By Joe Perez
ThinkProgress commentator Alyssa Rosenberg poses a challenging question for filmmakers: how do you capture sainthood in a story told on film? In her comments on Luc Besson’s The Lady, a biopic on the life of Noble Peace Prize-winning pro-democracy dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, she says the movie is flawed. She seemed to enjoy the movie more for the performance of Michelle Yeoh and its aesthetic, not its storytelling.
A large percentage of critics also found the movie lacking, according to the Rotten Tomatoes website, but there were defenders of the respectful and dignified tale of the Burmese national heroine. A top critic for NPR, for example was one of the most severe critics, saying that the film is hagiographic: all in favor of “a cult of personality” and which “nominates her for the sainthood.”
Alyssa highlights the key tension:
How do you tell the life story of a saint? In the old days, the formula for a Christian hagiography was simple: isolation, a hint of torment, prayer and the timely intervention of God. But when the saint is Buddhist, and Burmese, and has a husband, you make something rather more like Luc Besson’s The Lady…
It seems to me that movie critics today — professionals, bloggers, and audience members alike — don’t quite know what to do with a story about a saint. Popular culture demands black and white portrayals of morality, heroes who stand up for principle, and (like comic book characters) are endowed with super-human traits and only permitted modest flaws.
I don’t think it would have made the filmmaker’s job any easier if Aung San Suu Kyi were Christian rather than Buddhist; she defies conventions in a way that people appreciate in the abstract but find difficult to relate to in the concrete. Critics lack a worldview which proclaims the divine dignity of each individual, personal unique selves with unique shadows equally fascinating. Having disowned their own sacred essence, they resent it when people are portrayed with their own sacred essence intact. It just seems too immodest.
Those who attack The Lady as sanctifying a “cult of personality,” lack awareness that in certain times and places, it is only through the efforts of strong-willed and admired personalities that the work of peace happens. Burma did not experience progress because abstract forces of evolution worked dialectical miracles; it progressed because millions of people faced difficult decisions and made personally courageous choices.
Until I see the movie I can’t wade deeply into the critical discourse. But I want to strongly highlight that the challenge faced by these filmmakers is an increasingly important one to be navigated in our times. We simply must find ways of understanding human stories as great mythic epics, simply lived stories as grandiose spectacles of human nature and destiny. Ours is a time for claiming the divinity formerly given only to mythic gods and owning its reality here in each of us, present in our Unique Selves.
The unfortunate fact that telling our story in such a way will lead to critical dismissal as a “cult of personality” is just one of the risks we all must bear when we tell our spiritual autobiographies. We have the choice to be the heroes of our own stories, and when we tell the adventure tale of our lives, it need not be about personality, but about character and Unique Self.