Detroit (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 23 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 7; Language 7; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 

Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them.

Ecclesiastes 4:1

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Psalm 58:6

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.

From Episcopal Book of Common Prayer 1928

(c) Annapurna Distributtion

It has been 50 years since the death of 43 people during the violence that broke out on 12th Street in Detroit, and Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow teams again with screenwriter Mark Boal to offer a tribute to the victims. Detroit focuses upon three of the deaths, that of the murder of three black people trapped in a motel at the outbreak of the riot. Not only did a team of Detroit policemen kill the teenagers, they also tortured a group of other people (two of whom were white girls) that they held captive in what became known as the Algiers Motel incident. Sadly, this is not just a historical tribute to the victims, but also a reminder and a jeremiad against the current routine of black-killing cops being absolved of guilt for their crimes. For people of faith this also is a parable of the much-used Episcopal prayer of asking forgiveness for sins of omission as well as commission.

The destructive riot—many Detroiters today call it a rebellion—began on July 26, 1967, with at police night raid on an unlicensed bar located above a printing plant. The place was filled with friends of two black G.I.s just back from Vietnam when the cops launched their attack. Rounding up and herding the dozens of patrons in such a harsh and demeaning way, it would seem that the cops had been trained by those who had studied the tactics of the Nazi’s round-up of Jews. This is the 60s, so many of the policemen give full vent to their racist disdain for the black arrestees.

The commotion draws a crowd of onlookers, upset by what they are witnessing. The cries of some, “What did they do?” have been echoed down through the centuries of oppression. Soon someone is throwing a missile at the cops, and then the target becomes the windows of closed-up shops, followed by looting. Add a Molotov cocktail, and soon a riot is in full swing, the embattled original cops calling in reinforcements. In one of the numerous video clips inserted throughout the film we see Gov. George Romney ordering out the National Guard, complete with tanks, jeeps, and mounted machine guns. A war is on, a civil war of blacks against white enforcers of the Northern version of Jim Crow, with outbreaks also occurring that summer in Newark, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Cincinnati, and other cities.

By the next day the destruction covers several blocks, and trucks and tanks roll through the streets. The Guardsmen are so on edge that when a little girl peers out through her closed Venetians blinds, a Guardsman sees the motion and yells “Sniper” as he fires his machine gun at the window. From atop a car Congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonso) tries to calm the crowd, but they are too angry, their long pent-up resentment against their racist based treatment boiling over at last. (The film’s opening credits include an animated “history” of the great “Migration” of blacks from the South to the North and their subsequent segregation there also.)

Three patrolmen – Krauss (Will Poulter), Flynn (Ben O’Toole), and Demens (Jack Reynor) – drive through the streets amidst the burning and looting. They stop to arrest a man carrying two bags of groceries, but he runs away. Giving chase, Krauss fires his shotgun, hitting the man in the side. The fugitive gets away anyway, but bleeds to death later. When Krauss is reprimanded by a detective, he shows no remorse, even justifying his action. Surprisingly, the detective does not order the killer to stand down, but lets him go back onto the streets, which proves to be a terrible mistake, a sin of omission.

Meanwhile in a packed theater a musical review is going on, with a nervous Fred (Jacob Latimore) late in joining up with his singing group The Dramatics due to difficulties in getting through the police cordon outside. The group is to follow Martha and the Vandals, but just as the emcee is introducing them, a cop arrives with the order to evacuate the theater due to the riot. Lead singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) is so disappointed at missing their big opportunity to gain notice, that he remains on stage after the audience has left. He sings part of their song, with only Fred to hear it. The two take a bus to the Algiers Motel to stay the night. At the motel pool they meet two white girls from Ohio, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever). Flirting with them, they invite them to a room where they say they can obtain some food. The occupants— Carl (Jason Mitchell), Lee (Peyton Alex Smith), and Aubrey (Nathan Davis, Jr.) –are not very welcoming. As they talk about the riot and the cops handling of it, Carl takes out a small pistol, and during a scuffle “shoots” Lee. The two laugh at the reaction of the others, revealing that it was a toy gun that uses blanks. The visitors and girls go back to their own room

Across the street African American security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is one of two men guarding a store. Seeing a club-wielding cop abusing a black teenager, he walks out and rescues the boy, even though the kid ungratefully calls him an “Uncle Tom” because of his uniform and gun.

From his motel window Carl watches the police swarming outside and makes a stupid mistake by trying to scare them with the firing of his blank pistol. The cops panic, taking cover and then wracking the motel’s windows with gun fire. They rush into the building, and when Carl tries to flee, Kraus shoots him in the back, stopping to drop an open switchblade by the body. A moment later Dismukes runs in, he becoming the first person to whom Kraus lies that he had killed the dead teenager in self-defense.

The nervous cops are convinced someone in the motel fired at them. (c) Annapurna Distributtion

The cops round up Larry, Fred, Aubrey, Lee, Julie, Karen, and another unfortunate motel patron named Greene (Anthony Mackie). Forcing them to face the wall of a corridor, Krauss begins aggressively to question and threaten them. He refuses to accept their claim that none of them had guns, even though a search fails to turn up any. Dismukes tries to moderate the situation, even conducting a search of the room himself, but he is black and thus has no influence upon the racist Krauss and his two fellow cops. State troopers arrive, but as soon as they see that the captives are a mixed-race group, their leader decides he wants no part of the incident, and quickly drives away. The National Guardsman who has joined the group also seems helplessly to accept Krauss’s drastic measures of interrogation by terror. The cops accuse the girls of being prostitutes and one of the men their pimp. During one round of questioning, a cop rips off the top of the dress of one of the girls, and Krauss fondles the other’s crotch with his billie club. The cops’ cruel mind game involves taking one of the captives into a separate room and pretending to shoot him in an effort to scare the others into confessing. This game goes horribly awry when the dumber of the cops, unaware that his colleagues had only pretended to kill the victim, actually carries out the threat. The long, horrible night will result in the murder of one more of the teenagers before dawn arrives the next day and the survivors are set free.

