Roberto Rossellini

About Roberto Rossellini:
Films of Roberto Rossellini:

"The Flowers of Saint Francis - Roberto Rossellini (1950)

Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of Saint Francis (Francesco Guillare di Dio, translation: “Francesco, God’s Fool”, 1950) bewildered critics when it came out, since it appeared to be a strange amalgam of spirituality and realism. As a consequence the film was a critical and commercial failure, even though Rossellini later remarked that it remained his personal favourite. Rossellini had become an international star director when he effectively launched the Italian Neorealist movement with his postwar trilogy, Rome, Open City (Roma Città Aperta, 1945), Paisan (Paisà, 1946), and Germany Year Zero (Germania Anno Zero, 1948). But thereafter he was charged with having strayed from the Neorealist aesthetic, and The Flowers of Saint Francis was dismissed as an intellectually and aesthetically confused offering. Was slapstick the appropriate genre for such an enlightened spirit as Saint Francis? Of course, there were others, including eminent film directors, who embraced the film as a work of genius. For them, Rossellini’s film was not an exalted evocation of the other world, but instead uniquely grounded Saint Francis’s humanity in everyday human existence.

As usual with Rossellini, the acting was performed by nonprofessionals drawn from the social milieu of the story. In this case monks from the Nocere Inferiore Monastery played the roles of Francis and his friars. The script, co-written by Rossellini and Federico Fellini, was episodic in structure, which for Rossellini was a return to the narrative format of his greatest successes, Rome, Open City and Paisà. It covers nine episodes that have been drawn from the 14th century works, Little Flowers of St. Francis (I Fioretti Di San Francesco) and The Life of Brother Juniper (La Vita di Frate Ginepro) that compiled tales about Saint Francis and his followers that had been passed around in the years following his death. Although the nine episodes, or “chapters”, are all supposed to take place in the two years following the endorsement of his order in 1210 by Pope Innocent III, there are some anachronisms here. Since Francis had only taken up his spiritual vocation in 1209, the film begins at an early stage of the Franciscan movement, when Francis had only eleven followers.
  1. Francis and his followers return in the rain to a humble hut they had just constructed, only to learn that the small shelter is now claimed by a peasant and his donkey. Rather than contest this usurpation, Francis urges his followers to relent and to rejoice that they have finally done something useful in God’s world. The friars then go on to construct a small chapel, Saint Mary of the Angels. Also in this episode, one of the friars, Brother Juniper, returns to the chapel half-naked, because he had given away his tunic to a beggar. Francis gently admonishes him for his naive generosity and instructs him to remain behind at their chapel thereafter to prepare meals for the other friars to eat when they return from preaching.
  2. A simpleminded old peasant, Giovanni, comes to Francis and joins the brotherhood.
  3. A nun from a nearby monastery and an ardent follower of Francis’s mission, Clare (Chiara Offreduccio, who would later found a monastic order for women and is now known as Saint Clare of Assisi), comes to visit Francis and joins the friars in a dinner.
  4. Seeking to provide an ailing brother with his favourite pig’s foot stew, Brother Juniper goes out in the woods and thoughtlessly cuts off the foot of a wandering pig that he finds.
  5. While praying one evening in the woods, Francis encounters a leper and is overcome with compassion. Despite the leper’s efforts to keep his distance, Francis embraces him.
  6. Brother Juniper, seeking to free up time from his cooking duties so that he can join in the preaching, cooks the entire two-weeks worth of food that the group has in store. Again the tolerant Francis only smiles and grants Juniper the desired permission to preach.
  7. Now preaching in the world, Brother Juniper runs across a rowdy warlord gang, whose leader suspects him of being an assassin and orders him to be executed. But Juniper’s meekness and humility dumbfounds his captor and moves the “tyrant” to release him and abandon military siege he had been conducting.
  8. Francis and Brother Leon discuss what is perfect happiness, with Francis dismissing a number of suggested scenarios as not achieving the desired perfection. Then they seek alms in the name of Jesus at a residence and are rewarded with a sound beating by the owner, at which point Francis proclaims that this kind of suffering for God is exactly what constitutes perfect happiness.
  9. Before sending the brothers separately out into the world to teach, Francis has them spin around until they are dizzy and fall to the ground. The individual directions they now face will be where God wants them to head out to preach.
There is little narrative progression in The Flowers of Saint Francis, and the nine episodes can collectively be considered to paint a psychological portrait of Francis and his nascent group. Each of the episodes seem to highlight the almost absurd gaiety of the Franciscans in the context of their miserable poverty. They are all presented as holy fools wallowing joyously in the mud. This sharply contrasts with typical films about religious figures, who are typically presented as (eventually) exalted souls that soar far above us ordinary sorts. Here in this film, Francis and the brothers are so ordinary, and their circumstances are so confined and squalid, that we find it hard to believe that this represents the origins of a holy order. And yet Rossellini’s neorealist aesthetics makes these figures come alive as real, believable people.

I have remarked on Rossellini’s neorealist aesthetics before, in “Aesthetics of Two Neorealist Films: Open City and Paisan”. There is an emphasis on direct, sometimes melodramatic action and, at the same time, the maintenance of a somewhat detached perspective on the part of the camera (the narrative’s “silent witness”) that generates a sense of newsreel immediacy. This is enhanced by the naturalness of his nonprofessional actors that evokes a realistic social milieu. It is an evocation of realism in our subjective consciousness, rather than a true representation of what actually happened. As an example, criticism of the film illustrates the distinctions concerning what is true “realism”: some critics complained that the friars in Rossellini’s film looked too comfortable and well-fed for what must have been emaciated 13th century religious mendicants living in extreme poverty. They complained that Rosellini’s friars were not realistic, despite the fact that Rossellini had engaged real Franciscan monks to play the roles. Rossellini, the humanist, was seeking realism in a different dimension than the purely physical and external.

Moreover, true realism of any sort seems to have been entirely abandoned in episode 7, which features the one professional actor in the film, Aldo Fabrizi, whose music-hall hamming as the “tyrant” Nicolaio, features bug-eyed histrionics that belong more in slapstick comedy. These comedic effects not only reduce our feelings about the authenticity of the scene, they also threaten to make the band of brothers appear ludicrous and undermine our overall appreciation of Saint Francis, himself. In particular, those parts of the film featuring Juniper (Ginepro) and Giovanni (episodes 2, 4, 6, & 7) focus on two disciples who seem not to have fully embraced a life of “Sufic” compassion towards others. Giovanni is innocent, but seems to be more of an imitator of outward behaviour, than someone who had fully digested the message of compassion. Juniper is both innocent and selfless, but his literal-minded adherence to Francis’s rules lacks real comprehension and is ultimately destructive. His hacking off of the pig’s foot (which some people apparently regard as funny) is a repugnant example of how mindless rule-following, without any deeper understanding, can be ruinous to one’s fellow beings. All we can say is that his actions remind us that there is no inherent virtue in innocence.

Nevertheless, the spiritual limitations of Juniper and Giovanni do not necessarily detract from our appreciation of Francis, but only remind us of the typical kinds of people who are often attracted to the spiritual path and which one is likely to encounter along the way. And this returns us to the key quality of this film – the ordinariness of the characters, their simple humanity that underlies many of Rossellini’s films.

There are a number of moments and images from this film that linger in the mind afterwards.
  • Francis’s vivid and emphatic references to “Brother Fire” and “Sister Death”, which suggest his inner connection with all of reality, all experience.
  • The picture of Brother Juniper’s sense of satisfaction as he holds up the pig’s foot that he has just amputated.
  • The images of Francis and his brothers almost celebrating their physical wretchedness in the rain and mud, suggesting that their self-realization of their inner sturdiness brings them greater joy.
  • Francis’s late-night encounter with the leper.
  • Francis talks to a little bird that comes to his hand.
  • The tentativeness associated with the meeting with Saint Clare.
It is an odd potpourri from Rossellini, but it is unique and definitely worthwhile seeing.

