Pink Humanist editor BARRY DUKE recommends Night Train to Lisbon to atheist cinefiles for its strong anti-religious and anti-fascist plot.
I reckon that one of the greatest leaps forward in the positive portrayal of atheism in popular culture was the creation by American animator and filmmaker Seth MacFarlane of Brian, the dog in the Fox cartoon sitcom, Family Guy. The urbane and cynical Brian frequently serves as the voice of reason in the series. He is unashamed about his atheism and expresses his sceptical views openly and frankly.
But he’s not the only character in the series who regularly offends the religious right. Stewie Griffin is contemptuous of religion too, as this quote indicates:
“Stay away from the church. In the battle over science versus religion, science offers credible evidence for all the serious claims it makes. The church says, ‘Oh, it’s right here in this book, see? The one written by people who thought the sun was magic?’ I for one would like to see some proof that there is a God. And if you say ‘a baby’s smile’ I’m going to kick you right in the stomach.”
Brian, I was pleased to discover, features in a comprehensive list on the Internet of atheist and agnostic characters in film and on TV.
I consulted the list to see whether Amadeu Inacio de Almeida Prado, a key character in the 2013 movie, Night Train to Lisbon, was mentioned. Sadly not. This, to my mind, is a major oversight, and I’ll explain why.
We are introduced to Prado, played by Jack Huston in an astonishing scene set in a strict Catholic school in Lisbon at a time when Portugal was firmly under the heel of the fascist dictator Salazar. To an audience including teachers, priests and his father, a prominent pro-Salazar judge, he delivers a graduation speech that leaves them stunned and horrified. Many get up and leave in protest.
His speech contains this powerful passage:
The poetry of the divine word is so overwhelming that it silences everything and every protest becomes wretched yapping. That’s why you can’t just put away the Bible, but must throw it away when you have enough of its unreasonable demands and of the slavery it inflicts on us. It is a joyless God far from life speaking out of it, a God who wants to constrict the enormous compass of a human life – the big circle that can be drawn when it is left free – to the single, shrunken point of obedience. Grief-ridden and sin-laden, parched with subjugation and the indignity of confession, with the cross of ashes on our forehead, we are to go the grave in the thousandfold refuted hope of a better life at His Side. But how could it be better on the side of One who just robbed us of all joy and freedom? . . .
In His omnipresence, the Lord observes us day and night, every hour, every minute, every second, He keeps a ledger of our acts and thoughts, He never lets us alone, never spares us a moment completely to ourselves. What is a man without secrets? Without thoughts and wishes that only he, he alone, knows? The torturers, of the Inquisition and of today, they know: cut off his retreat, never turn off the light, never leave him alone, deprive him of sleep and silence: he will talk. That torture steals our soul means it demolishes the solitude with ourselves that we need like air to breathe. Did the Lord our God not consider that He was stealing our soul with His unbridled curiosity and revolting voyeurism, a soul that should be immortal?
Who could in all seriousness want to be immortal? Who would like to live for all eternity? How boring and stale it must be to know that what happens today, this month, this year, doesn’t matter: endless days, months, years will come. Endless, literally … How would it be to be us in eternity, devoid of the consolation of being someday released from the need to be us? We don’t know, and it is a blessing that we never will. For one thing we do know: it would be hell, this paradise of immortality.
The full speech, contained in Pascal Mercier’s novel, Night Train to Lisbon, was posted online by Susana Paco who wrote: “This is a must-see movie, with an amazing view of my beloved city and an amazing storyline. The rise and fall of the main character, Amadeu de Prado, a freethinker in the dictatorship era in Lisbon, is breathtaking.”
Mercier is pseudonym of Swiss philosopher Peter Bieri, who retired early from a chair in Berlin to write novels. His major academic work, The Craft of Freedom, is a study of free will.
The plot of Night Train to Lisbon is a simple one. Raimund Gregorius, played by Jeremy Irons, above, is a stuffy, middle-aged, divorced classics master at a grammar school in the Swiss city of Berne whose life undergoes a sudden transformation after he prevents a young Portuguese woman from committing suicide by throwing herself off a bridge.
He loses contact with her after the suicide attempt, but learns that she was headed back to Portugal. On a whim, he decides to abandon his school and travel to Lisbon to find the woman and learn more about the author of a book she’d lost after her attempted suicide. That book was written by the gifted Prado, who had become a doctor. What follows is an intricate historical detective story, which, through a series of flashbacks to Prado’s youth, provides a chilling insight into what life was like under Salazar’s vicious regime.
I was gripped throughout by the plot and sat enthralled for the entire 111 minutes of the movie – a movie I would have never have bothered to watch had I first read the damning reviews it received after its release.
For example, Rex Reed, writing for the Observer, said: “Night Train to Lisbon is too long (almost two hours) and too confusing, with too many characters to keep up with, played in the present and in flashbacks, by different actors of two different ages – all of them boring. It’s a slow, ponderous film, directed at a snail’s pace by Bille August and punctuated by pompous exchanges.”
Not a word, mark you, about Prado’s moving speech or the important anti-fascist message the film conveys.
Geoffrey Macnab, of the Independent was slightly kinder. “In its lesser moments, the film feels like a European art-house adaptation of a Mills and Boon novel or a Saga holiday commercial, but it is beautifully shot and packed with cameos from big-name actors.”
But David Rooney of the Hollywood Reporter was scathing. “Every car is a sleeper on the stunningly tedious Night Train to Lisbon, a load of old windbaggery in which people keep remarking what a fascinating story is being told, yet they fail to make any kind of a case for it. Adapted from an apparent bestseller by Swiss author Pascal Mercier, and directed by Bille August with a steadfast rejection of imagination or style, this is an antiquated throwback to the lumpy English-language Europuddings that mostly died out in the 1990s, RIP.”
His bottom line? “Take the last train to Clarksville, the midnight train to Georgia – anything but this wheezing locomotive.”
My bottom line? Critics are frequently far less smart than they like to imagine.