to Eat or Not to Eat 

Hunger tests the audience’s tolerance for violence — and martyrdom

Wednesday, Dec 3 2008

A man eats a breakfast loaded with bad cholesterol, then walks out of his house, looks up and down the street and under his car, and starts his engine. Steve McQueen’s relentlessly arty film about life in Northern Ireland’s notorious Maze prison during the 1981 hunger strike spearheaded by IRA leader Bobby Sands begins with a comic nod to the cinema of violence, then proceeds to a long wallow in it, which is none the less lyrical for being wrapped in wordless outrage. Hunger’s subject is the indomitability of the spirit in the face of the degradation of the body, inflicted from without by the bare knuckles and truncheons of prison officers, who range from vicious to ambivalent, and from within by the inmates’ collective refusal to eat or wear prison clothes. How you respond to it will depend, in part on the strength of your stomach, but mostly on whether you buy the idea of martyrdom as a political, moral or aesthetic ideal. Every grim detail of the unequal battle between prisoners and their guards is enlarged in ritual near-silence, lit in cold blues and greens and presided over by the desiccated drone of Margaret Thatcher’s voice deriding the protest. Late in the movie, Hunger pauses for a lengthy ping-pong exchange between Sands (a very good Michael Fassbender) and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham), the worldly Catholic priest who urges Sands to negotiate rather than embark on a hunger strike that will result only in unnecessary deaths. However wittily written by playwright Enda Walsh, their exchange, much admired in early reviews of Hunger, is little more than McQueen’s de rigueur sop to a more pragmatic, less heroic vision that proves weightless next to the rapturous, Christ-like images of a progressively more emaciated Sands. Those of us who see the martyr as one of the more pernicious of human fantasies — in these times, how could you not? — are more likely to go with the priest, who tells Sands, “You got no appreciation of a life.” There is no defending Thatcher, but what is it about the IRA — a movement founded in necessity and destroyed by its own murderously intransigent absolutism — that causes the brains of otherwise intelligent artists to fall out? The farther I got from the queasy beauty of McQueen’s movie, the more I hated it. (Nuart)

—Ella Taylor

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Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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