Dead are Carl Cooper, 17; Aubrey Pollard, 19, and Fred Temple, 18, shot at close range. There is a trial of the three racist cops, and even Dismukes at first is suspected of participating, until it is proved that he was a witness rather than a participant. The trial in the film is a composite of several actual ones, but the outcome is true—the defendants were declared “Not Guilty” by the jury. It was in the late Sixties, and the attitude of so many of the whites in the area was so racist that the trial might as well have been held in Mississippi.

The filmmakers do include a scene designed to show that not every Detroit cop back then was a racist potential thug. When Larry Reed is able to run from the motel, he is taken by a cop who, seeing his blood and bruises, takes him into his car and drives him to a hospital. The film ends with end notes informing us what has happened after the trial. Larry was so traumatized that he left the successful Dramatics to become a church choir director.

I marveled at the way in which Krauss was able to get his fellow cops and the National Guardsman to go along with his extreme method of interrogation. This horrific sequence took me back to the 2015 docudrama The Stanford Prison Experiment in which a professor hired 24 students to pretend they were at a prison, with some serving as guards, and the others prisoners. Almost immediately the guards began to abuse their authority, and the “prisoners” meekly submitted. The make-believe guards became so abusive that the experiment had to be ended long before its scheduled time. If this could happen in a role play situation, it should be little wonder that real life wielders of power would succumb, especially when racism is present.

Although the filmmakers change many of the names and condense trial events, the script stays close to the facts, though no doubt speculating on certain details that were murky at the time. For source material, the filmmakers had John Hersey’s 1968 book The Algiers Motel Incident, and equally important, three of the victims, the white Julie Delaney, played by Hannah Murray, and the black security guard, Melvin Dismukes, portrayed by John Boyega, and would-be singer Larry Reed. They not only spent time with scriptwriter Mark Boal, but at director Kathryn Bigelow’s insistence, Ms. Delaney was on the set for consultation during much of the filming.

That the film is as relevant today in its depiction of racism among law enforcement officers is evident from Ms. Delaney’s comment, “It’s amazingly sad that things haven’t changed. I thought things would change in 50 years. I really did. I guess that’s my looking through rose-colored glasses.”*

At times the brutality, both physical and mental, is so strong that it is difficult to watch, but watch it we should. I write this despite the disturbing Huffington Post article “‘Detroit’ Is The Most Irresponsible and Dangerous Movie Of The Year.” The distinguished authors attack the filmmakers for omitting the historical background of the riot and treating the blacks as just victims without giving us any of their background. I agree that providing more context would have improved the film, but I do not accept their recommendation to skip the film. It might be flawed, but it nevertheless should be viewed and discussed by as many people as possible.

*For more see the article in Detroit Free Press “Eyewitness to horrific night depicted in ‘Detroit’ movie shares story” at http://www.freep.com/story/entertainment/2017/08/04/survivor-detroit-movie-kathryn-bigelow-algiers-motel/532497001/

 This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October issue of Visual Parables.

Imagining Argentina (2003)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 47 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 7; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—
let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.

For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart,
those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord.

In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, “God will not seek it out”;
all their thoughts are, “There is no God.”

            …                                            …

Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.

They sit in ambush in the villages;
in hiding places they murder the innocent.

Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;   they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert;
they lurk that they may seize the poor;
they seize the poor and drag them off in their net.

Psalm 10: 1-4; 7-9

postr-ia

Despite the fame of, and respect for, this film’s two stars, Emma Thompson and Antonio Banderas, it sank from sight after a very brief opening. This was due to the extremely bad press generated at its debut at the Venice Film Festival. According to two reports that I have read, the audience booed and laughed their way through it. So, you might ask, why devote any space to it in this journal? Good question, as I do avoid watching more than half of the movies that open in our area. Read on, and then make your own decision about viewing or avoiding it.

Opening the film is a montage of newsreel clips from the ‘70s when the military dictatorship snatched thousands of dissidents off the streets of Argentina, most of them never seen or heard from again. A voice explains this and says that since the fall of the dictatorship in 1983, most of the perpetrators have not been brought to justice, the citizenry being told by those in power, “never to look back.” The narrator adds, “But it is our sacred duty to look back.” This is what this film does, taking us back to the mid ‘70s to tell the story of one family that serves as a stand-in for the 30,000 Argentinians who were murdered during those dark days. Directed by Christopher Hampton, who also wrote the script, the film is based on Lawrence Thornton’s novel.

The Ruedas are intellectuals living a comfortable life and surrounded by friends of a like liberal mind. Cecilia (Emma Thompson) is a journalist, and husband Carlos (Antonio Banderas) directs a children’s theater. They have a teenaged daughter named Teresa (Leticia Dolera). Cecelia, upset that a group of school boys has disappeared after protesting about their bus fares, decides to write an article about the incident because the government was not willing to provide any information about their sudden disappearance. The apolitical Carlos, worried about the fallout, urges her not to do so. She publishes it anyway, and within a short time, three men come and drag her away, the abduction witnessed by a neighbor.

