A Canterbury Tale – a great spiritual film for the incurable nastik
Date: 7/27/2012 4:44:00 PM
Preamble to an essay: In the Hindi cinema I grew up watching, the definition of “nastik” (atheist) was a hazy one. It never meant authentic, matter-of-fact nonbelief in God: that didn’t even seem to be an option. It was more a case of “bhagwaan se katti hoon” – I’m not on speaking terms with Him because He allowed bad things to happen to my family. Early in the Bachchan-starrer Nastik, little Shankar sulks and tells an idol “Aaj se mera-tera koi vaasta nahin.” But in the film’s climax, when God (or rather the gleaming, jewellery-studded statue that represents Him) shows belated willingness to help by impaling wicked Amjad Khan with a trident, everything is hunky-dory again and it’s back to waking up the neighborhood by clanging those old temple bells. This is a nicely self-serving version of faith, comparable to Pascal’s Wager, which places the “choice” of believing or disbelieving in the context of what one stands to gain or lose.
As you can tell, I don’t usually turn to 1980s Hindi movies for nuanced portrayals of religious faith (or its absence). However, even as a non-believer, there is a small group of “spiritual” films that I find interesting and provocative. These include the work of the Danish director Carl Dreyer (especially Day of Wrath, about a young woman accused of witchcraft) and Ingmar Bergman (who wrestled with the subject of faith throughout his career, notably in Winter Light). Occupying a very special place on the list is the British film A Canterbury Tale, made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger during World War II. This is among my absolute favourite movies, and one that I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. What follows below is an attempt (note: this is a piece-in-progress, I intend to add to it over time – possibly as part of a larger project).
When I first became interested in the technicalities of moviemaking, one of my favourite extended sequences was the opening 15 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, ending with the famous cut from a bone flung into the air to a spacecraft seen against the backdrop of outer space – a million years(?) in time bridged by the visual linking of two similarly shaped objects. Soon I learnt that this was called a “match cut” - that shot, along with a few other iconic movie scenes, was responsible for my choosing film editing as the subject for a sketchy and derivative post-grad thesis.
I was reminded of 2001 (and of my brief obsession with match cuts) when I watched the opening scene of A Canterbury Tale. The match cut here marks a shift of a “mere” 600 years, from the time of Chaucer’s pilgrims to the Second World War, and the cut is from a pilgrim’s hawk soaring across the sky to a fighter plane occupying the same space in the frame (a parallel link is established by two close-ups of a man watching from the ground, played by the same actor dressed first in 14th century clothes and then in a modern army uniform). The background in both time periods is the same – the English countryside, beautifully shot – but as the contemporary story begins and a tank lumbers into view, a voiceover drolly informs us that “another kind of pilgrim” is now on the move.
The Powell-Pressburger team had made propaganda films to boost wartime morale in the early 1940s, among them 49th Parallel, about a group of Nazis coming ashore in Canada and facing more resistance and courage than they bargained for. A Canterbury Tale does in a sense belong to that band of films – the war was very much on when it was made – but the ideas expressed here are subtler and more open to interpretation than in the earlier movies. The plot centres on - of all things - an attempt to discover the identity of a man who accosts young women late at night and pours glue into their hair. This has seemingly little to do with the big events concerning the world at the time, but by the time we arrive at the superb, graceful climax at the Canterbury cathedral it's evident that there is much going on beneath the surface of this strange story.
Most of the film is set in a small Kent town named Chillingbourne, a 10-minute train journey from Canterbury, and it begins with circumstances bringing three young people together at the station: a drawling American sergeant named Bob Johnson (played by a real-life soldier named John Sweets, who is something of an affable proto-Montgomery Clift), a “Land Girl” named Alison Smith (the spirited Sheila Sim) and a British sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price, who was so good in another of my favourite British films of the 1940s, Kind Hearts and Coronets). As they leave the station in pitch dark (blackouts being essential in wartime), Alison becomes the latest victim of the Glue Man. (If the reference to “sticky stuff” in her hair reminds you of There’s Something About Mary, congrats – you’re an eclectic movie buff.)
