Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Alexander and Ismael

Fanny and Alexander: a painting by Boris Muller after Bergman's film

Nearly thirty years ago, seeing Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander changed my life. Last weekend, I watched it again, ravished once more by its stunning cinematography, moved by its profound compassion, and grateful to be reminded of the deepest lesson it taught me: that if religion and spirituality sometimes coincide, at others you have to flee religion to save your soul. In my late twenties, exhausted and chronically bruised by the homophobia of a Toronto Lutheran congregation whose most upstanding members spent the better part of a year variously making it clear to me that I wasn’t welcome in their midst, Bergman’s film helped me find the resolve to walk away. (I wouldn’t set foot in a Christian church for fifteen years thereafter; looking back, I regret not one day of that long sabbatical.)

A short synopsis can’t possibly convey the wondrous complexity of the movie’s plot and imagery. You have to watch it for yourself. Suffice it to say that it’s a loving (and yes, romanticized) celebration of a chaotic extended family that, despite its pervasive heterosexuality, is profoundly queer in its flouting of bourgeois norms. The film’s most devout character, the local bishop, is also its most demonic. The abuse he inflicts on Alexander and his sister, the children of his second wife, never succeeds in crushing their imagination.

Their deliverance comes in the magical household of their grandmother’s sometime lover Isak, an elderly Jewish merchant who smuggles them out of the prison the bishop’s palace has become, hiding them in his labyrinthine warehouse-apartment of precious antiques, nodding masked effigies, and luminous animated mummies. With him lives his unsettlingly intense nephew Aron, a master puppeteer whose alluring attentions to the eleven-year-old Alexander are subtly erotic and less than subtly sadistic; behind a locked door lives Aron’s disturbed brother Ismael, heard singing in the night.

When with Alexander we meet Ismael, the danger he presents isn’t what we’ve been led to expect. A lithe, soft-spoken androgyne, in him all oppositions are dissolved and flow into one another. He is male and female, Self and Other, spirit of light and dark angel, and he guides Alexander to the realization of the terrible, saving, desire of his heart.

Amidst its many other riches, the film offers a parable for the spiritual abuse so many queer men and women continue to suffer–after decades of debate, after dozens of task forces and hundreds of study groups, after various pathetic, gutlessly nominal gestures of inclusion–at the hands of most Christian denominations; it’s a parable, too, for our ongoing resistance, our resilience, and the unexpected wellsprings of the Spirit where we find improbable sustenance for our own and one another’s inner life.

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