Divine malice, or at least inscrutability

It has been said that Nobel Prize-winning (but now seemingly forgotten) Swedish writer Pär Lagerkvist’s 1956 novel, The Sibyl, is a “parable of divine love.” To me, it reads more like a parable of divine implacableness, malevolence, and wrath. The short (147-page) book has two narratives. The first and shorter one (one that Lagerkvist picked up again later) is the Wandering Jew, a Jerusalem store-owner who told Christ on his way to Calvary not to lean on his property. The enraged Messiah cursed him, forcing him to live forever. His wife takes their child away and the man outlives everyone he knew. Some centuries later, he has made his way to Delphi, where the oracle has not been able to tell him anything.

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He learns that up in the hills there is a former pythia, the priestess of Apollo through whom the god spoke when she was overcome with toxic smoke (etc.) though what she raved had to be translated by priests to answer the questions posed to the god. She was highly regarded (even while being held in contempt as someone who gave herself to ecstatic possession). She began young and was a virgin until she fell in love with a neighbor who had returned from wars missing one arm. She did not give herself by half-measures either to him or to the god.

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After a season of human bliss, she returned to being possessed. The god had not forsaken her, but one day seemed (to her) to rape her. She was pregnant, and when it became known that she was no longer a virgin, the people of Delphi (who depended on the revenue of those coming to consult the oracle) were outraged.

She was able to make a dash into the temple, where sanctuary was inviolate. Before the mod dispersed, she decided to leave. The sacred road also tabooed violence, though once she reached its end some who followed her threw stones at her.

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(ruins of the oracle pit at Delphi and surrounding mountains)

She survived primarily by milking goats and goats protected her and licked the blood from the son to whom she gave birth. Eventually, she realized that her mute son could not have been conceived with her human lover.

While the Wandering Jew is hearing her story, the middle-aged (gray-haired) son wanders off and up a glacier. She does not provide any encouragement to her visitor, but he learns to resign himself to being a plaything of wrathful divinity, as she has.

It is Christ, the son of God, who is overtly implacable and wrathful. Whether Apolllo meant to make his priestess suffer for her infidelity to him is less certain. Possession was a diving gift, and if he impregnated her (as the Holy Ghost did the Virgin Mary) this is not obviously punishment. The ever-smiling, never-speaking son is a puzzle, his company a sort of blessing, whereas there is no upside to the fate of the Wandering Jew (though I know he will find the balm of death in Lagerkvist’s nextnovel, The Death of Ahasuerus, 1960). God or the gods is/are inscrutable, beyond human understanding and causes rather than relief of human suffering in Lagerkvist’s tale.

I found the flight from the angry mob part riveting and the accounts of possession fit with what I know about contemporary possession cults. Locating the novel in time is difficult. Delphi (and its oracle) were in eclipse by the time of Vespasian (69AD), which is not centuries after when Christ was supposedly crucified. Locating it in space is no problem; I have been to Delphi.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

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Two hard-to-believe 2015 films

The Argentine “El secreto de sus ojos” (co-written and directed by Juan José Campanella) won the best foreign-language film Oscar for 2009. It was updated and relocated to LA for a 2015 American version, with the title translated (without the definite article of the Spanish title) as “Secret in Their Eyes,” co-written and directed by Billy Ray (Breach, Shattered Glass). I did not think that Chewetel Ejiofor’s character, Ray Kasten, was credible (I blame the writers more than the actor). There were other even greater challenges to suspending disbelief, such as finding someone in a full Dodger Stadium, and the meeting of the suspect, the two who roughed him so that he had to be released, and the grieving mother of a daughter slain a dozen years earlier in an elevator (well on the ground floor with the mother set to go up in the elevator that has carried the other three down).

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There is also an unexplained image of a cop played by Michael Kelly pouring something (I think bleach) into a burning car, and what happened to the killer.

Julia Roberts is completely deglamorized as the grieving mother (a policewoman called to the scene with Ray). I think switching the roles of Roberts and Nicole Kidman (a prosecutor for whom Ray carries a torch, even a dozen years after moving to NYC) might have helped, but IMHO there was no reason to make an American version. (The Argentine one already stretched my ability to suspend disbelief).

