Sunday, November 9, 2008

Hunger ****

Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham
Stuart Graham, Brian Milligan, Liam McMahon

The human body becomes the ultimate weapon for the defense of personal beliefs in Steve McQueen's politically charged, crude masterpiece about the 1981 hunger strike in Belfast's Maze Prison.
The film begins as more and more IRA members are sent to prison, demanding that the British government treats them as political prisoners and gives them different care.
But "there is no such thing as political bombings" commands Margaret Thatcher over the radio, giving the prisoners no choice but to protest in any way they can.
Forms of protest included spreading their feces all over the wall, refusing to wear prison uniforms and eventually the title strike which lasted for more than six months and cost the lives of ten prisoners and just as much prison guards.
It is here where the film centers its attention on Bobby Sands (Fassbender) as he leads the strike and even becomes elected for Parliament as the prisoners battle the British government.
But even if the second half of the plot seems to be biopic material, McQueen's approach to it is so unsentimental that Sands' identity might as well have remained anonymous, without lessening the impact of the film.
As political films go, "Hunger" is by far one of the most complex examples released recently, in terms of how it never chooses sides, but somehow evades being tagged as lazily ambiguous.
When the film starts we meet Davey (Milligan) who has just been taken to Maze and proudly remains true to what his beliefs demand of him.
As we see the treatment he receives from the guards and the complete loss of human dignity he goes through we're led to identify with him.
But by doing this aren't we identifying with someone who has certainly committed a crime and is there for a reason?
The camera also follows guard Raymond Lohan (Graham) as he prepares to go to work and must check his car for bombs and later move in some sort of trance knowing that this might be the day when he dies at work.
We also identify with him, because regardless of what he's made to do, he is after all a man performing tasks his job demands. Later on, during one of the film's most brutal moments we see the naked prisoners take a beating in order to search them for smuggled items (which a previous, fantastically choreographed, scene confirmed as truth), one of the guards, not more than a boy, sneaks to the back where a single tear falls down his cheek amidst hellish noise and screams.
By portraying two sides of a completely unequal battle with documentary like techniques, the film gets to the core of what politics are supposed to be about and beyond those matters it grasps at humanity. Nobody watching this film will be able to just pick who was right or wrong.
In terms of cinematic qualities, "Hunger" also comes as a force to behold. When it starts we somehow expect it to be either the story of the first characters we meet or a quasi-documentary about IRA prisoners.
At first most scenes unfold around the relationship of Davey and Gerry (McMahon) who become cell mates and must deal with the precarious living conditions they're given.
The plot seems to move nowhere during the start, making our imagination plot if this is going to be an escape film or something like "The Green Mile" considering the guards aren't portrayed as villains either.
Then during the first time the camera takes us out of the cells to the visitors hall we see Sands and only then the film begins to focus on him.
As if the camera was being held under the same rules as the prisoners, especially those under the "Five Demands" they requested of the British government, involving free association with other inmates.
Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt's work is magnificent, because every camera movement is key to the action and the underlying meaning of what's occurring.
In what will become the film's trademark moment, and one of the most daring scenes ever filmed, the camera stays still for almost twenty minutes (roughly one quarter of the film's entire running time, brave considering the first quarter is almost completely devoid of dialogue as well).
Bobby has requested a visit from a priest (Cunningham who is splendid) and they discuss the moral, social, political and religious implications of the upcoming hunger strike.
"The Brits have been fucking up everything for centuries" goes the priest as the scene is handled with an informality that makes it both comfortable to see, but uneasy to deal with.
After this, the plot will take a dark turn giving Fassbender a chance to push his thespian skills to the limit. His eventual physical change is almost impossible to watch as his body deteriorates, but his fervent spirit remains the same.
"If God doesn't punish you for suicide he will for stupidity" says the priest, to which a serene Sands replies "and you for arrogance".
Nobody leaves "Hunger" unscathed, not even those who are just being witnesses.

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