Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Tag: Søren Kierkegaard

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.


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.

Knight of Cups (dir. Terrence Malick, 2015)

By now, Terrence Malick’s story has become the stuff of legend. He graduated from Harvard in 1965 and, subsequently, went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. While at Oxford, he began a doctoral dissertation on Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein, but his supervisor, Gilbert Ryle, did not find it “sufficiently philosophical.” Frustrated, Malick left academia — albeit not before publishing a translation of Heidegger’s Vom Wesen des Grundes (1929) — and embarked on a career in filmmaking. His first feature, Badlands (1973), was hailed as a masterpiece, and his second film, Days of Heaven (1978), has been deemed one of the most beautiful works in the history of cinema. And then, shockingly, Malick did not make another film for two decades — a move that was as mysterious as it was controversial. But the layoff did not hurt him. In 1998, he returned with The Thin Red Line — one of the finest war films ever made — and then followed it with two other acclaimed pictures: The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011). The latter, in particular, was considered a groundbreaking work, so much so that the late Roger Ebert situated it among the ten best films of all time. This was arguably the apex of Malick’s career. Feted as a master, a visionary, he had entered a fraternity along with figures such as Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg: he was one of America’s greatest living directors.

Then came Malick’s 2012 film, To the Wonder. It was hardly an abject failure — in the last review he wrote, Ebert said that it was not just a movie but a noble attempt “to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need” — but Malick’s critical and popular reputation undoubtedly took a hit. Though it was made in the same manner as The Tree of Life, featuring lyrical voiceovers (in multiple languages), minimal dialogue, and a loose plot structure centering on metaphysical questions, it failed to resonate as its predecessor did. Several thought Malick had become formulaic, verging on “self-parody.” Others were perplexed by his new filmmaking process, which, among other things, provided its cast with an abundance of scripted lines…only to leave them on the cutting-room floor. Still others speculated that Malick was no longer concerned as much with his audience as with reflecting on his own life, since both The Tree of Life and To the Wonder contain obvious autobiographical references. And, finally, there were some who thought To the Wonder was just plain bad, lacking a “coherent narrative” and resembling a “high-end perfume ad.” Suddenly Malick had become a cause célèbre — an auteur famous for avoiding fame, a “Hollywood Bigfoot,” whose mercurial films people seemingly loved to hate.

Whatever the case, the reception of To the Wonder has done nothing to deter the septuagenerian filmmaker, who is scheduled to release no less than three films in the next couple of years. The first is Knight of Cups, which premiered last February at the Berlin International Film Festival and will come out in the United States on March 4, 2016. Due to a project I’m currently wrapping up, I was fortunate enough to see Knight of Cups last month in New York, and, within five minutes of its start, one thing was clear: it is by no means a retraction of the direction Malick has taken as of late. On the contrary, it is more like an extension of The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, so much so that the three films are demanding to be seen as a kind of trilogy — an intriguing idea, already adumbrated on the Web, which nevertheless exceeds the scope of this review.

Still, the similarities between Knight of Cups and Malick’s two prior efforts are instantly instructive, for they demonstrate that Malick is making films like this on purpose. In other words, his most recent style of filmmaking is an aesthetic choice, rather than a faltering accident. But this point raises a question: why is Malick making films in this way? What do his peculiar approaches to narrative, cinematography, and editing add to his cinematic vision and, perhaps, to the cinematic medium writ large?

Again, this is an impossibly large question, which cannot be fully answered in this context. But I’ll offer a suggestion. Malick now seems less interested in telling a story than in picturing a certain way of being-in-the-world. He is, in short, trying to film “affect” — a notoriously difficult term to define, but one that has been described as “the experience of feeling or mood, of acting or of being acted upon.” Of course, one can tell a story about such things, but Malick seems to want the viewer to feel along with the characters in the film. Hence, with The Tree of Life, the audience does not just watch a movie about growing up in Waco, Texas in the 1950s; rather, Malick constructs the film in such a way that one shares in the experience. By limiting dialogue as well as featuring jump cuts and POV shots — and thereby resisting the tendency to turn the film into a static object observed by a passive subject — The Tree of Life “gets inside” its subject matter:

