The fragility of life. The servanthood of love. The (im)morality of war. The fundamentals of mercy and justice. The power of grace and forgiveness. The oneness of creation. The personal (and spiritual) toll of climate change. The nature of God and faith.
These are some of the spiritual themes explored in the mostly august field of nine contenders for the 2013 Academy Award for Best Picture — Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty.
2012 was an extraordinary year for film. This year’s Best Picture field is perhaps stronger than it’s been in recent memory, replete with nuance and substance, each film presenting a uniquely compelling and memorable tale that both informs and reflects our culture, sensibilities, and challenges.
A few of the nominated films employ overtly religious ideas and language (Life of Pi, Les Miserables, Lincoln), while others tackle daunting ethical issues that speak to our deepest identities and values (Argo, Djano Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty), or explore the sacred landscape of friendship, family, and unconditional love (Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Silver Linings Playbook.)
Below is my take on each of the Best Picture nominees – the stories they tell, and the spiritual questions (and answers) they offer.
**WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD**
Directed by Michael Haneke; featuring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmannuelle Riva, and Isabelle Huppert
Producers: Margaret Menegoz, Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, and Michael Katz
(French with English subtitles)
In the final months of her life, a retired music teacher and her husband of 60 years struggle with the debilitating effects of two strokes on both her health and her quality of life. As Georges cares for the increasingly unhappy Anne, the pair finds the nature of their life together irrevocably changed.
For better and for worse. In sickness and in health. Until death …
Amour (“love” in French) is a film about just that: a portrait of the truest kind of love born of a life made and lived together, through joy, suffering, and the often painful transition from this world to the More.
Austrian director Michael Haneke has made a career out of excavating the bleak, disquieting, and, some would say, brutal facets of human existence. This holds true for Amour, and yet the film has an exquisite beauty that renders its story and characters simply unforgettable.
There is a tenderness to this film, conveyed with breathtaking virtuosity by veteran French actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmannuelle Riva, who portray the elderly couple, Georges and Anne. (Riva is a first-time Oscar nominee for Best Actress – her first Oscar nod in her lengthy career. At 85, the magnificent actress is the oldest actress ever to be nominated the history of the Academy Awards.)
The vast majority of the film takes place inside their book-lined, sepia-toned Parisian flat. The strength of Amour (and dare I say of love itself?) lies in the quotidian. Boiling an egg for breakfast. Reading aloud from the newspaper. Hanging up her coat. Soothing him when he startles awake from a nightmare.
It is in one of those eminently ordinary moments – as husband and wife sit at the kitchen table in their pajamas – that cataclysm arrives in the form of a blocked carotid artery in Anne’s neck. Routine surgery follows, but Anne, a noble beauty even in her dotage, soon learns she is among the unlucky 5 percent for whom the operation fails.
As Anne’s body and mind slowly decline, Hanecke (who shares a stepfather with the Best Supporting Actor nominee Christoph Waltz from Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained), does not allow the audience to avert its eyes. We are cheek-by-jowl with the couple – in bed, the toilette, the shadowy stillness of a lonely afternoon – as they navigate the pain and indignity of her physical descent, no less than the staggering graces that accompany it.
Amour was particularly poignant for me (I wept through fully half of the film) as I recently lost my father after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Like Georges, my mother cared for my father at home – a task that tried her body and soul.
In the smallest of gestures – the way Georges patiently sat with Anne while she struggled to eat, gently pushed her wheelchair into the parlor so she could sit beside him as they read, stroked her hand when she was lost in the terrors that dementia can bring, or lost his patience with her and nearly gave up, believing, if for a moment, that it was too much for him to bear – I saw my own parents and the final, precious days of their 50-year marriage.
Amour gives neither easy answers nor the comfort of a Hollywood ending. Instead we are privileged to witness a imperfect yet sacred love that abides, even in death.
Directed by Ben Affleck; featuring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman
Producers: Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, and George Clooney
When six Americans take refuge in the Canadian embassy in Tehran during the 1979 hostage crisis, CIA agent Tony Mendez turns to Hollywood for help. Working with a producer and a makeup artist, he devises a rescue mission that centers on the creation of a fake (Canadian) film production company scouting locations in Iran.
“It’s gonna take a miracle to get them out.”