Carlos tries to obtain information about her whereabouts, but is rebuffed. As he goes about the city, he sees in the Plaza de Mayo Square in central Buenos Aires, a group of women carrying large pictures of young men and women, even a few children. These have been dubbed the Mothers of the Disappeared, and despite the danger (officials and security agents can see them through the windows of the government building on the plaza), they will not suffer their loss in silence.

When Carlos meets a young man related to one of the disappeared, he suddenly has a shocking vision of what happened to the person. This leads to similar experiences with others, some of the victims he discerns are still alive but being tortured, others of whom have been murdered. But he at first cannot “feel” what has happened to Cecelia.

At night, a gathering of relatives of the disappeared is held in his garden. At one his mysterious power reveals that a seemingly sincere young man, Gustavo (Kuno Becker), is actually a spy, a government agent sent to learn what is transpiring. Shortly after this Teresa is abducted, taken away for torture, and, the agonized father learns, far worse, at the hands of Gustavo. So is his friend and theater colleague Silvio (Ruben Blades), tortured and then taken up in a helicopter high above the ocean and pushed through the open door.

Carlos eventually learns through his visions that his wife had been tortured and raped and then was able to escape, only to be quickly captured and taken elsewhere. But his visionary power fails to reveal her current fate. He searches the abandoned factory building where she had been held, and then drives out into the Pampas in search of her. A vision of birds—flamingos and an owl—lead him to a country house where an elderly Jewish couple (Claire Bloom and John Wood) keep watch over flocks of various birds. They reveal that when they were imprisoned at Auschwitz, the birds that perched atop the barbed wire fence represented freedom, binging them hope. Then the Nazis electrified the fence, killing the birds, and so they came no more. Fortified by this encounter, Carlo returns to Buenos Aires.

The film includes many graphic torture, rape, and execution scenes, so we come back to the reaction of the Italian audience at the Venice Film Festival. Given the seriousness of the prison scenes, such a response seems shocking. Of course, it is the bizarre combination of the paranormal and the brutally realistic scenes that caused the audience’s rejection—and subsequently of all but a handful of critics as well. Even if justified, and I’ll get to that in a moment, this attempt to blend clairvoyance and realism is a distraction from the theme of exposing the nation’s descent into barbarism and afterwards, the attempt of government leaders to refuse to face what had happened and punish the perpetrators, now living at large.

Although I have not read the novel, I can see this combination working in that genre. Giving Carlos this mystic power is a device for him, and the reader, to know what otherwise he could never have known, the terribly brutal deeds of a government afraid of its own people. This device just does not work very well in film. Nor, for that matter, is the means by which the couple are reunited at the end wholly believable, though it is what we want. A far better film in this regard is Costa-Gavras’s 1982 film Missing, in which Jack Lemon’s Ed Horman and his daughter-in-law Beth (Sissy Spacek) search for her missing husband, disappeared by the brutal dictators in Argentina’s neighbor, Chili.

Despite the reaction of others, I was impressed by the film. And was impressed by the response of several readers to one critic who had dismissed the film. They were Argentineans, one of whose grandfather was a disappeared. Each of them admitted to tears while watching the film, and thus expressed their support of it. None of them were put off by the unexplained paranormal power of the hero. Thus, despite its flaws, I believe it deserves to be seen and added to the growing list of films that call us to remember the victims of injustice.

Note: For those wanting to know more about this film’s important underlying theme, here are links to two of the multitude of articles about subject available on the Internet. The first report, by the ICTJ (International Center for Transitional Justice), relates the disappeared to transformative justice, providing information on Argentina and other nations in Latin America and the Middle East.

The second article, occasioned by Pres. Obama’s 2016 visit to Buenos Aires, reports that some of the criminals have been brought to justice, but that far more needs to be seen, the Mothers of the Disappeared so upset by the President’s visit that they boycotted the him.

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

Arenas Entertainment

Unbroken (2014)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 17 min.

Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 4; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star ratings (1-5): 4

 Stretch out your hand from on high;
set me free and rescue me from the mighty waters,
from the hand of aliens,
whose mouths speak lies,
and whose right hands are false.

Psalm 144:7-8

 “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”

Mark 11:25

Commdr&Zamp

Mutsushiro “The Bird” Watanabe continually singles out Zamperini for beatings.         (c) 2014 Universal Studios

Angelina Jolie’s film, based on “a true story,” could be said to have been over 50 years in the making. This is because Universal Studios acquired the rights to the story of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini in 1957 with the intention of actor Tony Curtis playing the part. For whatever reasons, it wasn’t until Ms. Jolie came along that the incredible story of courage and perseverance finally made it to the screen. The resultant film is wonderful, but even at 2 hours and 17 minutes, it tells but two thirds of Zamperini’s story, the last portion dealing with love and forgiveness reduced to a minute or so of a postscript on a black screen and photographs and a film clip of the real athlete. More on this later.

The film starts out with a bang in 1943, detailing the exploits of the B-24 bomber Superman as its crew goes about bombing a Japanese base on a small Pacific island. The plane escapes damage from anti-aircraft flack, but not from a group of Japanese Zeroes that rise to attack the American bombers. The gunners manage to down several of the attackers, but their plane is badly shot up, the bomb-bay doors stuck open, and several crewmembers badly injured by the attackers. The plane limps back to base where the landing almost proves disastrous as the plane slides into a pile of rocks at the end of the tiny airfield.

