Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Released this week on DVD: "Hunger"
British artist Steve McQueen, whose riveting debut feature is Hunger, may have absorbed something deep and dreadful from his namesake's solitary confinement scene in Papillon. Hunger is starved of communication, civilization, compassion. In the alternate world of the Maze, one of man's highest functions political discussion can turn his clock back 20,000 years.
In 1981, Irish Republican Army men behind bars seek designation as political prisoners. They won't wear prison clothes (the uniform of common criminals) but demand their own (that of romantic revolutionaries). They decorate their walls with great caveman-Pollock swirls of their own waste.
It hardly bears mentioning that the film has a pro-IRA slant; that is almost part of the definition of an IRA film. Yet the single most shocking act of violence in Hunger is an attack by an IRA assassin, and McQueen includes a footnote that 16 British guards were murdered after Bobby Sands began his hunger strike, which killed himself and nine others.
Regardless of politics, one must grant McQueen's substantial gifts, which bring to mind Paul Greengrass in another Northern Ireland film, Bloody Sunday. Hunger is almost silent, most of its sounds being unintelligible moans and screams.
In only one scene is there speech of any substance: a 24-minute mini-play in which a priest named Father Moran (Liam Cunningham) tries to talk Sands (Michael Fassbender) out of his mission, which he knew could not but end in his death. Eighteen minutes of this comes in a single take, the two men equals. They share cigarettes, real ones, unlike the prison smokes rolled in pages torn out of Bibles. "We only smoke the Lamentations," Sands says.
Father Moran: "When your answer is to kill everything, you've blinded yourself."
Sands: "I have my belief, and in all its simplicity that is the most powerful thing."
Clinically, brutally, Sands forces his body into decay. Sores crater his skin, which grows unable to tolerate the touch of a sheet. Sands has enough to bear without the weight of the Holocaust, which McQueen places on him when he dresses him in washed-out striped pajamas. The suggestion is spurious.
As Sands lies in bed confronting a vision of himself as a young man, though, the film resonates with a Kubrickian chord, recalling the dying man in bed at the end of 2001. As a lad, Sands boasts, "I could take the punishment for all our boys." So he could. Dead at 27, the man had a genius for waste.