I have lived in safe neighborhoods all my life, and I have never gone to war. Nonetheless, I like to think of myself as a man of courage. I think of those idiotic head-on tackling drills football coaches of my era used to require, how I hated them but how I went through them rather than walk away. I remember the night in high school when I was "parking" with my girlfriend, and three guys motored slowly by several times before stopping to harass us, how I got out of my car and challenged them to fight me one at a time "like men." I vividly remember standing up to the hulking bully on the basketball team at my new school who elbowed me hard in the ribs twice on the first day of practice until I attacked him in a fury and knocked him to the floor. More important, I remain fiercely proud of telling my country I would not fight a war in Vietnam I did not believe in and felt to be morally wrong, how scared I was that such a stance might mean I'd have to flee my loved ones for refuge in Canada or else spend time in prison. So I am brave, I assure myself I have been tested, and I have stood tall. And underneath my self-assurance, I know a coward slinks into shadow.
For I was more afraid of being thought a sissy than I was daunted by the certain pain of smashing into a teammate on the football practice field. I was more afraid my girlfriend might think me "chicken" than I was worried that three boys might jump me at once and beat me up. Yes, I attacked the bully, but in the irrational state of anger, not the coolness of true courage. Even my stance against the Vietnam War was a false test. In the final analysis, severed ankle ligaments from a basketball injury made me physically ineligible, so I never had to go to prison or to Canada to avoid military service in southeast Asia. I know what I say I would have done, had those been my choices, but those weren't my choices, and I will never know for sure what I actually would have done. And in my circle of friends at the time, one needed little courage to speak out and demonstrate against the war.
Though it shames me to remember, I recall too many occasions when courage was called for and I was found wanting. In grade school I stood aside while the boys in my class mercilessly teased an overweight girl, accused her of disgusting acts none of us saw her commit. And if I was never mean directly to her face, I snickered about her along with the others when she was not around. Worse, when I transferred schools as a high-school senior, I came upon a boy who was openly tormented by his peers. John had been born with only a seven-inch fleshy protuberance where his left arm should have been, and so the other boys hailed him only as "Lefty." In gym class, when we played a game of dodge ball called "bombardment," the other boys would deliberately avoid hitting John until he was left alone on his side. Though his right hand was too small to grasp a volleyball from the top, he would try to compete, trapping a ball against his foot and rolling it up his leg and side until he could get his hand under it to fling at his opponents. Then, after sneering at his feeble efforts, the other boys would endeavor to hit him all at once, with five balls or even ten hurled simultaneously and John with only one arm to deflect balls aimed at both his head and groin. Wanting to be liked and accepted by the guys at my new school, I did not demand that they stop. I did not stand at John's side and use my two good arms to deflect the balls from hitting him. Instead, I just squirmed and looked away. And I will carry that cowardice to my grave. And that is among the reasons why I cling so ferociously to my belief in divine forgiveness.
Human beings do horrible things to one another. The few are perpetrators, and the many are collaborators. Both groups justify their actions and lack thereof by defining the victim as somehow other, as somehow deserving a cruel fate. And all are guilty, perhaps even equally guilty, for the ring leader relies as much on the complicit silence of the mass as on the viciousness of his henchmen. Two vastly different recent films, one historical fiction, the other contemporary documentary, illustrate how decent people can be violated at once by the malicious, the unfeeling, and the cowardly.
Comparable events happened all over Europe when Hitler's storm troopers retreated before the Allied onslaught. As lands were liberated, collaborators were pulled from their houses and aggressively confronted by those against whom they had sided. People were verbally harassed, beaten, shorn of their hair, stripped naked, and hounded into exile, if not killed. Because we rightly regard the temporary Nazi hegemony as Evil Incarnate, we have taken little notice of and mustered less concern for those who endured the wrath of the betrayed. One reaps what one sows. At the heart of writer-director Giuseppe Tomatore's magnificent Malena, then, lies a gesture of astonishing humanity. He dares wonder who the betrayer might be and why one might cast his lot with the enemy. Tomatore's purpose is hardly to defend or even excuse perfidy, but to acknowledge that seemingly indefensible acts may sometimes be committed by defensible, even sympathetic people.
The narrative in which this bracing theme emerges is set in the Sicilian city of Castlecuto, and it is developed, beguilingly, as a coming-of-age tale. Renato Amoroso (Giuseppe Sulfaro) has just turned thirteen in 1940 when Mussolini announces his partnership in Hitler's war against England, France and Russia. Because the people of Sicily have been dominated sequentially by the Mafia, Fascists, and Nazis, we tend to think of them as victims. Tomatore sees the sundry ways in which his countrymen abetted those who have ruled them, and he notes at the film's beginning that the advent of what will prove a disastrous war is widely greeted with enthusiasm. Renato's family, though, is not among them. And from the outset, however much Renato craves acceptance by his peers, he is a boy who stands apart, who sees the world in a different way.
