Thursday, November 8, 2007

11/8: Wheel of Time; The Flowers of St. Francis

[This is a contribution to the Film + Faith Blog-a-Thon hosted by Strange Culture.]

It would be very possible to argue that Werner Herzog's entire body of work, in both fiction and documentary forms, has been a sustained treatise on the nature of faith. Whether it's Fitzcarraldo's faith in man's ability to do the impossible, or the faith of the conquistador Aguirre in the existence of a city of gold, the characters and situations that Herzog has presented have almost always involved a leap of imagination beyond the confines of ordinary, observed reality in search of a deeper truth. Thus, it's strange that Herzog has made so few films explicitly about actual religious faith, and that the handful he has made — God and the Burdened, Huie's Sermon, Bells From the Deep — are mostly among his least known films, though by no means his least. Wheel of Time also deals explicitly with matters of faith, specifically the Buddhist faith as practiced in Tibet, India, and Austria.

Wheel of Time finds Herzog in his most straightforward documentary mode, eschewing the flights of fancy he so often allows into his documentary work as part of his search for the "ecstatic truths" behind observed reality. He's chronicling the celebration of an important Buddhist ritual at Bodh Gaya, India, said to be the place where the Buddha achieved his enlightenment. Herzog presents his footage with little of his usual mythologizing, mainly because the film doesn't really require it; the reality of these people is already perfectly suited to Herzog's obsession with extreme leaps of faith, even without his elaboration. Herzog's voiceover thus simply provides a largely objective commentary on what we're seeing on-screen. These commentaries are usually not to be trusted in Herzog's films. In Lessons of Darkness and Bells From the Deep, for example, the voiceover often invents fanciful explanations for what's happening in the images, but here Herzog's narration has more of a straightforward anthropological feel to it.

The images, though, are anything but straightforward. Herzog has captured some of the most compelling real-life imagery of pure religious faith I've ever seen. No one who's seen the remarkable spectacle of Buddhist pilgrims making their excruciatingly slow progress to Bodh Gaya, bowing and prostrating themselves flat on the ground in between every single step, can doubt the intensity of their religious conviction. I was, quite simply, overwhelmed. The actions of these people, unable to take even a step without being compelled to humble themselves upon the ground, could only suggest the workings of a mind and experience of life totally alien to my own. In this single image, Herzog has managed to capture the ultimate expression of pure religious devotion, faith taken to its utter extreme, a total submission of human existence to the ego-less pursuit of spiritual values. Herzog seems to sense that this is a moment for awed silence, and after briefly introducing the pilgrimage, he falls silent and allows the images their own haunting power. These images encompass the pathos, mystery, and even humor of the situation, as in the scene when two pilgrims cross a shallow pond strewn with rocks, and go to great pains to prostrate themselves awkwardly across the stepping stones without getting wet.

Herzog's film as a whole similarly balances the emotional textures of this religious milieu, delving deep into the mysteries of a faith so intense that it can only baffle and entice the non-believing observer. Wheel of Time may not be Herzog's flashiest or most stylistically perfect film, but it does an excellent job of exploring its subject and bringing some sense of the Buddhist religious experience to the screen. As Herzog himself says towards the end of the film, the central mystery of this experience — the internal image of the "mandala" that every believer carries inside — necessarily escapes from the camera. It's a curious documentary in which the very essence of the film is an unfilmable abstract concept, but if anyone could pull this off, it's Herzog.

Roberto Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis provides a very different but also compelling image of an impossibly strong faith. Rossellini's life of the saint is presented in an elliptical tale that, with its anecdotal structure and lengthy chapter headings, seems very much rooted in literature as well as film. The film itself is an interesting form of extreme stylization disguised as realism. Much has always been made of the fact that the roles of St. Francis and his followers are all played by genuine monks, not professional actors, and the drab, simple outdoors scenery enhances the feeling of a realistic portrayal. The realism, however, ends there, at essentially the most surface level. In every other respect, Rossellini stylizes, simplifies, and exaggerates his portrayal of Francis and his followers in order to tell his story and make his points in the broadest possible strokes. The Franciscan brothers are presented as a band of holy fools, willingly making themselves naïve to the world and its workings in order to humble themselves before God.

I've never been especially sympathetic to the idea that God demands this kind of withdrawal from his truest devotees; if God exists, and he created the world, it logically follows that he should want us to live in it and not deny our senses or our involvement in worldly affairs. This is why Francis, like the prostrated Buddhist pilgrims in Wheel of Time, is a figure antithetical in many respects to my way of thinking. Nevertheless, the beauty of Rossellini's film lies in the fact that it doesn't require the viewer to subscribe to Francis' viewpoint in order to understand and appreciate him. Whereas Herzog's film keeps the viewer deliberately at a distance from Buddhism, explaining it to some degree but preserving its mysteries, Rossellini draws us close to Francis, inserting us forcefully into his world. It's a world that's sometimes poignant, sometimes absurdist, sometimes almost childlike in its naïveté. The adventures of the hapless Brother Ginapro and the simple-minded old man Giovanni, especially, have a richly comic air that lends to the film a real humor and absurdity.

In the film's most heavily stylized sequence, Ginapro finds himself in a village which has been sieged by the conquering army of Nicolaio, a massive Slavic tyrant who's encased in clinking armor so unwieldy that he can barely even see out of it. The encounter of the genial, scrawny Ginapro with this towering pile of scrap metal is one of the film's most hilarious scenes, so much so that even the very real threat of death hovering over the scene is nearly forgotten. In any case, Ginapro's simple humility and graceful acceptance of whatever life hands him finally cows the tyrant, who (somewhat unbelievably, it must be said) promptly decides to withdraw from the town.

Rossellini's film is a compelling portrait of the power of extreme faith to be used as a force for good and peace. In this film, St. Francis and his fellow brothers are icons of pure good, so innocent they can barely even conceive of an evil deed, their lives an endless cycle of giving to the poor and preaching the message of Jesus to anyone who will listen. In fact, the film's extreme stylization goes a long way towards draining much of the humanity out of these characters, making them purely symbolic constructions of an untarnished good that could scarcely exist in even the greatest of saintly men. Reduced by Rossellini's symbolic system, the brothers become either comic clowns or beatific saints, but they could rarely be said to act like flesh and blood men with real human feelings or minds. This is, perhaps, the point, that there is potentially a plane of existence cut off from normal human concerns. St. Francis and his followers seem to have reached this plane, not by reaching higher as one might expect, but by simplifying themselves, reducing themselves to a primal state of existence without cares or connections to society at large. It's an interesting and deeply moving film, and the issues it raises about faith and its relationship to the world deserve much further thought.

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