By Ali Moosavi.
Two films which premiered in the 2019 Venice Film Festival, both looking critically at the role of religion in modern society.
The Scarecrows, written and directed by the veteran Tunisian director Nouri Bouzid is set in Tunisia in 2013. It deals with the aftermath of being freed from captivity in the hands of terrorists in Syria (ISIS?) for two girls and how the local society views them and deals with them. When we see them first, the two girls, Zina (Nour Hajri) and Djo (Joumene Limam) are kept in prison. A lawyer, Nadia (Atef Ben Mahmoud) arranges their freedom. But, as many films have shown before, chief among them Yol (Yilmaz Guney, 1982) and The Circle (Jafar Panahi, 2000), for some who come out of jail, their society is an even larger prison.
The girls stay with Zina’s mother. Nouri Bouzid keeps the camera continuously on the girl’s faces so that we can see their traumatized faces in close-up. The camera is also keeps encircling the girls so as to reinforce the notion that they are just going around in circles with no way ahead available to them. When they first enter Zina’s house, the colours are vivid and plentiful, with Arabic songs in the background. This very contrasting environment to the darkness and loneliness of the cells, provides an initial optimism and hope. But it is misguided and short lived. We hear from the girls that they were sold by their family (in Zina’s case, by her husband) as slaves to the terrorists who continuously raped them. Zina names this acts as “sexual jihad” and comments that rape is the law of the terrorists. Djo is writing her memoirs in a book that she has called “Halal Rape”. She is the more traumatized of the two and tries to attempt suicide. We see a series of very brief flashbacks showing in girls in the terrorists’ camp, being subjected to multiple rapes. These designations (Sexual Jihad, Halal Rape), that the girls have given to what was done to them in captivity, plus the black veils that we see in flashbacks that they were required to wear by their captors, clearly indicates that they were sold to Islamic terrorists, though this is never specifically mentioned in the film.
Back in their town now, all the men, young and old, look at the girls as whores and fair game for taunting and sexual harassment. We learn that Zina was a free spirit from a young age and mingled with boys. Far from a model Muslim girl. Zina’s father has disowned her and would rather kill her. Her brothers have also left her. In fact, the only sympathetic male person that we see in the film is Driss (Mehdi Hajri), a young gay boy, himself the subject of constant taunts and abuse. One wonders whether they sold as impious, infidel and “loose girls” to the terrorists, thereby making it legitimate in the eyes of the particular brand of Islam that the terrorists were practicing to use them as sexual slaves? Such important information is not provided to the audience and the identity and modus operandi of the captors is not revealed.
We get to know all we need to know about these girls fairly early on in the film and no amount of further misery and suffering that writer-director Bouzid keeps piling on us can make things any worse that what we have already seen and heard and imagined regarding what has happened to the girls. In fact, this relentless depiction of a series of torment and agony just makes the viewing uncomfortable without adding any new dimensions to the film or the characters. Bouzid has totally shut out signs of any small ray of light entering this very dark story. The Tunisian society comes across as extremely patriarchal and homophobic. This lack of sympathetic male characters somehow unbalances the film. Maybe this is all true and has happened or is happening. But The Scarecrows is not a documentary and even in portrayal of such horrors, more cinematic finesse is required than what is on display here.
Religion, and its relevance in the modern society, is at the heart of Corpus Christie (Jan Komasa, 2019). Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is a young criminal being held in a youth detention center in Poland where, as part of his sentence, he works in a sawmill factory. He feels a special kinship to the priest working in the juvenile center. He also has a kind of spiritual awakening. In fact, he feels a strong desire to become a priest. However, the priest tells him that due to his criminal record, this is not possible.
When released from the center, Daniel visits a small parish church. When asked about his profession, he replies that he is a priest and pulls out a priest robe from his bag. He is then introduced to the local priest and, as luck would have it, the priest becomes ill and asks Daniel to fill in for him in all his duties; from sitting in for confessions to taking masses. There have been many films with a similar premise in the past. But they have almost all been comedies with a fish-out-of-water scenario. Corpus Christie though is certainly not a comedy.
Daniel, as one would expect, is not your average priest. He has had no training for priesthood. But, is it necessary to train one for priesthood? Daniel’s training comes from his life experience; from life in a juvenile detention center to working in a factory. His eccentric ways of conducting priesthood prove a hit with the locals, especially the young people who feel an affinity with him. Can Daniel bridge this moral gap between old and young, parents and children? Daniel feels the helplessness of his position when he reads the final rites to a dying member of his parish. He wants to make an impact by getting the parish to change some of their practices which have roots in their religious upbringing. He paraphrases his detention center priest, to tell his parish that he is not there to oversee them to “pray mechanically”. When a mother confesses to feeling guilty for punishing her son for smoking, Daniel tells her to go biking with him to build a stronger bond between them.
A local tragedy presents Daniel with an opportunity to test his ability as a priest and practice what he preaches. Seven locals were killed in an accident involving a minibus and a heavy lorry. A shrine has been set up in the middle of the village for the dead, adorned with the photos of the six people who were in the minibus. The photo of the dead lorry driver is however missing as the locals clearly blame him for the accident and have not even allowed his widow to bury him in the local cemetery. Can Daniel teach the people to forgive? Can he find ways to help them heal their pain and unite them?
The town’s mayor, who also owns the sawmill factory, does not want to rock the boat and advises Daniel to respect the wishes of the majority. Daniel though, has other ideas. He believes that the priests have become too conservative, afraid of trying out new ways. Their duties have become a routine for them and, rather than looking deeply into issues and problems, they are doing everything by the book. They have, he feels, also become too compromised with regards to accepting favours and goods from the local bigwigs in the name of charity and in return feel obliged to do favors for them.
The director, and script writer, Mateusz Pacewicz, turn the catholic religion upside down and scrutinize every aspect of it; from celibacy of priests to value of confessions and their relevance in modern society. What is the role of the priest? What is the best training for becoming a priest? Can a criminal become a good priest? Does religion have a role in the modern world? Are the religious leaders out of touch with the ordinary folk, especially the young? Corpus Christie provides much food for thought. Jan Komasa has managed to skillfully steer Mateusz Pacewicz’s intricate script through all its many turns and twists. The impact of the film is also greatly assisted by Bartosz Bielenia’s utterly believable performance.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).