The portrait of the devil as a vagrant. This could be the subtitle of the film ‘Borgman,’ by Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam, one the revelations of last year’s editions of Cannes. A parable about the vulnerability of present-day society – artificial, hypocrite, cynical and with a troubled conscience. Which has ambiguous relations with its outcasts, at the same time of repressive violence and empathic charity. A society much too well-organised – prosperous, functional, serious – nevertheless prey to an unexpected implosion.
It seems a classic pamphlet about the frailty of our western world, insidiously corrupt in its most intimate fibre and threatened by fatal convulsions despite its seductive appearance. The remarkable thing, however, is the suggestion of the vulnerable spots of the ‘system,’ with their entire ambivalence: compassion and revolt, prejudice and vanity, jealousy and insecurity.
What should have been just a gesture of human solidarity with a fellow human being in despair gradually becomes a suicidal obstinate idea. The prologue to the movie suggests one of the mentality mutations produced by the modern society: hunted – by three symbolic characters, a priest, some kind of sheriff and a handicraftsman (which suggests the typology of the tripartite functions, theorised by Georges Dumezil, representative for traditional societies) – even in the ‘undergrounds’ of a dark forest (which suggests Dante), demons convincingly suit the role of vagrants in the abundance society.
From vagrants, they will eventually become (false) gardeners, hinting to a misleading promise of a new paradise. The ‘reform’ of the idea of happiness actually proves fatal – here is a radical criticism aimed at the wishes of contemporary human being. What sets apart the new demons from those of Dostoyevsky, described more than a century ago? They were ‘revolutionaries,’ promised to found the good on the practice of evil, through a strange dialectic of nihilism. Those of the present speculate a unique horror of perfection, specific to a world capable of evacuating the sordid and cultivate artificial paradises. The new nihilism relies on exacerbating the insecurity, first of all, the affective one. Upsetting the intimate compass that regulates the relation between confidence and suspicion eventually has devastating effects.
Far from this perspective of modern parable, a realist story: a young photographer, disappointed with the evolutions of the post-communist Romanian society, devises a diabolical revenge – infesting with HIV the son of a crooked and arrogant politician. The instrument of the revenge is his former girlfriend, who returned home after a failed attempt to emigrate in the West, and already infected. The story belongs to a young playwright, Bogdan Costin, and was recently staged at the National Theatre of Cluj. The idea is ingenious, because the politician’s insolent contempt increases the lust for vengeance of the two youths whose lives were upset by the period called (often with cynicism) ‘transition.’ The very failure of their relationship symbolises an epoch when many youths were tempted by emigration (especially after the savage raids of miners to the capital city, called by the perfidious Iliescu to supplementary legitimise his power. An emigration which sometimes ended well, other times not at all, but often took a tragic toll on old relationships.
The saddest case is that of many children who grew up alone in the country, supported by the money – but not the physical presence – of parents that left to work in the West. Of course, the idea of infecting with HIV seems a strident metaphor meant to a perspective of victimisation. We might even say that it corresponds to a misconception that animated an ambiguous comparison with the West, seen as a flawed paradise, and implicitly with the local universe seen as a familiar hell that can be tamed. The repeated political disillusions secreted a new nihilism, compatible with the wish for a radical subversion. Taking revenge for the ‘guilt’ of fathers was a communist practice, but the exasperation of failure can unexpectedly return it to actuality. Symbolically, of course, relying on the terror on example and aimed at relativizing the too strict circumscribing of responsibilities.
Like in the story of ‘Borgman,’ the ‘candid’ character is the vulnerable one, and because of his fragility the (apparently stable) scaffolding risks collapsing. Unfortunately, this nihilism in relation with politics is widespread enough to make us fear its perverted effects in the future. If we take the planned HIV infestation as a wider political metaphor, it can also suggest those phenomena capable to overturn the immunity of a social organism. Political failures often are also existential setbacks – this is a painful reality which we rather try to hide. A unique initiative of going against this tendency is that of film director Tudor Giurgiu, who ended, few months ago, the shooting of ‘Cristian,’ which he describes as a political thriller. The story is based on real events that led to the mysterious death, in 2002, of young prosecutor Cristian Panait, subject to intense political pressure. This happened during the Adrian Nastase governance, when the forced politicisation of the society had probably reached a peak in the context of post-communism.
This nihilism must not be neglected, because it attracts demons. Demons that are extremely adaptable to the epoch. Which we do not recognise in time, blinded by our inevitable remorse. But we should not cheat ourselves; the facts that generate remorse are not so inevitable. We can identify them – which is not easy – and reject their practice – which is at least uncomfortable – by modifying the moral strategy of our existential involvement.