I loved the novella by Amos Oz called ‘Panther in the Basement’. This film is based on that book and, even though the title is a touch too ‘cute’ for my taste, it is an interesting transposition of the story to film. The wonderful Alfred Molina is terrific as Sergeant Stephen Crabtree, the British soldier posted to Palestine during the British Mandate. He is a man fascinated by this land of the Bible and delighted to meet a young boy who looks able to help him understand the language. They strike up a friendship which is odd since the boy, Proffy to his friends, is brought up to hate the British and declares himself a sworn enemy.
The political is personal, though, and soon Proffy is conflicted by the difference between what he has been told about the British and what he likes about Sergeant Crabtree. The two spend time together, usually at the British mess, and Proffy helps the sergeant with Hebrew while Crabtree teaches Proffy English.
Proffy’s friendship with two friends of the same age as him is based on their sense of fighting back against the British Mandate. They plot ways of attacking the enemy as young boys do, oblivious to the dangers involved. Proffy sees an opportunity to use Crabtree as a source of military information to further their freedom fighting cause but things do not turn out that way and when he is followed by his friends his secret visits to the British mess are misinterpreted.
The resulting interrogation of Proffy by a Jewish group was confusing to me: who were they and on what authority did Proffy’s parents subject their son to such treatment? A sub-plot showing their involvement in the Haganah might explain this. In any case, Proffy is branded a traitor in his community and he questions the nature of friendship; learning too late that Sergeant Stephen Crabtree was more of a friend than he realised at the time. The final scene is worth waiting for since it brings a resolution not found in the book.
On balance, the book is far better than the film, even with the presence of Alfred Molina, but the location filming adds a dimension that I could not see in my mind’s eye when reading. The sense of Jerusalem in the 1940s is brought to life. For this reason, the film is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This novel by Tariq Ali is the first of his ‘Islam Quintet’. I have read several of his non-fiction works and his journalism; I have even heard him speak at a literary festival. This is the first time I have read any of his fiction. I was attracted to it by the subject matter of this first novel.
The story starts in Cordoba where a bonfire of books took place after the reconquest of Spain by the forces of Isabella and Ferdinand. From this we encounter characters of both sides of the religious divide but especially the Banu Hadyl family who are forced, like all Muslims to make a decision about their faith: convert, go into exile or die.
The ending is inevitable, especially to those who know the history, but the sense of loss from a time when different religions co-existed is huge. Instead, we see war and politics carried out as a form of religious devotion or maybe religion is used as the cover for the usual manipulations of states and monarchs.
In general, Tariq Ali’s non-fiction is more cohesive than his fiction but his passion for his subjects is still clear as if his determination to steer us away from a Eurocentric view of the world. In these times of religious intolerance, it is good to be reminded that there was, and is, a better way of living with each other. It is also important to realise that Islam is wider and more complex than it is often portrayed in our media.
‘Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree’ is worth reading. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
In Bath, so off to the Holburne Museum to see their exhibition of paintings by artists associated, by marriage or birth, with Pieter Bruegel. I have seen several Bruegel’s in galleries in different cities over the years but it was a treat to see these paintings collected together. The connections between father, sons and others were well made.
The museum is rightly proud of its collection of works by Pieter Breughel the younger. ‘Wedding Dance in the Open Air’ has been restored and now firmly attributed to the artist. The work that captured my eye the most was ‘The Procession to Calvary’. This was a painting to spend time in front of… lots of time to take in the detail and wonder at the way
‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ has long been one of my all time favourite paintings and this work is similar in the way the import of one event is shown in contrast to the fact that most people are oblivious or disinterested in it. Two paintings: one by the father and one by the son. They both resonate.
In the Calahorra tower at the end of the famous bridge in Cordoba houses a ‘museum’ or audio-visual display telling the history of the city and its place as a centre of learning where three religions existed in harmony and respected each other. The ‘Museum of Three Cultures’ is a fascinating place. Most of the exhibits are reproductions or models but the story of the city’s past is well laid out.
