Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (dir. Martin McDonagh, 2017)

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Since its publication in 1953, Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” has become a staple of American literature courses. Often read alongside the works of authors such as William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, the story is thought to be emblematic of “Southern Gothic” literature, a subgenre in which mysterious and even macabre elements are used to explore various social issues, particularly those associated with the American South (poverty, racism, religion, etc.). O’Connor’s place in this genre is often associated with her development of “grotesque” characters — that is, characters who simultaneously elicit disgust and empathy. These figures may be sinful, but they are not, sensu stricto, evil; they are disfigured, wounded. O’Connor ties this type of characterization to her Southern-cum-Catholic background: “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.”

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” centers on a banally dysfunctional Georgia family en route to Florida for a summer vacation. After a series of misadventures, they get lost somewhere east of Macon, near the ominously named Toomsboro. A freak accident occurs, and their car plunges into a ditch. Confused and irritated, but not mortally wounded, the family flags an oncoming vehicle for help. Three armed men get out, and the family’s matriarch — a jejune and self-centered woman known only as the Grandmother — identifies them as a band of fugitives led by The Misfit, a notorious murderer. Under duress, the Grandmother pleads with The Misfit for her life: “She found herself saying, ‘Jesus, Jesus,’ … but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing.” The Misfit begins to contemplate Jesus and the possibility of his raising the dead: “‘I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t [raise the dead]…I wish I had of been there … If I had of been there I would of known…and I wouldn’t be like I am now.'” Suddenly, as if receiving a revelation, the Grandmother intuits The Misfit’s pain and her own peculiar relation to it. She sympathetically places her hand on The Misfit’s shoulder, but he recoils and shoots her three times. “‘She would of been a good woman,'” The Misfit reflects, “‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.'”

In an opening scene of Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, in an Oscar-winning performance) visits a local advertising agency, hoping to lease the eponymous billboards on the outskirts of town. Business is slow, and so Mildred finds the agency’s manager Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) in a quiet moment — his feet propped on his desk, book in hand.

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The book is O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” McDonagh’s camera lingers on it just long to enough to let the viewer take note. In turn, he suggests that the following story is an exercise in O’Connor-like grotesquerie — a film, in other words, that will offer signs of grace but in the midst of human fallenness.

To be sure, Mildred understands the brokenness of humanity all too well. Her husband left her for a younger woman, further complicating an already precarious domestic life. Then things went from bad to (impossibly) worse: her daughter was raped and murdered in a crime that remains unsolved. Sensing apathy from the local police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), she decides to put pressure on the authorities by, quite literally, advertising her pain on a trio of billboards:

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Many of the residents of Ebbing (a fictional town represented by Sylva, North Carolina) are offended by Mildred’s signs, not only because of their brazenness, but also because they imply that Willoughby has been negligent. A pillar of the community, Willoughby has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and many resent that Mildred refuses to allow him to spend his final weeks in peace. No one is angrier at Mildred than Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell, who also won an Oscar for his role), an officer in the Ebbing PD whose childlike admiration for Willoughby is matched only by his enmity toward everyone else. So, when Willoughby commits suicide, Dixon’s worst tendencies come to the fore. He drinks heavily and, in a scene with Scorsese-like flair, tosses Welby from a second-story window. Dismissed from the force, Dixon appears to be a lost cause, but a series of unexpected events sets him on a different path — one that, as he sees it, would have met Willoughby’s approval. He reconciles with Mildred, and the two vow to become vigilantes on behalf of abused women.

It is easy to see, then, how Three Billboards could be seen as an example of grotesque cinema. As in O’Connor’s stories, the film does not feature a classic protagonist — a savior who is confident, noble, and pure. Rather, its three main characters are flawed in significant ways. Willoughby has the mien of a hero but is terrified of his own mortality. Dixon is a goon and a racist. And though Mildred is billed as the lead character, her bitterness has twisted her into an icon of guerrilla warfare:

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On the other hand, McDonagh manages to elicit empathy for each of these figures too. Willoughby is a good man cut down in his prime. Dixon belongs to the “working poor,” meagerly educated and still living at home — with his xenophobic and spiteful mother, no less. And Mildred’s suffering goes without saying. The upshot is an ambiguous, even erratic film.

Perhaps that is why, awards aside, Three Billboards has garnered more than a little criticism. One commentator has accused McDonagh of naïvely subverting the film’s principal aim, namely, the elevation of a strong female lead character: “Three Billboards hasn’t just stripped Mildred of her sympathy, but her humanity as well. Her unhinged rage — expressions of which are framed as invitations to spout you-go-girl-isms at the screen — makes her look silly instead, and the righteousness of her cause suffers as a result.” Tim Parks, writing in The New Yorker, excoriates McDonagh for dangling “caricatures, conflict, and political correctness” as Oscar-bait:

Below the surface of this narrative, a deeper conflict is being waged: the fight of the liberal intelligentsia against the redneck, racist Trump voters of Missouri. (Or, perhaps, against the Brexit folk of northern England; where this story is set is merely a matter of commercial opportunity.) All of the sophistication of modern cinema, the extraordinary competence of modern acting and modern photography, is brought to bear on exposing the vulgarity of the conservative Midwestern provinces. It is not a fair fight. The seductive power of these images, and the powerful sense of reality they convey, covers up a thousand cheap coincidences and blatant manipulations of the story line.

Such reviews of Three Billboards have become so common — from both sides of the political divide — that Wesley Morris has grown exasperated, not just with the film itself, but also with the whole Oscar season: “The movie isn’t an explicit work of politics, but it reaches something political in certain people in the same way it touches something emotional in others. And yet in arguing about this movie what I don’t want, but where I’m afraid we are — with lots of film this time every year — is in another fight over a movie’s politics that manages to leave the movie itself behind. Whose fault is that? We’ve been seduced and bullied into thinking of the awards season as a process of politics.”

The claim that Three Billboards is mostly interested in politics is an important one, because it suggests how McDonagh’s art ultimately differs from O’Connor’s. In a September 1955 letter, O’Connor laments that “[p]olicy and politics generally go contrary to principle,” whereas she identifies herself with the “mystical body” of the Church — an institution that names deviations from principle (including ecclesial deviations) as “sin.”  Is this, then, what differentiates “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” from Three Billboards — that the former concerns a fallenness that transcends finite human (and thus political) distinctions, while the latter reduces fallenness to precisely such distinctions? If so, this would explain why McDonagh’s use of the grotesque softens at film’s end, when Dixon’s assumption of a new political identity is treated as a Damascene conversion. Here, it seems, was the point all along. In contrast, O’Connor never loses sight of what Rowan Williams calls “the tragic within grace,” whereby the possibility of forgiveness is only glimpsed by way of “terrible moments of fatal longing” — to wit, the encounter between the Grandmother and the Misfit, in which they both desire a redemption that, alas, proves out of reach. For O’Connor, Williams adds, “grace is an excess that may make for significance or forgiveness, but needn’t.”

That this is obviously the case — that divine grace, whatever else it may be, is something that does not always overcome human sin — means that the artist owes it to herself and, indeed, to her readers to render it faithfully. This task is what Williams terms the “serious and costly dispossession of the artist in the work.” And it is on this point, finally, that McDonagh breaks from O’Connor. Three Billboards flirts with the grotesque and, to be sure, may be seen as a nod toward O’Connor’s legacy. But its humanistic-political horizon means that it never really leaves McDonagh’s hand: it offers a “message” from and about him to and for his audience. Where McDonagh pulls strings, O’Connor lets go.

