Wow, Casablanca, the classic of classics and I finally got to see it, after all those times I came across it on TV and immediately switched to another channel, after all those times I heard other people say it was a unique jewel in the world’s filmography, after all those times I threw up when I heard words like “romance”, “passion” and “impossible love” to describe the plot of this 1942 film, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring the charismatic Humphrey Bogard as Rick Blaine and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund. After watching it, I can say without fear of being wrong, that yes… this movie is really special, both for its story and its characters, but it is also interesting because of the space in which the events take place and how this space echoes with all the other elements of the story. I’m referring to the political and social context, the geographical point where the story takes place (from the city of Casablanca to Rick’s bar and everything in between), all elements masterfully orchestrated to produce a powerful story about how external circumstances tend to shape our decisions and how our emotions tend to prolong conflicts, up to the point where we decide to take charge of the situation and manage to change destiny.
But wait… what’s Casablanca about? Well it’s about this guy, Rick Blaine, who owns Rick’s bar, a place where a bunch of refugees (mostly) try to escape Europe in the middle of WWII. In Rick’s bar they find one of the only places to have a nice time in the midst of the chaos of war. The thing is that Rick starts the movie with a selfish attitude, he only thinks about saving himself and does not interfere in other people’s affairs, not even in favor of friends or acquaintances. Now, this attitude also serves him to maintain a close relationship with Captain Louis Renault, who is in charge of Casablanca and also makes him pass under the radar of Major Strasser and the troop of Nazis who have come to Casablanca in search of Victor Laszlo, an activist against Nazism and active voice of the European resistance against the Germans. It is here that Rick and Victor’s paths cross, though not because of the war, but because Victor Laszlo’s wife is Ilsa Lund, Rick’s old girlfriend who has jilted him in France on the day of the Nazi occupation, the day Rick begins his journey to Casablanca. At the beginning of the film, Rick gets hold of some stolen passports that will allow anyone to use them to escape from Casablanca. Victor and Ilsa’s goal is to escape Casablanca before they are killed by the Nazis, do you see where the whole thing is going?
Before we go any further, let’s talk a little about the character of Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart. As I said earlier, Rick begins the story with a selfish stance on the whole war thing and other people’s problems. Even when an acquaintance is captured by the Nazis, Rick merely says that he doesn’t stick his neck out for nobody. Rick also doesn’t usually drink with other people and doesn’t accept anyone’s invitation if he can help it. But the situation changes radically when Ilsa and Laszlo arrive in Casablanca. From this moment on, Rick cannot help but show a different side of his personality, one that is more empathetic, but also more passionate, to the surprise of his acquaintances and to Ilsa’s pain, since Rick does not delay in letting her know the damage she has caused him by abandoning him in Paris.
Now, what happened in Paris? The thing is that Ilsa was dating Rick when the Nazis came to destroy everything. Rick had a plan to escape with Ilsa and his eternal companion, the pianist Sam Wilson. But everything goes to hell when Ilsa doesn’t show up at the train station, instead she sends a letter tersely explaining the situation (basically that they won’t see each other again). It is from this moment that Rick decides to send everyone to hell and focus on living a meaningless life, sheltered in his bar from the calamities of the world.
But the arrival of Ilsa and Victor Laszlo brings other unforeseen consequences in Rick’s life. One of them is found in perhaps the most dramatic scene of the film. I refer to the scene where the Nazis have taken over the bar and are singing the German anthem, but are interrupted by Laszlo and the brass band, when Rick instructs them to follow Laszlo’s order to play the Marseillaise. It is here that the change begins in Rick, who no longer appears as an outsider to the political conflict, but takes matters into his own hands. After the Nazis decide to close the bar and ban the festivities, Rick learns the truth about Ilsa’s disappearance. It turns out that she was already married to Victor before she met Rick, but when Victor leaves to face the war and after a long time in which Ilsa has no news about his whereabouts, she makes the decision to continue her life with Rick, just then, she receives news about Victor, who is alive.
Is destiny nothing but a cruel machine of anticipated tears?
Well, I prefer not to tell you the end of the story so as not to ruin the experience, although being honest, I think that when you see the ending you will realize that you have seen it before in countless parodies and homages, because that final scene and its dialogues are already part of the DNA of American cinema. That’s Casablanca, a movie about a guy who doesn’t want to get involved in war because of heartache, living in a neutral place (not being a villain or anyone’s ally) until someone else comes along to remind him that there are things in life worth fighting for and that sometimes being neutral can do more harm than trying to take a more concrete stand.