An atlas of the clouds

Posted: October 25, 2012 by Emilio Garofalo Neto in Drama, Thursday's Thoughts
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An Atlas is basically a collection of maps from a certain geographic area. I always loved atlases, and still greatly enjoy getting one of such books and browsing them, looking for cities, routes, lakes, mapping my own knowledge and imagination.

Today flying from Salvador to Brasilia (look up on an atlas) I was observing the clouds and considering how foolish it would be for any human to try to map the clouds. This idea is at the background of this movie. At a certain point in the book from which Cloud Atlas is adapted, a character muses: “What wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds”. It would indeed be great to know in advance how actions and reactions shape us, the others and the world.
This is an adaptation of the superb novel by David Mitchell, a British author who is undoubtedly one of the world’s finest writers. I have read the novel but not seen the movie yet, and just by the trailer I know a couple of things are different. Nevertheless Mitchell worked closely with the screenwriters and approved of everything; so I do not expect major thematic changes.

From now on expect some mild spoilers; but know, that in this story the “how” is as important as the “what”.

So, what happens? The stories follow similar patterns of people fighting against difficult situations and being helped by someone’s kindess. There are mean deeds, suffering, and exploitative people, and yet there is hope in difficult and complicated times. There is very evil behavior, no rose-colored glasses here; one character even says “You underestimate humanity’s ability to bring such evil into being”. The story is comprised of six different stories, set apart in time and space. At least in one story soccer saves the day (please filmmakers, do not change this to baseball).

The six stories are:

– 1850 – An American shipwrecked in the southern seas hopes to return home and writes a diary telling his adventures;

– 1931, Belgium – an English musician writes letters in which he tells about his days as an amanuensis to a famous composer;

– 1975, California – an investigative reporter looks into the secrets of a nuclear plant;

– Current time, England – a publisher deals with gangster related problems;

– Future time, Korea – A clone waitress becomes more than what she should be;

– Distant future, Hawaii – A post-war society dealing with life after the cataclysms

In the book, the story is construed in a very clever way, we begin with the oldest story and then it is interrupted, moving on to the second one. This goes on until the final story and then we begin to go back in time and see how the previous stories ended. The stories are encapsulated into the next one, like a Russian doll.  And it is all beautifully connected. The movie takes its title from what Robert Frobisher, the musician from the second story, says about his masterpiece, a sextet for overlapping soloists, the Cloud Atlas Sextet: “piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is continued, in order.”

The movie will follow a different pattern, alternating stories from the very beginning.

Here is the very first images we had of it, a 5 minute behemoth trailer that made it clear to us all that this was not some ordinary storytelling or industrialized plot.

Here it is:

This all may sound very complicated, but I assure you the book is not confusing at all, and I hear the movie does a fabulous editing job of keeping you knowledgeable about what is what.

Be warned: The movie plays with the idea of reincarnation, an element that seems to be stronger in the movie than it was in the book. By using the same actors in different roles as the stories overlap, the authors display the idea that we relate and change as we go on living life after life. Of course the whole issue of reincarnation is completely anti-biblical. Any human sub-creation will necessarily resemble God’s truth while at parts distorting truth for its own purposes. But as it is with any forgery, it takes a resemblance of the real thing even though distorted. The Biblical principle that is real and could be the answer to what is going on is that indeed our actions will influence the future generations and the ones who come after us. And that there is not much new under the Sun or as the novel says “We cross, crisscross, and recross our old tracks like figure skaters”. The Biblical truth that reincarnation distorts is: actions have consequences over many lives; not yours, but others. Our lives are profoundly affected by the actions and choices of people near and far, in the present or past; we just do not see it.

This idea of actions and consequences is one of the main themes of the story. The film deals with how one simple act of kindness can reverberate through history and change lives hundreds of years after the fact.

Think about how simple acts of service and kindness change history: In the Bible, consider prophet Nathan taking courage and dealing with David’s sin. How much did that mean to David, Israel and the world?  Think about Barnabas, who came to Saul of Tarsus and took him under his wing; providing a place for the newly called apostle to begin growing into the most important missionary/theologian in history. The Bible is full of little actions that result in much; Romans 16:4 records Paul talking about how some people risked their lives for his sake, and for that not only Paul is grateful, but the whole of the gentile churches are and should be grateful. Your church is a direct descendant of the choices and risks taken by those people Paul mentions in that verse.

Sometimes the actions are more than little deeds, they are life defining events; things happen that leave us speechless and we know life will be always different. A character in the novel says:”Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms around the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage”.

Indeed, sometimes a single act will forever change the whole world; and this is mainly true in the place of the skull, where the universe’s master was slain in the action that is simultaneously the vilest and the kindest action of history.

If we could know how far our actions would go, how they would reverberate, how our words and deeds would echo through generations, we would be more careful and sober about such things. If we could, as it were, knew the movement of the clouds, measure and predict the ineffable, we would know we would weight, we would delight in what is to come and we would have solace about what is so tragic out there.

In the story set in future Korea, an interviewer asks the clone that led a rebellion: “Why does any martyr cooperate with his judas?” She correctly responds “We see a game beyond the endgame”. Jesus knew his story would not end with his betrayal, he, unlike the Pharisees, could see what the gathering clouds would bring.

I am glad to remind you that our Lord has an atlas of the clouds.


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