My close friends, and pretty much anyone who’s ever heard me preach, know I’m a weeper. When I’m deeply moved, it shows. Sometimes, a story touches me so deeply that I become a sobber. Two movies that I watched in the past week brought me to sobs, because they told stories of human suffering and human injustice that were just overwhelmingly and convictively awful. I think of each movie as a parable, a celluloid parable, not unlike the stories Jesus told to move people’s hearts.
Just like the New Testament parables, these stories are fiction. They are not telling the real-life account of some historical figure or family, but stem, instead, from the author’s imagination (and careful research).
Also, like the parables of Christ, they touch on archetypes shared by all humans. Thus, they resonate with us. As examples, “the villain”, “the trickster”, “the hero”, and “the maiden” are common archetypes… Carl Jung had a lot to say about these… but that’s another story!.
And, like the parables, these stories are cautionary, even prophetic proclamations, that condemn human evil and inspire men towards a better way.
Finally, like the parables, and unlike myths which are not only fictional but also fantastic (i.e., impossible) stories that impart a moral, these stories could have happened. In fact, though the characters are fictional and the story lines imagined, some versions of these stories have actually happened to real people, in concrete times and places.
The first movie, based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel, was Sarah’s key. That it told a human story surrounding World War II (the focal point of most of the literature I read at the Lycée d’Etat de Tourcoing), that it was bilingual with both French and English segments interspersed, and that it starred Kristin Scott Thomas all were compelling reasons to watch this movie I’d never heard about.
I won’t spoil the movie. You really should watch it. Kristin Scott plays a modern day journalist writing a story about the Vel d’hiv round ups of 1942, when the French… yes the French, not the Nazis… gathered up, dispossessed, incarcerated, and deported French Jews to death camps.
In the process, she finds an odd connection between her present-day in-laws and a Jewish family with a daughter named Sarah who were deported during those dreadful dates. In her obsession to discover the fate of young Sarah, the plot develops and twists. A heartbreaking story unfolds.
This is no “Schindler’s List” or “Saving Private Ryan” where the horrors of the Holocaust and WWII combat, respectively, are brutally and disturbingly thrust upon the viewer. In “Sarah’s Key”, we’re not hammered or pummeled senseless. Instead, the lens is focused, in sharp detail, on one family, primarily one young girl. We are drawn into her life and her tragedy, little by little, alongside Kristin Scott.
For me, it was akin to what I’d imagine being stabbed by a razor sharp knife feels like… You perceive a slight prick, but by the time you realize the enormity of the damage… your heart is bleeding out all over the floor…
Before you can detach, distance your emotions, even dehumanize (like so many did back then), you’ve become interested in Sarah; you’ve been drawn in to her plight; you’ve begun to empathize. You are connected. And then… you realize… you remember… that while this is but one story, and a fictional one at that, this story was repeated 6 millions times over, in real life! … and, it has been relived countless times since those dark days of mid-20th Century Europe, in other places and different decades. And if that doesn’t make you sob (internally, at least), what will?
The other movie, also based on a novel, was “The Help”, which tells the story of “colored” maids who cleaned and nannied for white families in the USA of the 1960s… a mere 15 years after WWII. In similar fashion to Sarah’s Key, the movie does not slap us in the face, like, say, “A Time to Kill” about the horror of racial injustice in our recent history.
Rather, it is through the disarming eyes of a young, naive, pretty, aspiring reporter (incidentally, that may be the most fictional part of both movies… because I certainly don’t find most journalists to be so prophetic….) that we are drawn into the story of African American women who suffered at the hands of proper, Christian, white men and women.
I was born in 1960. It is upsetting to think how blatant and pervasive racism was in our culture. It’s also scary to consider how insidious attitudes were and how “normalized” segregation was to white folks. I shutter to think of the kind of person I would have been if I’d grown up immersed in that mindset…. and of course, I shutter to think of how blind I undoubtedly continue to be to my own prejudicial attitudes, even now. After all, those folks did not see themselves as racists, did they?
This celluloid parable draws us in to the pain of women like Aibileen, beautifully played by Viola Davis, who nevertheless do not grow bitter, hateful or self-pitying.
And just like the real-life stories evoked by Sarah’s Key, those represented through The Help are part of our history. They happened. And there’s no undoing that now. What’s more, they’re not over. Similar stories still are going on around the globe.
Hence, the sobbing….
…. and hence the timeless, heart-felt prayer:
Thy Kingdom come… thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…
Both movies are penetrating celluloid parables that convict us regarding the inhumanity of man. As a white male, they are sobering reminders of the legacy of oppression of those of “my kind” towards all “others” (Jews, women, blacks, native Americans… and on and on). And it just makes me… sob.
In truth, this infernal, repetitive pattern is enough to lead one to despair, except for the fact that…
… ONE white man (well, sort of olive-skinned, really) came along some 2,000 years ago and showed us an example of how men of all colors should and could be. He was non-violent, generous, humble and loving; and he loved mercy and justice so much that he died for them.
He did it, so “that we should follow in his steps”, showing us what we were meant to be…
He did it, pointing to what, one day, we all would become, when his kingdom is consummated.
His story is the most compelling story ever. It’s a story strong enough to undo all the terrible stories of man’s inhumanity, so well captured in these modern celluloid parables. It’s a story that moves me to keep trying.
It’s a story we’re celebrating for the ~ 2,000th time again, this Christmas!
So, after a good sob… well, you just get up and you keep trying… and you keep praying His prayer…. Thy Kingdom Come.
One last thought
Jesus’ parables left the audience pondering and, to this day, led people to make profound changes in their worldview and their behavior.
One reason I like these celluloid parables, even though they make me sob, is that they have the power to call us to be less mean, less sectarian, less self-serving,and to become kinder, more accepting, more peaceful, and more loving.
Towards the end of the old movie “When Harry met Sally”, Harry tells Sally:
When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.
When I watch movies like “Sarah’s Key” and “The Help”, I feel it helps me realize that what life is all about is mercy, justice (not the legal kind but the biblical kind, where you treat your neighbor, and widows, and orphans right) and love. And when you realize that, you want the rest of your life (a) to focus on those central things and (b) to begin now! That’s one big reason I have so little taste for religious sectarianism and authoritarianism and why I walked away from those kinds of environments. Life’s too short to go on judging, hating, alienating, oppressing, distrusting and dehumanizing one another.
Christmas makes me happy because we all seem a little kinder, a little more loving and a little more hopeful!