"The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser" - Werner Herzog (1974)

Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Jeder Für Sich und Gott Gegen Alle, translation: "Every Man for Himself and God Against All”, 1974) chronicles the bizarre, but real, story of a teenage German boy whose brief life in the early part of the 19th century remains a subject of speculation to this day. Those familiar with writer-director Herzog’s often grim, expressionistic oeuvre are likely to assume that the weird circumstances presented in the film could only be the product of Herzog’s febrile imagination. But in fact the film follows the documented facts of a historical figure very closely. Nevertheless and despite the film’s conformity to the known account, it still falls very much within the scope of Herzog’s unique expressionistic vision.
First it is best to reprise what is known about the real Kaspar Hauser. According to Hauser’s own account, he spent the first sixteen years of his life chained up in a tiny dungeon with only a toy horse to play with and cut off from all human contact except for a man in a black overcoat who gave him food and taught him a few rudimentary things. Then in 1828 this man took Hauser out of his confinement, taught him to stand upright and walk, and then left him in a square in Nuremberg with a letter for him to hold in his hand. The letter stated that the boy had been born in 1812 and had been given by the “Court” into the care of the letter’s author, an impoverished father of ten children of his own, as an infant and that this man had kept the child in his quarters for the past sixteen years. It further stated that the boy would like to become a cavalryman. The boy was then taken into the care of the local jailer and began receiving some basic instruction. Later Hauser was given into the care of a schoolmaster, Friedrich Daumer, who spent time tutoring the boy and found that despite the boy’s extreme innocence and ignorance concerning things in the world, he had an aptitude for learning. In late 1829, however, Hauser was mysteriously attacked and wounded by an intruder in Daumer’s house. Hauser identified the assailant as the man who had brought him to Nuremberg. Nevertheless, Hauser’s education proceeded, and this ultimately attracted the attention of a British nobleman, Lord Stanhope, who took a philanthropic interest in furthering Hauser’s education. In 1833 Hauser received a fatal stab wound in his chest. When the police searched his quarters, they found a note in mirror writing that read [1]:
“Hauser will be able to tell you quite precisely how I look and from where I am. To save Hauser the effort, I want to tell you myself from where I come _ _ . I come from _ _ _ the Bavarian border _ _ On the river _ _ _ _ _ I even want to tell you the name: M. L. Ö.”
Nothing more was ever known about Hauser’s true origins or the identity of his assailant. Because of the strange circumstances surrounding Kaspar Hauser’s appearance and death, he attracted considerable public interest and has always been the subject of controversy. Some commentators speculated that he was somehow connected with a succession struggle in the House of Baden, a German noble family. Many others have accused Hauser of being a self-publicising fraud and habitual liar. These latter critics of Hauser claim that Hauser’s story of his entire upbringing taking place chained in a prison cell is not remotely credible and that noone could have survived very long under such conditions. These detractors even claim that Hauser even inflicted the publicized wounds on himself (the latter one, obviously, overdone) in order to further his notoriety.

Now a filmmaker interested in the “enigma” of Kaspar Hauser might explore the true origins and background of Hauser, or he might question and investigate the authenticity of Hauser’s curious account. Herzog does neither of these things. For him the enigma of Kaspar Hauser lies in an altogether different direction. For one thing, Herzog’s film shows none of the doubts about Hauser’s credibility and presents an image of complete sympathy for a man who struggles to understand the world and his place it. As such, the film metaphorically explores our own existential and unaccountable “thrownness” into a world beyond our understanding. A common theme in Herzog’s films is the profound alienation of the principle character from the world. This sense of alienation, indeed extreme isolation, reveals itself as a separation from the “humane”, rational world that perhaps only exists in our fantasies. This is what Hauser feels in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, when he emerges from his simple “cocoon” – he finds a world of astonishing complexity, filled with beings who seem distant, often savage (“they are like wolves”), and forever beyond his comprehension.

The film’s narrative structure has four basic sections that relate the course of Kaspar’s early background in the cellar dungeon, his initial assimilation into the community, his further educational development, and ultimately his downfall.

1. Kaspar’s Background
The first half hour of the film shows the extreme restrictions of Kaspar Hauser’s confinement in the cellar. He is chained to the floor, eats bread, and only has a small toy horse to manipulate. The man in the black cape arrives one day, and, while largely shielding himself from Kaspar’s gaze, rudely teaches Hauser to write his name and to walk upright. This man then deposits Hauser in a Nuremberg town square and tells him to wait there.

2 Kaspar’s Initial Assimilation into Nuremberg
The profoundly ignorant and almost mute Hauser is taken to the police for examination where he is adjudged to be relatively harmless. Hauser’s innocence is dramatized by an incident when his curiosity compels him to touch a candle flame; the resulting burn shocks him and brings tears to his eyes. In fact Hauser proves to be so gentle that the local jailer takes him into his home, and his children begin giving Hauser instruction about elementary things in the world. The jailer’s wife even lets Kaspar hold her newborn baby, which again brings the tender Kaspar to tears, as he bemoans the deeply felt separation that he feels from everyone and everything. There is also a scene in which some local hooligans antagonise Kaspar by first tormenting a rooster and then thrusting it upon Hauser in his cell. As I mentioned in my review of Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970),
“Herzog is known to despise and fear chickens, and they must represent something overwhelmingly repulsive to him. Their relentlessly spasmodic movements and their often fierce, mindless savagery conjure up a sense of meaningless animal brutality.”
So it is emblematic of Herzog’s attitude towards these quizzical creatures that he depicts the gentle Hauser, who is shown to relate easily and intimately to other animals, immediately shrinking back in horror when confronted with the rooster.

3 With the Schoolmaster, Mr. Daumer
In order to reduce the upkeep of Hauser in the city jail, the town officials have him earn some money by putting him on exhibition at a local freak show. There he is espied by the schoolmaster, Daumer, who decides to take Hauser home and supervise his further education. After two years Daumer observes that Hauser is a naive but surprisingly apt student who intuitively asks questions that are not easily answered by his more experienced guardians, accustomed as they are to accept things as they are without question.
  • “Why can’t I play the piano like I can breathe?,” Hauser asks at one point.
  • On another occasion he asks Daumer’s housekeeper, “What are women good for? Why are women only allowed to knit and cook?”
  • When he is cross-examined by a logician, his intuitive logical reasoning is more pragmatically grounded than that of the academic.
  • When he is given religious instruction by the local pastors, Hauser questions some of their basic tenets. He says he can’t understand how God could have created everything out of nothing.
  • And during a lesson, Daumer tells Hauser that the movement of external, inanimate objects, such as apples, are subject to his own will. But when Hauser observes the chaotic motion of the thrown apple, he theorizes that the apple must move according to its own will. Thus rather than submitting to doctrinaire principles, Hauser is positing his own models based on the empirical evidence.
Most intriguingly, Hauser has a discussion with Daumer about the nature of space that crucially reveals how vast and terrifying is the new world to which he has been exposed. On this particular occasion Daumer shows him the large Nuremberg prison tower in which he was initially confined. This spurs Hauser to insist that his cell inside that vast tower was much bigger than the tower, itself:
“Wherever I look to the room – to the right, to the left, frontwards, backwards – there is only room. But when I look at the tower and turn around, the tower is gone! So the room is bigger than the tower!”
This reminds us that while we viewers would envision his early confinement as terribly constrained and claustrophobic, to Hauser that small room was existentially the entire universe – nothing was beyond that cell. So the cell was vast, a complete world all by itself. Now, out of his confinement the world of the same "size", but different -- it is now infinitely more complicated and animated with hostile forces.

4 Hauser’s Visions and Demise
While the film up to this point has depicted Hauser’s progressively successful accommodation to our rationalized world, the final act suggests the deep mysteries that still remain, perhaps not only to Hauser but to all of us, as well. The effete Lord Stanhope comes and offers his patronage to Hauser, but the stylized manners of him and his entourage are overwhelming to Hauser. Ultimately the count concludes that Hauser is uncivilized and departs without him. Then Hauser experiences the first attack by the man in the black cape. While recovering from this injury, Hauser recounts a mysterious dream he has had of a mass of people all trying to climb a steep mountain in murky fog. At the top of the mountain, awaiting them, in this dream was Death. Later Hauser is attacked again, this time fatally. On his deathbed he relates a story fragment this is also dreamlike – it tells of a wandering tribe lost in the Sahara Desert who are guided by a blind Berber to a “city in the North”.