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The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2017)

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The phrase “shape of water” is, of course, an oxymoron. Water is a fluid and, as such, is defined as a material with “zero shear modulus.” This means that, when a certain “stress” is applied to water, its form is subject to change. In other words, water does not have any shape per se but morphs in accordance with given external conditions and pressures. The question that Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water asks is this: is love like water? That is to say, is love irreducible to any putatively “natural” form and thus open to a variety of expressions? This is, of course, a big question, which bears significant socio-political connotations. But del Toro does not directly confront today’s cultural discussion. Instead, The Shape of Water is a fable whose moral is illustrated through fantasy.

The film is set in Baltimore in the early 1960s. It’s the time of the Cold War, and the American government is bent on exploring any and every advantage over the Soviets. With this in mind, Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, in a typecast role) returns from South America with a prize — namely, a humanoid amphibious river dweller.

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This creature is menacing and, at times, violent. Moreover, it is incapable of communicating in human language, using instead a peculiar series of clicks and hisses. So mysterious is it that, according to Strickland, tribal peoples worship it as a “god.” On the other hand, the creature’s face resembles that of a human being, and it seems to enjoy human music and cuisine (particularly hard-boiled eggs, in a suggestive metaphor).

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A different film might have investigated the philosophical, scientific, and theological questions raised by such a being: what is it that constitutes the humanum? Where, in other words, do we draw the line between a creature that exhibits human-like qualities (as with primates, for example) and a human being per se? Is it the ability to form abstract concepts and language? To create representational art? To pray to a deity or deities?

But del Toro sidesteps these difficult problems. Instead, he pits the brutal and callous Col. Strickland, whose hatred of the creature seems to be grounded in a deviant reading of the Old Testament, against the sensitive and sweet Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a janitor in the facility in which the creature is being detained. Where Strickland sees a dangerous beast, Elisa sees an oppressed person. Elisa too cannot speak (she has been mute since childhood), and yet she has dreams and hopes. Del Toro makes it clear that her longing is chiefly sexual. After all, Elisa has a pair of caring and supportive friends, and she does not seem to lack the necessities of life. Yet, for reasons that the film fails to address, she is not in an erotic relationship. She masturbates each day before work, expressing the sexual desire otherwise suppressed in her life. In this way, she resembles her neighbor Giles, a gay artist who tries (not always successfully) to bridle his sexuality in public. Both Elisa and Giles are incomplete just to the extent that society — still betraying the vestiges of Eisenhower conservatism — dictates the form in which their erotic passion is to find articulation.

As time passes, Elisa realizes that Strickland, under orders from his commanders, expects to kill the amphibious creature. With help from Giles and others, Elisa absconds with the creature and keeps him in the bathroom of her apartment, allowing him to soak in a bath of tap water and table salt. A bond seems to develop between the two, and eventually they have sex. At the same time, Elisa realizes that he (indeed, she visually clarifies that the creature has a penis) is being hunted by the military and must be released into the ocean. This tension sets up a climactic showdown between Strickland and the two lovers.

Del Toro is celebrated as an imaginative storyteller — look no further than his 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth for evidence — and The Shape of Water is indeed visually arresting. It is as if Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen shot the film with a cyanic filter, imbuing its fictional Baltimore (the movie was actually filmed in and around Toronto) with a wet, shimmering luster. Moreover, the creature himself is indelible, partly an homage to the Gill-man (below) from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), partly a recomposition of the Faun from Pan’s Labyrinth:

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And yet, given The Shape of Water‘s premise, much hinges on whether or not one is convinced by the relationship between the amphibian man and Elisa. Taken literally, this is not an easy sell. Yes, Elisa’s personal characteristics — alone, mute, mysterious — superficially resemble those of the creature. Still, to what extent can one say that she is truly like the amphibian man? For example, we know that she is sexually frustrated, but can the same be said for the creature? Elisa communicates her sexual desires both in action and in sign, whereas the creature gives no such indication. They do eventually have sex, but perhaps the creature was simply acting on instinct? In any case, since the creature (unlike Elisa) cannot communicate in human terms, there is no way of knowing his intentions. To be sure, Alexandre Desplat’s romantic score, not to mention the magical realism of Elisa and the amphibian man’s sex scene (she floods her bathroom with tap water), prod the viewer to accept that there is a genuine relationship between the two characters. But these flourishes are more beguiling than substantive. Since del Toro invests so little in the question of what the creature is, it is hard to know the nature of its relationship with Elisa. One simply has to accept what del Toro’s filmmaking is suggesting.

Clearly, then, The Shape of Water is best understood on the level of metaphor — something that many commentators have emphasized. The default assumption seems to be that the film represents the struggles of LGBTQ people and, indeed, is a kind of “love letter” to the gay community. GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation) has designated it as “LGBTQ-related entertainment,” adding that it is a “story about the power of love, and outcasts fighting the system.” While conceding that The Shape of Water is an “unrealistic fantasy,” one blogger nevertheless associates the film with movements such as the Stonewall riots and Black Lives Matter: “Intersectional and ‘othered’ people always end up saving the world, and this time cinema. Thank you Guillermo Del Toro, for making this incredible film.” Del Toro, however, has implied that the film has just as much to do with current debates about immigration, and, as a Mexican citizen, he finds its tale personally meaningful: “I may have light skin and sort of lighter hair, but the moment I open my mouth in immigration, all that goes away. When I’m stopped many times by a cop on a traffic violation and I speak, I am immediately a Mexican. So these are things I am trying to say.”

In this way, del Toro opens the door to viewing The Shape of Water as something other than a parable about sex. Indeed, John McAteer notes that, even as the film takes a critical stance toward certain aspects of Christianity, it also draws on “Christian stories and imagery” and, perhaps unintentionally, gets “a lot of the gospel right.” After all, certain sexually explicit biblical texts — most notably the Song of Solomon, which features lines such as “Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins” (Song 7:3, AKJV) — are often read as representations of God’s love for humanity. Is it possible, then, that the amphibian man, who is referred to as a “god,” symbolizes a divine other whose love redeems those who have eyes to see and ears to hear? One might press this possibility even further and wonder if del Toro’s emphasis on love’s fluidity is not a call for human beings to abandon a perverse and rigid anthropocentrism, whereby that which is other than human (including God) is laid bare by science and then tossed aside. Only if love is open to mystery, to an other that it desires but cannot circumscribe, can it be said to fulfill its deepest impulse. On this reading, del Toro’s characterization of Strickland is not opposed to Christianity per se but to what Martin Heidegger famously called “ontotheology” — a way of “framing” the world that uses God (theos) to underpin a techno-scientific focus on beings.

Such metaphysical ruminations are unlikely to appeal to those who insist on seeing The Shape of Water as a political film. But del Toro’s decision to tell the story as a fable means that it cannot be reduced to any single “statement.” For that reason, its meaning is deferred. The Shape of Water asks hot-button questions but is loath to give a determinative answer. Like the sea, billowing and frothing during a midnight storm, it presents an entrancing formlessness.

Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2017)

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At just 47 years of age, Christopher Nolan has become an anomaly in Hollywood — a critically-acclaimed filmmaker who also is bankable at the box office. Moreover, he has done so with a series of films that, on the surface, bear little resemblance to one another: Memento (2000) is basically low-budget noir; the Dark Knight (2008) belongs to the superhero genre; Inception (2010) plumbs the human unconscious; Interstellar (2014, which I reviewed) is sci-fi for armchair physicists. There is, then, a protean quality to Nolan’s output, which makes him an enigmatic figure among contemporary directors. Unlike, say, Martin Scorsese, it is hard to say what a “Nolan film” is like. His works tend to experiment with Weltanschauungen as much as genre and style. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that Nolan followed Interstellar, a space opera set in the future, with Dunkirk, a war film set in the past.

