Friday, November 14, 2008


Vengeance, revenge, wrath. It is often the human response to being deeply wounded, or having someone you love be deeply wounded or even killed. And while it is perfectly normal as a fallen human response to injustice and wickedness, this in itself does not make it a good or godly response. Can one really get a quantum of solace from inflicting a quotient of pain?

This is the question posed to us in the latest Bond thriller, and it is indeed a telling question, and towards the end of the movie one gets a hint of an answer when the female lead played by the Ukrainian star Olga Kurylenko asks Bond, after she has killed the man who murdered the rest of her family-- "What do I do now?" If you have lived for revenge and made it your mission in life, what comes next, once it is mission accomplished?

The movie suggests that there is something profoundly unsatisfying about revenge, rather than it being sweet, or at least, if there is a sense of release, there is also a sense of emptiness, a hollowness about the victory--- precisely because you have become what you despised, a person who ruthlessly kills another person.

To be sure, a James Bond action film is not usually intended to be a morality play, although one has to say that this one comes closer than most such movies. Especially telling is the scene in the middle of the film in which a performance of the opera Tosca is going on, and is the setting used as a venue to plot and plan what I can only call eco-terrorism, the hoarding of water in a dry and weary land.

Why is Tosca an apt play within the morality play that is this movie--- consider the following summary of some of the plot of Puccini's masterpiece---

"Sciarrone enters to announce that earlier reports were mistaken, Bonaparte has defeated the royalist forces at the Battle of Marengo. Mario Cavaradossi [the hero], exulting (Vittoria!), is taken away to prison. Tosca [the hero's girl] attempts to follow him, but is held back by Scarpia. She asks what the price is to free Mario. Scarpia avows his passion for her and lasciviously demands her body, her virtue, and herself, as the price. Tosca attempts to flee but is restrained by Scarpia as he attempts to rape her. During the struggle drums are heard – Scarpia indicates that they are the drums beating Cavaradossi to the scaffold. Tosca finally collapses and asks the Lord the reason for all this cruelty against her (Tosca: Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore – “I lived on art, I lived on love”; Scarpia: Sei troppo bella, Tosca, e troppo amante – “You're too beautiful, Tosca, and too loving”). Feeling as if she has no alternative, Tosca finally agrees to yield. Scarpia orders Spoletta to organize for a mock execution of Cavaradossi, while Tosca demands a safe-conduct for herself and the painter to leave the country. While she is waiting for Scarpia to write it, she notices a knife on the table, and makes the decision to kill Scarpia rather than allow him to rape her. As he advances to embrace her, she plunges the knife into him. (Questo รจ il bacio di Tosca–"This is Tosca's kiss"). Having piously composed the body for burial, she departs to the sound of drums in the distance (E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma – "And before him trembled all of Rome")."

Here is a tragic tale providing a true example of how death and revenge triumph over love, again and again.

And this is Bond's dilemma in the latest installment of the Bond films (number 22 if anyone is counting, in almost 40 years worth of filming). He truly loved Vespa, the girl he fell for in Casino Royale, and though he swears he is only doing his duty, in fact in the end he admits that a large quotient of his actions are part of an attempt to get revenge for Vespa's death, and most especially to kill the man who destroyed her.

I must say that while I found this film less 'fun' and enjoyable than Casino Royale, I did find it a riveting film, and not because of the usual grip the edge of your seat chase sequences, though they are not lacking in this movie. While it is sometimes said that revenge is a dish best served cold, this movie serves it up piping hot, and it leaves your breathless in the end. I quite disagree with A.O. Scott, the NY Times movie critic's review this morning (see This film is not a hodge podge at all. It is one that will bear repeat watchings, not least because of the subtle and crucial dialogue in spots.

Daniel Craig has injected back into the Bond business a new energy, life, vibrancy, and yes a brooding ominous presence. He is also clearly the most athletic of the Bonds, and appears believable in scenes that Pierce Brosnan and others were not believable. To be sure, one still has to suspend one's disbelief when one watches one harrowing escape after another ('he takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'), but this is less of a problem with Craig than with previous Bonds.

Brown is the operative dominant color of this particular film-- brown as in desert, brown as in too much sun, brown as in the color of a dead corpse, brown as in burnt-- emotionally, brown as in growing old (see Judi Dench as M). Brown is the color of parched Bolivia, and the buildings in Haiti, and even Sienna as well which are some of the major venues for this film. You should not go to this film expecting a travelogue of the beautiful places, nor for its humor, although there are one or two wry moments in the film.

While most American movies these days operate on the 'youth must be served' mantra, this film does not. It is not teenagers but rather older persons-- those in their 40s thru 80s who rule the world. More specifically the film suggests older men rule the world, but then this is Ian Fleming's original vision, and the movie is true to that. In this regard the movie's gestalt is somewhat dated or outdated. Even the strong women in the end give way to an attract for or trust in Bond in this film.

This movie is rated PG-13 mainly because of the violence and sexual innuendo (no explicit sex scenes) and it moves along very rapidly for its somewhat less than two hour length.

