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In 'Notre Musique,' Going to Hell and Back

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2004; Page C05

One by one the nation's newsweeklies have taken up the question of Christianity in Europe, the crisis of declining church attendance, increasing secularism, empty cathedrals and godless governments. Perhaps they've been looking in all the wrong places.

Jean-Luc Godard's "Notre Musique," a film about war and reconciliation, is deeply Christian, a study in humility and the moral uncertainty at the core of the Christian message. It is to a film such as Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" what the merciful Christ of the Sermon on the Mount is to the Christ constructed for dogmatic reasons by the early church fathers: a sad elegy on mercy rather than an angry tract on judgment.


Sarah Adler in Jean-Luc Godard's "Notre Musique." (Wellspring Media Inc.)

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Godard, the granddaddy of the French New Wave, has dealt with religious themes explicitly before. In homage to Dante, he divides this film into three theological acts: Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, the first two mostly abstract studies in color, editing, music and mood. Hell is about war and the pity of war, spliced together from black-and-white footage of actual carnage and scenes culled from war movies with colors garishly exaggerated. The result is sickening and beautiful. Bombs flower in air, the stricken earth heaves up the colors of flame like a Jackson Pollock painting taking form before our eyes, and bulldozers push bodies into pits. Is Godard equating fictional war with the real thing? No. He's condemning both. War, and the stories we tell about war, are equally abhorrent.

The central act, Purgatory, contains threads of coherent narrative (Godard isn't always so generous) and is set in Sarajevo at a literary conference. The anti-Franco Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo wanders through a bombed-out library, reading poetry, in a scene that questions mankind's capacity for a new kind of revolution -- a revolution away from death and toward something more generative, more creative. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish talks of the paradox of victims and victimizers: Palestinians, he says to an Israeli journalist, are famous only because "you are our enemy."

Other characters bring yet more paradox to the table, like the Magi bearing gifts: "Homer knew nothing of battlefields," says one man, dismissing with a gesture the entire heroic literature of war. "Isn't it about time," asks an American Indian, talking of Columbus and the Europeans, "for us to meet face to face in the same age?"

There isn't so much a single philosophical view of the world in all of this as a philosophical attitude grounded on intellectual doubt, moral caution and a deep philosophical craving to see things torn asunder somehow brought back together. Grammar divides us off from the world, cleaving it into I and everything else; history is a parade of divisions and destruction; even film, Godard argues, uses basic techniques that divide up a scene into opposing images and vantage points, negating the unity of the event it tries to capture.

Godard gives this lecture in person to students who grow increasingly bored and chatty as he shows them pictures and intones "shot, countershot, shot, countershot." He is honest enough to acknowledge that, just because he's the filmmaker, and this scene is groping after the film's deepest meaning, there's no certainty that it can leap the void that separates teacher from student.

This kind of philosophical attitude is loathed in the United States, reviled as self-indulgent academic navel-gazing, postmodern moral license, corrosive secular cynicism. But as the film gathers force, and coherence (the lives of two young women, who approach reconciliation in two very different ways, become the guiding thread), it leaves the American style of religious and moral certainty looking as hollow and bombed out as the buildings that dot Godard's cityscapes of war. In Godard's world, Christianity has gone deep into the bones of people, has disappeared from the visual world, the place of churches and politics and plaques with the Ten Commandments, and has become a landscape of conscience. Or rather, a trek through a landscape of conscience, because as the film demonstrates, there is no single, comfortable place where one can rest on a moral journey. Even Christianity, with its sympathy, or perhaps obsession, for the victim over the victimizer, raises this question: To demonstrate this sympathy, do you need victims? Does Christian empathy demand that the world cough up losers?

The final act, in Paradise, comes as a moment of transcendent calm. American soldiers and sailors in uniform (with military music playing in the distance) fish beside a lake and play with children, teenagers in bikinis frolic on a beach, and a young man hands a woman an apple (the original rupture, the sin in the Garden of Eden, is inverted, negated, perhaps healed). The reward of Heaven, it seems, is rest -- reserved, perhaps, for those who tired themselves over matters of faith, rather than those who saved calories by accepting easy answers, early and absolutely?

As for the meaning of the title, "Notre Musique," it's anyone's guess. It may refer to elusive ideas that Godard wants to get at but knows he can't through film. The music heard in the background (ranging from Ligeti to Tchaikovsky) is diverse and painfully beautiful. But it comes in little fits and starts, a snatch here and there. "Our Music," the literal translation of the title, is both shared and ephemeral, and as with everything else in this film, Godard expects the viewer to gather and hold it even as it is fleeting away.

Notre Musique (79 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated but contains images of wartime atrocities.


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