The question "What constitutes political action?" has a rhetorical texture though it demands hard answers. What do you do when the political situation becomes unbearable? What do you do to keep it from becoming so? Is it enough simply to think and write or does devotion to ideals and causes require greater sacrifice? It muddles our subtlest minds. The British Romantics were divided on the subject. Wordsworth's greatest contribution to that era of enormous political upheaval was largely aesthetic, and in fact, he left France just as the Revolution was heating up and just as Mary Wollstonecraft arrived. Coleridge was paralyzed by words, and we all know what Byron chose to do. The question perplexed William Godwin his whole life. He settled for writing, though his choice failed to satisfy him.
Neither is political neutrality an answer to our question. Nikita Mikhalkor's sad Burnt by the Sun likens political statement to nourishment when his characters posit two equally unhealthy visions of neutrality. Like Switzerland, one character says to another who vows to remain neutral in a small domestic dispute, the neutral person is "overfed and apathetic." On the contrary, the neutral character replies, "I'm starving and impassioned."
Burnt by the Sun may not find neutrality acceptable, but it also reveals the consequences of political action. No one survives that film intact, if they survive it at all. Taking action requires a type of surrender to one's cause, an acknowledgement that it is a force larger than oneself. The question hiding behind "What constitutes political action" is "What sacrifice does my cause require?"
The Last Supper, a black comedy directed by Stacy Title, answers these questions with a third question: "How are we to go about taking action?" Delightfully, Title and screenwriter Dan Rosen leave the camera to ask this question, as it watches the characters get stuck, and then finally sink into the quicksand of the former two.
Though about twenty years ago Thomas Gutierrez Alea made a film called The Last Supper, based on a true story, which reenacts a Cuban slave owner's act of penance, Title's The Last Supper is about a group of five graduate students, Luke, Paulie, Jude, Pete, and Marc, who, after accidentally killing a racist dinner guest, decide to invite other people with whom they share a difference of opinion to dinner, and poison them with wine laced with arsenic. These five justify their extreme measures by evoking our first question. Deciding that buying cruelty-free mascara is not enough of a sacrifice to "liberalism"—which they define loosely as a group of causes and ideals that are largely green, pro-choice, anti-homophobic, and anti-racist— they agree to practice "justifiable homicide" as a way to extinguish "evil force[s] in the world."
The students, however, appear more comfortable with liberalism as a lifestyle rather than a belief system. The students lead the life of the educated bourgeois, full of good food, good conversation, organic gardening, and eating the salad after the main course, "European style." It is the life that Kotov, in Burnt by the Sun, can never enter, despite the Communist Revolution, despite his honors, despite his marriage into a well-educated family, because he does "not speak French." The same class-barrier that exists between Kotov and his wife's family divides the students from Zack, their first victim. The students first smell blood when they discover Zack's occupation (truck driver), and when they study his accent and demeanor. Even before he brings up a sensitive topic the students have insulted him, suggesting sarcastically, "I'm sure you're a lot smarter then we are, Zack." When Zack mentions that he fought in the Gulf War, the film glimpses the privilege of place that the students' liberalism allows them. They can despise war because for them, unlike for Zack, participation in a war is not a career option.
The class hatred that erupts during that first dinner emphasizes the students' immaturity when it comes to ethics, which is only underscored by their decision to justify Zack's death by killing more people. These may be graduate students, but every Sunday night they appear to be reliving the Philosophy requirement from their freshman year. They equate each one of their victims with Hitler, believing that if they poison say, the teenager suing her school for making her take a sex-education class, that they will spare the world another Holocaust. The students do not realize, as the film does, that their perennial question, "If you were a time traveller, and you met the young Hitler in Austria in the twenties, would you kill him?" requires something beyond a yes or a no. The students confuse the hypothetical with the real. In response they fight fascism with fascism. Though they invite their guests to dinner for "conversation" no conversation actually occurs. The desire to eradicate ideas other than their own seduces them into committing more and more murders until the object of the meal becomes death itself.
