For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or
of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will hav
fools? So I hated life, because what is done under the
sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing
“I believe; help my unbelief!” Mark 9:24
Day after day they met by common consent in the Temple; they broke bread together in their homes, sharing meals with simple joy. They praised God continually and all the people respected them. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were finding salvation.
J.B. Phillips Translation
Director Mark Pellington and screenwriter Albert Torres explore the ambiguity of faith and miracle in this quiet little film. Indeed, not since The Third Miracle and Pulp Fiction has this theme been so en gagingly presented—though I probably should include the current X-Files movie as well. Is there or is there not an image of the face of Christ on the back wall of Henry Poole’s house? Beats finding it in a sandwich, as reported recently, doesn’t it? When given a very brief glimpse of the wall, I couldn’t see it, so little wonder that Henry (Luke Wilson) cannot. Despairing of life, Henry has just moved into an L.A. suburban neighborhood. His first choice was a house just down the street, but it was not for sale, so he settles for this run-down house. He is so out of it that he tells Meg (Cheryl Hines), his realtor, that he does not want to negotiate, just pay the owner’s asking price, even though she kindly tells him that he can probably save 25 K and get them to fix it up a bit. Before he can move in Meg goes ahead on her own and orders a re-stucco job, which Henry tells her was not necessary because he will not be there long.
All Henry wants is to be left alone in his sparsely furnished house and lose himself in drink while staring at the bare wall. He certainly is not interested in the tamales that his neighbor Esperanza (Adrianna Barrazza) brings him as a welcome-to-the-neighborhood offering. He closes the door before she can get much of a peek inside. She’s soon back, however, because she is certain that she sees Christ’s face on his back wall. Henry says it is just a stain from a poorly done re-stucco job. Next thing he knows her priest Father Salazar (George Lopez) is there with several parishioners. The Father, more open minded than Henry and more rationalistic than his parishioner, can see both Esperanza’s and Henry’s interpretations. Henry orders them all to leave him alone.
On the other side of Henry’s home is 8 year-old Millie (Morgan Lily), so withdrawn that she runs away when Henry sees her through the fence and greets her. Not before, however, she has taped his conversation with the priest on the tape recorder she carries around. Later, when she comes to look at the wall and then runs away when Henry approaches her, she drops the recorder. This leads to Henry meeting her mom Dawn (Radha Mitchell) when he returns the recorder. He learns that Millie has been so troubled over the divorce of her parents that she has not spoken since the day her father had left.
As if pesky neighbors were not enough, Henry’s privacy is invaded also at the supermarket by a teenage check-out girl named Patience (Rachel Seiferth). She has problems herself, having to wear inch-thick glasses because of her almost blind condition. Sensing Henry’s loneliness (and also made evident by the bottles of drink and packaged meals he buys), she asks him what is wrong with him. He puts her off, but over the weeks she lives up to her name, seeking to draw him out in conversation. Fr. Salazar also reaches out to the disturbed man, telling him, “I am a good listener,” which we can readily believe.
Henry becomes more sympathetic to Esperanza when he gives her the pictures he found in a box, and she tearfully shares her sorrow. The photos are of her and the former owner, her boyfriend, who died in the house of a stroke. She says that in her grief she prayed, and then the image appeared, but Henry refuses to see any cause and effect relationship. Later he grows more upset as the faithful flock to his backyard to see the image, many bringing flowers that make the wall look like a shrine. He hoses the wall down, but the image emerges again, a little clearer, and always with the blood like stigmata. A man takes a sample, Fr. Salazar telling Henry that it will be analyzed at a lab. (Esperanza and her friends have sworn to the accusing Henry that none of them put the red mark there.)
