The five of you who regularly read these missives of mine may recall that I’ve mentioned in the past that I play bass (or have; it’s been a while). I have no aptitude for reading music; I was simply gifted with a reasonably good ear and a knack for mimicry. Helpful, since I started off playing punk and hardcore music with my first electric bass. Wait, that’s not entirely true. I did at one point in time learn to read music. When I was in grade school, we had a music class (it was pretty much mandatory, but then again, we had small classes), and it all commenced with the flutophone (essentially the red-headed stepchild of the recorder). Once a week, Mrs. Doyle would come into our classroom, and she would go over scales and songs (she used to say the Bs were flat because she sat on them; har dee har har). It was fun, as it should be.
Eventually, we all graduated to stringed instruments, and my choice was the double bass. We would learn a couple of songs for the annual “concert,” and one of them was invariably Hot Cross Buns which would be played in pizzicato. It should go without saying that the truly unsubtle plinking of sixth-grade fingers on the instruments’ strings was like a concerto in Hell. Like the music in Jamil Dehlavi’s Born Of Fire but without the practiced musicianship. Since I didn’t keep up with playing after the classes were discontinued, any skill for reading eventually faded away. I don’t really mourn this lack of expertise, but every now and again I think maybe I should give proper music training another go. Just one more in an ever-growing list of woulda, coulda, shouldas in my life. Onward and upward…
When a truly unusual solar eclipse occurs (a skull passes in front of our lovely Sol) and a volcano thought extinct suddenly erupts, an astronomer (Suzan Crowley, credited only as The Woman) just knows something is up. So, what would you do? Well, it doesn’t matter, because she goes to a concert showcasing flautist Paul (Peter Firth), who suddenly has visions of a woman (you’ll never guess who) being attacked by a group of men and hears music that he is not playing. Stringing together clues about his deceased father’s quest for the Master Musician (Oh-Tee), Paul decides to travel to Turkey and search out the truth.
The film starts with this quote from Celaleddin Rumi: “In the rhythm of music a secret is hidden: If I were to divulge it, it would overturn the world.” Intriguing stuff. Music, as a form of expression in the film, is a pathway to the soul and to ultimate power. But it can be used for good as well as for evil, and at least in some part, the film is about finding one’s voice in this way (which does your soul contain or contain more?). The Master Musician does not speak a single word; the only noise he makes emanates from his flute (and surely there’s nothing phallic about that). His music causes chaos and disorder, makes the Earth revolt against itself, calls forth the fire from its inner depths. Paul’s journey is about discovering the power of the music within himself (“your flute will guide you;” again, nothing phallic to see here) and commanding the Everlasting Note (via circular breathing? We’re never told). But it is his search for this inner music that can also kill him if he cannot understand its might. The Silent One (Nabil Shaban) is a deformed mute. He is twice cursed, since he is an outcast from his village and, perhaps more importantly, he has no voice or instrument. In this world, he is utterly powerless. For him, though, his destiny will be shaped by tragedy and will even cross both value lines. The Woman is a catalyst for emotion for all the characters, and while she plays an important part in the story, she cannot shape it because she has already been shaped by it. In effect, she is an instrument as much as the flutes and somewhat passive in the grand scheme of things.
Alongside this element is the allegorical struggle between good and evil, where the Devil (or Iblis) is embodied by the Master Musician and Mankind is embodied by Paul (and his father before him). It is the playing out of Lucifer’s contempt for men preceding his fall from Heaven. Since he refused to kneel before men, he was cast out, and the Musician dwells in a deep cavern by an abandoned mosque to symbolize Hell. When we are first introduced to Paul, it is in a shot that begins on the apse of a church depicting God in Heaven and tilts down to Paul playing his concert. It associates him with the power of Good while also placing him underneath Heaven; he’s another pawn in the conflict, his significance notwithstanding. Paul’s apartment is decorated with intricately latticed woodwork like you might find in a church, and he even has a pew in his loft. The battle is also symbolized in the use of fire and water/ice. Paul’s father was found burned to death. The Master Musician commands flames from his eyes, mouth, his flute, and the Earth itself. The Djinn character is basically a fire elemental distinguished by its burnt flesh and smoking footprints. Conversely, there is an icefall where a character is killed. It is also the place which will protect Paul as he grasps for his musical/spiritual mastery. The waterfalls Paul passes on his journey is considered the graveyard of the Djinn, water conquering fire like scissors beats paper.
While you could pick apart the metaphors in Born Of Fire all day, the film by itself is something of a mess from a storytelling aspect. The performances are cold, the characters always at a remove. This does play into the point of the film, but it can make for some hard going. Further, the editing is unconcerned with any real cohesion. Paul sees the Djinn on the side of the road, stops, and appears to approach her. Cut to: Paul arriving at the village. Later, he plays the Master Musician’s flute, and as we anticipate some sort of climax, the filmmakers again just cut to another scene, behaving as if nothing of any consequence has happened. There are elisions of time we cannot fully connect, though to some degree it feels as if we are expected to have done. Even the basic premise is engaged and discarded almost randomly throughout, and this confuses the figurative facets somewhat, since the film appears to make points and then its own counterpoints, sometimes within moments of each other. In spite of this, I did find myself enjoying the film, though more for its provocation of thought and its stunning cinematography, courtesy of Bruce McGowan, than as an entertaining narrative.
MVT: When I boil it down, the beauty of the film is truly impressive. Even when not being used symbolically, the camerawork and compositions are gorgeous and often even breathtaking to behold.
Make Or Break: There is a scene at the icefall which involves some profuse bleeding. It is horrifying and beauteous at the same time, and for me at least, this is the image which will remain stuck in my head from the film most of all.