Hunger (2008), by Steve McQueen
Unlike Mário de Sá Carneiro’s poem, entitled Quasi, Steve McQueen did not lack any flair. The British filmmaker has already crafted two notable works: Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011).
When it comes to Steve McQueen, the expectations are always high. In my perspective, the renowned 12 Years a Slave (2013) fell short to them, probably because the subject has been explored continuously throughout the History of Cinema. McQueen is convincing but, unfortunately, not surprising. The director has just released his latest film Widows, currently screened in Portuguese cinemas.
The most striking in the cinematography is the physical and psychological violence, shot without any filters, something that has become one of his distinguishing trademarks. Another common denominator is Michael Fassbender.
But the subject matter behind this article takes me to McQueen’s debut with Hunger, who won the 2008 Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, a prize that distinguishes the best first film.
Based on a true story, Hunger reveals us the unadulterated reality of one of Northern Ireland’s darkest periods when, in 1981, political and religious conflicts reached a peak, with devastating consequences.
The action takes place at the Maze prison, where a hunger strike initiated by inmates, members of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) led by Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), protests the inhumane conditions they are subjected to.
The main intent of Sands’ struggle is to obtain the status of political prisoners for IRA activists, and, with Margaret Thatcher inflexible before his request, he died after 66 days of hunger strike, eventually becoming a symbol of the group’s armed struggle.
The viewer experiences true terror in Hunger. McQueen films several sequences of images, resorting to long shots to depict the barbaric violence to which prisoners were subjected by the police, reflecting an institutionalized amorality that allowed the exercise of crimes without any kind of punishment.
The scenery is daunting. The cold, dirty cells, the overall nauseating environment. The first shot with Bobby Sands is absolutely terrifying. He is dragged across the floor, naked, to have his hair cut, and then he is thrown into a bathtub. The colour of the water turns red, caused by the blood that flows from his wounded body.
At one point, the camera shifts to a room in which Bobby Sands and the prison’s priest (Liam Cunningham) are sitting face to face, talking about the purpose of the hunger strike which is about to begin and its consequences. The priest advocates that he is not lucid enough to make such a decision and that the hunger strike is similar to suicide. Sands stands for his position. Confronted with his unmovable convictions, the priest’s starts to slowly fade away. Throughout this shot, which lasts about 15 minutes, Sands recalls a particular episode of his life, when he was still young. What at first looked like a simple dialogue becomes the exact opposite. We must absorb every word, every gesture, every expression, with the dignity that the moment requires.
Michael Fassbender’s acting is colossal. He looks transfigured, since he had to shed a lot of weight to portray Bobby Sands, and the character acquires a sense of realism. However, this element alone would not be enough per se. The actor goes even further, with an acting masterclass.
The subject portrayed in Hunger is far from straightforward, in other words, the ruthlessness with which the prisoners are treated makes us forget that we are not dealing with a dialectic between good and evil, but, instead, we are witnessing the punishment of heinous acts through similar deeds.
Man’s beliefs and contradictions in a quest for survival, which is, above anything else, moral. A film for the ages.