VIDEO: The trailer for Hunger
Most films about the Irish Troubles don't get how Catholic it all is. Martin Scorsese might have done so had he been Irish and featured Fenians instead of mobsters in his movies. But even he wouldn't likely have cut any closer to the truth than does British artist Steve McQueen. In his debut feature, McQueen taps into the atavistic religious roots of this ostensibly political movement, exposing its rituals, its myths, and its pathology.
He takes on the IRA at its self-sacrificial height, in 1981, when the prisoners at the Maze in Belfast engage in the "Blanket and No-Wash" protest. This led to the hunger strikes that killed charismatic leader Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender, giving Daniel Day Lewis a run for his money) and nine others.
The rituals start with the first image: bloody hands being washed in a white basin. They belong not to Pilate but to Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), who embodies, if not the banality, then the anality of evil. McQueen does not judge; he only shows. In this case, he shows twice: the scene of Lohan's hand washing is repeated, the first time being either a flashforward or the beginning of a circular time loop. Either way, it evokes the fracturing of chronology in prison conditions, when time is measured in the growth of hair and the healing of wounds.
And the evolving patterns of shit. Part of the prisoner protest entails smearing feces on the walls, as newcomer Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) discovers when he's tossed into a cell with Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon). Gillen soon gets with the program, and McQueen meticulously observes the pair's daily activities, as they write tiny messages on torn pages of the Bible to be passed on to visitors, or roll a blanket at the base of the door so they can pour their urine into the corridor outside. It's kind of like A Man Escaped with excrement.
These prisoners are plotting not escape, however, but resistance. All they have left to throw against their oppressor are their own bodies and their excretions. Sands, the most determined, decides on the hunger-strike tactic, knowing it must end in death. His motives may be pure, but as his dialogue with a priest (Liam Cunningham) demonstrates, they are still questionable. Even more incriminating is a shot of his bashed and bleeding face after a savage beating: the expression is one of ecstasy. McQueen's images of the naked, bearded, and tormented prisoners conjure St. Sebastian and the crucified Christ. These men possess the lethal faith of martyrs, but not the clarity of saints.