THE SPIRITUAL PRUDENCE
Sitting on a bench in the garden of my house I stared at the infinite blue sky over my head. Hawks flew over me so high that sometimes I barely could see them—discounting the fact that I need to change my glasses prescription. Sometimes I could see their wings; sometimes I could see nothing but a small black point in the blue sky. Massive white clouds appeared. They had no shadow for the sun hit them with its light frontally; because of that, they appeared infinite cotton balls, immaculately white, like they were drawn by a child.
This prosaic and innocent sight remind me of the feelings that I experienced when I watched Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. Many filmmakers have shot the sky and the clouds. Many filmmakers have shot birds such as hawks and eagles flying rapidly over the earth (and one of them was named Hawks). Meditating under that blue sky I could have thought about John Ford on a hilltop filming the cavalry and the Indians, stagecoaches and horses and great column of soldiers. I could have remembered Drums Along the Mohawk, a film in which the sky is witness of America’s own birth. Many times when I think about America I am reminded of its sky, valleys and vastness, but this time I recalled a contemporary commercial film made by a company in crisis trying to recover its identity of magic and fantasy. Why?
It’s because of the blue. The tonality of the blue that I saw in the sky here in the outback was the same tonality of the blue from Cinderella’s (Lily James) dress in the most important scene of this picture, the night ball. Of course, the tone changes on account of the color correction applied in the shots, but generally it’s a true blue dress with sparkling diamonds. And it stands out in the beautiful scene. It almost comes alive, caressing the marble floor of the palace and swishing in the air as the dance progresses.
This scene is the heart of the film and in it we find the meaning of it all. Every action, every move is explained and displayed during the lovely sounds and sights that Branagh provides. The feelings we sense during the picture (our fear for Cinderella, the indignation for the wicked people that torment her) are suspended for a second while the dance progresses and we can just think how beautiful things can be. It’s the sense of awe that our heroine champions. Cinema is not only the art of the visuals, nor is it an escape from reality. It is the art of the possibility. One of the greatest catastrophes that happened to this art is that its advent matched with the cynical and gnostic 20th century, a time in which goodness and innocence suffered vitriolic attacks by the troops that believe that “reality” means something adamantly bitter and fearful and can be changed through material actions.
It’s true, however, that our world has a lot of bitterness, and some things in it are cause of agony and fear. But it’s not that our world is a failed construction that needs to be corrected by collective actions. We make failed choices. And when it’s not our fault, our plans and moves are still at the mercy of somebody else, or by a cause that wasn’t foreseen by us. Cinderella, under the always powerful embodiment of a fairy-tale, has this in mind. Fairy-tales always were the most efficient way to display to the individual the results of a given action—if the action was taken in good faith, good results it would have in the outcome; if it was made in bad faith, bad results it would have in the outcome, a practical reading of Matthew 7:18: “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither [can] a corrupt tree bringeth fort good fruit”. The mechanism embed in the constitution of a fairy-tale (or even in the parables of Jesus Christ, as G.K. Chesterton notices) is remarkably simple, and this is why they are so valuable even after infancy—and maybe this is why they are despised when we get to be adults. And by keeping this simplicity, Cinderella becomes so moving.
Branagh’s movie is a try by Disney to return to the spirit that guided the company during its classic period. Films like the original Cinderella, or Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were made under a deep conviction to show the world that hatred and unkindness would never win while true love and courage were men’s driving force, and it doesn’t matter if this conviction wasn’t shared by the executives of the company.
Does this sounds very innocent and naïve? Innocent it may be, but certainly not naïve. Or idealistic. It is a clear vision of the world, very prudent and pragmatic, but very beautiful and pure nevertheless. And the beauty of this teaching is impressed in every frame of those films, films that warmed the heart of millions of children around the world and are synonyms of their infancy, and this purity blends itself with the innocence that clears the view and inflates the world with goodness. Consider the ending of Snow White, for example: the image of a castle floating in the sky during a splendorous sunrise, the light blasting from inside the castle, like if it were the Kingdom of Heaven revealing itself to us, unlocked because of the force of Snow White and the Prince’s love.
THE BRANAGHIAN PRUDENCE
This prudent innocence was seemingly lost after Disney fostered weird ex-teenage idols such as Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus—this being one the most significant failures of the company. The first recent “run for shelter” that the company made was with 2009's The Princess and the Frog. That failed. A little later, Universal Pictures, following the trend of “modernization” of fairy-tales made Snow White and the Huntsmen (2012). The film didn’t fail in financial terms, but the fact that the making of the picture was plagued by a case of extramarital affair (or whatever kind of relationship Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart had) exhibited that a dark film shot in the Ridley-Scottean grayish tint that morphed a classic princess into an androgynous woman-warrior was not what people wanted or needed. This is why the choice for Kenneth Branagh to direct Cinderella is so wise: only a purely classic and spiritualistic interpretation of the Perrault creation would fully meet the expectations of Disney and of the audiences. Not because this would be more profitable. But because it rang a bell deep in the conscience of the people of the good auspices that the original picture “infected” in their soul—this is the spiritual factor.
