Trust and Betrayal: Five Foreign Films
Butterfly (La Lengua de Las Mariposas) (1999) by José Luis Cuerda set in Spain in 1936
Ida (2014) by Pawel Pawlikowski set in Poland in 1962
Entre Nos (2009) by Paola Mendoza set in New York City about 1980
Two Lives (Zwei Leben) (2012) by George Maas set in 1990 in Bergen, Norway and Germany
1000 Times Good Night (2013) by Erik Poppe set in this century in Afghanistan, Ireland and northern Kenya
I have been AWOL for over a week. I have to finish writing about niqabs and oaths in Canadian domestic policy and I am desperate to write about my reflections on Netanyahu’s stupendous victory in the Israeli elections. I cannot say that I have been very terribly busy with my new grandson. Leo is so tiny, sleeps almost all the time, and his mother is so tired from feeding him every two hours that visiting makes you feel like you are taking precious minutes away from her needed sleep. Leo is on schedule of gaining two ounces per day. I offer to help but recognize that I am virtually useless and in the way. Nancy, of course, is more helpful because she can prepare them a good meal. So I spend my time catching up on six months of neglected business details and, what else, watching movies. I am like an alcoholic who has been attending AA for four months and suddenly gets to take a drink. One cuppa barely satiates. So of the twenty or so movies I saw, I have selected only five – all superb films and all incidentally with the common theme of betrayal.
Why is betrayal such a common theme in novels, plays and movies, but especially movies? Arthur Miller in The Crucible described betrayal as “the only truth that hurts.” That is correct for four very different reasons. First, betrayal is usually a shocking revelation that runs counter to what you previously believed. Second, the revelation is not only a reversal, but it causes enormous emotional and physical pain; betrayal is often depicted as the cause of the worst pain anyone could ever feel. Third, the penetration goes very deep. Finally, betrayal leaves visible scars. This is true whether the betrayer is someone close to you – a mentor, a family member or a lover – or even worse, when you betray yourself. Of course, the two may go together, betraying oneself when you betray another or you may betray yourself for another or another to preserve yourself. This may take place even when betrayed by a lover, friend or relative. For when the other betrays you, you feel that you have also betrayed yourself by having allowed yourself to trust another.
In romantic literature, betrayal is the most heinous crime. Rather than betray another or yourself, heroism prefers that you die. The adage, “To thine own self be true,” demands death rather than self-betrayal or betrayal of a comrade. In the real world, those who profess loyalty as the highest virtue are often the first to betray their friends and themselves. As Albert Camus’ character who professes loyalty as the highest virtue in The Fall says, “I don’t believe there is a single person I loved that I didn’t eventually betray.” Further, it is fiction writers and creators who have offered the greatest insights into the notion of “betrayal,” not philosophers. As Judith Sklar and Robert Johnson wrote (The Ambiguities of Betrayal and Frames of Deceit), betrayal is more effectively understood through literature and, I would add, even more so, through the dramatic arts.
Not that philosophers have not tried – Sklar and Johnson are cases in point. And they are far from the only ones. Nachman Ben-Yehuda’s 2001 work Betrayals and Treason Violations of Trust and Loyalty framed all forms of betrayals as breaches of trust with moral norms setting the standards for trust. But there is a dilemma and I put it forth in the depiction of trust that I try to establish with my readers when I review a movie. The general principle is that one does not give the plot away, or when one must, as a reviewer you forewarn the reader by putting in a text a “spoiler warning”. But that is akin to a seducer telling a seducee that he will eventually betray her, thus posing an extra challenge to and enticement for the one being seduced. Spoiler warnings are of little help unless applied to the whole review.
The problem is particularly acute in movies where the major theme is about betrayal. How can you describe the movie without mentioning the type of disloyalty and betrayal at work, who is betraying and who is betrayed? But the plot most often turns on such revelations. My answer is to write about betrayal movies in a cluster and talk generally about the theme with insights on that theme that the movie provides. In other words, the movie is used to inform myself and the reader about the topic rather than my informing the reader about the specifics of the film.
The Five Foreign Films
All films discussed are foreign films – Spanish, Polish, two Norwegian/German movies. Even the American movie, Entre Nos set in Queens in New York, is like a foreign film since almost all of it is in Spanish with English subtitles. All the movies are intensely political and social films, but not one of them is so directly. Indirection unites all five movies as each one focuses intently and intensely on the lives of individuals and their relationships with one another. They are all movies about families and the way the external world of violence and force impinges on the intimate moments of life. All, surprisingly, are coming of age films even though they deal with different ages (Butterfly – age 8: Ida – age 18; Entre Nos – ages 6 & 10; Two Lives about late teens and a 1001 Good Nights, though primarily about the mother is also about her older daughter of about 16 and their relationship. I review them not in the order in which I saw them, but in terms of the time in history in which they are set and primarily about the lessons each film teaches us about betrayal and loyalty rather than about the specifics of the film.