Although there is little doubt that Henry too might eventually rediscover hope (we discover that he has good reason to despair), the enjoyment is in watching the process unfold. The names of the characters all point to his emergence from his depression—Esperanza, Patience, Dawn. According to an article in the New York TIMES, director Mark Pellington is well acquainted with grief, having lost his father to Alzheimer’s disease, and then ten years later his wife died unexpectedly when her colon ruptured, leaving him to raise their infant daughter. He had been hired to direct Harrison Ford in Firewall, but quit the project because of her death. Thus he knows all too well the painful territory of the grieving spirit, something which this film explores so well. Those who were as surprised as I was at the spiritual dimension of The X-Files: I Want to Believe will see that Henry Poole is very similar to the skeptical Dr. Scully. In fact, it is not just skepticism, it is an almost dogmatic refusal to believe, like the disciple Thomas in the Gospel of John. Fr. Salazar, along with Esperanza, Dawn, and Patience are his Mulders, telling him that with faith comes hope—and also, in the way in which they reach out to him, love.
For reflection/Discussion The following contains spoilers.
1) What do you think of Henry Poole when you first see him? Of his appearance; his mood; the way he talks to people? How does he seem to relate to the people who reach out to him?
2) How is the opening song by the Eels a commentary on him? The lyrics include: “If there’s a God up there Something above God shine your light down here Shine on the love Love of the loveless” For all of the lyrics go to: http://www.lyricsdomain.com/5/eels/love_of_the_loveless.html 3) What did you think Henry meant when he says, so many times, “I won’t be here for long” ? How does the script’s keeping us in the dark about what ails Henry add to our concern for him and interest in what comes next? Note that as we see various flashbacks, we are not told the whole story—especially of the doctor talking with him about a serious disease.
4) Compare Esperanza to Henry. Did you think at first that she was just a nosy neighbor? How is her life and simple faith the opposite of his situation? Compare their ways of dealing with grief and sorrow.
5) What is Henry’s humorous answer to Esperanza when she asks if he can see the image on the wall? From the brief glimpse that we are given of it in this scene, can you blame him? How is what we see in such patterns, whether on a wall or in the shapes of cumulous clouds, determined as much by our internal beliefs and imagination as by the object itself? What have you thought of reports of similar sightings of the image of Christ or of the Virgin Mary, even one in a sandwich?
6) What do you think of Father Salazar? How does his reaction to the image reveal a cautious, more rational faith than Esperanza’s? And yet more open that Henry’s refu
sal to believe?
7) What did you surmise from Henry’s interest in the house down the street, and his sitting on a curb while staring at it?
8) Even little Millie has a past. If your parents were divorced when you were a child, how did you handle it? (I still feel the pain and longing from the time when mine parted ways, especially because that was a time long ago when divorces were rare.) What meaning do you see in her not talking and in her tape recording conversations?
9) Patience, the cashier at the grocery store, also intrudes into Henry’s life: what do you think of her observation, “Sometimes you have to feel sad to remind yourself that you are alive? Better than feeling nothing, eh?” ? What is Patience’s own problem?
10) Why do you think Henry is so upset that he hoses down, and when that fails, washes the wall with bleach? Is it just because of the intrusion of all the people, or something deeper? What might it be?
11) How is Dawn somewhere in between Henry and Esperanza in regard to the image on the wall? She does see something, but whom does she humorously suggest it looks like? What is the irony in the phrase she directs at Henry, “..you’re so young yet so full of doubt” ? Is doubt a positive something that can “fill” a person, or is it a lack of…?
12) How does the photo that Henry gives to Esperanza open up the lines of communication between them? How has she too been overcome with grief? How was the boy friend apparently similar to Henry?
13) Esperanza says that she prayed, and then the image appeared. How might Henry be just as correct in his belief that there is no cause and effect relationship, that things “just happen” ? (Remember the famous comment from Forest Gump?) Compare this conversation to the one in Pulp Fiction in which hit men Jules and Vince argue about whether their survival of the fusillade of bullets fired at close range was due to a miracle or poor marksmanship.
14) How is Esperanza’s taking Henry inside the house he had wanted an act of grace? What other acts or “moments of grace” do you see in the film?
