Friends, Before I even start this piece, let me thank everyone who replied to my post(s) earlier. Unfortunately I can't always reply due to my work, which makes my presence here rather erratic. I'd like to offer just one more comment on "Lower Depths" by filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, which is based on Maxim Gorky's 18th century play of the same name and is "reviewed" below.
The DVD comes with an optional running audio commentary on the movie, and I have always found those very helpful with Kurosawa's work ... except for this commentary. I found myself disappointed with this particular commentary because it dealt mostly with cinematic technique, and didn't offer nearly enough interpretation -- for my tastes at any rate -- of the story and of individual characters. I was especially disappointed that there wasn't more interpretation offered about the homeless Buddhist priest who played such a key role in giving the other characters their dignity, solidity and depth. (By the way, in the credits he is referred to as "the pilgrim.")
So I offer my own interpretation :-) ... and to do that I'm deliberately mixing in some Christian (biblical) metaphor, just for the sake of dialogue:
Near the end of the movie the priest leaves the ravine -- "the lower depths" of the title -- with no word about exactly why he's leaving, nor to where he may be wandering next. Earlier in the movie he has said it's about time to move on, but offers no particular explanation about why, nor any hint of where he might want to go next. There is a hint that he too may have some shadows in his past, and that if he settles down too long in one place the authorities might catch on to his presence -- but in my opinion that hint, while intriguing, is fairly inconclusive.
Be that as it may, near the end of the movie he is gone; and I would like humbly to offer an interpretation of his departure.
Each of the persons living in the ravine have one thing in common, besides their poverty and the emotional and spiritual brokenness of their lives. They each live by one or two central illusions. That is, they each have a favorite story they tell about themselves -- about their past, and sometimes about their imagined future -- which helps explain what happened to them in a special way. It is a way that offers a minimum "justification" of their plight, that leaves them at least a veneer of dignity, and that keeps the door of their future from slamming entirely shut on them.
However, there also is what I'd call a "comedic culture of cruelty" down in the ravine. This is a practice -- usually presented in the movie as fairly comedic -- in which, when one character tells his or her story, those who happen to be listening make fun of it. They joust with each story-teller, lampooning the story, popping the bubble as best as they can. The movie may (or may not) be offering insights into what fosters such a culture; certainly it's not limited to the garbage-dump ravines outside Petersburg or Edo. Most of us have witnessed this in the most mundane and middle-class (and above!) of places and situations.
There are, however, two characters in the movie who at least tolerate the illusions, the soul-saving stories. There is  a gambler, who appears to know the illusions are just that, illusions, only minimally true-to-fact (if even that); but he has no particular interest in seriously challenging any of the stories. And  there is the priest, who invariably listens with great empathy to each of the residents as they spin their tales, offers his own comments and insights, and in general supports the story-teller in his or her necessary fiction. The gambler by-and-large doesn't engage in the "comedic culture of cruelty" in the ravine because, as one character tells him directly at one point in the movie, the gambler is a nihilist. And in nihilism, what difference does a fantasy here and an illusion there really make at the end of the pointless and meaningless day? It's as meaningless to do with them, as it would be to do without them; so out of indifference, or so it would seem, the gambler generally leaves the people alone.
But the priest, ah, the priest, hears the stories respectfully and in their entirety because -- in my "read" of the movie -- he understands that as a Buddhist he must practice compassion; and that nevertheless each situation provides specific circumstances that call for specific forms of compassion. Here, in the ravine, among these tragi-comic people at this point in their lives, this is the form compassion must take at this particular moment: hearing their stories with the greatest of respect and empathy. Were he to wander off to the next ravine over -- assuming there is one -- he might find that there compassion needs to take a different form. But here his Buddhist practice calls for hearing, carefully and empathetically, everything each resident has to say; and granting each one of them the grace of leaving intact what their necessary illusions have to give them.
And then, near the end of the movie, the priest disappears. He might possibly have left to escape the authorities; but all we know for sure is (and here a semi-pun tips my interpretive hand) -- that he is "extinguished" as a character. Not "dead" extinguished, but rather, perhaps? ... "thus gone" extinguished? Out of the dusty wind-blown ravine of transitory existence and its sufferings, and to his own paranirvana?
This (to me) is the most exciting place of all in this movie for Christian-Buddhist dialogue to take place. In the Christian New Testament a metaphor for "Hell" -- the place of unending desolation, separation and darkness -- is, it so happens, another ravine: the garbage dump just outside of Jerusalem in Jesus' day, known as Gehenna. Gehenna had been the site of child sacrifice to Canaanite fertility deities in centuries past, and by the first century of the Common Era it apparently looked very much like what you'd expect that kind of centuries-long karma to evolve: bitter, acrid and smoldery desolation, inhabited by wandering skeletal dogs and rodents and such, as bleak and empty of anything to nurture the human soul as can be imagined. Jesus, and no doubt his contemporaries, used Gehenna as an obvious metaphor for hell.
"Hell," in the most ancient forms of Christian tradition -- now found pretty exclusively, alas, only in the Eastern Orthodox tradition -- is the same as "Heaven" but with a fascinating difference: because God is Love, and Love never changes, therefore Paradise and Hell must be the same place -- the sphere of God's unchanging Love. But here's the tragedy: humans may choose to experience Love assomething to be avoided at all costs in one's pursuit of personal gain, pleasure and power. Something confining, suffocating, something ... hellish for the sensualist, the materialist.
"Fine, so be it," says God in this most ancient interpretation (you will not find hell-preachers and -teachers since then saying any such thing). "You want to experience my love as hellish? Then that is what it will be for you. But your neighbor who chose love and compassion will experience that same Love -- that same 'place' -- as Paradise. You have chosen to experience it otherwise."
Most branches of Christianity -- Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox -- agree that "God is Love," in no small measure because the New Testament says that (c.f. 1 John 4:7-21, not to mention any number of Jesus' own teachings). Wherever one chooses for love, for compassion, one is choosing -- one is aligning oneself with -- God. For the one who knows and practices love, Gehenna, the ravine, is transformed, at least in part. The very same "place" -- if Paradise can be called a "place" -- becomes the New Jerusalem, to use yet another New Testament metaphor. When one lives in love, one lives in God.
The wandering Buddhist priest chose compassion in this "Gehenna," this desolate ravine outside Edo. He chose it no doubt because of a lifetime of practice. And while at this point I probably can't push these metaphors too much father, nevertheless maybe you can see where this interpretation is heading? The choice of compassion and love -- whether made by Orthodox priest (Gorky) or Buddhist priest (Kurosawa) -- is a choice, and a practice, that choice transforms the garbage ravines of Petersburg, of Edo, of ancient Jerusalem itself, into the Pure Land. The wandering Buddhist priest has "gone" because, just perhaps, he has in fact "thus gone." And the practice of selfless compassion -- arguably the same as "love" -- is the way out of the ravine, across the Stream.
Or at least that's what I have enjoyed pondering about what now occupies a solid slot among my own own top-five movies of all time :-))