When we meet him, shorter and skinnier than his friends, Renato is still a boy in short pants. Only when his father buys him a bike will the other boys in his neighborhood grant him admission into their gang. Once included, Renato discovers that his fellows are devoted to spying on the town beauty, Malena Scordia (Monica Bellucci), the voluptuous, raven-haired, twenty-seven-year-old daughter of the high school's Latin teacher. Malena is the wife of a soldier already in Ethiopia and soon to be thrown into the fierce desert campaign in North Africa. Renato's friends hang out across the street from Malena's house and follow her like a swarm of insects when she walks to town to shop or bank. They concoct lewd tales about what each would like to do to Malena. One boy even boasts of having been lasciviously solicited by her. But whereas the other boys think of Malena only in terms of their own coarse lust, Renato, no less sexually excited by her, nonetheless regards Malena as an object of devotion. To Renato, she is an emblem of purity, of ethereal beauty. The other boys ravish her in their imagination; Renato idealizes her and becomes her unknown champion. Together, the stories of Malena and Renato become the story of Sicily itself.
Though Malena is ultimately a sober film, Tomatore molds the beginning for bawdy comedy and in so doing recalls Federico Fellini's Amarcord. In both films the teenage boys are obsessed with masturbation. Here, Renato oils the creaky springs of his bed to better conceal his nightly raptures of onanism. Heaven is a night spent with a shamelessly filched pair of Malena's lacy black panties spread across his face. Other comic passages, though, belong to Malena uniquely. My favorite is a sequence in which Renato tries to procure sanctuary for Malena by repeatedly praying to a saint and lighting a candle before the saint's statue. When his prayers go unanswered, he attacks the statue as savagely as he might a human traitor. In its cinematic style, however, and in Ennio Morricone's superb score, Malena will recall Tomatore's 1988 masterpiece, Cinema Paradiso. Renato's imagination and habit of thinking of himself as a movie character summon memories of Toto, the dreamy, romantic and idealistic young Sicilian movie projectionist who grows up to be a major Italian filmmaker. Malena does not follow Renato into adulthood, but his uncommon capacity for empathy leaves us with expectations that he will largely acquit himself well as he grows older.
Unfortunately for Malena, the adults of Castlecuto have more in common with Renato's friends than with Renato himself. The men in town leer at her and make crude comments about her barely out of her hearing. When Malena's husband is reported dead at the front, men line up to console her, only to move their lips against her widow's veil with the indecency of crude proposition. The women treat her even worse, gossiping about her without remorse, exaggerating into a vicious campaign of calumny baseless tales of impropriety that begin as mean conjecture and metamorphose into cruel lies. She is almost saintly in response. She not only refuses to answer those who attack her; she barely acknowledges their existence. But this just fuels the frenzy of their hatred for her. As the war progresses, and the entire town is seized in the grip of hardship and deprivation, Malena becomes an almost conscious scapegoat. The townspeople even manage to turn her own father against her, and when they do, her circumstances quickly become desperate. She tries to take in sewing to sustain herself, but no one will give her work. Even when she has money, the women in the market refuse to sell her food. A madman claims to be her lover, and she is accused in court of being an adulterer. The lawyer who defends her extracts payment for his services by raping her.
Eventually, to survive, devoid of alternatives, Malena becomes what all her neighbors claim her to be. The scene in which she makes her decision is instructive. She cuts her long dark hair and dyes it first red and later blond. She takes on the outward guise of the slut; she becomes someone other than herself. And then she takes refuge with the enemy, offering her company and charms to the German officers who have occupied the town and treat the inhabitants with sneering disdain. The Germans are nominally allies of the dictator the townspeople saluted and cheered so short a time ago. But when Malena takes the arm of a German officer, she is not just a whore but a traitor. And the populace seethes with hopes for an opportunity to exact retribution. The liberation which arrives with the American advance provides the townspeople the freedom to punish Malena for having so long been their victim.
Early in Malena, Tomatore establishes a metaphor which informs much of what follows. The other boys in Renato's gang discover an ant, trap it and then employ a magnifying glass to cook it alive. This is precisely how the townspeople of Castlecuto behave toward Malena. They magnify the incidental details of her life into crude distortion. When she comes to town to visit her father, to cook and clean for him, they presume she's arrived to meet some unidentified lover. After the news of her husband's death, when she entertains the chaste attentions of another soldier about to be sent off to war, the townspeople judge her guilty of conducting a tempestuous affair. The tormented ant does not survive to sting one of the boys, but if it had, they would have seen the ant's attack as justifying their cruelty. For the townspeople see Malena's taking sanctuary with the Germans as proof of all the lies they've told about her.