Dunkirk is based on the Dunkirk evacuation (codenamed Operation Dynamo) of 1940. Tomes have been written on this event, its impact on World War II, and its role in shaping Britain’s identity, but Nolan condenses this abundant material into a taut, 106-minute film. The decision to prioritize cinematic intensity over historical contextualization has been met with controversy, and it is fair to say that Dunkirk teaches us next to nothing about the persons behind the event. After all, Tom Hardy’s character is known as “Farrier” (though he is loosely based on the New Zealand pilot Alan Deere), while Cillian Murphy plays a man simply listed as “Shivering Soldier.” What Nolan’s film does capture (or, at least, strives to capture) is the evacuation’s sense of desperation and urgency. Ever fond of playing with chronology, Nolan divides the film into three plots, each beginning at a different temporal point in relation to the operation’s completion — namely, a week (“The Mole”), a day (“The Sea”), and an hour (“The Air”). The first of these timelines centers on a group of soldiers, stranded on Dunkirk beach, who are trying to board a ship back to England. They are all but defenseless against the bombardment of the Luftwaffe, and they scurry, almost silently, from vessel to vessel in hopes of deliverance.

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The Mole

The second timeline features a civilian, his teenage son, and his son’s friend, who depart on a fishing boat from Weymouth and head toward Dunkirk, hoping to aid in the evacuation. As they cross the English Channel, they pick up a soldier stranded at sea, who is suffering from shell shock — a fateful decision, which puts their mission in jeopardy. The third timeline centers on a pair of British pilots, who are trying to provide much-needed cover for the evacuation. This is the most sublime sequence in the film. By using genuine Spitfires and mounting cameras to the planes’ wings, Nolan comes as close as possible to recreating an aerial dogfight.

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The Air

Of course, as a representation of a historical event, the audience already knows how Dunkirk is going to end. But the denouement comes as a relief nonetheless. When, at last, Nolan permits us to hear Winston Churchill’s famous “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” address, we have a sense of how it must have been received by the soldiers who survived the evacuation — weary but hardened, traumatized yet grateful.

In many respects, it would seem that this accomplishment alone is significant, and that Dunkirk‘s critical acclaim (including eight Oscar nominations) is merited. I, for one, would agree. Dunkirk is a transfixing experience and, as a technical achievement, bests Nolan’s other tour de force, The Dark Knight (2008). But Dunkirk has its detractors too. As mentioned, much of the criticism has centered on the film’s minimal interest in historical context and character development — a problem that at least one commentator views as inherent in Nolan’s “postmodern narrativity”: “By focusing on the visual—elevating image over word—he wants us to feel rather than think, to re-experience rather than remember.” In giving priority to imagery, Nolan gives priority to “simulation,” that is, to overlaying the real event (the Dunkirk evacuation) with a series of sublime images that falsely pretend to repeat them (Dunkirk). That is why there is no God in Dunkirk either. Nolan has set himself up as the quasi-divine author of the world of Dunkirk (if not Dunkirk): “What Nolan does suggest…is that a virtual form of transcendence is available within the world, simply as a heightened experience of the world.”

This is an intriguing argument, which harks back to one of the classic debates in film theory: is the cinematic medium principally oriented toward recording and disclosing reality (per Siegfried Kracauer), or is cinema an illusion all the way down, giving the appearance of continuous movement when, in truth, it is a series of manipulated photographs projected at a certain speed (per Jean-Louis Baudry)? On the latter view, Nolan’s Dunkirk is surely a master class in illusory technique, cajoling the viewer (for the price of a ticket no less!) into believing that he or she is “right there” in battle, even though nothing could be farther from the truth. On the former view, Nolan’s techniques are persuasive precisely because they indicate and indeed mediate reality, and thus Dunkirk is a means of understanding our world, disclosing, among other things, the elemental human experiences of beauty, fear, love, and so on.

In the end, I tend toward cinematic realism, and so I am not terribly worried about Dunkirk‘s thin historicity. There is a sense in which Nolan’s approach here resembles that of Terrence Malick, contemporary cinema’s paragon of “realism.” As is well known, Malick was a Heidegger scholar and translator before becoming a filmmaker, and, accordingly, Malick treats art as a site where the “unconcealment” [alètheia] and “concealment” of entities is manifested and the presence of “divinities” [die Göttlichen] intimated. Might one say something similar about Nolan’s Dunkirk? Certainly it is a film attuned to things in themselves, to the interplay of earth and sky and mortals.

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As a World War II film, moreover, Dunkirk views these elements over against the “enframing” of modern technology: entities are controlled and set aside for use. Air, land, and sea, even the human being as such, are revealed as instruments of a technological purpose. In this sense, the anonymity of the characters discloses their instrumental status.

And yet, there are points in Dunkirk where an excess breaks through — the sublimity of clouds and sun, the perilous beauty of the ocean, the human being’s primordial urge to live, to be home, all captured brilliantly by Hans Zimmer’s pealing score. In these moments, Dunkirk becomes a conduit for anthropological and theological reflection, perhaps even sacral experience. Here film does not just tell us about these themes; it makes us feel them.

Stranger Things 1 and 2 (Matt and Ross Duffer, 2016-17)

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It has not been my usual practice to review television shows on this site. I’ve only done so once before, when I wrote about Breaking Bad way back in 2014. It’s not that I don’t watch television; on the contrary, there is too much good content to ignore, from The Wire to Mad Men to Game of Thrones (to mention just a few). Yet, with shows running for multiple seasons and featuring several episodes per season, it is nearly impossible to sum up their main characters and themes in a short blog entry. The Netflix series Stranger Things is certainly no different. Already two seasons in length, with seventeen episodes wrapped and more to come, the show has already outstripped what I can address on Theology + Movies. But it has become so popular that I wanted to offer a few observations about it. Indeed, while I regularly show film clips in my courses, many of which are utterly foreign to my students, Stranger Things immediately strikes a chord. Millennials may not know Taxi Driver from Driving Miss Daisy, but, in my experience, they know pretty much everything about the (fictional) small town of Hawkins, Indiana and the strange events that took place there in 1983.

The first season of Stranger Things centers on the disappearance of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), a 12-year-old boy, whose bicycle is found abandoned in the woods near his house. The local police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) initially assumes that Will has run away, but a slew of mysterious coincidences suggest otherwise. The trouble is ultimately traced back to the nearby Hawkins National Laboratory, where a sinister yet brilliant scientist (Matthew Modine) has unwittingly opened a portal to the “Upside Down” — a dimension that normally runs parallel to our own but now interlaces it with disastrous consequences. A monster known as the Demogorgon has been unleashed, and it now lurks among the inhabitants of Hawkins.

The question is: how can the inter-dimensional portal be closed, the Demogorgon vanquished, and Will retrieved from the bowels of Upside Down, where he is hiding from the relentless and hungry demon?

In a manner reminiscent of classic Spielberg blockbusters such as Jaws (1975) and as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Stranger Things showcases a tension in how this threat from beyond is handled. On the one hand, there is the governmental response, which is as concerned with snuffing out those who would expose the danger as with eliminating the danger itself — thus a team of jackbooted bureaucrats, who prowl about Hawkins in the hopes of containing the Demogorgon without alerting the public. On the other hand, there is the grassroots effort, headed by a ragtag bunch of benevolent misfits — thus Will’s buddies, science nerds and lovers of Dungeons and Dragons, who traverse the alleys and backroads of Hawkins on their BMX bikes. Of course, the government has greater resources, but Will’s friends have the insight and moxie to get to the bottom of things, not to mention the invaluable assistance of “Eleven” (Millie Bobby Brown), a mysterious girl with psychokinetic ability who is linked to the Hawkins lab and thus to the Upside Down. As time passes, Eleven becomes arguably the leader of the group, even as she seeks to understand her real identity and the purpose of her considerable powers. After all, the Upside Down’s threat to Hawkins has only just begun, and the second season shows that the Demogorgon, however terrifying, is actually part of an ecosystem of evil.

