characters motives. This movie is based on the Roman Empire and is set around the 180 A.D. period when Rome stood at the peak of its power. In numerous situations many characters had to set aside their morals and values to seek revenge against those who had ultimately caused them misfortune and pain. The revenge of these characters had no remorse and no limitations. Until these characters reached their goals there was no hindering their actions. Several characters were all seeking vengeance in this film for diverse amounts of reasons but the focus of this blog will be on Maximus, Commodus, and Lucilla. All of these characters had interrelated issues that lead to revenge amongst each other.

Maximus, the protagonist, was ironically blessed and cursed with Marcus Aurelius’s honor for him to be his successor as Rome’s Emperor. Maximus questioned the decision but the Caesar explains that his son “Commodus is not a moral man” and the Caesar wanted to keep Rome in responsible hands. This conversation was a confidential decision between only these two characters.

While Commodus was fantasizing about taking the throne of Rome, his father approached him with dreadful news; he transitioned from miserable to livid in only seconds. Through this rage he committed an act that was not suspected, he murdered his own father as well as the emperor of Rome. Immediately after his father proposed the idea of Maximus serving as Caesar Commodus was emotionally wounded. This devastating pain led him on a path of vengeance against his own blood Marcus Aurelius. Moreover, the immature Commodus now wanted to seek vengeance against Maximus because he felt that his father respected him more and did not love him as much as he did Maximus. Commodus was intimidated by the presence and character of Maximus, this is evident in many scenes between the two opposing characters. Maximus posed a threat to Commodus and his new throne and therefore Commodus felt, through jealousy and revenge, the need to kill him and his family. Commodus attempts to have Maximus killed but he escapes this death trap and returns home to find his family slain and hanging by nooses.

(Time Stamp 32:40)

Within this close up shot of Commodus and a statue of a previous Caesar right behind him, the audience can see in his watery eyes, clinched jaws, and tight mouth the burning passion for revenge against his father, Marcus Aurelius. This is Commodus’s initial reaction to the breaking news that his father reveals to him. The fact that his father would rather pass his powers of emperor to Maximus rather than himself after his death crushes him instantly. The envy is written amongst his face and thoughts of revenge are now spreading throughout his unmoral mind.

Maximus’s heart was enthralled by the death of his family and he fainted at their feet. When he woke up he had been captured by some slave traders and was being auctioned off to a character named Proximus. Maximus was forced to be a gladiator under the terms of his new master and he turned out to be the best gladiator anybody had seen in years. Maximus used the love and revenge of his beloved family to find Commodus and return the favor by slaughtering him. This motivation from his dead family was enough to keep him going through impossible odds. Maximus states in the film that he is “Father of a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife and I shall have my vengeance in this life or the next”. This line demonstrates his dedication for payback towards Commodus and it seemed no obstacle would stop him, not even death.

(Time Stamp 2:22:34)

Here is an image of Maximus (left of screen shot) finally obtaining revenge against Commodus (right of screenshot), who made him a slave and killed his family. Maximus had fought and killed many man just to get a hold of Commodus and when he did, he had no remorse. Ironically, Maximus is stabbing Commodus through the throat with the same blade that he stabbed Maximus with in his back with while he was chained up and could not retaliate.

Another major character whose motives were driven by revenge was Commodus’s sister, Princess Lucilla. Throughout the film the Princess served as a voice of reason for Commodus after he gained control of the empire. She was the only person that he could trust in times of crisis and he depended on her opinion to assist in running the empire. Although, he depended on her words of wisdom he also took advantage of her by using her for his sexual escapades. Combined with the frustration of being sexually abused and the knowledge that Commodus killed their father, Lucilla had enough wrath built up in her to turn against her brother. She would help free Maximus in order for him to execute his plan of bringing down Commodus for good.

In this movie the act of revenge is more powerful than family ties, love and friendship. Each character had no remorse when they were seeking vengeance against their friend or foe. Each characters vengeance was interrelated because one lead to another. It commenced with the envy of Commodus of Maximus which lead him to kill his father. This betrayal demonstrated how Commodus lacked love and respect for his country and family. His irrational actions motivated Maximus and Princess Lucilla on a journey of vengeance against Commodus and those ultimately came back to haunt him.

