“ Sprechen verboten (speaking is forbidden)”. This casual message on the wall of a war-time prison in Berlin keeps slipping in as a powerful reminder of totalitarianism in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life. Franz Jägerstätter, one of the captives, barely speaks a word but his silence is a powerful message against fascist forces and the military service foisted by them on common citizens like him.
He is reminded of his ‘duty to the Fatherland’ and ostracised for his opposition. The consequences of refusing to swear allegiance to Hitler and standing up for one’s principles are borne with immense grace, dignity and stoicism, not just by Franz but his wife Franziska as well. “Mine is the smallest of crosses compared to what others have to bear,” he writes to her from prison. “He [god] won’t send us more [troubles] than we can bear,” she responds.
Franz has an immense clarity of vision: it is better to suffer injustice than do it to others. “Think what you like but say the opposite,” he is advised. “But I can’t do what I believe is wrong,” he says . The film poses a seminal question: If our leaders are evil what do we do? Resist, is the implicit answer.
Franz’s life is ordinary, invisible, unsung but high-minded and scrupulous. He stays loyal and uncompromising, and thus remains a free, unchained soul.
The French Riviera might be synonymous with glamour and the excesses of the upper crust, but a number of films unspooling at Cannes this year have been centred around defiant individuals like Franz, who refuse to go gentle into the night.
In contrast to the emotional sweep and philosophical heft of Malick’s classical portrayal of resistance, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite brings an edgy, tragi-comic rebelliousness to play. The South Korean film is a class war of sorts in which the underprivileged create their own alternate universe right under the nose of the rich literally rise to challenge them. It’s a hard fought battle, one in which absolute victory may be elusive, but the combative spirit remains unrelenting.
If one were to pick a single scene in the festival to exemplify the seething rage and resistance in the working underclass, it would be Abbie, in Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, shouting at her husband Rick’s exploitative employer on the phone, a moment in which she comes across as fiery, savage and demanding, but also as humane, dignified and vulnerable.
Asif Kapadia’s Diego Maradona, on one hand, presents the Argentinian football legend as a quintessential rebel with a cause. One who defied his destiny, seized the opportunities thrown his way, and systematically used his football genius to rise above the confines of the slum of Villa Fiorito. On the other hand, it also shows the ambiguities and contradictions, such as when the rebel falls prey to his own hard-earned success, leading to dangerous dalliances with cocaine, crime and a lot more.
Papicha by Mounia Meddour, set in Algeria of the 90s, is about gender issues and politics. Pursuing a career in fashion is not just a shot at finding normalcy in the country torn by civil war but it is also Nedjma’s way of taking on the emerging conservatism and radicalism. Fashion is her weapon in the fight for freedom, to wrest control of her own body. The sunny, feel-good film takes on a sudden tragic turn suggesting that the rebellion against reactionaries can’t be one-off but a continual engagement.
Danielle Lessovitz’s Port Authority, executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, takes a deep dive into the subculture of the homeless, the underprivileged and the queers on the margins of society in New York. However, the fight of the marginalised is not just an external one here but an internal one. The unusual romance between Paul and Wye has them confront and defy their sexual identity issues.
If in Mati Diop’s Atlantique young men defy the trying circumstances at home in Senegal by crossing the ocean to immigrate illegally to Spain, then Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables is all about the battles that refugees have to wage in their adopted countries. As part of the larger dispossessed underclass, they share the deep discontent and rage simmering on the margins of Paris suburbs. The strife-torn, unequal world, divided along religious, class and colour lines, is all about everyday harassment and humiliation and brutalisation. The unrest, resentment and rebellion escalates, and defiance takes a violent turn in a ferocious revenge of the underclass.