This is a very rough outline of the series to date, but it should suffice to set up a discussion of the key themes of Stranger Things. Indeed, it is a show begging for allegorical interpretation. Rep. David Cicilline (Democrat, Rhode Island) has argued — on the House floor! — that Stranger Things is a metaphor for American life under the administration of Pres. Donald Trump: “We are now stuck in the Upside Down,” he said, “right is wrong, up is down, black is white.” Others have seen the series as a metaphor for children who are coping with trauma. A more patent line of interpretation has focused on the links between Stranger Things and Dungeons and Dragons. One character in Stranger Things refers to the Upside Down as the “Vale of Shadows,” an appellation that is not officially tied to the D&D canon but does appear in a D&D-themed video game known as Icewind Dale. In any case, this hermeneutical pliability at least partly explains the popularity of Stranger Things: not only is it a well-written, well-acted show, but it can seemingly mean whatever one wants it to mean.

For that reason, a theological reading of Stranger Things is perhaps inevitable. The series is clearly an attempt to “re-enchant” suburban America, where religious affiliation continues to decline in favor of a techno-therapeutic understanding of human existence. Stranger Things, in contrast, takes an almost Pauline approach to daily life, depicting it as the site where otherworldly “principalities and powers” (Eph 6:12) intervene in human affairs, bringing death and destruction in their wake. In the face of this threat, people have to unite together, forming a like-minded “assembly” (in Greek, ekklesia) of those attuned both to the danger and to the virtues that can resist it. That is not to say that the members of this assembly are perfect. Some are vain, some naive, some unhappy. And yet, their flaws serve to make their union all the more poignant; they are not so much a “dysfunctional family” as a collection of dysfunctional individuals who, in love and for love, are able to overcome their personal failings for the sake of the common good.

This point gestures toward one of the more striking aspects of Stranger Things: it is an earnest and at times sentimental show, which bears a palpable ethical undercurrent. For a series already known for nostalgia, this is arguably its most nostalgic element. So much television today is nihilistic, featuring a senseless universe in which evil prospers and good languishes — if good exists at all. This drift toward nihilism began as a counteraction to the sort of entertainment in which every story concludes with a feel-good, socially acceptable “moral.” So, initially, it was an overdue correction to what had become a stale and meaningless formula. What Stranger Things suggests, however, is that the nihilistic correction is now in need of correcting. What, one might ask, are we really learning from the Walter Whites and Don Drapers of recent television — that, in the end, there is really nothing to learn, that violence (economic or physical or psychological) has the last word in early affairs? In contrast, Stranger Things implies that there is meaning in life, and that this meaning lies precisely in the refusal to surrender to meaninglessness, in love’s painful triumph over fear and death.

Is Stranger Things, then, merely a thinly veiled attempt to smuggle Christianity onto Netflix? Some commentators have made this case, but such a reading, while not uninteresting, is reliant upon an elaborate and often strained allegorical method of interpretation — one, moreover, that elides that show’s  flirtation with gnostic (as opposed to Judeo-Christian) metaphysics. The Upside Down, for example, has the appearance of a purely dark and nefarious place, where the wicked prey upon the innocent:

Peering into the Upside Down.

From the standpoint of traditional Christian doctrine, such a dimension could not have been created by the deity. That is to say, such a dimension could not exist at all; death, sin, and suffering are not created realities per se but privations of a good that is always already ontologically prior. In contrast, Stranger Things seems to give independent agency to the Upside Down and (in Season 2) to the “shadow monster” who controls it. Here evil is presented as a thing in and of itself, distinct from the good and against which the good is locked in perpetual struggle.

This point raises a curious question about the tendency of “morality tales” to adopt a dualist perspective on reality. “Good versus evil” is an exciting, palatable, and ostensibly reasonable storyline, whereas the Christian understanding of creation, fall, and redemption is paradoxical (e.g., postlapsarian humanity is at once free and unfree, God loves those who hate God, etc.) and thus resistant to facile dichotomies. Of course, to make this observation is not to criticize Stranger Things. It is simply a reminder that the Christian story remains a “stumbling block and foolishness” (1 Cor 1:23) — even for a show otherwise amenable to a theological reading.

Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

Most science-fiction films exchange intimacy for spectacle. This is as true for popcorn flicks such as Independence Day (1996) as it is for classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). And perhaps there is good reason for this tendency. After all, the reality of existence in space or on planets beyond our own, not to mention the uncanny possibility of extraterrestrial life, naturally boggles the mind, asking us to imagine what we otherwise cannot experience or describe. To encounter the transcendent is to encounter the sublime.

And yet, on occasion, a piece of science-fiction comes along that is able to cast new light on very earthly and all too human concerns and questions. Arrival is an example of such a work. Based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 novella “Story of Your Life,” Arrival centers on a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is thrust into a dire situation when twelve alien spacecraft alight on various points around the Earth. In a series of suspenseful scenes, handled with aplomb by Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve, Louise is able to establish a relationship with the inhabitants of one of the alien ships. She acquires the rudiments of their language, realizing that its circular written form bears a certain way of perceiving reality — namely, as a whole, without a beginning or an end.

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This language of the “heptapods” (as the aliens are called) contrasts with linear and thus formally temporal languages such as English, and, in learning it, Louise comes to see the future or, perhaps more accurately, the world from the perspective of eternity. It is a power that both enlightens and aggrieves, giving her insight not only into the crisis with the aliens, but also into a tragedy that will one day befall her.

Thus Arrival‘s tense plot is actually in service to a poignant question: would you turn down an opportunity for love, if you knew it would entail suffering? This is a heartrending question precisely because it is a universal one. All human beings must, on some level, decide whether or not they will choose to love — that is to say, to will to live and to seek the good of the other — in the face of certain pain and death. And though that choice is not always easy, it is one that most people continue to make and to make in the belief that life is worthwhile, even beautiful.

This fact is not necessarily theological, at least not on the surface. One need not see life and love as transcendent goods in order to value them, even if there is a genuine discussion to be had about the philosophical coherence of such a view. But Arrival does not engage this issue discursively. Instead, its sci-fi premise lends itself to a theological reading. Upon the arrival (or, one is tempted to say, advent) of the heptapods, there is great fear about what will happen next. As it turns out, however, the aliens come bearing gifts, especially the gift of a new way of attending to reality. Their circular “frame” is not understood by all, but, for Louise, it is nothing short of a revelation. She sees time from a transcendent point of view, her life as part of a larger whole. This perspective does not take away her freedom, but it does cast her freedom in a new light. The heptapods give her the strength to move forward by showing her what is to come — the joy, the beauty, and the pain. She comes to exemplify what Kierkegaard writes in his 1845 discourse “At a Graveside”: “Let death keep its power, ‘that it is over,’ but let life also keep the right to work while it is day; and let the earnest person seek the thought of death as an aid in that work.” Further, the heptapodic language makes Louise more empathic, allowing her to reach out to others who are suffering, even when just this vulnerability appears risky.

In short, Louise has received the gift to begin at the end or, indeed, to see the end as an opportunity to begin — a gift that could be understood in, say, Heideggerian terms but, in any case, clearly and strongly resonates with Christianity’s attempt to frame time from the perspective of the eternal. Here it is also worth noting (however provisionally) the “linguistic turn” in Christian theology, whereby doctrine is viewed as a kind of “grammar,” allowing those who are “fluent” in it to see life in a particular way. The strengths and weaknesses of this approach remain debatable, but Arrival highlights its significance nonetheless. In portraying the acquisition of an eternal language, the film calls attention to how words (or grammars) can open meaning to us — or close it.

Mother! (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2017)

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Today’s review comes courtesy of Ben Winter, who graduated from Villanova’s MA theology program in 2014 and is currently a PhD candidate in historical theology at Saint Louis University. His research focuses on the thirteenth century, specifically on the thought of Saint Bonaventure. You can read more of his writing here (scholarly) and here (general audience). I appreciate Ben’s willingness to contribute to the site while I try to carve out more time to begin posting regularly again. Enjoy!