At this early stage the script is emphasising the differences between the Brits and the Americans, two ways of life (represented by the wide-eyed Bob Johnson in one corner and everyone else in the other corner) forced together by circumstance. Chillingbourne was established as a municipal borough in the year 1085, the station master says, pointedly adding for Johnson’s benefit, “407 years before Columbus discovered America”. When Bob takes out an extra-bright flashlight and starts waving it around, much to the horror of those around him, it becomes a display of American brashness, especially incongruous in this quiet little town. Later, a little boy points at him and calls out “This is an American soldier” as if he were identifying a rarely seen species of butterfly.
However, as the film continues, subtler schisms reveal themselves (and meanwhile the drawling Yank is turning into an enormously likable character). “This isn’t Chicago,” someone tells Bob at one point, perhaps naming one of the few American cities he has heard of – to which Bob quietly responds, “I come from Oregon.” Something similar occurs later when Peter, remarking on a tiny local river, says “I’ll admit it isn’t the Mississippi” and the American replies “I’ll admit I haven’t seen the Mississippi.” This is familiar cross-cultural discourse between people who think of other countries in terms of a few easily identifiable characteristics and landmarks, without realising how diverse those places can be. It is also, needless to say, a barrier to deeper understanding of another kind of life.
Slowly we realise that the contrast isn’t so much between two countries but between the city and the countryside and the types of lives they come to represent – and by extension, the difference between traditional and modern values. Thus, the girl from London can’t find common ground with her new employer, the town’s wheelwright, but the American soldier, being the son of a woodsman himself, can talk endlessly with him about different varieties of trees and cutting methods. (“We speak the same language,” he tells the girl, “I know about woods.”)
At other times the dialogue comments on the differences in the level of communal spirit to be found in big and small places. A town spinster has long resigned herself to being “a maid” because the only man who ever proposed to her lived in a big, soulless London house on one of those streets where “different kinds of unhappiness are packed close together”. When Alison asks a local, “Do you know Mr Colpeper?” she is met with an incredulous stare. “You’re from London, aren’t you?” he says. “Well, what if I asked do you know who the Lord Mayor of London is?”
“But I don’t,” she says innocently.
Speaking of Mr Colpeper...
Showing them the light
Colpeper, played by Eric Portman, is the film’s other major character – the town’s respected local magistrate (and a bachelor who lives in an incongruously big house with his mother). When we first see him, it’s an imperial shot of him sitting at his desk, two plump lightbulbs on either side of his head – and indeed, the film consistently uses light as a motif and symbol. When a night guard calls out to Colpeper “You’re showing a light, sir”, the context is that the magistrate – working late at night – hasn’t fully drawn one of the curtains in his study; but given what we learn later, the line can be seen as having a double meaning. In another scene, we see his head – in silhouette – against a circular light cast on a screen (he is showing a few short films and giving a talk about cultural heritage) and the result is a halo effect; this could be the Buddha speaking to his disciples about the interconnectedness of all things.
This initially distant figure soon becomes the most visible face of the film's moral complexities; one of the things that made A Canterbury Tale so compelling for me was the tension in my attitudes to Colpeper and what he stands for. He is a traditionalist, deeply attached to a pastoral way of life that is under threat in a modernising world, and this can be an attractive quality – one appreciates that he is close to nature and that he has a genuine respect for history. However, the flip side is that his view of progress is not very far from that of the religious fundamentalist; some of the things he seems to approve of are deeply discomfiting (unless you happen to be the sort of person who thinks dunking chairs should be used to keep “transgressing” women in check – and of course, many such people do exist even in seemingly modern families in our own society).
