Shoplifters: The movie.
Lesser evil and compassion of low expectations.
I decided to see Shoplifters for a second time just to see if I have missed something about this movie that wouldn’t justify my disappointment with it. Regrettably, my disappointment is still the same even when I come to acknowledge the director’s subtlety in handling the emotional pace of the movie and the characters.
I should, however, express in more details why this film is such a disappointment for me. In most storytelling about moral tales we usually have a hero and a villain and in between them the law. In those stories those doing the good things usually have more obstacles than those doing bad things, particularly because those doing good things will try not only not to go against the law but do morally the right thing without hurting others while those doing evil things will not only not hesitate to violate the law but do morally what is right for them regardless of the pain inflicted on others.
This kind of archetype of the hero is a recurring theme not only in literature, religion, movies and popular culture but also present in the extensive work of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell which remind us not only of how societies are sustained by moral values beyond the law, but particularly how such values can be locked down and nurtured within the confinement of strong family’s values with antisocial dispositions.
One good archetype of it, for instance, is Marques De Sade’s contrasting heroines, Justine and Juliette. Justine character is built to withstand almost all the pain, not just of humanity as a whole, but of all its villains in the grossest and unfair ways. The main reason why Justine has to endure all this pain is justified by De Sade’s morality narrative structure. For him, since those interested in doing good, not breaking the law and not harming others at the expense of their pleasure follow a moral dictum of abiding to those principles in all cases without exceptions, someone like Justine is more likely to always have not only an unfair treatment but also have injustice inflicted upon her over and over again. This is precisely what happened to Antonio, the lead character in the movie, Bicycle Thieves, who actually due to his lack of evil wits was humiliated by a mob in front of his son for stealing a bicycle as a desperate measure for the injustice inflicted upon him previously in the story.
Juliette is the opposite of her sister Justine. She not only knows how to get away with murder but also how to appear morally right among her equals or “family” and yet showing no remorse or pity for anyone who gets on the way of her predatory pleasure seeking.
In Shoplifters, we really don’t have a hero nor a heroine, we don’t even have good and bad in its traditional clear cut separation so that the moral tale can be told. Yet, there is still something uplifting trailing in your mind as you finish watching this movie.
It is precisely this uplifting element of the film what really disappointed me. It is recomforting that the moral tale is not delivered through the cliche of any heroic act or epic battle but through the lives of very ordinary people. The director, however, even when he doesn’t manipulate the viewers’ emotions by honeying the family settings with cheap sentimentalities, he certainly chose not to expose the viewer to any first-hand experience of the wrong deeds of the story, the murder of the husband, the dirty burial of the grandma. We are only told of the criminal deeds, they don’t unfold in front of our eyes. This is precisely the director’s trick to make us sympathetic to his character or at least feel compassion for them as it is all sweetly raincoated with strong family bonding which is actually unfolded right in from of our eyes.
This film also reminded me of another film with a similar moral tale, but with a completely different plot, The Big Lebowski. The film is about opposing two moral views of society and choosing the lesser evil as if in the first place there were only two moral views: You either are a lazy ass who love playing bowling and hanging with your friends or you are a ruthless greedy businessman constantly focused on success and making more money.
Shoplifters gives us two choices, we either have blood-related family busy with work and money but completely broken and detached to the point of abandonment or we have a happy non-blood-related family, poor with dodgy and shadowy ways of making ends meet but full of love and good intentions.
I didn’t mind the naturalistic and the realist effects the director was trying to address as a filmmaker, but to me, personally, to redeem a moral tale over the bases of sympathising with a lesser evil or with a modesty of low expectation that justify wrong deeds under the umbrella of love and leave viewers to make their own mind, I say, Shoplifters is not morally uplifting even when the attempt to be so can be felt.