$Revision: 35 $ $Date: 1999-12-19 12:56:18 +0000 (Sun, 19 Dec 1999) $ $Author: telliogl $


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Original German

Horst Tellioglu

USA, 1998
Running Length:
USA 123, UK 124 min
USA: R / UK: 15 / Canada: 14
John Hobbes: Denzel Washington
Jonesy: John Goodman
Lt. Stanton: Donald Sutherland
Gretta Milano: Embeth Davidtz
Directed by Gregory Hoblit
Written by Nicholas Kazan
Music by Tan Dun

  1 "You know, I haven't the least idea what he means, unless it could be that he simply means what he says." [Aus, p.232]
  2 We may see Fallen and be annoyed by its religious symbolism, yet another movie based upon a biblical story to embellish its week story line. Or we could simply have fun seeing a detective story in which a religious order of things functions merely as a replaceable background. On the other hand, the question is open as to what replaceability could mean in this context or if paranormal forces could simply replace the religious forces presented in the movie.
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  3 For one thing, it is obvious that the movie is part of a culture putting constraints on the replaceability of its background. This is why we almost take it for granted that the symbolism is biblical, after all that is what we expect from a movie made in the U.S.A.
  4 Another possible reaction though, would be to simply accept the movie's presentation of religious beliefs. Lets remind ourselves that according to official statistics 85 percent of the North American and European population is convinced that the religious forces and entities shown in Fallen actually do exist, and if angels and demons are part of your faith, seeing them in a movie shouldn't be too disturbing. Accordingly, this third reaction should be the most common one. This makes it interesting to read the films depiction of religion literally and to take a closer look at its representation of religious faith. By reading it literally I mean letting go of our psychoanalytical conditioning and taking the signs not as indirect but as direct representations of things.
  5 Fallen's main character is Azazel. He is briefly mentioned in the third book of Moses (Leviticus 16,8) where he is depicted as a desert demon to whom a goat is sacrificed in the ritual of Yom Kippur. The goat sacrificed for Azazel was later on to become known as the first scapegoat and was only one of two killed in the ritual. The other one was designated for Jahwe and it is worth noting, that the goat for Jahwe was killed, whereas the one for Azazel was set loose to carry all the sins of Israel into the desert. (Although, in some versions of the story the scapegoat also gets killed by falling off a cliff). This placing of all sins upon the goats back explains why it is called sündenbock in German (sünde = sin, bock = goat). The escaping from Jahwe led to calling it scapegoat in English meaning the goat that escapes. The name Azazel itself could stem from Hebrew 'ez 'ozel which means "goat that departs". Thus "scapegoat" could be seen as an attempt to translate Azazels name.
  6 Some claim to know that Azazel himself bears the form of a goat. This could be explained by the movie according to which the demon is able to exist outside a living body, but it is only after a very short period of time that he must take possession of another body again. Therefore it would be easy to kill him just by no longer sending him goats into the desert. This exactly is the idea which John Hobbes (Denzel Washington) and Gretta Milano (Embeth Davidtz) come up with.
  7 Of course, Azazel only exists because some people believe in him and continue sending him goats. The crucial and fatal thing though, is that it is on the one hand impossible to define rules on an individual level and on the other hand, which is even worse, there are rules which no one is aware of. These secret rules play a major role in the movies surprising and somewhat unsatisfying ending. The detective work of Hobbes, on which the story line is based, consists to a great extent in finding out about the rules governing the unknown.
  8 During the film, we learn from the theologian Gretta Milano that it would be advisable to stay away from the unknown which is responsible for what is going on, and not to look further into it nor to call it by its name. By giving us this advice she presents us with one fundamental principle of religion: the contagious transfer.
  9 It is well known that religionists divide the world into the sacred and the secular. These two antagonistic domains are strictly separated and are not allowed to meet. For the sacred can be transferred from object to object through the slightest touch and furthermore is threatened by the secular and its power to desecrate and thus, it is of utmost importance to keep them apart.
  10 When asked if he is religious, John Hobbes answers that he visits church from time to time but thinks that his police work and religion do not go well together. For him, keeping faith is not only hard since in his line of work he gets to see the work of evil almost every day, which is hard because police work in general is the domain of the secular. Therefore, the Gretta Milano, a virgin, is determined to stay away from him. To get involved would put her sacred purity at risk, which she tries to keep until the moment in which she has to make her ultimate decision.
  11 As a result new fundamental principle is introduced: the division of religious forces into the pure and the impure. These two forces oppose one another and this relationship is sustained by taboos through which Gretta Milano tries to escape damnation. She not only has to stay away from the worldly, but also from impure and malicious powers, which requires the renouncement of any sexual activity.
  12 As a demon, Azazel belongs to the impure domain of the sacred. Demons are akin to the benevolent ghosts known as angels and Catholics believe that Satan and all the other demons are angels who decided on their own free will not to follow God and to disobey his will. [Kat, p.136] According to Augustinus angels are administrative ghost and both kinds of ghosts are modeled after the soul, which gives a heap of matter the shape turning it into a human being. Thus a ghost would be something similar to pure form and seen this way, Azazel, as a demon which cannot exist as form alone, becomes more sympathetic, which for a main character, might be what he has to be. This therefore appears be the movies biggest diversion from Christian ideology while another small shift is its covert emphasis of Jewish tradition.
  13 John Hobbes is in more than one way put in opposition to the purely sacred, as depicted through angels and the woman "saving" herself. As a police officer he is not only worldly, but also black and therefore impure. Following this logic, no sexual relationship between the white theologian and the black police officer is established.
  14 This deviation from the expected brings to mind another character played by Denzel Washington in The Pelican Brief. For this movie John Grishams book was rewritten to prevent depiction of a sexual relationship between Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) and Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts). It is most astonishing how bluntly this was done even in 1993. Denzel Washingtons characters seem to lag behind even behind the integrationist function Sidney Poitiers roles had in the early 60s'.
  15 The character played by Washington in Heart Condition (1990) is no exception although in this movie he even had a child with a white woman. This woman though is a prostitute and of course he had to pay with his life and after this he remains in the story but only as a ghost.
  16 In Fallen, Gretta Milano hugs John Hobbes before he goes to war against Azazel. This contact between the profane and the purely sacred weakens Hobbes, who has been immune to Azazels contagiousness and prepares him as a sacrifice. The taboo to touch, which keeps the sacred separated from the profane is mirrored in the forbiddance of interracial sex.
  17 In an unexpected move, John Hobbes, in his role as the story's narrator, is also revealed as Azazel. Although Azazel takes possession of Hobbes body only at the story's climax, it was Hobbes voice all along through which Azazel spoke to us throughout the film.


[Aus] John Langshaw Austin: Performative Utterances. In Philosophical Papers, Oxford, 1979, ISBN 0-19-283021-X

[Bog] Donald Bogle: Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks. New York, 1996

[Dur] Emile Durkheim: Die elementaren Formen des religiösen Lebens. Frankfurt am Main, 1994, ISBN 3-518-28725-7

[Kat] Ecclesia Catholica: Katechismus der Katholischen Kirche. Oldenbourg, Wien, 1993 ISBN 3-7029-0353-4

© 1998 Horst Tellioglu