The overall strength of Herzog’s film narrative is significantly enhanced by the performance of “Bruno S.” (Bruno Schleinstein) in the role of Kasper Hauser. It was an ingenious move of Herzog to insert Schleinstein, a street musician with no previous acting experience and who had spent much of his early life in and out of mental institutions. Indeed, Schleinstein’s every encounter in the film seems intuitively authentic and entirely original. Though Schleinstein was forty-one years old at the time and thus far older than the teenage Hauser he was supposed to depict, that age difference is not fatal to the telling, and his performance is magnetic. It was the success of his performance here that inspired Herzog to craft the screenplay for Stroszek (1977) expressly for Schleinstein. Commenting on Schleinstein recently at the time of his death, Herzog remarked that “. . .with all the great actors with whom I have worked, he was the best.” [2].

Hauser’s two “dream” stories towards the end of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser convey the suggestion that all mankind is lost in a wilderness and is wandering towards an indeterminate destination and fate. We seem to be searching for something, but for what? The mysteries behind this search were what Hauser sought to understand, but he received little assistance or support from his supposedly more enlightened contemporaries. The routine explanations, procedures, and “reports filed” in our conventional society (as epitomized by the town secretary in the film) fail to address these ultimate questions in any meaningful way. In the end Hauser was destroyed without provocation by an unfathomable foe. Why? Why are we all created with the capacity to ask these existential questions and then doomed to die without answers? That is the real enigma of Kaspar Hauser.


“The Constant Gardener” - Fernando Meirelles (2005)

The Constant Gardener (2005), one of the best films of the past decade, has had numerous admirers, but because of its many themes, it has been viewed, and criticized, from a number of different angles. Based on John Le Carre’s 2001 novel of the same name, the film can be variously experienced as primarily a mystery/thriller, an expose of the pharmaceutical industry, an expose of Western statecraft’s subservience to globalized capitalism, or a love story, depending on one’s predilections. In fact the task of taking Le Carre’s typically intricate novel of 550-plus pages and somehow fashioning an entertaining, not to mention comprehensible, two-hour movie out of the material must have been daunting. But I would say Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles was definitely up to the task, and he made superb choices to create something special – a gripping cinematic story that has a reflective philosophical motif at its core. Meirelles had already attracted international intention with his spectacular previous outing, The City of God (2002), which was a startling, visceral drama about crime in the Rio de Janeiro suburban slums. With The Constant Gardener, his first English language film, he displayed further mastery and an impressive new expressive dimension.

Yes, The Constant Gardener could be said to be about corruption, intrigue, capitalism, and love, but this is not just a random collection of themes – there is something in this film that ties all these seemingly disparate things together in terms of a larger theme. I will try to explain.

The protagonist, Justin Quayle, is a mid-level British diplomat stationed in Kenya, whose modest, civilized character is symbolized by his avocation of gardening. He is a gentleman in every way, and he lives well within the boundaries of his (and our) culture, as it has been defined to all of us in our upbringing. This is a society governed by the rule of law, human rights, freedom of expression, and equal opportunity. But, curiously, our culture predominantly characterizes these things in selfish terms. It is said, especially by libertarians, that it is in our enlightened self-interests to obey the laws and to support freedom-of-action and human rights as much as possible. This general credo of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is promoted, because there is a payoff promised to us if we follow it. We, individually, will all be happier, we are assured, if everyone conforms to these norms. Society sets up various punishments if we don’t follow the norms, and to ensure even more faithful adherence, our religions promise us that God is watching us at all times and will reward us in the afterlife if we live virtuously. Of course, selfish pleasure-seekers might not see the big picture, so the need to be constrained, but we educated ones (who are presumably enlightened and see the bit picture) will follow the rules, because they are in our long-term selfish interests.

This ethos of enlightened self interest is extended into our capitalistic economic sphere to the notion of a corporation. Corporations are legally identified as “individuals” that are expected to operate according to their enlightened self interests (i.e. the interests of their share-holders). According to this scheme, we humans have evolved from the savage beasts, which our forebears once were, by learning that cooperation gives us a competitive advantage: cooperation and rule-following is in our selfish interests, because it gives us a competitive advantage. This selfish-competitive mantra barely needs repeating today and has become second nature to us. Nevertheless, despite this conventional notion of (hopefully enlightened) self-interested behavior, we intuitive know that there is something missing from this cultural picture: empathy. And it is empathy that is ultimately the overriding theme of The Constant Gardener.

The concept of empathy, though, has often been dismissed by the academic community. Logical positivists, behaviorists, and other scientific reductionists dismiss conventional notions of the mind, such as beliefs and desires, as merely examples of “folk psychology”. To them these ideas are part o f loose talk that may be satisfactory fir casual conversation, but they are held to be unscientific and must ultimately be superceded by a more neurophysiological-based scientific characterization, just as the notion of magnetic poles was superceded by Maxwell’s more accurate model of electromagnetism. And even most of those other scholars who do regard “folk psychology” as a useful descriptive framework don’t have much use for the notion of empathy – they are satisfied that all human decision-making can be understood on the basis of the mental notions of beliefs and desires.

Nevertheless, empathy is a real and primordial mental faculty, even if we don’t yet fully understand it. Whenever we exchange eye-to-eye contact with another person, or even another mammal, there is a mutual awareness of another sentient being that is being observed. This evokes the glimmerings of empathy. Neurophysiological evidence from brain imaging reveals that mostly the same areas of the brain are activated both when we feel pain and when we observe another animal subjected to pain. That similar response of sharing pain with the other is empathy. As a consequence of these studies and also the re-emergence of phenomenology, the notion of empathy has attracted renewed attention from philosophers [1,2] and biologists [3,4,5] as a fundamental category of human interaction. De Walls even points to an innate “inequity aversion” in animals:
“A dog will repeatedly perform a trick without rewards, but refuse as soon as another dog gets pieces of sausage for the same trick. Recently, Sarah reported an unexpected twist to the inequity issue, however. While testing pairs of chimps, she found that also the one who gets the better deal occasionally refuses. It is as if they are satisfied only if both get the same. We seem to be getting close to a sense of fairness.” [3]
But despite these studies and our own intuitive convictions that empathy is real, there is still a problem – empathy is not really wired into our conventional social culture. That culture is still based almost exclusively on self-interests. Corporations and government organizations are instructed to evaluate the world on the basis of their own selfish interests, and moral behaviour is assumed to only arise on the basis of those long-term interests.

In The Constant Gardener, the protagonist, Justin Quayle meets and falls in love with a beautiful young woman who is very much attuned to her own empathic feelings towards her fellow beings. The principal narrative theme concerns how Justin eventually understands and shares that empathic passion with her.

The plot of the film can be divided into roughly four sections or acts, each of which represents a successive stage in Justin’s journey towards enlightenment and commitment. The focalization of the film is almost entirely limited to Justin, but there are a few scenes just outside Justin’s scope and which are mostly centered around Justin’s boss in Kenya, Sandy Woodrow.
1. Justin and Tessa.
The opening scene shows Justin kissing his wife, Tessa, good-bye at the Nairobi airport, just prior to her departure with a companion, Dr. Arnold Bluhm, to the northern Kenyan city of Lokichogio. The next shots reveal that she has been murdered somewhere on the road, and Justin must go to the morgue to identify her body. The rest of this act is devoted to flashbacks about how Justin came to meet and fall in love with Tessa. She was a political science student and liberal activist who attended a guest lecture given by Justin. Their romance was rapid, as the self-confident Tessa readily welcomed Justin’s shy advances. Soon it was she who proposed that he marry her and take her back with him to his diplomatic assignment in Africa. Once there she soon partners with a black African doctor, Arnold Bluhm, in connection with her passion to improve the health and welfare of poverty-stricken natives. The close association of Bluhm with the liberal Tessa makes Justin feel uneasy, and he fears that the two may be intimate. In connection with Tessa’s work with Bluhm, she learned that a large, international drug corporation, KVH, was compelling poor natives seeking AIDS treatment to undergo testing of Dypraxa, an unproven tuberculosis (TB) drug with known, sometimes fatal, side effects. KVH and their local heatlhcare partners administering the tests, ThreeBees Corp., were covering up the deaths caused by the Dypraxa tests.

2. The Conspiracy Revealed.
We return the “present”, with Justin and his boss, British High Commissioner (i.e. Ambassador) Sandy Woodrow in the morgue. Because Arnold Bluhm is missing, it is assumed by the government that he was Tessa’s lover and brutal murderer. The grief-stricken Justin wants to know more about these murky circumstances and why their home was ransacked after her death, so he begins to investigate. Justin learns that Tessa had sent a report, via Sandy Woodrow, to Sir Bernard Pelligrin, head of the Africa desk of the British Foreign Service, revealing the conspiracy of KVH and ThreeBees and accusing them of blatant illegalities and wrongful deaths. Tessa had subsequently learned that her letter was suppressed by Pelligrin, and she had then conspired to get hold of Pelligrin’s abusive and self-incriminating letter dismissing her revelations. Justin now knows that the British government was in on the conspiracy in order to assist its corporate allies.

