Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them eternal rest
The Slovenian short film Torsion, directed by Stefan Arsenijevic, uses this part of the Catholic mass for the dead to drive the story forward. But the church and the congregation are replaced by a dirty stable and a cow in labour and the film plays with Christian mythology as it unfolds.
This article will focus on ways in which humour and religion are used to make a statement about the absurdities of war, and how unlikely events occur and bring people together.
A dirty stable. A birth. Songs of praise. Within a Christian culture these words connote the birth of Christ. But Torsion takes place in the not too distant past. The bloody conflict in the Balkans is not yet a faded memory. This film takes a cultural or mythological iconography and incorporates it in a very real contemporary setting.
The conflict in the Balkans had an eye-opening effect on Europeans. We thought that the atrocities of war, and the ugly evilness inherent in man, had been eradicated from our part of the world with the defeat of Hitler's Nazi regime in 1945. In the early 90's, after the demise of another totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union, hopes were high for a lasting peace. But internal tensions between ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia escalated into a bloody civil war. The people of Europe could once again see ethnic cleansing and even concentration camps in the wake of the war.
The use of humour
Torsion's setting is Sarajevo in 1994, in the midst of the war. But as the opening shot reveals, where a man is handling a hand-grenade that turns out to be a cigarette lighter, the tone of the film is not without humour. In fact humour plays a vital role in the story. The choir members approach the soldier guarding the exit tunnel and argue that they have waited a long time. The soldier replies that he has been there fourteen months, thereby putting some perspective on their haste. At another point, the people waiting to leave the city throw themselves to the ground at the sound of a grenade whistling by, only to realize that it's a boy whistling to imitate the threatening sound. They get on their feet only to be thrown to the ground moments later by a real grenade. Even with bombs falling, the boy keeps up his spirit, and manages to play a prank on the others.
He discovers that the family's cow is sick and informs his father, who then approaches the choir members for help, and one of them turns out to be a veterinarian. The vet finally agrees to take a look at the cow, only to discover that she is suffering from a twisted uterus and won't be able to deliver her calf. The case seems hopeless, and the cow is stressed by the sounds of the falling bombs. The vet orders the cow's owner to go get the choir so they can sing to the cow and cover the sound of the bombs.
Once again the humour is unmistakable. One of the choir members complains about having to sing to a cow, only to be told by one of her fellow singers that earlier they have had to sing to all kinds of asses, so why not a cow?
Survival of the fittest
The film masterfully balances the humour and the gravity of the situation. When the mother cow doesn't accept the calf, despite the vet's attempts to lure it by rubbing the calf with salt, the choir and the vet become genuinely sad. But instead of giving up, the vet orders the cow's owner to get a fierce dog. At the same time the soldier from the tunnel comes and tells them that the way is now clear, and that they have seven minutes to make their exit. One of the women begs the vet to come along, but he chooses to stay and help the calf. The cow owner returns with two fierce dogs and releases them on the calf to awaken the cow's maternal instincts. This is the most dramatic scene in the film, with the dogs snapping at the defenceless calf and the cow, now filled with the instinct to protect its offspring, desperately trying to get onto its feet. The cow manages to fight off the dogs, and finally accepts the calf. The choir members, and the viewers, can breathe a sigh of relief. Before the choir leaves the stable, a close-up of the vet drying his hands on some straw, shows that he is holding rosary-beads in his fingers. The film ends with the boy caressing the calf and telling it not to worry. He will sing to it.
A Christian subtext
The rosary-beads at the end of the film are the strongest argument for a Christian reading of the story. In this shot, the director clearly states his mission. But even before this shot, the setting, a lowly stable, the event, a birth, and the angelic singing of the choir, all connote a Christian sub-text. As mentioned earlier, the text is part of the Catholic liturgy. Stefan Arsenijevic plays with Christian symbols, but manages to put them into a contemporary setting, also giving them a twist, since the birth we are witnessing is not the second coming of Christ but simply that of a calf. And for all we know, the cow owner's family will eat the calf within a year. So wherein lies the salvation implied in the symbolic setting? The answer is that it is in the reaction of the choir. Even in a bloody conflict such as the Balkan civil war, people can still behave humanely. In spite of the gruesome war crimes committed in the conflict, a cow in labour and a desperate cow owner can make people forget the war around them and marvel at the wonder the birth of any creature is. Torsion is a commentary on the degree of civilization we believe we have. The Balkan conflict demonstrated with all possible clarity that supposedly civilized people can commit the most horrifying crimes, under given circumstances.
I began this article with the text sung by the choir - Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them eternal rest - and which is part of a mass for the dead in the Catholic liturgy. A Requiem sung at a funeral. But here it means something else and could be interpreted as a grim salute to mankind, that repeatedly keeps fighting amongst itself. The question is whether or not we have learned anything from history and why we keep killing each other. My interpretation of Stefan Arsenijevic's use of that particular part of the liturgy, is that it is a positive plea. When the choir in the film sings to the cow, they conceal the sound of the bombs. This is another way of saying that we should grant the weapons eternal rest. The music is here portrayed as a positive and constructive force that manages to interfere with our emotions even under the most extreme conditions.
I see Torsion as a part of a catharsis needed by the people of the Balkans after the war. The film uses religion, which is an important part of many Balkan people's lives, and it uses humour, which is a universal way of coping with the horrors we sometimes face. Even in the midst of war we should let ourselves be awed by the wonder the birth of a new life is, regardless of where it happens.
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