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November 17, 2019

The violence we tolerate

Bogdan Mirica’s ‘Dogs,’ which previously caught the attention of the FIPRESCI jury at Cannes, won the ‘Transylvania’ trophy at this year’s TIFF. A “border” story, set in the wilderness of northern Dobrogea, dotted with several murders, mutilated bodies and night-time hunts, which also has the ambition of being a metaphor for the time and the place – today’s Romania.

The true dog among the “dog-like” people around him is a scrawny one, inefficient as a guard dog and who ends up alongside them in the final massacre. His name is “Police,” and his impotence hides – we are suggested – the impotence of an entire institution. This type of symbolism does not stop here. The local policeman has cancer, so he is dying anyway, and one newspaper is talking about the outlook of having rural police precincts closed down and replaced with mobile units.

In other words, this territory, already prey to cross-border smugglers, will go “wild” even more. For the time being, the only “incorruptible” is the old man who still hopes to catch the gang, and who will eventually apply the law of the western: it’s better for a criminal to be dead than on trial. The new landlord, a young man who inherits the estate from his grandfather and who would like to get rid of it as fast as possible, is just a collateral victim – the grandfather himself had been ‘il capo di tutti i capi,” having grown rich during the communist era.

The sale – in order words the whitewashing of a whole past of violence and injustice – will not be as simple as expected, and the tragic ending will pull in many more persons. Even though the screenplay is not quite convincing, the scanning field being more of a pretext for an exercise in dramatic rhythm and cinema fauvism, the reality of these “backwaters” of out of control violence denotes a wider failure. Because we are not talking about economic offences: the price always includes human victims.

In concentric circles, starting with the settling of scores between partners and ending up with “passers-by” who are around completely by chance. Such violence infests a wider social body, as a plague. Also difficult to identify, being often times double dealing, it exposes its fangs when it’s already too late for its target. Just like the grandson had ignored the grandfather’s real life, just like the daughter ignores the reason why her “honourable” father reuses to join his bourgeois family.

The border between good and evil is hazy, and society tolerates and cultivates such grim ambiguities. This arrogance of instituting your own law in territories – geographical but especially symbolical ones – that thus end up having their protection mechanism affected, cannot be accepted without major risks. We cannot pretend that certain phenomena concern only some, as if society is just an aggregate of monades that work in parallel and without decisively crossing paths.

This is, in fact, one of the frequent illnesses of liberal democracy: the individualistic culture makes many prone to look away when injustices that do not personally concern them take place. This is in fact how “local” violence prospers, first through the indifference of those around, then through the very effort of not joining a fight that does not seem to be yours. The state itself often does not take on its repressive responsibilities as it should, namely in a disinterested and prophylactic way.

The old policeman in the film is old fashioned, he still has an ethos of confronting evil, which is already singular and that is precisely why it cannot stop in time violence’s meat grinder. Violence prospers where it lacks “local” opponents that would have directly experienced its bites and would not be willing to live at its mercy. It’s not by chance that populist politicians win wide sympathy by promising “justice.” As relative as it may be, justice remains a regulatory value of politics.

Ignoring it, out of interest or lack of skill, inevitably raises the degree of explicit or smouldering violence in society.

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