3. Justin on the Trail.
Justin is now determined to follow up on Tessa’s investigation. He returns to England, where his passport is confiscated, and he realizes that he is now seen as an enemy of the British Foreign Service. He acquires a fake passport so that he can continue his clandestine consultations with some of Tessa’s fellow social activists in Europe. And despite beatings and death threats from paid thugs, the mild-mannered diplomat’s resolve is firm. He learns about Tessa’s acquisition of Pelligrin’s self-damning letter, and also he learns both that Bluhm was not really Tessa’s secret lover, but only an innocent victim, and that Tessa’s ill-fated trip to Lokichogio was connected with her efforts to meet a developer of Dypraxa, Dr. Lorbeer. His sights are now set on finding Lorbeer back in Africa.

4. The End of the Road.
Returning to Africa, Justin accumulates more crucial evidence about the conspiracy, but learns from the cynical but sympathetic head of MI5 in Kenya, Tim Donohue, that the British government has taken a contract out on his life, just as it had done with Bluhm and Tessa. Justin doggedly goes ahead manages to track down the eccentric Lorbeer in Sudan, acquire from him the damning letter from Pelligrin, and get it dispatched back to allies in England where it can be revealed to the public. But he knows he cannot escape his tragic fate.
Throughout The Constant Gardener Justin’s sense of empathy expands towards the wider circles encompassed by Tessa’s. In Act 1, he is a sensitive, caring man in love, but his concern is primarily with Tessa. Right after her miscarriage in Kenya, Tessa beseeches Justin to give ride in their car to a poor African boy who must walk back to his village forty kilometers away. Justin denies her request, saying that they cannot attend to all the poor people in Africa and that her health must come first. But she protests, to no avail, that this is one person who needs help and that they can help. This exemplified her existential engagement of sympathy, something that could take precedence over more practical considerations in some situations. Towards the end, in Act 4, Justin has adopted Tessa’s perspective. While trying to escape a murderous attack by brigands on the Sudanese village he is visiting, Justin asks the pilot to take onboard a poor black girl who had been working with Lorbeer. This time the roles are reversed, and the pilot repeats Justin’s earlier practical, rule-based argument, denying Justin’s empathic appeal. In response to “we can’t save everybody”, Justin (echoing Tessa) says, “yes, bu we can save this person!". In both situations the empathy-denying responses seemed reasonable, but they reflect the fact that our organizations seem to have no place for empathy.

There are four significant characters in the film who show a certain degree of sympathy for Justin’ situation, but they all fall short of true empathy.
  1. Sir Bernard Pelligrin expresses sympathy in Act 2 to Justin for the death of Tessa, but, of course, he is lying and was a direct cause of her death. His utter hypocrisy puts him at the lowest level.
  2. Sir Kenneth Curtiss, the CEO of ThreeBees, helps Justin in Act 4 by supplying him evidence of ThreeBees own culpability. But this is merely an act of revenge, since he knows that he is about to get dumped in the corporate world, and he wants to take others down with him. His vengeful action is not the empathy we seek.
  3. Sandy Woodrow weeps at the death of Tessa and appears to show sympathy. But we later learn that he is a weak and self-seeking individual and that his feelings for Tessa were entirely selfish.
  4. The spymaster Tim Donohue sympathizes with Justin, because he, too, is doomed, in his case with a terminal illness. But his empathic action does not extend to all his fellow creatures, as it does with Tessa, and later Justin, but is merely directed to a similarly powerless individual.
All of the men above were operating inside systems and organizations for which empathy has no reward and no place. And perhaps it says something about our culture that the two worst scoundrels in the story had been bestowed with the honor of knighthood. Although some of these men were dimly aware of these shortcomings, they were all submissive to the status quo of selfishness. Only Tessa heroically rebelled against that situation, and so, too, in the end, did Justin.

The mise-en-scene of Meirelles in The Constant Gardener is fascinating in the way it skillfully maintains a feeling of anxiety via its impressionistic renderings. We, the viewers, are like Justin and stand outside of the major, critical happenings. The murders of Tessa and Arnold Bluhm are not even shown; we are only given the information after the fact. Similarly, Tessa’s miscarriage in the hospital and her visit to Dr. Lorbeer are not shown directly. Everything is seen from the narrative perspective of Justin, who is trying to catch up with a series of machinations that are outside of his control. There is considerable camera movement, along with a stream of perspectival compositions, that sustain this anxious, impressionistic mood, all the while maintaining a smooth visual continuity and dynamic flow. At the same time Meirelles also gives the viewer impressionistic shots of winsome, joyful black children in the villages that evoke unconscious empathy on the part of the viewer. One can't help but recognize that they are our brothers and sisters who deserve a better deal.

The acting is uniformly good, especially, that of Ralph Fiennes, whose introspective portrayal of Justin is reminiscent of his performance in The English Patient (1996). Rachel Weisz (Tessa) and Danny Huston (Sandy) also stand out.

As for the subject matter, what could be a more appropriate industry on which to focus this issue of empathy than the healthcare industry? Healthcare should be founded on empathy, but the corporate practices are everywhere governed by selfish profit. In a review of Le Carre’s novel that is sympathetic to the profit-driven pharmaceutical industry, the author remarks [6]
“The author also touches on real-life social concerns, such as the possible coercion of needy patients, the solicitation of favorable reports and testimonials by opinion leaders, and the ghostwriting of such testimonials by sponsoring pharmaceuticals firms themselves. The reader is also exposed to some of the realities of biomedical publishing, such as the difficulty of communicating negative data in premier medical journals, the potential for censorship of unpopular data by biased peer reviewers, and the use of confidentiality agreements that can prevent company employees and their associates from communicating research findings.”
. . .
“However, the practices attributed to KVH do not appear to be out of line with real-life pharmaceutical R&D activities. KVH met or exceeded the regulatory requirements for clinical safety and efficacy necessary to achieve market approval in three countries. It is not uncommon to adjust clinical protocols, as the fictional company appears to do, when adverse events are observed, in order to ensure safety. Similarly, pharma companies often seek the endorsement of key opinion leaders, as does KVH, as a way of encouraging the medical community to use a new drug. Finally, confidentiality agreements are standard practice in the pharmaceutical industry; they are designed to protect the huge financial investment that underlies drug development and to control disclosure of data about drugs that are still under development.”
So the practices described in the film (presumably accurately following Le Carre’s text) are apparently standard with the pharmaceutical industry, and these are exclusively driven by the selfish interests of profit. Maybe we need something a little different for the healthcare field. In fact, maybe we need to consider how corporations, in general, could be restructured for the better, in order to go beyond their present selfish orthodoxy. This is the subject of the recent book by Dev Patnaik, Wired to Care, which argues that the corporations today lack empathy and that for them to be more effectively service-oriented, they will need to establish a more widely held sense of empathy for their customers.

At the end of the film while awaiting his grim fate, Justin soliloquizes aloud to his departed Tessa, "I know your secret now". That secret was Tessa's feeling of engaged compassion towards the entire world. Justin had moved in the film from the withdrawn world of the gardener, to the passionate embrace of his beloved, and on to that level of comprehensive compassionate engagement. We need to do that in a more inclusive fashion and think about empathy in a wider, social context. Perhaps The Constant Gardener may be a little bit helpful in getting us to think and feel along these lines.

