Pikuach Nefesh

I haven’t been a particularly devout Jew since the day after my bar mitzvah (and possibly not then, either).  However, if there’s one argument I’d still make in favor of Judaism over any other faith, it would be how it places the preservation of human life above all other Earthly considerations.

 To be sure, Jewish law contains more intricately-detailed directives about how to conduct one’s private affairs than the Republican Party platform on acid.  To be a fully observant Jew is to be overwhelmed by minutiae about everything from which foods to eat—and on what plates and with which silverware—to which activities may—and may not—be performed on the Sabbath.  (Going for a short walk?  Yes.  Riding a bike?  No.)

However, overriding all of this is the concept of Pikuach Nefesh, which stipulates that if a person’s life is in jeopardy, you are compelled to violate every Jewish law and custom in the book to ensure that that person does not die.

In our secular American society, we like to think that this basic moral imperative goes more or less without saying (e.g., if a man is drowning in a river, you don’t ask what day of the week it is before jumping in to save him), but religion does not always make things so simple—particularly when it comes to faith itself.

Reading the Old Testament, we find that God values his own supremacy above all else, demanding nothing so much as total trust and submission from his human creations, up to and including when such blind faith might result in the deliberate taking of another person’s life.  What other lesson can we draw from the story of Abraham, after all, than that Abraham’s love for the Lord was so great that he would rather murder his own son than wonder if God, in asking him to do so, hadn’t gone a little bit crazy?

Is that the take-home lesson for Abraham’s descendants?  “If a voice in your head tells you to kill the people you love, you’d better listen”?

In a manner of speaking:  Yes.  For the truly devout—those who take God seriously and the Bible literally—faith is a virtue greater than life itself.

As a nonbeliever, I do not (and probably cannot) appreciate the immense burden of negotiating the word of God—supposedly the source of all absolute truth in the universe—with certain instincts that might contradict it.  I do not know what it feels like to have a long, dark night of the soul.

What I can appreciate, however, is the passion of those who have experienced the crucible of doubt firsthand and have spent a lifetime wrestling with its deathly implications.

One such person is Martin Scorsese, a lapsed Catholic with a new film that examines the nature of religious (Christian) faith with a depth and seriousness that—in the world of cinema, at least—only comes around once in a blue moon.

His movie is called Silence.  Based on a 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō, it follows a pair of young Jesuit priests (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who sneak into Japan in 1639 to bear witness to a society officially cleansed of Christianity.  Ostensibly, their “mission” is to track down a fellow cleric, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who disappeared into Japan several years earlier and allegedly renounced his faith as a way to save his own skin.

(Warning:  Spoilers ahead.)

Rodrigues—the more zealous of the two men—refuses to believe that Father Ferreira has apostatized merely to get along easier in a foreign, Buddhist culture.  What Rodrigues does not yet comprehend—and what he will spend the remainder of his journey discovering—is the profound cruelty inflicted by Japanese officials upon Christians—Japanese and non-Japanese alike—who publicly affirm their fealty to Jesus Christ.

Because Christianity was formally banned by the Japanese government throughout the 17th century and beyond, those who practiced it had to do so in secret and at great personal risk.  As with communism in 1950s America or homosexuality throughout Africa and the Middle East today, to be a Christian in Edo-era Japan required a network of interdependence amongst its practitioners, each of whom lived with a perpetual fear that someone would eventually rat them all out, with consequences almost too horrible to contemplate.  Surely, to carry on like this is the very definition of courage.

On their way to Father Ferreira, Rodrigues and his companion, Garupe, spend a great deal of time in remote mountain hideaways simply performing their clerical duties—lighting candles, hearing confessions, etc.—and we are shown how, in a repressive, closed-off society, even the smallest of religious rituals becomes a dignified act of defiance, as well as a means of salvation and solace in the face of an otherwise hopeless political reality.

In the end, the real challenge for Rodrigues—as it was for Ferreira before him—is whether his steadfast fidelity to Christian teaching is worth losing everything for, including not just his own life, but the lives of others.  His captors’ ultimate brutality, it turns out, is not simply to kill or torture him, but to force him into an impossible ethical dilemma whereby he must decide what God really wants from him without being given any indication of what the correct answer might be.

