A couple of films I have seen on successive nights here in Dubrovnik have pushed me up against a slightly disturbing fact. Namely, that I have become so entrenched in my opinions and outlook, seen through the perspective of my many years on earth with everything they have taught me, that I am no longer capable of taking the necessarily slightly detached view of any raw cultural material that drifts into my ken.
I could put this more simply: on this visit I am proving myself to be a completely uncultured barbarian whose taste in entertainment is limited to watching Rugby games and almost any other sporting event I can find on television. My hostess here goes to every available concert, mopping up performances by noted European musicians and performers, while I slouch, sloth-like, in the Pub watching Daniel Carter miss his latest kick for the Canterbury Crusaders, or hoping to see Usain Bolt break his own amazing record for the 100 metres.
The two films which precipitated this orgy of self-criticism are so dissimilar I would normally never be able to deal with them in one article. The first was a Croatian film called Halima’s Path directed by Arsen Anton OstojI, and with a cast headed by the expressive and wonderful Croatian actress Alma Prica. Essentially, the plot deals with the elemental hatreds held between Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Roman Catholics, which were exemplified by the Yugoslav war of 1991 to 1995. At about the same time I saw this movie I was reading a book called Balkan Ghosts, a Journey through History, by Robert Kaplan, a sort of travel writer-historian, whose work appears regularly in the Atlantic Monthly and other U.S. journals. Kaplan blamed all the current events on other events, long since past, that had stored up animosities among these (apparently) primitive people that caused them, at the slightest provocation, to cut loose and start to murder each other. For all I know it may have been an accurate description of the Yugoslav situation, but Kaplan used it as the excuse for arguing for full-scale American intervention, apparently not only here, but more or less everywhere in the world. Kaplan’s argument --- stripped of its historian’s sophistication ---seemed to be that Western history had left us with Western modes of action and of thought and Western beliefs so far superior to those of the Balkans that we were needed to sort them all out, straighten up their thinking and then allow them to get on with a life that they would live more or less as we live ours, or as the Americans live theirs. This is more than slightly inimical to my general attitude to the world at large, and its premises seem to have already been disproven by recent and past actions of the American empire, notably in Iraq, Afghanistan, and even in the Balkans, where their intervention did stop the war by having the Dayton Agreements signed, but which has left the place a tinderbox of hatreds that could explode again at the slightest provocation.
The film Halima’s Path is set in Bosnia, which, under the Western prescription for a settlement, is divided between Bosnia proper and the so-called Serbska Republic. The idea was that these parts would draw closer together over time, but most people agree that the opposite is happening, that the Serbs of Bosnia have withdrawn behind their own borders and are not interested in having any other ethnicity living among them. (This is so in spite of the fact that, according to Kaplan, Serbs and Croats come from identical ethnic roots, and have been divided throughout history only by their religions.)
This brings me back to my opening sentence. I am so hostile to all religions and their manifestations among human kind that I shuddered at the thought that this film, which opened with a young woman being beaten almost to death by her Muslim uncle because she had become pregnant by an Orthodox boy, was going to deal with religion-inspired hatreds. Give me a break, I silently cried, let them fight out their absurd hatreds, but why involve me?
The film was excellent, but although I cannot say the premise was ridiculous (since it was based on a true story) I do have to say that it dealt with elemental passions that I cannot for a moment imagine sharing. The forbidden child was born, and brought up by a relative, but its mother disappeared and thereafter lived as the wife of an Orthodox man, and with the murdering that was commonplace during the war, perhaps an imaginative reader could guess at the denouement. The story was tragic, but melodramatic, and it was excellently acted and directed, showing that Croatia, although only a small country, already has a thriving film industry.
Okay, that’s film No 1. The second film was called The Best Exotic Marigoild Hotel, a British fairy tale set in modern India that managed to be a sort of disquisition on aging (which I could relate to), and a childlike comedy based on a stereotype of Indians and India worthy of Peter Sellars at his worst. A disparate group of aging English people (beautifully acted by a cast of stellar performers such as Judy Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and many others), having reached the end of their tethers in British life, decides to decamp for a rundown hotel in Jaipur, where they fall into the care of a comic Indian of the worst type, full of dreams and English non sequiteurs, and strange wisdom arising from his cultural background. Here again, I could not claim to be a detached observer, because many of these characters at key moments would speak for me, and about my life, but unfortunately this is the feel-good movie to end all feel-good movies (which I sincerely hope it does.) Maggie Smith’s character, which begins as the worst of entrenched racist bigots, ends magically transformed into a thoroughly acceopting efficient hotel manager: Judy Dench, who had lived her life in the shadow of her husband to such an extent that her son thought she would never be able to cope with real life, ends up zipping around on the pillion seat of a motor-scooter. And so on.
I went to India as a starry-eyed young idealist in 1951, and I have been told many times that the basics of Indian life have not really changed, in spite of there now being a huge middle-class. The poverty remains as widespread and as grinding as ever. Only the income gap between rich and poor has grown, so they say, like everywhere else. The India shown in this film had little in common with what I saw in 1951, but I did not feel confident, in view of the fairy-tale characteristics of this story, that I could trust the version of India before my eyes.Once again, I felt I have seen too much of the world to be able to judge it objectively any longer. On which inconclusive conclusion I will leave you all to return to your particular version of the struggle, each of you.