Friday, June 18, 2010

Maggie 2010: A Challenging/Vindicating Debate

#80. God on Trial

As an atheist raised in a secular household, films and literature about religion have never been an easy sell for me. After the fetishistic fervour of Holocaust and general WWII films that emerged a few years back in Hollywood, reprehensibly turning those events into a box office "trend" for a year and a half, I also found it difficult to commit myself to newer entries in that category.

Despite both these high standards, the BBC television play God on Trial caught my eye the moment it came into Gen-X. I only didn't watch it immediately because my housemate was getting sick of my depressing film choices, and had emphatically requested a thematic change for a spell. Months later, I finally had day-time hours enough to watch, while my housemate was away, this devastating re-enactment of an alleged trial held in an Auschwitz block by a number of Jewish prisoners awaiting the gas chamber.

Facing the certainty of death, and bearing only an uncertainty of when this death hands would occur, the Jewish scholars and laymen in this play by Frank Cottrell Boyce [inspired by an event described by Holocaust survivor and noted novelist Elie Wiesel (Night, The Trial of God)] decide to pass the time by putting on trial the individual they find most responsible for the horrors they and their people all across Europe are enduring: God.

The charge is first proposed to be murder, but swiftly changed to a question more befitting the scope of omniscience. God is charged instead with breaking His Covenant with the Jewish people. At first it appears almost too obvious that God is guilty, but superb script-writing and the fully-fleshed out characterizations of all participating in this trial take viewers down many clever avenues before its only logical conclusion. The question of who broke the Covenant first is raised, followed by the citation of Biblical suffering endured in the past by the Jewish people. Then the question emerges, is this punishment or purification (a striking inversion of Nazi "cleansing" rhetoric), and if so does that change the status of Jewish casualties from victims to martyrs? Soon after, the spectre of "free will" is raised and viciously countered by a variation of Sophie's Choice. Somewhere along the way, the question of what it even means to be Jewish, and so a participant in the aforementioned Covenant, rears its own, intriguing head. And so the debate continues, back and forth, until an intense re-examination of Biblical verse that you simply must witness for yourselves brings the time of testimony to a close.

As the three appointed Jewish judges weigh the various evidence before them, anecdotal and scholastic alike, death also encroaches in terrible, concrete ways upon the bunker; and the trial itself is inter-spliced with a modern-day tour group visiting the death camp and ruminating on events therein. These modern-day flash-forwards are vestigial at best to this otherwise tightly-woven narrative: I'd wager their function is to suggest the legacy of the trial itself alongside the greater tragedy, but if so, I find this a rather disappointing appeal.

Why? Because as the conclusion of the trial itself amply demonstrates, seeking a party to blame serves at best as a way to pass the time before acts of human injustice run their course. Regardless of the judges' verdict, at the end of the prisoners' trial of God there still remains only two constants of any real relevance to the prisoners' current suffering: the certainty of their impending deaths, and the necessity of prayer, to whatever God or idealized humanist principle one believes just then, as a basic means by which to hold their deeply-grieving bodies in a state of personal dignity until that death arrives.

If you wonder why my housemate first made the appeal for fewer depressing selections during our joint movie nights, let this review be your answer. That said, please don't let the tremendous gravity of this film's material discourage you from renting the film itself: Whatever your religious affiliation, if intelligent and thought-provoking argument holds any interest for you at all, you do yourself a great disservice by not watching God on Trial.

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