The Impossible: On Storytelling and Morality

Now that hardly anybody listens anymore to what religious leaders say about the morality or immorality of the movies we watch, we face a new menace from a group that, fortunately, still holds a much lesser influence on people, but that seems to be as hungry for guilt-ridden mind control as an inquisitor.

Perhaps because they don’t have firm aesthetic criteria of their own, perhaps because they were impressed by but misunderstood Jacques Rivette’s famous article “On Abjection,” or perhaps because of simple old prejudice, it’s becoming a trend among some critics to be “deeply offended” at many things that various films portray or, even worse, don’t portray. A brand of film criticism that can be done, wonder of wonders, without even watching the film: you read a synopsis, and you already know which moral position (or posture) you are going to adopt regarding it. You don’t criticize films, but subjects. You don’t criticize images, but screenplays, or the summary of them you read in the press. And yes, The Impossible has been this year’s favourite target of the preachers.

Even before the film opened, angry voices were rising at the fact that a movie apparently portrayed 2004’s tsunami in the Indian Ocean through the point of view of some tourists who were there on holiday (as if there weren’t tourists killed or as if their point of view was inherently immoral). Or at the fact that a Spanish family was portrayed by Caucasian British actors (as if Spaniards couldn’t be blond, although this particular point was especially funny with some critics and bloggers claiming that the family was just “Latin,” engaging in worse stereotyping than what they were trying to attack). The film is being misrepresented left and right: there are no magic negroes with sunlight halos around their heads, but some Phuket locals helping the protagonist as they did in real life, and there’s not a single shot of them with halos. There is no relentless collection of genre clichés because the time devoted to the catastrophe and horror lasts only 10 minutes at most. In the end, there is no portrait of the tsunami catastrophe in Thailand in which the local effects of the tragedy are outrageously ignored, simply because there is no portrait of the catastrophe in Thailand (or Indonesia or Sri Lanka) at all.

Reading about the production of the film will inform you that J. A. Bayona, the director, a Spaniard, heard from a friend the story of another Spaniard who had happened to survive the tsunami. Bayona's friend couldn’t stop her tears as she was telling the story, and Bayona himself couldn’t refrain from tearing up a bit, too. Being so moved by this experience of someone who felt close because, physically, she was close, and was telling her story first-hand, they wanted to meet her, and they wanted to pass along her story. And so they did.

Storytelling is one of the noblest and most useful actions humans engage in. Telling a story of something exceptional that has happened to you is only natural. Being moved by someone else’s story and wanting to pass it on to others is, again, a natural and noble impulse. But you wouldn’t say so if you believed all the attacks of immorality aimed at The Impossible.

So let’s stop talking about what The Impossible is not, and focus on what it is: the story of a family that survived a catastrophe. Not a story about the 2004 tsunami, or about Thailand, or about all victims of catastrophes, but just a re-telling of an individual story someone heard. That someone happened to be a film director and his reaction to what moved him was to make a movie about it, and this is not immoral or abject. In fact, Bayona is extremely careful not to fall in the traps he’s (apparently sight-unseen) accused of falling into: he doesn’t pretend his protagonists’ story is representative of anything and so he willingly keeps the point of view narrowed on them almost to a fault (yet he’s being accused of representing the whole tsunami through them, despite clear efforts to underline the opposite); he doesn’t pretend he has an answer or a message about it (yet he’s being accused of doing inspirational propaganda, or something equally vague); and he doesn’t pretend to know the magnitude of what happened or the effect it had in Thailand or any other place hit by the tsunami. He scrupulously adheres to the first-person narration he’s heard, and that’s why we don’t see many locals (why would there be many in a resort for tourists?), simply because he wants to avoid the pretension of portraying the tragedy at large, which is precisely what the preachers are claiming he should have done, and also what Rivette would have undoubtedly deemed “abject,” to pretend to be able to portray a whole nation’s collective horror. In a way, this film could be about a family caught in a fire, or in an earthquake, or in a flood. It’s an individual story of survival that doesn’t want to pompously dress itself as representative of anything grand, but just of this family and what they felt during their gruesome experience.

I’ve said the subject is narrow almost to a fault, because this is in fact one of the film’s problems: in wanting to avoid all the traps (oh, the irony, he’s still being accused of falling in them), the film becomes so laconic that it ends up not amounting to much or being especially insightful. Yes, you live as close as film allows to what this particular family lived, and the emotional impact of the film is strong, but, despite some doors left open to questions about human frailty and the impossibility of guaranteeing your own or your family’s safety, you’re left with little more than the need to hug your beloved ones as soon as the film ends. It is, ironically, a film that wouldn’t deserve so much virtual ink spilled on it, if not for the intolerable uprising of self-righteous preaching it has caused.

The film is generally well told, very well narrated and incredibly well crafted. If the purpose was to communicate as vividly as possible that first-hand story Maria Belon wanted to tell (she’s the real-life person upon whose experience the film is based), it largely succeeds. But in wanting to be just that at all costs, it becomes something no more interesting and moving than an anecdote. It is never immoral or abject, but that doesn’t mean it is a great film. It’s just a solid, good one. There are, in fact, a couple of objectionable elements that could indeed be called genre clichés (an ominous score in a particular shot, foreshadowing the tragedy as if we were in a suspense film, an aerial shot that departs from the character’s point of view only to shock with the scope of the tragedy…), but the film is hardly a relentless series of them. They’re more a sophomore director’s missteps than a calculation to drench everything in tired clichés for thrills. Because most other things that might feel like Hollywood conventions are actually first-hand details told by the real-life protagonists of this story: the way the protagonists coincidentally met at some random spot after having wandered around that spot for a while, the help they got or didn’t get from other tourists or from locals, the way a child helped other families reunite while waiting for her mother to recuperate at the hospital… everything happened that way. Moreover, there is basically no slow-mo, close-up or frenzied editing trying to squeeze more emotion, even though it might seem so, because the emotions are so overwhelming that they may feel orchestrated by a director. But a detached examination of the frame composition and the techniques used by Bayona shows it is actually a restrained account of these particular events. Only a couple of times does the score become grand and epic, but now, tell me you wouldn’t be hearing heavenly music if you suddenly found the son you had thought to be dead alive and healthy.

The Impossible is a good, not great film simply conveying a single human experience, that deliberately avoids trying to be seen as representative of anything else. Watch it if you want to see a first-hand account of an exceptional series of events. Don’t watch it if you feel you don’t need to spend two hours of your life in such a gruesome situation. Enjoy it or don’t. Like it or don’t. But please, don’t put yourself on a pulpit, and leave the sermons for the church, because if there’s something The Impossible is not, it’s abject.