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The land of the free? Here freedom comes at a price! US drama based on novel by Philip Roth juggles religion, sexuality, diversity and coming-of-age in the austere 1950s and questions core American values - out in cinemas now

In the 1950s the US was a closed-minded country – everyone was polite, maddeningly conventional and intolerant against diversity -, a little bit like what’s going on nowadays in Trumpland. To define the austerity of the decade, Cate Blanchett said: “You didn’t express your feelings. It was inappropriate to talk about how you felt”. Indignation resembles Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015), the film to which Blanchett referred, as it depicts the resentment of people who dared to think differently. In Indignation Logan Lerman plays the son of a kosher butcher, Marcus, who falls in love with a libertine girl in a Midwestern college. We find out later that the girl (Sarah Gadon) suffers from mental disorders.

The 110-minute long film is based on a novel by Philip Roth, who seems to be Hollywood dearest these days. Other recent pictures based on his books are American Pastoral (Ewan McGregor, 2016) and The Humbling (Barry Levinson, 2015). The sexual content in Roth’s literature has the power to shock. In American Pastoral there are hints of incest, and in The Humbling a septuagenarian man gets involved in a threesome with a hot young woman and a middle-aged lesbian socialite he met in a psychiatric institution. The socialite uses a strap-on dildo. In this James Schamus’ debut, though, there is more suggestion than action.

Malice comes shrouded in puritanism. As a son of a superprotective Jewish family, he cannot allow himself certain pleasures. He feels guilty at his first orgasm. The narrative enters the territory of the unconscious and strong and rigid family values. The girl was not “the type to marry”. Besides she had attempted suicide, a very difficult issue to deal with even if you are in love. When Marcus enrolled at the university, he was trying to evade his military duty of the Korean War. But he soon encountered other problems.

Religion is another pillar of the film structure. Marcus resents being forced to attend the University chapel. He promptly finds a way of cheating the system, and gets a colleague to sign in for him. The college dean (Tracy Letts) exposes the fraud in the film’s best scene. In the near 20-minute centrepiece, Marcus stands firmly for his own values of freedom and voices his indignation. It seems, though, American society was not ready for such freedom, and maybe will never be. Instead, intolerance and hypocrisy prevail. As he approached adulthood, Marcus has to adhere norms he doesn’t agree with. He has to juggle atheism and religious values in a Christian college.

While touching on an array of complex themes, including coming-of-age, religion and sexuality, Indignation fails to go into too much depth. The feeling of unsettlement and disorientation are not fully explored, and Marcus’ intern struggle is barely visible outside the lengthy centrepiece. The imagery does not have a strong emotional impact. For example, suicide is represented by a few bruises contrasted against a yellow cardigan. Indignation is not a harrowing piece; it’s not a loud cry for freedom.

Indignation was first screened at the Sundance Film Festival last January. Vertigo Films bought the distribution rights to the UK and the film is currently showing in London and other cities.

You can watch the film trailer below:

By Maysa Monção - 21-11-2016

Maysa Monção is a Brazilian writer, teacher, translator, editor and art performer who currently lives in London. She has a Masters Degree in Film Studies from Tor Vergata University in Rome, Italy, ...

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