But this meeting of the expectations is born not because Cinderella is a known thing, or because the film from 1950 is like an institution, but because this princess is a sign of hope and kindness. It’s because Cinderella transported people to a better time, to a safer place. If something reminds you of your youth, why not to bring the spirit of that time back again? The convergence of Shakespeare (via Branagh) and Disney is enlaced in this perception: Romeo and Juliet, as dark as it is, is a tale that explains why the empty and meaningless hate between two families can only bring disgrace if it overcomes the power of love. And if love cannot reign in this world, so it may be better to hold and vent this feeling in the next one. So is the case with Hamlet or Othello. It’s prudent and wise to love and to cultivate good feelings—the dark ones only create disgrace and tragedy. Every tragedy is a plea for love.
It is with these thoughts in mind that Branagh created a delicate, sweet and moving story that in it has the motto “courage and kindness.” I have read that this film plays a safe game, that in a sense that Branagh directed it without taking big chances. But actually he did. To make a film so openly given to this principle nowadays is an act of courage by itself. It’s to take the risk of not being “realistic” enough—or at all. It’s to be judged as childish and immature. But even children are at risk of being hurt. And Cinderella, in this film, is hurt and broken time after time.
What makes a film “adult” is not how much the character suffers and a film is not realist depending on the way a filmmaker organizes this suffering before the camera. I believe that the key of a picture is not placed in its mise en scène (it rarely is). The realism of something is to be found in how truthful the feelings and the ideals of it. Sometimes we can find it in the mise en scène: such is the case of Brian De Palma. But in these cases the mise en scène is morphed in another thing—more profound, more pure, more formal. It is morphed in truth itself. You can barely touch it, like something turned sacred. It’s like music—it penetrates your soul like a thing made purely from ghostly substance.
It’s not because a film is a visual art that it plays only with brute matter, such as the angle of a shot or the dispositions of the material elements in a frame. When Cate Blanchett’s character is beaten and broken by the end of the movie and Branagh’s camera frames her between bars, it is obvious that he is sending us a message in there. It’s not even implied. He is reinforcing something that was orally said. But this is not laziness.
As a director, Branagh prefer grace notes, things that are almost out of the range of the camera or that perhaps are results of divine accidents. Very much in the manner that Ford or Otto Preminger would have made, but I don’t know if he is a studious of these filmmakers (I’d prefer he weren’t). This invisible approach, very classic, reminiscent of the studio days and becoming to the manner in which this picture as produced, is not something that submerges the director to the depths of irrelevance. Actually, as someone else once said, one of the hardest feats that a director can do is to become invisible. The invisible actually transforms the filmmaker into a ghostly presence and splashes the center idea of the picture over the actions, sounds and images we see in small drops, like those we see after a fog.
For example, through Cinderella there is the running motif of a cape of invisibility that makes the known unknown. The fairy godmother played by Helena Bonham Carter throws some magical dust over the face of Cinderella and her enemies can’t recognize her in the ball party. But it’s not only in this expository way the “invisibility” is used in the film: earlier, when Cinderella learns about her father’s death, she looks to the living room of her home from the direction of the doorway. The light of the scene comes from just one point: this doorway. So, when she turns her face away from the light, she dives into the shadows of mourning. It’s a reverential and respectful moment, shown in a very simple gesture (a grace note!). It’s not a condemnation—though it is a moment of despair: Cinderella, like the sacrificial lamb, heads to her martyrdom with love in her heart. Love for her father, her mother, her spirit. Her pain is an act of mercy for those who are unjust. And to remain in a Biblical mode, the Lord said, recalling the words of Hosea, that He would have mercy and not sacrifice.
The grace of Cinderella is that it brings all these spiritual and metaphysical factors that I have described into a possible universe. Behind all that pomp of the ballrooms and of the early-Victorian design and costumes (it’s a guess, this film doesn’t seem to take place in any particular time-frame to me), lies a possibility of hope. Actually, by using the well-known signs and codes of horses, princes and kings, the substantial aspects of the movie turn into a formal and palpable reality for us. Or, better yet, because no princess has the common face and thick brown brow of Lily James, we can make that joyful world ours. And the clouds. If one wants to know what art means, you must observe the clouds. The great men live where the biggest clouds gather, says André Malraux.