Bad films always lie. They lie most about the human condition. While not exactly the way that Walker Percy said it, it is close, and more importantly, true.
We have a young woman living with us for some of the summer, and we invited her to go with us to see “Far from the Madding Crowd” this week. She and I were talking about her anthropology major, and I told her that I had dropped out of college with an “anthropological” question that needed an answer. At age 17, “Who am I?” seemed pretty clear; at age 20 it was more perplexing. I knew enough about my own beliefs, and the history of ideas that had shaped my intellectual tradition, to know something of an answer— we are made in the image of God —but I didn’t know what one would say after that very short sentence. And in that first dropped-out year living in a commune in the Bay Area of California I began to see that the way we answer the question of human identity shapes everything else. Sexuality. Politics. Economics. Art. Education. Everything else.
A long time later I am still thinking all this through, more clear about the question and the answer, but always learning, still seeing more fully what it means and why it matters.
Glory and shame. Mostly I am looking for films that show both, that allow us to ponder the honor and the horror of being human. I am never interested in caricature, or in having just one side shoved in my face, but rather I long for a story that twines the two together in a way that I understand, because it is what I recognize in myself. To say it simply, it is the truth of my condition, and of everyone I know well enough to know— and in reading back across the centuries, it is what is true of human beings perennially, in every culture and every civilization.
As the lights dimmed and the story began, I could see that the cinematography would be a delight. A period film set in the Dorsetshire countryside of 19th-century England, the director was attentive to texture and nuance in personalities and plot that made me smile. And as we began to get to know the characters of Thomas Hardy’s novel, principally Bathsheba and her suitors, it was obvious that there would be a complexity that would make the film a compelling story.
I am never a “best of” or “worst of” person. Things always seem more complex to me. But I will say that “Far from the Madding Crowd” is one of the best films that I can remember seeing. It is very good, very, very good; beautifully imagined, and yet profoundly truthful about the most important things for everyone everywhere. We are set in a moment that we understand, even though it is far away from where any of us live. Hope and loss. Ambition and heartache. Sacrifice and vanity. Love and lust. In very different ways, the happiest we are as human beings, and the saddest we are too— and all filmed with an rare attentiveness to the beauty of both people and place.
It is a film, and the novel tells a longer story, which must be. But there is enough to the movie to make us satisfied, sure that we have been given a gift of a good film— good, of course, because it tells the truth about us, human beings full of both glory and shame that we are.