Manchester By the Sea (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 17 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance,

but by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken.

Proverbs 15:13

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?

Jeremiah 8:22

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Lee & Patrick (rt) are joined by family friends George & his wife at the graveside of Joe, the boy’s father & Lee’s brother. (c) Roadside Attractions

 Lee’s (Casey Affleck) spirit might not be “broken,” but, as we get to know him through flashbacks, he is certainly contending with “sorrow of heart.” That is why he has left the village that gives the film its name and puts up with a thankless (almost) job as a janitor in a Boston apartment complex. He is constantly replacing a light bulb for an elderly tenant or repairing a leaky pipe or toilet. Only occasionally does he receive a thank you (from a woman, we see). During his off-hours, he drinks alone in a bar, where he sometimes gets into a fight because he does not like the way a man is looking at him. For Lee is no “glad heart” or “cheerful countenance.”

At the beginning of the film, some eight years earlier, he is standing on the stern of his brother Joe’s (Kyle Chandler) fishing trawler coaching his young nephew Patrick in fishing. They were very close then, but now that Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is a 16-year-old, the old closeness is gone. Lee has returned to the village upon receipt of the news that Joe has suddenly dropped dead from heart failure. Joe has been divorced from his alcoholic wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), so the hospital has called Lee as closest relative. Joe’s death was not unexpected, because in a flashback to a hospital bed scene a doctor has diagnosed him with congestive heart disease, news so hard to take that the distraught Elise stalked out of the room.

When Lee attends the reading of the will, he is shocked to learn that he is named Patrick’s guardian, and so is the lawyer by Joe’s not having talked over the matter with his brother. Lee has a host of reasons as to why he is not the proper guardian for his nephew. However, if he is to be in charge, he tells the boy they will have to live in Boston.

Patrick does not want to leave his school friends, hockey team, or garage band—also, the lecherous boy has been grooming two different girls (unknown to each other) as partners to shed their virginity. Over the course of numerous conversations Lee suggests the possibility of the boy staying with another uncle in Minnesota; of Patrick living with his now sober mother whose married to man in a neighboring village; or of staying with the close family friend George (C.J. Wilson), who has been employing the boy part time on the wharf and partners with him in maintaining Joe’s boat.

The film demands close attention because of its numerous, unannounced flashbacks that slowly add to our understanding of the characters. Just as in real life something will suddenly bring back an incident or person we had not thought of in years, so is Lee, while coping with watching over his rebellious nephew, constantly thrust back into his troubled past. He sees that it is not he who controls memory, but that it controls him. And for Lee, these are memories he would like to put behind him. We learn why villagers cast dark looks or whisper about him on the street and why he cannot find a job in the village. There was a tragedy that led to his divorce from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and what amounted to a flight from the town. Guilt and remorse follow him like a dark cloud hovering over his head, shutting out the sunlight.

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s somber, beautifully crafted film is good tonic for those chirpy Hallmark-type films that teach that a new romance or adventure will sweep away grief and guilt. You will find that a word-search for “sorrow” or “grief” turns up so many passages in the Hebrew/Christian Scriptures, the hurt being so great for one prophet that he cries out, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” The Scriptural answer is always tied to a right relationship with God (or making it right if the connection is broken, as was the case with the prophet’s nation). However, we see little evidence of faith in Lee, or in his nephew. And when Patrick has lunch with his reformed alcoholic mother and her new husband, their “born again” faith holds little attraction.

And yet the film does conclude with as positive note as could be expected, even a tentative note of hope. Lee proves to be a wise and caring guardian for Patrick after all. But just before that, we see how wounded Lee still is when he encounters ex-wife Randi and a friend on the street. Pushing a pram with her new baby in it, she is eager to talk with him, so her friend leaves to go fetch their car. Her voice a bit choked up, Randi apologizes for the way she had treated him during their crisis. He relies haltingly, and when she suggests that they meet for lunch to heal their breach, he turns her down. This is the most poignant scene of the film, the two actors deserving the Oscar nods predicted by critics.

I want to give this film 5 stars, but one aspect of it seems either unrealistic and/or deplorable, namely the parenting of the mothers of the two girls that Patrick is desperately trying to make his first sexual conquests. The parents are so permissive, pretending to believe that their daughters are “doing homework” while alone with Patrick, and behind closed doors, no less. They might just as well have given him an invitation, “Welcome to my daughter.” Granted, the boy is smooth and manipulative, using the grief from his father’s death to his advantage, but these women are supposedly adults. Lee also is implicated in his nephew’s plans, though we can understand he is feeling his way in his unfamiliar role of serving as the boy’s guardian, and so does not want to seem too strict. Parents of teenagers, as well as youth leaders, should be wary—there are no good role models for youthful viewers of this film, with the possible exception of George. Having said this, Manchester By the Sea is still a powerful study of grief and the struggle to find a way out of its morass, well worthy of the praise it has garnered.

