A buck naked Shaytan creeps about a cave playing a flame-throwing flute. Whirling dervishes pummel a woman to death with flower petals. The menstrual blood of a Djinn possessed woman streams down a cliff side into a pool where it forms a cocoon containing a giant insect whose emergence causes the woman excruciating birth pangs while a malformed dwarf sits nearby screaming in anguish. If David Lynch were a Muslim, Born Of Fire is the kind of film he would make.
Born Of Fire is visually stunning and (at least for the artsy tolerant) fairly enjoyable, but I’d be a filthy liar if I claimed to understand all the Islamic imagery. This movie cries out for DVD extras and, fortunately, there are some good ones to be had on the recent release. The stand-out piece is an interview with actor Nabil Shaban who plays the aforementioned shrieking little person. He not only gives a feasible interpretation of the plot, but he’s enjoyably blunt in his opinions that his intentionally disturbing character is in fact the real hero of the movie (true) AND looks better lying next to the heroine than does the lead actor (arguable).
Still, I guess I shouldn’t feel too bad about not catching all the Muslim tidbits in Born Of Fire when my own religion often sends me scrambling for a commentary. For instance there’s this week’s first reading in which Abraham participates in a ritual in which animals are cut in half and the pieces laid out. The reading ends with a cryptic image in which “there appeared a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, which passed between those pieces.” You know, if David Lynch were a Christian…
Anyway, this is why the Catechism reminds us that in Scripture, “truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression.” In other words, some research is expected if we’re to understand what’s going on. Here it turns out that God and Abraham were enacting a specific type of Suzerain Treaty, a covenant in which a powerful king promised protection and blessing to a lesser king in exchange for vows of obedience and loyalty. Both parties typically walked through the blood pooling between the pieces of the slaughtered animal proclaiming, “May I be as these if I fail to uphold my side of the covenant!” Since God wasn’t going to physically participate in the ritual, He did so symbolically in Abraham’s vision. A number of Jewish commentaries see the smoking fire-pot and flaming torch as analogous to God’s presence in the pillar of fire and smoke that would later lead the Israelites through the desert. We Christians find the same symbolic presence in the dazzling light and cloud which appear during the Transfiguration. Though not always obvious, God’s always there. Sometimes it’s up to us to learn how to see him.