Likewise, To the Wonder is not a mere story about two lovers, who, after a blissful romance, slowly begin to drift apart; on the contrary, it tries to record what it feels like to fall in and out of erotic love — an almost universal experience, which explains why Malick’s characters increasingly resemble archetypes. Indeed, they are not concrete, independent characters but, rather, stand-ins for the viewers themselves. This is why the above term “record” is critical. It stems from the Latin recordari, which literally means “to restore to the heart.” Malick, it seems, wants to facilitate our exploration of the most primal and basic experiences of human life, whether the loss of a loved one, the thrill of new love, or the childlike intuition of God’s presence.

What experience, then, does Knight of Cups highlight? The film centers on Rick (Christian Bale), a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, who flits across the surface of life. To be sure, Rick’s existence is essentially seduction after seduction: Hollywood moguls wine-and-dine him, and he finds himself in the bed of a myriad of beautiful women. It would seem to be a perfect life, except that it isn’t. One of Rick’s brothers has died, another (Wes Bentley) is on the verge of a breakdown, and his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett) — a high-minded doctor, who tends to the lame and to the needy — laments their failed marriage. Hence, no matter how much “fun” Rick has, limitations and shortcomings surround him. Like the earthquakes that rattle southern California, Rick is unstable, dangerous. He is dangerous to those who love him, but, just as importantly, he is dangerous to himself. For insofar as he runs from sensual pleasure to sensual pleasure, he is in peril of losing any sense of who he really is and of what he really wants. Nothing summarizes Rick’s predicament better than the words of one of his smooth-talking Hollywood suitors: “Let me tell you about you.”

Some have complained that this hardly qualifies as a spiritual crisis, but it is worth pointing out that Søren Kierkegaard — a thinker whom Malick has studied and whom he has quoted in both The Tree of Life and To the Wonder — argued otherwise. Famously, Kierkegaard divides human existence into three “stages”: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. And, doubtless, Knight of Cups is a “recording” of the aesthetic stage, where the self seeks a succession of ephemeral, sensual experiences at the expense of an earnest confrontation of life’s meaning and purpose. The dangers of such a lifestyle are manifold: the aesthete is anxious, solipsistic, and terrified of boredom; he will stop at nothing to keep his despair at bay — a desire for which other persons, especially the vulnerable, are often sacrificed. And yet, in the end, the joke is on the aesthete, since he fails to indviduate and, consequently, vanishes into the ether of his own nihilistic misery.

It is just this fate that Rick intuits and, however achingly, seeks to resist. Yet, once more, the point of Knight of Cups is not tied to a tidy overcoming of the protagonist’s dilemma. How can it be, when the protagonist is not so much Rick as the one who also grapples with the aesthetic — that is to say, everyone. Ultimately, then, Knight of Cups seeks to expose aestheticism (in the Kierkegaardian sense) as a trap from which an egress must be sought. But it does not say this; it impresses it. That many will resist such provocation is certain, and, admittedly, Knight of Cups is not always easy viewing. But Malick is pushing at the borders of what the cinematic medium can achieve, and he has deemed that, whatever problems his recent trilogy invites, the risk is worth taking.

Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler, 2015)

The original film in the Rocky franchise — Rocky (1976), which went on to garner multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture — was an ode to rough-around-the-edges classics such as John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). Yet, where its forbearers plunged into squalor and despair, Rocky made transcendence central to its message. For Rocky Balboa was not just a boxer but, rather, an archetype for everyone who seeks to overcome his or her limitations — a point summed up in Rocky’s iconic climb up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (pictured below).

In that sense, the latest installment of the Rocky series, Creed, does not stray too far from the original film. However, under the leadership of talented young director Ryan Coogler, it incorporates enough twists to revitalize what had become a stale franchise. Creed centers on Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), son of former heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed. Though preternaturally talented, Adonis has every reason not to step into the ring: his looks and mind can only be marred by a career in boxing, and, ominously, his own father had died on the mat. But it is on just this point that the film turns, since Adonis is at once attracted to and repelled by the life of Apollo. He wants to be like his father, even as he longs to step out of his shadow. Thus he seeks out Apollo’s old friend, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, who is quite good in a smaller role), hoping that the venerable yet weary champion can coach him to a greatness of his own.