As much as one might defend martyring oneself for a religious ideal, does the same argument extend to martyring others against their will?  How many lives are you willing to extinguish in order to remain spiritually pure?  And if the cost of that purity is so very steep, how can you be so sure that you’re acting morally at all?

You can’t.  Without a direct hotline to God himself (if even then), you simply cannot know for certain what the so-called “right thing” is.  Scorsese understands this as well as any filmmaker working today, and Rodrigues’s torment over this question is what makes Silence so compelling:  Here is a man questioning the nature of his own heart for the first time in his adult life, fearful that everything he’s been taught might be wrong, yet stubbornly clinging to the hope that his work has not been in vain.

If you think Scorsese is going to give you a clean, final answer on this, you’re barking up the wrong film.  The movie’s (and novel’s) title refers to the chasm between the absolutism of dogma and the ambiguity of real life, and that gap is where all great drama resides.

To witness how single-mindedly and unsparingly Scorsese has tackled this subject is to understand why it took nearly 30 years for a studio to give him the green light.  As with all so-called “passion projects,” it is very clear that Scorsese made this movie for the benefit of exactly one person:  himself.  As a commercial product, Silence is risky at best and crazy at worst.  As a window into how a serious Catholic has come to regard the human soul during his 74 years on Earth, it is something close to a triumph.


Hitchcock Goes to Church

I thought I knew everything about Alfred Hitchcock, probably my favorite director of all time.  As it turns out, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

Playing in select theaters right now is a crackerjack documentary called Hitchcock/Truffaut, which recounts the time in 1962 when up-and-coming French director François Truffaut conducted an interview with the Master of Suspense that was so long and so deep that the resulting material, published as a book in 1966, runs some 368 pages and covers virtually every frame of every Hitchcock film.

Truffaut’s interview is considered a landmark in the history of cinema, because it marks the moment when Hitchcock began to be taken seriously by his peers.  Before Hitchcock/Truffaut, he was regarded strictly as an entertainer.  After the book was published, he became an artist and a renegade.  Today, he is considered arguably the most influential director who ever lived.

More noteworthy still is how much Hitchcock revealed about himself and his work.  Despite his reputation for being tight-lipped and (it must be said) a bit of a tyrant on the set, in his chat with Truffaut he pretty much gave the game away.

As such, perhaps the most tantalizing moment in the new documentary, which includes audio clips from the original interview, is the moment when Truffaut asks Hitch about the influence of his Catholicism in many of his most compelling works.  Hitchcock’s response:  “Go off-record.”  We hear a click, and everything goes black.

It was David McCullough who mused that you can learn an awful lot about a person from what he chooses not to say in public—particularly when he is perfectly willing to say so much else.  So perhaps if there is a “rosebud” to Hitchcock’s career, it can be found in his Catholic youth.

I must admit, I had no idea Hitchcock was Catholic.  Indeed, I had never given a thought to what religion he identified with, nor did it occur to me that such a thing might be relevant.

For some great directors, religion is inescapable—be it Catholicism for Martin Scorsese or Judaism for Woody Allen or Joel and Ethan Coen.  It’s not that their movies are necessarily about their faith so much as they are informed by the values and sensibilities that their faith espouses.  Taxi Driver could not possibly have been made by a non-Catholic and Annie Hall could not possibly have been made by a non-Jew.

You don’t get that sense with Hitchcock, whose movies are intended as mass entertainment above all else and possess no particular sensibility beyond wanting to give their audience a good old-fashioned thrill.

Or don’t they?

What changed my mind about this—what made me view Hitchcock’s work through a more theological lens—was seeing (for the first time) his 1953 film I Confess.  Based on an old French play, the story involves a priest who learns that a man has committed a murder, but because he hears this in the sanctity of the confessional, he cannot divulge any information to the police in their investigation of said murder.

This being a Hitchcock movie, the priest himself will eventually become implicated in the crime, thereby raising the stakes in his professional and spiritual obligation to “clergy-penitent privilege”—the notion that what happens in the confessional stays in the confessional.  By honoring his theological duty, he risks sacrificing his own freedom.  But by breaking his oath of confidentiality, he may well lose his job and, with it, his whole reason for being.

It’s a devilishly clever conceit—yet another variation on Hitchcock’s long-running theme of a man ensnarled in a legal bind from which there is no escape.

