Messiahs who prey on our souls

In The Master the devil comes to town, as wickedly charismatic as the devil and his crew in Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic morality comedy – a tour de farce with a serious message – is surely, in part, an American homage to that Russian masterpiece about satanic charlatanism. Picture this tribute to art past, combined with a satire on a well-known modern sect often accused of devilish deeds. In Scientology the word Thetan (a cult member reaching a stage of enlightenment) is pronounced to rhyme with Satan. The rumbustiously diabolical character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman is almost manifestly a spoof on L. Ron Hubbard, the cult’s founding father.

Even so, the S-word (Scientology not Satan) goes unmentioned in the film. No doubt Anderson, the creator of Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, wants to remain lawsuit-free. No doubt, too, he wants to free his film from a single parochial perspective. Here is an almighty tale of the American dream gazing at the American nightmare, that nearly exact – but inverted – reflection representing the tarnished Utopianism of false faiths.

Joaquin Phoenix’s demobbed American sailor, thrown on the shores of an unstable US, meets Hoffman’s impishly commanding cult leader, the messiah who will lead his chosen into a better, post-world-war America. The disciple and the demagogue form a metaphysical bromance. We warm to the fuzzy, roistering soul of Freddie Quell (Phoenix), photographer and spare-time moonshine-maker. We like Lancaster Dodd, played with magisterial menace and mischief by Hoffman, even while seeing through his salesman soul. Dodd wants to re-beget his country. The first conference devoted to “The Cause” takes place in Phoenix, Arizona, a city named (like one of the film’s own stars) after a re-birthed mythic bird.

Anderson’s skills as a storyteller are so elastic they can now incorporate anything, from puns to parody, from surrealism to song. When Dodd/Hoffman performs a Pan-like dance at a party while singing “I’ll go no more a-roving”, the women partygoers are suddenly all seen nude. Actuality or hallucination? If the latter, whose? Here is an America, or a world, where dreaming is a disease. It causes daytime visions, destroying reality and our grip on it. Watch what you wish for, says The Master. There are power-hungry people ready to help you attain it, enriching their pockets and egos in the process. This is a glorious movie, an omnivorous, many-coloured satire on the chameleon-hued carnivores of our souls.

Despair and calamity are two impostors forever combated, with a gritty, un-Kiplingesque cool, by the hero(in)es of French film-maker Jacques Audiard. The Beat That My Heart Skipped, A Prophet and now Rust and Bone: stories wrenched from genre cinema (crime, prison, disability melodrama) into art. The latest is a frustrating mix of vices and virtues. The plot set-up (from a story by Canadian author Craig Davidson) would seem like compassion contrivance in a worse film: special pleading for agonised audience sympathy. Whale trainer Marion Cotillard loses her legs below the knees after a marine park accident. The postlude sequence is a lurid-triumphal montage Hollywood-style, a pulsing blaze of stubborn survivalist courage, like a wound being touched by grace.

It is followed by a defiantly unromantic romance as Cotillard hitches up with Matthias Schoenaerts’ downscale macho Everyman, an odd-jobber/bouncer/street fighter who specialises in saying it like it is. (“You’re dressed like a whore.”) The film’s brilliance is its refusal to defer emotionally to the heroine’s tragedy. No overt pity; no self-pity. But the film’s occasional trite reductiveness has the same source. “In your face” replaces “in your heart”; the pitiless lovemaking visuals – a Cotillard nude to the thighs but digitally truncated below – seem too crude a slap to conventional pity and emotional identification. Pragmatic dispassion may be the way to pull an accident victim up into positive thinking. But the audience, a more complex mechanism, needs something subtler and less semaphored: a chance to feel and empathise, not just an invitation to cheerlead for no-nonsense toughness.

“You don’t have a better bad idea than this?” growls US Secretary of State Philip Baker Hall to CIA operative Ben Affleck in the Affleck-directed Argo (UK opening next Wednesday). The “bad idea” in this truth-based story is/was to whisk six endangered American diplomats out of Tehran, where they are/were under the protection of the Canadian ambassador after the storming of the US embassy. Time: 1979. History knows of the storming’s more famous victims: the hostages caught in the embassy itself, whom President Carter ill-fatedly tried to free and whose liberation on the first day of Reagan’s presidency was a joy discoloured, later, by the arms-for-hostages scandal.

History has known little till now of these luckier, earlier fugitives. High-end pen-pushers, they exited the embassy’s back door, were turned away by “friendly” ambassadors before Canada fronted up, then amazingly – or not in a nation where life imitates Hollywood – were rescued by a plan to disguise them as a movie crew, casing Tehran locations for a sci-fi fantasy.

It seems too daft to be true, which in America makes it wholly believable. When the fake production’s executives in Tinseltown (John Goodman, Alan Arkin) are repeatedly asked by snoopy journos what their film is about and why it is called Argo, they finally reply “Ar-go f*** yourself”. That is the wittiest and pithiest this film gets. Elsewhere a woolly script, underpowered characterisation and rabbit-in-headlights direction by Affleck – whose talents were more apparent in less publicity-freighted projects (Gone Baby Gone, The Town) – mean the movie plays like a one of those gauchely deadpan heist-instructional flicks that screen crooks used to show each other before they robbed banks. Affleck as hero, hatching the plot and flying to Iran to implement it, is a cipher in a beard and hippy-length hairpiece. The rescuees are drones. The dialogue has no colour. What a shame. There is an intelligent, funny film waiting to come out of this story; it will have to keep waiting.

Call Me Kuchu
, a documentary about homophobia in Uganda, lifts a rock in that country and discovers the insect life ruling it. All the words usually used about gay people by anti-gay lawmakers – “immoral”, “degenerate”, “against nature” – can and should be used of the lawmakers themselves. They are against nature. They are degenerate. And if there is a greater immorality than condemning a gay person to death, or to “life”, a law the Ugandan parliament tried to pass (supporting and supported by popular bigotry), I would like that immorality presented and proved to me.

The film’s heartbreaking heart is its portrait of David Kato, a brave, sweet-natured activist who returned from expatriate freedom in South Africa – an African must know he’s in trouble when he has to go there for lifestyle liberation – to fight the gay cause in Kampala. The documentarists record Kato’s life for a year. Then he is brutally murdered by thugs. Even the funeral is hijacked by God-spouting homophobes. Uganda was finally shamed by the United Nations. Nearly every country (except Zimbabwe) spoke out against its proposed homosexual penalties. The government backed down. This is no great comfort, sadly, in a land where the public can be trusted to pick up any vindictive slack relinquished by politicians.

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