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Hitchcock's Easter drama

  • 06 April 2009

The films of Alfred Hitchcock are often regarded as a master class on the grotesqueries of Western society. To be sure, The Birds, Rear Window, Psycho, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope and even Marnie, all point to a kind of monstrous underbelly that disrupts the tranquility of everyday life.

But it was with his first attempt at cinematic realism, in an attempt to depict the true story of a wrongfully accused man, that Hitchcock managed to create a horror far worse than any Norman Bates.

In The Wrong Man, Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is arrested in an unfortunate instance of mistaken identity and, with little or no explanation, is quickly arraigned on charges of armed robbery. The central sequence of the film follows Manny as he is led through the opaque, impersonal legal apparatus that will determine his fate.

In a particularly poignant moment, Manny, his face still fixed in a look of terrified bewilderment, clutches a silver crucifix and silently prays. All the while, lawyers spew their jargon-laden bile at one another as the uninterested jury talk among themselves.

The entire courtroom scene appears to Manny as simultaneously all-powerful and completely impersonal. It is in control of his life, and it couldn't care less. That's the obscenity of the entire ordeal. There is no slick dialogue or high courtroom drama — just the brutal enactment of an insane system convinced of its own rectitude.

Although it might seem a little strange to invoke Hitchcock at Easter, we can see a similar horror at work in the trial of Jesus. The Gospel narratives depict Jesus as paraded, like some freak at a carnival, before Pilate and then Herod, both of whom taunt and goad him to accept their supposed power and thus to join in their insanity.

They want Jesus to be part of their world, to quiver before them or at least to rage against them. But instead Jesus remains silent.

And like Manny Balestrero's bewildered innocence, Jesus' silence has the effect of throwing the madness of his would-be judges into sharp relief. His refusal to join their charade creates the space, the possibility of a freedom that was unimaginable to freedom-fighters who tried to oppose violence with violence.

In his remarkable book, Christ on Trial, Rowan Williams suggests that we should understand God's transcendence through the lens of the 'obstinate uselessness' of Jesus' silence before his accusers.

'If we are