Even if it were not one of the most private things about us, belief would be among the hardest to communicate. What touches us deepest is what can be transmitted least. As Oscar Wilde once noted, “People whose desire is solely for self-realization never know where they are going. They can’t know.” And so anyone who has traveled to a belief-system different from that of those around her faces the most agonized, and poignant, of miscommunications, crying to those around her—as they cry back to her—“Why why why can’t you love (or trust, or understand) what I do?”
At the heart of Jane Campion’s powerfully involving and intelligent new film, Holy Smoke, is precisely that unanswerable question: Ruth (Kate Winslet), a shining, spiky young woman from suburban Sydney, travels to India and almost instantly falls in (or in love) with a local guru. It’s all her addled parents back home can do to trick her into returning from Old Delhi and to summon a professional “cult exiter” from America, P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel) to prise her out of her belief. Alone in an elemental desert, as golden and wasted as anything in Rajasthan, Ruth and P. J. circle one another in a “Half Way Hut,” she hanging onto her “love,” he determined to show it’s nothing but delusion.
The struggle that ensues is intense and often harrowing, a kind of metaphysical dialogue with sexual sparks. The deprogrammer comes at Ruth with everything he’s got—using her language of “the soul,” the “spark” and “the path”—and she responds with the abandoned fervor of an angry, enraptured girl. He quotes Verdi to her, and Socrates, and the Gospel According to John; he even tells her of his own experience with a guru in India. When she resorts to quoting Baba (“It is. It is. It is.”), he is adept enough to tell her that the quotation comes from the Upanishads. Round and round they go the spiritual hired gun dressed all in black, the self-professed sannyasin in a white sari, playing tug-of-war with her soul, her very center. In this version of Jesus’s, or Buddha’s, days in the wilderness, the tempter to be resisted has just enough of the wounded Lawrentian animal in him to recall Keitel’s role as sexual healer in The Piano.
Anyone who knows Jane Campion’s films will know that her sympathies are fully and passionately with the way-out, unassimilated girl; all her films, from Sweetie to An Angel at My Table, to, most famously, The Piano, are essentially the same film, telling of a spirited and independent-minded young woman struggling to escape the limits of her red-brick home, and responding to some resonance that the provincial, stultified society around her can’t hear. And all her women risk becoming martyrs in their quest for liberation, as they are dragged forcibly back into the red dirt and shrunken hopes of home. The alien religion that Ruth embraces in Holy Smoke is really just another version of the artistry, the eccentricity, even the muteness that sets women apart in the other films, and that prompts society to wish to domesticate, or, in effect, to lobotomize and neuter them.
“I think you’re being manipulated,” says Ruth’s mother helplessly (and with a concern real enough to be affecting); her response, of course, is to try to manipulate her in a different direction, and to brainwash her out of what she sees as brainwashing. It doesn’t take long to realize that the “exit counselor,” with his military lingo, hoping to woo and maneuver and intimidate Ruth into submission, is merely a counter-guru with designs of his own, practicing what he might call a kind of psychic homeopathy (injecting her with snake venom in order to inoculate her against snake venom). In Campion’s vision, the truly sinister and smothering place, where the soul comes unraveled, is not Chandni Chowk but Sans Souci, Sydney.
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