Of course, framed in these terms, it is inevitable that Creed will culminate in a make-or-break fight. But this eventuality is, in truth, secondary to the film’s exploration of Adonis’ paradoxical psyche: he is a rich man working in a poor man’s sport; he is a rebel against that which he loves; he is a frontrunner destined to serve. A different, more jaundiced film might refuse to reconcile Adonis’ predicament, but, true to form, Creed seeks transcendence. It’s not that Adonis comes to imitate his father or, conversely, to repudiate him. On the contrary, he comes to realize that it is only in accepting his legacy that he will be able to overcome it. A Kierkegaardian reading of Creed might contend that, in the end, the film portrays the harmony of “necessity” (the life that Adonis has received) and “possibility” (the ideal life to which he is called). But, of course, this conclusion is not so different than that of the gospel, which insists that one is only able to redeem one’s life when one gives up the desire to control it.

Deux jours, une nuit (dir. Luc Dardenne & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 2014)

The Belgian filmmaking tandem, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, are well known for their minimalistic films, which focus on the economic burdens and moral ambiguities facing working-class persons in the Low Countries. Deux jours, une nuit [Two Days, One Night] builds on this foundation. Though it features a bona fide movie star in Marion Cotillard, it is a typically unassuming film, which presupposes that mundane concerns — even, and perhaps especially, when seen as mundane — best reveal the flaws and virtues of human beings.

Cotillard plays Sandra — a working mother in Seraing, Belgium, who has taken a leave of absence from her job in a factory. The reason for her leave is not explicitly stated, but it is psychological in nature. Sandra is alternately frenzied and wearied, and she pops pills in order to cope with anxiety. Supporting her through this process is her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), whose patient encouragement is equaled by the recognition that, if the family is to keep their home, Sandra needs to return to work. Unfortunately, however, the factory has been able to maintain productivity during her absence, so much so that the management has presented her coworkers with an offer: if they vote to liquidate Sandra’s position, they will provide a cash bonus to everyone on staff. After learning of this proposal, Sandra has only a few days (thus the film’s title) to convince her peers of her worth. With this in mind, she sets out to meet with each of them prior to the vote.

Though at times this quest strains credulity, the Dardennes resist the temptation to melodramatize it. Sandra is not so much a “hero” as a nervous wreck, and her coworkers are not so much villains as ordinary persons facing ordinary problems — rents, childcare, and the like. With only a couple of exceptions, none of Sandra’s opponents want to see her removed; it’s just that they need the money. Herein, then, lies the tension at the heart of the film: will these ordinary people be able to muster the courage to deny themselves what, in purely economic terms, makes good sense? And can Sandra summon the strength to ask them to do so?

Without divulging the ending, it is worth noting that, for the Dardennes, even these questions withstand the pat answers typical of Hollywood. Ultimately, Deux jours, une nuit is neither a comedy nor a tragedy but, rather, something in between. But in this “in between” is precisely where the film’s connection to theology lies. As the Christian tradition has long professed, the field of human activity certainly is not heaven, but it is not hell either. On the contrary, earthly life is shot through with ambiguity, and so the ethical challenge — for human beings, anyway — is not to vanquish evil but to pursue the good amid uncertainty. “Purity of heart is to will one thing,” Søren Kierkegaard famously wrote, and yet willing the good and possessing it are two different things. Indeed, to will the good unreservedly may very well entail that one lose something. Alas, this is a lesson that Sandra must confront, though, as the gospel emphasizes (Lk 9:23-24), she also learns that sacrifice is the condition for new life.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (dir. Ridley Scott, 2014)

There has been so much criticism of Exodus: Gods and Kings that it’s hard to know where to begin. Critics were generally unimpressed, arguing that the film’s technical achievements overwhelmed its human interest. For a number of Christian outlets, however, the trouble did not lie in director Ridley Scott’s love of CGI but, rather, in his all-too-loose rendering of biblical events. Muslim audiences raised similar concerns, so much so that the film was banned in countries such as Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. Still others bristled at Scott’s penchant for casting Anglo-Saxon actors as Egyptians and Hebrews — a move that Scott defended as financially necessary. And, finally, there were the comments of Christian Bale, who plays Moses in the film. Bale admitted that, in his view, Moses was “troubled” and “mercurial,” possibly even “schizophrenic.” Needless to say, such remarks attracted more than a little attention, not all of it flattering.

