Top 10 Movies: #3 – Casablanca

What hasn’t been said about Casablanca?  It’s a nearly flawless piece of cinema, and the crowning achievement of the old “assembly-line” system of movie-making, under which the studio would pull a director, a couple of writers and a handful of stars from their stable, throw them on a picture, and crank a new film out each month.  Philosophically speaking, the most striking aspect of Casablanca is the way it features the sudden emergence of moral clarity in a context of moral chaos.  Here, once again, we find an existential humanist thesis, beautifully stated in the Sartrean mode.  The characters exist in a kind of state of limbo, a little world emancipated from all laws of morality, with neither church, nor government, nor familial obligations to enforce standards of behavior.  The choices they make are all their own; the consequences are unavoidably theirs to bear.

The basic plot concerns Rick and Elsa, two lovers who unexpectedly rediscover each other in Casablanca, a seedy but picturesque desert oasis on the outskirts of World War II.  Complicating their reunion is the additional presence of Victor Laslow, a heroic leader of the French Resistance (against the occupation by Nazi Germany) –and also Elsa’s husband.  The film presents as Elsa’s choice between her husband, who represents the virtues of courage, duty, loyalty and honor, and her lover Rick, who represents passion, pleasure, abandonment of duty, and moral corruption.  In the end, however, it is surprisingly Rick himself who makes the final decision in favor of duty over passion –thus signaling his own personal moral renewal.

It has been said that great epic storytelling is all about the little details of individual human lives as contextualized against the grand sweep of massive historical events, and if this is true, then Casablanca fits the formula exactly.  As Rick famously notes, “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans” in the shadow of the world’s most destructive and all-consuming war, and yet it is the deeply felt love triangle that draws the viewer into the story, as ennobled by the sense that the the petty mundane details of the lives of these three little people –the decisions they make, and the decisions made by those around them –do have the capacity to impact the universe which they inhabit.

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