I did, however, like the aerial nocturnal shots of LA and, in general, the dark cinematography of Roberts’s husband (and father by her of three children), Daniel Moder. And supporting performances by Dean Morris, Joe Cole, and Alfred Molina.

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It ran 111 minutes. Running even longer, the similarly opaquely titled 2015 Jia Zhanke film “Mountains May Depart” (Shan he gu ren) runs even longer (126 minutes). Alienation as well as ecstasy (at least joy) seem tied to westernization in Jia’s vision, which begins and ends with the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of the Village People’s ”Go West.” I have no doubt that the original VP song exhorted going west within North America, derived from Horace Greeley’s admonition “Go west, young man.” With an opening derived from the Soviet national anthem and the images of the Pet Shop Boys’ music video of Lenin, Red Army soldiers, etc. has a different connotation. Those dancing in rural China (Fenyang, Shanxi) probably don’t understand the lyrics, however.

Jia’s wife, Zhao Tao, is the sole dancer at the end (set in 2025), and the focus of those discoing ca. 1999 at the start. The first part of the movie is a triangle with her (her character’s name is Tao Shen) at the apex, choosing the aggressive entrepreneuer Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) over the mineworker (in the helmet department) Liangzi (Liang Jing Dong).

Fired by Zhang because he refuses to stop seeing Tao, Liangzi leaves the area and becomes a coal miner. By 2015, the second section, he has lung cancer and insufficient funds for treatment. Tao is divorced and has lost custody of her son, whom her husband named “Dollar.” Dollar, who is about nine years old, visits for the funeral of his mother’s father, then is going to move from Shanghai to Melbourne. For me, the middle section is the best part of the film.

The final part is set mostly in Melbourne. Dollar has forgotten how to speak Chinese and does not seem to be doing very well in a Beiinghua class that consists mostly of other young Chinese who have lost (or never had) command of their mother tongue. He seduces his teacher (this stretches credulity to the breaking point). After having her translate in a confrontation with his father (whose second wife is apparently gone, certainly is not present even in allusions or Skype calls), Mia (Sylvia Chang, who is Taiwanese) is going along with Dollar to visit his birth mother (Tao), though the film does not get that far and ends with her alone in a field dancing to “Go West” (playing in her head).

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There is nothing futuristic about the 2025 segment (in, remember, a film released in 2015). The width of the image has swelled from segment to segment. Has the vision of anyone in the movie similarly expanded? The setting has changed, and for Dollar the language. Liangzi does not appear (nor is he alluded to) in the final part. That is awkward. The placement in 2025 just seems arbitrary to me.

˙2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

Ang Lee’s expansion of Eileen Chang’s “Lust, Caution”

I really don’t know what Ang Lee (Lee Ang in Asian word order) meant when he wrote that “no other writer has used the Chinese language as cruelly” as Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing in pinyin, 1920-1995) did. The controversial film he made of Chang’s story “Se, jie” that has been translated into English as “Lust, Caution” portrays some rather graphic and pretty rough sex between the 45-year-old Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), the head of the intelligence service of the Shanghai Japanese puppet government of Wang Jingwei, and Wong Chiachih (Wei Tang in a sensational screen debut), a college-student actress whose role is to lure him into a trap so that he can be eliminated by Chinese nationalist patriots.

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He is using her as a concubine — though Chiachih is the guest or Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen), an inveterate mahjong player — and concubines are entitled to flashy rings (and other jewelry). She aims to inflame his lust so that he can be killed, though she lacks strong political or patriotic convictions. She also has no experience of sexual love or passion-management.

Because her role is that of a married woman (the wife of a Hong Kong businessman, a category very plausibly apolitical) she is deflowered in a totally unromantic and instrumental way (by a fellow actor turned patriot or terrorist, a distinction depending on the side). Mr. Yee wants her, and she has strong feelings, oscillating between love and hate, for him. He uses her very roughly, awakening strong masochism in her.

