arshat Tazria: Exclusion – Leviticus 12:1-13:59

Parshat Tazria: Exclusion – Leviticus 12:1-13:59

by

Howard Adelman

What does the ritual of cleanliness and purification after childbirth have to do with the practice of exclusion and what does the practice of exclusion have to do with the circumcision of male children on the eighth day? Verse 2 and 3 of Leviticus ch. 12, Tazria, read: “If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days. As at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” And why is a woman unclean for two weeks and not one when she has a female child? And why is her banishment from the sanctuary also doubled from 33 to 66 days when the child is a female rather than a male? Why should a woman be regarded as unclean at all after bearing a child?

What connection is there between the birth of a child and a disease like leprosy or even metaphoric leprosy, setting aside how accurate medically the symptoms of the physical condition leprosy as depicted in the text are? Why is raw flesh, of a placenta or chronic leprosy, regarded as unclean? In the case of leprosy, verse 46 of ch. 13 commands that, “He (she) shall remain unclean as long as (s)he has the disease. He (she) is unclean. He (she) shall live alone. His (her) dwelling shall be outside the camp.” What is the condition of tzaraat that commands social exclusion? On the other hand, what does it mean in modern society for a wife to stick by her husband and go into exile with him along with their children?

Yesterday, I wrote a review of the film, The Family, about a mafia family in which a minor mafia boss played by Robert De Niro is sent into exile with his wife and two teenage children in Normandy, France, under the American witness protection program because he ratted on his mafia family, not speaking ill of others without warrant, but with warrant, serving to ensure not simply his expulsion from his mafia family, but making himself a target for elimination. For the mafia Majordomo is determined on revenge. The dominant theme of the movie is exclusion, the loss of the family’s sense of belonging in their Italian community in Brooklyn, how alien De Niro is as a non-French speaker in a small town in Normandy, how the two children have to adapt to a new school and win friends, and how, to overcome the sense of strangeness of this family settling in Normandy when the FBI decides to attempt integration rather than preserving privacy and exclusion which in itself raises suspicions.

Last night we watched the first three episodes of the first season of the Emmy award-winning TV series, The Good Wife, which will end its seventh season run next month. The series also deals with exclusion as a dominant theme. This time the family is not relocated to Normandy, but is exiled from the rich suburban city of Highland Park, 26 miles north of downtown Chicago as Peter (Chris Noth) and Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) are forced to sell their opulent home to pay Peter’s legal bills after he is charged and convicted in a sex and bribery scandal when he was serving as the State’s Attorney for Cook County, which includes the City of Chicago. Alicia relocates with her two children, Zach and Grace, to an apartment, and Alicia resumes her career as a litigation attorney at the bottom rung while her husband, Peter, is sent to jail. Dislocation, alienation, the challenges of reintegration in work and society drive the drama. But the series begins with the focus of the camera on the hand-holding of Peter and Alicia as Peter marches up to deal with the shame and disgrace in the court of public opinion in response to the scandal.

Women are door mats and have been

The years those mats applaud

They keep their men from going in

With muddy feet to God.

The children have lost their friends as a result of both the scandal and the move. Alicia too is no longer “received” by her former neighbours. Even in her new job, she lives in the shadow of the scandal that is both political and personal because the sexual dalliances of her husband with prostitutes are so devastating to her. The show deliberately resonates on the Bill and Hillary Clinton scandals when Bill was President, but more specifically with the Eliot Spitzer prostitute scandal when he occupied the same position in New York State as Peter Florrick did in Illinois in the TV series. Hillary was and is a lawyer. So was Elizabeth Edwards in the John Edwards sex scandal. Sex and shame. Oh how far the mighty can fall, bringing down with them in shame and ignominy their wives and children.

The series falls into the genre of courtroom drama with a case per week in the first three episodes – a wife wrongly accused of killing her husband in the first episode, an escort who justly accuses her rich patron of rape in the second episode, and a teenager from Alicia’s old neighbourhood of Highland Park unjustly accused of manslaughter. An essential plot device in these crime and courtroom dramas is uncovering the missing clues that will lead to exoneration of the victim and just punishment for the perpetrator.

But these are just the technical devices to introduce suspense and keep the plot moving. The main interest is psychological and social. As in The Family, though Marge may not be smart in terms of education and personal career achievement, she is intelligent, independent, feisty as well as a loving mother. So is Alicia, but though Alicia is professionally trained, she runs up against her own insecurity which the street-smart Marge, who has every reason to be insecure, never does, though she is understandably in terror, mostly for her children, when the mafia hitmen come after her and her family. Alicia, though brave and determined, still wears her fall from grace on her sleeve. Marge remains a good wife. Alicia was one and we wonder whether she, like Hillary, will return to her husband’s side. Both women are cool, though Alicia is radically different from Marge in speaking clearly and with purpose where words follow thought processes rather than expressing an emotional state.

But isn’t this a real stretch from leprosy and circumcision? The link with leprosy is easier to establish. The sex offender, whether the betraying husband or the rapist or the sex offender or the pedophile, is the contemporary version of an individual deemed to have leprosy and requiring quarantine, at least until the disease is clearly in remission. Both are “diseases” of the flesh. The conditions are both seen as resulting from moral turpitude. Ostracism is the accompanying punishment. But ratting on one’s social family and allowing your sexual peccadilloes to become matters of public discussion are worse because each also brings the punishment to bear on the good wife and the good children, even if the wife and children in the comedy are not as innocent as they initially appear.

