Yes, God, Yes
Directed and written by Karen Maine ◆ Produced by Maiden Voyage and RT Features ◆ Distributed by Vertical Entertainment
Waiting for the Barbarians
Directed by Ciro Guerra ◆ Screenplay and novel by J. M. Coetzee ◆ Produced by Iervolino Entertainment and Ithaca Pictures ◆ Distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films
Directed by Cy Endfield ◆ Screenplay by John Prebble and Cy Endfield ◆ Produced Diamond Films ◆ Distributed by Embassy Pictures
As film titles go, Yes, God, Yes is hardly subtle. Writer and director Karen Maine has made sure we don’t miss the purpose of her autobiographical film’s title and earliest scenes: she means to ridicule Catholics for their supposed ignorance and sexual attitudes.
The film begins with Alice, a 16-year-old Catholic high school student, accidentally glimpsing a pornographic film on the internet. Her curiosity aroused, she undergoes more tentative exploration and is soon indulging in the sin of self abuse. This pleasure comes with a hefty cost: she’s suffused with guilt, shame, and desperation that no one should discover her new erotic pastime.
Alice is played by Natalia Dyer who, despite being 25 at the time the film was made, looks barely 12 years old. She plays an innocent caught between her desire to be faithful to her moral training and her longing for the forbidden. This conflict comes to a head while she’s on a junior-year retreat hosted by her school.
Although the retreat counselors require the students to leave their cell phones at home, Alice brings hers. This is both to keep contact with her friends and to continue her sexual exploration of the seemingly countless number of online porn sites. She’s caught hiding her phone, revealing her shenanigans to the priest running the retreat. When confronted with her wayward ways, she denies them. What else is a 16-year-old to do? She doubles down on her denial after she discovers hypocrisy among the student counselors. She spies one of them performing a sexual act on a fellow student. And, when she plants a kiss on a male counselor, he immediately suffers an embarrassing situation regarding the adjustment of his pants, causing him to run away as quickly as his awkward condition will allow him.
All very amusing, to be sure. What could be funnier than the perverted sexual escapades of Catholic school adolescents?
When I was in high school in the 1950s, I can’t recall giving much regard to female self-pleasure. I don’t even recall if I even suspected there was such a practice. Solo- stimulation seemed to us an ignoble guy thing. What girls were doing about their sexual curiosity seemed to go no further than occasionally “making out” with guys in the backseats of cars. We knew what we were getting out of those encounters, but female satisfaction remained mysterious and better left unexplored. Of course, at the time we didn’t have the benefit of the current ceaseless discussion of sex and internet porn that are now the de rigueur for adolescents both in and out of school.
Late in Yes, God, Yes, Alice meets an older woman, a lapsed Catholic named Brandy. She explains that she had gone to the same retreat when she was in school and suffered the same confusing sexual desires that Alice is experiencing. Fortunately, she broke free of Catholic guilt. The solution was simple: give up her faith.
It’s here that Maine truly hits her stride. Alice’s journey into the sexual wilderness had begun when her classmates spread a perverse rumor about her having performed a particularly grotesque sexual act, one that she wasn’t even familiar with beyond suspecting that it is somehow shameful. Her new friend, Brandy, kindly enlightens her as to the nature of this act. With a palpable look of relief, Alice can’t help chuckling—after all, doing that is not so bad, is it? I suspect readers of this magazine would disagree.
I’m not sure what to make of this ending. Is the older woman giving Alice license to indulge in perversity? Several critics have claimed to find the film sweet and innocent. I’m afraid I cannot agree. Coarse and corrupt seem the more fitting words, not to mention disgusting. O tempora! o mores! Such is the corruption of the customs of our times.
Yes, God, Yes is another step in the onward march to domesticate degeneracy, fostered by popular culture. Despite the film’s message that one must free oneself of sexual hang-ups, the current libertine sexual dispensation has not improved matters, as shown in statistics on the incidence of venereal infections, out-of-wedlock births, and abortions among America’s youth. But you’ll wait in vain to hear these problems addressed in Maine’s story.