The film adds an unrequited and mutual love between Chiachih and Kuan Yumin (pop star Lee-Hom Wang), who was her director in a patriotic melodrama before the Japanese conquered Hong Kong and is also the director of the amateur assassins.

In Chang’s story, the group is reassembled at the behest of Mr. Wu (Tou Chunghua, who starred in Hou Hsiaohsien “The Boys from Fengkuei”), a Kuomintang (Nationalist Chinese) agent in Shanghai who learns that Chiachih has befriended Mrs. Yee and might be able to get the very cautious Mr. Yee into a place where he can be killed. In the film adaptation, the group kills a “running dog” of the Japanese (very, very ineptly and therefore gruesomely) and are bailed out of (in 1938, not yet conquered by the Japanese) Hong Kong.

The film adds a scene of Mr. Wu, Kuan Yumin, and Chiachih telling both of them details of what she is doing and feeling with Mr. Wu that neither of the patriotic men wants to hear. For me, this scene is the hinge of the film and makes the reversal(s) ahead more comprehensible than it is in Chang’s very terse story.

I was asked if the graphic sex was necessary. Given that the first word of the title is “lust,” I think so, though what Chiachih says to those who have sent her on her mission of seduction is likely to make viewers as uncomfortable as it does her interlocutors within the scene. And Chang (who worked on the story for nearly three decades) did not specify that the sexual connection was (or verged on being) sadomasochistic.

I think that To and Wang are extremely good, as is Ko Yue-Lin as Liang Junsheng, the member of the group with some sexual experience who must deflower Chiachih for the sake of China (diffidently and passionlessly—condoned by Kuan Yumin, despite his feelings for her). Both the “romantic leads” seem affectless to me. Their sexual congress involves some contorted positions, but their faces remain blank in and out of bed. The movie (not just the sex) is utterly joyless.

Joan Chen does not have much to do, but does that well. Tony Leung (Leung Chui-Wai) has played many heavily conflicted lovers (for Wong Karwai and others). Playing a selfish villain goes against his iconic image. He is able to bring some of his trademark melancholic self-loathing, and some diffidence — at least in scenes with his wife and her circle of mahjong addicts. Mr. Yee knows (by 1942) that the Japanese are going to lose and will be unable to protect him in the long run. He does not know the extent to which his affair with Chiachih is risking his life (and career), but he is intrigued at stimulating strong feelings — even if it expressed hate rather than love.

Leung does not go over to the dark side to the extent that Henry Fonda, for instance, did in “Once Upon a Time in America.” Mr. Yee signs death warrants and shows not the slightest remorse for anything, but at least for me, he never completely breaks out of the web of sympathy accumulated in a quarter of a century of film roles. I mean, he is despicable and has the grace to despise himself to some degree, but he is also the victim and being used. (In terms of Kantian ethics, her use of him is more instrumental than his use of her is.)

I guess that Mr. Yee cannot be a complete monster for the plot to work, so maybe the ethical grayness of assassinating an executioner is exactly what Leung needed to do. There is even one point at which he is moved (by Chiachih’s sining/acting in a geisha house). I don’t understand why he tortured himself to lose weight to look emaciated, since there is no basis for that in Chang’s story. (I don’t know if starving himself was his idea or Lee’s)

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I’m not convinced the film deserved a NC-17 rating. The sex is what makes sense of what happens, that is, the story and there is no full-frontal nudity, male or female.

Lee generally takes his (and viewers’!) time. The first half hour in particular drags. Perhaps the pace was intended to illustrate the “caution” in the title?

BTW, there is one sequence in which Yee is in a geisha house in the Japanese quarter to which he has summoned Chiachih that has a Japanese hostess and some very drunk Japanese army officers, one of whom paws Chiachih. Mr. Yee’s office is in a complex under the KMT flag, though the leader of his would-be assassins, Mr. Wu, is also a KMT (Jiang Kai-Shek rather than Wang Jingwei) operative.

The neo-Romantic (sometimes neo-Wagnerian) music by Alexandre Desplat (The Queen, Girl with a Pearl Earring) has made the soundtrack album a big seller. The art direction by Joel Chong and others is outstanding, and done full justice by Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who shot “Brokeback Mountain” for Lee (also Amores Perros, Frida, 21 Grams, Babel, and Alexander).

