Les Innocentes

 About halfway through Les Innocentes there’s a scene in which Mathilde, a French Red Cross student serving a convent of nuns who have been raped by Russian soldiers, is suddenly surrounded by the nuns. Amid the sea of the nuns’ white habits is Mathilde’s face, radiant with the joy of being embraced by these women. In a film as harrowing as Les Innocentes, its a poignant reprieve. The meeting of Mary and Elizabeth comes to mind. Mary, surprisingly, is not mentioned in the film and that omission is mildly disappointing, since the story is so directly concerned with gender and faith. Still, this is a considered treatment of a serious subject. The theologian Robert Farrar Capon once wrote that “When you’ve got two truths that you can’t hold in harmony, you don’t solve the problem by letting one of them go. You hang on tight and hold them both in paradox.” Les Innocentes, to its credit, is mostly content to do this, holding before the audience the horrific act of violence of its premise and the Christianity of its characters. The result is a tense and difficult story that feels all the more real for its contradictions. For those with the eyes to see, there is much to see here.

Bad Movies and Bad Religion

Over Christmas break, my brother, father, and I went to see “Creed”. My brother, who recently has picked up an interest in boxing, was thrilled to see the film. But I — for reasons somewhere between snobbery and suspicion of films involving Sylvester Stallone — was hesitant. My father wanted me to go, though. It may take some suspension of disbelief, he said, but it will be fun. I went. It was fun. And it turned out the film involved very little suspension of disbelief. Without some of the wilder improbabilities of the previous Rocky films, and with enough playful jabs at the melodrama of those films, “Creed” worked. All of us enjoyed it. 

There are films, though, that work only if you suspend disbelief. Take Pixar’s films, for example. Nearly all of their films are fantastic, in both senses of the word. Each is premised on taking a childhood fantasy seriously — What if our toys came alive when we weren’t around? What if there really are monsters in our closets? — and the result is usually, well, fantastic. Each film asks us to accept the initial premise in order for the world they create to work. And work they do: Pixar’s writers ensure that all the eventualities of their premise work themselves out, in comic and dramatic fashion.

There are other films, though, that only function if an initial suspension of disbelief is prolonged throughout the film. Unlike “Toy Story” or “Monsters Inc.” these films only work if their plot points aren’t examined too closely. “High School Musical” comes to mind. During my own high school career it was all the rage. It featured a dashing cast, catchy songs, and a vision of high school that transcended the banality of the one we went to every day. It was fun. But even in high school, I could see that once you began reflecting on the film, instead of being absorbed in it, the movie fell apart. The plot is predictable, the dialogue clichéd, and the premise absurd. 

Of course, there’s a place for watching movies with one’s critical faculties in abeyance. They can deliver us — temporarily — from our world and into one in which evil is routed and true love rewarded. Sports movies, romances, and action flicks give us a chance to escape. But the pleasures of these films tend to dissipate after a few viewings. It becomes difficult to suppress the feeling that something crudely transactional is taking place, as if happiness can only be purchased at the cost of reflection. 

The job of a critic, writes A.O. Scott, a film critic with the New York Times, is “to refuse to look at anything simply as what it is, to insist on subjecting it to intellectual scrutiny.” This is not, he adds elsewhere, “in order to ruin everyone else’s fun” by pooh-poohing films that are plebeian, but in order to respect the fact that we, as humans, are both emotive and intellective creatures (to borrow from Alyssa Wilkinson’s wonderful review of A.O. Scott’s new book Better Living Through Criticism). Good films bear a little scrutiny. Rather than taking away from the pleasures of film, criticism can provide more enduring pleasures. 

Now, I rarely go to the movies. My income and location in Chicago don’t encourage it. But I do go to church. An aside from a recent lecture by Rowan Williams got me thinking that a similar dynamic is at work in religious experience. He says, “In being invited to confess Christ as divine and human we are not being invited to suspend our intellectual faculties and accept a contradiction, in the good cause of obedient piety. We are being invited to do some hard work.” Faith, in other words, shouldn’t ask us to stop thinking (as if willful ignorance could constitute obedience to God) but to begin thinking inside the realm entered through faith. 

Just as bad movies demand that we suspend our critical faculties in order to enjoy them, bad religion requires something similar of us — that we don’t ask questions, don’t examine the words we confess, don’t have doubts — since that will ruin the experience. And it really will: anyone who has sung some of less artful contemporary Christian worship songs knows that they fall apart under a little inspection. Bad religion fears reflection, since a little critical distance can see cliché, cheap sentimentalism, and predictability for what they are. Like a movie that tries to orchestrate our emotional response, bad religion leaves us feeling like we’ve been manipulated. 

But if poorly made films and poorly done liturgy ask that we leave our intellects at the door, good art and the best of the Christian tradition invite our intellects inside, to explore the world made possible by trust. Let me illustrate with an example. Terence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is an extraordinarily ambitious film. During its 138 minutes of run time, the camera roams from the creation of the universe, to dinosaurs doing battle, to a group of small boys frolicking in the wake of a truck spraying pesticides. Unlike most films, “The Tree of Life”, does not tell a protaganist’s story, but the whole narrative of life itself. Where most films are driven by dialogue, “The Tree of Life” is impelled by the force of its images. For many, it was a frustrating film: critics lamented the hubris of trying to tell a story about all of life; viewers found it boring. They weren’t willing to accept Malick’s premise and so they didn’t trust the film. Others, like A.O. Scott, did trust the film. And because of that trust they were able to appreciate the beauty of the strange world that Malick renders. Scott writes that the film “stak[es] out well-traveled territory and excavat[es] primal, eternal meanings.” “The Tree of Life,” he says, “ponders some of the hardest and most persistent questions, the kind that leave adults speechless when children ask them.” 