So says one of the Washington bureaucrats at the beginning of Argo – a would-be political thriller based on a (now declassified) true story. While there are no obvious signs of divine intervention in the story of how a plot hatched by the CIA, in cooperation with both the U.S. and Canadian governments, rescued six diplomatic corps workers from Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, the argument could be made that a man-made miracle is to thank.
It’s an interesting story – made all the better, I suppose, because it is, at least in some substantial part, true (in that it happened) – but, depsite what hordes of critics and award-givers have said, I believe it is the weakest entry in the Best Picture category. Ben Affleck (star, director, producer) is fine. Yoemanly is the word that comes to mind. Visually, the film has some interesting moments, and John Goodman (who plays the Hollywood make-up artist cum espionage consultant) steals the show.
Here’s the thing: Argo could have been more. I won’t say better, just more … nuanced. This would have been more forgivable if the film had been made in the early 1980s, before we learned a bit more about what transpired politically and otherwise in Iran, Afghanistan, and environs. Religion is a part of the scenery in Argo, with the rise of the Ayatollah and fundamentalist Islam in Iran, but it’s not explored beyond a two-dimensional presence.
Argo depicts Iranians as a monolith comprised of the fanatical and the frightened. And the other characters don’t fair much better. I found myself wanting to know more about them, and I suppose that is the spiritual lesson here: Even when war, violence, or terror makes it seem as though the line between “us” and “them” is both clear and straight, it isn’t.
People, politics, and sometimes, yes, even miracles, are far more complicated.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
Directed by Benh Zeitlin; featuring Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry
Producers: Dan Janvey, Josh Penn, and Michael Gottwald
In an isolated Louisiana swampland known as the Bathtub, young Hushpuppy and her father are part of a community that lives outside of the structure of modern society. When rising flood waters threaten the area, the young girl’s resourcefulness and lively imagination are called into play as the region’s residents face the approaching disaster.
There is so much meat in this remarkable film, it’s difficult to decide where to begin. It’s a story you haven’t heard before set in a part of the world you’ve likely never seen before, told by a child actor with a preternatural virtuosity I’m fairly certain none of us has experienced before. Nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, a native of Houma, La., who was just five when she auditioned for the role of the protagonist Hushpuppy, is the youngest actor ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress.
With ample parts adventure and magical realism, and shot with an almost guerilla-documentary jimp-jumpy camera, Beasts is a riotous, if not altogether delicious, feast for the senses. Hushpuppy’s story is a tragedy – orphaned (or perhaps abandoned) by her mother, she lives alone in a slapdash trailer connected to her ailing (likely alcoholic) father’s own shanty by a clothes line that has a dinner bell but no clothes. She surrounds herself with animals, real and imagined, and revels in the mystery, beauty, and horrors of the natural world, which she understands through a lens of childlike and profound faith.
“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right,” Hushpuppy says. “If one piece busts – even the smallest piece – the entire universe will get busted.”
Hushpuppy’s universe is “The Bathtub,” a community of outcasts (some by choice, others not) living in the swamps of Louisiana whose home, livelihood, and very existence is threatened by rising waters hemmed in by a man-made levee. Hushpuppy has learned about the melting polar icecap and global warming in her ersatz school, where her teacher, Miss Bathsheba, tells the children that they’re made of meat, just like every other animal. Just like the prehistoric aurochs that rampage through the young girl’s dreams as the manifestation of her fears.
Her mother is gone. Her father is dying. Her universe is on the verge of collapse. Is Hushpuppy, like the aurochs, the last of her kind?
Beasts is a wholly unique narrative filled with whimsy and heartbreak, monsters (imagined and all-too real), and tough questions about our collective responsibility for each other and our world.
And yet … there is hope of a brighter future after the storms subside and the waters depart, the sort of hope described in Isaiah 11: The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.
Directed by Quentin Tarantino; featuring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Kerry Washington
Producers: Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin, and Pilar Savone
German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz buys a slave named Django and promises him his freedom once he has helped Schultz track down the criminals he is seeking. But Django has a wife who was sold off years ago, and his partnership with Schultz may offer him a chance to find her.
Let me begin by saying I am horribly squemish about violence, particularly egregious depictions of bloody attacks in film or television. Had I not been working on this project, I would never have gone to see Quentin Tarantino’s latest bloodbath, Django Unchained.