Lee’s team is very international. I already knew that Tony Leung speaks flawless English and expected that Ko Yue-Lin Wang Leehom did (Ko graduated from Williams, Wang is American-born). In the “making of” featurette, Wei Tang (born in Zhejiang) acquits herself well, if less confidently in English. I’d have liked to hear more from Ang Lee and James Schamus — as in their commentary track for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” What the cast members, Schamus and Prieto say, and what is shown of shooting the film are interesting but relentlessly positive about everyone else (what I call a “We all loved each other SO much” making-of featurette).

 

©2008, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

Falling in love with the traitor she seduced to kill

Insofar as there could be a Jane Austen of 1930s and 40s Shanghai, it was Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing in pinyin, 1920-1995). That is, she wrote about love relationships — “chicklit” if you will — during very turbulent times, mostly not mentioning the macro-level disturbances. As translator Julia Lovell wrote in introducing her translation of Chang’s novella “Se, jie” as “Lust, Caution,” “Although her [politically] disengaged stance was in part dictated by Japanese censorship in Shanghai, it was also infused with an innate skepticism of the often overblown revolutionary rhetoric that many of her fellow writers had adopted…. War is no more than an incidental backdrop, helping to create exceptional situations and circumstances in which bittersweet affairs of the heart are played out.” Chang defended her focus, writing, “Though my characters are not heroes, they are the ones who bear the burden of our age.”

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The world of patriotism and armed struggle more than impinges on the protagonist of “Lust, Caution,” Wang Chia-Chih, however. At the start of the story she is a houseguest in Shanghai of Mrs. Yee  who whiles away her life shopping and playing mahjong. The latter is the wife of Mr. Yee (no given name is ever mentioned), who is the head of the secret police in Wang Ching-Wei’s collaborationist/puppet government.

The story opens and closes with Mrs. Yee  playing mahjong with rich friends. The reader learns that Wang Chia-Chih was the star actress of her class of students in Hong Kong and was recruited by other students who were fervently anti-Japanese and wanted to assassinate Mr. Yee while he was in Hong Kong (before the Japanese conquered Hong Kong).

Chia-Chih’s role was to seduce Mr. Yee, so that the others could kill him, an exemplary punishment of a traitor (“quisling” has become the word in English based on the Norwegian Nazi collaborator example). The role concocted for her is that of the wife of a businessman, played by another actor. The only member of the group who can drive undertakes playing the chauffeur and the only one with any sexual experience deflowers Chia-Chih.

Mr. Yee suddenly leaves Hong Kong, but a Kuomintang agent in Shanghai, Mr. Wu, learns of the connection made and the group reassembles and the plot is de facto revived.

Chia-Chih plays her part well, and like any good concubine, she is to be rewarded with a ring by Mr. Yee, and the murder is set around Chiah-Chih and Mr. Yee going to an Indian jeweler. Having no experience of love — and only a very mechanical experience of sex to enable her to pass as a married woman — she cannot tell if she has fallen in love with the Enemy she is engaged in setting up to be killed.

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Most of the story is this setup. Ang Lee’s NC-17-rated 2007 film adaptation film makes sense of the very terse backstory. About two hours of the film elaborates in flashbacks what is only a few paragraphs in Chang’s story. I don’t think I would have understood some of the implications Chang threw out in passing, so that seeing the film before reading the story seems a good course. The most riveting scene in the movie — a meeting of Chia-Chih, Kuang Yumin (the head of the conspirators), and Mr. Wu is not in the original story at all. There is also nothing about the kind of sex Chia-Chih had with Mr. Yee in the story, nor is Mr. Yee described as being skinny (so I don’t understand why Tony Leung had to take off weight for the part!).

The story is definitely shorter than the film. The film is novelistic (as Ang Lee’s film of “Brokeback Mountain” was, along with his adaptations of novels Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Riding with the Devil. (I recall that John Ford said that it was better to flesh out short stories than to distill novels, though three of the four films for which he won Oscars were adaptations of novels, two of them quite sprawling novels.)