There is no lard in this movie. There is also no Lord in this movie. It is only the machinations of men that parade across the screen in a world of sorrow and sin where humans control all the action. And yet there is an irony-- if there is no God, why then is there such a passion for justice deep in the heart of human beings when everything in the world is compromised by sin? Why try for human revenge if at most it gives you a moment of release, a small quotient of satisfaction, a quantum of solace? Instead of looking for a quantum of solace someone should have read Qoheleth:

"Everything under the sun is meaningless, like chasing the wind. What is wrong cannot be righted. What is missing cannot be recovered." Eccles. 1.14-15. That's the way life is-- without that ultimate action hero who once cheated death. You know who I mean, but his identity will be concealed here, until you have eyes to see.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Today, I lead a discussion on Weisel's "Night" today. I asked the question of how we define group identity. There are many ways, behavior, belief, clothing, food, music, Culture is the whole definition. I went through the ways that people have explained suffering, and asked them how that "theology" would work if they had been Wiesel in the Holocost. It doesn' tplay out too well...Theology is just a way to pacify the present ugliness in life. We should work for justice, not theologize about God when there is no way to explain certain situations...There is no solace no matter what, especially the theological kind, as "God is in this", He has a "perfect plan", "All things work together", This iwas the very thing that Job's comforter's said...We should be acountable and responsible, and hold other accountable for injustice. It is not a matter of revenge, but "right". Otherwise, we should look the other way everytime injustice is served to others, whether unjust governments, attitudes, people group discrimination, etc....Christian faith is just one of many group think mentalities that lead to this sort of discrimination....

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Angie:

Thanks for this, even though you seem to badly misunderstand both Christianity and the whole nature of the theological enterprise.

I have no problems with working for justice. What I have big problems with is an unholy anger that mistakes further shots fired in anger as if they were acts of justice. They are not. Working for justice is one thing, and even giving your life for just causes is commendable. But pretending that payback is justice is an exercise in self-deception. And you become what you despise in others for "the hammer shapes the hand that wields it."

Ben W.

mafutha said...

Although I haven't seen the second film and good take on it is at this site:

It's worth the read.

Daniel said...

Angie, thanks for your thoughts. As Christians we are forced to speak up for injustice wherever we see it. (Micah 6:6-8, Isaiah 1:10-18, Luke 4:18ff, James 2, etc.) And one of the worst things you can say in a difficult situation is "This was all part of God's plan" (or some semblance of the same).

However, I agree with Ben's point that injustice cannot be fought with more injustice. We (as Christ's body on earth) are called to put into practice the mission he sets forth in Luke 4: to proclaim release to the prisoners, freedom to the oppressed, recovery of sight to the blind, joy because of the Lord's favor. We are judged by our actions in this mission (Mt. 23)

For me, theology helps me to understand who our just God is in the midst of the world's injustice. It calls me to orthopraxy, right living, so that my faith is put into action.

Brian Park said...

Dr. Witherington, I'm sorry to correct you on one very minor factual error in your post but I feel I must speak: the woman Bond fell in love with in Casino Royale was named Vesper. VesPA was actually Lone Starr's love interest in Mel Brooks' 80's classic spoof, Spaceballs. :-)

On a slightly more serious note, the aria from Tosca used in the film, Te Deum (end of Act I), features the villain Scarpia's insidious plotting to kill Tosca's lover and take her for himself (while the background chorus is singing the Te Deum, no less!). I thought the juxtaposition of this song with the plotting of the various QUANTUM members was a clever cinematic move and it was carried out to great effect.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks Brian and you are right on both counts. It was my favorite scene in the movie. This is what I get for being raised in classical music.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Daniel, Surely, there was no intent on my part to continue "injustice". But, what you consider as God's mission, cannot be done through unjust means, can it? Otherwise, it undermines what I would hope you believe in...equality before law or God as no respector of persons.

One cannot give what one was never given, so if one has never seen, or experienced justice or mercy, then it is hard to seek it for others...this is what is so great about our government's affirmation of the individual, being protected by law. People who are not protected by laws that protect human rights do not undersand or have the ability to seek their own way of life.

There is no spiritual versus the political otherwise you can't put into practice your faith, because the government would be intruding and defining how you practice your laws are to protect individual freedoms of expression in religion..this was exactly the case in the persecution of the Jews during the Holocost. They were not equal before the law and did not have equal rights (human) because of bad government...

Unknown said...

Dr. Witherington -

Thanks for your post. I'm living in the UK doing a Masters this year and so have had the opportunity to see the movie twice. The first time I walked away disappointed from a seeming lack of character development in Bond and the sense of a rushed movie that didn't slow down to develop its own plot. Seeing it the second time, I had to rework my take on it. Your comment that it's a film with small nuances that are well done rings very true. Thanks for your write-up on the film. I do think it's a powerful statement on how heavy and unsatisfying a life of revenge and bitterness can be. Much thanks!


David Beasley said...

From the first get go in Christian Scripture we read of the two problems God has with people and a snake. The people don't follow his orders and they cannot master sin. The second problem seems relevant to this picture show I have not seen but I know about it. Well maybe the snake in the movie is metaphorically "the snake" & "08's 007 and his side kick Mz. are charmed by it into disobedience since they are definitely not showing love for their enemies. Well, if they had not dissed God's love law through Jesus then what would we have to justify America and Iraq, eh? We can go to Cain for the next related example of what's theological about this movie. Bond had a fallen countenence like Cain, except unlike Cain Bond has many movies behind him that speak of violence 7x70 and then some. OH! I wonder if we were Christ centered and perfectly sanctified we would need entertainment like today and even like from Genesis 3 onwards what with it's various conflict based appeal. I mean only a very very short read about Eden and harmony (is this a cosmic yawn in Hollywood, Scripture of every kind, pulp fiction and Shakespeare) when no conflict "is" is... well, life without conflict and shame and fallen faces and murder is very short lived in Eden. Yet, I long for it all the same... grace. Peace. david

Duke of Earl said...

In my view the purpose of justice is to "balance the scales".

In that view there is a place for "vengeance" although it should never become the sole motivating factor.