Despite hiding my eyes behind my sweater more than a few times during the lengthy film (it’s about 45 minutes too long and most of the “too much” are scenes of shoot-outs with gallons of exploding blood), I am glad I saw it. While Tarantino is quite comfortably immersed in his wheelhouse of graphic violence, the story he tells in Django is compelling and loaded with ethical (if not explicitely spiritual) quandaries worth contemplating.
Set in the Deep South a few years before the start of the Civil War, Django‘s plot centers around a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx in another masterful performance that rivals his Oscar-winning portrayal of Ray Charles a few years back), who, while being forced by slave traders to march for miles chained to a half-dozen other slaves, encounters a peculiar man, Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz, who deserves to take home the gold statuette for Best Supporting Actor on Sunday), a German dentist-turned-mercenary.
Schultz, a wholly original and absolutely memorable character, buys Django from his cruel captors with the aim of setting him free if Django helps him track down a family of slave masters who are wanted for murder.
From the get go, Schultz makes it clear that he finds slavery repellant (morally and otherwise), which is clearly demonstrated by the dispassionate way in which he violently dispatches the pair of slave drivers who had been tormenting Django and then hands the other slaves the keys to their shackles.
Django, whom his new employer insists ride a horse despite the practice being forbidden for black folks, handily helps Schultz find the trio of wanted men and is a “natural” with a gun. Shultz treats Django as an equal, with dignity and respect. They are partners. Django is a free man.
We are meant to understand, I believe, that Schultz is a righteous man, even though, he’s the first to admit, he makes a very good living by hunting fugitives, killing them, and exchanging their corpses for cash. He’s enacting justice, giving murderers and thieves their due.
Schultz takes a genuine interest in Django, and when he learns that Django is married and that his wife, also a slave, has been sold by their master to a different slave owner (on purpose to separate man and wife), Schultz sets about helping Django find and rescue his bride.
In Tarantino’s moral universe (at least as indicated in his film oeuvre) bad guys get what’s coming to them. And good guys needn’t be perfect. Far from it, in fact. But if they are pursuing justice, their efforts are heroic and they are portrayed as such.
Which is, I suppose, how I found myself cheering for Django as he deftly dispatches dozens of white folks who treat him like something less than human, drenching the pristine walls of the slave master’s stately home in the aforementioned gallons of blood.
We are taugh that two wrongs don’t make a right, that violence is never a good option. And yet, in the face of unrepentent evil, as is the case with the slave masters and their crews, Django’s bloody revenge (which is undertaken not for the sake of revenge, but to save his wife), feels, somehow, right.
That’s a terribly uncomfortable moral and ethical ambiguity. And I’m guessing that was Tarantino’s point precisely.
Directed by Tom Hooper featuring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfreid, and Eddie Redmayne
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, and Cameron Mackintosh
In early 19th century France, Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned years earlier for stealing a loaf of bread, decides to break his parole following his release and assume a new identity. Although he succeeds in building a new life for himself, the relentless pursuit of Inspector Javert threatens the security of Valjean and his adopted daughter, Cosette.
Victor Hugo described his 1862 novel, Les Miserables, as “a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.”
To that apt description I would add that Hugo’s masterpiece is a spiritual epic which pits the law against grace, and where grace, thanks be to God, wins.
When I read Les Miserables (in the original French, if memory serves) and saw its Broadway staging for the first time more than 20 years ago, the depth of its religious themes and power were largely lost on me, as the profundity of sacred art occasionally is on the young. I was not a rabid fan like many of my friends who would listen to the musical’s soundtrack on repeat and sing its songs of struggle and redemption as if they were their own.
So when a friend (from those college days, in fact) invited me to a private screening of Tom Hooper’s screen adaptation of Les Miserables a few days after Christmas, I nearly declined. But my mother was in town visiting for the holidays and she’s a life-long musical theater fan, so at the last minute, we joined the crowd of diehard Hugo devotees, even as I remained certain I would be underwhelmed.
Mon Dieu, was I ever wrong. The sheer magnitude of the spectacle that unfolded before me on the big screen grabbed my spirit and didn’t let go for the next 2.5 hours. All of those transcendent themes that had gone over my head nearly a quarter century earlier, came roaring to life, filling my senses and sending my spirit into an ascent that felt much like worship.