Later the remaining crew is sent out on a rescue mission in a clunker of a B-24. When its engines fail, the plane crash-lands in the sea. All but three of the eleven-man crew are killed, the exceptions being Zamperini, his pilot Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) and a new crewman named Mac (Finn Wittrock). At first trapped inside, Zamperini barely manages to extricate himself and rise to the surface of the sea, where he discovers two inflated life rafts, one of which contains the other two survivors.

During the long ordeal at sea the film switches back and forth to Zamperini’s growing up years. Because of his size and Italian family the boy was bullied at school by his prejudiced classmates. This stopped only when his older brother Pete (Alex Russell) taught him to fight: in one scene we see the undersized lad attacked by several bigger boys and how through his fierce determination he refused to accept their bullying.

A rebel, the boy stole, smoked, and drank, apparently headed for juvenile detention and prison. Again, it was Pete who came to his aid, insisting that he follow him onto the track field. Zamperini become very good at long distance running, even better than his brother by setting a record and being accepted onto the Olympic track team. He did not win the long race (not revealed in the film), but in the last lap he drew on his reserve strength to complete the lap in a record-making 56 seconds. This stirred the interest of the crowd, sports critics, and even Hitler, the latter asking to meet the plucky young runner. (For some reason this potentially dramatic scene was left out of the script.)

The flashbacks are skillfully woven into the scenes of the crash and of the POW camp to which Zamperini and Phil were sent when they were picked up by a Japanese ship. This was after Mac had died, the raft having been punctured in places by the bullets of a Japanese fighter plane strafing them, and their long ordeal of fighting off sharks, and subsisting on caught rainwater and raw fish. During this sequence one of the men makes reference to the ordeal of WW 1 ace Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker whose plane went down in the Pacific the previous October, the surviving crew members drifting for 24 days— Zamperini and Phil were stranded for 47 days in their raft!

When the two survivors are picked up by the Japanese they merely exchange one series of ordeals for another. At the Omori POW camp, when it becomes known that Louie was an Olympic athlete, the commander Mutsushiro “The Bird” Watanabe (played by Japanese singer Miyavi) takes a sadistic interest in him, constantly taunting and hitting him in the face and placing him in a sweatbox.

Zamperini and Phil are transferred to a slave camp near Tokyo where they become part of a vast human machine of carrying coal on their backs. Unfortunately “The Bird” turns up there, continuing his cruel harassment of the American. In the iconic scene revealed in the trailer the dog-tired Zamperini is forced to pick up a heavy beam and lift it over his head. The shadow on the ground looks like the tau cross that scholars say was the kind of cross used by the Romans to crucify Christ and other prisoners. The movie infers that this ordeal took place over hours, though according to the Wikepdia article on Mutsushiro Watanabe it lasted 37 minutes. This is not to disparage the feat–just try to hold such a heavy load for even five minutes over your head. However, it does show that the scriptwriters play a little loose with the facts. Far worse is their downplaying of the spiritual aspect of Zamperini’s story. They do show his desperate life boat prayer in which he bargains with God, promising to give his life to God if they come out alive, but it is not until the end that we learn how the man kept his promise.

The crucifix-like beam holding scene was not to be the worst of tortures inflicted on Zamperini by his tormentor. In an even worst sequence the guard forces all of the prisoners assembled in the courtyard to strike Zamperini in the face. Otherwise he will beat to death another prisoner prostrate before him on the ground. When the prisoners hesitate, Zamperini himself urges them on. We can only marvel at such courage and altruism. The film attributes this to the strong influence of his brother Pete upon him, whose statement, “If you can take it, you can make it,” becomes his motto, but there was actually more than mere human influence upon him.

I wrote above that the script—by veteran writers Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravanese and William Nicholson—covers “but two thirds of Zamperini’s story.” This provides an inspiring tale of human courage and endurance, but there was so much more, condensed to just a few words in the postscript and some photographs and a video clip of the real Zamperini visiting Japan during the 1998 Olympics in Tokyo. (Mention in the film is made that if the War had not cancelled them, Zamperini would have run in the Olympics scheduled for Tokyo.) Following his return to California following the War, Zamperini met and married Cynthia Applewhite, but they did not “live happily ever after.”

Zamperini’s lingering wartime nightmares had led him to excessive drinking, which almost wrecked the marriage. Cynthia’s determination to seek a divorce changed after she became a born again Christian at a Billy Graham rally. She kept after her husband until he also attended a rally. The first visit didn’t “take,” but upon his second visit, he did go forward. He became a religious motivational speaker, some of his appearances being at Billy Graham rallies. He wrote in his own memoirs that as soon as he accepted Christ he forgave his torturers and the nightmares stopped. He threw out his liquor and cigarettes.

Angelina Jolie’s film would have been even more powerful had it continued, even for another 15 or 20 minutes to show this phase of the athlete’s life, because then the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation would have been as strong as that of courage and endurance. The film would have joined two similar ones for which forgiveness is at the heart of the plot, last year’s The Railway Man and 2001’s To End All Wars, both of them also based on a “true story.”

