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Amal and Adam’s Apple: movie reviews

December 18, 2011

Every so often we have a movie evening after a busy Sunday. Yesterday we watched Amal  by Ritchie Mehta and Adam’s Apples by Anders Thomas Jenson. Both were reflections on ‘good vs evil’ and yet it’s hard to imagine a greater contrast between their styles and takes on the subject. Although they are not perfect I enjoyed them both for different reasons and would recommend them, especially if you are looking for a discussion starter.

Amal (2007) is a morality tale reminiscent of a classic fable. Amal, a poor Indian rickshaw driver is the perfect saint, unbelievably patient and kind and compassionate. A wealthy man near the end of his life, disillusioned with the world is on a quest to see if there is any goodness in the world. He tests those he encounters with his grumpiness and rude offensive behaviour. Amal  astonishes him with his selflessness. The rich man, as his last act, changes his will to bequeath his worldly wealth to Amal, giving his trusted solicitor a month to locate Amal. And so the chase is on, with a predictably wicked and deceptive troupe of family who want to protect their inheritance from Amal. Meantime Amal in an act of compassion is paying the hospital bill for a girl injured in an accident and sells his rickshaw to a wealthy landowner, only to learn that the girl has died on the operating table.

Apart from the captivating portrayal of life among the contrasts of an Indian city, the main interest in this story centres around the resolution of the story. So if you want to watch the movie the way it should be watched, stop reading now and scroll down to my review of Adam’s Apple.

When the month is up, after many twists and turns, Amal is found and delivered in the nick of time to the lawyers office, still unaware of the pending reversal of fortune. He has work to do so does not want to stay long, but out of politeness looks at a letter from his beneficiary without mentioning that he cannot read. When the lawyer leaves to attend to a phone call Amal walks out the door and gives his letter to a beggar girl who has pencils but not paper to write on.

Thus just as the traditional battle between good and evil is about to be won the forces of good and karma, presumably , will do its thing, it all unravels and apparent redemption turns out to be tragedy. Yet it is not tragedy, for Amal is happy as a rickshaw driver, his kindness is its own reward and we are left wondering why we were so keen for him to be wealthy

Adam’s Apples (2008) is nothing if not unusual. It takes black comedy to a new level. So if you’re squeamish, be warned. The main characters are a Priest, Ivan (who takes in convicts for rehabilitation including in this case), a neo-nazi skinhead, a sex offender, a trigger-happy gas station robber and an alcoholic. The priest is disturbingly optimistic and sees the bright side of everything, treating any apparent misfortune as a temptation from Satan. Adam the vicious neo-nazi who arrives for his community service seeks to pop the rose tinted bubble that surrounds Ivan the Priest. On his arrival Ivan asks him about his goals during rehabilitation and he sarcastically replies that he would like to bake a pie. Ivan then gives him the task of looking after the apple tree and baking an apple pie. When taken to his room Adam is given a Bible which keeps falling open at the book of Job which he initially ignores. During his time there he learns from the local doctor of the terrible background to the Ivan’s life. He was raped and abused constantly as a child, when he got married his first child is paralysed with cerebral palsy. His wife then committed suicide. What’s more the priest has recently been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour and bleeds out his ears when under stress. On learning this Adam makes it his mission to burst the priest’s rose-tinted bubble and bring him face to face with reality. While doing this he ends up reading the book of Job and confronts the priest with the view that it is not Satan but God who is delivering him these trials. God hates him. At one point it appears that the Ivan abandons his faith to face reality. In an encounter with Adam’s old mates from the skin head mob Ivan is shot in the head. However we learn that miraculously the shot has simply destroyed his tumour, saving his life. Adam salvages one apple from the chaos, bakes his pie and shares it with Ivan. We are left with the suggestion that perhaps Adam’s brutal realism may also have saved his life and perhaps his mission to the convicts will be quite a different matter from now on.

Telling the story in this way highlights the theological themes rather than the comically bizarre and gruesome events which pervade the narrative. However, in the end the movie did remind me of Arthur C. McGill’s account of American spirituality as ethic of death-avoidance and cultivated optimism. For McGill death-avoidance masks a more basic worship of death’s power, in a context where identities are formed in self-possession. In this context McGill argues the function of God and belief in God is to rule the world of appearances in which death is avoided at all costs. Because we know that death rules, “in the world of fabricated appearances, there love can rule and there the God of love can have a kingdom. And as the crucial figure in the illusory world the Christian God helps us veil and endure this nightmare world” (p. 39, Death and Life: An American Theology). Viewed through McGill’s lenses we can see Ivan the priest as parody and an embodiment of this American optimism. In this reversal of the story of Job,  Ivan’s salvation comes when he does curse this American God of fabricated death-avoidance.

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