For those unfamiliar with the story arc of Les Miserables, there are two main protagonists — Jean Valjean (portrayed magnificently by Hugh Jackman, who, were it not for Daniel Day-Lewis’ almost supernatural embodiment of the 16th president of the United States in Lincoln, would be a shoe-in for the Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar) and his merciless jailer, Inspector Javert (played by a sadly miscast Russell Crowe, bless his heart) — are both men of faith. And yet, they could not be more different.
Javert’s stalwart faith lies squarely in keeping the law (God’s and man’s), while Valjean, cruelly imprisoned for nearly 20 years in the bleakest of conditions for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister, believes as if his very life depends on it (and it does) in the God of grace.
In one of the most moving and enduring scenes in the film (WATCH A CLIP OF THE SCENE HERE), after being refused employment repeatedly because of his status as an ex-convict, a kindly bishop gives a bitter and desperate Valjean shelter for the night in his church. Valjean steals the church silverware and is caught by police, who drag him back to face the bishop. Rather than delivering Valjean into the hands of the justice he rightly deserves (and condemning him to life in prison as a repeat offender), the bishop tells police that the silverware was a gift to his houseguest.
“Remember this, my brother,” the bishop tells Valjean. “See in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver to become an honest man. By the witness of the martyrs, by the passion and the blood, God has brought you out of darkness. I have bought your soul for God.”
In time, Valjean does just that, recreating himself as an honest man with a new identity, the successful businessman “Mayor Madeleine.” Time and again, the reborn Valjean makes the choice to be merciful and dole out grace to others, most notably the tragic Fantine (Anne Hathaway) a mother whose despair leads her to sell her body as a prostitute to feed her child, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried).
Javert arrests Fantine for slapping a man who had been harassing her on the street, but Valjean intervenes, demanding that Javert, who does not immediately recognize his former captive, release her, which he reluctantly does. When Fantine dies, Valjean rescues Cosette from the expolitive petty criminals with whom she lives, and raises her as his own daughter.
Javert learns Valjean’s true identity, and seemingly incapable of believing in conversion — that a person truly can change — sets about to exact his revenge, which to his mind is giving Valjean the “justice” he deserves. Once a thief, always a thief…
It’s been said that justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. And grace is getting what you absolutely don’t deserve.
Valjean knows this because he’s experienced it for himself — the transforming power of grace. Javert, convinced that by keeping the laws he can save himself. But in the end, he’s done in by his own faith in justice. While Valjean is saved, once and forever, by grace.
LIFE OF PI
Directed by Ang Lee; featuring Suraj Sharma and Irfan Khan
Producers: Gil Netter, Ang Lee, and David Womark
Young Pi, the son of zookeepers in Pondicherry, India, finds the world he knows swept away when his family sells the zoo and sets sail for Canada with a few of its remaining animals. A storm capsizes the ship and only Pi escapes, set adrift in a lifeboat that is also the refuge of an enormous Bengal tiger.
All right, I’m going to show my hand: If I were a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (and I am not), Ang Lee’s chef d’ouevre Life of Pi would get my nod for Best Picture. Hands down. No question about it.
Visually speaking, I have never seen a film like this. It is truly (and literally) spectacular.
Lee, the two-time Oscar-winning director (for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain), told my former colleague Roger Ebert that, years ago when the idea of adapting Yann Martel’s 2001 novel, which the director described as “a philosophical book” to film, first arose he beliebed it would be technically impossible to do so, and even if it were possible, the cost would be prohibitive.
But Lee did the impossible and turned Life of Pi into an unrivaled technical and artistic tour de force, made all the more phenomenal in 3D (which is how I saw it). The film looks and feels … miraculous. It was not at all difficult to believe that the teenage protagonist from Pondicherry, India, Piscine “Pi” Patel (played by the extraordinary newcomer Suraj Sharma), actually did survive a shipwreck by floating for months in the middle of the Pacific on a life boat in the sole company of a full-grown bengal tiger named Richard Parker. I felt like I was on the boat with him, bobbing in the water beneath a blanket of a million stars. It made the impossible seem entirely possible.
Which is fitting, as Life of Pi is a story that the adult Pi (the simply marvelous Irfan Khan) tells to a writer (Rafe Spall) because the writer has been told the story will make him believe in God.
