November 24, 2004

ANTI-EXISTENTIAL:

-REVIEW: of A Man Escaped (Ron Reed, 11/23/2004, Christianity Today)

The "man" of the title is Fontaine, a French Resistance fighter locked away in a Nazi prison. We know from the blunt title and his past-tense narration that he has escaped and is recounting his story at some later time. Or do we? If we know his fate is secure, why do we feel such tension and suspense?

As relentless as the filmmaker's attention is to the inescapable physical realities of this prison—wood and iron and stone, fabric and wire and water on a face—we're also led constantly to question whether these are the only reality available to Fontaine, and maybe that's what makes us question whether he'll ultimately escape from the literal prison. Perhaps his escape will be spiritual, the kind of rebirth suggested in a Scripture smuggled to him on a scrap of paper: "You must be born from above." The film's subtitle undercuts the main title's apparent sense of certainty when it refers to that same passage in John, reminding us that God defies predictability: "the wind blows as it listeth." (Bresson, a master filmmaker whose Christianity is perhaps more integrated into his work than any other, loves titles that introduce notes of uncertainty which stand in tension with the "certainties" of faith: Le Diable Probablement translates to "The Devil Probably," and the "au hasard" of Au Hasard Balthasar means "by chance.") Or perhaps Fontaine's only escape will be into eternity, through the doorway of death, as suggested by the man without hope in the next cell: when Fontaine encourages him by saying, "We'll meet up," the man replies, "In another life, maybe." Perhaps Fontaine will be taken away and shot without warning or explanation, like other prisoners? Perhaps he will he escape the walls of his cell only to be taken in a corridor or gunned down on a rooftop?

Is escape even a possibility? It hardly seems likely, and Bresson explicitly tells us that the slim hope of freedom will only be kept alive through constant faith—the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Visually we're as confined as Fontaine: we glimpse the corridors of the prison only through the peephole in his cell door, by surreptitious glances down hallways when the prisoners are led to the prison yard, in the awkward view from his barred window. We hear cryptic sounds that must be deciphered—tappings from other cells, footsteps, keys on a railing, unidentifiable squeaks and sobs and whimpers. Secretive conversations at the trough where inmates wash their face elude our understanding, cut short by guards or full of obscure and uncertain meanings. And from outside the prison, sounds of traffic, trains, a clock tower's bell.

We are caught, along with Fontaine, in a constant, sometimes unbearable tension between confinement and liberty, between palpable physical circumstances and invisible spiritual realities.

While it may sound like A Man Escaped is an extended allegory about the hope of escaping "the prison of this life" through some sort of spiritual transcendence, the film is far too particular for that.


Highly recommended.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 24, 2004 3:19 PM
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