Rosetta

Job lived in what Nietzsche ([1974] 112) called an “age of fear” where people knew real pain and how to inflict it on others.  Nietzsche claims that we no longer live in such an age.  I don’t agree, and not just because Nietzsche wrote before the horrors of the 20th Century, and not because these horrors continue mostly outside of Nietzsche’s part of Europe.  Perhaps the most vivid depictions of the “age of fear” lived by the inhabitants of post-cold-war Europe are to be found in the films of the Dardenne brothers.  In their focus on the travails of the inhabitants of a once-industrial city in a decaying welfare state, the Dardennes bring their audiences time and again into the physical pain, suffering, grief, and humiliation of their characters.  In a previous post we examined the pain of Cyril, the main character in their film The Kid with a Bike.

In the opening of their second feature film, Rosetta, the camera looks over the shoulder of a teenage girl charging through her workplace to assault her bosses, their police, and their equipment in unbridled outrage at being fired because she is “redundant,” not because she is a bad worker, as she screams again and again.  In this scene, Rosetta’s anguish and rage over being fired embody what Weil means about social/psychological pain that is ‘bodily and exactly equivalent to” physical pain.

In addition to another very physical battle with her second boss over being fired again so that the boss’ slacker son can have the job, Rosetta’s malheur includes: catching her alcoholic mother performing fellatio on the trailer park manager in exchange for a drink; hiding behind a gate every day so that her fellow bus passengers will not see that she lives in a trailer park, one step from living on the street; being thrown into a pond by her mother and left to struggle out of its muddy bottom.  Rosetta also endures crippling cramps that double her over.  These cramps are never explained.  Rosetta just uses a hair dryer on her stomach to ease the pain.

Malheur becomes most vividly present to us, however, as Rosetta prepares to fall asleep after the near-drowning incident.  She has gone to find a new place to live in the same building with Riquet, her workmate on her second job.  We see only her face as she lies on her side clutching the mattress of a makeshift bed in Riquet’s spare room. Rosetta whispers to herself:

Your name is Rosetta.
My name is Rosetta.
You found a job.
I found a job.
You made a friend.
I made a friend.
You have a normal life.
I have a normal life.
You won’t be left by the wayside.
I won’t be left by the wayside.
Good night.
Good night.

Rosetta’s whisper is a scream that breaks the waiting moment of her suffering.  Christ on the Cross and Job were both struck by affliction and cried out that God had deserted them.  Both screamed out at God.  Affliction just wipes everything else out.

In Beasts of the Southern Wild, a little girl named Hushpuppy lives with her father, who reminds me of Job’s YHWH—arbitrary, capricious, violent, angry, inscrutable, but the object of all of Hushpuppy’s love.  When her father disappears for a day and then reappears in a hospital gown, Hushpuppy runs to see him and tell him what she’s learned while he was gone, but he yells at her and pushes her down.  Hushpuppy runs back to her trailer, sets the stove to blazing and climbs under a box while the trailer becomes engulfed in flames.  Her father pulls her out.  She hits him in the heart and he falls prostrate on his back.  She thinks she may have killed him.  The fire and that blow are Hushpuppy’s screams.

Rosetta’s whispered scream is prayer in the sense that Dorothee Soelle gives to prayer in today’s secular society.  Rosetta’s prayer is a way to subvert the social pressure to silence suffering.  “It is an act by which people dare to put their desires into words and thereby handle their suffering differently from the way society recommends to them.” Soelle (1975) 78

We leave Rosetta at the end of the movie, after she falls a third time while carrying a heavy gas canister.  Her one time boyfriend, Riquet, has been buzzing her with his motorbike, but he helps her up when she starts sobbing on the canister.  In this scene Rosetta embodies an even older image of suffering in Western culture: Jesus falls three times while carrying his cross.

The Dardennes repeatedly try to avoid religious imagery.  They deny that they are creating religious icons.  But I find it hard to believe that their Catholic Belgian culture with its Stations of the Cross does not imbue Rosetta’s carrying of the instrument of her death, just as her prayer takes the plea-response form of a litany.  My sister Deborah died while I was working on this project.  When we were both quite little, we went to the confirmation of an older cousin.  As the church quietly waited for the bishop to come down the center aisle, Debby looked up at the stations and cried out loudly enough for the whole church to hear, “Guardian angel fall down!  Daddy, pick him up!”  At the age of three, Debby didn’t quite have all the divine and semi-divine beings straight, but she did recognize the fallen Jesus with a halo as an emanation of the divine.  Rosetta gives off no such emanations. She is a marginalized member of a marginalized class in and of this world, and no other. Her greatest fear is being “left by the roadside.”

Why was Riquet tormenting Rosetta by buzzing her with his motorbike?  Because in her desperation to get a job, Rosetta told their boss about Riquet’s under-the-table dealings at the waffle stand.

Why was Rosetta carrying the canister?  Because the canister had run out of gas when she tried to commit suicide by turning on the gas in the trailer.

Why did she quit the job she had betrayed her friend to get and then try to commit suicide?  She found her alcoholic mother passed out in the trailer park, the mother who was lying in the other bed of the trailer as Rosetta calmly boiled an egg, ate it, turned on the gas, and lay down in her bed.

The final view of Rosetta’s face as she looks at Riquet, who is not in the frame, is open as to what it means and where she will go next.  Her face is physically and totally human as she swallows her last sobs and looks uncertainly into the eyes of the one who has picked her up.  Even though they had been friends, even though Rosetta slept at Riquet’s apartment one night, this assistance is the first and only time in the whole movie that Riquet and Rosetta touch.  This kind of human physical contact, however brief, plays an important part in the moral development of Dardenne characters, beginning with their first successful feature film La promesse (1996).  We will discuss the soteriological impact of human physical contact in Dardenne films in the posts under “Driving under the influence of Dunkin’ Donuts.”  Here I just want to note that Rosetta’s final, tearful gaze helps us see into and through all the slick superficiality in Weil’s aphorism: “Through joy, the beauty of the world penetrates our soul.  Through suffering it penetrates the body.”  (Weil [1973] 132)

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