Monday, June 2, 2014

In Bruges: A Quakerly movie

At a critical point in Martin McDonagh's 2008 comedy In Bruges, one of the hit men lays down his gun.  It's a moment of complete surrender and the culmination of a transformation: this man refuses to participate in the cycle of "kill or be killed" that has defined his life.

Two hitmen are sent to Bruges. The city is a character.

Beneath its comic surface--and it can appreciated merely as a funny movie--In Bruges emerges as profoundly spiritual.  

The plot jumps into motion when the "boss" sends two Irish hit men, one remarkably dense, to Bruges, in Belgium, to escape after a hit gone awry. Bruges during the Christmas season enwraps the twosome in a magical setting of canals and churches. Repeatedly referred to as a "fairytale city," Bruges becomes a place where a fairytale--or more precisely, parable--will be enacted, one that raises profound questions about life and death, guilt and innocence, hell and redemption. The Bruges setting, a medieval city replete with churches and Christian artwork that the killers "kill" time viewing, becomes a part of the film's religious mediation. The much maligned Western tradition has riches to offer us, and, literally, a new perspective, if only we have eyes to see. 

In In Bruges, paintings become part of the story. This is Bosch's Last Judgment, which our "heroes" talk about. Western civilization has a tradition to offer us. Not by accident is the movie set at Christmastime. 

I don't want to provide spoilers or give away what makes the movie compelling, as I hope people will watch it. It is worth seeing if only for the lovely Bruges, the scenes set within the jarring context of a diminished language that fails to blind us to its beauty.

In a particularly Christlike sequence, one person dies to save another--an other who some might say has no right to live. We die for other people, the movie says, not because of the past--the past is never worth dying for--but for the sake of a future we cannot see and which may never come to be.  

Though far better, this movie reminded me of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Both are whimsical comedies in fairytale settings, where scenery evokes far more than it says. But Budapest sadly lacks Bruges humanity. Bruges, like Budapest, comes from a male perspective--women in Bruges are sex objects (pregnant, prostitutes, or sexually available young women)--but unlike in Budapest, they are not held up to ridicule or cruelty. Ironic, though the movie is about hitmen, we never see casual killing in Bruges. In Budapest we do, when a group of prison guards are murdered without a second thought, though as part of madcap, "light-hearted" prison break caper. Budapest, too, though named for a city, exists in a location out of place and time, an ephemeral moral limbo. 

Women are sex objects in In Bruges, but are not humiliated.

 Bruges, in contrast, is located precisely in history. It reflects on life and death--and suggests, through the rich medieval paintings it shows, that Bruges offers a the perceptive viewer an entree into the West's long meditation on meaning--and even, subversively, hints at the reality of hell.

But it is not a movie about fire and brimstone--it is a movie about hope.  

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