Monday, March 30, 2009

HUNGER (Steve McQueen, 2008, UK) A bare bones narrative that focuses its stark lens upon Bobby Sands’ hunger strike but whose recipe is food for thought, a prescient menu of Bush-era polemics where the ends justify the means. Director Steve McQueen’s poetic vision structures the film around a 20-minute dialogue shot entirely without edit, an unapologetic and dense moral conflict between Sands and an Irish Priest: two figures whose objectives are shared but beliefs towards a political and spiritual resolution differ greatly. During the long conversation, McQueen finally cuts to close-up on Sands and thus begins his hunger strike approximately halfway through the story. The film begins with the incarceration of another inmate, the dehumanization complete with naked aggression and brutal off-camera beating, a fresh open head-wound in close-up a telltale sign of life in the Maze prison. The prisoners begin their protest by smearing their cells with feces and remaining unwashed, unwilling even to submit to the clownish uniforms and forced baths. McQueen crosscuts meager existence in the prison with a guard’s life outside, as he soaks his bloodied knuckles in the sink, eats a hot breakfast, says goodbye to his wife and checks for a car-bomb. The poison of torture infects everyone involved and transforms the just into the unjust: the warders become even more tainted than their wards. The second half concerns Bobby Sands decline into skeletal protest, his body wasting away but his cause hopefully growing more powerful. We witness the emotional turmoil of his parents and experience his mind reverting backwards into time, a lonely runner in a long distance race, his younger self seeming to understand this self-destructive decision and the complex causes that brought it about: he is at peace with himself. McQueen strategically fails to navigate the troubled waters of a specific cause: he explains little about the background of the characters or history. Instead, he seems more interested in conforming to a more general statement about torture and the treatment of prisoners, as Dostoyevsky said: “ The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” (A)

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