I’m reminded of Tom Wolfe’s cautionary 1987 essay in The American Spectator, “The Great Relearning,” in which he pointed out what should have been obvious but wasn’t: Dismissing the sexual moral codes developed over the millennia comes with enormous risks that could well destroy our society.
Waiting for the Barbarians also concerns corruption, albeit of a much different sort. The film is an adaptation of J. M. Coetzee’s allegorical novel, in which imperialism dehumanizes otherwise well-meaning people. It’s set in an army post on the frontier of an African country, presumably South Africa, since that is Coatzee’s birthplace. He appears to have decided not to specify the time and place in order to broaden the significance of his story.
The narrative begins with the arrest of some local barbarians charged with stealing sheep. They’ve been brought to the outpost where they are held captive. The nameless magistrate who oversees the outpost, played by Mark Rylance, is our narrator. He is openly skeptical about the guilt of his detainees. Even if they are guilty, he’s convinced locking them up will do no good. After all, these people are harmless, destitute, and desperate as can be. The authorities should see to their needs rather than imprison them. The magistrate has soldiers put them in a stone barracks to await trial.
Then, a Colonel Joll, played by Johnny Depp, arrives to question the prisoners. Joll wants the truth, though he presumes to know it already: These outsiders are plotting to wage war on the empire. Joll says he’ll prove it with the standard method of torturing them until they reveal their crimes. The magistrate, however, has no heart for this. How, he asks Joll, will he know whether or not they will answer truthfully? Joll responds placidly that they will break under his torture and he will hear it in their voices.
The magistrate scoffs at this, but Joll is convinced that torture will produce the truth when applied methodically. In fact, he’s convinced that torture will not only yield the truth, but can be said to be the source of truth itself. His formulation is simple: Pain is truth. The magistrate realizes that Joll is a sadist, but doesn’t have the authority to stop him.
Coatzee’s point is obvious. To get results in any situation, authorities need only retain men willing to inflict enough pain. Joll is that man with a hardened heart, as symbolized by the darkened glasses he constantly wears. He can’t see his victims clearly, nor can they see whatever humanity might still linger in him. Torturers and victims are both effectively dehumanized.
The magistrate wants to be a good man and seems to be one at first. However, when push comes to shove he gives in to those who hold power over him, even in the case of a barbarian girl with whom he falls in love. When Joll decides he must learn what she knows of her people’s intentions, the magistrate is powerless to protect her from Joll’s brutal interrogation.
Waiting for the Barbarians is a study in what power can do to people, both those who apply it and those who suffer under it. At the story’s beginning, the magistrate tells a friend he has no ambition to exercise power himself. His only goal is to preside fairly over the people living in his outpost. Events, however, thwart his peaceable aims. Ultimately, he realizes that he represents the real barbarians.
Watching Waiting for the Barbarians reminded me of another film in which supposedly barbarous people turn out to be quite different than civilized folk assume. In 1964, Zulu dealt with the traditional line drawn between civilization and savagery. The film tells the story of the brutal 1879 Battle of Rorke’s Drift in the colony of Natal between British forces and the local Zulu tribe. The film depicts 150 British soldiers repulsing an attack by 3,000 Zulu warriors. The battle ends with the Zulus retreating as they cheer the Brits for their courage.
It’s a rousing film, to be sure. Unfortunately, much of it is fabricated. Most conspicuously, historians have concluded that the reports of a respectful Zulu salute to their enemies were false.
Still, it’s worth noting that the Zulu warriors who were recruited to act as their ancestors were authentic and that they played their parts energetically. They clearly enjoyed themselves. The film is also remarkable for being produced by the Welsh actor Stanley Baker, who plays the lead role. This may explain why the British troops are identified as being entirely Welsh when in reality only about 20 percent were.
The production was also notable for introducing Michael Caine in his first starring role, along with a wonderfully wry Nigel Green, who would team with Caine the following year in the peerless spy film The Ipcress File.