Pi himself is, he explains, a Hindu Catholic — “Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ,” the young Pi says — who, for a time at least, also attended a masjid and prayed the required Muslim prayers five times daily. God is very real and absolutely personal to Pi. God also is bigger than any label affixed by humankind.
“Faith is a house with many rooms,” the adult Pi tells the writer.
“But no room for doubt,” the writer wonders aloud.
“Oh plenty, on every floor,” Pi says. “Doubt is useful, it keeps faith a living thing. After all, you cannot know the strength of your faith until it is tested.”
In the unbelievable story, told by the filmmaker visually in such a way that “magical realism” feels like a redundant description, surely Pi’s faith in God, the universe, and himself are tested. Whether his story is “real” or not is inconsequential in terms of its truth. Sometimes the more beautiful, fantastical story is simply the better story to tell — and to hear.
“As for God,” Pi tells the writer, “I can only tell you my story. You will decide for yourself what to believe.”
Is that not what each of us, ultimately, is called to do? We tell our stories. The rest is up to others and to God.
Directed by Steven Spielberg; featuring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, and David Strathairn
Producers: Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy
With the Civil War coming to a close and the freedom granted to the slaves by the Emancipation Proclamation called into question, Abraham Lincoln seeks to pass a 13th amendment to the Constitution that will outlaw slavery everywhere in the United States. Facing opposition from many quarters in Congress, Lincoln uses his vast political powers to gain allies in his fight.
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln reminds me of a quote from a different American cinematic masterpiece, The Big Lebowski: “Sometimes there’s a man… I won’t say a hero, ‘cuz, what’s a hero? But sometimes, there’s a man — and I’m talkin’ about the Dude here — sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.”
If ever there were a Dude, a man destined (divinely designed and designated) for his place and time, it was Abraham Lincoln, who, in Spielberg’s retelling of the last months of the 16th president’s life, echoes Lebowski when he says, “Do you think we choose the times into which we are born? Or do we fit the times we are born into?”
The answer to Lincoln’s question is theological, involving the nature of God and God’s providence, something Lincoln referred to often throughout his presidency (see his Second Inaugural Address), and as Spielberg’s commander in chief (superbly portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis who, unless the Apocalypse arrives Saturday, surely will accept his third Oscar on Sunday).
The macro-level story Lincoln tells is a familiar one — we know how the story ends, historically speaking — but nonetheless compelling. Its strength lies in Spielberg’s ability to make the character of Lincoln himself more human, breathing new life into President Lincoln’s revered, larger-than-life image immortalized in a stone memorial in our nation’s capital.
Abraham Lincoln was a real man, with real hopes, fears, foibles, and heartaches. In the film, Day-Lewis portrays him as a humble, slightly stooped devoted father and husband with a difficult marriage and a high-strung wife whom he honors with his loyalty. One of the most indelible images of Lincoln from the film is in a scene early on when, late one night, he creeps (wearing well-worn slippers) into a parlor in the White House to find his young son asleep on the floor while looking at daguerreotypes of slaves. The president folds his long, lanky body onto the floor beside young Tad (Gulliver McGrath). The boy awakens and climbs onto his father’s back, and father Abraham gently raises to his feet and carries him out of the room.
It’s a tender moment, intimate and telling. Lincoln is a regular guy — just a dude, if you will — who bears the weight of his personal narrative and that of history with equal grace.
Rather than telling Lincoln’s biography in its entirety, Lincoln focuses on the last few months of his life and his diehard efforts to see the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery for all time in the United States, passed by Congress and adopted in December 1865, four months before his assassination.
The film chronicles the political maneuvering by both the amendment’s supporters and opposition, each claiming a divine imprimatur for their cause. With the hindsight of history being what it is, some of the debates on the floor of the House are both entertaining and cringeworthy (the content, not the acting, which is unilaterally marvelous).
According to the film (which, depending on who’s talking, was more or less historically accurate), Lincoln and his cronies indulged in a few half-truths and a lot of behind-the-scenes political weight throwing, in order to see the amendment come to fruition. Among other things, this fact gives Lincoln’s character more nuance. He is mild-mannered, humble, and kind, but he is also aware of who he is and what’s at stake, and rises to the full height of his gravitas when needed.
“I am the president of the United States of America, clothed in immense power!” he shouts in a particularly tense scene. “You will procure me those votes!”
Like Django and Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln presents us with a moral/ethical quandary: Do the ends justify the means? In Lincoln‘s case, I don’t think many of us would say no.