More than that, however, I Confess stands as one of the most singularly Catholic movies ever made by a major (and otherwise nondenominational) filmmaker.  The priest is played by Montgomery Clift—that most mysterious and charismatic of Hollywood stars—as a man undergoing a deep internal struggle over whether doing the “right” thing might involve turning his back on God.

It’s a performance of towering complexity—subtle, delicate and wrenching—in a movie that is brave and dignified enough to treat Catholic tradition with the gravity it deserves—in this case, the tradition of the confessional as a sacred space, even when that sanctity might allow a man to get away with murder.  Theological dilemmas don’t get much thornier than that.

It’s a measure of the movie’s nerve that audiences were not crazy about it when it was first released.  As recounted by Truffaut in his book, “[T]he public was irritated with the plot because they kept on hoping that Montgomery Clift would speak up.”  Hitchcock agreed, saying, “We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, ‘Ridiculous!  No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing.’”  When Truffaut asked if this disconnect served to weaken the film as a film, Hitchcock nodded, saying, with remarkable candor, “[W]e shouldn’t have made the picture.”

Here, in other words, was a movie more concerned with spiritual truth than with satisfying popular tastes.  That Hitch himself apparently disapproved of the final product only goes to show how personal the whole thing was, as if it was the one time he indulged whatever remained of his strict Jesuit upbringing, if only to get it out of his system once and for all.

However, even if I Confess is an outlier in the Hitchcock canon, it helps us to recognize the latent Catholic themes that run through virtually all of his great works—most prominently, the sin of guilt.  Janet Leigh’s guilt over stealing $40,000 in Psycho.  Kim Novak’s guilt over masquerading as James Stewart’s dream girl in Vertigo (and Stewart’s guilt in thinking he contributed to her death).  Eva Marie Saint’s guilt over deceiving Carey Grant in North by Northwest.  Farley Granger’s guilt over murdering a classmate for sport in Rope.  And on and on and on.

These are not Catholic movies, per se.  However, they are all haunted by the aura of divine justice and the fear of God’s eternal wrath that only a Catholic could fully appreciate.  While most of Hitchcock’s heroes probably fear the police and/or each other more than the man upstairs (this was certainly the case with the director himself), they are nonetheless aware that their actions have consequences.  That sooner or later, one way or another, they’re going to get what’s coming to them.

And unlike in, say, the films of Woody Allen—a writer-director who has very little faith in God or justice—these sinners generally do pay a price for their crimes, thereby allowing moral order to be restored to the universe just in time for the end credits to roll.

While Catholicism certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on guilt, sin, justice or anything else, Catholic filmmakers have long been uncommonly adept at portraying how the teachings of their ancient holy books manifest themselves in the contemporary world.  They’re the ones who take God seriously, for better and for worse.

I note this, in part, because there is a large cadre of nonbelievers who sincerely think that religion has nothing positive to offer civilization.  Or, at the least, that whatever good might come from religion could just as easily come from secularism and, in any case, is dramatically outweighed by the evil that could not come from anywhere else.

I used to agree with this assessment.  Most of the time, I still do.  But in the process of extricating myself from the world of the faithful, I have come to better appreciate the monumental role of religion in the lives of others.  I don’t think either God or religion is necessary to lead a fulfilling life, but roughly three in four Americans do, and their faith has sometimes inspired them to craft works of art that could not have emerged in any other way.

I can live without God.  I’m not sure I could live without Raging Bull.  I don’t generally resort to prayer to help solve my biggest problems, but I’m pleased that it worked for George Bailey.  Religion does little for me, but in the end that doesn’t matter so long as it does something for everyone else.  And if no religion meant no Alfred Hitchcock—well, I’m not sure that’s a trade-off I’d be prepared to make.

Don’t Make Friends

Life Itself, a new documentary about the life and death of film critic Roger Ebert, features many talking head interviews with friends and admirers from throughout Ebert’s life, who expound on Ebert’s virtues—and a few of his vices—in order to contextualize his significance in the twin realms of movies and film criticism.

