Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content


Magic Realism Goes to the Movies

Cinema is the most holistic of art forms. It is visual, stealing from the tool chests of painters and photographers. It is text-based, drawing on the potentials of literature and drama. Finally, film is musical; filmmakers have never been bashful about ransacking the finest and most varied musical libraries for their scores and soundtracks.

Given their holistic nature, perhaps it is no surprise that movies have recently gravitated toward magic realism, a literary genre that tries to wrap itself around all dimensions of reality. It is magic in its inclusion of the transcendent and the "fantastic." It is realism in that it is not set in a wholly fictional world, such as Tolkein's Middle Earth. Nor do its characters move back and forth between two separate worlds, like the children in Lewis's Narnia tales, who dwell in "our" world (wartime Britain) until they pass through a portal (the wardrobe) into another, enchanted universe. Instead, in the novels of such magic realists as Gabriel Garca Mrquez, Isabel Allende, and Alice Hoffman, the ordinary and the extraordinary are inextricably interwoven. Now filmmakers have begun to exploit the potential of these conventions.

A salient theme of magic realist films is that people have their lives transformed once they get at least one foot outside the modern, technological world. For instance, director Mike Newell's British protaganists in Enchanted April (1992) find realistic magic at a villa overlooking the Italian Riviera. Newell's Into the West (1993) has two Irish children discover life-giving marvels in the real world when they are borne along by the animals and folk epistemology of Gypsies who ramble the countryside in horse-drawn caravans.

Such a transformation is at the heart of Bill Forsyth's quirky classic Local Hero (1983). Forsyth's movie concerns a Houston oilman who is thrust out of his high-tech world into a Scottish coastal village. The character, played by Peter Riegert, is charged with buying out the entire village so a gargantuan refinery can be built on its strategic site. At first the quaint customs and slow pace of the village bemuse Riegert. Sometimes they also irritate him. Stripped of the high-tech accouterments of his trade, he can report to Houston only by phoning from a bright-red telephone booth, which he plies with pocketfuls of coins, and which produces a chancy connection with a Houston boss whose office is appointed not only with a state-of-the-art telephone but also with its very own planetarium and observatory-quality telescope.

So disencumbered, Riegert's oilman can begin to see the village as the beautifully located and genuine community it is. (My favorite haiku springs irresistibly to mind: "His barn having burned to the ground, he could see the moon again.") Eventually he can notice that the pretty marine biologist he comically tries to romance has webs between her toes. She is nothing less than a scuba-diving mermaid. At the last, known as something unique and far better than the site of one more oil refinery, the village is not bought out. But to his credit, Forsyth does not succumb to sentimenality and let Riegert's character escape once for all to the Scottish village. The oilman returns to Houston. The film ends with him on the balcony of his apartment, gazing out over traffic and its rising, honky clatter. He has not abandoned his technologically overwhelmed world, but he can now see it and know it for more than he did before. Mermaids use scuba-diving gear. Who knows, there may be a mermaid driving one of those cars.

Likewise, Bille August's The House of the Spirits (1994), with its story ranging from the late 1800s into the 1970s, shows us men and women who use technology but do not have their field of vision reduced to the merely physical and material. The heroine of House (played compellingly, as always, by Meryl Streep) is a woman of European descent, born and living in South America, and possessed of striking paranormal powers. As a girl, she demonstrates psychokinetic abilities by moving, without touching it, a vase across the table. She sees into the future, correctly predicting the outcome of political elections and-quite disturbingly-the death of a beloved family member. Arrived at adulthood she will kiss ghosts and, after her own death, deliver ghostly kisses. As her daughter later observes, she dwells in a world where "logic and the laws of physics [don't] always apply."