President Lincoln had the gift of a long vision. He was aware of and interested in his legacy, but not for the sake of ego or politics.
“This settles the fate for all coming time,” he says of the 13th amendment. “Not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come. Shall we stop this bleeding?”
Nearly 150 years later, much of that bleeding has been staunched, but our nation is not yet free of the sanguine wounds of racism and the legacy of slavery. Lincoln was one of three of the nine films nominated for Best Picture that I watched with my 13-year-old son, who is an African American. We saw the film a week after President Obama’s second inauguration (on Martin Luther King Day), and as the credits rolled, I looked over at the child seated next to me, tears of gratitude welling in my eyes.
Had Lincoln’s faithful (and faith-filled) efforts to end slavery forever through the 13th amendment not been successful, our story — personal and collective — would have been vastly different.
Sometimes there’s a man …
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
Directed by David O. Russell; featuring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Jacki Weaver
Producers: Donna Gigliotti, Bruce Cohen and Jonathan Gordon
Pat Solatano is released into his parents’ care after eight months of treatment for a bipolar disorder. His recovery seems far from certain, however, when he stops taking his medication and becomes increasingly obsessed with winning back his estranged wife, a plan that leads him to embark on a complicated relationship with a troubled young woman whose husband has died.
There is a passage in Exodus 34 that I always find troubling — the one about “the sins of the father” being passed on to his children:
“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation. forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
It seems so unfair, even cruel. Later on in scripture, there are more passages that seem to undo the “sins of the father” curse, which is comforting. But there is a truth in those verses in Exodus that is haunting, a truth that lends poignancy to David O. Russell’s winsome Silver Linings Playbook.
This character-driven film centers around the sympathetic (if sometimes maddening) protagonist Pat Soltano (the eminently watchable Bradley Cooper, who rightly is an Oscar nominee for his most formidable performance to date), who we meet when his mother (fellow Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver) picks him up from the mental institution where he has spent the last four years being treated for various disorders, including manic depression.
A one-time substitute teacher at the local high school, Pat had a breakdown when he discovered his wife en flagrante with a fellow teacher and proceeded to nearly beat the man to death. His stay at the institution was court ordered. So is the restraining order Pat’s wife has against him.
Pat swears to his mother, who discharges him against doctors’ wishes, that he is better. He has a new outlook on life. “EXCELSIOR!” he proclaims, invoking the Latin phrase meaning “ever higher,” as he explains that he is committed to looking for the “silver linings” in life. Mom doesn’t seem so sure (and neither are we) as Pat sets about plotting ways to win back his wife.
When we meet Pat Sr. (Best Supporting Actor nominee Robert De Niro), we begin to see where Pat Jr. may have inherited some of his foibles (if not sins.) The elder Pat is a sweet man who obviously adores his family. He is also a bookmaker with a flash temper — he’s been banned for life from the stadium where his beloved Philadelphia Eagles play because he got into one too many fights in the stands — and a host of behaviors that might be attributed to obsessive-compulsive disorder. They’re kind of endearing, but maybe notsomuch if you have to live with them.
Thankfully (as 1 Peter 4:8 says), love does cover a multitude of sins.
Despite the best of intentions (and an arsenal of coping skills, courtesy of his ever-patient therapist), Pat Jr. is barely keeping it together. His parents, with whom he is living, are on tenterhooks. So are his friends. But then he meets Tiffany (played by the startlingly great Jennifer Lawrence in a performance that likely will win her an Oscar this weekend), a fellow traveller on the road to wellness.
Tiffany lives a few blocks away from the Soltanos in a coach house behind her own parents’ home. She moved in with her folks after he husband, a cop, was killed (a tragedy, we learn later, for which she blames herself.) The young widow has mental health issues of her own, but she’s soulful and honest. Brutally so, at times.
“There will always be a part of me that is dirty and sloppy, but I like that, just like all the other parts of myself,” Tiffany tells Pat Jr. during one of their many arguments. “I can forgive. Can you say the same for yourself … can you forgive? Are you capable of that?”
It takes Pat a long time to forgive himself (and others) but eventually he gets there, in large part by reaching out of his own pain and brokenness to extend grace to someone else: in this case, Tiffany, whom he agrees to help achieve a dream by entering a ballroom dance competition as her partner.