Thus, in its surface attitude about the Sicilian populace, Malena is the diametric opposite of Cinema Paradiso. In the earlier film, to fully embrace his identity, Toto must ultimately return home. The people from Toto's town have their limitations, but only their vision is restricted, not their heart. In contrast, the small-town Sicilians of Malena are shockingly devoid of compassion, and we can only imagine that Renato must leave someday if he is to realize his fullest potential. As depicted here, the people of Castlecuto learn their lessons slowly if at all. The Fascist leadership slips out of its black uniform and into civilian garb without changing its vicious nature.
Critically, though, Tomatore is wisely reluctant to let his heroes break their tethers to the soil of their rearing. A victim of class and even ethnic prejudice as a youth, Toto fails to find enduring love among the prosperous Romans and other northern Italians with whom he works. Renato, we learn in a voice over, will suffer the same fate. The end of Malena smacks of an uncomfortable macho posturing tinged with a haunting melancholy. And this is entirely deliberate, making us ache for Renato in two ways at once: that life hasn't satisfied him more and that in ways, inevitable perhaps, it has diminished him. Renato is left yet to discover what Toto learns at the end and what Malena herself seems always to know. Talent or great beauty may make you seem to stand apart. But you are different only in dimension, not in kind. The film states explicitly that dignity can only be found where it has been lost. But that phrasing seems to me slightly askew. Looking at the example of Malena, I would state the proposition this way: dignity can be affirmed or denied, but affirmation does not bring it into being and denial cannot destroy it. You must go home again, spiritually if not physically, not because of the heart which some homes may not have, but because, like DNA strands in your genetic code, you are tied with unseverable bonds to the place from whence you arose.
In a wonderfully instructive moment in Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey's documentary, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the title figure arranges for a makeover in prelude to new publicity photos. Long past her high profile days as an evangelical television star, divorced and remarried, Tammy Faye Bakker Messner remains stubbornly hopeful of returning to the limelight. Subsequently, we will witness her perky but painful visit with an independent TV producer to pitch several divergent ideas for new shows to star in. But in the makeover scene, those hired to give Tammy Faye a new and fresh look are astonished when she arrives in full makeup, rather than merely fresh scrubbed. Deflecting a proposal to dispense with her flamboyant, mascara-stiffened false eyelashes, Tammy Faye adamantly refuses to change what she considers her trademark feature. Asked to remove her makeup, Tammy Faye reveals that her eyebrows and lipstick liner are "permanent," in short, tattoos that cannot be altered in any way. Eventually, the photographer's assistants conclude that making over Tammy Faye Bakker Messner is fundamentally impossible; what you see is what you get.
If you were like me and paid at least passing attention to the fraud trial of Jim Bakker back in the late 1980s, you wavered between an irritated presumption of his guilt and dismissive contempt for those he snookered. Jim was a crook, and, like so many of his other followers, Tammy Faye was a joke. Remarkably, astoundingly, this film successfully calls both those conclusions into question.
There is no doubt that Tammy Faye is an odd bird. Raised the oldest of nine children in a lower-middle-class Minnesota home, Tammy Faye met Jim Bakker in a small Bible college and married him in 1960 when she was only seventeen years old. For a time Jim and Tammy Faye traveled the country as itinerant evangelists, conducting tent revival meetings wherever they could find a congregation willing to gather. Eventually, they made the acquaintance of a little known man named Pat Robertson, a preacher who dreamed of creating his own Christian media empire. The Bakkers assisted Robertson in the undertaking that produced the Christian Broadcast Network (CBN) and became that network's first big draw, starring in their own inspirational puppet show. Shortly, Jim proposed a Christian "Tonight Show" and founded "The 700 Club" which also became a hit with evangelical viewers. After it did so, however, Robertson took over the host role, and the Bakkers were out of work.
They journeyed from East Coast to California and helped found the Trinity Broadcast Network (TEN), still another Christian network, but once again they were forced out by their partners, this time Paul and Jan Couch (who is a sort of Tammy Faye without the class). Finally, in North Carolina, the Bakkers founded Praise the Lord (PTL), a Christian network that by the 1980s became the most powerful on television. Resolutely non-denominational, determinedly eschewing the right-wing culture wars waged by other televangelists, PTL was a sensation, successful enough to command tens of millions in donations from the faithful, powerful enough to launch its own satellite and undertake worldwide broadcasting on a twenty-four-hour-a-day basis. The crucial misstep began when Jim got the idea of building Heritage U.S.A., PTL's own Christian theme park. He did manage to get it off the ground, and for a time in the mid-1980s it appeared fabulously successful, attracting a number of visitors exceeded only by those to Disney World and Disneyland. Debt service was incredibly high, however, and PTL turned into a perpetual fund raiser, an obviously strained Jim concocting ever grander schemes for how his followers could give them his money, Tammy Faye at his side, crying her eyes out about how hard they were working and how much help (read dollars) they needed.
