Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Madonna in a field, and in a forest: Two fictional apparitions

I'm making my way through Fellini's La Dolce Vita as one might read a few chapters of a book at a time. It's three hours long, and after I got about 45 minutes into the film, I wasn't sure if I'd make it. But I've kept at it, and the film has grown on me with its series of vignettes in the life of Marcello. The film comments on celebrity and sensationalized culture and brought us the terms "paparazzo" and "paparazzi" -- Fellini saw the swarming photographers like so many hungry little birds, according to IMDB.

There is a great scene less than an hour in, where the swarming photogs decamp to a field outside Rome where two small children supposedly had a vision of the Madonna. The faithful and curious have brought their sick and the broadcasters have brought their lights and equipment. An already chaotic scene becomes more so when it starts to rain and the children are finally released from custody. They hurry to the site of the vision, where a skinny tree stands, with photographers swooping in to get close-ups. The crowd roars, and the children kneel as if to pray. Then the young girl points in another direction, saying she sees the Madonna there instead. The crowd roars again and follows her little steps. Then again, Mother Mary has moved, says the little girl. And again. And again. Finally the children are swept away as the rain and chaos intensifies, and the crowd of onlookers swarm all over the skinny little tree that was supposedly where they first saw the Madonna. They tear at it, ripping off branches and leaves, grabbing at what is assumed to be holy matter. The scene ends, and dawn appears to show that at least one of the ailing -- who'd been placed before the supposedly holy site for healing -- has died. One of the photographers crosses himself as a priest performs the funeral, then lifts his camera to snap a parting shot.

It reminded me of a book well worth recommending: Our Lady of The Forest by David Guterson. I enjoyed Snow Falling on Cedars (the novel, not the movie) back in the day, but this novel is even better and not as plodding, as it depicts an imagined modern-day vision of Mary in the Pacific Northwest. Guterson's take on the phenomenon is more balanced and less frenzied, but it nonetheless has fascinating things to show us about how we grasp for holiness among us, and all the funny, heartbreaking human things that accompany such scenes.

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