  1. Karsten Stueber, "Empathy", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2008,
  2. Karsten R. Stueber, Rediscovering Empathy: Agency, Folk Psychology, and the HumanSciences, The MIT Press, 2005.
  3. Frans de Waal , The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society, Three Rivers P:ress, 2010.
  4. Frans de Waal, “Morals without God”, New York Times, 17 October 2010, (
  5. Frans de Waal, “Fair Play: Monkeys Share Our Sense of Injustice”, New Scientist, 11 November 2009.(
  6. Rebecca Anderson, “The Drug that Came in From the Cold”, Molecular Interventions, American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, 2004, (

“Happy Times” - Zhang Yimou (2000)

Zhang Yimou rose to international prominence in the early 1990s with a series of films depicting a woman (always starring his partner, Gong Li) struggling to make her way in an indifferent society. But Zhang’s thematic and stylistic range has always been relatively broad, and over the years he has demonstrated his skills across a wide spectrum of film genres. In fact after the Gong Li films, he ventured into films noir (Shanghai Triad, 1995), black comedies (Keep Cool, 1997), and Hong-Kong-style martial arts features (Hero, 2002). It almost seemed as if with each new outing he had set out to demonstrate his prowess with a new genre. But Zhang is more than a professional artisan adapting his style in accordance with his latest assignment: with each new film he seems to be exploring the boundaries of whatever genre engaged. So it was with his fascinating and wistful Happy Times (Xìngfú Shíguõāng, 2000).

In the case of this film, it has divided critics, because it in fact contains a mixture of three different genres:
  1. Lowbrow Comedy featuring oafish rascals – the kind of farcical fare seen on television sitcoms and appearing to a wide audience eager to laugh at fools who get themselves into trouble. (The film starred some well-known Chinese comedy actors.)
  2. Social Commentary – a theme that, of necessity, can only be implicit in Chinese-made films. With respect to this thread of the film, there is a subtle interplay and contrast throughout between literal honesty and sincerity.
  3. Existential Struggle – the artistic theme that has characterized and distinguished Zhang’s greatest work.
Reviewers have frequently seized upon one of those stylistic themes above, to the critical neglect of the other two, which helps account for the wide variation of opinions on the film.

The story goes through four phases, although the third section could be divided in two to make five overall phases. As it progresses, it moves gradually from mostly lowbrow-comedy (LC) mode more to one of social commentary (SC) and existential struggle (ES).
1. The Happy Times Hut (22 minutes).
The film opens in lowbrow-comedy mode with Zhao, a fiftyish bachelor, trying for the 19th time to find a woman who will marry him. The object of his ardent pursuits on this occasion is an obese, twice-divorced lady whom he has found through a matchmaker. This woman (who is nameless and only referenced occasionally by Zhao’s mates as the “Chunky Momma”) has two children: a super-spoiled and equally obese teenage son, who is a repellent icon of China’s one-child policy, and a blind, eighteen-year-old step-daughter, Wu Ying, whom she treats abusively. It soon becomes evident that Zhao is a schemer who “talks out of both sides of his mouth” and is perpetually short of cash. One of the reasons for his financial straits is that he and his mates are all “retired”, i.e. part of China’s vast body of elderly workers who have been laid-off from uncompetitive state-own companies. Throughout the film the theme of misrepresentation to keep up appearances is presented on many levels. But underlying this theme is a distinction between literal truth and authenticity of feeling.

Although broke, Zhao promises his intended wife that he will fund a relatively posh 50,000-yuan wedding for her. This big-shot posturing presents his first (of many) problems: how is he going to come up with the cash for such a wedding? His friend and former workmate, Fu, helps out by coming up with a scheme to refurbish an abandoned bus in back of their old, shutdown factory and charge lovers searching for a private tryst location. The two schemers label their rendezvous site, the “Happy Times Hut”, and soon Zhao is boasting to Chunky Momma that he is a big-time hotel manager. Zhao’s problem looks like it may be solved.

2. Wu Ying’s 1st job. (22 minutes)
The Chunky Momma, eager to get her blind step-daughter, Wu Ying, out of her flat, insists that Zhao get her a job at his hotel and have her quartered there. This presents another problem for Zhao, and the narrative now shifts from primarily lowbrow comedy (LC) to incorporate Wu Ying’s existential plight (ES). Zhao agrees to the demand to give the girl some kind of make-work, and conducts a fake job interview, during which Wu Ying reveals her sad history of how she lost her sight and then her father. But when Zhao leads the girl to his “Happy Times Hut” bus for her first day on the job, he finds that the old abandoned bus has been removed as an eyesore by the landowner. His “business” is kaput. So now Zhao’s new, immediate problem, besides that of making money for the wedding, is how to find shelter for Wu Ying so that she doesn’t give away the truth about his phoney background.

3. Wu Ying’s 2nd job. (37 minutes)
Having learned that Wu Ying knows how to give massages, Zhao and Fu get permission to temporarily refashion their shutdown factory workshop with the tools that remain there. With the help of their other “retired” workmates, they erect a fake hotel massage parlor for Wu Ying to be the masseuse. The workmates then pretend to be hotel customers, and Wu Ying happily gives them all expert massages. By this point Zhao and his mates are so concerned about Wu Ying’s happiness that they seem to have forgotten about the original problem: the needed 50,000 yuan. With no money coming in, Zhao even hocks his old TV in order to buy Wu Ying a new dress for her “job”, and the “customers” have to use fake money even to give the customary tips to their masseuse.

But for the moment, the fantasy is intoxicating, and they all reinforce themselves with giddy optimism. While celebrating their supposedly booming massage business at a noodle shop, Wu Ying takes out a letter from her absent, beloved father that was written to the Chunky Momma and asks Zhao to read it to her. As Zhao reads it aloud and realizes that the letter only talks about the rascal father’s monetary failures, making no mention of Wu Ying, Zhao pauses and fibs that there is a hard-to-read postscript of the letter about Wu Ying that he will read to her later, when he has his glasses.

4. Parting ways (14 minutes)
On his next visit to the Chunky Momma, Zhao learns that he has been summarily dumped. The woman berates him for all his lies and admonishes him to “be honest and speak the truth”. He can only respond that though he did lie, his overall feelings for her were sincere. But she boots him from her premises, and the dejected Zhao is out on the street, consoling himself with alcohol. He borrows a pen at a canteen and adds some promised fake words about Wu Ying to her father’s letter, but a short while later he is run over by a truck.

At the end of the film, Fu and the other workmates go to the hospital and find Zhao in a coma, and then, when they return to Zhao’s apartment, they learn that Wu Ying has run away. So at the conclusion of the story both Wu Ying and Zhao face uncertain and dubious futures – we don’t know if Zhao will regain consciousness, and we don’t know how Wu Ying can survive wandering sightlessly in the streets. Yet despite these dire circumstances for the two protagonists, the film ends on a curiously uplifting note. Both Zhao and Wu Ying have left messages to each other which cannot be delivered to their intended recipients and are known only to Zhao’s workmates. Zhao’s message is the fake letter to Wu Ying, and Wu Ying’s message is a tape recording to Zhao that she left in Zhao’s apartment just before departing. Each message urges its recipient to believe in her or himself and always to have faith in a positive outcome, no matter what difficulties life may present to them.
Each of the two final messages basically asserts the same thing: that life can be beautiful if you don’t give up – and that authentic, sincere, and meaningful interactions with other people are ultimately possible and worth striving for, no matter that some of them may turn out sour. At the end of the film, what started out as a colloquial comedy has turned into a soulful and inspirational message of hope.

Looking back over the course of the narrative, we could say that by engaging in sincere, authentic interactions with each other, Zhao and Wu Ying gave each other something priceless. And yet during their all interactions, each of them was participating in an extended deception, a pack of lies. But underneath those lies was an authentic concern for the other. Wu Ying’s recording recognizes Zhao’s ultimate sincerity by acknowledging that “even though the money was fake, your intentions were genuine”.

Although we can take this message on a purely individual scale, there are societal (i.e. the social commentary part, SC) implications, as well. Wu Ying and Zhao’s two messages are not just calls for self-reliance – relying on one’s own capabilities can only carry you so far. Their messages, in fact, are more directed towards believing in the potential goodness of others – to have faith that fruitful, meaningful interactions are always possible with our fellows in the community if we approach them with an open heart. This piece of wisdom is what Zhao and Wu Ying, who have been discarded as useless in today's go-go economy, have come to realize. Have faith in a happy life together with others. Then you will realize that every life, every moment together, can be precious. To be sure, literal honesty has its value, but it is only a mechanical virtue and subservient to the higher value of love. This is Zhang’s ultimate message. Wu Ying’s tape recording refers to the shared deception of their sham massage business and says, “those were our happy times together.”