But over the long term, though I am unwilling to invest my time in the whole series to find out, I suspect subsequent episodes of The Good Wife will reveal Alicia to have as much passion as the compassion she displays, for Zach to reveal he is as clever as De Niro’s son, but in a more diagnostic and analytic way as adumbrated when he discovers the sexual scandal pictures that destroyed his father’s career were computer generated, and that the friendless younger sister, Grace, who so missed her old life will reveal as much gumption and independence as the seventeen-year-old daughter of Robert De Niro in forging a new life for herself.

But a key character in the film and the TV series is a misanthrope, the part of the FBI agent played by Tommy Lee Jones and the role of the in-house investigator in Alicia’s legal firm, Kalinda Sharma, played by Archie Punjab. We know virtually nothing personal about either character, certainly in the first three episodes of The Good Wife, even though Kalinda has a great deal of screen time. If Alicia is cool and collected, Kalinda is cold and calculating and never upset by all the shenanigans. Both are protective – Kalinda of Alicia and the FBI agent of De Niro’s character – even though both evince the view that no one is to be trusted. The most distrusting characters become the ones exhibiting the most trust. They do so in a context in which, underneath the exclusion and ostracism, underneath the diseases of the flesh of sexual dalliances and leprosy, in contexts in which both dramas are replete with dead corpses (off the screen in The Good Wife and displayed with abandon in The Family), at the root of both dramas is the question, “Who can you trust?”

Which brings us to circumcision, brit milah, and the connection with social ostracism! For the Jewish ritual of circumcision entails cutting into the flesh of a baby, cutting off a symbolic piece of the flesh of a male child’s foreskin, in practice by an experienced mohel, who may or may not be a physician, but in reality is just a proxy for the father. If a father who so loves his long longed-for son, no one more so than Abraham, is capable of cutting his eight-day-old son, and cutting him in his sexual organ, inflicting pain, however minimal, where the son will carry the badge of a Jew, in his flesh and in his psyche, for his entire life, then the message tattooed in the flesh is that no one can be completely trusted – including God in Judaism in contrast to Christianity.

Trust and distrust are two poles. The misanthrope ostensibly trusts no one. The naïve trusts anyone. But to get by in life we must learn whom to trust and whom to distrust and to what degree. When trust is betrayed, the betrayer is ostracized to some degree. At the extreme, the individual is cast entirely out of the community. A Jewish lad from his second week in existence is taught that he must never completely trust, not just anyone, but especially himself and his own penis. Look at Eliot Spitzer. Look at Bill Clinton.

But what has all of this, even granting a connection between circumcision and ostracism, have to do with a woman being unclean after delivering a child, and being doubly unclean after delivering a female rather than a male child? What is the significance of being טָמֵא, tummah, unclean which is such an obsession in the book of Leviticus? When the word is made flesh, when is the flesh made “unclean”? Contact with a corpse makes one temporarily unclean. Food, clothes, animals and things, but especially people, can be unclean.

When Leviticus 10:10 reads, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean,” the general interpretation is to set up the analogy as holy:common = clean:unclean. Cleanliness is associated with holiness, with purity. The parallel is made between “holy” and “clean” and the “common” with the “unclean.” But according to the structure of the proposition, the analogy should be: holy:common = unclean:clean. It is the common, it is the ordinary, it is the behaviour according to the norms of everyday life, that is clean. It is pride, it is the viewing oneself as a god, as seeing oneself as purer than the ordinary, that is unclean. When a prosecutor sets out on the path to expunge his world of corruption, to drive the scalawags out of office, beware. Raise your antenna of distrust. For both religious and secular holy rollers are particularly suspect.

If you regard yourself as occupying an exclusive sphere immune to the temptations of desire, then pride will surely go before the fall. No one, especially one’s own father, is holy. Uncleanliness is an integral part of life. But we must guard against contamination, not the contamination of dirt, not the contamination of the ordinary, but the contamination of the obsession with one’s own purity and exclusive status. The higher we view ourselves, the greater the fall and the more appropriate the punishment and the degree of exclusion. And when we kill at will, whether as a mafia hit man, a murderer or a terrorist, when we see as our mission and vocation as taking another’s life as simply an everyday occupation, then absolute exclusion is appropriate. When we have incurable metaphoric leprosy, total isolation from society is appropriate.

If this perverse interpretation has any play, why are women in childbirth regarded as unclean, and why are they regarded as doubly unclean when the child born is a female?  Simply put, lest the mother feel holier than ever because she gave birth to a child and lest she feel doubly holy because the child born is a female, the key guarantor of reproduction. Females have twice the value of the male child (and usually have to work twice as hard to prove they are male’s equal), so the risk of conceiving oneself as holier than thou requires ritual preventive detention and social exclusion to ward off any contamination of the disease, from the germ that gives rise to the danger.

A Jewish circumcised male is given a permanent reminder that he cannot trust his penis for it has a mind of its own, especially when wedded to the holy spirit, when the male sees himself as an exemplification of the holy spirit. Females do not need to learn to distrust themselves, but they still need to learn to ward off any betrothal to the holy spirit of purity. The ritual of symbolic exclusion, of a woman regarding herself as unclean when she does give birth, and doubly so when she gives birth to a female child, exemplifies a need to be ritually and very temporarily ostracized to prevent the potential malady from becoming runaway contamination.

The upshot of the diagnosis of tzaraat, especially of an acute condition that has become chronic and incurable, is banishment, and, in the extreme, permanent banishment. A Judean king afflicted with acute tzaraat remained under house arrest for the rest of all his life in a beit hachoshit, a house of quarantine. For the rest of us, quarantine is a temporary state from which we should emerge stronger and better than ever. Thank God we are not kings – or queens!

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Trust and Betrayal: Five Foreign Films

Trust and Betrayal: Five Foreign Films

by

Howard Adelman

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

Preamble

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.

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

Post Reflections

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.