Monday, March 16, 2009

Roberto Benigni, the Humanistic Italian Poet caught between Charles Chaplin and Woody Allen

Poster of Benigni's film

Benigni's most famous and accomplished work is undoubtedly Life is Beautiful, for which he won an Oscar. At first, I was stunned that someone would have the audacity to make a comedy set in a concentration camp. When I saw the movie I was highly impressed by the strong humanistic and poetic tones of Benigni's movie. It struck me as two movies in one; the first part is a romantic interlude filled with magic and poetry, whereas the second part is a touching story about the desperate attempts of a father who wants to hide the horrors of the concentration camp from his son by turning it all into a “game” of sorts.

Throughout the movie one cannot help but admire the exuberance that has become a trademark of Benigni as an actor, as well as in real life - one only needs to see his wildly frenetic reaction to the win at the Oscars. He struck me as a modern-day Charlie Chaplin who with his gestures manages to entertain not only his fictitious son in Life is Beautiful, but also us, the spectators. At the same time, also a characteristic of most of Chaplin's works, there was a tragic and very humane and moving side to Benigni's character who is struggling to make sense of moments of deep existential anguish and crisis.

Pinocchio was Benigni's next movie, and I had been curious to see it because I thought he would be the best person to fill those shoes, not to say nose. Unfortunately, the movie flopped in a major way in the box office and with critics. To see the exuberant and childish Benigni in this instance may have been a turn-off for most viewers. My personal problem with the movie was that for some odd reason it was distributed in a dubbed English version, which appears to me the kiss of death since no one can possibly keep up with those rapid streams of words the way Benigni can. I must say that I was, in fact, quite amused by the movie, and I thought that there were, at times, quite beautiful images.

The latest movie of his - The Tiger and the Snow - appeared to be a carbon copy of Life is Beautiful only that this time, it was set in Iraq during the war. And it does follow a similar formula even though the two movies are quite different. The first part reminded me a lot of Woody Allen movies actually. Benigini was his distraught self, but he stood out with his neurotic behavior. It seemed also narcissistic in the way most Allen films are when there are beautiful actresses who, inexplicably, seem to be falling for this, not exactly attractive, character. His constant blunders, his nervous energy and the fact that he keeps getting rejected by the love of his life also reminded me of dear Woody.

The second and more substantial part of the movie set in Iraq I found again both funny and moving. I do not think that Benigni trivializes the whole issue. There is as usual a depth in his works, not necessarily political but more as a humanistic treatise against war. The most important character would be Jean Reno's Fuad who represents the disillusionment that Iraqis must have gone through and still suffer today when confronted with the devastation and death in their country.

All in all, I found the movie ingenious and poetically charged at various moments, and the lack of coherence in the script did not deter me from enjoying this movie. It falls short of Benigni's greatest work, but the unusual and heart-breaking romantic song of Tom Waits, You can never hold back spring, mixed with surreal and quite funny images make this film definitely worth watching.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Loving you regardless: The Difficulties of Unconditional Positive Regard

Carl Rogers with glasses talking
It seems very difficult, if not impossible, to have “unconditional positive regard” for oneself and/or for others. It is a term that Carl Rogers used for his humanistic brand of psychological counseling or adjustment. The psychologist offers absolute acceptance of the client's ideas, who in turn feels validated and grows in self-esteem.

But can the same be applied to our daily lives? Can we love people and ourselves with “no strings attached,” completely embracing and accepting who we are and how they are? I think it would take nothing short of a saint or an enlightened being to be able not only to forgive others for the “harm” they may cause, but more importantly to forgive oneself.

Most of us do end up picking ourselves apart when something goes against our desired end or plan or when we commit an act or error; it becomes hard to forgive ourselves. Some even engage in what Germans term “Selbstzerfleischung,” meaning ripping oneself into shreds.

A date that does not meet our expectations and where we blame ourselves for its failure, such as “I should not have said the following inappropriate things” or “I behaved like an idiot” are some ways of confronting and dealing with the disappointment. For example, when we fail exams, we feel angry with ourselves that we either forgot vital information on the day of, or that we simply did not study enough.

Certainly in both cases there exist people who lay blame on others in each case: The date went wrong because this person was simply not worth it, and I failed the exam because my teacher is a jerk and hates me. Yet the outcome is, in the end, still one where “unconditional positive regard” has not been applied, as it is based on looking away from the facts either by means of ignorance or arrogance.

The other unconditional positive regard is towards others. Now here comes the challenge. No matter how much we may love our partner, wife, husband, son, daughter, parent, there is part of us that gets annoyed with their behavior. When they behave in a manner that does not suit our ends or when they commit “foolish acts” or “mistakes,” we are usually at their throats, regardless of how much we actually love them.

Having fights and arguments seems a natural thing to do, and we often say that is part of the whole relationship. We grew up like that, and we teach our children the same. I love you, but …. There are always conditions and strings attached with the ominous “but.”