– The realtor willing to sacrifice some of her commission to get Henry a better price?
– Her having the run-down house covered with a new coat of stucco?
– Esperanza and Dawn’s bringing food to Henry?
– The concern of Patience for Henry?
– Fr. Salazar offering a listening ear?
15) What do we finally learn of Henry’s childhood? How are such graffiti as “Henry was here” an attempt to leave a mark on the world? What do you think his placing the family photo on the wall signifies? Do you think he is beginning to come to terms with his past?
16) What happens when Millie touches the image? Who suggested she do it? How important do you think others are to our developing our faith? Or lack of it: note that when Henry is talking in the kitchen with Dawn and he says that her touching the wall and then talking was a random event, there is a flashback to the office scene in which his doctor says of the disease, “Things just happen.” 17) In the next scene when Esperanza reveals that she put Millie up to touching the image, Henry becomes upset, telling her, “You have to get me to believe to keep away the doubt of your own faith!” Do you think there is truth in this, or is this his anger lashing out? Do you think that we do need to reach out (or “witness to” ) to strengthen our own faith?
18) How is Dawn’s bringing the plate of cookies to Henry. and what results, an almost sacramental affair?
19) When Patience touches the image and her sight is restored, what is Henry’s reaction? What do you think of Dawn’s words to him, “It’s getting harder, isn’t it?” 20) How is the playful scene with Millie and Dawn with the water bags and hose a period of grace for Henry? Note the water that we see several times in the next sequence as he runs and the camera cuts back to him as a boy on his bike, and then he winds up beneath bridge searching for the old graffiti he had left there years ago. What does the water, supported by the rising music suggest? Cleansing? Renewal? Something akin to baptism? Back at home what does he write on the wall beneath the picture of his family? How is his dinner invitation to Dawn a part of the process of his renewal?
21) At the grocery store when he and Patience talk, what do you think of her observation, “Not everything has an explanation.” How does this fly in the face of our rationalistic age? Can moderns accept mystery, or do they merely see mystery as a puzzle to be solved? If you log onto imdb.com and type in the film, you will see the rant against the film of an atheist ( “It is official. The lunatics have taken over the asylum…” ), revealing the mind of a non-believer even more dogmatic than Henry.
22) Patience says, “I chose to believe.” How is faith (and unbelief) a matter of choice? And yet in 1 Corinthians the apostle Paul includes it among the spiritual gifts—” faith, hope, and love.” How can it be both?
23) As he and Dawn talk by candlelight at his back yard dinner, Henry shares something of his boyhood pain and his new feelings, especially for her. How is this a further sign of his spiritual healing? Later that night what does he come close to doing? Why do you think he holds back?
24) After Millie’s setback, and he returns home from the hospital, why do you think he becomes enraged by the crowd wanting to touch the image? (Note that this time the image has emerged more clearly as a man’s face.) When he smashes the wall with a sledge hammer, what is he told about the red stain? Why do you think that, in effect, the roof has to fall on him before he will accept a miracle? Do you think that some people are as slow faith-wise as others are intelligence-wise? (Check out the imdb.com rant if you have not already done so.)
25) What about Esperanza’s answer to Henry’s wistful “The miracle’s gone” ? “No, the miracle was here as long as it was needed.” How was this often the case with miracles in the Bible? Note especially at the Transfiguration who it was that wanted to hold onto the event/experience by building tabernacles or booths.
26) How has Henry changed by the end of the film? Not yet a complete believer, but is he more open? What significance do you see in his replacing the “was” in “Henry was here” with “is” ?
27) How does the film underline the importance of community in engendering and maintaining faith? Is there any such thing as an individualistic faith, a faith without community, in the Scriptures? Where do you find community? At church; in your family or other group?
Note: this time we have included the discussion questions to show what you will find in the journals–plenty of material to reflect upon or discuss with a group.
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