Monday, October 31, 2011

Films to Keep You Awake: The Baby's Room (2006)

Original Spanish title: Películas para no dormir: La habitación del niño
My Rating: 10/10, Current IMDB Rating 7.0/10 from 2,015 votes

Now this is how it’s done! I’ve been looking for a good horror flick to review for Halloween and until tonight I didn’t think I would find one good enough. Then I happened upon this film. It is directed by Spanish filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia and is one of the films from a collection called “6 Films to Keep You Awake.”

The movie centers on a couple, Juan and Sonia, and their seven month old son. They have just moved into their new home- an older house in a good neighborhood. They think it a good idea to install a crib monitor in the baby’s room. You can probably guess that nothing good comes of that. Night after sleepless night Juan becomes convinced that someone is in the house but no one is ever found. With no evidence of a break in, it begins to look like Juan is imagining it.

One thing I really loved about this movie was the fact that the director does not utilize any of the “shock” methods commonly found in new horror films. No sudden loud music to make you jump, no innocent smiling face behind the refrigerator door. Instead, Iglesia relies on a strong plot, original storyline, well shot scenes and most of all a dose of subtlety that stays with you long after the movie is over.

Iglesia even works in some comic relief with Juan’s relationship with his boss and coworker without it interfering with the rest of the movie. The director knows when to be funny and when not to be- a skill greatly lacking in American horror movies lately.

It is set and filmed in Spain, which adds a beautiful backdrop and atmosphere to the movie. The house is simply perfect. Not so overly dilapidated that no one in their right mind would move in, but also not too well kept. It has just the right amount of dust on the floor to be believable as an old house that a shady realtor can get you a great deal on. It’s the type of place you would live in but not expect to hear some creaks and “the house is just settling” noises at night.

So if you are looking for an excellent horror movie to watch tomorrow night, I strongly recommend “The Baby’s Room.” It is currently on Netflix’s Instant streaming videos list, for the few of us that stuck around after the Qwikster blunder.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Penitent Magdalene by Corrado Giaquinto

In his 1750 painting, Giaquinto depicts Mary Magdalene weakly leaning against a rock looking upwards at a crown of thorns carried by a cherub. However, a closer archangel tries to direct her attention upwards to heaven, but Mary is focused on the crown instead. A crowd of cherubim looks on from the cliffs above her. A book lays open, propped up between the rock and a skull, a crucifix resting atop it.

This painting is very reminiscent of the 1565 version of Titian’s painting by the same name. It is probable that Giaquinto was inspired by Titian’s work, but with some additions and personal alterations. It is still a unique and original piece that stands on its own.

I believe this painting is based off of a legend that Mary Magdalene lived out the end of her life in the cliffs of St. Baume near Marseille, France. For thirty years she lived in complete seclusion performing penances. She fasted to the point that she would have died of starvation if not for visits from angels who gave her communion as her only source of food. A hermit once witnessed the angels carrying her to heaven amid celestial music. The title, setting and scenery of the painting are all clearly indicative that this is the same legend being portrayed.

It is also striking that Mary has a rather masculine appearance in this painting. My initial impression was that the artist intended for her to have an androgynous look; perhaps this is even an allusion to the hermaphrodite of esoteric philosophies.

The Spencer Encyclopedia states that the positive aspect of the hermaphrodite is “an emblem of spiritual union” and its negative features are represented by moral lassitude and sexual overindulgence. All of these hermaphroditic traits, both positive and negative, are portrayed by the image of an androgynous penitent Mary Magdalene.

Further investigation brought me to a quote from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas:

“Simon Peter said to them: Let Mary go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life. Jesus said: Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

It should be noted that this passage is not meant to be sexist; it is in fact expressing the opposite. In context, Jesus stated earlier in the narrative:

“They said to Him, ‘Shall we then, as children, enter the Kingdom?’

Jesus said to them, ‘When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the
female female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter [the Kingdom].’”

Here we see the view of the hermaphrodite as the perfected person. Mary Magdalene was rumored to be a prostitute prior to becoming a disciple of Jesus. Afterward, she is not only reformed but becomes the most prominent of the women of the New Testament as well as earning a place in all apocryphal Christian texts from the Pistis Sophia to the aforementioned Gospel of Thomas.

Even if Giaquinto did not intend for Mary Magdalene to be seen as androgynous and it was simply his style, given the subject matter and the interpretations I have offered above, it is really a moot point as to whether it was his intention.

The skull depicted is easily identified as a memento mori and the book portrayed is likely the Bible. With the crucifix, these three items tossed together makes a statement about life, death and the possibility of salvation.

