Reality is what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch.
Or is it?
On Purim when the world goes crazily upside down, with the story’s villainous scheming and unexpected twists and turns, when actors dress up, or down, when scenes shift in a nanosecond from royal feasts to swinging gallows, when dramatic suspense ricochets from fear and dread to drunken revelry and celebration, is there a message for us now?
Or at the very least, a new riff on the old story?
Go see the provocative film Parasite that has drawn critical acclaim – and copped an Oscar – a disturbing tale that pits the poor and powerless against the rich and powerful, and then switches them up. Hard to watch, especially as it builds to a gratuitously (for this viewer) violent ending, yet searing in its staying power that continues to occupy my mind.
There’s the piteous poor, living halfway below ground just above the sewers in Korea (spoiler alert, there is one character actually living underground) eking out just enough to stay alive or glom on to a neighbor’s WiFi connection to get a job, or insinuate themselves into another family’s lives to finally find a way up and out.
Then there’s the privileged few, living in a palatial home, an architectural landmark that could pass for a museum, sparely but beautifully appointed – or curated – with expansive glass walls looking out to meticulously designed, and maintained, green space.
And then there is the story that unwinds as the poor son serendipitously becomes a tutor for the wealthy family’s precocious preteen daughter, his sister the teacher for the troubled younger brother, his father the family’s chauffeur and soon enough his mother, the family’s housekeeper. What follows is a mash up of dependency and decadence, a role reversal as dramatic as Mordecai supplanting Haman, the persecuted Jew turned courtier, the king’s aide de camp turned martyr of his own machinations and the beauteous Jewess Esther offering herself to Ahasuerus the royal seducer and ultimately saving her people.
Throughout the film there is the unsettling hierarchy of class, the troubling divisions that define difference, as repugnant as the faintly rotten odor that the family gradually detects emanating from their help, as their crude talk about cheap cotton panties they are loathe to touch when a pair is found in their chauffeured car.
Even as they come to depend on the hard working staff to run their household — and raise their kids – they still see them at a remove, as other, their basic humanity obscured at best, denied at worst. Parasite may be set in Korea, but it has whiffs of Shushan, and the Purim story, with Haman’s slanderous characterization of the Jews as “a certain people who are not fit to be tolerated” and decreeing their demise, one episode in a long history of Jew hatred, dehumanization, devastation and destruction.
It is a sobering reminder of the insidious arrogance of privilege and the invidious othering of those who are denied it. And of the very real obligation to look, to see, to hear, those whose lot is less than ours, to treat them with compassion and work to find ways to lift them up.
See — and be seen — is a lesson we can draw from the Megillah, to know our own reality and strive to know that of others.
To do less is to deny their humanity — and ours.