Movies often start with mistakes. They are about characters who blow it, who do the wrong thing, and spend the rest of the story trying to clean up the mess they’ve made. It may be comedic, like the awkward interaction between Dr. Evil and his estranged son, Scott, in the Austin Powers movies. It may be dramatic, like the death row confession of murderer Matthew Poncelet to Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking. Sometimes the wrongdoing involves husbands and wives, like the treacherous lure of adultery in Unfaithful or Fatal Attraction. The Runaway Bride has a fear of commitment. The preacher in The Apostle fails to live up to his vow. Even in an animated film like The Lion King, Scar preys upon Simba’s guilt over his father Mufasa’s death.
We may feel like Clint Eastwood’s western gunslinger–we’ve seen and done too many evil things. Are we Unforgiven? How do we right our wrongs? The Straight Story follows a brother’s slow, cross country journey on a lawn mower just to tell his sibling, “I’m sorry.” In The Mission, Mendoza straps on all kinds of burdens to pay for his sins. He carries an overwhelming pack on his back, up a raging waterfall. The moment when he is cut loose from that weight is remarkably freeing for the audience. We want to experience the freedom that Jean Valjean feels in Les Miserables when his crime is forgiven. Yes, he is guilty of stealing, but the bishop offers Jean his silver candlesticks as an additional gift of mercy. This metaphors attempt to communicate the reality of amazing grace.
Do films and stories make forgiveness look too easy? Does reconciliation happen too quickly in fantasies like Field of Dreams? Does an Oscar winning film like Precious offer its characters an easy way out of a considerable jam? Surely the complexities of Civil War are glossed over in Glory. Hollywood endings often feel too simple, too easy, too pat. A grueling picture will conclude in a convenient manner that fails to imitate life. Movie magic can disappoint us.
Not so with the characters in As We Forgive. It begins with a horrific, historic event—the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Yet, it doesn’t gloss over what happened. We see the grim realities and meet both the perpetrators and the victims. It is real, messy, and chaotic. I’m so glad that Chantal has difficulty facing the man who murdered her family. How can she summon the courage to sit down with someone who took so much from her? And where will she find the grace to forgive him?
Lent is a season of taking stock. It is a prime opportunity to meditate upon our failings and prepare for resurrection day. At least 40 days are needed to figure out where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and how we might straighten out our future. It is an opportunity to ponder the promises of God in Isaiah 44:21-22.
The Lord says:
I have swept away your offenses like a cloud,
your sins like the morning mist.
Return to me,
for I have redeemed you.
How wondrous and mysterious. Like a morning dew, God breezes in and our sins drift away. The finest films (like the miraculous moments in Rwanda found in As We Forgive) remind me that such promises are not just poetic. They are powerfully, palpably possible.
Craig Detweiler directs the Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine University. His latest book is Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God. Craig blogs at http://www.purplestateofmind.com.