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Prologue

On a rare night out with a friend, I experienced the film Mother!, directed by Darren Aronofsky. One of the first things I noticed in the film was the vibrating resonance created by common household activities. Switching on the light produces a flickering hum. Doors shutting resound with creaks and thuds. A torrent of water emanating from the bathroom faucet in another room suggests a distant rock ‘n roll soundwave. This film is firmly grounded in the material realm, and it depicts that realm in a strange and unsettling way. Aronofsky takes great pains to remind his audience of the basic (yet malleable and impermanent) nature of all created things. The house in which our protagonist (Jennifer Lawrence) spends the entire film is constantly heaving with the pangs of growth and destruction (or “generation and corruption”).[1] As the prime matter for our story, the staircases, tables, sinks, cellars, boards, hallways, windows, and doorways of this film set the stage for the unsettling events that take place within. Yet like the events that transpire in this film, the set pieces are themselves volatile—often playing tricks on the mind and finding unexpected [ab]use in the hands of human agents. Aronofsky begins and ends the film with a sequence of images that depicts the house being incinerated and then rebuilt. This wordless deluge of vignettes—again, bookending the entire film—signals that the story is taking place on an “elemental” level.

Act One

The theme of earthiness also pervades the plot of Mother! As its title suggests, the film chronicles—in fits and starts—the descent of an unnamed pregnant woman into a place of utter terror and madness (!). Although we are not informed of Lawrence’s pregnancy until midway through the film, she experiences visions (first revealed in the film’s opening act) of a pulsating ball of flesh. These visions are accompanied by spells of dizziness and spatial/audial hallucinations. From the beginning, it is clear that Lawrence is isolated by these visions. She never receives help during them—the rest of the world fades away and she is left to fend for herself (usually by mixing a strange yellow powder into a cup of water and consuming this “medicine”). Her husband, who is simply referred to as “Him,” is never aware of what happens, and consistently dismisses or overlooks Lawrence’s feelings. Throughout the film’s first act, we observe this couple playing out the roles of the tortured artist (“Him,” played by Javier Bardem) and the neglected (but innocent and admiring) spouse. The film really leans into these archetypical roles. When an older man (Ed Harris) enters the story, we quickly learn that the artist (“Him”) is quite interested in the affection and company of others—provided that they are not his wife. The character played by Ed Harris is obsessed with the artist, and creates a victimization narrative to gain his confidence. When Harris’ wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, she immediately begins gaslighting Lawrence—domineering the conversation and normalizing the increasingly bold behavior of these two complete strangers who have invaded her home. Perhaps hardest-hitting are her comments about Lawrence’s failure to produce a baby—with the implication that this is all she is good for.

Act Two

Lawrence’s loss of control over herself is soon mirrored by her loss of control over the house. Just as a pregnant woman begins to bond in a different way with the world—and must give up control in many respects—so Lawrence becomes more and more susceptible to her environment, and to the actions of others. When the mysterious couple’s sons show up unannounced, a fight breaks out—culminating in the cold-blooded murder of one of the sons. “The artist” leaves the scene, because his priority is to take the mortally-wounded son to the hospital. Like so many other vignettes in the film, this episode reveals how Bardem’s character effectively ignores the needs of his wife (leaving her alone at home) under the pretense of helping others. Again, because he is the prototype of a tortured artist, he constantly gives of himself—through creativity and language—to strangers. And yet he cannot give himself to the only person who is truly able to give back with parity—his wife, who will soon carry their child. At the end of this second act, we are left wondering whether Lawrence will assert her needs more forcefully (she doesn’t), and to what extent the artist is malicious in his neglect.

Act Three

The latter question is answered resoundingly in act three. Late in the evening, the artist returns from his hospital trip. He informs Lawrence that the family and friends of these strangers will be coming to her home for a celebration. Accordingly, relatives start pouring in. As chaos thickens, Lawrence struggles to assert even a modicum of control over the rowdy scene; instead she ends up expending time and energy on menial household tasks (filling drinks, cleaning up spills or messes, and being called upon dismissively by guests to serve as “hostess”). The gathering spirals out of control, and erupts in violence. After managing to convince her husband to end the party, Lawrence is then attacked forcefully on the staircase by him. He slams her against the wall when she suggests (acting on what was said by Pfeiffer’s character) that he cannot even sleep with her, despite his seemingly endless ability to shower intimacy upon others. At first, it appears that he is going to rape her—and in fact, I would argue that he does. But she accepts his violent sexual advances like the receptive and malleable material of the house itself, given over to revelers by the artist.[2] And like the house, the woman is doomed to a violent end.

Act Four

In the fourth and final act, the film descends into a surrealist nightmare. Images of blood continue to haunt the now quite-pregnant Lawrence, and her visions of the ball of flesh are intensifying. While it appears that things are proceeding normally—the house is quiet, the baby’s room is nearly prepared—there is abject terror lurking beneath the surface. After the husband finishes his writing “project,” he shares it with his wife—who is elated and touched by the work. But when she finishes reading the text, it becomes clear that the artist has already jettisoned his creation out into the world—only giving it to his wife to read as an afterthought. Soon, an unending flow of people mob the house. At first, the crowd consists of paparazzi, journalists, and adoring fans. Lawrence struggles to keep them outside the home, but once a few slip in (ironically, a mother taking care of a child who has wet himself) the floodgates are broken. The following string of words is perhaps adequate to describe the next thirty minutes of this film: unimaginably intense and disturbing.

Time and space fluctuate rapidly as the house loses whatever structural integrity it may have had. Hordes of pilgrims seek the blessing of the artist, who happily focuses his attention and efforts on making them comfortable (“The poet says everything belongs to us!”). A very pregnant Lawrence is physically unable to reach her husband, due to the size of the crowd. As her home is torn apart by a relentless mob, Lawrence is battered (literally) from room to room as police in riot gear descend. No one is speaking to Lawrence, and the events are completely out of her control. Throughout these chaotic scenes, she experiences the painful throes of childbirth. When a police officer finally notices her (she is wearing a white gown, while all other characters are grimy and wearing shades of black), he is immediately shot in the head.

As the film reaches its climax, Lawrence’s husband attends to her labor, and delivers the baby in his home office (which had been boarded up earlier, and thus escaped being overrun by the throng). Aronofsky dials down the madness, giving the audience one last look at the family peace that could have been. Lawrence cuddles her cooing child, but refuses to allow the artist to touch her baby boy. He keeps the door barricaded and the hordes outside have gone suddenly quiet. The vast mob still lurks beyond the door, however, because the artist receives “gifts” from them: food and other items, ostensibly for the baby. When Lawrence falls asleep with the baby in her arms, she wakes to find that her husband has taken the child away. As she pries open the door, our ears are once again assaulted by auditory chaos—a pulsating collective of pilgrims raise the newborn on high and pass him around the home (while he cries and urinates—again, the film is radically focused on material things). This excruciating scene comes to an abrupt end when the boy snaps his neck on a steel support beam.

What follows is a somewhat disjointed and ineffective smattering of events. First, Lawrence slaughters a pack of worshippers. In a satanic parody of the Eucharist, these fiends dismember and consume the child—thus revealing the import of Lawrence’s “ball of flesh” visions. A few minutes later, the home explodes into the fiery abyss of a mushroom cloud. Here one can perhaps find support for an allegorical read of the film—as a depiction of humanity’s descent from the original family to the world-weary and world-destroying denizens of the present day. In the final scene, Lawrence (now a burning corpse) assents to the artist when he asks for the gift of her heart. Perhaps she is simply asking to be put out of her misery, but on a deeper level, this action sums up the film’s theme of male “taking.” As he reaches inside her body and removes its pulsating source, Lawrence shrivels into nothingness. This event triggers the magical rebuilding of the house, and (in what could be described as one of the film’s flaws) the cycle begins anew with a different woman.