An obvious take-home message of the movie is that Ebert was truly one-of-a-kind—the rare critic who became as well-known (and as beloved) as many of the people he wrote about.  Indeed, perhaps the most peculiar sight in Life Itself is the number of filmmakers who reminisce about ol’ Roger as if he had been a close, personal friend.  By all outward appearances, he was.

You’ve got Martin Scorsese citing Ebert’s unerring support for saving Scorsese’s career at a point when cocaine and despair could have very easily killed it (and him).

Ramin Bahrani, a moderately successful independent director, credits Ebert with effectively putting him on the map, which he did not merely with glowing four-star reviews but through tireless advocacy and unofficial patronage.  He used his own high status to build up that of someone whose films he thought deserved to be seen, serving as a friend and mentor along the way.

(We might as well also mention that the director of Life Itself, Steve James, made a documentary in 1994, Hoop Dreams, which Ebert proclaimed the best movie of the 1990s.)

On a personal level, these and other examples of Ebert’s huge heart and sense of moral justice are admirable and a wonder to behold.  Would that more powerful people used their influence for good, not evil, and we’d be living in a far more pleasant society.  Who could possibly object?

And yet, we are left with the inconvenient fact that Ebert was, after all, a critic, and a critic is supposed to be objective—or at least aspire (and, for Pete’s sake, appear) to be as such.  For a movie reviewer to be forming bonds of friendship with movie makers—well, a term like “fraternizing with the enemy” leaps to mind, not to mention “conflict of interest.”

It’s an issue first of ethics, and second of judgment, and we are obligated to consider both.

I offer it as a three-part question:  Should any beat writer become close with those about whom he is writing?  If so, is he then bound either not to write about them at all, or to issue a clear “full disclosure” notice to readers upon doing so?  And if not, has he not then surrendered any notion of objectivity, even if he makes a strong effort to separate personal feelings from professional responsibility?

In the case of Ebert, one could argue that he never attempted to disentangle his emotions from his intellect in the first place.  Ebert himself argued as much, saying that he worked according to the sentiment by fellow critic Robert Warshow, “A man goes to the movies.  The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.”  In other words:  Impartiality be damned.

As for the possibility of being corrupted by friendships, Life Itself argues that Ebert did not lose his perspective when appraising films by people he knew and liked, and shows (albeit with only one example) that he was capable of filing negative reviews even when, for personal reasons, he had every incentive not to.  In the end, according to the documentary, he resisted the urge to become a professional hack.  It is left to each of us to ascertain whether this assessment is true.

But what if you’re a member of a profession for which impartiality is not merely recommended and preferred, but is outright mandatory?

For instance:  What if you’re a journalist?

We assume—nay, we hope and pray—that the reporters and columnists on whom we depend to tell us what is happening in the world and to keep our leaders honest are not cavorting around with the very figures they are meant to skewer and critique.

After all, in the world of political journalism, the question isn’t whether becoming friendly with politicians might distort a journalist’s work.  The question, rather, is how could it not?

And yet we have spectacles like the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where journalists and lawmakers drink and intermingle on live television, suggesting all-too-convincingly that this is not the only night of the year in which the Fourth Estate enjoys a social relationship with its would-be targets.  The scribblers of America might think they are not being unduly influenced by this, but we have only their word on which to rely.  (Most of the time, we don’t even have that.)

America’s judicial system addresses the subject of impartiality through recusals, whereby a judge abstains from presiding over any case in which, because of the people involved, he or she has (or might have) a rooting interest.

The process of jury selection functions in the same way.  Sitting before the judge of a pending trial, the first question all prospective jurors are asked is whether they know the plaintiff, defendant or any of the witnesses personally.  Of course, there are many reasons a juror might be led to favor one side over the other, but it all begins with personal connections, be they friendly or hostile.

Would you want your vindictive ex-girlfriend in the jury box at your own trial?  Would you want the best friend of alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev among the jurors at his?

I didn’t think so.  It would be a travesty and a miscarriage of justice, and our system is all the more laudable for taking such pains to ensure it doesn’t happen.

Why shouldn’t the press be held to this same high standard?  Why are reporters allowed to so casually exchange pleasantries with the movers and shakers of government one day, and then be expected to disinterestedly grill them on TV and in newspapers the next?  Since when do any of these folks merit our benefit of the doubt?

