ad astra per alia porci


the wind that shakes us all
May 17, 2007, 9:45 am
Filed under: the arts

Last Sunday I watched The Wind That Shakes The Barley, the film that won the Palme D’Or at Cannes for 2006. While in terms of camera work and directing it was not revolutionary, the message of the film and acting got to me. Cillian Murphy was surprisingly good and the message of the film was much more universal than it seems at first glance.

The title of the film is a clear reference to an Irish ballad (I Wiki-ed it) written by a certain Robert Dwyer Joyce from the perspective of an Irish soldier who is about to sacrifice his previous life and love to join a rebellion against the British in 1798, which I will quote in full here:

I sat within the valley green, I sat me with my true love
My sad heart strove the two between, the old love and the new love
The old for her, the new that made me think on Ireland dearly
While soft the wind blew down the glen and shook the golden barley
‘Twas hard the woeful words to frame to break the ties that bound us
But harder still to bear the shame of foreign chains around us
And so I said, “The mountain glen I’ll seek at morning early
And join the bold united men,” while soft winds shake the barley
While sad I kissed away her tears, my fond arms round her flinging
A yeoman’s shot burst on our ears from out the wildwood ringing
A bullet pierced my true love’s side in life’s young spring so early
And on my breast in blood she died while soft winds shook the barley
I bore her to some mountain stream, and many’s the summer blossom
I placed with branches soft and green about her gore-stained bosom
I wept and kissed her clay-cold corpse then rushed o’er vale and valley
My vengeance on the foe to wreak while soft wind shook the barley
But blood for blood without remorse I’ve taken at Oulart Hollow
And laid my true love’s clay cold corpse where I full soon may follow
As round her grave I wander drear, noon, night and morning early
With breaking heart when e’er I hear the wind that shakes the barley.

The film is ostensibly about the conflict between the Irish and the British which later evolved into a conflict between the divided Irish but it also delivers a universal message and observations of how the winds of political change and societal upheaval can ensnare and affect the lives of otherwise ordinary people.

Consider the play on “old love” and “new love” in the first stanza. It highlights the dichotomy and central tension between the soldier’s personal love for a girl and his love for a large cause, in this case his country Ireland. This is a point that is constantly brought out in the movie itself. The use of the title of a poem about events in 1798 for the title of a movie that is based on events in the 1900s places emphasis on the universal nature of this conflict between the personal and ambition/ideals that seems to be a continually relevant aspect of human nature.

The film opens with an idyllic scene of kids playing the Irish sport of hurling, a scene of innocent domestic Elysium and insularity from outside concerns. Shortly after we see the intrusion of political concerns into the lives of ordinary folks when British soldiers strip- searched and even killed one of the boys in the household of the main character Damien.

This set off a whirlwind of events that rapidly entangled Damien in the quagmire of revolution and politics. Particularly impactful was the scene in which Damien shot a
“traitor” who was just a young boy working as a farmhand. Has he taken his sense of political idealism too far when he shot a young boy just because he had tipped off the English about the whereabouts of his bunch of rebels while under coercion? For me it’s clear cut that killing the boy was unethical since he was not an intentional traitor and he is essentially harmless. However his actions were interpretated within the broader political context by Damien.

Sometimes pursuing a larger, often political goal diminishes the humanity of otherwise normal men and perverts them. Consider the  European attempt to “civilise” other races and cultures during the age of colonialism. In many colonies their actions to “civilise” others only serve to reveal their own cruelty and immorality.

The struggle for the fulfillment of a political ideal also splits the relationship between Damien and his brother Tom, culminating in the execution of Damien at the hands of his own brother. The writer clearly attempts to draw a parallel between Damien’s execution of the boy and Tom’s execution of his own brother: when Damien told the boy’s mother about his execution of his son, he was told that she would never want to see him again; when Tom informed Damien’s lover of his execution, he was told the same thing. Politics poisons relationships and drive otherwise normal people to commit atrocities in the name of a higher cause. The tragedy is that both brothers were passionate nationalists but had differing views on how Ireland should be politically.

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday and he said that a life that is led without the pursuit of some higher, noble goal is better than that of a life lived in blissful normality. Well it might be true that a purposeful life is better than one lived aimlessly (and this opens up another whole new debate over what is considered “purposeful” and “noble” and whether it is a subjective or objective matter, but I will leave this for another time) but what I feel is important is that one must never lose sight of what is true and decent and preserve one’s sense of balance and one’s basic humanity while pursuing a goal.

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