The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
The danger of deception lies not only in the fact that we are not what we appear to be, but also in ending up believing that we are something other than our true selves. A review of “Smoke and Mirrors” (2016).
It takes us a while to realise the extent to which people react to our facial expressions. We create a character for ourselves that varies depending on whether we are with family, friends or strangers. If we think about it, we don’t talk to our parents in the same way as we talk to our children, colleagues, class mates, the people in our church and those out of it. We all have a number of faces…
As the French author François de la Rochefoucauld put it, “We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others, that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves” and the character absorbs the individual. “Smoke and Mirrors”, the translation of the original Spanish title “El hombre de las mil caras” (The man of a thousand faces), a film by the Spanish director Alberto Rodriguez, talks about our need to see beyond the smoke and mirrors, to discover the reality.
Appearances can be deceiving. When we see what is behind the image projected by others, we realise that those images are nothing more than smoke. In other cases what we see is mirror play where the person reflects what other people want to see. The danger of deception lies not only in the fact that we are not what we appear to be, but also in ending up believing that we are something other than our true selves. It is no longer a question of being sincere, but we start believing our own lies.
WE ARE WHO WE WERE
One of the problems of our times is the lack of historical perspective. We believe that everything has changed when actually “the past is never dead”, as Faulkner says. “It’s not even the past”. What Alberto Rodriguez does is return to the recent history of Spain to understand its present. After unmasking the public relations operation of Expo 92 in his film “Grupo 7” (2013), he tackled the Spanish transition in “La isla mínima” (2014), to later consider the Socialist corruption plot that was uncovered in Spain in 1993, from the perspective of the chameleon-like Francisco Paesa.
The story goes like this: Luis Roldán became a member of the Spanish Socialist party PSOE after Franco’s death and went on to become Director General of the Spanish Civil Guard and government delegate for Navarre in the 1980s. When he was on the point of being appointed Minister of Interior in 1993, he was fired after the newspaper Diario 16 published allegations as to the dubious origin of his disproportionate wealth. That marked the start of the legal proceedings leading to his escape. He was chased across the world for 304 days, until he appeared in Bangkok airport with the “Laos papers” in which he claimed to have come to an agreement with the PSOE on the charges that he would face if he returned to Spain.
The figure behind these events was Francisco Paesa, an agent of the Spanish secret service, who after getting mixed up with the dictator of Equatorial Guinea Francisco Macías in the 1970s, was detained by Interpol in Belgium and imprisoned in Switzerland. He was later involved in the “Dirty War” of the GAL – the terrorist group that tried to fight ETA in the first years of Felipe Gonzalez’s government in the 1980s – even passing himself off as an arms dealer in order to sell ETA missiles with tracking devices.
In 1994 he became involved in Roldán’s case by swindling both the former Head of the Civil Guard and Ministers Asunción and Belloch, using documents signed by a so-called Captain Khan and a stamp that had never seen Laos – the country it was purportedly from –, much like Paesa himself. All this earned him some 10 million euros from the Head of the Civil Guard and almost 2 million euros from the Spanish Ministers. In 1998 he faked his own death from a heart attack while in Thailand, publishing obituaries, falsifying his death certificate, and even going so far as to order masses to be said for him. He currently lives in Paris, but his name has since been associated with mercenary armies in Guinea and with the Russian mafia. His signature even appears in the recent “Panama Papers”.
If the film’s plot is somewhat confusing, it is because the main characters are always lying through their noses. This doesn’t just go for the character played by Eduard Fernández (Paesa), but also for the much more human and vulnerable character played by Carlos Santos (Roldán), who lies systematically even when he is watching the television and says that he is reading a Dumas novel. At one point, Paesa’s wife ironically says to him that it isn’t that he doesn’t want to tell the truth, the problem is that he has had no practice.
In one scene, Roldan remembers his father once saying: “Do you know what Spain’s problem is? It’s the Spanish!”. While US society makes a big hoo-ha about politicians lying, in Spain people generally just shrug their shoulders. It is no coincidence that the picaresque novel was born in Spain and not in Amsterdam. Even the legal system presupposes that the defendant is lying and only the witness can be accused of perjury.
“All that dust, now sludge, makes up the mud that splashes Spain”, says Santos. The curious power of seduction that this liar holds is so strong that even after all these years, Roldán still refuses to criticize Paesa – according to Sánchez Dragó in a book dedicated to Roldán–. He is a bona fide snake charmer. In any event, he has no lack of imagination, or humour – his Captain Khan alibi seems to have come from a children’s televisions programme that was popular back in the day.
In order to guide the spectator, the film only invents one character, the pilot played by José Coronado, who was included in the project when Enrique Urbizu decided to go into Paesa’s whole life. Although it may seem complicated, the plot is exciting and full of suspense. Its rhythm is convincing, its dialogues intelligent and its sequences gut-wrenching. It is a brilliant, revealing and even necessary film, which describes the life journey of people who have allowed graft become their haven and even their raison d’être. If this is the “story of a man who tricked a whole country”, it is because he could. He was surrounded by lies.
HOPE FOR THE LIAR
I am currently attending a conference in England that is looking at the life of Jacob, a biblical figure who has always fascinated me. It is no coincidence that Israel gets its name from such a manipulative liar as Jacob, who tricks his father and brother to get what he wants. When everything goes wrong, he has to flee from the mess he has created. And what does God do in Genesis 28? He gives him the greatest promise of blessing, confirming the pact that he made with his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham, who when in need did not shy away from lying either.
Anyone who wants to use the Bible as a moral guidebook has their work cut out for them with the patriarchs. People looking for positive examples get themselves wound up, time and again, trying to find the moment of their “conversion”, making absurd distinctions between the “carnal” and the “spiritual” believer. The Scriptures challenge the religious thinking that those who are good and live according to the truth will be rewarded by God in this life, while those who do evil will be punished. If the Old Testament were based on that rule, why would God bless Jacob when he was still a liar and an impostor?
The gospel according to Genesis shows us that there is hope for the liar, but that it is not found in us or in our tricks, but in God who says to Jacob: “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (v. 15). His favour is completely unmerited!
The unconditional nature of his grace contrasts even more with the words of Jacob, who wants to “negotiate” with God. He offers to serve him (v 20-21) and literally says that he will give him a tenth of all that God gives him (v 22) if he blesses and keeps him, providing for him in his journey… That is how mean-spirited our religion is! When God is everything that we need, we seek what He can give us. But what is faith if it isn’t believing that God is all for us in Jesus Christ? There is no God like the God of Israel, the only hope for the liar.