The movie “Casablanca” is a classic well deserving of its rank among the giants of film. It is imbued with a sense of timelessness, although fixed in a very specific place in time: that is, during the Second World War. Released in 1942, the film is set in a city by the name of (you guessed it) Casablanca, where masses of refugees seek the proper papers to flee the Nazi regime for the safety of America. The historical context of Casablanca is especially interesting because, as you can note from the film’s date above, the makers of this movie are not taking a retrospective look at the war. Rather, they are creating the movie in the midst of political turmoil and without knowledge of how the war would come to completion.
Against this historical background is the very personal, very intimate arc of the two main characters, the past and perhaps present lovers played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. This relationship between Rick (Bogart) and Ilsa (Bergman) is what detaches the movie from the limits of one particular standpoint in history and allows it to transcend its own time, reaching into our own with still relevant truths of love, desire and sacrifice.
In my mind, this is the determining mark of greatness in any sphere of art: film, literature, music, or visual art. A piece is in and of itself always a product of its time. Since art is a construct created by humans, it is necessarily and inseparably bound to human influence, and humans are always tied to their own place in time, unable to transcend and freely traverse time and space within their merely mortal condition. As a result, art always speaks in some way to the nature of the period and the place in which it was created. Great art, however, speaks not only to this specific and closed-off community of people, but to all humans, because it connects to something real and human within us; it reminds us, in a sense, of what it means to be human. Of course, in this domain, a certain openness and stretch of the imagination is required in the recipient to the art, so that the reader, viewer or listener does not dismiss something simply because it is not immediately accessible. Yet great art, if we are willing to experience it, can move us in a way that is not dependent on the transience of circumstance or of context.
There is an overwhelming abundance of love stories reaching back to the dawn of human history and continuing into contemporary representations of romance (though in my opinion, many of these modern portrayals are underwhelming). Perhaps it could be said that every story ever told contains at least a seed of love, whether or not it comes to fruition. If to create is to love some fragment of idea or dream enough to bring it into being, to breath life into its hazy form, then maybe all art and all creations are inevitably intertwined with love and speak in some way (more easily discernible in some cases than others) of love. With such a plethora of depictions of love, what constitutes a distinguishing factor? What makes one love story stand out above another?
I would argue that it is rarely the plot that has the power to do so. Instead, there needs to be something of the “beyond” in the characters themselves. We need to see in them individuals with individual triumphs and struggles; put another way, we need to see ourselves. We need to see “the other” and in them, in their exposed face and eyes, a vulnerability that allows us to feel their pain and joy, to empathize with them in a manner that truly makes them the beloved of the lover (and by extension, we become the beloved ourselves).
This idea of the beloved is one that kept coming to mind as I reflected on this movie. There are so many wonderful aspects to this film and so many reasons to watch and re-watch it. For one, the historical backdrop is fascinating. There is also plenty of witty banter, humour, suspense, beautiful music and brilliant acting, especially by the ever compelling Humphrey Bogart (this is said as no slight to Ingrid Bergman). Yet, in my mind, not one of these can be narrowed down as the defining feature of the film. What makes “Casablanca” so great is its affirmation of sacrifice.
Rick is a jaded and misanthropic owner of a cafe in Casablanca. Without delving into too much of the plot, Ilsa is Rick’s former lover who, arriving in the cafe with her husband, has retained neither Rick’s goodwill nor his sympathy by her behaviour years earlier. At first, Rick is barely able to be civil to Ilsa, let alone to entertain the idea of helping her and her husband in the midst of their difficult plight. Yet by the end of the film, after Ilsa professes her still-beating love for Rick, Rick is able to sacrifice himself and his happiness in order to help her, an effort providing him with no personal benefit.
What interests me most is how a selfish, hardened man could so quickly transform into an individual so altruistic and selfless. How could Rick change from someone focused on his and only his concerns to someone capable of great sacrifice? I think the answer has a great deal to do with the idea of the beloved. The very fact that Ilsa told Rick that she loved him and wanted to be with him created in him the awareness that he was, for another person, the Beloved. This new identity then gave him the strength to undertake an act of great love and great selflessness.
Henri Nouwen wrote much about this idea, saying that “being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.” The more that I think about this, the more I am inspired by its truth. One of the greatest difficulties we face in our day-to-day lives is a struggle with our belief in value: the value of the things for which we care, the value of the things we devote ourselves toward, the value of the things we are doing, and ultimately the value of our own being. Being the Beloved is not something we should have to earn or a title we must maintain by good behaviour or adequate success. Rather, it is a birthright, an identity belonging to each person in the magnitude of their uniqueness and beauty. However, we can act with great love, selflessness and sacrifice only when we recognize and accept that we are the Beloved. This does not come when we are loved with a general goodwill or some sort of universalized sympathy. The experience of being the Beloved rests in a singular and set-apart love. We must feel we are loved and valued on our own and for how we are different, rather than for how we are like everyone else.
Rick heard this voice telling him that he was the beloved from the lips of his own beloved, Ilsa. Yet what if we were able to hear this same voice from a source far surer and far stronger, from a source completely impervious to change and to circumstance? How much more love, selflessness and sacrifice could we capable of if we accepted the name of the Beloved from such a source?
“Home is the center of my being, where I can hear the voice that says, “You are my beloved. On you my favor rests.” The same voice that speaks to all the children of God and sets them free to live in the midst of a dark world while remaining in the light. When I hear that voice, I know that I am home with God and have nothing to fear. As the beloved of my heavenly Father, “I can walk in the valley of darkness: no evil would I fear.” As the beloved I can “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils.” Having “received without charge,” I can “give without charge.” As the Beloved, I can confront, console, admonish, and encourage without fear of rejection or need for affirmation. As the Beloved I can suffer persecution without desire for revenge and receive praise without using it as a proof of my goodness. As the Beloved I can be tortured and killed without ever having to doubt that the love that is given to me is stronger than death. As the Beloved I am free to live and give life, free also to die while giving life.” -Henri Nouwen, “The Return of the Prodigal Son”