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Family Values in Gladiator

At the core of the movie Gladiator are the family values that the main character Maximus displays throughout the film. Each character has different motives for their actions. It is obvious that Maximus is motivated by honoring his family and his ancestors. While it is easy to see how Maximus is motivated by his son and his wife, it is obvious that Commodus, the corrupt Roman Emperor, is motivated by his own personal glory and jealousy.

We see a recurring image of Maximus praying and holding two figurines which represent his wife and son. The first time we see this image is when Maximus has just won the opening battle and hopes that he will be relieved of his duties and able to go home. Maximus even remembers how long it has been since he has been home, down to the day. Even in the face of battle the only thing that is important to Maximus is his family. Maximus says that “he only lives to see them again.” 

Time Stamp: 31:12 (Maximus praying for his family)

When offered the entire Roman Empire, he turns it down. Obviously his source of motivation is far different than Commodus’. Commodus is motivated by his desire for personal glorification and jealousy. Commodus will go to any length to seek his own glory. Commodus strangles his father when he learns that he will not be the next Emperor. Throughout the film, we see Commodus disregard his family in pursuit of his own glory. He manipulates his sister and other relatives in order to pursue his own power and success.

Time Stamp: 35:40 (Commodus killing his father)

Another recurring image that is seen throughout the film is Maximus dragging his hands through a wheat field. We see this image in the opening scene of the film right before the battle. While it is unknown to the audience at first, this image would eventually be used twice more as a symbol of Maximus being reunited with this family. This image appears again when Maximus is told that his wife and son were to be executed just as he would be. This imagery follows the death of Commodus’ father, the former Emperor of Rome. In the one of the final scenes of the film, following Maximus’s death in the area, this image occurs again and in the distance Maximus can see his wife and his son. This image demonstrates that Maximus achieved his final victory by being reunited with his family.

Time Stamp: 2:26:41 (Maximus is reunited with his family after he dies)

In the closing scenes of the film, Commodus realizes that Rome loves Maximus more than they love him. Commodus decides that the only way that in order to pursue his own glory he must challenge Maximus to a battle. Before doing this however, Commodus injures Maximus by stabbing him in the lungs making it almost impossible for Maximus to fight. This scene emphasizes the two very different values that motivate both of these characters. When Commodus asks Maximus why he does not fear, he responds “I knew a man who once said death smiles at us all, all a man can do is smile back.” These were the words of Commodus’ own father unknown to him.

Time Stamp 2:17:45 (Commodus stabs Maximus)

The director’s use of these contrasting virtues emphasizes the importance of family in this film. This theme and the rivalry between selfish personal glory and strong family virtue are classic devices for these types of “sandal and sword” epics.

 

 

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Depictions of Religious Characters

Both The Passion of the Christ and The Seventh Seal contain many characters branded by religion—those who preach it, those who claim to follow it, and those who have studied it. As viewers, we cannot assume that what the directors portray in the film reflects their beliefs; we can, however, assume a small amount of human bias that goes into a personal creation. Mel Gibson, the director of The Passion of the Christ, claims to be Roman Catholic, while Ingmar Bergman, the director of The Seventh Seal, is rumored to be atheist, or at least struggled against his father who was a Lutheran minister. While their religious backgrounds and beliefs may not directly factor into each director’s portrayal of religious characters in their respective films, we can observe that they show them in an overall negative light.

In The Passion of the Christ, Gibson depicts Jesus very differently than he does the other religious leaders. For example, Gibson focuses on Jesus’ moments of nearly supernatural mercy. When Christ hangs on the cross after enduring the most brutal of beatings and evil mockery, he cries, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

In contrast to this overwhelming show of grace, the Pharisees and Sadducees, the two most prominent groups of Jewish leaders, watch as Roman guards beat Jesus within inches of death–a sentence which they had brought upon Jesus. Moreover, Pontius Pilate, a Roman under the commission of Julius Caesar, declared Jesus to be innocent and washed his hands of any guilt from convicting Jesus. Multiple instances of the Jewish leaders laughing at a bloodied Jesus, spitting on him, and the act of convicting him sheds a negative light on these very religious people. They seem cruel, hateful, evil, foolish.

