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August 18, 2022

‘Casablanca’: A Story of Redemption

The movie is a delightful tale of character, courage, and recognition that life requires us to think beyond ourselves and our immediate desires.

By Mark Fowler

Reaching the age of 65 is a watershed event. Signing up for Medicare and Social Security; apprehension about the sufficiency of savings for retirement; subtle hints of progressive physical infirmity; declining vision and hearing; the recognition that most of my life is behind rather than in front of me. There are joys, of course: Watching the success of children and the growth of grandchildren.

Lamenting the banality of my youth, I find myself buying and reading books prodigiously. My taste in movies is rather dated. Most modern films do not interest me except to the extent they are stories of moral significance. I want substance rather than flash; meaning rather than merely entertainment.

In that vein, I find “Casablanca” to be one of the most memorable movies I have ever seen. Premiering in 1942, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as well as others of note, the story centers on Richard Blaine, a man struggling with the grief of a failed romance. Finding himself adrift after being inexplicably abandoned by his lover, he settles down as a saloonkeeper in Casablanca in Morocco. His initial introduction to the audience portrays him as a loner, indifferent, cruel to a former female acquaintance, and bitter. There is a hint, never well defined, that he is on the run from the law.

He has a mysterious past including fighting the fascists in Spain. The fascists were ideologically aligned with Hitler and Mussolini. He also ran guns to Ethiopia then fought with the fascists from Italy. These were risky endeavors in the 1930s. Although we are led to believe he is completely indifferent to the needs of those around him (I’m the only cause I’m interested in, he says), it turns out that he is quite kind to his employees whom he has supported when his saloon is closed by authorities. His sad, but manageable, equilibrium is disturbed when his former lover, Ilsa, appears at his saloon with her husband. She explains her sudden abandonment of him was due to the fact that her husband, formerly believed to be deceased, is in fact alive, but ill.

At the same time, he is presented with a moral dilemma: He has come into possession of letters of transit that will allow two people and only two people to escape Casablanca. While he learns that Ilsa is still in love with him, he must decide about how to handle the letters of transit. There is some risk involved, as the letters were obtained from two murdered German soldiers. Ilsa’s husband is a member of the Resistance and a man of great moral stature.

Although Ilsa says she loves and can never leave him again, the fact remains that she is presently married, and their love affair was an innocent mistake at the time. While pondering all of this, he encounters a young wife seeking to escape Bulgaria to go to America. The wife faces her own moral dilemma: sleep with the local prefect of police for a visa she and her husband cannot afford, or remain trapped in Casablanca. Faced with the intensity of her love for her husband and her willingness to do the unthinkable to get to America, Blaine’s character begins to awaken to his long dormant sense of morality. Blaine arranges for the young wife’s spouse to win at roulette, sparing them both the humiliation of her sexual submission while jabbing at the immorality of the chief of police.

His character awakens in other ways. While being informally interrogated by the Germans, he looks at their information and asks sarcastically, “Are my eyes really brown?” When asked about his nationality, he responds, “I’m a drunkard.” Finally, when asked about his imagining Germans in New York, he responds, “Now, Major, there are certain areas of New York I would not encourage you to invade.” Like a knife in the back, it is an undeniable insult clothed in sarcasm.

Ultimately, he chooses a path involving a masterful deception of the Germans and the corrupt chief of police, and while doing so preserves his honor and the honor of his beloved Ilsa, with whom he seals his love as Don Quixote did for Dulcinea — “pure and chaste from afar.”

The end of the movie closes with Blaine walking away from the airport, having saved two marriages, provided for his employees, and redeeming himself and his friend — the very chief of police whom he had deceived just that evening.

This is a remarkable piece of art: a delightful tale of a man’s character, his courage, his ability to find his way back to the right path, and his recognition that life requires us to think beyond ourselves and our immediate desires. It’s about wrestling with one’s self and striving to find a higher truth and redemption.

Here’s to looking for and finding honor.

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