Then in 1985, Charlotte Observer reporter Charles Sheppard got a tip that PTL had agreed to pay $265,000 to church secretary Jessica Hahn as a condition for her remaining silent about a one-time sexual encounter she had with Reverend Jim way back in 1980. Following the trail of that payment into the complicated finances of PTL and Heritage U.S.A., Sheppard found what amounted to a pyramid scheme of monumental proportions. Bakker was promising donors "partnerships" in Heritage U.S.A. that simply could not be honored. The story broke, charges were filed, the jury ruled, and Jim was sentenced to forty-five years in prison (he did six) for fraud, despite the fact that remarkably few of his "partners" affirmed the complaints against him. While Jim was in prison, the couple divorced and Tammy Faye married old family friend Roe Messner.
On the few occasions I watched PTL (I could barely bear it even as something to laugh at derisively) I was certainly contemptuous of the Bakkers' tawdry "Gospel of Fun" and the obvious vacuity of their feel-good theology. It was a short step to assume them guilty of conscious evil. That's precisely where The Eyes of Tammy Faye demands that folks like me look again more closely. The film does not exonerate the Bakkers of tackiness, but it makes a compelling case for their sincerity. There is a difference, the picture submits, between ineptitude and crime. Businesses go bankrupt all the time. Business managers make poor decisions, overextend, and end up broke. Jim Bakker ended up in prison. Would this have happened, the documentary wonders, had he and Tammy Faye not been objects of such scorn from the likes of me?
In the Bakkers' defense, The Eyes of Tammy Faye dismisses charges of greed. The $400,000 they were paid as annual salaries allowed them a life of luxury to be sure, but no more so than that of their rivals. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell had better taste, perhaps, but they lived just as well. Moreover, PTL and Tammy Faye in particular opened wide Christian arms to homosexuals in an era (which has hardly ended) where Robertson, Falwell and countless less prominent religious leaders have decried homosexuality a "sin" and an "abomination to God." Tammy Faye's popularity in the gay community no doubt accounts for drag queen RuPaul Charles' narration, which he delivers without a hint of distancing irony. In the end this picture argues that the Bakkers were patsies. They were always naive. Early in life they got scammed, first by Robertson and then the Couches. At the pinnacle of their careers, they got blindsided by Falwell who emerges as the unquestioned villain of this piece.
At the height of Jim Bakker's nightmare over financing for Heritage U.S.A., Falwell hinted he might have to go public about the Jessica Hahn story; all the while he offered to take the reins of PTL temporarily while Jim and Tammy Faye stepped aside for rest, reflection, and recuperation. They never returned. Falwell orchestrated their firing, subsequently boarded up the theme park, and made off with PTL's satellite. Falwell’s public comments about his role in PTL's demise are shockingly self-righteous, judgmental, and lacking in charity: "God sent me there to bring an abrupt end to the immorality and financial fraud of this religious soap opera that had become an international embarrassment to the Christian gospel. In hindsight we all now realize that PTL had been a moral cancer on the face of Christianity."
The Eyes of Tammy Faye doesn't answer all the questions it might. I would have liked to see the filmmakers directly inquire about the reasons for the Bakkers' divorce and the nature of their relationship today. (Tammy Faye never speaks ill of her ex-husband.) And strive though it might, I remain unconvinced that Jim is the utter innocent the documentary would have us conclude. Journalist Sheppard seems to bear the Bakkers no personal ill will, but he remains adamant that Jim's oversight of PTL involved at least marginally criminal ineptitude. Still, he offers a canny comment about Falwell’s role in the Bakkers' demise. Jim and Tammy Faye were definitely "scheming," he says, but Falwell and his people were "cunning," and "cunning trumps scheming every time." Whatever Jim's conscious or neglectful malfeasance, this film is convincing that Tammy Faye is a victim. She is outrageous but never insincere. She's a person of some talent, astonishing good humor, and inspiring perseverance. Most important, she's a person with a genuine goodness of heart.
Tammy Faye Bakker Messner is not beautiful like Malena, so she has not been the object of jealous resentment. Rather, she has been the relentless and undeserving victim of scorn. Just as beauty is a condition, not a virtue, tackiness is a matter of taste, not a sin. Admittedly, it is easier for us to muster sympathy for the saintly Malena, and her story propagates an urgency that she be sheltered from further harm. In contrast, I do not come away from Tammy Faye's story desiring to watch her sing or yearning to hear again her vapid declarations about her relationship with God. But seeing the world through Tammy Faye's eyes has opened mine. And I am ashamed for having felt so superior to her, for judging her guilty of things for which she was almost assuredly innocent, for thinking about her and her circumstances with such contempt. And I know this for sure: I would rather stand at her side before the gates of heaven than to get in the line for judgment headed by the likes of the sanctimonious Reverend Mr. Falwell.