Did you know that there’s a new family-audience feature film that implies God nuked Japan because one plucky American moppet dared to dream? That’s no exaggeration. In the summer of 1945, the kid stands on a California dock, points his fingers magician-style out at the Pacific horizon, and screams a series of prayerful “Arggggh!”s in his efforts to perform some war-ending miracle. He’s trying to move heaven and earth to get his father home from a P.O.W. camp; the movie, confoundingly, intercuts the dad’s capture and torture with the son’s being tossed by small-town bullies into a dumpster.
The kid prays and arggghs until the filmmakers, gauche and monstrous, cue up a jubilant “This Little Light of Mine” for the payoff to a gag you will have dreaded since learning the film is called Little Boy and that “Little Boy” is its small-fry hero’s nickname. One morning his neighbors are dancing in the street, and the headline in the local paper credits “Little Boy” with de facto ending the war. That God, always eager to smite foreign cities if you just believe!
For a reminder that considerations of faith on film need not be noxious, you can’t do better than René Clément’s 1952 jewel Forbidden Games. It’s unfair to pit one of the greatest of all movies about loss, war, childhood, and the comforts of belief against
Little Boy, a with-God-on-our-side job produced by the dude who invented the game show Survivor. This is sublimity versus inanity; the deeply felt versus the crassly
engineered; the artist’s study of feeling and behavior versus the Sunday school teacher’s fabric cutouts of people for the felt-board. But the age we live in makes such comparisons urgent: With so much of the grand
history of cinema so readily available, why should any audience settle for ingesting the miseries that the Mark Burnetts of the world chuck at them like so much chum?
So, Forbidden Games, which in the 63 years since winning the Golden Bear at
the Venice Film Festival has gone from the exemplar of what expressive narrative filmmaking could be to something more elegiac: This is what it now rarely even dares aspire to.
Clément opens with bloodless real-world horror. Refugees in cars and carts mash their way through the French countryside to a stone bridge suggestive of the old ways of life the Nazis were strafing. Planes approach and drop bombs;
Clément’s extras fling themselves into
the weeds. Soon, young Paulette (Brigitte Fossey), a five-year-old, has seen the death of her mother, her father, and her pup — although the latter she lugs along with her, not quite ready to accept its fate.
She’s taken in by the family of Michel Dollé (Georges Poujouly), a farm boy a couple years her senior, and given a bed in their dusty loft. Immediate friends, Paulette and Michel are flint and steel: Struck together, they spark up something new and wild. Rather than mourn her family and his country, working through stages of grief, these two encourage each other into a larcenous — and gently blasphemous — form of play-therapy. They bury her dog in an abandoned mill, and steal a crucifix to bless the grave. They take to burying other animals there, too — and raiding the local parish for more holy markers. The film’s biggest shock, other than the loss of
Paulette’s family: Michel cavalierly stubs the life out of a cockroach, which Paulette will not abide. That scene, like much of the film, is so naturalistic that its technique becomes invisible. Clément seems to be observing behavior rather than staging moments — rarely have child actors been this convincingly childlike.
The church, of course, does not
welcome the loss of its tchotchkes, and
Clément stages wonderful knockabout comedy as the Dollés and their neighbors accuse each other of desecration. Even
after the discovery of what the kids have done, the adults never understand the theft as anything more than mischief — they cannot see that the kids have put the crosses to rich, new, intuitive use, that through these vague and secret rites the children briefly soothed trauma that the rigid faith of the grown-up world could not.
Forbidden Games is a heartbreaker, ending with Paulette uncertain and alone, but it’s also seeded with hope: We’ve seen her like that before, and we’ve seen her
resilience. She and Michel, in the manner of kids everywhere, have improvised their own comforting system of belief, one steeped in the specifics of their parents’ doctrine but not exactly heeding them — as the lights come up in the theater, and Paulette faces more years of war, we’re the ones who have to find some faith within ourselves. We have to believe she has youth enough in her to keep making up the truths she needs to survive.
Little Boy, meanwhile, is fitted for an era in which finding the faith that might sustain you seems too small a task for faith — despite the fact that that’s the only thing it can actually do. Instead, the faith of
Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati) is a superpower: This comic-book devotee hears the verse from Matthew where Jesus proclaims that with faith the size of a mustard seed, a believer can move a mountain. Pepper takes it literally, in the newish evangelical tradition, and sets himself to the task of believing with such force and purity that God will end the war and spirit his
father home. At a magic show at the local moviehouse, Pepper is tricked into believing he has some talent for telekinesis; a couple of reels later, wouldn’t you know it, he’s in the town square, taunted by bullies and his brother, London (David Henrie), terrible people who don’t believe what the shrimpiest kid they know is saying about belief and mustard seeds. His brother gets the where’s-your-messiah-now? routine: London points to a nearby mountain and dares the Little Boy to move it.
Pepper points to it, argghs gratingly, and then, after much juiced-up tension, the movie stages an earthquake.
“Believe the impossible,” the film’s poster implores, a Hollywood rewrite of Kierkegaard and the surest of all recipes for disappointment. Still, Little Boy attempts to maintain some plausible deniability regarding its miracles. That earth-shaking could be a coincidence! It even labors to convince us it isn’t claiming that Heaven sanctioned the leveling of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Pepper dreams he walks through a bombed-out city, and he sees a family shaped from ash — a reminder that the deaths of millions isn’t Easter-morning sunny. The kid is also tasked by his preacher (Tom Wilkinson) with befriending his town’s only Japanese man (Cary-
Hiroyuki Tagawa), but only after committing a jolly hate crime against him. But
Little Boy only feints toward rationality.
I’m going to spoil the ending. The kid who never doubted is vindicated. The father, long presumed dead, comes home, well after his own funeral, just when the family he’s left is learning to persevere — and just moments after
his bereaved wife (the great Emily Watson, bless her soul) makes clear that she’s too pure and grand a woman to ever consider remarriage. This marks a new low in movie miracles. Faith here isn’t something private that might nurture us through this world’s cruel caprices — it’s a promise that everything will work out, that a Superman-God will spin the world backwards for you.
Imagine a real child, of today, who has lost a parent in America’s desert campaigns. Imagine that child puffed up on Little Boy and its ilk, praying, hurting, maybe shouting arggggh! Imagine that child taking to heart the lesson of this
cynical, poisonous, deeply stupid film:
If the miracle fails to come, you must not have believed enough.