Butterfly (La Lengua de Las Mariposas) (1999) by José Luis Cuerda
The tongue of a butterfly, as the gentle teacher verging on retirement, Don Gregorio (Fernando Fernán Gómez), tells his fascinated and eager young pupils, is rolled up in a butterfly’s mouth like a spiral which you cannot even see with the naked eye but require a microscope to view. When a butterfly lands on a flower, the tongue unfurls in a fraction of a second to suck up the sweet nectar of the plant in its straw proboscis before it flies off. The butterfly’s tongue could be the unseen, invisible to the human eye without a microscope, tightly spiraled tension lurking below and beyond the life of this beautiful and beatific small town in Galicia, Spain in 1936, between tradition (the priest with a rod) and progress (the teacher with a book), between violent force and the tranquility of nature, between Monarchists and Republicans, between fascists and democrats. This tensed-up tongue only springs forth near the end of the movie, at the same time as the microscope supplied by the school board in Madrid arrives just as the army that has staged a coup to overthrow the Republic does.
However, I suspect the curled up spiral tongue of the butterfly has the very opposite symbolic meaning. The process of education, loving and appreciating, admiring the miracle of what we see and what we hear, is the invisible tongue that will spring forth and draw on the sweetness of life and, in return, deliver hope, peace and trust and not fear, violence and betrayal. So though betrayal takes place, the movie is primarily a paean to trust.
The central character is an eight-year-old boy, Moncho (Manuel Lozano), the son of a mildly republican tailor, a religious Catholic mother and brother of a saxophone-playing 15-year-old teenager, Andrés (Alexis de los Santos). In one of the three short stories of Manuel Rivas from which the film was adapted (“A lingua das bolboretas,” “Un saxo na néboa,” and “Carmiña” in his book Que me queres, amor?), Moncho learns that butterflies have their own language. (Moncho aprendió que las mariposas tienen su propria lengua.) Moncho, an asthmatic youngster who missed his first few years of school, is terrorized by the prospect of facing teachers who, he has been told, beat students with a stick. Initially, humiliated on the opening day, through the beneficence of Don Gregorio, he learns to love school, finds a close friend and becomes confident enough of his own self to tackle the rich man’s spoiled son when he rides his bike into the side of his best friend. The film is a voyage of his discovering how to trust the outside world and himself.
As a composite of vignettes, the film is, however, a drama building towards betrayal, to how one’s loyalty to one person forces upon us a choice and one where moral principles may be sacrificed to the need for survival. In real life, for the women who compose the Colombian Butterflies (Red Mariposas de Alas Nuevas Construyendo Futuro) and who earned the Nansen Refugee Award last year for their willingness to put their lives on the line to assist forcibly displaced women who have been subject to sexual or physical violence, the butterfly in the end is not a symbol of political and personal betrayal, but the symbol of an insect that flaps its wings with a motion that reverberates around the world. Though the film ends with betrayal, both political by the fascists and interpersonal, the movie itself brims with beauty and hope. Like Julia Alavarez’ In the Time of the Butterflies, also, like the Colombian butterflies, is about the courage of women in the face of Trujillo’s fascist regime of fear and intimidation, in the movie, Butterfly, warmth and vitality are left as promises that will eventually overcome violence, fear and mistrust.
Ida (2014) set in Poland in 1962
If Butterfly or The Tongue of a Butterfly is a somewhat nostalgic film set in 1936 in Spain on the crest of that country’s descent into fascism constructed into a film narrative through a series of vignettes, Ida, directed by the Polish-English director Pawel Pawlikowaski, is set in 1962 Poland under communism. Poland, no stranger to betrayal by allies and enemies alike, in the previous decade had witnessed the betrayal of its own resistance movement against Hitler’s regime by the communists, who took control as many if not most of the heroes of that resistance faced show trials and were murdered by the new red regime. One of the two main characters, Wanda Gruz or Red Wanda (Agata Kulesza), is based loosely on the historical figure of Helena Wolińska-Brus who was also a hero of the resistance but a communist one and a Jew who became a state prosecutor possibly in some of those show trials as the communists consolidated their power. If she did not personally betray her fellow resistance fighters, she was an enthusiastic participant in a regime that did.
But the political betrayals are only alluded to and constitute the background of the movie that evolves as a road movie, a continuous narrative rather than a series of vignettes, but told through film shots that have a canny resemblance to black and white photographs with the emphasis on light and shadow. The beauty of the film as photos rather than a moving picture is unmatched. Lucasz Żal, originally Ryszard Lenczewski’s assistant as the cinematographer, eventually took over when the latter became ill and both are credited with the absolutely marvelous cinematography. That evocation of the period is also helped by a film shot not in the customary wide-angled ratio, but the now unusual 1:33 frame or 4:3 horizontal to vertical ratio.
Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a novitiate in a nunnery who meets Wanda when her Mother Superior (Ida has spent all of her conscious life in that nunnery) insists, that before she takes her final vows, she go out into the wider world and meet her family, more particularly her aunt, Red Wanda, from whom she learns that she had Jewish parents (her mother was Wanda’s sister, Rose, whose married name was Lebenstein) and had been hidden in a nunnery to save her from the Nazis. The two travel together to locate and rebury the bodies of Ida’s parents.
Before the end of the film, even as the two learn to trust one another and prove that blood is deeper than belief (communist or Christian) or radical differences in lifestyle, Wanda will come face to face with her betrayal and Ida will herself betray her “calling” before she decides on her future identity. And both will come face to face with the many sides of betrayal that are part of Polish history but which are very understated in this very constrained, compact, concise, careful and caring minimalist movie. There is an interesting parallel between Butterfly and Ida in the complementary role of jazz and, in particular, the saxophone, an instrument in dream theory that usually represents both closeness with another and expression of the deepest notes in your own soul. Ida, however, is a leben stein, a living stone, a symbol not of self-expression, but of that which has been left unsaid, of impassivity and inscrutability, of austerity and serving as a mute witness to horror and disintegration, characteristics very foreign to today’s 18-year-old girls. The actions take place through the eyes as windows into the soul with notations via slight movements of Ida’s mouth. This is an ambiguous movie, not only as it unfolds, but in its very ending.
This movie needs no additional praise from me. David Denby in The New Yorker called it the year’s best film. At 2013 TIFF, it won the special presentations award, one of many accolades received including Best European Film Academy Award, the People’s Choice Award, the Best Film Award by the British Film Academy of a movie not in the English language, and the 2015 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film Award. It is a movie that has to be seen and can be enjoyed in full on a television screen at home watching Netflix.
Entre Nos (2009) by Paola Mendoza
This film is painful to watch and you will never observe people collecting bottles and cans from your or your neighbours’ trash cans without wincing and recalling it. Though at first viewing it might seem to be foremost about society’s betrayal of those at the bottom of the rung, especially immigrants and more particularly women abandoned by their husbands, the film is primarily about loyalty and trust, between the mother (Mariana) and her children (Andrea 6 and Gabriel 10) and between the siblings themselves. Paola Mendoza, who plays the mother in the film and directed the movie as well as co-wrote the script, is in reality the young girl in the movie. The film is a tribute to her own mother. Further, if it were not for the help of some strangers – a Latino woman who owns a food truck, an ostensibly hard-headed south Asian landlady, a competing Black can collector – it is hard to see how an abandoned mother with two young children could have made it on the streets of Queens. So although the movie is about betrayal, in the end it is a movie about trust and hope and dreams. The film is itself a testament to the belief that dreams can and do come true. It is a movie not to be missed.
Two Lives (Zwei Leben) (2012) by George Maas
Two Lives could more accurately have been translated as A Double Life, for it is a movie about spies, inherently betrayers by definition, but set largely in a context of the family members with whom the protagonist relates – her mother (Ase (Liv Ulmann), her husband, Bjarte (Sven Nordin), a Norwegian naval officer, and her daughter (Julia Bache-Wiig) and young baby. Katrine (Juliane Köhler) is a happily-married mother living in Norway whose past role as a Stasi spy catches up with her as a result of circumstances beyond her control. The paradox of this film of betrayal at all levels is that the very profession of spying depends on and demands absolute loyalty and allows no deviation. And we know of this betrayal very early in the film as the mother sneaks off to Germany disguised as “Vera” to attempt to destroy the record of a second life whose identity she stole. Those are the two lives of the film’s title, the one cut short and the other who lived to have a very fulfilled and loving life until it all came crashing down with the revelations of betrayal.
Like the first two films reviewed above, the film depends on real historical events set in pre- and post-WWII. The Nazis with their Aryan racist theories promoted its SS officers to seduce blond blue-eyed Scandinavians. In occupied Norway, the children born out of wedlock were sent back to Germany and raised in orphanages. After the war, the mothers were doubly betrayed, first by the Nazi fathers of their bastard children and then by their own nation which persecuted them as traitors. But it was the children who suffered most of all.
The film is set in Norway just after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and of communism. The search for truth that followed, a search that itself will serve eventually to betray everyone, the mother, the “daughter”, the husband and the two children. As Arthur Miller in his reflections on the McCarthy era in his play, The Crucible, noted, “Betrayal is the only truth that sticks,” or, as I would now word it, in such a context, the search for “truth” can be the ultimate betrayer and betrayal is at the heart of the search for truth. In this movie, betrayal wrecks love and trust and leaves behind only a horrible mess. The irony of the film is that the central betrayer is also viewed as the one most betrayed both by history, by the state and by her own family.