I love you but you are misbehaving. I love you but you need to change your attitude or your belief system. I love you but you need to do the following things for me, or else

We seem to have the power of withdrawing our love at any point, namely when our conditions are not met. It is like having a bank account and threatening the bank that if they ever upset us, we would withdraw all our money and close the account.

It is traumatic because we may realize that we have to please others all the time, and that if we don't, we will lose their precious love. In many cases it's a bluff. We do love them unconditionally, but we use the threat of its withdrawal as a tool or weapon to modify other people's behavior to our own personal liking.

Yet the consequences may be deep. We can leave behind scars. We can come to think that the other person does not love us unconditionally, and we may be in constant fear that they could leave us any moment, or worse, they could stop loving us.

It is part of human nature to be selfish. And love is not immune to it. We love people because of certain qualities they have or we think they do. We expect reciprocity. We expect them to behave in a respectful manner and to be faithful to us. We expect them to love us the way we are. Yet in reality, it is an extremely difficult undertaking; it is not easy to love oneself completely and to love the other person without any strings attached.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

God said to Abraham kill me a Son: Kierkegaard’s “Leap of Faith”

Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac is stopped by an angel from God
The Sacrifice of Abraham by Rembrandt

Abraham was told to sacrifice his only son Isaac on Mount Sinai. He followed God's order and set on a three-day journey to commit the deed. Nonetheless, when Abraham is about to stab his own son, God stops him through an angel and declares He has been satisfied with Abraham's behavior and particularly his unwavering faith.

Kierkegaard uses this example to illustrate his definition of faith. Faith to him is not an easy or convenient matter; it implies pain and sacrifice. It is not enough to simply “believe,” but it implies effort and recurring action. It would not be enough to go to church every Sunday or to read and study the Scriptures. To him faith includes suffering and being ready to renounce what is meaningful to one's life. It means wholly embracing faith in a world where it would seem an absurdity to do so.

Abraham's example helps us to illustrate his point. Abraham was told to act on faith and to sacrifice his own beloved son because God asked him to do so. At first glance, it seems an absurdity because how could God possibly benefit from the sacrifice of Isaac and why would He make Abraham, one of His chosen ones, suffer “needlessly”?

In this regard, Kierkegaard dwells on the anguish of the worried father. It was not based on a whim, but included careful deliberation and preparation. It took Abraham three days to get to the mountain, which means enough time to reflect about the deed. For three days he must also endure the presence of his son whom he knows he is asked to sacrifice. Had he known in advance that God would come to his aid in the last moment, it would actually diminish his unquestioning faith. Therefore, the anguish existed in obeying unconditionally to God's wishes.

What may father and son have talked about on this long journey, Kierkegaard asks? Did they talk at all? Did Abraham pretend that everything was fine or was he silent and worried for the following three days? Isaac apparently did not suspect anything and went along for the ride.

But what did Abraham say to him when he bound him, took up his glittering knife and was intent on killing his son? Did he play the madman? Would not Isaac think that God was needlessly cruel when He asked his father to kill him? Would Abraham pretend insanity or a lapse of reason to protect the faith of his son?

And more importantly, after all had been said and done, and they were on their way back home, what went through Isaac's mind about his father who was about to butcher him; what did he think about God who had asked his father to do so? Would there not be a grudge especially towards his father for being ready to sacrifice him?

On the other hand, how did Abraham feel? Of course, he must have felt great relief when he found out that it was not necessary to go through with the horrible deed. But would he feel ashamed towards his son for what he had almost done? Or did he believe that his son would be proud of the immense faith that his father had professed and actually follow Abraham's example?

On the side of Kierkegaard, it is clear that he has the greatest respect and admiration for the figure of Abraham. There is no higher faith than his; Abraham was ready to renounce everything he cherished in this world if it be God's wish. The Danish philosopher makes clear that Abraham did indeed love his son. Because had he not, then the sacrifice or the test of faith would be rendered meaningless.

Kierkegaard warns us not to take Abraham's case lightly. It is not a trifle, nor merely a “test.” It is an existential crisis. If we simply think it is a pleasing story especially because of its “happy ending” we miss the whole point. Only if we grasp the full meaning do we suffer with Abraham and his decision; if we don't lose sleep over it and do not toss and turn, if it does not resonate and touch us deep within our soul, then we have misunderstood this whole passage of the Bible.

Should we follow Abraham's example then? Evidently, Kierkegaard is not asking us to go and sacrifice our children for God. However, we should follow the intensity of Abraham's spiritual faith. This is the kind of faith that moves mountains.

Note: There is some debate about the actual age of Isaac during the sacrifice. Our usual impression is of a child or boy in his early teens; however, many claim that Isaac must have been at least 20 or maybe even in his thirties when this event took place. That would change our whole perspective about the incident.

Then the more than a hundred-year-old Abraham would have had a hard time tying up this young man. That would mean that perhaps Isaac had been a willing participant. It would diminish at least some of Kierkegaard's claims of existential anguish on Abraham's part. Nonetheless, ethically, it would be some kind of relief since it is not an innocent child that is asked to be slaughtered like a lamb, but somebody who is fully aware of the implications.