Like “The Tree of Life,” Christianity requires trust. We can’t enter without some faith in the story it tells. But once we cross the threshold we are rewarded by the world we are given. We begin to see the beautiful coherence of this world and the rewards that come from trying to understand it. Those who make a habit of thinking about God can understand the extraordinary architecture of the world of God, just as a film critic can find rich themes in details the casual viewer would miss. 

And yet, there comes a time when even the critic is at a loss for words, if only temporarily. That moment came for me when the credits of “The Tree of Life” rolled. I stayed in my seat. Someone began to applaud to my left, but I was silent. I didn’t know what to say or do. What had I just seen? I knew I would need to watch the film again to know. Pure worship of God does something like that. It presents us with a bewildering excess of meaning, before which we can only fall silent. 

Master

 

 

This is Sawyer. He is a six-month old golden retriever. As you can see, he is formidably cute. It was my pleasure to spend ten days with him in August. My parents were in Kenya at the time, visiting church partners, so I was tasked with watching and training my parent’s dog. I’d never owned a dog, much less trained one, so the experience was an education.

Henry Kissinger once described Lenin’s politics as a continuation of war by other means. Training Sawyer was a sort of inter-species politics, and a war between human and beast by other means. From the start of our time together one thing was clear: Sawyer was not at all clear about who was in charge. During the days we skirmished over walking routes and had stare-downs over meal times. On bad nights he would run in circles on top of the couches in our living room before settling down and sinking his teeth into the feathered-flesh of one of my mother’s pillows. I, in turn, would look at him sternly while I ate a peanut-butter sandwich. 

At the end of the week, tired from a day of half-obeyed commands, I watched P.T. Anderson’s The Master. In it, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a charismatic science-fiction writer turned leader of a group of spiritual seekers; Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams play his closest acolytes. Things go well at first: Joaquin Phoenix settles down a bit and gets to know this group of seemingly well-balanced folks. But even throughout the early portion of the film, something is off. In scene after scene, and shot after shot, the characters, and the camera, focus on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character. Hoffman, for his part, is buoyant and self-assured — always in command of the room he is in. It’s clear that he is the center for the group he’s formed: in one scene he tells Joaquin Phoenix’s character to walk back and forth between two walls, incanting the words of his choosing, as the group watches for hours. As the film continues, cracks begin to appear. The certainty Hoffman exuded, that the group had fed on, begins to be replaced by doubt. One of his followers, at the release of his ‘second revelation,’ asks him breathlessly about some discrepancies between the first and second. Hoffman reacts angrily and tells her off. The woman, bewildered, leaves him. As the doubts wear at the group, Hoffman increasingly asserts his dominance explicitly. Like flying chairs at a carnival loosed from their center, his followers fly outward, before crashing to earth. Joaquin Phoenix, whose life had been stabilized by the community, careens back into who he’d been before once he realizes he can no longer look to Hoffman for answers.

It was only when the credits rolled that I realized what had been irking me for the whole film: I was a cult leader. And Sawyer was my willful disciple. The same sort of power relations I’d found so reprehensible in a human community, were the basis I’d used for training my parents’ dog. Don “The Dogfather” Sullivan and the authors of Leader of the Pack had informed me that dogs are pack animals, and thus naturally disposed to rigid political hierarchy, and I’d believed them, and acted accordingly. Like Hoffman’s character, I’d established my own will as pre-eminent, and worked to abolish the will of my lone follower (unlike Hoffman, to limited success). Though I wasn’t too concerned — Sawyer is, after all, a dog — I did feel queasy about the analogy with The Master. 

As an undergraduate, I studied International Relations, which examines how nations relate to one another. Toward the end of my time at Wheaton, I grew tired of it: the theories of power I heard seemed crudely fatalistic and exploitative. I grew tired, too, of the way God’s power was sometimes talked about at Wheaton: God was powerful because he always got his way. The link between human power and divine power seemed too seamless, as if God’s rule was simply beneficent bureaucracy writ large. 

There’s a story I love in the book of John; my favorite in all the gospels. In it, Mary Magdalene is alone at Jesus’ tomb, weeping. A man approaches and asks her what is the matter. She replies: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Then she adds, “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” The man replies with a single word: Mary. All at once the meeting is transfigured — for in speaking Mary’s name, Jesus reveals himself. In response, Mary exclaims Rabboni! and clings to him.

The word Mary uses, at this moment of poignant encounter, is Master. With this word, she shows that she recognizes this man who has found her weeping: it is the same Lord who called her, who she followed, and who was just crucified. But she also intimates something about the power of this man: he is her master even as he is her friend.

Rowan Williams, in a lecture entitled “Faith and Human Flourishing,” says that “dependence on God is radically unlike losing a struggle for power; losing your control; losing your autonomy.” God’s power, he says, is “absolute freedom to bring the Other into being, without fear, without rivalry, without anxiety.” God is not anxious to prove himself pre-eminent; his power is creative and hospitable: it is, as the psalmist puts it, “the steadfast love of the Lord.” It is this power that Mary experiences in the garden. 

A natural impulse, when the word power is raised, is to think of politics. It is easy to see power as a competition of wills and as depressingly ubiquitous. It is harder to see power in the quotidian care of a parent for a child, from their days in diapers through their transition to independence. But it is there, and its reverberations are felt in ways diffuse and enduring; love, as it says in 1 Corinthians 13, never ends. Power can be found in the most unremarkable places: Mary found it in the familiar embrace of her friend in a garden. It was this friend, who, in Bonhoeffer’s words, “let himself be pushed out of the world and onto the cross” and it is he who manifests true power. For the cross is, as St. Paul writes, “folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”