In The Seventh Seal, Bergman portrays religious people in a similar light. During the time of the Black Plague, large groups of fanatical Christians called flagellants would march together and beat themselves, with the mindset that the plague was a punishment from God and that they must punish themselves further to rid Europe of this epidemic. In a powerful scene showing these self-flagellators, their preacher shouts angrily at the crowds, pointing out specific persons, condemning and blaming all, and preaching of death and destruction.

Bergman portrays the flagellants as an eerie crowd, insane and haunting, as they chant and whip themselves. He shows the preacher, a representative of the flagellants, as equally crazed with the thought of impending doom and full of anger and condemnation.

One of the final scenes in the movie shows religious leaders burning a child who they believed to be a witch. The idea of witch-hunting traveled to America long after the Black Plague ravaged Europe, and many know it to be a product of foolish mass hysteria and a frantic search for scapegoats for social problems. The fact that these leaders decide to burn this child alive show them as simple-minded and evil.

Overall, the way each director chooses to portray religious characters in their two very different films is quite similar. While bias naturally factors in, we can’t determine if this shows the point that each director was trying to get across the audience.

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The Portrayal of Satan in The Passion of the Christ

In order to accurately understand Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, it is important to understand the portrayal of his enemy, Satan.  The first scene in which Satan appears in the film is when Jesus is praying the Garden of Gethsemane.  Whenever Jesus is praying for God to spare him for “traps they set for him,” Satan appears in the background.  Although this doesn’t appear in the biblical source, it serves to represent Jesus’ struggle with accepting his fate and his overall temptation not to go through with his crucifixion. He then tempts Jesus statings

Who is your father?  Who are you?

(Time Stamp 7:50)

A snake is then used to represent a physical presence of Satan when Jesus is at the most vulnerable moment in the film and over his life.  Below is a representation of Satan’s presence looking over Jesus and the snake that is literally squashed when Jesus stomps on him.  This is significant in a couple ways.  First, the snake is a classic representation of Satan due to the story of the Garden of Eden where Satan took the form of a snake. So this scene is referencing that aspect.  And second, when Jesus stomps the snake, that represents the over message and theme of the movie that Jesus is defeating Satan.  As the movie was made in mind with Mel Gibson’s religious views, these two pictures help represent them.

(Time Stamp 8:07)

In discussing the appearance of Satan, it appears that Satan exhibits neither masculine nor feminine qualities.  This is represent the fact that he is not a man.  The bugs and maggots in his nose also convey this.  An interesting fact is that Mel Gibson cast a women to play Satan to help strongly differentiate  Satan from being seen as a man, but rather a non-human being.

The second time Satan appears in the film in when Judas is being tormented by demons.  Satan is depicted in the background while the demons who appear as children torture and taunt him.  The scene is depicted without dialogue but it is implied that through his tormenting that Judas is led to hang himself due to his torture by Satan.  This rope with is on a dead donkey is covered in maggots, which further strengthen the influence by Satan on Judas death as Satan was depicted with maggots in his nose earlier.  It is implied Satan gave Judas the reasoning, the temptation and the means for him to commit suicide.  This scene is important because it shows that Satan does have to power to make individuals give up and it worked on Judas as opposed to it not working on Jesus in the first scene.  This also strengthens Jesus’s strength and resistance to temptation which is important to the film and shows that Judas wasn’t as strong mentally as Jesus.

(Time Stamp 36:50)

One last section to discuss when discussing the role of Satan in the film is the last scene in the film.  Whenever Jesus dies, Satan is shown screaming and looking upwards.  This represents the main theme of the film that Jesus was greater than Satan and “conquered” him in a sense.  As Jesus dies, Satan is shown screaming, looking upward and parts of him flying off, showing his own defeat.

Jason Jordan

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