At first Pat agrees to learn to dance solely because Tiffany has promised to deliver a letter to his ex-wife on his behalf. That’s the carrot. And it works. Tiffany even produces a letter, supposedly written by the ex to Pat, saying that she needs a “sign” that he’s truly changed. Of course, Tiffany suggests that seeing him dance in the competition would offer vivid proof.
But after spending many long hours rehearsing with Tiffany, Pat’s motivation begins to shift, and so does his behavior. Even when he figures out that Tiffany has never given his ex-wife a letter and, in fact, wrote the reply letter herself, he still goes through with the contest, giving it his all and, when her confidence flags at the last moment, picking Tiffany up and getting her onto the dance floor.
This is one film where the Hollywood ending was deeply satisfying.
And there are spiritual lessons to be learned in Silver Linings Playbook, important ones. When we reach out of our own pain, when we move beyond ourselves to sacrifice something for someone else or offer them grace and mercy, we are changed.
That’s when healing arrives, for ourselves and others. The sins of the father may be handed down to sons and daughters, but sins are forgiven.
Love wins even when we don’t.
ZERO DARK THIRTY
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow; featuring Jessica Chastain and Kyle Chandler
Producers: Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow and Megan Ellison
In the aftermath of 9/11, as the trail in the hunt for Osama bin Laden seems to grow cold, a determined CIA agent begins a painstaking, decade-long search for the Al Qaeda leader. For Maya, direct experience of terrorism steels her resolve to find bin Laden and leads her to trust her own instincts regarding the best course of investigation to pursue.
In a recent interview with TIME Magazine, Zero Dark Thirty‘s director Kathryn Bigelow (who won the 2010 directing Oscar for The Hurt Locker) described her latest controversial film this way: “I think that it’s a deeply moral movie that questions the use of force. It questions what was done in the name of finding bin Laden.”
The jury is still deliberating whether the actions depicted in Zero Dark Thirty were, in fact, moral. But the film, originally titled For God and Country, certainly pivots around morality, ethics, and faith, though not of a particularly religious kind. Religion does play a role in the film, as it did to a certain extent (thoroughly wrongheaded as it was) in the historical events the preceded the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. special forces on in May 2012.
The faith the film highlights belongs to its heroine, Maya (Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain in another masterful performance), who is the driving force, we are told, behind bin Laden’s demise. She believes that she will catch him. She has faith that she will find the information and assemble the clues that will lead U.S. forces to him and she perseveres in her faith for nearly a decade, even when many others lose faith in her.
Much has been made in the film’s graphic scenes of torture used to extract information from sources (believed to be terrorists and their associates). Some critics have said the film glorifies and, in effect, tries to justify the use of torture. But that’s not what I came away with after watching the film. The torture scenes are excruciating to witness. Even Maya herself appears to abhor the acts she is asked to watch and participate in, even as a bystander. Whether the information that led to bin Laden’s death was acquired by means of torture is a matter of debate.
To dismiss this film because of its depiction of waterboarding and other inhumane treatment of prisoners is, to my mind at least, shortsighted. It’s difficult for me to imagine anyone seeing Zero Dark Thirty could emerge with a black-and-white impression of morality of how (and even that) our government pursues and succeeds in pursuing the death of our enemies — even the most wanted (and hated) man in the world.
The most compelling and enduring (if more subtle) facet of the film is the aforementioned leitmotif of faith. We see that the faith, beliefs, and unwavering commitment of one person can make a huge difference in the world.
In this sense, Zero Dark Thirty juxtaposes Maya and bin Laden himself. Her singular faith made the world better (or at least safer, as some would claim), just as bin Laden’s singular, fanatical faith wrought so much terror.
As an aside, it was gratifying to see the bravery, determination, and expertise of a woman explored in film, particularly in a role that is traditionally thought of and depicted by men. Maya is heroic, even if you don’t agree with her mission.
To read this post in its original form (a series for Sojourners) click on the links below:
OSCAR SPIRIT, PART 1: Amour, Argo, and Beasts of the Southern Wild
OSCAR SPIRIT, PART 2: Django Unchained, Les Miserables, and Life of Pi
OSCAR SPIRIT, PART 3: Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty.
Photo credit: Stills from for the nominees via Oscar.com; Photo collages by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners. Film synopses via Oscar.com.