Although I do not subscribe to the Fundamentalist Christians’ claim of a “Hollywood War on Christianity,” I do think there is an unfortunate tendency to water down the faith of characters in order not to offend a secular audience for commercial reasons. The most famous case of this was when novelist John Irving divorced himself from the film adaptation of his best seller A Prayer for Owen Meany because the script left out most of the book’s parallels to Christ of its central character. The studio had to change the name of the main character and the film to Simon Birch. Far worse was Hollywood’s adaptation of Dominique Lapierre’s deeply spiritual novel City of Joy, set in the hellish slum of Calcutta that was ironically named “Anand Nagar.” The book contained two central characters (plus a rickshaw driver), a Polish priest and a Jewish doctor, dedicated to serving the medical needs of the slum dwellers. However, the priest is completely cut out of the film, the film thus losing almost all of the spiritual impact of the book—I have never been so disappointed with a film adaptation.

Anyway, Angelina Jolie’ Zamperini’s story is what we do have, though at least the postscript informs us that upon his return to Japan Zamperini sought out his captors so he could tell them that he had forgiven them. He tried to meet with “The Bird,” but the former guard refused to do so. For me, this is a very flawed film because of its truncated ending, but nonetheless well worth seeing.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the January 2015 issue of Visual Parables.

The Railway Man (2013)

Rated R.  Running time: 2 hour 14 min.

Our Advisories: Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star review (1-5): 4.5

 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Romans 12:7-18

JpPrsnCamp

The camp commander addresses the newly arrived Allied prisoners in this WW 2 true story of brutality and reconciliation set in SE Asia.
(c) 2013 Lionsgate Films

This is the third feature film that I know of dealing with the Japanese mistreatment of World War 2 Allied soldiers during the building of the infamous Burma-Thailand railway along the River Kwai. (More comparison of the three later on.) Just as To End All Wars was based on a true story told in a book, Ernest Gordon’s Through the Valley of the Kwai, so is director Jonathan Teplitzky’s film based on an autobiography, this one by former POW Eric Lomax. It is part romance, part POW adventure, and all about healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Along with the currently showing Joe, it is grace suffused, making it one of those “must see” films for people who seek more than just entertainment from their film fare.

The telling of the story of Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) begins in 1980. A self-described “railway enthusiast,” Eric takes a seat in a passenger car opposite Patti (Nicole Kidman), a lovely young woman. He becomes inspired so by their conversation that after he gets off at his destination that he buys another ticket to the place where she had revealed she was headed. Sure enough, he manages to encounter her, and soon their brief courtship leads to their wedding, the bride and groom marching into the church between two rows of Eric’s wartime comrades as a bagpiper plays. However their honeymoon is ruined by a wartime-induced nightmare that has Eric crying out and convulsing on the floor. He will not reveal what has disturbed him so, and this refusal to share with her becomes a threat to their marriage. Fortunately Patti’s experience as a nurse has endowed her with patience and a certain amount of understanding, but she is approaching the limits of her endurance.

Patti begs his best friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) to reveal to her what had happened to them in Burma, but he at first refuses, finally giving in to her fervent pleading. Thus the story of the horrible mistreatment of Eric and his comrades is told in a series of flashbacks. As the Japanese assemble Eric’s unit and ships them in freight cars to the terminus of the railway line in Burma, they make clear their contempt for their captives. Later one of them, Nagase Takashi the camp interpreter (played by Tanroh Ishida as a young man), tells him that had he been captured he would have taken his own life in order to save his honor. In Japanese eyes the prisoners gave up their honor when they surrendered and now live in shame.

Half-starved, Eric (the then 21 year-old youth played by Jeremy Irvine) and his comrades labor long hours to extend the railway line, the Japanese intending to use the finished line to transport troops to India. Eric assembles from parts stolen from trucks and junk piles a makeshift radio. Listening in at night to the BBC, he learns of the first Allied victories in Northern Africa. The next day he and his friends spread the news, this filling them with hope that Hitler, and eventually his Japanese allies, can and will be defeated. Some who were about to give up the will to live become determined to live another day.

Then the Japanese officers discover the radio. To save the rest of the men from brutal punishment Eric claims that he, and only he, made the radio. Equally damning in the eyes of his captors is a crude map of the river and railway that Eric had drawn to show his comrades where they were. Nagase and his superior officer, believing that Eric was contacting the Chinese and revealing their location, place him in one of the tiny wooden cages exposed to the hot sun where troublemakers are kept, taking him out for periodic beatings. He tries to point out that it was a receiver, not a transmitter, that he had concocted, but to no avail. They then drag him into the special room, the dark entranceway of which we had been shown several times in Eric’s nightmares.

After relating numerous such episodes of their wartime trials, Finlay shows Patti a folded news story he had clipped from a paper. It reveals that Nagase Takashi is still alive, working as a tour guide at the camp in which he and Eric had been imprisoned. The camp is now a museum visited by tourists interested in WW 2. He has never shown it to his friend, and now Patti must share the burden of whether or not to reveal this to the traumatized Eric. Only after a tragic incident shakes their world does Patti make that decision. It is one that will send Eric to the camp/museum to confront the man who so sadistically ill-treated him. The climax is so powerfully moving that this film will stay with you and inspire you for years to come.

Especially when compared to the fictional (though expertly made) Bridge on the River Kwai this film emerges as a major work of forgiveness and reconciliation. David Lean’s 1957 film, based on a novel, depicts the pride of a British officer pitted against his Japanese counterpart, as the former resolves to build a bridge superior to anything his enemy could have built. Meanwhile a special Allied squad is in the jungle planning to blow up the structure. There is no trace of forgiveness and reconciliation in the strictly war adventure film, although it is greatly enhanced by the study of the British officer’s character.

