A young Black Frenchman aims a gun at le flic that gunned down his friend; a Filipino youth stabs his girlfriend’s pimp to death; an Argentine colonial official has both his hands axed off. These are just some of the dramatic scenes in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) new series, On Resentment, in dialogue with our time’s own resentful, violent zeitgeist, often in the context of marginalized communities and racism. Emily Wang and Matthew Shen Goodman, senior editors of Triple Canopy magazine, which co-presented the series with BAM curator Ashley Clark, ask in their online essay, “A Note on Resentment”:
What are the possibilities and limitations of resentment—as a basis for thinking, speaking, and writing, establishing intimacy and forging solidarity? How does resentment shape not only how we speak but what we say? How is resentment stoked, policed, circulated, and mobilized? How does resentment channel our attentions and efforts, and to what ends?
They present a lot of urgent questions to tackle in a single series, but BAM’s line-up is contextually ambitious and stylistically diverse. In Matthieu Kassovitz’s explosive La Haine (1995), three friends of different backgrounds — Jewish, Black, and Arabic — act as if under constant siege. The outbursts of Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Hubert (Hubert Koundé), and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) are highly performative. Curses blast off as they jostle, talking over each other and antagonizing everyone around them. Their friend, Abdel, languishes in a hospital after being shot by the police (the movie’s background are the bombings, strikes, and clashes in Paris in the 1990s). The climax of the friends group’s single day hinges on whether Abdel pulls through or dies, because Vinz has gotten hold of a gun and fantasizes about revenge.
Meanwhile, the wiser Hubert tries to prevent a fatal reaction. The men’s tough talk (“Are you talkin’ to me?”) is tinged with Robert De Niro’s edgy showing off in Taxi Driver, and influenced by the fearsome wordplay of rap songs. Like in a Sartrean existentialist finale, the gun doesn’t protect; it is an agent of self-destruction. After a run-in with police, followed by humiliation and abuse in jail, and as their anger peaks, we come to fear for the trio’s doomed enterprise of making it out safely. More importantly, Hubert fears it too. “I’ve got to get out of here,” he says in a flash of gnawing premonition. Yet his dogged care for implosive Vinz tragically holds him back. At the same time, we’re never allowed to sentimentalize the broader social context — never deluding ourselves that Hubert can truly envision starting up elsewhere.
Whereas La Haine’s pacing is electric and its punch lines sharp, Lino Brocka’s languid neo-realism inflected Filipino classic, Manila in the Claws of Lights (1975), ups its temperature of resentment more slowly and deliberately. A young fisherman, Julio (Bembol Roco), abandons his village in search of his beautiful girlfriend, Ligaya (Hilda Coronel). The girl was lured by sex traffickers with a promise of a stable job in Manila, and instead forced into marrying a brutal pimp. Delicate, soft-spoken Julio spends a year shunted between poorly paid menial jobs, sleeping in miserly tenements while he searches for his love. Luckily, Julio’s new companions come to his aide: From hardy construction workers to male prostitutes, the solidarity of the poor against the rich and the resentment of the oppressed against their oppressors, creates a supportive enough environment to hold out a promise that Julio’s luck may turn. But it’s precisely here that Manila in the Claws of Lights proves most uncompromising: intense, somber Julio loses his footing as his obsessions escalate. Ligaya’s image robs him of his peace, and nihilistic repulsion towards exploiters creeps into his soul until he takes savage revenge.
Does resentment always boil over into rage? Not so fast, both Kassovitz and Brocka seem to be saying. In La Haine’s finest cinematic moment, as Vinz gloats after rescuing his pals from vicious attackers, he holds a gun to the head of a bloodied, blabbering skinhead. “The only good skinhead is a dead one,” Hubert eggs Vinz on, pushing him to his breaking point. Vinz’s response is visceral and stricken: He lowers the gun, turns away, and vomits. In Manila in the Claws of Lights, righteous Julio is shocked by his gay friend turning tricks, but when Julio himself wants to earn hard cash, his gay clients treat his knee-jerk aversion towards them with pitying tenderness. In both moments, a tense emotional negotiation takes places between a denial and reaffirmation of humanness — a willingness to see oneself in another’s image.
When it comes to complex tales of resentment, perhaps no other film has delivered as oblique yet tantalizing a blow as Lucrecia Martel’s recent Zama (2017), an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Argentine writer, Antonio di Benedetto, published in 1956 (and now in English translation). The book and film are both fascinating tales: In the late 1700s, Don Diego da Zama, an Argentine of Spanish descent who acts as a colonial magistrate in Asunción, Paraguay, desperately yearns for his wife and kids back home. And yet, his yearning is undercut by his lecherous drive, enough to at times make him wish to stay, as long as he finds white female flesh to satiate his longings. Zama’s officiousness is matched by his misanthropy, and he gives less thought to the fates of slaves than to his chattel. Martel adds complexity to Zama’s hypocrisy, particularly in his attitude towards his small child with a native Indian woman (in the novel, the woman is a Spanish widow).
Still, it would be a stretch to say that Zama delves into slavery as economic exploitation. The grotesque parade of bureaucratic types and numbing mundaneness of magisterial life borrows more from Franz Kafka than from Frantz Fanon or Edward Said. Like Kafka’s K. in The Castle, Zama is imprisoned in the machinations of senseless governance. The crown officials keep him at arm’s length; they bait him with a promise of going home to seal his submission. But any chance of getting out is an illusion; it evaporated the minute Zama took on his post. Actor Daniel Gímenez Cacho’s depiction of Zama is a milder version of his literary twin, partly because the novel is full-blown ventriloquism, whereas the movie negotiates internal monologue (Zama’s hallucinations are uncanny) with objective camerawork. In Martel’s limpid handling, Zama is a victim of his own design, but a victim nevertheless, as his physical and mental states deteriorate. Yet the richest irony is that Zama, a peg in the exploitation machine, is himself the Other—an Argentine, rather than a Spanish national. His innermost resentment — his misanthropy’s very raison d’etre — is thus subconsciously self-directed.
Reflecting on the questions raised by Triple Canopy’s editors, one might say that Zama’s resentment is most destructive of all. It does not create solidarity but rather consistently negates it. From the start, Zama is alienated from others and himself (Dostoevsky was di Benedetto’s direct inspiration). He is Julio in Manila in the Claws of Lights at the end of his rope; he is Vinz in La Haine, crushed as he looks over starlit Paris. Zama fools himself that the sum of his negative actions, filtered through his umbrage, can somehow save him — like the falling man from a window in Hubert’s favorite anecdote, who tells himself as he passes each floor: “So far so good, so far so good. But it’s not how you fall that matters. It’s how you land.”
On Resentment, organized by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and Triple Canopy, is playing at BAM March 20–28, 2019.