Epilogue and Implications

Despite the somewhat unsatisfying conclusion (the film would have been more effective had it ended with the explosion of the home), it is evident that Aronofsky has created a masterpiece. This film is open to many interpretations, but its primary theme seems to concern the material foundation of life—a foundation that is at once shifting, volatile, and magically strange. The film (intentionally?) follows Aristotelian causality when it comes to Lawrence’s pregnancy. The artist is the formal cause; his distorted psyche creates the conditions in which the child becomes a distorted blob of flesh to be consumed by others. The mother is the material cause; she shelters and nurtures the child but exerts no control over its fate or telos. When it comes to the child’s death, the crowd is the material cause and the house is the formal cause. The artist is the efficient cause, since he willingly hands over his baby to the dangerous mass of people. The final cause of the boy’s death is also the artist: he accepts it as an acceptable “end,” and willingly participates in the ritualized appropriation of the murder. Perhaps Aronofsky is simply retelling the Eden story—with Eve as innocent victim of a capricious male psyche. In this interpretation, her child is the distorted son of the “god” that the artist has created of himself. A son must be sacrificed to appease the hunger and vulnerability of the god’s followers (scapegoating).

Yet Aronofsky’s societal critique is not limited to religion, or philosophy. The fundamental imbalance of motherhood and male-female relationships is laid bare by the brutal and manipulative artist—again, it is his agency that transforms the quiet and peaceful home into a den of thieves and murderers. The artist’s magnetism is the distorted inverse of the love that should develop between a woman, her world, and her child. There is a scene, between acts three and four, that effectively summarizes the film’s message. After the sexual conquering of Lawrence, we see the camera pan upwards from the two human beings in bed. The earth around their home begins to bloom, creating a beautiful and verdant garden that expands with vital energy. The home is ordered; the world is ordered. After this brief respite, the remainder of the film depicts the departure from this garden—culminating in the murder of a child, the ritualistic eating of the child’s flesh, and the father of the child stating, “We have to forgive them.” Because Lawrence rejects this narrative, she effectively becomes the sacrificial lamb—immolated upon the pyre of male domination. By placing Lawrence in such a position, Aronofsky powerfully urges his audience to feel both sympathy and horror. It says something very wrong about the world today if it takes a film like this (and it does) to remind us of the fragility of life, and of the dependence of all upon The Mother.

My Rating: 9/10

Recommended viewing, provided you have the stomach for psychological horror.

[1] I am using Lawrence’s real name for “the mother”—while using “Bardem’s character” (etc.) to describe the other actors—because Lawrence is our only protagonist.

[2] This point is emphasized throughout the film: Lawrence maintains—and possibly even built—the house; her husband writes.

Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller, 2015)

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On the surface, the title Mad Max: Fury Road appears straightforward enough. It indicates, first, that the film belongs to director George Miller’s series of films about Max Rockatansky — a police officer in a dystopic, post-apocalyptic society, who, all too often, is left to fight the forces of chaos and evil alone. Second, it implies that the most recent installment of the franchise is, like its predecessors, a road film at heart, following Max as he wanders about the burned-out Australian landscape. But why, one might wonder, is this road called “Fury Road”? What is the term “fury” — which comes from the Latin furere, meaning “to rage” — given such prominence?

Here, again, a cursory glance at the plot would seem to suffice. As the film opens, Max (now played by Tom Hardy, in a role that once was almost synonymous with Mel Gibson) has been captured by the War Boys — an army of mechanics and car jockeys, who, like kamikazes, only want to serve and to die for a tyrant named Immortan Joe. The material basis for Joe’s rule is his control of the fresh-water supply, but, for those under his thumb, he is a veritable god. A hulking figure, painted white, whose grandeur is preserved by a suit of translucent armor and a menacing mask, Joe has proclaimed himself “redeemer” of the people:

Of course, as this clip makes clear, Joe is no redeemer. Not only does he oppress the masses, but he has enslaved a number of people for his personal use, including five women for “breeding.” With support from a pair of partners known as The Bullet Farmer and The People Eater — the former a military leader and the latter a kind of oil tycoon — Joe’s is a thorough and, it seems, endless reign of despotism. After all, with Max effectively imprisoned, who would be capable of challenging him?

The threat, it turns out, comes from within. One of Joe’s top commanders is a lithe yet fierce woman called Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Tasked with driving a petrol tanker known as the “War Rig,” Furiosa instead dares to escape to an unknown territory known as “The Green Place.” It is an audacious plan, made all the more so by Furiosa’s cargo — namely, Joe’s “wives,” one of which is pregnant with his child. Joe soon realizes that Furiosa has betrayed him, and he sets out in pursuit, accompanied by the War Boys (one of whom is holding Max as his prisoner) in addition to The Bullet Farmer and The People Eater. From this point forward, in an example of cinematic bravado, Fury Road turns into a ninety-minute car chase. It is an exhilarating and almost wearying ride, which, at last, tilts in favor of Furiosa and her crew, particularly once Max escapes and is able to join them.

Still, the central character in the film is not Max but Furiosa — a point that quite clearly harks back to the film’s subtitle, Fury Road. Does this notion of “fury” simply refer to the character Furiosa? Or does Miller have something else in mind? As noted, the Latin verb furere means “to rage,” and it is indeed true that Furiosa is a wrathful figure, devoted to avenging Joe’s abuse of the innocent and the needy. And yet, as Miller surely knows, Furiosa’s name and character also point to Greek mythology and to the mysterious “Erinyes” or “Furies.” Often depicted as three female deities, the Furies were described by Homer as those “that under earth take vengeance” on persons who have deceived others. Later, Dante situated them in Canto IX of his Inferno, where they were said to guard the City of Dis — a place reserved for those who have committed active sins of malevolence, rather than passive sins of weakness. They appear as well in other great works of literature, from Aeschuylus’ Oresteia to (in more veiled form) Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Of course, that Miller would gesture toward the classical tradition in making Fury Road is not surprising in and of itself. Countless other filmmakers have done the same. But what may seem peculiar, especially to contemporary audiences, is that Furiosa evokes theological concerns. As noted, the Furies were goddesses, charged with righting the wrongs of humanity. And, of course, the notion of a divine judge is hardly foreign to the Judeo-Christian tradition. “To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence,” proclaims God in the Hebrew Bible (Deut 32:35). Similarly, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus prophesies a time where he will return as the just adjudicator of the righteous and of the wicked (Mt 25:31-46).

The claim here is not that, in making Fury Road, Miller was thinking of these connections in particular. It is just to say that his chosen theme bears unmistakable theological questions. Can human affairs be truly judged and, if so, by whom? If not, won’t the abuse of tyrants such as Immortan Joe be disregarded or, even worse, viewed as the fundamental prerogative of the powerful? In light of Fury Road‘s critical acclaim and financial success, these questions would seem to remain pressing. On the other hand, as there is increasing consensus that Western society has entered a “post-truth” era, Fury Road‘s popularity appears almost paradoxical. Do we now live after divinity, after judgment, and after truth…except in the movies?

Up next: Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

Silence (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2016)

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One of the more astonishing things about Martin Scorsese’s Silence is that it is not obviously his work. In other words, while Silence has been celebrated as a labor of love for Scorsese, there really isn’t much “scorseseing” in it — no Brooklyn accents, no “Gimme Shelter” (in fact, hardly any non-diegetic music at all), and limited use of freeze frame, tracking shots, and other quintessential Scorsese techniques. Indeed, it would be forgivable if one were to confuse Silence with the work of a Dreyer or a Bresson or even a Malick. It is a reserved, thoughtful, even aloof film, and therein lies both its strengths and weaknesses.

