23 October 1999 | Varlaam
An inquiry into the Inquisition
In the 15th century, at the time of the Reconquista when the Castilian-Aragonese monarchy regained Spain for Catholicism, the Spanish Inquisition was created to perpetuate that transformation through the rooting out of heresy.
This film, directed by Arturo Ripstein, is about the workings of the Inquisition in 16th c. Mexico where the Marranos are a pressing issue for the Church, those Jews who had converted to Catholicism but continued to practise the old religion in secret: Latin-speaking on the outside, Hebrew-speaking on the inside.
I had the opportunity to see this unusual film at a screening of the Toronto Jewish Film Society. (The society executive had spent four years trying to obtain a print.) As far as I am aware, in the theatre there were no adherents of the one true, apostolic Catholic faith, nor any of the heresy of Mohammed for that matter. The vast majority of the audience were representatives of the older heresy of Moses and Abraham. I was there representing the newer heresy of Luther and Calvin. And it's fascinating to report that we heretics disagreed completely in our reaction to this film.
Jews, unanimously it seems, found it shocking, saying that the fate of the Marranos was just a short step away from the gas chambers.
The Lone Protestant on the other hand was impressed by the leniency of the treatment the recidivist Marranos received, how many opportunities they had to survive simply by reaffirming the faith to which most of them seemed genuinely half-converted anyway. Even lip service would have sufficed. Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, as another Jew had once said in trying circumstances.
I was expecting the Inquisitional prosecution to be the kind with a predetermined outcome, like the traditional ducking stool for witches: if the witch sinks in the water (and drowns), she was falsely accused and innocent; if she floats (and lives), she must be put to death. But there was nothing of that sort of sham jurisprudence here at all. And nothing like the ferocious Inquisitional scene in "The Name of the Rose" (1986) featuring the real-life Bernard(o) Gui, hammer of witches and scourge of heretics, particularly Waldensian ones. Here in Mexico the Inquisitors seem to be playing by Marquess of Queensberry rules.
Jews in the audience saw this film as a damning indictment of an anti-Semitic Inquisition; I saw it as an apologia, even a whitewash. A clear division between the sons of Shem on the one hand and the son of Japheth on the other.
To uninformed eyes like mine, "The Holy Office" seems very precise in its historical detail. But then there's this odd disclaimer at the end, saying that the film is based not on history but rather on the legends surrounding the time period (whatever that means). I don't know what the politico-religious situation was in Mexico in the early '70's when the PRI's grip was still so strong.
Does this disclaimer amount to some awkward excuse for why the film does not take a more critical view of Mexican history, a tacit acknowledgement that its punches have been pulled?
Or is it some sort of defensive manoeuvre by the filmmaker, an attempt to deflect conservative criticism by implying that the film is only a fantasy?
Regardless, I found this a provocative film about a fascinating subject. It's a pity it's so hard to see.