This is not a movie that will leave the viewer with a deep belief in trust, hope and love, for the outcome of betrayal is to learn to distrust trust and regard trust as the primary mistake, not betrayal. In the end, the contest is really not between evil, disloyalty and mistrust versus goodness loyalty and trust, but between competing loyalties and the way evil manipulates those tensions to seduce individuals to betray both themselves and those closest to them.
1000 Times Good Night (2013) by Erik Poppe
This Irish-Norwegian co-production is also an award winning film having won the Special Grand Prix of the jury at the 2013 Montreal World Film Festival. Of the five films reviewed, this movie is set in the most recent history and is the only movie of the five in English. It is located in both Ireland and the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya sometime in the last 10 years, but opens with one of the most horrendous openings set in Afghanistan as a female suicide bomber is filmed going through the preparation rituals and the actual self-detonation with its many casualties.
Juliette Binoche plays Rebecca, herself a prize-winning photojournalist determined to expose the truth with pictures, first of the horrors of Afghanistan and then the evil of civil war in now independent South Sudan and the relative failure of intervention by bystanders, including the hapless and helpless idealistic humanitarian Norwegians working in the Kakuma refugee camp that has been a refuge for those fleeing the Sudan civil war or, possibly, the civil war currently underway in newly independent South Sudan. Having been in Kakuma, the setting is as accurate as the violent action and the film does not betray the actual refugees in the camp.
Of the five movies, this is the one that is most gripping and deeply visceral both in terms of action and in terms of emotional conflict within and between the main protagonists as well as in the violent action scenes set in the camp. It is also the film that is about betrayal both as a backdrop and about the tension between personal loyalty to one’s mission in life and one’s creativity versus loyalty to family, both husband. Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and children, the young emotionally-troubled teenager, Steph (Lauryn Canny) and her younger bubbly six-year-old sister (Adrianna Cramer Curtis). Which will Rebecca choose – her family or her life’s mission to expose human betrayal of other humans? Since the viewer is also watching the photographer vicariously, then the movie-goer is both the passive bystander and an individual caught up in the family emotions as well as the conflicts of our age. Sometimes we see what Rebecca sees. At other times we watch Rebecca as she sees and reacts to what she experiences.
But the ironies abound. When Rebecca chooses her family and surrenders her career in the face of family fears, this inadvertently thrusts he back into the centre of violence. As viewers, we all know it is coming and this anticipation adds to the edginess of the film. In Butterfly, survival trumps mission. In 1,000 Times Good Night, the personal mission appears to trump personal survival and she is as dedicated to her mission as the female suicide bomber is to hers, both willing to sacrifice themselves and the ties with their family members. If betrayal is to be measured by the willingness to sacrifice oneself for another, then Rebecca is the greatest betrayer, for she is willing to sacrifice herself in being a witness to the truth even if it causes great pain to her family
The problem with philosophers dealing with betrayal as a concept – or, for that matter, most academics – is that they are wedded to clear and distinct ideas whereas the best movies are married to subtlety and ambiguity. Avoiding the simplistic dichotomy, the real issues are whom to betray and for what, to tell the truth even if it causes enormous pain to those closest to you or to try to perpetuate a lie to protect loved ones from that pain and conform to their hopes and expectations of you. For true and deep betrayal requires a prior trust. Thus, the Nazis did not betray us or the German people. They delivered what they promised, except for the ultimate victory of evil over good. The real conflict underlying betrayal is whether one should be loyal to one’s personal mission in life or sacrifice that quest for personal fulfillment for the obligations one owes those closest to us. To thine own self be true or be true to another.
It is the simple romantic version of betrayal to which scholars and philosophers are wedded. Nachman Ben-Yehuda, a renowned professor at Hebrew University, is a case in point. He is not only an expert on the concept of betrayal, but almost single-handedly in the pursuit of truth (Sacrificing Truth) destroyed the Zionist myth of Masada and the belief in self-sacrifice for a nation in the name of slavery rather than death. For his scholarship proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the Sicarii who committed suicide on Masada were not much different than today’s ideologically-driven suicide bombers. They were just as willing, even more willing, to sacrifice the lives of their fellow Hebrews as their Roman enemies. They were not heroic resistance fighters but cowards who took their own lives rather than fight the Romans to the last one standing. In his scholarly pursuit of the truth, Ben-Yehuda, in service to that truth, betrayed a fundamental myth of his own country and one of its founding heroes, Yigal Yadin, a former chief of staff of the IDF and an archeologist who distorted evidence to fortify a founding myth of the state.
In this way, movie reviews and politics connect.