It was here that I saw the reproduction of a painting by Dionisio Baixeras of Abd-ar-Rahman III receiving at his court in Cordoba, the Monk Nicholas, ambassador of the Christian Emperor, Constantine. The coming together of religions, not to convert but to understand each other, was important then and is important now.
This 1989 film from Canada is a charming exploration of the creative process. It follows a group of actors who put on a passion play in Montreal. The church authorities take against the main actor, playing Jesus, and, as he and his group deal with the hostility, his life starts to mirror that of Jesus himself.
It is a French- Canadian film from director Denys Arcand with Lothaire Bluteau in the main role of Daniel. At the start of the film Daniel is encouraged to modernise the passion play to bring a new sense of purpose to a tired format. It is the hope of the priest that there will be renewed interest in the play as a result. This mission inspires Daniel who throws himself into research only to come up with an interpretation that offends the catholic church. As the play continues, the church resorts to stronger tactics to stop it.
The film works well when it mirrors the gospel story. Daniel collects his troupe of actors from among the less desirable of society, he is accepted and then rejected by the authorities, he has an outburst when he thinks others have desecrated his craft. The ending is the most problematic because of the obvious links with the bible but it is a satisfactory way of drawing the film to an end.
‘Jesus of Montreal’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I love the films that take true events which are little known and turn them into stories which illustrate a larger theme. ‘Chariots of Fire’ is one such film. I saw it while a student in Oxford and, partly because of that time and place, it has fixed itself in my memory.
The tale of two runners who come from very different backgrounds to compete for Britain in the 1924 Paris Olympics is a compelling one, especially as it is the story of two outsiders who enter the heart of the British establishment. Eric Liddell is the Scottish son of missionaries who believes running is one way he can show his love of God. Harold Abrahams is an outsider because of his Jewish religion.
Both men are selected for the team, alongside members of the aristocracy and graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. The team is the cream of the establishment’s sporting class and the film shows the difference between those born to rule and those who earn their place through effort and talent.
When Liddell and Abrahams run in the same race, Liddell wins causing much anguish to Abrahams. He takes on a coach, a move that offends some as beneath the dignity of a sporting gentleman. The true drama takes place in Paris, though, when the Olympics are staged. When Liddell learns that his race is to be held on a Sunday, he withdraws on faith grounds. Despite strong pressure from the Olympic committee and the Prince of Wales, he refuses to race and it looks as if he will forego the opportunity to win a medal. The day is saved, though, by Lord Lindsay who offers to stand aside so that Liddell can race on a Thursday in what would have been his heat.
It is well documented that both Liddell and Abrahams won gold medals but the manner of their winning makes a great film. Ian Charleston played Eric Liddell and Ben Cross played Harold Abrahams in a film written by Colin Welland and directed by Hugh Hudson.
‘Chariots of Fire’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1566488a) Chariots Of Fire, Nigel Havers, Daniel Gerroll, Ian Charleson, Nick Farrell, Ben Cross Film and Television
Here is another film that sent me back to the cinema to watch it again, within the same week. It is one of the very best of the films of Louis Malle, a director I admire very much. This film from 1987 is his most personal work so it is no surprise that it came towards the end of his career.
Julien is a young boy at a Roman Catholic boarding school during the winter of 1943- 44 who notices everything. He wets the bed and misses his mother, characteristics that do not fit with the tough image he likes to portray. Life at the school is mostly boring but the arrival of some new pupils add interest to Julien’s life. The boys have been enrolled by Pere Jean, the headmaster. One of them, Jean Bonnet, is in the same class as Julien. Although he takes against him at first- he is too good at mathematics for his comfort- he changes his view when he discovers him praying one night and wearing a kippah. This discovery changes the relationship between the two boys and they become closer; the secret of Bonnet’s Jewishness is safe with Julien but events in the wider school cause problems. The black market run by the school’s assistant cook is discovered and he is sacked. As an act of revenge, he denounces the headmaster for giving refuge to Jews.
The ending is inevitable and a voice over by an adult Julien from 40 years later makes clear the fate that awaited the Jewish boys and their headteacher.
‘Au Revoir Les Enfants’ is a moving film which shows the dilemmas faced during wartime as well as the extreme risks some people will take in the name of humanity. The film is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?