The fact is that personal relationships are inherently corrosive to our ability to assess a person’s character and actions fairly.  That’s why friendships are so wonderful and hatreds so toxic.  The former allow us to fool ourselves into thinking certain people are more perfect than they actually are, while the latter do precisely the opposite.

Because this is how human nature works, and because we cannot pretend otherwise, we must make every effort to prevent such bonds from taking root in areas of professional life in which they do not belong.  And when they do take root, those involved should have the decency to call a spade a spade, lest they make a mockery of themselves, of us and of the eternal search for justice and truth.

Anything else would be unseemly.  Ebert would not approve.

The Big Bad ‘Wolf’

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is an exhilarating acid trip into the mind of one of the most amoral characters one can imagine.  Jordan Belfort, as portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a stock broker with a bottomless appetite for sex, drugs and cold hard cash, and there is no level of fraud and manipulation to which he is not prepared to stoop in order to procure them.

Because the movie is so bloody entertaining, many have suggested that it effectively endorses the reprehensible behavior it depicts.  That Scorsese is glorifying Belfort’s ravenous lifestyle as much as he is attacking it.  That The Wolf of Wall Street is a celebration of the greediest corners of the contemporary American culture, not a condemnation thereof.

It doesn’t, he isn’t, and it’s not.

In point of fact, The Wolf of Wall Street is as devastatingly honest a portrait of the toxins of Wall Street gluttony as one could hope to find, and Scorsese ought to be lauded for how (deservedly) hard his film is on its wayward protagonist.

The charge of glorification, which has come even from some of the movie’s admirers, is easy enough to understand.  After all, what Belfort makes clear above all else—particularly through DiCaprio’s voice-over narration—is that his years of scamming, coke-snorting, pill-popping and hooker-grinding were an epoch of orgiastic glee, and he savored every minute of it.

The slick cars, the potent powders, the gorgeous women—he truly could not get enough.  What is more, not only does he not regret the dirty dealings that brought these pleasures about—rather, he boasts about them, as if expecting a pat on the back and a gold watch for his sheer chutzpah.

He was not simply a kid in the candy store.  He was a kid who broke into the candy store, trashed it beyond repair and made off with all the jelly beans before the cops finally turned up.

Except that when the authorities dusted for fingerprints, Belfort’s were all over the place, and boy was there hell to pay.

You see, the point is not what Belfort got away with.  The point is what happened to him when his luck ran out.

Anyone who views The Wolf of Wall Street as a paean to unfettered greed has overlooked nearly the entire second half of the film, during which (spoiler alert!) Belfort’s shenanigans lead to the collapse of his marriage, a prolonged FBI investigation into his business practices and a prison term of some 22 months.

Like Henry Hill, the would-be hero of Scorsese’s GoodFellas, Belfort realizes his dream of untold riches only to have the rug pulled from beneath his feet, as the universe’s arc of justice finally catches up with him to deliver well-deserved retribution (albeit not nearly enough).

I submit that no reasonable person would view this film in its entirety and conclude that Belfort’s life is one worth emulating.  In an admittedly roundabout way, The Wolf of Wall Street demonstrates that carrying on such a morally decrepit existence, however ephemerally enjoyable, is ultimately not worth the trouble.

Of course the good times were a blast.  That’s what makes them the good times.  Do you think Belfort would’ve made the effort if it was all a drag?  Please.  The movie wouldn’t be credible any other way.

The Wolf of Wall Street succeeds for the same reason most anti-smoking campaigns fail.  It presents the whole story of Jordan Belfort—the good, the bad and the smarmy—and trusts its audience to conclude that it amounted to a wasted life.

Kid-targeted anti-drug ads tend not to work because they skip right to the nasty effects of dodgy substances without bothering to explore why one is driven to use them in the first place.  To suggest that drugs are 100 percent bad—that they carry no benefits whatever—is to risk losing one’s intended audience in the first round.  Even children know the difference between propaganda and truth.

Scorsese’s movie treats its viewers as adults.  It portrays Jordan Belfort’s illegal hanky panky as a grand old time because, for him, that’s exactly what it was.

That does not mean the movie condones everything, or anything, that he does.  If you watch The Wolf of Wall Street and come away with a net positive impression of its protagonist and his way of life, the problem is not with Scorsese.  The problem is with you.