Scorsese had wanted to make Silence since the late 1980s, when he first encountered the eponymous novel on which it is based. Penned by the great Japanese writer, Shusaku Endo, Silence [沈黙] met with critical acclaim upon its release in 1966, winning the Tanizaki Prize as a work of the “highest literary merit.” Since then, its stature has only increased, garnering a notable body of secondary literature and emerging as a “classic” of historical and religious fiction. Indeed, Scorsese’s film is the third cinematic adaptation of Endo’s novel: the noted Japanese auteur Masahiro Shinoda released a version in 1971, and Portuguese director João Grilo offered his own take in 1996. Hence, for all of the talk about Silence being a “passion project” for Scorsese, it is also true that his film falls in a long line of responses to Endo’s novel. This point is essential in understanding the film, lest one see Scorsese’s version as an independent work — say, an expression of his own pious yet pained relation to Catholicism or a bona fide contribution to films about “white saviors.” To whatever extent such perspectives are valid, it is far more accurate to say that Silence really isn’t about Scorsese at all. Qua director, he recedes into the background of the film, thereby implying that Endo’s story is sufficiently powerful on its own.

And what of that story? The plot is, indeed, simple enough. Set in the seventeenth century — several decades after the Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, brought Christianity to Japan in 1549 — Silence centers on a trio of Jesuit priests. The first is Fr. Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a Portuguese missionary to Japan, rumored to have renounced his faith when Japanese authorities began to persecute Christians. Dismayed by Ferreira’s alleged apostasy, two of his young pupils — Fr. Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, who intensively prepared for his role) and Fr. Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver, in a striking performance) — journey to Japan in order to rescue him. Yet, upon arriving in Japan, they encounter a situation even more desperate than they had imagined. The last remaining Christians in the land, almost uniformly fishermen and peasants, are forced to practice their faith in secret. What’s more, the shogunal authorities carry out periodic trials, where persons are required to repudiate Christianity in public, typically by stepping on an icon [fumi-e] of Jesus or of the Madonna and Child. Some Japanese Christians disavow their faith, but many do not, and they are tortured and often executed. Perhaps the most stunning example of this torment, both in the novel and in Scorsese’s adaptation, is the days-long process of crucifying Christians at sea:

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As the tide comes in, the water creeps up to the victims’ necks — and even higher; those who don’t drown are eventually done in by exposure and exhaustion. Scorsese, like Endo, depicts this event with judicious restraint: there is nothing glorious in such suffering, at least not recognizably so. Indeed, as the film continues, and as the persecution intensifies, doubts begin to gnaw at Rodrigues and Garupe. What are they supposed to do for the faithful? To leave Japan would be to abandon them, but to stay exposes them to danger. After all, the victims are not only dying in order to preserve their faith, but also to protect the last two priests in Japan. And yet, there is a bigger problem: why does God allow such hatred and oppression? If the suffering of the poor and the humble doesn’t incite God’s justice, what will? Is there even a God at all?

Ultimately — and without giving away too much — it is Rodrigues who is forced to wrestle with these questions most acutely. That Scorsese (again, like Endo) leaves his fate in doubt ensures that the story never becomes trite or grandiose. But he is making a theological point is as well. The English word “silence” comes from the Latin silere, which means “to be quiet or still.” Thus “silence” is not a making or a taking; it is a passio, a “suffering.” The one who is silent is one who relinquishes control.

It makes sense, then, to name a story about suffering Silence. But the suffering depicted in Silence is not just any suffering. It is, first and foremost, a suffering modeled after Jesus Christ, who remained silent under persecution (Mt 26:63) and finally was put to death on the cross. Endo’s novel makes this connection clear when Rodrigues is faced with the decision to step on the fumi-e: “Trample!” he hears Jesus say, “It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.” In his abasement, Rodrigues comes to know the abased Christ far more intimately than he had before. He comes to know not only the humility of Jesus’ life, but also the humility of God’s patience with humanity — a patience that he, stripped of his identity and vocation, now needs in the utmost.

To be sure, the insights gained from suffering are often the most incisive, if also the most painful. And perhaps few things explain Christianity’s perseverance as well as its insistence that humility and suffering are virtues that teach us about, and lead us to, the divine. Both Endo and Scorsese seem to grasp this point well, both as Christians and as artists, though many in the media have seen it otherwise. Silence has been criticized for being too long, too boring, and, ironically, too quiet, and it has generally struggled during “awards season,” garnering but a single Oscar nomination. Some of these criticisms are fair. Silence lacks the dash and flair of Scorsese’s best work, and one senses that he let (!) his devotion to the subject matter govern his direction. But, in another sense, isn’t that the point?

I end with an anecdote: I saw Silence in Center City, Philadelphia in early January, roughly a week before its general release in the United States. The previous weekend I had seen Manchester by the Sea in a suburban theater; it was packed, and spectators were crying throughout the film. However, when the end credits began to roll, audience members quickly got up and made their way toward the exits.

Silence was different. Though the crowd was a bit smaller and less conspicuous than that of Manchester by the Sea, no one budged as the film came to a close. Moreover, there was hardly any talking; it was as quiet as a theater could be. I was surprised. My initial feeling was that Silence was a good, not great, Scorsese film. But as the audience’s contemplatio persisted, punctuated only by the nature sounds accompanying the end credits, it occurred to me that Scorsese’s film had met its objective. Silence was never about him or “awards season.” As with much religious art, it is meant to elicit self-reflection and to open up a space where God, known negatively through human impoverishment, might be encountered. It is a “passion project,” after all.

Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

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Midway through Kenneth Lonergan’s acclaimed film, Manchester by the Sea, sixteen-year-old Patrick Chandler (Lucas Hedges) complains that his mother’s fiancé is “pretty Christian.” He delivers this observation with a hint of adolescent sarcasm, as if being “pretty Christian” is not only peculiar but, indeed, absurd. Listening to him is his uncle, Lee (Casey Affleck), who dryly responds: “You know, we’re Christian, too, right?” It is, in many respects, a throwaway scene — a bit of conversational filler as Lee and Patrick run errands in this picturesque town north of Boston. And yet, as the film unfolds, it takes on increased significance, as Manchester by the Sea is a film about the possibility (or, better yet, the impossibility) of redemption.

Lonergan’s screenplay — which almost certainly will receive an Oscar nomination — is a masterclass in narrative structure, navigating between past and present with devastating economy. The story centers on Lee, a Boston-area handyman, who spends his days doing thankless jobs for apartment clients and his nights in expressionless solitude, beer in hand. Yet, when Lee’s older brother dies of a heart attack, he is called to Manchester-by-the-Sea to handle the funeral arrangements and to assume custody of Patrick. Lee handles the former task with guarded efficiency, as if it were an extension of his job, but the latter task proves far more troubling. Patrick is a challenging responsibility, whose social calendar is as active as his personal life messy, and Lee is faced with the burden of possibly uprooting him from Manchester or leaving him with his alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mol, in a poignant cameo). But there is an additional, and even more dolorous, complication. In a horrifying flashback, it is revealed that Lee and his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams, another likely Oscar nominee), once suffered a catastrophe of incomprehensible proportions, and, in the wake of that event, Lee no longer feels capable of relationships, to say nothing of raising a young man. He simply wants to return to Boston and (quite literally, since he lives in a one-room basement apartment) bury himself underground. What’s more, many of the residents of Manchester feel the same way, effectively rendering the judgment of Job’s wife: “Dost thou still retain thine integrity? Curse God, and die” (Job 2:9).