Rosen's screenplay plays with the word "conscious," utilizing it in various ways to connote political, moral, and even physical consciousness. When Jude reflects on the events taking place around her and asks herself "Am I conscious. . . am I here?" her question's significance equals in weight Paulie's linguistic blunder by which she declared that she "died" long ago. These are, of course, ways the film announces the students' spiritual unconsciousness, the death of their souls. As they concoct their plan to rid the world of the forces of evil, one of them offers a protest, crying, "You cannot shake your fist in God's face and get away with it!" But their spiritual deaths come as the result of shaking their fists in God's face. When Luke confronts Sheriff Stanley in the tomato garden we see Adam hiding from God. And in that confrontation Luke brazenly strikes down the law.
So why is the law there anyway? Though the students refuse to pray they are conscious that perhaps their actions are not as justifiable as they think. They know that they cannot get away with shaking their fists in God's face. Marc paints a tribute to Michaelangelo on the dining room ceiling. There, above the table that doubles as a sacrificial altar, we see God giving life to man. The secondary plot, about a local Sheriff who won't give up the search for a missing girl, functions almost as an overlay, a transparency which, when laid over the main plot, helps to create a larger meaning. Sheriff Alice Stanley is really more a metaphor than a character. Her refusal to end her search for the little girl represents an uncompromising search for the truth. God searches for Adam and Eve in the garden.
But what of those of us who share the students' concerns? What of those of us who, before the 1996 election made it a bad word, called ourselves liberal? Are we to believe, like Luke, Paulie, Jude, Marc, and Pete, that unless we murder our enemies we contradict ourselves? Is this a reactionary film? Does it allow the right wing to triumph? Some critics find The Last Supper undermining itself, and have charged it with alienating its audience—liberals—by laughing in its face. But I fear these critics let the film confuse them, not realizing that it uses its characters' ethical dilemmas to consider larger ones, and it does it subtly, without an overwhelming didacticism. The Last Supper identifies in its protagonists a need to ground their actions in a sense of morality. It says, in other words, if faith without works is dead, action without faith is equally moribund. The students' refusal to say grace before meals is not merely a political statement which aligns them against the sins and abuses of the Church, but a refusal to acknowledge what their conscience tells them— that their true hunger is one for sustenance beyond what sits before them on the table. As the number of bodies fertilizing their tomatoes grows, the quality of food they serve diminishes: they begin the film with sumptuous meals and end ordering pizza and eating off paper plates. Their blood lust increases, the cobalt bottle with the bad wine glows in the middle of the table.
When I use the word "morality" in connection with "belief" and "faith," I don't mean to imply that the students lack a sense of right and wrong. Indeed, their sense of right and wrong is strong —how else could they do what they do? What they do lack is something to shape them, to direct them, and to inform their actions. The Christian emphasis on grace often leads us to forget that grace itself is a gift, and that equally important is the all to live our lives within certain parameters. We are to derive a greater sense of right and wrong from a basic sense of right and wrong—like the Commandments. No matter how well "intentioned" the students' sacrifices (clearly, preventing new Holocausts is a virtuous goal), their actions are hollow, their souls are dead, and it isn't long before they become the very people they set out to conquer. When they do finally encounter "Satan" they lack the vision to know how to behave. They fail to realize that action, like faith, comes from deep within the person. It is organic, a way of facing the world, and not reactive, a form of defense.
Talking about The Last Supper without giving away the ending is difficult because so much depends on the climax and denouement. It is a black comedy, however, which means that it takes pleasure in its protagonists' hubris. The film makes sure that triumph and defeat accompany each other during its own reenactment of the Last Supper.
So how are liberals to behave to ensure that good triumphs over evil? What is a liberal to do when the political situation becomes unbearable, or even when it appears fine? The Last Supper watches its characters through a lens colored by a strong belief in a moral universe, and it calls for a sacrifice of humility, rather than pride in one's own self-righteousness, before one's beliefs.