Wed, June 09, 2004

Salvation in Casablanca

I’m participating in the “Popcorn blog,” a summer film study project suggested by Huw Raphael. Each week we’ll watch a movie and discuss salvation in it. There’s a list of the others who are also participating in it this week if you want to read additional commentary.

We start our excursion with Casablanca, one of the highest rated and most loved films of all time. The winner of the academy award for best picture for 1942, many of its lines are known even by those who haven’t seen the film. I’ve watched Casablanca several times. This time I watched the DVD Special Edition two disk set based on the 1992 re-release.

It’s late while I’m writing this, but since it was “due” yesterday, I’ll just keep at it and get it done.

Sam: You ever going to bed?
Rick: No!
Sam: Well, I ain’t sleeping neither.

What is attractive about Casablanca is that all the main characters (other than than the obvious villains, the Nazis) are good at heart. When we watch movies we get to participate in the lives of the characters. We get to suffer as they stumble and hurt. When the characters do something noble or courageous, we get to enjoy that feeling.

The primary characters in the film each experience or practice salvation in one way or another. For purposes of discussion, I’ll define salvation as being delivered from evil or destruction. This is often evidenced by the characters recognizing the right thing to do and having the courage to do it.

The plot of Casablanca revolves around a love triangle and a war. Rick, the club owner, has had a brief romance with Ilsa in Paris. We later discover that Ilsa thought her husband Victor Laszlo was dead at the time. She has hurt Rick by breaking up with him by letter and then by reappearing with her husband at his club.

Rick

It’s clear that Rick has been badly hurt by Ilsa and has lost the joy that we see in the flashback to Paris. Perhaps from this hurt, Rick is stuck and cannot act. We never do discover quite why Rick is in Casablanca, but the location seems a sort of self-imposed physical prison; it symbolizes his moral state of exclusive self-interest. His own statements show his only loyalty is to himself: “I’d stick my neck out for nobody.” “The problems of the world aren’t my problem—I’m a saloon keeper.” Capt. Renault says much the same: “Rick is neutral about everything.”

Rick is only saved when he can break out of his wallowing in self-pity and recognize who he is. “I’m a drunkard,” he admits as a joke that hits the truth. Although Ilsa later calls him a coward and weak, by that point we’ve already seen flashes of his true heart.

His confrontation with Ilsa in his drunken state and her condemning him for it outside the Blue Parrot the next day wakes him up to who he wants to be. “I could have told the Rick from Paris, but not the Rick who looked at me with such hatred.” This is his turning point. He helps the couple win at the roulette wheel. He gives the okay for Victor’s instructions to the band to engage in “political speech.” (What a terrific scene.) When his club is closed he tells Karl that all staff will stay on salary.

His nicest act is to not only recognize that Ilsa needs to be with Victor and to help them escape, but to tell Victor about their relationship and that it was over “years ago.” We can tell he has been set free when he admits to Renault “I could use a trip.”

Capt. Renault

As prefect of police, Renault theoretically has power, but serves the Nazis. Until the end, we’re not clear whose side he’s on. He and Rick apparently respect each other and their dialog hints at an apparent game they are playing together (even aside from their bet.) Renault seems to “get” Rick and yet Rick surprises him. “It seems love has triumphed over virtue,” Renault says right before Rick turns the tables and it turns out the virtuous choice is made after all. We heave a sigh of relief when he saves Rick by ordering “Round up the usual suspects.”

Ferrari

The keeper of the Blue Parrot, Ferrari seems to be all about the financial reward. He demonstrates a selflessness—he can’t possibly profit—when he points Victor and Ilsa toward Rick for the papers.

Victor

Victor is the stereotypical super good guy, the hero who will save the world. Yet without Rick’s help, his work wouldn’t be possible. Although he may have doubts about Ilsa’s faithfulness while he was in prison, he is willing to forgive her.

Ilsa

Ilsa chooses to return to her husband when she finds him alive in Paris. She probably thinks that by avoiding seeing Rick again, she can lessen his hurt. I found it interesting that her farewell letter ended with “God bless you.” She wants to do right and tries to be truthful with Rick when she encounters him again. Perhaps recognizing her own emotional turmoil “If you knew how much I loved you — how much I still love you,” she begs Rick to think for her and for all of them.

In the end, Ilsa accepts her duty to her husband and recognizes that some causes are bigger than her individual desires. I believe the WWII generation understood this need to sacrifice for the good of the nation and world. Ilsa also receives Rick’s rejection of her with less apparent pain than when she did it to him. “We’ll always have Paris,” recognizes the good times, as well as what is right, something Rick has finally learned and understood.

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