Sex, lies and political theory

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Hannah Arendt (PG). Director: Margarethe von Trotta. Starring: Barbara Sukowa. 114 minutes

Gloria (MA). Director: Sebastián Lelio. Starring: Paulina García, Sergio Hernández. 109 minutes

Accepting her well-deserved Oscar this month for her role in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett decried the Hollywood myth that 'female films with women at the center are niche experiences'. Two non-English-language films currently on release may not achieve the box office bounty or mainstream recognition of Blue Jasmine but they do contain robust and deeply empathetic portrayals of strong female characters who are as intriguing and authentic as Blanchett's Jasmine.

Watching Hannah Arendt is largely a cerebral experience. The film is based on the experiences of German-American Jew and political theorist Arendt, who in 1961 developed the theory of the banality of evil, in response to the trial of Nazi 'desk-murderer' Adolf Eichmann. It portrays the act and aftermath of her controversial reporting on the trial for The New Yorker magazine, in a series of articles that would later evolve into her seminal tome Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

The film explores both Hannah's ideas and her thought process. She develops her arguments through heated conversations with friends and colleagues during casual gatherings. In this regard it is a dialogue-heavy film, in which some characters seem to serve no function other than to provide the counter-arguments that help Hannah fine-tune her larger theories. But at other times it lapses into near silence, finding Hannah in moments of deep rumination, her cigarette burning low as behind her eyes her formidable mind blazes.

Sukowa is excellent as Hannah, whose staunch intellectualisation of the trial and the events to which it pertains puts her in opposition to much of the western world, and particularly to members of the Jewish diaspora, who take her rationality as heartlessness, and viciously condemn her for it. But Arendt's desire to understand these events intellectually is not merely abstract. It is motivated by passion — the Holocaust touched her life directly and had a profound personal impact. Sukowa captures also these sad, wounded depths of the character.

This film is intriguing but imperfect. It is replete with phony American accents and bad vocal overdubs that often thwart its attempts at humour (a magazine editor's strict interventions with Hannah are stymied by his awe for her) and conflict (such as her verbal spats with an appalled Jewish colleague). A scene where she is refused forgiveness by an old, dear friend on his deathbed is one of the few truly touching moments in a film that appeals more to the head than the heart.

In this respect at least, Chilean film Gloria is Hannah's opposite. It relies almost solely on engaging the audience emotionally in its lead character's experiences, and does so effectively, despite a decidedly thin story. Gloria (García) is a free-spirited, 'older' woman who is looking for love and companionship in modern-day Santiago. Her adult children love but have little time for her, and her evening excursions to boozy dance parties seem often to conclude with her returning home drunk, despondent and alone.

Things seem to take a turn for the better when she meets fellow divorcee Rodolfo (Hernández) and commences a relationship with him. Gloria is remarkable, and commendable, for the way it honours the romantic and passionate aspects of these older characters' lives. This translates into some fairly graphic sex scenes between Gloria and Rodolfo; no mere close-lipped stage kisses or under-the-sheets canoodling here. The sweet and increasingly sour moments of this romance are treated with equivalent seriousness.

Motifs offer signposts to Gloria's mental and emotional state. We see her driving her car, and she is either singing aloud or steering in sullen silence. She spurns a hairless cat that finds its way into her appartment, then later, when she is at a particularly low point, takes pity on it, and allows herself to take comfort from it. The cat is woven into a biblical myth by Gloria's housekeeper, who implies that the cat's essence is the breath of a lion; an image that is at once fierce, permeable and impermanent. This, too, describes Gloria.

And Gloria drinks, and Gloria smokes, and Gloria begins using marijuana. These substances are ostensibly the accoutrements of free-spiritedness, but Gloria's prolific use of them reeks also of unhappiness. Likewise her willingness to forgive Rodolfo's mistreatment of her; he is preoccupied with his ex-wife and adult daughters yet refuses to tell them about Gloria, not seeing how this secrecy is a sleight against Gloria's dignity. If Gloria is to regain dignity and achieve happiness she must learn to thrive beyond Rodolfo's inadequate affections.

Like Sukowa with Hannah, García brings depth and vibrancy to a flawed character. Gloria is frequently sad, and seems to struggle during its arduous final 30 minutes to find a hopeful note on which to settle. It finds one eventually, leaving us with the image of Gloria dancing ebulliently to a song that bears her name. It is perhaps the happiest ending you could expect for her: sure, she'll be down again, but right now she is up, and there seems to be little doubt that no matter what happens next, she will always find her way back here, somehow.


 

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt, Gloria, Paulina García, Margarethe von Trotta, Barbara Sukowa

 

 

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‘The banality of evil’ is one of the unhappy phrases of modern philosophy. Arendt made a value judgement about Eichmann based on his class, education, and occupation. Behind the phrase is Arendt’s own snobbery, her distaste of minor bureaucrats, and her detestation of the petit bourgeois fascists who took over Germany and forced her to leave her own country for America. Behind ‘the banality of evil’ is revenge on those who took away Arendt’s sense of entitlement as one of the philosophical leaders of Germany in the 1930s. Nor did she have much to say of a positive nature about her old teacher Heidegger, after he failed to repudiate the Nazis. Not that she would accuse Heidegger of ‘the banality of evil’, because he was a university professor. People continue to trot out this phrase as though it means something, whereas evil is that which we would want to be spared, whatever form or adjective we think up at the time to describe it. One wonders if any of this comes out in the film, or if it is a piece of hagiography. Arendt wrote some wonderful works, it is a pity we remember her for this arrogant phrase.
CLOSE READING | 19 March 2014


There are good reasons for people to see a film about Hannah Arendt today. Arendt asked questions about very difficult issues that became extreme under the Nazis. The first was the industrialization of incarceration, torture and extermination, especially as witnessed in the Final Solution. The other was the excuse given by so many Germans that they were just doing their job, even when the job entailed mass murder. When we look at the Australian governments’ (plural, all of them) policy of employing companies to run detention camps and treat people as numbers, it is impossible not to recall the indifference and justifications of so many in Germany. Eichmann and others did what they did simply because the government approved and they had a job to do. It is necessary to ask questions and protect lives in a situation where governments make themselves unanswerable.
The Other | 20 March 2014


Close Reading, do you think that Arendt has a mortgage on snobbery, distaste for minor bureaucrats and detestation of pete bourgeois fascists over and above any other Jew who had the means to leave the country? And do you think her sense of entitlement was any greater than theirs? I suspect not. But she did point out that evil personified does not necessarily wear horn and a tail, and carry a pitchfork. Hence the power of her "value judgment"
JR | 22 March 2014


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