Psychology Scuttles Spirituality in Two New Movies

Two unpleasant but fascinating recent films allow psychology to scuttle alternative spiritualities, even as monotheistic faiths are not consulted.

Birds of Passage, directed by Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, is the epic tale of a family of Colombian drug-dealers. Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal wrote the screenplay.

This film engages the viewer from the very outset with its tableaux of Colombian customs: the confinement ceremony that marks young womanhood; then courting and marriage and baby-welcoming ceremonies. We quickly come to care about Rapayet (Jose Acosta) and Zaida (Natalia Reyes) and their relations as the young couple builds a family. True, the mother-in-law (Carmina Martinez) is somewhat demonic. She and the other women are the guardians of local rituals and beliefs.

The Peace Corps members are depicted in this film as half-heartedly combating socialism with pamphlets during the day and as indulging in drugs and free sex at night, in contrast with the mores of the natives which, while rooted in old beliefs, seem to work in everyday family life. It’s the Peace Corps youth who get the locals into drug trafficking, if this film is to be believed.

The dreams and death rituals, dominated by the women, are rather gory, and have disastrous social consequences -- or, at least, hasten the social consequences of the family business. One thinks of the Hebrew Bible’s discouragement of obsessing on death and on the dead and buried. One wonders what happened to Catholicism, if it ever took hold. Birds and talismans figure prominently in the local spirituality.

The film is superbly, even exquisitely, acted and directed, and reaches full authenticity when the indigenous people are allowed to do their chants and incantations. But that authenticity also consists in unrelenting “messengers” and in chauvinistic tribal honor. Ethics often come down to bargaining. It works -- until it stops working. At least the West has its witness protection plans (which don’t always work, either).

For all its authenticity and moralizing, the film offers a bad message: that a family can flourish in the drug trade and be guided by indigenous beliefs as long as a “bad seed” does not ruin things. The women regard the local religion as ever ready to pounce on sins familial and gangland, but there is never the suggestion of ethical proscriptions of drug dealing. True, Christianity and Judaism have not always been successful at getting their adherents to resist gang vices and abominations, but at least the teachings and standards have been made clear. Do the filmmakers suggest something inherently problematic in relying on signs rather than scriptures?

Ironically, despite the sheer beauty of the local countryside and the fascinating local customs and story line, the outstanding eye-catching aesthetic object in this film is a token of Western design: a stunning modernist house for the protagonist family, albeit with pretentious furniture. Is that house intended as a Western sacrifice to the local gods, even as the God of the Western (and Eastern) monotheists is never consulted here?


In Out of Blue, written and directed by Carol Morley, the violent death of a glamorous female astrophysicist (Mamie Gummer) requires the talents of a hardnosed and mysterious female detective, “Mike” Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson). Though the case is quickly and surprisingly solved, it is the ramifications of the solution that ultimately lead Mike to discover a parallel to her own childhood trauma and to confront her own demons. The film is well-acted and directed, with James Caan almost unrecognizable in a most offbeat role.

As in Birds of Passage, the theme of what the living must do for the dead dominates the living; and spirituality, such as it is, is left to the women. In this film, the emotionally unbalanced mother (Jacki Weaver) learns from the deceased daughter: “She taught me that your nose can come from a different star than your hand does.”

The deceased astrophysicist had a lot of similar observations, which she articulated while in the spotlight before her untimely death: “In order for us to live, a star must die. We are all stardust. Do you know where you are? What kind of neighborhood does our galaxy live in?”

One such statement seems both geographical and psychological: “We do not simply live within the universe. The universe lives within us.”

But just when we brace ourselves for a full New Age worldview from which (who knows?) reincarnation or New Orleans spiritism may emerge, the film backs away from its own pronouncements and falls back on psychology. Indeed, the film is disarmingly Freudian -- perhaps refreshingly Freudian at a time when New Age self-help therapies still prevail. It deals with the powerful effects of fear within families even in the absence of physical abuse per se. It takes as its motto a very Freudian observation of William Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.”

Indeed, despite all the talk about stars and galaxies, the film is very earthy. It deals with terrestrial evils which haunt the mind. As does Birds of Passage, it focuses on morbid practices for dealing with the dead and with (psychological) ghosts of the dead. There is, for example, a request for cremation ashes to be scattered over the garbage. This movie has its talismans, as well, which appear with the dead body. There is even a “messenger” in the form of a TV reporter (Devyn A. Tyler) who may be real or a psychological phenomenon or both.     

Not unlike Birds of PassageOut of Blue can be summarized in a Shakespearian line which, when applied to this film, becomes quite Freudian: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

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