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Breathing Under Water (1992)

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15 May 1993 (USA)  »

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Extremely pertinent film for our time
20 July 2001 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

Breathing Under Water's concerns are conditioned very much by Reagan-era nuclear fears, and its relevance is especially apposite at this time now that 'star wars' scenarios are once again on the world's agenda.

A mother is inspired by Dante Alighieri's mid-life exploration of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise in `The Divine Comedy', to find answers to the riddle as to why humankind has set the stage for its own extinction. Fear as much as yearning pushes her off onto the journey with her young daughter, to an imaginary world beneath Sydney where she follows a sketch map from her dreams. Beatrice expresses every parent's experience upon the birth of her daughter that `she shook up the whole pattern of my life bringing everything into question, a necessary and appalling process'. In order to answer her daughter's questions she recognises the need to get beyond the narrow maze of mind we all start to live in after childhood. Anne Louise Lambert (Picnic at Hanging Rock) is brilliantly cast as the ‘divine Beatrice' (whose namesake was Dante's true love, inspiration and spiritual guide in Paradise) who we follow on the allegorical tour. Her own guide is Herman (Kristoffer Greaves), `a trickster, a shyster' and an unusually taciturn taxi driver. The film revolves around a potent mixture of history, science, philosophy, poetry, art, animation, and narration combined with personal recollections and dreams. Reference is made to the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre where a student stood in front of the tanks with a carrier bag. This symbol of protest is taken up and Beatrice is given a magical red shopping bag that provides various gifts on the excursion.

The issues around the birth of the Bomb are very gender specific with the masculine identities of Little Boy, George and Mike, and contrast with `the old and badly rotting idea that mind is male and female is suspect'. The question is raised as to how Enola Gay, the mother of Colonel Paul Tibbets (the pilot), felt about her name being used for the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb Little Boy on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945? A journalist's description of the nuclear mushroom cloud following the dropping of Fat Man on Nagasaki three days later is given and correlated to a childhood dream of babies being fed into a machine and turned into beautiful ribbons, `Much living substance had gone into those rainbows'. Over 210,000 people died in Japan by the end of the first year following the bombing with the legacy of radiation ensuring genetic deformities and cancer would claim the lives of thousands more, not to mention the loss of other life forms. Why is the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty being dismantled and the world being encouraged to divert billions of dollars away from social projects towards building weapons of mass destruction, if they are never meant to be used? There is a distinct possibility (however small, it is not zero) that Europe could be in the direct firing line should a defence shield shoot down, but fail to destroy, an aggressor's missile over its skies. The worrying comment is made in the film `By what miracle of disbelief is it possible always to feel that the bomb is not so much physical as political until it falls, that it does not matter?'

Various insights on the human condition are expressed and the question asked, `Why is technology so bent upon the depletion of time, the acceleration of objects, and the inertia of people?' Man's uniqueness to be burdened by history, shame, and self-hatred is stressed as well as our bizarre attitude to nature and the wild with our attempts to control them by fencing them within wilderness parks. The plight of motherhood is also observed with the concern for the outcome of their so innocent and good offspring as they grow: `That slight awful constant undertow of doubt about the goodness of this most good object, this extremely perfect object, which causes it so readily to turn into a bad one.'

The optimistic ending in 1993 for Beatrice, in remembering her childhood dream of a black panther and strange foreigners invading her home, and the ultimate shift in her dream of making peace with the creature of the night and finding harmony in her life, may be challenged if the arms race is escalated once again. For all our sakes and the future of our children I sincerely hope reasoned argument triumphs over paranoid fear.

VHS video copies can be obtained from archive material held by ScreenSound Australia.


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