Graham Greene and the Holy Spirit

Pentecost, commemorating the Holy Spirit and the ability to “speak in tongues”, recalls Greene’s Mon

This Sunday is Pentecost, a day on which Christians commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles while they were celebrating the Jewish festival of Shavuot.

As the gift of tongues suddenly enabled them to speak in many different languages, malicious observers said it was just drunken babbling (a claim that St Peter answered, saying that in fact it was the fulfilment of a prophecy from the Book of Joel).

This made me think of how Graham Greene dealt with the Holy Spirit, a rather tricky and elusive entity, and, indeed, the subject of wine, in his 1982 novel Monsignor Quixote. Some readers may remember the charming Thames Television film adaptation, in which Alec Guinness played the innocent, other-worldly Monsignor Quixote and Leo McKern the communist ex-mayor of their little village who travels across Spain with him to buy the purple bib and socks that go with the rank to which the priest has just been elevated.

The pair stop for the evening at an abandoned farm, and sit by a wall eating sausage and drinking rather a lot of Manchegan wine. Sancho, the ex-mayor, asks his friend to explain the mystery of the Trinity to him. I'm going to quote the passage at length, as Greene is often thought of as being tormented by his Catholicism, but this shows his playful side.

"You see these bottles?" [says Monsignor Quixote.] "Two bottles equal in size. The wine they contained was of the same substance and was born at the same time. There you have God the Father and God the Son and there, in the half-bottle, God the Holy Ghost. Same substance. Same birth. They're inseparable. Whoever partakes of one partakes of all three."

"I was never even in Salamanca able to see the point of the Holy Ghost," [says Sancho.] "He has always seemed to me a bit redundant."

"We were not satisfied with two bottles, were we? That half-bottle gave us the extra spark of life we both needed. We wouldn't have been so happy without it. Perhaps we wouldn't have had the courage to continue our journey. Even our friendship might have ceased without the Holy Spirit."

"You are very ingenious, friend. I begin at least to understand what you mean by the Trinity. Not to believe in it, mind you. That will never do."

Father Quixote sat in silence looking at the bottles. When the Mayor struck a match to light a cigarette he saw the bowed head of his companion. It was as though he had been deserted by the Spirit he had praised. "What is the matter, father?" he asked.

"May God forgive me," Father Quixote said, "for I have sinned."

"It was only a joke, father. Surely your God can understand a joke."

"I have been guilty of heresy," Father Quixote replied. "I think -- perhaps -- I am unworthy to be a priest."

"What have you done?"

"I have given wrong instruction. The Holy Ghost is equal in all respects to the Father and the Son, and I have represented Him by this half-bottle."

"Is that a serious error, father?"

"It is anathema. It was condemned expressly at I forget which Council. A very early Council. Perhaps it was Nicaea."

"Don't worry, father. The matter is easily put right. We will throw away and forget this half-bottle and I will bring a whole bottle from the car."

"I have drunk more than I should. If I hadn't drunk so much I would never, never have made that mistake. There is no sin worse than the sin against the Holy Ghost."

"Forget it. We will put the matter right at once."

So it was they drank another bottle . . .

Perfect. And if you get the chance to see the film version you'll see both Guinness and McKern make the most of Greene's gentle meditation on bewilderment and faith. Not one of his most celebrated books, for sure, but still a latter-day reflection "of the master's long-standing preoccupation with doom, pity and the inscrutability of God's will", as the New York Times put it.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era