Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Warner Brothers, PG-13 rating
Of the many close-ups used by director Mike Newell in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, one stands out as being easily the most frightening in the whole picture. It is a simple shot of the storied and sneering Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), magically returned to health, breathing in the air around him, mouth closed, in a moment of luscious triumph.
Not since Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) sucked pure oxygen out of a mask in Blue Velvet has the sound of air being drawn into one’s lungs produced such dread. That’s partly because Voldemort has no nose—or rather, that he has inch-long, quivering reptilian slits of flesh where there used to be a nose. We’re told that digital compositors spent months slaving over the effect, and indeed their work has yielded dividends here as elsewhere in the film.
But the real horror comes less from the image and more from the idea—the notion that somewhere there lurks the purest evil, and that at this very moment it has returned from the precipice of death to draw sustenance from the same air we all share. That this blighted, fractioned soul has returned to re-gather his most loyal servants and wage a dark war only adds to the bargain.
Even if you have never picked up a Harry Potter book or seen any of the films, you still probably have some idea of who Harry is, this plucky Boy-Who-Lived, the one whose parents were murdered when they stood between Voldemort and their infant thirteen years before the events of Goblet of Fire. Harry, of course, famously survived the attack, save for being branded with a lightning-shaped scar that economically reports his identity to anyone who can see his forehead. At first it was all-new fun, this flirtation with fame for a gawky preteen from the outside world who had fallen into a hidden society of wizards, only to discover instant celebrity perched just over his glasses.
But things change. With each installment of the series, author J.K. Rowling has increased the spookiness and seriousness and danger, inching us along a seven-year tale of darkness and division and looming death-crusades, as we have learned who Voldemort is, what makes him so, and what he’ll do to earn his own brand of everlasting life. (Let’s just say he’s not particularly keen on the Ten Commandments, especially numbers two, three, five, six, eight, nine, and ten.)
Harry’s whole life seems to have been appointed for the purpose of addressing this rising evil, this present darkness: speaking truth to its power, and turning moments of breathless despair into opportunities to make tangible good. Harry’s life is now slowly twisting itself into the question of whether it is possible to hold back the tide of Voldemort’s movement, its iniquity and hubris.
Although he occupies the screen for only a short while, Voldemort dominates with a mostly unseen hand. He manipulates virtually every major plot element on-screen and off-. Like Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects, Voldemort is a fundamental and charismatic force of malevolence and violent air who controls his minions like marionettes. He turns life for Harry into a living hell, and he challenges us not to take for granted the question of basic human goodness.
Why? The precise answers to that question remain tucked into subsequent books and movies, but it’s safe to say this much: Voldemort is afraid of dying (ominous though it sounds, even his name translates from the French as “flees from death”); and Harry, he believes, is a stumbling block along his path to earthly immortality.
That path, then, must turn to another attempt to see Harry die at Voldemort’s own hands, at the flick of his wand and at the utterance of an unforgivable murder-curse. Voldemort needs to see Harry die for reasons of self-preservation as much as Harry wants Voldemort dead and gone for the good of the whole wizarding world. And so Voldemort seizes on the Triwizard Tournament—a kind of Ironman Triathlon of spells and courage spread out over the academic year and hosted by his school, Hogwarts—to find the clearest path to spilling the blood of our hero.
Which brings us, in one scene, to the beating heart of the whole series so far. In a graveyard miles from safety, finding himself to be the plaything of his reconstituted nemesis while tethered to the headstone of a murdered father, Harry comes face-to-face with the Voldemort who has clung all-too desperately to his human existence with no thought but fear dominating any possibility of what lies beyond this life. Even in this moment of seeming victory, it is Voldemort himself who acknowledges to Harry that love is a stronger force than death. In the utterance of such primal truth, Voldemort finds himself ever-so-briefly in the good company of Jesus, Paul, and the whole host of saints and angels.
Yet in the great narrative of our faith, even Satan recognizes the power and agency of God and still goes right on plotting. Why should it be any different, or any less futile a mission, for Voldemort? Why plan in such bald vanity when the plain fact of love—Harry’s love for humanity and friends; his deceased mother’s love for him—is, by Voldemort’s own admission, ultimately more powerful than anything else he might brandish?
Wonder and poke at this picture, then, for it has everything to do with moral formation. This Voldemort, this being who is only now technically human, describes a narrative of high delusion which suggests that an ethic of sustained violence can lead to sustained living. I don’t buy that and I doubt you do either, but look at the paper or turn on the news. What do you see there? Is it love and charity and hope on clear display, or is it power gone wrong and serving itself?
In the end, perhaps Rowling means Voldemort to be a mere abstraction of the ideas, people, and institutions doing harm in the here and now – salient evil in a world of subtlety and sophistication. Let’s learn from him, then, and know his confidence to be a hex-sign behind which we will find quaking fear and self-deception. To these frailties there ever was and only shall be the response that love shall make us free.
Copyright @ 2007 Torey Lightcap