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    Lives of the saints

    "Hunger" focuses almost wordlessly on the saintlike agony of IRA icon Bobby Sands.


    "Hunger" is a movie in three parts, one of which does not make you want to pull your own eyes out.

    Directed by: Steve McQueen.
    Written by: Steve McQueen, Enda Walsh.
    Cast: Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Helena Bereen, Larry Cowan, Liam Cunningham.
    Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt.
    Edited by: Joe Walker.
    New York Film Festival, 2008
    • Afterschool
    • Happy-Go-Lucky
    • Hunger
    Writer-director Steve McQueen's movie tells the story of IRA icon Bobby Sands, from the time of his imprisonment in the 1970s to his death, by slow, voluntary starvation in a hunger strike, in 1981.

    Part 2 is the one that is not like the others. Filmed almost entirely in a single shot, Sands and an IRA-supporting priest have a smart, funny, rapid-fire conversation in a visiting room, touching on the priesthood, the failure of the Republican movement, the hunger strike plan, childhood and life. It stands out because it is the only conversation in the whole film — and it's a good one, the crisp kind of scene a playwright (such as co-writer Enda Walsh) might craft on a good day.

    In part 1, little is said, or needs to be. Sands arrives at the notorious Maze Prison and is acculturated to prison life, a life fully defined by two things: the brutality of the guards and the primitive exploitation of the human body. If there is a cavity in the body, it will be used to hold things. If there is a substance emitted from the body, it will be used to advantage. When Sands arrives, his cellmate has customized their institutional off-white walls with elaborated designs in his own feces. It makes sense, perhaps, that in a small box where the only permissible object is a Bible, man is reduced to his biology.

    In part 3, Sands dwindles to his death, in a slowly advancing process that is probably unbearable for him and certainly unbearable for us. Again, almost nothing is said. Ironically, he receives unhesitatingly compassionate care, in contrast with his treatment as an ordinary, non-dying prisoner. Fresh food is brought. A doctor labors to keep him not only alive but salved. Even a burly Protestant orderly with "UDA" (Ulster Defense Association) tattooed on his fists shows kindness. Pained and delirious, the prisoner is finally free of his cage, though unable to get up from his bed.

      It is a film tightly focused on Sands' agony. Dare I say, Sands' "passion"? In fact, it is almost exactly a remake of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."
    "Hunger" is not a lot of things — not a biography, because it doesn't touch Sands' life, his guilt or innocence, or even his defiant election to Parliament. It is not a film of ideas, because aside from the one anomalous scene in the middle, the film is almost speechless. It is not even realist, in the sense that the handsome, charismatic fellow we see (Michael Fassbender of "300") looks nothing like the real, doughy, hippyish-looking Sands. What is it then?

    It is a film tightly focused on Sands' agony. Dare I say, Sands' "passion"? In fact, it is almost exactly a remake of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."

    The relentlessly battered Sands is adoringly and artistically filmed in a manner that suggests an El Greco — it was my first thought the moment the angular-jawed, wispy bearded Fassbender appeared. He holds his near-naked body taut to absorb wounds from his tormenters like a Saint Sebastian. What we are seeing is beyond political propaganda — it is artistic hagiography. It's the martyrdom of Saint Sands.

    "Hunger" wants your respect. And it is certainly an intense piece of work, but whether it moves you or merely sickens you probably depends on the prejudice you brought into the theater with you. Like "The Passion of the Christ," it seems like a rallying point for the true believers. To Irish Catholics, almost exclusively, it says: Look how the man suffered for you.

    To anyone else, it is an assault on your eyeballs, an hour and a half of the most miserable footage you've ever had the chance to save yourself from by not going to the theater.

    SEPTEMBER 26, 2008

    Reader comments on Hunger:

  • "Part 1"   from JohnnyNegativity, Nov 13, 2008
  • Re: "Part 1"   from Joshua, Nov 13, 2008
  • joshua's review   from caomhain, Dec 27, 2008

  • Post a comment on "Hunger"