The film is a well-executed attempt to record the transient youth impressions of the aging generation of the Soviet baby-boomers. Or rather the inevitable fantasising about them 20+ years later. Not that it makes it any different from any other generation which has ever lived.
Just as in the end of a news hour, there's a 60 second feel-good segment, in every generation, there's its own feel-good story. The scrutiny of how realistic those dreamy fantasies of the past are is beyond the point. Relaxing in the backyard's arm chair with a glass of well-deserved glass of wine reflecting on the past is of course a part of the drill.
In the end, this patriotic narcissistic drivel could have been "Ya shagayu po Berlin (1964)" or "Ya shagayu po Hiroshima (1964)" full of love, spring vitality and romanticism. Which is of course fine as the life obviously goes on.
And perhaps it's fine. It depends on the viewer's outlook. But for some, the film will be clearly interspersed with visual and conceptual references aggrandising and beautifying what the country has gone through in the preceding 50 years. A sort of the Soviet Union of Amnesia that is. A common propaganda "feel-good" trick in a wide range of other tricks in the toolboxes of various Ministries of Truth across the globe.
One thing is for sure: this is a movie done by the power which won the war, so history is written accordingly. Small but curious detail.
This is more than a beautiful tribute to Jørgen Leth's artistic genius.
It is also Lars' personal and intimate confession so powerful and emotive no doubt it is there to overwhelm you. As in many von Trier's movies the revelation comes at a climatic moment completely changing the direction and the pace of the film. And suddenly it reveals so many intricate details of the great friendship between these two extraordinary artists of our times.
The five remakes of "The Perfect Human" are as fascinating as the original short and are not to be missed by anyone who is interested in world cinema.
Superficial fiction posing as educational documentary
One thing notable about this movie is a remarkable collection of interviews with a number of international textbook economists, shadow politicians, and powerful tycoons. Take Dr Milton Friedman for example. What other popular presentation would boast 20 plus minutes of footage of this iconic economist?
But leaving the entertaining visual impact of headshots of the smart, the rich and the powerful, there's not much else positive to say about this 6 hour film which is as ridiculously long as it is ridiculously fictitious.
The thesis of the movie can be summarised as "the only economic system which guarantees long term economic prosperity and political stability is free market". This controversial claim has never been settled in the academic circles, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_capitalism#Market_failures for example. So, it is no surprise that the inherent weakness of the thesis invites the extensive use of *weaker forms of arguments* to advance their position including
(a) omission or downplaying historic facts contradicting the thesis (e.g. the Nazi Germany was a free market economy, the Great Depression happened under free market conditions, the communist USSR had marginal poverty rates while the free market USA never went down past double digits),
(b) failure to mention more plausible explanations of surveyed historic events (e.g. the dramatic fall in prices for copper, the major source of income for Chile, and the CIA efforts in destabilising the political situation during the Salvador Allende term),
(c) trivialization (e.g. the suggestion that the visit of a *free-market revolutionary* Margaret Thatcher to Poland in 1989 ultimately led to Poland independence),
(d) false claims (e.g. removing price controls in India resulted in less red tape)
(e) fantasies (e.g. a Soviet defector who finally revealed to the West that the USSR was economically doomed was illegally transported across the boarder by two British individuals in a car boot)
(d) claims lacking substantiation / causal explanation (e.g. the Polish shock therapy worked while the Russian did not despite similar political situation)
(g) conflating ideas (e.g. balancing the budget in Bolivia which brought economic stability had nothing to do with the movie's thesis)
(h) conclusions which do not follow (e.g. the Russian financial crisis 1998 gave the country the second chance)
So although the movie fails in presenting a coherent logical support for the thesis, it also succeeds remarkably (according to its IMDb ratings) in persuading the uninformed viewers that free markets and resulting globalisation is the only panacea for economic and political ailment.
In fact the movies is so bad, it could be a class-room case study of successful public indoctrination.
Summary: avoid unless you are in the process of writing an essay on corporate/government propaganda.
One of the questions arising after watching 'Brief History of Disbelief' is the choice of its title. It is deeply ironic in the sense that the movie is neither 'brief' nor even historical. Instead the documentary is a long 3 hour opinionated ramble with no historical time-line and little educational value.