On the other hand director David L. Cunningham’s 2001 film To End All Wars is a good companion for the new film. Based on Ernest Gordon’s 1962 memoir Through the Valley of the Kwai, it too centers on the theme of forgiveness of unspeakably brutal treatment. The epilogue of that film is a brief clip of the aged Ernest Gordon meeting with the former Japanese camp interpreter. The book was my favorite of the 60s, the first book for which I wrote an extensive study guide. Thus I was thrilled when decades later it was finally adapted into a powerful film. (Click onto the title to see my review. Also, a detailed guide will be included in my forthcoming ReadtheSpirit book Blessed Are the Filmmakers—watch the site for the announcement of its publication.)

I have read that the film condenses greatly Eric Lomax’s account, There being no mention of his first marriage and two children—as well as Patti’s three by her previous marriage. I don’t know if the original went into any of the spiritual basis for Eric’s observation “Sometime the hating has to stop,” but there is no mention of it in the film, though we do hear a brief snatch of the 23rd Psalm uttered by a prisoner. Oh, let me add to this: posted on the Imdb site of the film is a comment by a viewer who has read the book, and he points out, “Eric’s deep Christian faith helped him through the nightmare and perhaps lead to his forgiveness of his tormentor decades later. He carried a Bible for decades during and after his imprisonment until it was utterly worn.”  Nonetheless, for people of faith this is indeed a deeply spiritual story, especially in the last sequence showing the confrontation of Eric and Nagase Takashi (played by Hiroyuki Sanada). Such a film makes us even more aware of how shallow and cheap are the usual action/adventure films about so-called heroes wreaking vengeance on those who wronged them.

 For Reflection/Discussion

1. How does the film start out like another light boy meets girl movie? At what point does its mood change?

2. Late in the film Eric responds to the older Nagase’s comment, “You are a soldier, Lomax. You never surrendered,” with,“I’m still at war.” How do we see him “still at war”? How is this still an issue with many American veterans today?

3. Why do you think Eric and his fellow vets keep silent about their traumatic war experience, even when urged to open up by a loved one? How does the incredibly brutal past experiences set the victims apart from those back home?

4. What is behind the contempt the Japanese captors heap upon their prisoners? (This Bushido code is especially emphasized in Through the Valley of the Kwai, and to a lesser extent its film adaptation To End All Wars. Note that the book is available in its reprinted form from Amazon.com.)

5. What is Eric’s motive for building a radio and spreading news g leaned from it to his friends? For a film with the similar theme of hope see the film set in the other zone of World War 2, Jacob the Liar, about a mild mannered captive in a Jewish ghetto in Poland. (The role of Jacob is one of Robin Williams’ underplayed roles.)

6. What do you think of Eric’s stepping forward and assuming all the responsibility for building the radio? How is this a good example of John 15:13?

7. How do we see by what he does that Finlay is just as deeply disturbed as Eric?

8. When we at last are taken into the room and Eric’s torture is revealed, were you surprised by its connection with a scene from Zero Dark Thirty? What do you think of those American officials who claimed that water boarding is not torture? What have they had to do to convince themselves that the policy they endorsed was right?

9. What is Eric’s intent when he journey’s to confront Nagase, and what reveals this? If this had been the usual type of action/adventure film, what would have resulted?

10. What is the spiritual/mental state of Nagase Takashi at this point? Why has he become a tour guide at the museum? When Eric raises his hammer to smash his enemy’s arm, what does Nagase do? How does this prove the sincerity of his avowed convictions? 11. What do you think of their friendship mentioned at the end? Do you wish there could have been some additional scenes showing this, or are we shown enough as it is?

12. Compare this to other films of forgiveness and reconciliation, such as the already mentioned To End All Wars, Amish Grace or the great documentary The Power of Forgiveness.

Note: This time we have included the set of discussion questions so you can get an idea of what is offered in the Visual Parables journal wherein almost every film comes with a set of questions. This publication is designed for leaders who use films with groups and/or for film lovers who just want to think more deeply about their film fare (which is why we call the sets of questions “For Reflection/Discussion.” There are now over 1000 of my individual reviews on the free site, but in back issues there are at least twice that number of reviews, as well as special articles on holidays, the Church Year, social justice themes, a book/DVD review column, plus Lectionary Links, a favorite department for preachers looking for a film related to the Common Lectionary text. To subscribe go to the Store.

Prisoners

Rated R. Our ratings: V -7; L -6; S/N -1. Running time: 2 hours 33 min.

 Do not say, ‘I will repay evil’; wait for the Lord, and he will help you.

Proverbs 20.22

 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12.21

DetFathr

Det. Loki tries to reason with the kidnapped girl’s frustrated father Keller over the slow progress of the investigation.
(c) 2013 Warner Brothers

French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowsk’s mystery thriller explores the ins and outs of a parent’s worst nightmare, the kidnapping of a child. And unlike the action thriller Taken, also about a kidnapping (of an adult child), the fathers in this movie are not former secret agents with almost super human powers and knowledge, but just two ordinary guys stretched to the limit of human endurance. The film’s believability factor adds to the tension and suspense that never lets up. We see immediately that Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) will be the focus of the story because the film opens with him and his 14-year-old son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) in their hunting gear watching a buck deer feed nearby. The boy takes careful aim, fires, and the deer drops. Keller expresses his pride at the boy’s first kill, a clean shot.

