Film 'Hunger' a Stirring Exploration of Martyrdom

Photo: Doing time. Michael Fassbender plays protagonist Bobby Sands in the emotional film 'Hunger.'
Blast! Films/Courtesy
Doing time. Michael Fassbender plays protagonist Bobby Sands in the emotional film 'Hunger.'

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The effect of martyrdom on human civilization is indisputable, and few films portray this onscreen with as much stunning panache as "Hunger." Both audacious and chastening, British video artist Steve McQueen's feature debut succeeds in building sympathy for its tortured heroes even as it exposes the consequences of their sacrifice with uncompromising brutality.

Set in Northern Ireland during the period of ethno-political conflict known as the Troubles, "Hunger" follows several Irish Republican prisoners as they push their bodies to the limit in an effort to regain political status. Their agenda is clear: Vehemently opposed to being treated like regular inmates, they retaliate by creating hellish living conditions for themselves. Human excrement dries on walls, maggots writhe among rotten food, and security guards employ brutal tactics as the prisoners engage in a "blanket and no wash" protest against authority.

The film allows little room for sympathy for these hairy convicts, even as it recreates their agony. McQueen is an artist with a penchant for minimalism; his unique aesthetic approach works brilliantly here, as defiant men strip themselves both literally and figuratively to fight for their cause. The labyrinthine corridors of Belfast's H-Block maze prison are juxtaposed with images of fleeting beauty-a fly dancing on a finger, snow falling through wisps of cigarette smoke-to create a film that moves and breathes with expressionistic vitality.

It's a testament to the director's command of his medium that "Hunger" sustains itself despite the fact that its protagonist, Bobby Sands, does not appear until the film's halfway point. Wiry and brash, Michael Fassbender fills the shoes of his character with tremendous panache. The Irish actor's interpretation is not so much performance as a rigorous exercise in personification: as wholly masculine as his star-making turn in "300" (playing the spirited Stelios) but with an extra dimension of world-weary dignity. Conversing with fellow inmates at Sunday Mass, Sands strikes an imposing figure almost immediately, a natural leader blessed with charisma and resilience.

With Sands at the forefront, prison life quickly transforms into an invigorating experience-as does "Hunger" itself. The art of insubordination is redefined with an emphasis on both mind and body. Every physical action becomes a catalyst for fighting words; the concept of sacrifice transpires like a swift blow to the gut. Determined to realize his dream of a hunger strike, Sands debates the ideology of martyrdom with his priest (Liam Cunningham) in a fiery dialogue that becomes the crux of the film. Shot in one unbroken take lasting over 17 minutes, the sequence is as surreal as it is unbearably intense. As a titanic feat of screen acting, it's nothing short of staggering.

By the time the conversation ends, the tragic humanity of "Hunger" has manifested itself. "Freedom means everything to me," Sands explains calmly. "Taking my life is not just the only thing I can do, it is the right thing." For Bobby Sands, there is no turning back; it is either suffer for glory or wallow in disgrace. We are moved not only by his ideals but also by the sincerity of his sacrifice.

The film's hard-to-stomach final act unravels like a somber requiem. Lying on a hospital bed in the form of a barely breathing corpse, Bobby Sands becomes an unprecedented victim of history. A mother's touch stirs. Childhood dreams recur. "Hunger" concludes on a tragic note, but no matter: In illuminating the last hours of one man's glorious anguish, McQueen has created a passion play for the ages.


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