The movie starts with an attempt to show that theistic beliefs are inferior to other forms of beliefs including what the narrator insists on calling 'knowledge'. The presentation fails on both counts of clarity and accuracy. It is not clear since it uses jargon borrowed from Philosophy of Mind which can be both misleading and incomprehensible for the general audience. It lacks accuracy, since the narrator displays blatant ignorance of the subject and contradicts general consensus achieved in Epistemology, i.e. that it is almost impossible to demarcate between rational and irrational not only in our daily lives and folk beliefs, but even when it comes to scientific methods. For anyone interested in the subject, an introductory course in Philosophy (specifically in Metaphysics, Epistemology, or Philosophy of Science) can present a coherent contemporary view on the topic.
The rest of the movie marks some change from dogmatic philosophizing in its first hour. However, it is equally disappointing and it fails to deliver on the promised "history of disbelief" as it neither provides a satisfactory theory about the origins of atheism nor does it give a coherent hypothesis of why it became so dominant. Instead, the narrator picks up a famous historical figure, examines origins of her personal anti-Christian convictions, and then moves on to another random famous person. As a result it is not surprising there is hardly any structure to this presentation.
Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of the movie is continuous interjection by the second narrator with an anti-religious witty joke or poignant remark made by some historical figure. Clearly these jokes are not picked up for their intellectual qualities, but rather for their emotive appeal. They are as vaguely offensive to theists suggesting their weak-mindness as they are vaguely self-congratulatory to atheists on the similar ground. However, since theism (a belief that there is god) and atheism (a belief that there is no god) are both mere beliefs, there is really no rational basis for these self-righteous overtones. Once this is sorted a funny analogy appears. It's an analogy between the ATHEISTIC rant of the narrator in "Brief History of Disbelief" and the THEISTIC rant of, say, Pat Patterson on Christian Broadcasting Network. Both are religious crusades which are offensive to the other camp and congratulatory to yourself.
Finally, it must be mentioned that the lack of any cinematic account on the history and nature of non-theism (and specifically atheism) makes the failure of this documentary particularly disappointing. It could have been the first attempt to explore this philosophically, historically, and sociologically fascinating subject. Unfortunately, it is not. It is just a misdirected effort by a layman director with little education on the subject and strong anti-Christian convictions.
2/10 for a couple of interesting references, otherwise 1/10.
Lars van Trier attempts to remind us that the moral rules which we think govern our daily lives are very fragile and could be easily altered to justify even the gravest of crimes.
One aspect of this fragility is what is known as in-group/out-group problem which might explain why social groups have different sets of moral rules when it comes to treating outsiders. This dichotomy can explain why the value ascribed to the live can be so different. The distinction allows otherwise 'good people' suspend their ordinary moral rules when it comes to outsiders. In extreme cases, this resulted in persecution of Jews by the 'good Germans', torture of terrorists by the 'good Americans', or bombing hundreds of thousands of German civilians to death during WWII by the 'good British'. And in this respect, Grace's social status allows for this selective morality to take place. She has never been accepted by the villagers and hence ordinary moral rules did not have to apply to her.
Another aspect is that morality often gives in to other more pragmatic considerations including those of economic benefit. Again, one of the contemporary examples could be the oil grab by the US branded as 'energy independence' policies which has the popular support across the entire country. And in the movie, as villagers start to realize clear economic benefits associated with Grace's presence their conflicting economic interests escalate the situation to her downright exploitation. Since ordinary in-group morality does not apply in her case, there is no limit to how sinister this exploitation can develop. As long as she remains excluded from their tight social group, it is not immoral even to slave her sexually.
Finally, van Trier clearly believes that moral rules can be equally suspended by anyone in the society. So, in this respect there is no difference between evil gangsters and righteous villagers, rationalizing philosophers and primitive philistines, spiritual church-goers and pragmatic atheists, or even corrupted adults and innocent children. All members of these usually contrasted social groups manage to participate in tormenting Grace due to psychopathic, economic or political reasons.
Perhaps this startling uniform complicity of entire society is the focal point of van Trier's work. This irresolvable problem in which every individual and society at large is responsible for horrendous crimes committed throughout the history of humankind is so grandeur it begs for some sort of solution. And although the director's solution might seem containing a self-referential problem which might require extermination of entire humanity, nevertheless under this vision it is clear why even a baby was killed in the aftermath: to save the world from the 'human plague' before it has the potential to harm anyone.
The story is thus a startling critique of both society for being a cruel divisive exploitative authority, and the concept of 'morality' for being fragile and essentially meaningless. It is an excellent dark social parody from the contemporary Voltaire.