The world of modern, technological materialism is one where logic and the laws of physics (as we understand them) always apply. In its earlier days, materialism was not quite so totalitarian. It allowed that the nonmaterial might exist but strictly quarantined it to a world separate from ordinary and day-to-day "real life." This is the uneasy limbo probably still occupied by most modern, Western Christians. The so-called supernatural might occasionally intrude on the natural, but if it does so, it is committing exactly that-an intrusion. The natural and supernatural worlds are best kept apart. The supernatural had better not occur often, and when it does, it must appear with bells and trumpets or other conspicuous warnings that mark it as clearly alien. Better yet, it might also be confined to antiquity. Thus the miraculous "really did happen" in the distant past-a Messiah, for example, really did rise from the grave-but once God knocked the cosmic pinball machine from tilt back into play, he and his ilk could return securely to heaven where they belong.

Yet this naturalistic world-view, even when modified to allow God to have acted once, is in the vast sweep of history stunningly parochial. So far as we know, it is only the modern West that has imagined that the whole of existence is restricted to that which can be physically detected or scientifically regulated. Even such significant early moderns as Columbus believed themselves to have seen mermaids (which he remarked in his ship's log to be "not as beautiful as they are painted, for they had something masculine in the countenance"). And to this day, in places where modernity has not yet wholly triumphed, there are persistent reports of events and phenomena that defy naturalistic explanation.

This outlook, much more than the parochial modern perspective, strikes me as like the biblical world-view. Yahweh does not seem to be confined mostly to a room somewhere beyond the stage of the human drama. In fact, the Lord is quite often on that stage, if sometimes hidden in the scenery. The Israelites are constantly seeing this Supreme Character at work. When Pharaoh refuses to release the people, the Lord has hardened his heart. When Pharaoh finally relents, that act is no less of the Lord. Similarly, Jesus' miracles are not announced with blaring trumpets and set off from everyday life. He shows the truth and character of God not by summoning legions of angels from the clouds, but by spitting in the dirt and rubbing mud in a man's eye. In short, I suspect magic realist filmmakers such as Mike Newell or Bille August can help us imagine and live in the world as the Bible depicts it much more fittingly than could such strict modernists as Cecil B. DeMille. (DeMille's haloed Jesus was quite reassuring. You always safely knew when you were confronted by God in the flesh, and needn't worry about missing him in the guise of a prisoner or a beggar.)

So, besides what I take to be the considerable and often enjoyable art of these magic realist filmmakers, I think they offer practice in seeing the world as Christians ought to see it. That does not mean we must indiscriminately reassert the literal reality (whatever that highly modern category means) of mermaids and leprechauns. Nor does it mean we must uncritically endorse clairvoyance, ghost sightings, or any number of "New Age" trappings. What it does mean is that we need no longer continue being tone-deaf to the spiritual and colorblind to the wondrous. Here is the message we are getting from magic realists (and recent philosophers of science, for that matter): The world is not so small, not so easily contained and controlled as we once thought. The modern scientific vocabulary need not be our only vocabulary, nor does it necessarily and always trump competing vocabularies. There are other, and significant, and real ways to cut up and categorize the world. And some of these other categories may help us to see and reclaim things we have long missed.

A scene near the end of The House of the Spirits typifies the way magic realism can give us salutary practice in reperceiving the world, in terms less constricted than those of materialistic modernity and more appropriate to the richer terms of the Christian faith.

Meryl Streep's character has died. Her daughter has been abducted and tortured by a military junta. Bruised and despairing, the daughter lies alone on a prison floor. The ghost of her mother comes to her, awakens her, takes her head in her lap, and exhorts her to "fight to live, for life is a miracle." Of course, one way to hear these words is the modern, liberal way, which is to hear "miracle" reduced to the merely symbolic. As the liberal theologians put it, why hanker after multitudes fed and a Messiah bodily risen from the dead? Life itself is a miracle.

Yet in The House of Spirits, it is not a liberal theologian but a ghost speaking. Earlier in the film, ghosts have been shown capable of opening doors, of sighting by multiple witnesses. What this decidedly unmodern ghost is saying is that life is wonderful in all sorts of ways, including many that cannot be captured or comprehended by naturalistic reductionism.

In the world of magic realism, the daughter revives, and lives. So may we.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS & CULTURE Review


Most ReadMost Shared