 This review with a set of questions will be in the Jan. 2017 issue of VP.

 

Terraferma

(Italian with English subtitles)

            Rated R. Our ratings: V -2; L -1; S/N -1. Running time: 1 hour 28 min.

Family

This Sicilian family is faced both with a need to change with the times and a decision concerning the illegal African immigrants the grandfather picked up at sea,
(c) 2011 Cohen Media Group

 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus 19.34

Director/co-writer Emanuele Crialese’s film (Italy’s 2012 entry in the Oscar race) is set on the first Sicilian island that refugees from African war and poverty encounter on their dangerous trek across the Mediterranean to Europe. Here Grandfather Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio) is at war with his son Nino (Giuseppe Fiorello) over the need to abandon their old fishing vocation and adapt to the new tourist-based economy. Nino already has done so, becoming quite a huckster for his business whenever a large cruise ship disgorges pleasure-seeking tourists from the mainland. Ernesto lives with his widowed daughter-in-law Giulietta (Donatella Finocchiaro) and her 20 year-old son Filippo (Filippo Pucillo), the latter who goes out with him in search of the dwindling supply of fish, but also works with his mother for his uncle Nino. Giulietta, seeing no future on the island, longs to escape with her son to the more promising opportunities of the mainland.

One day while out in search of a catch, Ernesto and Filippo spot an overloaded raft of Africans frantically waving to them for help. Ernesto calls the Coast Guard who order him not to pick up any of the immigrants. However, five or six of the refugees jump into the water and swim toward his boat. Ernesto is deeply committed to the law of the sea that dictates that one always comes to the aid of those in distress, something he will argue several times with his family and neighbors. They pick up the Africans, among whom are the very pregnant Sara (Timnit T.) and a young son. He does not tell the Coast Guard, and when they land, the men run off into the hills, leaving behind Sara and her boy.

Giulietta, who has moved the family to their garage so that they can rent out the house to a trio of tourists, is decidedly upset by what she regards as an intrusion by the Ethiopians (as they turn out to be). However, given Sara’s condition, she cannot turn her away yet, but does let her know that after the delivery she will have to go. Sara gives birth to an infant daughter, who is immediately resented by her brother. As Sara shares her story with Giulietta, despite the difficulty of the language barrier, we see the reason for the boy’s resentment—the infant is the result of Sara’s having been raped. The boy is convinced that their father whom they hope to join in Italy will reject her and the baby, but Sara replies that he will not if he is the same man he was five years ago before his departure for work.

Giulietta grows to like and admire the plucky Sara, but Filippo is growing more to resemble his opportunistic Uncle Nino. This is tragically evident on the night that he takes their three tourist guests (from whom they thus far have kept the secret of their illegal guests) on a night ride in the family boat. The joy ride starts out on a merry note, but when they come across a raft of African refugees, Filippo prevents any from climbing aboard their boat by beating on their hands with an oar. The three tourists are appalled at this, as well as the revelation that illegals have been coming to the island, despite Nino’s having assured everyone that there are no illegal immigrants on the island. The next day the bodies, some still living, are brought to the shore for everyone to see. The Coast Guard authorities are now aware that there are several missing refugees from the earlier group.

How the young man atones for his terrible act makes for uplifting viewing. The conflict between Ernesto’s affirmation of the hospitality required by the old law of the sea with that of civil law which demands the refusal of help to illegal immigrants calls to mind the debate years ago surrounding the Sanctuary Movement in America, the current version of which is should people of faith and their churches offer aid to illegal immigrants who have come today more for economic than political reasons. It is thrilling to see Ernesto stand by his risky choice, as well as seeing his daughter-in-law and grandson still wrestling with that choice and its possible consequences. Both mother and son move from self-centeredness to other centeredness, an ideal enshrined in the Law of Moses quoted above. It is interesting to see the European version of a problem that so divides America, and to learn that there are compassionate hearts there also who place ethical law above any civil law that would prevent deeds of love and mercy. This is film every person of faith should see and share when it is available on DVD or streaming video.

The full review with a set of 7 questions for reflection or discussion appears in the Sep/Oct issue of Visual Parables, which will be available on Sep. 23 when VP’s new site is launched.