“Eating, 3rd Edition” - Mike Anderson (2009)

Eating, a documentary film written, produced, and narrated by Mike Anderson and shown on PBS (US Public Broadcasting Service), has a blunt and straightforward thesis: America’s principal health problem is the eating habits of its people. Our eating is killing us. In fact the film cites a US Surgeon General’s assertion that every year “eating kills 2 of 3 Americans”. Why? Because Americans (and those of other wealthy Western societies) are stuffing themselves with animal protein and cholesterol, instead of eating properly: a plant-based diet devoid of any animal products.

The basic thesis of the film is centered around the fact that, despite improvements in wealth and medical care over the past half century, Americans have more than doubled their consumption of meat during this period, which has had very negative consequences on overall health. The cause for this negative health impact is based on the following argument:
  • Animal-based foods supply high levels of cholesterol to the diet – much more than is required for human consumption.
  • The high cholesterol leads to the thickening of artery walls (atherosclerosis, or “hardening of the arteries”).
  • Hardening of the arteries impedes blood circulation throughout the body, thereby diminishing the body’s ability to respond to and repair degenerative and/or invasive tissue problems, such as cancer cells, bacterial and viral infections, or general cell damage.
Thus the #1 agent for good health, which is the body’s own ability to repair itself, has been damaged. If one follows a strictly plant-based diet (and by this I mean not only vegetarian, but a diet without dairy products or anything derived from animals, i.e. a vegan diet), so the argument goes, then the body’s self-repair mechanism will be unimpaired, and many serious health problems can be avoided.

The film’s primary thesis concerning the advantages of plant-based diets echoes the work of T. Colin Campbell, a nutritionist professor from Cornell University who documented his work in the The China Study. Dr. Campbell and his team were given access to detailed, longitudinal nutrition information from a large region of China and concluded that people who consumed less animal protein had reduced incidences of a broad ranges of illnesses and health conditions. The study was said by Jane Brody, nutrition editor of the New York Times, to be “the most comprehensive large study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease.” A summary of some of the findings of “The China Study” can be found here.

Eating provides direct testimony from several people who, having been stricken with serious heart ailments and cancer, chose to ignore the conventional therapeutic programs recommended by their doctors and instead switched to strict plant-based diets. In each case, the plant-based diets let to dramatic reductions in the patients’ serum cholesterol. The results, for these people at least, were remission and reversal of their life-threatening conditions.

After outlining the case against cholesterol ingestion due to an animal-based diet, Anderson moves on to consider why meat, milk, and dairy products are so heavily promoted and subsidized in the US. It comes down to the political influence of powerful lobbies run by meat/dairy industry. They have brainwashed the American public into believing that all children should have three glasses of milk a day, which, as both Anderson and T. Colin Campbell point out, is actually harmful to childrens’ health.

Then the film briefly considers the deleterious effect of animal-based foods on global warming and the environment in general. After rapidly covering information about the dramatic impact that the animal-based-food industry has on the environment, Anderson concludes that the single most effective thing you can do to reduce global warming is to change your diet.

In terms of documentary exposition, Anderson’s narrative style in Eating is deceptively simple, but I found it highly effective and worthy of general consideration by teachers and college lecturers for articulating any argument. Unlike many documentary narrators, Anderson makes no effort to entertain or communicate in a casual, ingratiating style – instead his measured, simple, and deliberate disposition is straight to the point and relentless in the pursuit of his overall thesis. The visuals include frequent superimposed large-text titles that provide summary statements and emphatic redundancy, thereby reinforcing the main message. The cumulative effect of all the information he presents is overwhelming. A DVD of Eating can be obtained from Anderson’s Web site, "Rave Diet & Lifestyle" (, as well as from, for US$ 9.95. The only quibble I have is that the many factual assertions made in the film, such as
  • “85% of adults suffer from hardening of the arteries; half will die prematurely due to heart disease”, and
  • “. . .it has been estimated that excess cholesterol has contributed to more deaths than all the wars of the 20th century, all natural disasters, and all automobile accidents, combined!”,
need to be properly sourced. Of course there’s no place in the film for reference citations, but it would be good for the Web site to have a reference page that lists the sources for all the factual assertions made in the film.

From my own perspective there are four principal domains with respect to which following a vegan or vegetarian diet makes a crucial contribution:
  1. Environment. Animal farming consumes many times more hectares of land than plant-based agriculture to produce an equivalent amount of food calories for human consumption. In addition, animal farming wastes valuable fresh water resources. We are currently facing a worldwide food crisis due to the use of land and water resources devoted to animal farming. If humans consumed a plant-based diet, there would be no such crisis. In addition, animal farming contributes significantly to global-warming gas production, particularly methane, which has more than twenty times the impact on global warming than does CO2.
  2. Ethics. Every year there are roughly 50 billion animals slaughtered for human consumption. Yet animals are sentient beings like us that feel pain. They are existentially our brothers and sisters and do not deserve to be killed for our pleasure.
  3. Health. As outlined in this film and in The China Study, a diet with more than a tiny amount of animal-based food is very harmful to human health.
  4. Soul. Most small children are instinctively alarmed when they first learn that they are eating flesh from dead animals, but adults persuade them to accept it. That initial alarm that you felt back then was the voice of your inner soul – the essential core being who you really are. When you resolve to give up eating animal-based food, you are responding to that inner voice and following the path of your true, compassionate nature. You are becoming the complete person that you have always wanted to be.
Each of the four domains above supplies a compelling reason on its own for one's being a vegan/vegetarian, but in this film, the emphasis is primarily on health, the 3rd domain listed. Although supplementary material covering environmental effects (1st domain) and animal mistreatment (ethics, 2nd domain) was apparently added for the present edition, the main impact of the film and comes from the principal cholesterol-based thesis associated with the health-oriented material, much of which was compiled for the original 2002 edition. That emphasis on the health side of things is fine; more than 70% of vegetarians initially choose that diet just for health reasons, but they later expand their thinking to encompass some of the other reasons. Thus the move to a vegetarian lifestyle has helped them become more compassionate and responsible souls.

Everyone should see this film and think these things over.

Phenomenology and “Red Desert”

Film critic Stanley Kauffman relates the following conversation that took place over dinner with Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti during his visit to Rome in 1964, prior to the release of Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso, 1964):
“After an hour or so of chat as animated as my Italian will permit, I ask, ‘Well, what about Red Desert? Antonioni smiles broadly, makes a sweeping gesture, and announces with the self-satire of the confident, ‘Un film stupendo!’” [1]
This was another instance of Antonioni’s spare but remarkably revealing comments concerning his own work, for critical reaction in this country has generally been one of stupefaction. There can be no doubt that behind the film is a great degree of cinematic control and seriousness of purpose, but there appears to be confusion as to what Antonioni is actually getting at. His three previous films had been thin in terms of the narrative content but rich in terms of the depth of the interpersonal relationships. Red Desert on the other hand, lacks even the substance of human relationships. John Simon was thus moved to write that
“the color is so eloquent and thought-provoking that it emphasizes the vacuousness of what it envelops: plot, character, dialogue.” [2]
Similarly Dwight MacDonald observed that
“the thinness of the subject matter . . . contrasts with the brilliance with which it is expressed to the eye. . . And the farther he goes in that direction [towards abstraction] without giving up the conventional kind of plot, as in his last two films, the more obtrusive is the discrepancy between the feebleness of what he has to say and the cinematic power with which he says it.” [3]
When one embarks upon the expedition of exegesis, all sorts of objections are immediately raised – particularly in connection with a visual artist like Antonioni. One is warned that the work of art is just there – take it or leave it. The feeling is that the expository analysis is ultimately reductionist and that to intellectualize a work of art is to rob it of its aesthetic mode of communication. To this feeling I am sympathetic, inasmuch as I agree that Antonioni’s film is not overtly symbolic; it does not stand for something else. Yet for one to integrate one’s experience of viewing Red Desert with his other experiences, a certain amount of analysis and systematization is necessary. Therefore my comments concerning Red Desert are to be directed not so much in terms of an explanation (or, at least, in the commonly understood sense of that word) but more in terms of an aid to relating the experience of watching Red Desert to other modes of experience.