The Bible is open to a page with a drawing. Zooming in, a bird flying in the center of a circle, possibly the sun, becomes evident. Below the disk, one finds two human figures facing each other, and a third standing behind them looking outwards is vaguely visible. The person on the left seems to be stretching his arms towards the other person, but it is just not clear what they are doing. I do regret not noticing this detail when I saw the original at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.

My first thought was that this might be John the Baptist baptizing Jesus in the Jordan river. The bird would be the dove descending to Jesus.

This would be fitting with the overall message of redemption of the work. A mystical baptism, penance, hermaphroditism and the crown of thorns all serve to blur the distinction between Mary and Jesus in a true Imitatione Christi.

To me, this work of art is a very beautiful symbol of the religious experience. Mary’s expression of calm resolve as she gazes unflinchingly at the crown of thorns speaks volumes. It is telling that she pays no attention to the archangel who rings a bell above her bible and points heavenward; instead she is focused on the matter at hand. In fact, Mary looks right through the archangel, completely ignoring the bell (representative of the celestial music), and the pomp of the angelic audience is forsaken for the same thorny crown worn by Christ. This tells me that she is not just a recluse hoping for a worldly heaven, but rather a genuine saint who is more concerned with the pain and trials of this world.

Keep reading with part 2: The Penitent Magdalene Revisited

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Man of Sorrows

Michele Giambono’s “The Man of Sorrows” (circa 1420s) is easily one of the most shocking and morbid depictions of the resurrected Christ. Even compared to other paintings of the same genre, such as Meister Francke’s piece by the same name, Giambono’s stands out. I was very taken aback when I first encountered this piece at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City last May. The barely conscious, cadaverous Savior stands upright in his coffin, his bloody arms slump over the rim of the coffin displaying deep puncture wounds on his outturned palms. Behind him you find a crossbeam, adorned with three nails still imbedded in it with fresh blood dripping from it. Large globs of blood trail profusely from the thorny crown still tightly wound around his head, and his right side still bleeds from the centurion’s lance.

It is almost easy to miss the image of St. Francis standing to Christ’s left. The saint looks up with an expression of pained reverence at the risen savior. If you look closely, you will find a single strand of blood leaping out of Christ’s side, making a triangle as it pierces through both of Saint Francis’s hands and then returns into the nail wound on Christ’s own hand. This, quite literally, highlights the close tie of Francis to Christ through the saint’s own stigmata.

Why create such a horrid image of the Son of God? Because it demonstrates Christ’s dominance over life and death and tells us that there is nothing to fear. He was one of us; he lived among us and even died in the same manner as anyone else. This connects him to us and makes an impersonal, distant God become something much more personal and relatable. A God who suffers with us, shown in just such a state as this, is much more moving on a very deep level than any trite “footsteps in sand” imagery we are accustomed to these days. Rather, He bleeds and suffers with us as well as comforts us and watches over us. It also functions as a memento mori, an undeniable reminder that if even the Son of God can die, so you too must one day die. Meditating on this work is an intense religious experience certainly not for the faint of heart.

After dwelling on this painting, I couldn’t help but begin to see it in an alchemical light. I am reminded of what Philalethes said in the Fount of Chemical Truth, “For our water is a most pure virgin, and is loved of many, but meets all her wooers in foul garments, in order that she may be able to distinguish the worthy from the unworthy.” I cannot help but compare this to the Man of Sorrows as the ghastly Christ seems to represent the same lesson.

Philalethes also states, “To those who do not despise her foul exterior, she then appears in all her beauty, and brings them an infinite dower of riches and health.” After the remains are resurrected, the Bible tells us Christ later appeared to his disciples, but they were unable to recognize him in his purified form. I feel that this is also apparent in Giambono’s painting. The very horrible appearance of Christ is certainly off-putting, but if one were to embrace Him in this form, He would then appear in his glorious form.

The old story of St. Francs and the leper he encountered is also worth mentioning here. The story is recounted in the Catholic Encyclopedia: “One day, while crossing the Umbrian plain on horseback, Francis unexpectedly drew near a poor leper. The sudden appearance of this repulsive object filled him with disgust and he instinctively retreated, but presently controlling his natural aversion he dismounted, embraced the unfortunate man, and gave him all the money he had.”

After this mystical encounter, the young Francis truly set his foot upon the holy path which led him not only to sainthood, but to be the first to receive the marks of the stigmata.

We are taught today to shy away from the unpleasant and avoid the ugly parts of life. The Man of Sorrows, however, boldly states the opposite. The beauty within the unsightly is more profound than the obvious. Even in death there is hope and, yes, even beauty. It gives the hope that once one confronts the awful reality of this world, there is another realm to aspire to.