The part of Chang’s story that seems to have interested Ang Lee — at least judging by his aferword to the publication of the story as a book — is part that he could not film: in Chinese (Lee uses pinyin), “Wei bu dzuo chung.” This Chinese conception is that the ghost of someone killed by a tiger works for the tiger, helping to lure more prey into his path.

In both story and film, Mr. Yee knows that the Japanese rule is not going to last and that without Japanese protection he will be executed for his more-than-willing collaboration. “But now that he had enjoyed the love of a beautiful woman, he could die happy—without regret…. Now, he possessed her utterly, primitively——as a hunter does his quarry, a tiger his kill. Alive, her body belonged to him, dead she was his ghost.”

Ang Lee discusses this soul possession notion in his afterword. (He also asserted that “no other writer has used the Chinese language as cruelly” as Chang, and that no other story of hers is as beautiful or as cruel as this one. If her use of language was cruel in Chinese, this has not been replicated in the translation, though I think it more likely that it is not really the language use that is cruel in Chinese either). Lee’s usual scriptwriter/producer, James Schamus, takes up the question “Why Did She Do It?”, a question that cannot be answered.

The movie runs 157 minutes; the story occupies only 54 pages (with text that is only 5 1/4″ by s 1/4″. Lee and Schamus each add three pages, Julia Lovell ten. This seems quite slight to make a book, as was the case for turning Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain” into a book. In that case, the story was already available in a collection of Proulx Wyoming stories, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, and there was a volume with the screenplay, the original story, and essays by those involved in adapting the story to the screen. There is a screenplay plus original story plus essays edition of “Lust, Caution” (and Chang’s story is not available in Love in a Fallen City, the collection in English of Chang’s Shanghai stories.

Re the title: Since there does not seem to be anything I would characterize as “lust” in the story (the film is another matter!), I asked two native speakers of Chinese about the translation of Chang’s title. They felt that “lust” was a reasonable translation, though “seduction” would be as good, but that the disjuncture is not in Chinese. “Forbidden lust” and “Forbidden seduction” were their suggestions as translations of the title. The liaison that is central to the story (and that bears more than a casual relationship to Chang’s marriage with a prominent collaborator) is a perilous one for both of them. Hers was, as it were, “licensed” as a patriotic duty, his was exceedingly unwise. Caution was Mr. Yee’s general m.o., but love and/or lust often involves jettisoning caution and rational calculation. Both were “playing with fire.” More than one got burned in the instrumental use of sex/love.

 

 

©2008, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

1934 stroll from the Iron Gate to Istanbul

I am not a member of the Sir Patrick Michael Leigh (“Paddy”) Fermor, DSO, OBE (1915-2011) cult, though I readily stipulate that he had pluck and extensive culture. Decades after his stroll from the Netherlands to Istanbul (which like many Greeks he continued to call “Constantinople”) that took from 8 December 1933 to1 January 1935 and mostly without notes or diaries, he published two books about the trip and worked on a third. The third was put together by Colin Tiburon and Artemis Cooper. It has a baroque style, except for the appended diary of his later first trip to Mount Athos.

I suspect that the 18-19-year-old had not been as virulently anti-Ottoman as the author of The Broken Road was. The Greek nationalist fanaticism and unremitting denigration of Turks mars the book.

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It also has other major problems of organization (wildly digressive) and believability. I do not believe he could have remembered so many details 25-75 years earlier, and his disquisitions on history surely owe much to later reading. I don’t doubt he went where he says he went (much lengthening the trip by swinging from Plovdid in central Bulgaria to the Romanian capital of Bucharest). Nor do I doubt that he cadged off scores of Romanians and Bulgarians, including impoverished peasants as well as Romanian (and, earlier, Hungarian) aristocrats. I find his sense of entitlement to being fed and sheltered very off-putting. His outrage that some Bulgarians would not give him a free ride shows particularly clearly his exploitativeness. (He does sometimes mention unease at others paying for all his meals and drinks, though the reader cannot be sure if he felt this is 1934 or decades later looking at the record of his reliance on the kindness of strangers that exceeded that of Blanche DuBois).

