By Dr. Luis Dias
When I first came across the English translation for the Croatian film Glas (The Voice, 2019) written and directed by Ognjen Sviličić, I assumed it would be about the singing voice and music. That is frankly what led me to investigate it further, and I’m glad I did. Because it delves into a very topical issue not just here but around the world, that of respect for one another’s feelings, especially those concerning religion, the freedom to practice it (or not), and the dangers of religious and political indoctrination at all levels, from one’s school years onward.
Goran (Franko Jakovčević), a teenager from Split, Croatia, and a bit of a juvenile delinquent, is sent by his mother, a single parent, into a very conservative Catholic boarding school, “to straighten him out” and also as she is about to start work aboard a cruise ship.
It isn’t long before Goran begins to feel the pressure to conform to a rigid routine, enforced by soft-spoken yet authoritarian 30-something headmistress Danijela (Bosnian-born actress Belma Salkunić).
Trouble brews almost as soon as Goran begins life at the school when he does not recite the Lord’s Prayer along with the others at the boarding-school cafeteria.
After headmistress Danijela reads an apostolic letter referring to “the invasion of Europe from the east” (a clear reference to how Syrian and other refugees are demonised in Europe), Goran tells a sympathetic fellow student Mirela how morally wrong such sentiments are.
Later, cast as Joseph in the school Nativity play, he refuses to deliver his lines on the pretext that the whole story is “illogical” and “stupid.”
The more Goran stubbornly refuses to budge, the more difficult things become for him at the school. Sviličić uses Goran’s predicament as a metaphor for the dangers of overly-literal interpretation of religious doctrine to the point that it can erode the very core principles of love, compassion, inclusion, understanding, empathy, and forgiveness that it is meant to inculcate.
It also exposes the flip side, the hypocrisy of some of Goran’s peers, who like him do not truly believe but play along in order to get by. By conforming and not challenging the system, they save themselves the sort of harassment Goran has to endure. Indeed, the vice-principal Sonja (Karla Brbic) tries to talk Goran into doing precisely that: falling in line to make his life easier.
It is a sense of guilt over their own hypocrisy (and possibly to deflect attention from their own lapses) that these hypocritical peers actively participate in Goran’s persecution as well.
The film also seems to question the motive behind those wanting Goran to “behave himself”. Is it out of true belief, or is it to satisfy their own egos, or because his defiant attitude provokes them to challenge him?
It got me thinking more deeply on the issue of faith and belief, or the lack of it. I should state here that I am Roman Catholic myself by birth, but as I was raised by an atheist father who didn’t go to church, I am literally a child of both, belief and ‘unbelief’.
I find that when I am going through a rough patch myself, I react with either of two extremes: my faith either gets stronger (hotter) as I pray for a way out, or I take a complete time-out (cool off) from the whole God business. And then over time I gradually dial back to my ‘normal’ level of faith, which I call the Goldilocks level, neither too hot nor too cold.
It is refreshing that the Catholic Church currently has a pope (Pope Francis) who publicly admitted in 2016 that he too has had doubts about faith. He went on to say that doubts can be “a sign that we want to know God better and more deeply.” Well then, my life has had more signs than a railway junction!
He also said, “We do not need to be afraid of questions and doubts because they are the beginning of a path of knowledge and going deeper; one who does not ask questions cannot progress either in knowledge or in faith.”
Although Sviličić uses the prism of religious dogma to explore the phenomenon of forced conformity, it could be extrapolated to other forms of organized social persecution as well, which is what makes this film so timely in an era where fundamentalism and intolerance are rife wherever in the world one cares to look. The insistence on a monolithic idea of what it means to belong and the labeling and harassment of those who do not subscribe to that rigid strait-jacketed idea is a very good example of this.
The Voice has no musical score; it brings the human interactions and dialogues into even sharper relief and gives one a stronger sense of being a fly on the wall, watching and listening, and hopefully learning as well.