Geez. Can’t a guy make a 150-million-dollar, biblically-based epic action film anymore?!

In truth, the controversy surrounding Exodus: Gods and Kings has made it almost impossible to evaluate the film on its own merits. For my own part, I am sympathetic with much of the criticism mentioned above. At the same time, however, I found Scott’s attempt to depict the Exodus story intriguing, albeit far less so than Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Indeed, unlike Aronofsky’s magical adaptation of the Noah cycle, Scott treats his source material with flinty seriousness. He wants it to be a credible adaptation of Exodus, but credible according to whom?

One might tender a number of reasonable answers. For the faithful, Scott clearly portrays Moses as a hero, who, despite an independent streak (which, it should be added, is attested in Scripture), relies on God for his power. For the skeptics, he suggests that the great miracles of Exodus — for example, the parting of the Red Sea (Exod 14) — were actually triggered by natural occurrences. For those desiring drama and romance, he attends to the fraternal tension between Moses and Ramesses (an awkwardly cast Joel Edgerton), as well as Moses’ desire to return to his wife, Zipporah. And, yes, for those merely wanting a Hollywood adventure flick, he’s got battle scenes and dazzling special effects, not to mention Bale and his Occidental cast members.

The trouble, of course, is that it’s hard to be all things to all people — a point borne out by the widespread criticism of Exodus: Gods and Kings. But there may be a deeper issue here as well. Artistic renderings of biblical events tend to fail just to the extent that they lack commitment, and, by that, I don’t necessarily mean creedal commitment. For instance, George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) is measured to a fault, featuring an all-star cast (sound familiar?) rather than inspired filmmaking. In contrast, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) stirs with its combination of neorealist cinematography and varied film score (from Bach to Odetta), in spite of Pasolini’s atheism.

In Exodus: Gods and Kings, Scott is more Stevens than Pasolini. Certain only of a hefty box-office draw, his film fails to move or to hearten or to perplex. But this means that the text has been domesticated, turned into a means to an end. And, as Kierkegaard points out, such is a common yet perilous tendency in the “reflective” age of modernity, when the cost is often counted in advance.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (dir. Peter Jackson, 2014)

In his essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien seeks to elucidate the nature and purpose of fantasy writing. As he explains, the intent of fantasy literature is not to spin idle tales of fanciful places but, rather, to cast distinctive light upon the known world: “For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it.” Thus the fantasy writer’s talent is in the employ of reason. “The keener and the clearer is the reason,” adds Tolkien, “the better fantasy will it make.” And the better the fantasy, the fresher the perspective on our own affairs. In this way, fantasy facilitates a kind of “recovery” of our senses or, perhaps more accurately, our sense of the way things really are.

This purpose is brought to the forefront in Peter Jackson’s latest adaptation of Tolkien’s literary corpus — namely, The Battle of the Five Armies, the third and final film based on Tolkien’s 1937 children’s book, The Hobbit. In an exhilarating sequence, the movie begins with the dragon Smaug’s fiery attack on Laketown and its human inhabitants. Yet, when Smaug is slain by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), a social and political quagmire ensues. The dragon had left untold riches in Erebor — the great mountain he once stole from the Folk of Durin (dwarves) — and now various parties want a piece of the wealth. The dwarves, led by the brave yet troubled Thorin Oakenshield, hole up in their ancestral home, hoarding their inheritance. Meanwhile, the men demand payment for the killing of the beast, even as the wood elves arrive to claim what they see as rightful recompense for their aid. Both groups amass armies outside Erebor and contemplate a siege. And this is to say nothing of the orcs, whose chieftain, Azog the Defiler, is bent on destroying the dwarves and taking the spoils for himself. That war will ensue is all but inevitable. The question is: how will it proceed? Will the dwarves, now strengthened by reinforcements from the Iron Hills, forge an alliance against the orcs, who are counting on the fragmentation of their enemies? Or will they allow their former allies to perish as they watch from the belly of the mountain?