Fermor worked on the manuscript into his 90s. I find the portrait of his 19-year-old self suspect. There is hardly anything about the target of the long walk (with at least one train trip, and lots of rides), not even what is Byzantine in Istanbul, let alone its mosques, Topkapi Palace, and the waterways within its boundaries.

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The parts that most interested me were about his visit to Rustchuk (Russe, Bulgaria on the Danube) and his extended stay (sponging in both cities) in Bucharest. He documented the rabid anti-Semitism of the Romanians (pp. 148-52).

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(interior of Kretzulescu Church in Bucharest, showing typical decoraiton of every inch)

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

The Gorilla Bathes at Noon

“The gorilla bathes at noon” (Gorila se kupa u podne,1993) is not set in Africa. It has a stubborn non-conformist whose verities have banished at its center. A Soviet major, Victor Borisovich, who had been hospitalized (like the devoutly communist mother in “Goodbye, Lenin”) finds that his army has deserted him in Berlin. He remains in dress uniform and he remains loyal to Lenin, not only cleaning a gigantic statue of Lenin, but dreaming of his sort-of-girlfriend in Lenin drag. (There is footage of a Lenin statue being decapitated and the head trucked away. There is also footage of Stalin visiting Berlin recently conquered by the Red Army and other footage from the 1949 Soviet propaganda film/documentary “The Fall of Berlin.”

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The major has access to the Berlin Zoo, steals food intended for the animals, and considers (dreams?) of feeding himself to his compatriots, the zoo’s Siberian tigers, except that neither tiger had ever been in Siberia: one was born in Stüttgart, the other in Budapest.

The sex and the music are muted in contrast to Makavejev’s Yugoslavian films (back when he was allowed to make them). There’s still plenty of comedy of the absurd in “Gorilla.”

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In the other communist founding father veneration film (Tito and Me), I don’t know if the family is Serbian or Croatian. I suspect that instead of speaking Russian, the actors in “Gorilla” are speaking Serbo-Croatian. The abandoned  major is played by “Yugoslav stage actor Svetozar Cvetkovic”) and the film is directed by Dusan Makavejev (director of “WR: Mysteries of the Organism” and “Montenegro”), who may now be German, but was Yugoslav before that was a code word for Serbian. (He was born in Belgrade in 1932.)

©2011, Stephen O. Murray

Rats, sexologists, and switchboard operators

I was bored by Dusan Makavejev’s 1967 “Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator“ (Ljubavni slucaj ili tragedija sluzbenice P.T.T.), one of the three movies in the Criterion Eclipse “” Makavejev: Free Radical” set. I assumed that the sexologist, Dr. Aleksandar Kostich, who natters frequently between scenes of the crime was a fictional parody, but, apparently, he was real, a cinematic objet trouvé. I don’t know if one could say the scenes of baking are documentary or not, but those of political rallies are.

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The Turkish sanitation expert Ahmed (Slobodan Aligrudić) who picks up Izabela (Eva Ras) who is out on the town (/prowl) her fellow switchboard operator (Ruzica Sokić) is charged with exterminating the gray rat population — a species that was introduced to wipe out black rats (like the mongeese of Hawai’i). It is impossible not to suspect that the dueling rat populations are a Metaphor for human politics in a land where communists supplanted Nazis.

The alien (Turk) is a suspect in the murder of Izabela, not least in that her corpse is found in his subterranean workplace (the sewers). Another suspect is the mailman (Miodrag Andric) who gave her rides to work and hit on her incessantly—and when Ahmed was away on business for a month overcame her resistance.

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The whodunit aspect obviously did not much interest Makavejev. Clearly, he was aiming to preach against sexual repression (even before “W.R.: Mysteries of the Orgasm”), but the main romance has none of the quirky charm of even the generally cold-blooded Rainer Fassbiner’s (1974) “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” centering on a Muslim male and an eastern European female.

Ahmed does install a bathtub for Izabela, which introduces a theme taken up again in “The Gorilla Bathes at Noon.”.

 

©2011, Stephen O. Murray