On the way home he tells Ralph the best advice he received from his father was always to “be ready.” We see that he has followed that advice by stocking their basement with stacks of prepared food, water jugs, and even gas masks. He does not seem to be one of the rabid type of survivalist, but he is ready “just in case” of a breakdown in society. This advice which he has followed and passes on to his son will add to our understanding of his deeds in the dark events that will follow.

Keller and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), lifelong friends, are both married and live just a short walk from each other in a Pennsylvania suburban development. On Thanksgiving Day Keller, wife Grace (Maria Bello), Ralph, and six-year-old Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) walk to the Birch’s home. Grace and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis) are also good friends, as are teenaged Eliza Birch (Zoe Soul) and 6-year-old Joy (Kyla-Drew Simmons) pals with their Dover counterparts. After dinner the parents enjoy conversing while the teenagers watch TV, and the two girls play together. Outside at one point they climb onto the rear bumper of a small rundown RV parked down the street, with the worried parents pulling them off. Then the girls decide to go to the Dover house in search of some toys. It is several hours later before the parents miss the girls and rush frantically through the neighborhood calling for the pair.

Their search is fruitless, and so Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is called in. It is telling that he is reached at a restaurant where he is eating alone—and this is Thanksgiving Day. He methodically runs down clues that lead him to the camper and its driver Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Alex confirms Loki and Keller’s suspicion by trying to run away. However, forensics finds no evidence that the girls had been in the camper, and Alex turns out to be so mentally handicapped that he does not seem to comprehend matters when Det. Loki interrogates him. The officer pleads with his superior that the suspect be held beyond the legal 48-hour limit, but the man is let go anyway, returning to his Aunt Holly Jones (Melissa Leo) who cares for him. Not knowing of the detective’s objection to Alex’s release, Keller is angry with Loki, accusing him of letting the only suspect go, and that he is doing nothing, despite the latter’s promise to Grace, “I will find your child!”

The two wives do not hold up well in the crisis, Grace sinking into oblivion with alcohol and pills that send her to her bed. She totally neglects family and house, and therefore is unaware of Keller’s frequent absences. Frustrated that the days are slipping away with no contact from the kidnappers, which means that the girls will probably be killed, Keller crosses the line by becoming a kidnapper himself. He seizes Alex and takes him to an abandoned apartment complex where he beats him while demanding to know where the girls are being held. His assumption that Alex was faking his confusion and would soon buckle is not borne out.

Frustrated, Keller takes Franklin with him to continue his tortuous interrogation of Alex. Franklin is horrified at the brutality of his friend, but when he questions their captive and gets nowhere in obtaining information from him, he does not stop his friend from resuming the beatings. Alex continues to claim he did not kidnap the girls. Meanwhile Det. Loki keeps pushing what seems to be a fruitless search, one that includes some false leads such as a pursuit of a suspiciously acting hooded figure attending a candle light vigil for the girls, and even a child abusing priest. The suspense and fear persist right up to the bizarre ending that left the screening audience gasping out loud.

Unlike most thrillers, this one does not neatly wrap everything at the conclusion. It leaves viewers thinking not only about the fate of its characters (Keller especially), but also about their moral/ethical acts. What would you do if you had the man suspected of abducting your child in your power? Would you use “any means necessary” to extract information from him? Would the possibility that you might be wrong restrain you? And if you were Franklin (or his wife Nancy who learns what their husbands are up to), would you go along, even though you are repulsed by what your friend is doing to the helpless captive?

The complex plot requires close observation and the torture scenes raises the moral question of crossing over the line in the pursuit of truth and justice similar in a way to that of Zero Dark Thirty, or to a much older film about vigilantism The Ox-Bow Incident. Keller is portrayed as a religious man, the film beginning with his saying The Lord’s Prayer while he and his son are observing the deer—admittedly an unusual time to say such a prayer. Later he again recites the prayer, but because of what has happened, and what he is doing, stops at “…and forgive us…” The violence makes this film problematic for some, but for those who appreciate a film with the main characters well developed and morally challenging, this long film is well worth the extra time required.

The full review with a set of 9 questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the November issue of Visual Parables, which will be available toward the end of October. If you are a subscriber and plan to discuss this film with a group, contact the edior, and he can send you the full review.

 

Incendies (2010)

Rated R. Our Ratings: V-4 ;L -1 ; S/N –1. Running time: 2 hours 10 min.

The wicked go astray from the womb;
they err from their birth, speaking lies.
They have venom like the venom of a serpent,
like the deaf adder that stops its ear,
so that it does not hear the voice of charmers
or of the cunning enchanter.

The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done;
they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
People will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges on earth.”
Psalm 58:3-5, 10-11

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
Matthew 5:43-45

In the search for her mother s past Jeanne is joined in the Middle East Notary by Lebel and brother Simon.

2010 Sony Picture Classics

Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s poetic play is a mesmerizing film of mystery, adventure, and unconditional love in the midst of factional hatred. It begins with the reading of a will in the Montreal office of a notary and then jumps to an unnamed Middle Eastern nation torn by religious and political strife, moving back and forth in time. The mystery surrounding the mother of a twin sister and brother is slowly peeled away, layer by layer, until at last we understand something of the unconditional love with which she had surrounded them, and which she apparently wishes to extend beyond her own lifetime.

