January 03, 2006

Bee Season

Bee Season explores the role religion and faith play in our daily lives perhaps better than any other film I have seen. Other films "get it" — In America comes to mind as an example. But Bee Season is almost a dissertation.
The Naumann family is composed of four characters isolated by perceptions of the world that seem mutually exclusive. Saul, the patriarch, is a theology professor who has devoted years of his life to unlocking the secrets of the Kaballah. But he is arrogant and mundane, and will never find faith no matter how hard he tries. Miriam has been blessed with the gift of the divine; though Saul married a scientist he ended up with, unbeknownst to him, a closeted artist. But she is broken and quiet, and doomed to be marginalized. Though Aaron begins as the apple of his father's eye, he has neither his mother's gifts nor his father's ambition. Only after his father has casually spurned him does he begin to search for a life based in something deeper. The abandoned child story has become all too ordinary and yet this particular abandoned child is thoughtful and kind in the face of adversity; that must surely count for something.
And then there is Eliza. She was the abandoned child for the great sum of her short life while Saul focused on her brother's musical talents. For lesser children this would be disaster but in Eliza — like Roald Dahl's Matilda and other great young heroines of the past — it merely breeds independence. She sees the world through her mother's extraordinary eyes, but speaks with a confidence similar to her father's ever-present voice. But unlike him, she has the advantage of sharing things actually worth saying.
Her goals are the same small yet immense ones of any child stuck within a family in crisis: bridge the chasms that divide it and heal the wounds that have ravaged it. The spelling bee is her outlet, and the way she slowly grows in the process from the quiet girl desperate for attention from within the crack underneath her father's office door to someone that is brave and even courageous crept up on me in a rather startling yet decidedly natural way.
It is a coming-of-age tale cut from the best cloth. That this particular character is a child is almost beside the point. Many people face the quiet tyranny of an overbearing home life. Few have the courage to confront it at all, much less as constructively and sensitively as Eliza has.
And then there is the way religion weaves itself in and out of this picture. Throughout this movie, the feeling of something divine, mysterious and immense, peaking in from just out of sight is unshakable. Subliminal imagery like the stoplights in in an establishing shot take on an almost awe-inspiring power. When Miriam's big secret is finally revealed, the movie shows its audience literally what Saul is seeing. And yet somehow it also got me to feel what it meant to Miriam, and what she saw in it, as well. What limited experience I've had with religion and God has all been in such indistinct rumblings of beauty and emotion, so this movie rang true to me on a deep and fundamental level. Yet it also ventures into organized religions and the interplay between the deeper faith and the surface politics that tie into all of it. Finally there is of course Eliza's experience — which is direct, enormous, and majestic.
I defy anyone to look at the world as anything less than quietly magical and tragically beautiful after experiencing this film. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

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