This is, in effect, the entire plot of The Battle of the Five Armies, and it is exhausted in less than 90 minutes. Yet, with a running time exceeding 140 minutes, Jackson fills up the remaining time with an assortment of battle sequences, a number of which are too cute by half. Such was the cost of trying to squeeze three epic films from a children’s story. Nevertheless, the moral imperative of Tolkien’s story manages to shine through. So often social and political divisions crystallize over trivialities, pitting groups that otherwise have much in common against one another. What Tolkien suggests, however, is that these sorts of disputes are dangerous just to the extent that they blind us to the ultimate source of trouble: neither the dwarves nor the men nor the wood elves are aware of Azog’s army until it’s almost too late, and they are oblivious to Sauron’s growing power at Dol Guldur, which (Jackson loves to remind us) will eventually push all of Middle-earth into war.

Of course, with the help of Gandalf, not to mention an ever-handy band of Great Eagles (the story’s fifth army, for those keeping score at home), tragedy is averted. But the larger point remains, even if time has rendered it more complicated. To be sure, in our age of 24-hour news coverage and seemingly bottomless digital information, it’s not so easy to distinguish elf from orc. (One can imagine a twenty-first century headline: “Azog the Defiler: Why He Fights, Plus His Top-Five Tips for a Fabulous Beach Body!”) Indeed, as Kierkegaard predicted in A Literary Review (1846), it’s even morbidly satisfying to argue over trifles rather than confront what’s truly wrong, not only with ourselves, but with the world — a point that echoes Tolkien’s message in The Hobbit. Yet, whereas Tolkien uses the Eagles as a kind of deus ex machina — a “eucatastrophic” move that, in his view, is essential to fantasy writing — Kierkegaard warns that there are no easy answers here. For him, salvation will not come in conquest but in suffering. For the great evil of our age lies in our failure to perceive that (or what) we are losing.

Philomena (dir. Stephen Frears, 2013)

The ninth “deliberation” in Søren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love (1847) is called “The Work of Love in Remembering One Dead.” Though it has been accused of suggesting that loving the dead is preferable to loving the living, Kierkegaard’s argument is actually far different. As he sees it, one of the pitfalls of human relationships is that, even when they flourish, there is a quid pro quo involved. It is not so, however, when one loves the dead, for to love the dead is precisely to love one who can give nothing in return. Hence, for Kierkegaard, the practice of loving the dead is a kind of “training” for loving the living. It teaches one to seek love even when it is not (palpably) returned, to allow oneself to be oriented by love even in the face of grim reality. In this way, the loving one comes to reflect the love of God.

Stephen Frears’ Philomena might be seen as a meditation on Kierkegaard’s insight. Inspired by a true story — albeit with a few key deviations — it tells of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench, in a poignantly understated performance), an Irish woman who longs to be reunited with the son she gave up for adoption almost fifty years before. But there are significant obstacles. Philomena’s son was conceived out of wedlock, and, as punishment, she was sent to work at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland. In turn, the abbey’s nuns legally assumed control over her affairs, including her baby. So, when they approved the child’s adoption by an American family, Philomena was not only powerless to prevent it but even excluded from any knowledge of his whereabouts. It was, in any legal or political sense, as if she had never known him.

And yet, one of the presuppositions of Philomena is that love cannot be reduced to the juridical or to the political. Love has the unique quality of being limitless, uncorrupted by worldly realities or the ravages of time. Hence, when journalist Martin Sixsmith (a mordantly amusing Steven Coogan) agrees to help Philomena find her son, she jumps at the opportunity. Philomena and Sixsmith are the proverbial odd couple, and Frears mines their relationship for both humor and perspective. Philomena (despite everything) is a devout Catholic, while Sixsmith is an atheist, who cannot reconcile faith in God with the atrocities of the news cycle. Ultimately, the validity of their respective worldviews is tried in the extreme. Following a number of leads, they learn that Philomena’s son, after a successful career, died of AIDS and requested to be buried in Ireland — indeed, at the very abbey in which he was born. Sixsmith is livid. The nuns had told Philomena that they knew nothing of her son’s fate. Thus the pair travel back to Roscrea, where a climactic confrontation takes place.

