| 02 Mar 2015 | 04:27

    hunger, the first film by british fine artist steve mcqueen, plays with christ-like imagery without christianity. that probably accounts for the film's enormous praise from today's secular movie mob (it's been a festival-circuit hit). the story of irish republican army martyr bobby sands (played by michael fassbender), who died in northern ireland's maze prison after a hunger strike in 1981, is used as the basis for mcqueen's feature debut-really a series of startling kinetic-art panels. fastidiously conceived and composed imagery (a snowflake melting on a cop's raw, bleeding knuckle; birds symbolically alighting from a dead man's soul) is assembled into a narrative with undeniably strong visceral impact. there hasn't been a cinema/art project this outrageous since peter greenaway confused big-screen and art-gallery media in the cook, the thief, his wife and her lover (1987).

    it's the museum charade, not bobby sands' sacrifice, that's got critics gaga. mcqueen's film is actually startlingly similar to mel gibson's 2004 the passion of the christ. brutal, beautiful and unsettling, hunger uses violence to disquiet viewers' laid-back

    movie-going habits. although the film suggests affinity for bobby sands' cause (broadcasts of margaret thatcher's refusal to grant political prisoner status to ira terrorists creates reflex sympathy), equal pity is shown for the british guards forced into dehumanized behavior. mcqueen-the-artiste gives himself the luxury of detachment; he looks at cruelty (prisoner degeneracy, antagonistic authority) and makes gestures at spirituality, all with an art-major's amoral indifference. contrasting a guard's anguish (he takes a cigarette break between beat-downs) with the prisoners amassing food and fecal matter as material for protest, mcqueen literally combines shit and shinola.

    you could use art-major terms like "transgressive" and "body-conscious" to justify mcqueen's aesthetic (close-ups of cell walls decorated with feces patterned into a spiral like 1980s serialism; studies of sands' emaciated torso that suggest anorexic lucien freuds). but the fact remains: hunger is tough to watch. it merely rewards one's art-snobbery and can only be excused as a series of art postures. and eventually, those postures insult the fact of sands' death-choice and political sacrifice. if mcqueen is to be praised as a genuine moviemaker, it can only be in the art school terms that critics denied to gibson's passion. hunger lacks the conviction and awe of gibson's film.

    instead of professing faith, mcqueen plays art-school games. he knowingly evokes the actor steve mcqueen's grandstanding 1973 prison drama papillon as well as kafka's famous short story, "the hunger artist." these references don't risk unfashionable christian piety. mcqueen uses the spectacle of actor fassbender's splendid body wasting away past the point of art-doctors and dieticians were on-call during production-simply for connoisseurship. after the guards rout the prisoners, a widescreen medium shot of a nude, smiling fassbender-blue-eyed and bloody-mouthed-illustrates a perfect petite mort. it's what art students understand as jouissance (combining sexual and spiritual pleasure). this does nothing to enhance one's understanding of the irish troubles. even a 14-minute one-take conversation where sands tells rory mullen's visiting priest "jesus christ had a backbone. the disciples and the rest of you are just jumping in and out of the rhetoric," merely offers stylistic bravado, not enlightenment. as prison-movie machismo, walter hill's undisputed is better; as visual art, jan troell's everlasting moments is superior.

    sands is told, "you'd make a good priest: good talker, principles, leader of men. you've got a big engine on ya." (sands was also a cross-country runner.) yet these clues to sands' martyrdom (including a veritable shroud of turin bloody hospital bedsheet) feel exploitative. mcqueen's attempts to enlarge a secular story through religious references feel superficial. despite all its meticulous technique, hunger isn't nearly as powerful as the passion of the christ, but anti-religious critics won't say so. mcqueen offers the transformation of spirituality into art, whereas mel gibson did the extraordinary, dreyer-like opposite. hunger resembles carlos reygadas' sub-dreyer stellet licht-a self-congratulatory art project. -- hunger directed by steve mcqueen runtime: 96 min.