Wild Tales, Damián Szifron, 2014
“That’s our country. Everyone wants these guys to get what they deserve, but no-one is willing to lift a finger.”
Argentinian director Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales, produced by legend of Spanish language cinema Pedro Almodóvar, is a meditation on the nature of justice and revenge, told with a maniacal and deeply black humour. It contemplates, through a series of short films, what places humans in a position of desiring revenge, and what the drastic consequences of this desire for some kind of moral balance could lead to.
Often the protagonists start out with a minor grievance which gradually spirals through a series of further misfortunes into a profound and violent dénouement. A particularly clear example is the story of an enraged motorist who, in a fit of road rage, shouts abuse at another motorist only to end up in a guttural and vicious fight to the death, culminating in an explosion that ultimately claims both of their lives.
And so it goes for most of the protagonists. Petty squabbles escalate to life-ruining disasters, ruining the lives of many in their wake. And, indeed, so it goes for many in real life.
People are often motivated by a desire for the peculiar balance of justice. Even young children can tell you whether something is “fair” or not. But is “fairness” what we should be aiming for? In short, can revenge ever be ethical?
The ultimate philosophy power couple, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir, were similarly interested in this great dilemma. If we are to define our morality not by the edicts of a non-existent God, but by our own choices in response to our society, does our innately human desire for retribution help us to become the person we should, or does it constrict us?
One of De Beauvoir’s most interesting challenges to the thinking of her husband Sartre was the way she perceived our relationships with others. While Sartre wanted us to avoid social norms in favour of some kind of individual “authenticity”, De Beauvoir recognised that we are much more a product of our relationships than we sometimes want to be.
In her 1946 essay “Oeil pour Oeil” (“an Eye for an Eye”), De Beauvoir considers the matter of revenge as one of the defining questions of our moral lives. If the goal of morality is to create a happier overall society, what role should this ‘balancing of wrongs’ play?
De Beauvoir’s conclusion is that through exacting revenge, we make the object of our revenge subservient to us, showing that we believe ourselves to be better than other people, ultimately arrogantly asserting that we are the only subjects in our world, and making other people objects.
This however, does not allow us to become the person we should. One of the recurring motifs that Szifron references throughout the film is that of separation. Many of the protagonists separate themselves, both physically and emotionally, from the objects of their revenge. There are repeated shots of characters placing barriers (car doors, the door to a plane cockpit, the bullet-proof glass of a bureaucrat’s cubby hole) between themselves and their oppressors. Much as they try to smash through these barriers, they never seem to break them.
De Beauvoir makes a similar point about revenge. Humans that erect barriers around themselves by attempting revenge our doing themselves a disservice, as it is through connection and communion with others that our individual purposes are achieved. If we constantly push others away through a notion of “justice” rather than forgiveness, we cannot become truly great.
We are made, at least partially, by our past, but our response to past events is what truly makes us free. If we choose to dwell on minor grievances from our personal histories, we cannot make the best of our present.
In perhaps the most moving (and hilarious) of Szifron’s vignettes, a passionate and perhaps slightly unstable bride discovers her groom’s infidelity on the night of their wedding. What follows is a gruesome and cringe-inducing tearing apart of the wedding reception, leaving the floor of the hotel ballroom strewn with broken glass, blood, and spilled wedding cake. But the scene does not end here.
Rather than allowing the marriage to remain ultimately fractured and unsalvageable, the film ends on the bride and groom in an embrace, perhaps realising that in their passionate madness that they are both alike. They find a connection, and they let that define them, rather than the petty squabbling of revenge.
Just as De Beauvoir suggests, to err is human, but to forgive is, well, maybe not divine, but as close as humans can get to true virtue.