Having felt the Atlantic Ocean winds across my face, enamored by the coastline of Ireland, breathing deeply of its bracing air all day long, I know that those who make these islands their home never imagine a warm summery breeze. The weather is not always cold, but it is never hot, probably not ever even warm. And while the landscape is, as landscapes are, geographical, it also something more. A place of fairy stories and shamrocks, a place where human beings have lived almost as long as we have lived on earth. Ancient, yes, Enchanting, perhaps. Magical, maybe.
But the film The Banshees of Inisherin insists that the landscape of life is metaphysically and morally meaningless too — and don’t imagine otherwise.
Because I have wakened to the morning looking from the Aran Islands across the deep blue water back to the mainland, because I have biked along the winding pathways through mile upon mile of stone-fenced pastures, and because there is something deeply Irish in me, I was drawn to this new film by Martin McDonagh, starring once again his favorite actors, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. As a threesome, they seem to find a strange pleasure in heart-wrenching stories, ones that end with a whimper, at best — and at worst? — something more like the Smashing Pumpkins once put it in their album, speaking into and for the world, their songs the biggest songs of the world that year, calling their music, “Mellon collie and the infinite sadness.” Simply said.
As Billy Corgan, the band’s lead singer sang out, night after night all over America and the world, “God is empty…. just like me” — the word, ”ZERO” emblazoned on his black t-shirt.
Because the film is Irish, filmed in a wee small village on the fictional island of Inisherin, there are symbols of transcendence everywhere. A cross here, another cross there, and the local parish church, a place the whole village comes each week. Whatever might have been believed about God and the world in the previous days, on Sunday men and women, boys and girls, all enter into the church to hear something that sadly and terribly sounds like something far less than good news for anyone about anything.
For someone paying attention, the more we see and hear, the symbols become suffocating, as the more we know of the two men, of their lifelong friendship and now of their heart-aching alienation, the more we long for something more than more hurt. But as the story is told, more time means more wound, the stakes being raised day after day, first this, and then that… until finally tragedy implodes. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, nothing more, nothing less.
As I looked in on this very sad story, I kept thinking about Peter Berger — the great sociologist whose seminal work on the nature of belief in the modern world has shaped a generation of thinking about the hardest questions of all — who wrote perceptively about “windows on transcendence,” knowing enough about modernity to know that we have done our best to close those windows, spending years examining what that means for all of us.
And what does it mean? That we are, in Walker Percy’s famous title, Lost in the Cosmos. As Nietzsche argued a century-and-a-half earlier, at the dawn of the modern age, “When we announce that God is gone, as we now must, to be honest we must then stop talking about meaning and morality.” Bleak is the word.
We are alone, alone with ourselves, alone to ourselves. And because artists often see with surprising clarity, Corgan saw this very clearly. (And several times he and I talked about his life and his music, but that is a story for another day.) It’s all a big zero. Everything, because everything is nothing.
But then I also thought of other sad stories I know. Not cheap, ever, but told with hard-won wisdom born of the most grievous hurts imaginable, the most aching physical and psychological burdens that human beings bear. For example, in the last months I have heard both Marcus Mumford and Bono one more time, as gifted artists as we have in the world. Their lyricism is unbounded, wordsmiths who create music the whole world wants to hear. Both write about sorrow. Both write about tragedy. Both write about injustice. Both write about wounds.
And both sing songs about grace.
Because apart from grace, all we have is infinite sadness, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, forever and ever. You do this, I’ll do that. You kill my donkey, I’ll burn your house down, and I don’t care if you’re in it.
Film critics the world over are raving about the film’s cinematic and narrative brilliance, even while describing it as “quietly tragic,” “a finely crafted feel-bad treat,” a story “that expertly balances the tragicomic with the macabre,” insisting that we “accept that looking for meaning is an absurd act.” More could be said — about the backdrop of the Irish Civil War of the 1920s, about the troubling undercurrent of depression and mental illness, even about the longing for a vocation that gives coherence and meaning to life — but that and more is overwhelmed by the reality that the film proudly, purposefully, “speaks to the absurdities of existence.” And that comes with popcorn.
This week The Banshees of Inisherin was awarded the Golden Globe for “best comedy.” I shudder, because it was not even a dark comedy, that is, unless we are willing to laugh when we should weep, which we will do if God is empty, just like me — and the landscape of our lives is as stark as this story, leaving us metaphysically and morally windswept.
Lord, have mercy.