In the end, then, Manchester by the Sea boils down to this dilemma: will Lee choose to live (with all of the consequences of that decision, from caring for Patrick to reconciling with Randi), or will he choose to die? Indeed, it is a heartrending scenario, made all the more so by Affleck’s mournful performance. And though Lonergan seems to want to avoid neat answers, there is no doubt that his film is, finally, a tragedy. But what is a “tragedy”? It is a term that, despite a curious etymology, refers to “a play or literary work that has an unhappy ending.” In his Poetics, Aristotle argues that good tragedies bear the following characteristics:

  1. A protagonist with a basic flaw (ἁμαρτία) in his or her personality.
  2. A radical change in the protagonist’s fortune (περιπέτεια), due to this flaw.
  3. The consequent revelation or discovery (ἀναγνώρισις) of the protagonist’s true identity.
  4. The arousal of pity and fear in the tragedy’s spectators, which, in turn, brings about their own emotional purification (κάθαρσις).

Manchester by the Sea certainly exhibits the first three of these qualities, and, based on the audible sniffles and sobs in the theater, it achieved the fourth trait as well. Hence, as a formal exercise, it’s hard to conclude that Lonergan’s film is anything but a success. And yet, it is also for that reason that Manchester seemed deficient. It was as if I could hear Lonergan ponder: “What do I have to do to make Lee’s situation truly unbearable — indeed, tragic?” In that sense, I never fully accepted Lee’s περιπέτεια; rather than an organic occurrence, it felt contrived and, when combined with the other calamities facing the Chandler family (divorce, untimely death, unemployment, attempted suicide, alcoholism, ostracism, etc.), pretentiously overblown.

But I had a deeper concern, which recalls the reference to Christianity mentioned at the outset. As a tragedy, Manchester by the Sea effectively forecloses on the redemption of its protagonist: Lee confesses that he “can’t beat” his affliction and chooses to suffer his failure alone. Such a conclusion kindles our pity and fear (as it should), but it contradicts Lee’s profession of Christianity — a faith that, as Dante famously illustrated, is a comedy rather than a tragedy. That is to say, Christianity never stops at the cross but, rather, concludes with the resurrection and the ascension. Yes, it grants the pain of death, but this pain is slowly but surely overcome by love and, indeed, by Life itself. Despite featuring ostensibly Christian characters, Manchester by the Sea never seriously entertains this possibility. Its world is a world bereft of “good news.”

Needless to say, it would be surprising if Lonergan were unaware of this absence. Perhaps he’s commenting on the recalcitrance of human nature in the face of adversity? Perhaps he’s suggesting that, even if the rites and symbols of Christianity remain, we live in the era of the death of God? Whatever the case, in offering a tragedy for contemporary viewers, Manchester by the Sea takes us back in time…before Christianity, when the alluring yet haunting worldviews of Aeschylus and Sophocles reigned — an Oedipus Rex for our age.

Hacksaw Ridge (dir. Mel Gibson, 2016)

Hacksaw Ridge may be a number of things — the most violent war film in cinematic history, an allegory of the importance of religious freedom over against state encroachment, a vehicle intended to rehabilitate the image of much-maligned director, Mel Gibson. Yet, despite such complex possibilities, the film is most effective when simply taken as a chronicle of Private Desmond Doss and his service at the Battle of Okinawa (1945). I was not familiar with Doss prior to seeing the film, but, after viewing Hacksaw Ridge, his status as a compelling and even heroic figure is beyond doubt.

After a brief prelude, which foreshadows the violence to come, Hacksaw Ridge opens with Doss’ childhood in rural Virginia. There are intimations of Edenic bliss in these first scenes, but Gibson does not linger on them. As it turns out, Doss’ father (Hugo Weaving, in a fervid role) was an abusive alcoholic, scarred by the psycho-spiritual trauma of World War I. Consequently, the Doss home is a tense place, where young Desmond and the rest of the family often cower in fear. Attentive to his own shortcomings, Doss comes to emulate his pious mother, realizing that anger and violence run contrary to his Christian background. Now a young man (and played with winsome innocence by Andrew Garfield), Doss falls in love with a local nurse (Teresa Palmer) and hopes to start a family. But World War II intervenes, and he feels called to join the military — not as a combatant but as a medic. Indeed, Doss is adamant that he can serve his country without firing a weapon, but, upon arriving at boot camp in South Carolina, it becomes clear that the Army sees it otherwise. Ridiculed by his fellow recruits and commanding officers, Doss is nearly court-martialed for insubordination. Yet, he remains true to his convictions and, after a surprising plot twist, is allowed to accompany his unit to Okinawa. “Private Doss,” an army official sternly warns, “you are free to run into the hellfire of battle without a single weapon to protect yourself.”

It is at this point that Hacksaw Ridge erupts into a violence so grisly that even the most ardent devotee of Game of Thrones will cringe. Indeed, it’s fair to wonder if Gibson — whose The Passion of the Christ (2004) seemed to confirm a possibly unhealthy concern for bloody imagery — goes too far in his depiction of the Battle of Okinawa. Not only does Hacksaw Ridge show the shootings and stabbings typical of the genre, but Gibson is intent on portraying Okinawa as a campaign sui generis: there are severed heads, rotting bodies, halved corpses, and flesh-eating rats. It is, in short, a nightmarish vision, which is frankly difficult to watch. Be that as it may, Gibson does seem to have been true to the historical subject matter. Consider the words of Private Eugene Sledge — an Okinawa veteran, whose experience has since been chronicled the HBO series, The Pacific (2010):

“[Okinawa was] the most ghastly corner of hell I had ever witnessed….Every crater was half full of water, and many of them held a Marine corpse. The bodies lay pathetically just as they had been killed, half submerged in muck and water, rusting weapons still in hand. Swarms of big flies hovered about them. [I] saw maggots and decay. Men struggled and fought and bled in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool.”

Thus the gore of Hacksaw Ridge is hardly gratuitous, even if it is disturbing. Moreover — and presumably this was Gibson’s underlying purpose — it serves to cast Doss’ efforts in the sharpest possible relief. Bearing only a small Bible and a handful of medical supplies, Doss repeatedly runs into battle unarmed, even remaining atop Hacksaw Ridge (or the Maeda Escarpment) when his fellow troops had retreated. He ultimately saves 75 wounded soldiers, including a number of Japanese men — an outcome, he was certain, that was only possible in and through the grace of God:

Still, one might ask: why make a film about Doss now? What does Gibson have up his sleeve? As mentioned at the outset, various answers have been tendered in response to such questions. To be sure, Hacksaw Ridge has quickly (and stunningly) bettered Gibson’s reputation in Hollywood, and the film undoubtedly makes a plea for the tolerance of religious convictions — a plea that is deftly handled, insofar Doss’ Christian pacifism is shown to cooperate with the objectives of the state, rather than to flout them.

And yet, it’s hard not to wonder: would this film be received in the same way if Doss were, say, a champion of school prayer or of any issue that runs counter to contemporary politics? Moreover, while Hacksaw Ridge demonstrates that certain religious “beliefs” might be worth tolerating in a secular democracy, it does not get around to weighing the truthfulness of such beliefs. In other words, is Doss’ nonviolence an idiosyncratic yet charming way of looking at reality? Or is it, in fact, the true way to live? That Gibson avoids the latter question manifests the Americanism implicit in Hacksaw Ridge: for him, what matters is that Doss is “accepted” or “tolerated,” not whether or not he is right. His “belief” is a private one, and he fights both for his right to serve according to his convictions and for a nation that putatively supports this right. The contents of, and the rationale for, his faith are little more than suggested.

Of course, that by no means diminishes Doss’ heroism in battle, and I’m grateful that, through Gibson’s film, I’ve come to know his remarkable story. Nevertheless, to call Hacksaw Ridge a “Christian movie” seems to be a misnomer. In truth, it is a film about permitting Christian devotion, with a nod to the potential benefits of doing so.