We were visited by a major winter storm in Iowa this weekend, and our Saturday and Sunday plans (which were many!) were cancelled. We enjoyed some good down time, a fire in the fireplace, and we watched two movies, two among the list of movies we have been wanting to preview. The two movies could not have been more different!
The one was about beauty: the beauty of love, of loyalty, of humility, of service, of human creativity, of the smallest details of the natural world. The other was about ugliness: the ugliness of war, the ugliness it does to people, the ugliness it makes people do. The one was lyrical in its storytelling; the other disturbing.
The first movie we watched was The Scent of Green Papaya. It was made in 1993 in France and is set in mid-twentieth-century Viet Nam. The film won the Camera d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
It tells the story of Miu, a girl perhaps ten years old when we first meet her. She comes to Saigon to live as a household servant with a family of six: a father and mother, three sons, and the father’s mother. Through Miu’s eyes we see the pain and grief and anger and longing of the members of the family, but we also see the beauties of the world they inhabit, beauties celebrated and appreciated in intimate detail: thin strips of fruit shaved from a papaya, an ant carrying off a kernel of rice, the milk dripping from the stem from which the papaya was cut, the crickets Miu keeps as her “pets,” fried meats and vegetables tenderly arranged on a bed of rice, frogs hopping through a rain-soaked garden. The photography — colors, textures, perspectives — is exquisite.
The last part of the film is set ten years later when Miu moves to a new household, to serve there a young musician from a wealthy family, a friend of the oldest son of the family she had been serving. Slowly, quietly, tenderly, there unfolds a new story, the story of one who comes to recognize the beauties in her …
The second film we saw was The Ground Truth. It is a documentary made in 2006, chronicling the psychological wounds of returning veterans of the war in Iraq. It provides them a stage to tell of the horrors they have witnessed and the horrors they have done and the horrors of what the war has done to them, in their own words. It is disturbing to see the war through their eyes, to understand what it takes to make a man or a woman into an effective soldier, an effective killing machine, and to feel their shame and their loss and their struggle to live anything like a normal life on their return home.