Quite often in my adult life I come across a work of literature or film that I wish I had found when I was a teenager. Call it nostalgia if you will, but I think more accurately it summons a wishful wondering for how things could have turned out differently. I don't exactly subscribe to the theory of parallel dimensions as though I could somehow obtain an alternate reality for myself, and I'm quite happy with this particular universe, but from time to time I have to marvel at the vast array of coincidences that led me to where I am now. What if I had done something differently? Surely these thoughts occur to us all. What if I had thought something differently? This one might be different.
Where would I be if I had seen GINGER & ROSA when I was 17?
I don't think it really would have made that much of a difference, since, when I was 17, none of the reasons I liked this movie would apply. Raised in a rather strict household I didn't understand the mentality of rebelliousness or the need to fight against authority that the titular characters carry within them. I certainly didn't understand the politics of the threat of nuclear war, nor do I really understand now what it must have felt like to live under such a threat. I was preoccupied with the end of the world, though in a more theoretical sense. Neither did I give any thought to the consequences of religion as a systematic regime to oppress people away from nonconformity. I would have been on Rosa's side, opting to pray to save the world, rather than on Ginger's, feeling that nothing she does is ever urgent enough to elicit a true change.
Now of course, I feel differently, and the film resonated with me. I understood Rosa, to be sure, but I also sympathized with Ginger's desperation. Not only that, I could see into the dynamics of Ginger's broken family and the resulting infidelity that tore at the heart of the film's central characters. Where once I would have condemned such actions, now I simply understood them. Empathy is a powerful emotion, but often difficult to feel without an intellectual understanding of the other person, at least when moral decisions are concerned.
It is this moral and political complexity that makes the film stand out to me. Sally Potter's complicated and evenly balanced examination into the lives of two best friends as they struggle to find their own way in a world torn apart by chaos holds offers no real answers to its viewers. As Ginger's and Rosa's decisions and world-views tear them apart we find we cannot simply side with one if it means siding against the other. At one point, Rosa explains to her estranged friend, not all of us can save the whole world, some of us can save only one person. How hurtful for Ginger the subject of Rosa's actions turns out to be. How abandoned she must feel, yet Rosa certainly isn't wrong to show kindness. The morality of her decisions will haunt her, and indeed tears apart the friendship and family she has held dear, but can you really blame a teenage girl for finding someone she understands and wanting to hold onto him?
As Ginger spirals out of control into paranoia about the impeding nuclear holocaust, she too must wrestle with her own morality. Can anyone prevent anything from happening when the government is determined to survive at any cost and with no regard to the people they've sworn to protect? There won't be anyone left to govern, as Ginger points out at a rally she isn't supposed to be at. "I think it's immoral."
Of course it is, but that doesn't change anything. Perhaps she would feel differently if she drew comfort from religion, as Rosa does, but Ginger's father makes it clear to her that God is an invention. Does this affect Ginger's perspective? The film itself is full of these questions about religion and politics, set against the backdrop of nuclear war, and placed within the context of a broken down family that is falling apart with every move Ginger appears to take. She blames herself. Her family reassures her that she had nothing to do with it, but isn't that her worst nightmare? That her actions have no effect? It's the right thing to say to a child to comfort them, but Ginger is the wrong child to say this to.
The film ends on a note about forgiveness. Can Ginger ever forgive Rosa's actions? There will be nothing to forgive, she writes in a poem, but I will forgive anyway. Throughout the film, Ginger quotes from T.S. Elliot:
This the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
How devastating it must be to learn that none of your grand actions could have any effect at all, and how devastating further to learn that the smallest moment between two people can change everything forever.