There have been typically two ways of interpreting Red Desert. The first, and one that was seized upon by those with a generally Marxist critical disposition, was to view the film as an attack on modern society and as a condemnation of the ravages wreaked upon man by modern technology. This critical approach was refuted by Antonioni just after the film's release when he was interviewed by Jean Luc Godard:
“It simplifies things too much (as many have done) to say that I accuse this inhuman, industrialized world in which the individual is crushed and led to neurosis. My intention, on the contrary, . . . was to translate the beauty of this world, in which even the factories can be beautiful.” [4]
The second manner in which this film has been considered is as a psychological case study of a neurotic girl. While this is ostensibly true, it is not particularly fruitful to think of the film in terms of psychology as it is conventionally practiced. Neither of these approaches is without some validity, but they fail to recognize the extent to which Red Desert probes the fundamental nature of experience. I suggest, instead, that Red Desert be looked upon as a cinematic exploration of the phenomenology of perception. In particular, certain ideas of Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Martin Heidegger can be perceived within the cinematic structure of Antonioni’s film, and these ideas lie outside the realm of traditional film-critical categories.

The breakthrough associated with Kierkegaard was the understanding of the opposition between what is called “essence” and “existence”. That is, a thing’s essence is that which determines it and distinguishes it from others; existence is that which distinguishes the thing from nothing. Existence is that which brings the thing to realization; essences are interrelations, a thing’s essence relates it to other things. In this way a system of essences can be contemplated by the mind entirely separate from existence – an abstract, universal, timeless systems of inactive essences. Modern philosophy from Descartes onward has had a strong bias towards essentialism, and this was culminated in the Hegelian system. It was Kierkegaard who recognized that philosophy concentrated exclusively on essentialism was incapable of accounting for individuation, contingency, time, and will –
“What confuses the whole doctrine about being in logic is that people do not notice that they are always operating with the ‘concept’ existence. But the concept existence is an ideality and the difficulty is, of course, whether existence can be reduced to a concept. . .

But Existence corresponds to the individual things, the individual, which even Aristotle teaches lies outside or least cannot be reduced to a concept. . . an individual man has not, after all, a conceptual existence.” [5]
Thus it was that by considering the concrete nature of existence, which he felt Hegelianism overlooked, Kierkegaard introduced the related idea of nothingness. This attack on Hegelianism was and is of considerable consequence simply because most of the established thought patterns of the present age are founded upon Hegel’s thought. In particular all the social sciences are rooted in Hegelian essentialism, and this is especially significant for an existential critic of essentialism like Kierkegaard, who would charge that it is precisely in the social sphere that the scientific method of essentialism is inadequate. In other words the scientific method applied to objects in the world may have its uses, but it does not render an accurate accounting of our experiences of objects nor of our experience of each other – each of which can only be adequately dealt with by a philosophy that considers existence as well as essence. The breakdown of classical philosophy has, say the existential critics, brought about a mass neurosis, causing people to be regarded as dehumanized conceptual quantities and leaving the individual with a feeling of homelessness and boredom. It is this malaise that Antonioni has dealt with in Red Desert, and the psychotic condition of Giuliana is an externalization of that which is implicitly present in a great number of troubled souls.
It is now evident why the above-mentioned conventional critical approaches to Red Desert are inadequate. A Marxist attack on modern capitalistic technology is founded on Hegelian principles and thus is still essentialist. Similarly a psychological case study is a social scientific treatment that also remains within the confines of pure essentialism. Antonioni’s film, however, is existentialist, and thus of a different nature altogether. [6]

Now to express the idea of existence opposed to essence verbally is difficult, since it is the nature of language to deal with essences. For example the word “tree” does not do justice to this tree, and, in fact, no matter how detailed I become in my description of this tree I can never adequately convey the this-ness, as it were, of the tree. Nevertheless post-Kierkegaardians, like Sartre and Heidegger, have invested great effort to express their philosophies, which involve important ontological distinctions, in terms of written language [7]. Consider the following passages from Sartre’s novel, Nausea:
I lean my hand on the seat, but pull it back hurriedly: it exists. This thing I’m sitting on, leaning my hand on, is called a seat. They made it purposely for people to sit on, they took leather, springs, and cloth, and they went to work with the idea of making a seat, and when they finished, that was what they had made. The had carried it here, into this car, and the car is now rolling and jolting with its rattling windows, carrying this red thing in its bosom. I murmur: “It’s a seat,” a little like an exorcism. But the word stays on my lips: it refuses to go and put itself on the thing. It stays what it is, with its red plush, thousands of little red paws in the air, all still, little dead paws. This enormous belly turned upward, bleeding, inflated – bloated with all its dead paws, this belly floating in this car, in this grey sky, is not a seat. It could just as well be a dead donkey tossed about in the great grey river, a river of floods; and I could be sitting on the donkey’s belly, my feet dangling in the clear water. Things are divorced from their names. They are there, grotesque, headstrong, gigantic, and it seems ridiculous to call them seats or say anything at all about them: I am in the midst of things, nameless things. Alone, without words, defenseless, they surround me, are beneath me, behind me, above me. . . . .

[later] I’m in the park. I drop into a bench between great black tree-trunks, between the black, knotty hands reaching towards the sky. A tree scrapes at the earth under my feet with a black nail. I would so like to let myself go, forget myself, sleep. But I can’t, I’m suffocating: existence penetrates me everywhere, through the eyes, the nose, the mouth . . .
And suddenly, suddenly, the veil is torn away, I have understood, I have seen.
. . .
So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, lone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. Then I had this vision.
It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of “existence.” . . when I believed I was thinking about it, I must believe that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word, “to be”. Or else I was thinking . . . how can I explain it? I was thinking of belonging, I was telling myself that the sea belongs to the class of green objects, or that the green was a part of the quality of the sea. Even when I looked at things, I was miles from dreaming that they existed: they looked like scenery to me. . . . And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder – naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness.
I kept myself from making the slightest movement, but I didn’t need to move in order to see, behind the trees, the blue columns and the lamp-posts of the bankstand and the Velleda in the midst of a mountain of laurel. All these objects . . . How can I explain? They inconvenience me: I would have liked them to exist less strongly, more dryly, in a more abstract way, with more reserve. The chestnut tree pressed itself against my eyes. Green rust covered it half-way up; the bark, black and swollen, looked like boiled leather . . .
. . .
In the way: it was the only relationship I could establish between these trees, these gates, these stones. In vain I tried to count the chestnut trees, to locate them by their relationship to the Velleda, to compare their height with the height of the plane trees: each of them escaped the relationship in which I tried to enclose it, isolated itself, and overflowed. Of these relations (which I insisted on maintaining in order to delay the crumbling of the human world, measures, quantities, and directions) – I felt myself to be the arbitrator; they no longer had their teeth into things. . . .
. . .
In vain to repeat: “this is a root” – it didn’t work any more. I saw clearly that you could not pass from its function as a root, as a breathing pump, to that, to this hard and compact skin of a sea lion, to this oily, callous, headstrong look. The function explained nothing: it allowed you to understand generally that it was a root, but not that one at all. This root, with its colour, shape, its congealed movement, was . . . below all explanation. . .
. . .
Suspicious: that’s what they were, the sounds, the smells, the tastes. When they ran quickly under your nose like startled hares and you didn’t pay too much attention, you might believe them to be simple and reassuring, you might believe that there was real blue in the world, real read, a real perfume of almonds or violets. But as soon as you held on to them for an instant, this feeling of comfort and security gave way to a deep uneasiness: colours, tastes, and smells were never real, never themselves and nothing but themselves. The simplest, most indefinable quality had too much content, in relation to itself, in its heart. . . . But no necessary being can explain existence: contingency is not a delusion, a probability which can be dissipated; it is the absolute, consequently, the perfect free gift. All is free, this park, this city, and myself. When you realize that, it turns your heart upside down and everything begins to float. . . .
. . .
I was no longer in Bouville, I was nowhere, I was floating. I was not surprised, I new it was the World, the naked World suddenly revealing itself, and I choked with rage at this gross absurd being. . . I shouted, “filth! what rotten filth!”, and shook myself to get ride of this sticky filth, but it held fast, and there was so much, tons and tons of existence, endless: I stifled at the depths of this immense weariness. [8]
Sartre is striving to describe a particular manner of perceiving entities, a particular awareness with which essentialism cannot cope. The character Roquentin’s feeling of nausea in Sartre’s novel is almost exactly mirrored by Giuliana’s anxiety in Red Desert. The threatening forces are not those of “technology”, but just things-in-themselves. The refuse in front of which Giuliana eats her sandwich in an early scene is not to be viewed as industrial waste, but as undefined, unexplained matter, analogous to the black root of Roquentin’s chestnut tree. And, in fact, Antonioni’s effort to bring us to Giuliana’s perceptual state by the use of cinematography is more directly successful than Sartre’s, since Sartre can only appeal to our recollections of possibly similar experiences when he expresses himself in words.