“I felt as a missionary must feel when the savages come to him,” Colpeper says, speaking of the opportunity he has to lecture a whole regiment of soldiers about the region’s glorious past. These scenes are genial enough, but one can never lose sight of how easily this sort of missionary-aspiration can turn into something unpleasant, especially if he were to be given power over others. (In this context, consider that Portman, who plays Colpeper with grace and dignity, also brought a certain charisma to the Nazi leader in 49th Parallel!) The Glue Man attacks, which are intended to keep young local women from staying out too late with visiting soldiers, are a short step away from a full-blown sexual assault – of the sort that a repressed man overly preoccupied with women’s “virtue” and “honour” is fully capable of. But Colpeper would certainly approve of them.
Yet he is also shown to be a melancholy man, capable of introspecting and acknowledging his mistakes – and he is a figure of sympathy because we know he is fighting a lost cause. At the end of the story, the young people will move on with their lives but this middle-aged man will return to his house and his old mother; the war will soon finish, the young soldiers (his “savages”) will return home, there will be no one left to attend his lectures; the world will change, centres of control will shift, more pragmatic and hard-edged ideologies will take over. Nearly seven decades after the film was made, now that we know that the milieu it depicted barely exists anymore, Colpeper’s nostalgia becomes more poignant and he himself becomes less threatening.
Colpeper’s nemesis within the narrative is the sardonic, probably agnostic Peter, and the two men have an exchange of words in a late scene set in a train taking the four main characters to Canterbury (where they will each experience a moment of benediction or self-awareness). There is a moment of Pure Cinema here that counts among my favourite movie scenes ever: the train pulls into the brightness of Canterbury station and Peter, sitting by the window, is ethereally lit up by the sunlight outside just as he says the words “I’ll believe that when I see a halo around my head.” This is such a magnificently conceived and executed shot that I feel stupid trying to describe it with bare words. It is also a lovely visual evocation of the idea that these people have entered a mystical realm; a place where “blessings are received, or penance done”, and where the usual rules don’t apply. (The best Powell-Pressburger films, such as A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, similarly combine an apparently realist plot with lovely otherworldly scenes.)
Peter is the least likely of the main characters to believe in miracles, and so it’s a nicely ironic touch that the halo effect is reserved for him - and also that he becomes something of an Angel of Mercy at the end. Of the four personal epiphanies shown in the film’s last 15 minutes, his is arguably the least dramatic - the story of a man who once wanted to be a church organist and ended up playing the organ in a movie theatre instead - but it’s the one I found the most moving. Dennis Price, who has the smallest role of the four main actors, comes into his own in this section, his flint-eyed determination to bring the Glue Man to justice slowly yielding to something more melancholy and introspective as he finds himself drawn into the church by a vagrant hymn sheet (a suggestion of mystical forces at work, or just the wind?) and towards the grand piano he has so long yearned to play. In contrast, the two “blessings” that await Allison and Bob were a little too pat for my liking, but they are treated with understatement.
A Canterbury Tale may seem to be a film that believes strongly in divine blessings and redemption (I don’t know what Powell-Pressburger’s own theological leanings were) but even the irreligious mind should have no trouble appreciating what Canterbury comes to represent for each of these characters. It can be seen as a place where one comes to make peace with oneself, finding solace by recalling the struggles of other people who lived centuries ago – and thus momentarily becoming part of something larger (something that doesn’t have to be supernatural). Seen this way, the towering cathedral isn’t so much a symbol of divinity but a venue for introspection and for the surfacing of finer feelings.
The cathedral is just behind the movie theatre, Colpeper tells Bob early in the film. He says it sarcastically – he’s bemused that the American is interested primarily in watching movies during his off-hours, rather than taking in the local culture. But I’ll plumb for a more personal interpretation of those words: going to a movie hall showing a good print of A Canterbury Tale would constitute a minor pilgrimage for me. In its unshowy way, this film is incredibly insightful about things that should concern any thinking human being: how we live with each other, what values we deem worth holding on to and what should be let go of. There is more depth and complexity in its many graceful passages than in most of those dramatic scenes of our heroes berating or negotiating with their deities in moments of crisis.