Honor de Cavalleria
2006Director: Albert Serra
Cast: Lluís Carbó, Lluís Serrat
llow a banal admission from a naïve kid: I was an atheist, but now I’m spiritually confused. It took a great many Pascalian aphorisms to take me there, but I started to shoehorn God into a system of intellectual contradictions, if only to justify all these bumbling, infinitely complex souls. But one unfortunate side effect of righteousness, akin to an externality in a transaction between man and God, keeps bugging me. So many religious zealots, despite spiritual impetuses ranging from Pascal’s understanding of the human condition to Fred Phelps’ hate fetish, have one irresolvable moral dilemma: a contempt for unbelievers. Not one to earnestly exalt peace and love, I see hate as logically incompatible with the pursuit of beauty: why add salt for lack of sugar?
But the same problem pervades any passion, including my love of art. It’s tempting to analyze my self-presentation as an ongoing charade of false modesty: the polite “it’s okay”s upon hearing an enthused friend play a shitty new song, the exaggerated nods of enthusiasm upon praising marginal aspects of a peer’s research paper, the fake applause upon exposure to hilariously phony student films. These are ruses to prevent me from drowning in self-love, then hypocrisy upon rejecting the arrogance of others, then self-hate upon seeing myself in their complacency. Equilibrium is a lie, a concession to others, a struggle so complex that enduring it slights the mysteries of Life. This is why I have a hard time extracting rigor from being really neurotic. This is also why it’s nice to keep a few rigorous, neurotic friends around, so the illusion of being alone in the fight is occasionally broken.
I respect Albert Serra, but I’m not sure I’d want to count him among them. Serra is a smart guy who deals with this struggle by throwing away any semblance of respect for those not on his wavelength, and flaunting his contempt as rugged machismo. At the intro for Honor de Cavalleria at the Lincoln Center’s Spanish Cinema Now program, Serra laughingly dismissed the rest of the program as trash, going so far as to detail the incredulity of the Director’s Fortnight programmers that there was a Spanish filmmaker worthy of inclusion in the program, given the sorry state of their national cinema. Staring down his audience as if sifting for traitors, he occasionally turned his eyes to the ravishing young Walter Reade usher to his side, who would now and then let out a knowing giggle between periods of shy bafflement. I spotted him talking her up in the lobby post-screening, and the sight was heartening: if art won’t make us better people, at least it might get us laid.
This leaves open the question of whether Honor de Cavalleria is worth seeing. It is, but Serra’s watch-or-fuck-off contempt remains present throughout. This contempt is only palatable insofar as Serra insists on drawing a line between himself and the devout Don, who, like Serra, is blessed by the grace of divine knowledge, but who, also like Serra, is an asshole. Far from slavishly adhering to the plot of Cervantes’ masterpiece, Serra throws us in the thick of repetitious psychological mind-games between master Don and servant Sancho, who, far from sharing a fraternal code, squabble like frat-boys on an extended road-trip when one is simply incapable of getting “why you didn’t just do Expedia, idiot.” Don trafficks in broad arrogance, asking Sancho, “Do you see the sun?” as if he’s blind, but also makes absurdly unconstructive observations like “You were snoring a lot,” as if pedantic needling is the cure. Don may appreciate beauty, but he presses it in with sadistic, self-serving glee.
But there’s a vicious circle here: if Don holds Sancho in contempt for not loving God, God will hold Don in contempt for not loving Sancho, imprisoning him in anguished frustration. This explains Serra’s repeated close-ups of Don gazing up at the sky, with the sky itself elided. Despite being so attuned to the beauties of nature, Don can only be judged by the fickle standards of human morality. Don’s reverence is important, but the object of reverence is beside the point.
This message strikes me as ironic, since Serra places himself on such a lofty pedestal. He strikes me as the sort of disgruntled type who’d criticize Bresson for being too conventional. He does skillfully inherit some traits from the master, including a knack for creative sound design: the effort Sancho expends for Don isn’t evident in his corpulent physique so much as in the tireless scraping of metal overheard off-screen. But Serra’s film isn’t even so much a series of events as a formless meditation on grace, and a difficult experience. If Serra is Don, then Sancho, bored and not very receptive, stands in for the ignorant audience member. A soldier asks Sancho, “Does he appreciate you?” Sancho replies, “I’d say so.” “Would you rather go home?” “I guess so.” But when the film ends, Don and Sancho are still wandering together, just as I was sitting there, watching the credits roll. With Don, Sancho is confused, but without him, he would be lost. It’s good to have him around, if only as a reminder of the perils of too much beauty.
Honor de Cavalleria is currently touring film festivals.