One of the techniques Antonioni used was to shoot much of the film in which Giuliana's perspective is in focus with very long (in focal length) lenses. This created a very short depth of field that results in several psychological effects. For one thing it is closer to our actual visual perception, since only a small part of what we take in in a glance is in focus. Moreover the objects that are seen out of focus tend to lose the specific functionality that we usually associate with them. When objects are seen out of focus, their outlines fuzzy and their colors blending in with color of neighboring objects, they begin to lose their conventional identities and become abstract entities. In the previously mentioned interview with Godard, Antonioni commented on the relation of Red Desert to his previous films,
“It is a less realistic film, from a figurative point of view. That is to say, it is realistic in a different way. For example, I used the telescopic lens a great deal in order not to have a deep focus, which is for good reason an indispensable element of realism. What interests me now is to place the character in contact with things, for it is things, objects, and materials that have weight today.” [9]
Thus it is not surprising that Red Desert lacks depth in its presentation of interpersonal relationships. What are significant are Giuliana’s relationship with and awareness of things – even the faces of actors like Richard Harris are deliberately muted and de-emphasized in relation to the surroundings.

Another technique Antonioni used to represent the altered consciousness was his manipulation of color. This is the most celebrated aspect of the film, but critics err when they assume that Antonioni was trying to create dynamic colorist painting. As he himself says:
“There is, in this film, no pictorial research at all; we are far from painting, it seems to me. . . . Moreover, I had never thought about color in itself. The film was born in colors, but I always thought, first of all, of the thing to be said – this is natural – and thus aided the expression by means of the color. I never thought: I’m going to put a blue next to a maroon.” [10]
The use of color was specifically intended to enhance the perceptual awareness of things. The bright, pure colors serve to detach things from their conventional environment and create new, abstract relationships with other unrelated colored objects.

Perhaps the most significant of Antonioni’s techniques was his treatment of screen kinetics. This effect necessitates on the part of the viewer a continuous struggle to orient himself with respect to the depicted environment. Elliptical action and oblique camera angles are employed not to emphasize dramatic moments but as a continuous condition of perceptual reality. An illustrative scene is the visit of Corrado and Giuliana to the radar installation [11]. A long row of skeletal radio telescope towers is the primary background material, and the viewer is continuously forced to orient the camera position and the characters with respect to his knowledge of the tower geometry. During the visit several important changes of position by the characters are omitted by Antonioni. Thus the struggle with orientation with respect to these huge, abstract edifices is forced upon the viewer, bringing him in greater sympathy with Giuliana’s struggling awareness of things. In addition Antonioni frequently uses slow disclosure by beginning a scene with a detail of an object. In almost every case the object is not seen for what it normally is, but as a quasi-abstract form. When asked by Godard about this practice, Antonioni explained that
“It’s a way of approaching the character in terms of things rather than by means of her life. Her life, basically interests me only relatively.” [12]
This is an extremely revealing statement, for it emphasizes the difference between Antonioni’s approach and the typically essentialist approach of a psychoanalyst. A psychoanalyst would be interested in nothing but her life – except that it would be considered in terms of conceptual events. The uniqueness of her perceptual awareness would be overlooked, and it is precisely this with which Antonioni is concerned.

I have so far only mentioned the visual stylistics with which Antonioni expressed himself, but of course the characters reveal themselves by what they say as well. Ugo, Giuliana’s husband, is a kindly person, but is also the ultimate technician. As such he can be thought of as purely essentialist. A characteristic moment for him is when he shows his son the spinning yellow toy. As an explanation of the toy’s behaviour, Ugo explains that it has a gyroscope in it, the same kind things used to steer ships. This is an utterly reductionist statement, reducing things to concepts. Though the statement is correct, one feels annoyed, given the context within the film, with the complacent disregard for existence implicit in the statement. Immediately afterwards, there is a cut to a large ship, and the visual impact of it seems to bring out the poverty of Ugo’s description. Giuliana, as already stated, is extremely sensitive to and feels threatened by the existence of the concrete other, just as Roquentin did in Nausea. She tells a Turkish sailor, “if you prick me, you don’t suffer,” thereby trying to convey her feeling of separateness and isolation. At another point she says to Corrado,
“The sea is never still. I can’t look at the sea for long and not lose interest in what happens on land.”
The sea is for her not a symbol or metaphor but an ever-changing, impossible to pin down “thing”. For her it is analogous to the chestnut tree root that brings on the “nausea”, since its uncategorizable nature thrusts its existence upon Giuliana’s consciousness.

Giuliana’s story that she tells her son is further elaboration of her psyche. The entire scene is shot in bright Hollywood style "technicolor”, the depth of field is increased to that of typical films, and the screen kinetics are completely straightforward. The viewer has to do none of the struggling with reality that is necessary in the other scenes; one feels very comfortable with the environment depicted. This scene acts to convey Giuliana’s romantic yearnings for her formerly naive, untroubled consciousness that was at home in the world. All the colors belong to nature, they seem to belong, as opposed to Giuliana’s real life where colors seem to force themselves on one’s awareness. Rocks are seen not as brute existences, but in terms of human forms. The world has an existence for her – it even sings to her. But this feeling of oneness with the world is only fable; it is not possible in her real existence.

The character of Corrado is somewhat problematical. He appears discontented with his existence and feels a sympathy for Giuliana’s problems. At one point he says to her,
“You wonder what to look at, and I wonder where to live. It’s the same thing.”
In fact it’s not the same thing at all. Giuliana’s sensitivity is more developed than his. Corrado is primarily an essentialist who feels that by sufficient manipulation of the external world of objects he can eventually find fulfillment. He wishes to have adventures, like his expedition to Patagonia, hoping that change of his external environment will bring about satisfaction. Giuliana contrasts her own feelings with his when she tells him, “If I were to leave, I’d take everything.” That is to say, the few things with which she has managed to feel somewhat comfortable (as opposed to the great mass of objects by which she feels threatened) are indispensable. She must cling to them as a means of protection. Corrado, the essentialist, living in a world devoid of content is constantly looking for the external stimulus. Giuliana, on the other hand lives in a world too full of existence. She would like somehow to demystify and humanize her surroundings.

In the final scene Giuliana tells her son that birds survive by learning not to go near the poison waste gas of the plant. In other words she is resolving to be like everybody else. While this may be the advisable course for someone who is on the brink of insanity, the larger questions concerning the inadequacy of our conventional thought patterns to deal with existence are left unanswered. Is the lesson we are to learn from Roquentin and Giuliana that to see beyond the veil leads to madness? Perhaps so, as long as madness is defined in terms of the conventional thought patterns. At any rate the extraordinary thing about Red Desert is that it deals with profound aspects of existence in an immediate fashion. It concerns the phenomenology of perception and expresses itself by means of perception. The gestalt psychologist Rudolph Arnheim has made studies to show that all thinking is structurally similar to visual perception, and “truly productive thinking in whatever area of cognition takes place in the realm of imagery” [13]. If this is true, then Red Desert may be a more direct and unadulterated presentation of existential ideas of Sartre than that philosopher’s own writing was.

  1. Kauffman, S., A World on Film, Dell (1966), p. 407.
  2. Simon, J., Private Screenings, Berkeley (1967), p. 177.
  3. Macdonald, D., On Movies, Berkeley (19600, PP. 375-376.
  4. Sarris, A., (ed.), Interviews with Film Directors, Avon (1967), p. 23.
  5. Kierkegaard, S., The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, Oxford (1938), p. 147.
  6. I have taken the pains to specify what I mean by “existentialist”, since casual usage has undermined its meaning.
  7. In fact Heidegger came to despair of the possibility of conventional language to express the ultimate nature of existence and turned his attention to poetry as a possible avenue. Perhaps he might have profitably considered the film medium.
  8. Sartre, J.-P., Nausea, New Directions (1964), pp. 168-181.
  9. Sarris, A., op. cit., pp. 28-29.
  10. Ibid., p. 30.
  11. "The Visit to the Radar Station in Red Desert", The Film Sufi (2010),
  12. Ibid., p. 28.
  13. Arnheim, R., Visual Thinking, U. of California (1969), p. v.