Lebel (Rémy Girard), the notary who had been the long time employer and friend of the deceased, sits down with Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux Poulin and Maxim Gaudette) to read them their mother Nawal’s will (Lubna Azabal). Her bizarre requests begin with her wish to be buried “naked, no prayers, face down, away from the world.” Her son and daughter are then handed a pair of envelopes and instructed to deliver them personally—one to their father and one to their brother. But they had grown up believing that their father had died during the civil war in their mother’s country, nor had they known anything about a brother. Simon, thinking this a symptom of their mother’s craziness—she had been unusually silent and withdrawn during her last days—refuses to accept the mission.

Jeanne, however, feeling duty bound to fulfill their mother’s wishes, sets off for the unnamed country (which we presume must be Lebanon). During her interviews with various people numerous flashbacks reveal the secrets of their mother’s past. Nawal, growing up in a Christian family, had fallen in love with a Muslim and become pregnant, and so her vengeful brothers had killed him. They would have murdered her as well, but for their grandmother, who took care of her until the baby was born. As the son is taken from her, Nawal promises the infant that she will find him one day.

The child is put in an orphanage, and his mother is exiled to the care of relatives in a distant city. Jeanne visits her mother’s village, but the women know nothing of her father and their contempt for Nawal and the shame she had brought on the family and the village leads them to demand that she leave. Just as Nawal did not give up on her search for her lost son, so Jeanne keeps on following the small clues she finds, arriving at an orphanage. Crucial to her search is a small photograph of her mother against a background of a wall on which are written some words in Arabic. A man recognizes that the words point to a prison in the south, and so Jeanne sets out for it. We learn that Nawal was on a bus on the way to the orphanage where her son had been sent when a Christian militia stops the bus and begins firing into it. She calls out that she is a Christian and tries to take the little daughter of a doomed mother with her. However, when the terrified child breaks away and tries to run back to her mother, a militiaman shoots her, and then he and his men set fire to the bus, burning alive all of the Muslim passengers.

This act of hatred turns Nawal against her co-religionists so that she seeks vengeance on the leader. What she does and how this leads to the prison I will leave to you to discover. Back in the present Lebel and Simon join Jean, and from a former Muslim militiaman and a prison midwife the trio learns of Nawal’s years of torture and rape in the prison and her being called “The Woman Who Sings.” Apparently singing was her lifeline for surviving the horrors inflicted on her. Certainly it is an appropriate name when, at the film’s climax, we learn of her incredible unconditional love. How this will impact the twins and the father and brother for whom they are searching, the filmmaker leaves to the viewer to decide.

Whatever conclusion viewers come to, the film will resonate in their minds long after the screen credits fade away. The love depicted is incredible, rare, and to be cherished and celebrated because it reflects the love Christians attribute to God. Two other films about a mother’s legacy that came to mind after I saw this film are Eleni and The Great Santini. The first is based on the true story of a New York Times reporter searching in Greece for the former guerilla who executed his mother years earlier when Communist forces took over his village. When he catches up with the killer, he is torn between his lust for vengeance and his mother’s legacy of sacrificial love. The second is the semi-autobiography of Pat Conroy’s teenage years of growing up under the domination of a harsh military father and a gentle mother who helped free him from his father’s harsh view of life. Oh yes, there is a third, God Bless the Child in which a homeless mother decides that she must give up her little daughter so that she can grow up in a healthy and secure environment. Any or all of these would be a fitting follow up to Incendies.

The film’s title refers to a fire that totally destroys, and so we see this in the hatred between the warring Christians and Muslims. In this respect Denis Villeneuve and Wajdi Mouawad’s work is akin to Stephen Spielberg’s Munich, based on the spiral of violence between Arab terrorists and Jewish intelligence agents stemming from the brutal massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Both films depict the dehumanization and destruction of innocent lives when people seek vengeance. With the writer of the old peace song “Where have All the Flowers Gone?” they ask, “When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn?” The miracle in Incendies is that love can survive such devastation.

For Reflection/Discussion

1. What do you think of Naval when you first hear about her strange burial request? How does your understanding of her grow as the movie unfolds?

2. Which of the two children seems the most like her? How do we see also that both share a large measure of her persistence (especially Jeanne)?

3. How does the filmmaker make us work in order to figure out what we are seeing? (Do you think his withholding of explanations for various scenes—such as the killing of Naval’s lover, or the identity of the boys in the head-shaving scene—forces viewers to become more involved in the film?

4. In the scene in which we see the shaving of boys’ heads, who do you think is among them (
the one who stares into the camera)? What do you think the use on the soundtrack of Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army?” adds to the scene?

5. How are the “Christians” depicted more Arab than Christian, especially in the sequence of the killing of the lover and the birth of Naval’s child and her subsequent exile? And, of course, in the scene of the brutal slaughter of the Muslim passengers on the bus?

6. What moments of grace do you recall seeing in the film? How is the Notary Lebel an agent of grace? What does his remark “To a notary, Mr. Marwan, a promise is a sacred thing” reveal about him?

7. What do you think of Naval’s prison title “The Woman Who Sings” ? How might the filmmaker have played this up more? For another film in which music becomes a survival tactic see the lyrical Bruce Beresford film Paradise Road, based on the true story of a group of women prisoners in a Japanese P.O.W. camp who form a voice orchestra.

8. Were you prepared for the film’s final revelation? What do you think of Naval’s letters? What effects do you think they will have? How do you see God revealed in her statements? Contrast the attitude of the two Scriptures quoted above. You might also check out Romans 12:19-21.