Saturday, June 02, 2018

Open Roads ’18: Equilibrium

What is the proper role for a priest? Should he fight for justice or maintain the balance of power, like a 1970s State Department bureaucrat, who read too much Bismarck? It seems like a no-brainer in theory, but would you be tempted to opt for stability, if you had to chose in the real world? Don Giuseppe will make his choice and his parishioners will make theirs when he is transferred to his native Campania in Vincenzo Marra’s Equilibrium (trailer here), which screens during Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2018.

Don Giuseppe has always been actively engaged in the world. He did life-altering missionary work in Africa and he has steadfastly ministered to the illegal aliens congregated at a migrant shelter in Rome. Frankly, he is concerned he could become a little too engaged when a social worker admits her romantic feelings for him. To preserve his calling, Don Giuseppe requests and is granted a transfer to a blighted district just north of Naples.

When the good father first meets Don Antonio, whom he will succeed, the veteran cleric seems to be quite the crusader himself through his campaign against the illegal noxious waste dumping in the hills above town. However, it soon becomes clear this is cheap activism, since nobody claims responsibility for the dumping and everyone generally agrees it is a less than ideal practice. However, when it comes to standing up for the vulnerable in the community, Don Antonio is much more circumspect.

Frankly, Don Antonio has done his best to intimidate the isolated Assunta into accepting her boyfriend’s sexual abuse of her daughter. Unfortunately, she happens to live in the housing project that is the center of the local drug dealers’ transactions. Having the cops pay a visit would be bad for business. For the sake of peace in the valley, Don Antonio is willing to sacrifice Assunta and her daughter—and the cops and dealers are right there with him. However, Don Giuseppe will not play that game.

Equilibrium is a deeply moving film that challenges what faith really means and how it should be manifested in the real world. Marra filmed docu-style, employing many street level long-takes. He recruited many non-professional actors from the region, scoring a double jackpot with Mimmo Borrelli and Roberto del Gaudio, who are both tremendous as Don Giuseppe and Don Antonio, respectively. Borrelli is a quiet marvel, expressing so much questioned faith and Christian love through subtle and restrained looks and gestures. In contrast, del Gaudio is flamboyantly charismatic and chillingly Machiavellian. Astrid Meloni, one of the few professional ringers, adds further layers of compelling human messiness as Veronica, Don Giuseppe’s source of temptation.

It is impossible to watch Equilibrium without hearing echoes of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals. It is easy to damn in retrospect, but the film clearly challenges viewers to ask what they would have done if they were cops, social workers, or lay leaders trying to hold their communities together. Throughout the film, Marra shows in concrete terms why ostensibly responsible people often opt for stability over moral principle, while never endorsing or excusing their expediency. It is a tough, powerful film. Very highly recommended, Equilibrium screens tomorrow (6/3) and Wednesday (6/6) at the Walter Reade as part of this year’s Open Roads.