Indeed, it is here that the film’s theme crystallizes. Frears depicts two opposed institutions — that of a church seeking to protect its interests and of a press hostile to everything but a marketable story. Philomena refuses to join either side. She is angry with the sisters of Sean Ross Abbey, even as she wants nothing to do with Sixsmith’s cynicism. To be a Christian, she understands, is about love. And it is the love that she has for her son — a love that is its own gift, for it asks nothing of the other — that now teaches her to forgive.

As is well-known, many have objected to this denouement, noting its historical inaccuracies and (potentially) anti-Catholic undertones. Granted, the portrayal of one Sr. Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford) is, in effect, pabulum, pandering to the crudest stereotypes of Catholic nuns. And yet, Philomena does not dwell on this point. As the film comes to a close, Philomena visits the grave of her son. A chastened Sixsmith joins her there, and he presents her with a small figure of the Most Sacred Hart of Jesus. The aging woman places it on her son’s gravestone — a symbol of the love in which she shares and still finds hope.

All Is Lost (dir. J.C. Chandor, 2013)

Whether understood on a literal or an allegorical level, All Is Lost is a compelling film. Set in a lonely expanse of the Indian Ocean — “1700 nautical miles from the Sumatra Straits” — it stars Robert Redford as an unnamed yachtsman, whose vessel has been compromised in a freak accident. Concerned yet resolute, “Our Man” (so dubbed by the credits) initially seeks to repair his boat, but a series of storms renders it unsalvageable. He is then forced to retreat to a life raft, where he can do little but wait for a rescuer. Short on rations and vulnerable to the sea’s caprice, the sailor is not only in a struggle with time but also with his own insignificance opposite the forces of nature and of men.

Yet, director J.C. Chandor wants All Is Lost to go beyond a bare survival story. After all, unlike other animals, human beings confront their mortality reflexively. That is to say, the human being views his or her peril not as a mere member of the species but, rather, as an “I” or a “thou.” Thus an early voiceover — practically the film’s only words — discloses that the sailor has loved ones and is concerned about their well-being. Moreover, in his plight, he is painfully aware that his life has fallen short of what he and others have desired. He has “tried” (as he repeatedly stresses) to do the right thing, but his efforts have led to disappointment. “I’m sorry,” he concludes.

But what is it to be “sorry”? In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Søren Kierkegaard argues that to be sorry or to recognize one’s own guilt is a qualification of immanent religiousness. In other words, it is not a quality exclusive to Christianity but, rather, belongs to every human attempt to understand life in relation to an ultimate happiness. For, over against even the possibility of an ideal existence, human beings can see that it is not something they can achieve on their own. One can try to be a perfect father or scholar or athlete — to use mundane examples that Kierkegaard, admittedly, would not prefer — but will realize soon enough that such attempts are futile. Here an abyss opens up. Human beings cannot be what they want to be. And, Kierkegaard adds, any earnest confrontation with this fact will result in sorrow, not just in a general sense, but in a personal one. Against the backdrop of our finitude, brought into sharp relief by the encroaching specter of death, we become sorry for our failures, for all that we wanted to do but didn’t.

Of course, Redford’s character is not philosophizing in this way, but his statement of apology doesn’t seem like an accident either. It is an appropriate reaction to the myriad of weaknesses that constitute human existence. Moreover, it opens up new possibilities for the film’s ending. Without giving it away, I’ll just say that another dimension of Kierkegaard’s analysis of the religious life emerges, wherein the deepening of, or the descent into, immanent religiousness makes the individual receptive to salvation — indeed, a salvation from beyond the person’s own capability. One might call it a salvation from above.