Hope in the Movies
Flickers in the dark:
How the films of 2007 showed the error of hopelessness and the source of all hope
It was a dark and stormy cineplex. 2007’s big screens were full of violence and despair this year. Bloody acts of revenge. Abortion. Serial killings. Little lies that lead to ruined lives. When moviegoers encountered hope, that hope was usually dashed just in time for the end credits.
And yet, moviegoers sometimes find rewards in even the bleakest big-screen visions. Dead ends, destruction, and despair can serve as cautions that turn us in the right direction, and they can cultivate compassion for misguided souls. Sometimes, the darkness can remind us to pray.
For discerning moviegoers, there were some signs of hope shining through the year’s best films, if only faintly here and there.
Hope shone in the advice from a war veteran to a world-weary sheriff; in the brave choices of a young, pregnant 16-year-old; in the transforming vision of a man with “locked-in” syndrome; in an old-timer’s offer of friendship to a reckless loner; in a church community’s show of grace to a lonely soul; and in the silent devotion of reclusive monks.
Here are a few movies that explored hope — and hopelessness — in 2007.
In his vivid adaptation of the grim Broadway musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, director Tim Burton paints his characters as walking corpses, drained of color and hope.
When the barber Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) returns to London many years after he was stolen away from his wife and child, he’s after one thing: revenge. Under the name Sweeney Todd, he joins forces with a devious baker named Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter) to plot the murder of the guilty judge (Alan Rickman) and his cronies. Together, they lure the guilty parties into the bakery’s barbershop. There, Todd slits throats and Lovett bakes the victims’ bodies into meat pies. The result is calamitous, costing innocent lives, and leading Todd to “execute” the very crime he meant to avenge.
The implication has everything to do with hope. Believing that there was no chance to regain what he lost, Todd resorted to violence, and ruined any hope for restoration.
When things go wrong, we want to see them righted. What could be more noble than the pursuit of justice? It’s one of the sacred exhortations of Micah 6:8: “And what does the Lord require of you? Seek justice....”
Ah, but there is more to the verse. The Lord also requires us to “love mercy” and “walk humbly” with him. That’s where Todd went wrong. With no room for mercy, no thought of humility, he brings down to ruin what might have ended in joyous surprise, and hope is lost.
Why bother with such grim, bloody storytelling? Sweeney Todd is not for the squeamish. Blood sprays as if from fire-alarm sprinklers. It’s an opera and a cartoon at the same time — simplistic, exaggerated, emotional storytelling. But in its intensity, it draws on our sympathies for those grievously wronged. And it reminds us that we’re hopeless if we embrace violence as the best way to resolve our troubles, and fail to watch for the possibility of grace.
Sweeney Todd’s friendship with Mrs. Lovett is what steers him down the wrong path. A misguided friendship is also the center of Christian Mungiu’s internationally acclaimed nightmare 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.
In 1980s Romania, near the end of the the communist Ceausescu regime, a young woman named Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) remains faithful to her friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) — helping her procure an illegal, black-market abortion. The black market has proven their only source of many escapes, simple pleasures, and necessities. But this transaction is different. The two women suffer a demoralizing ordeal when the abortionist turns out to be a heartless monster. And when Gabita gets what Otilia paid for, they’re left staring down at the bloody results of their “purchase.”
It’s a horror film of the most profound kind. The film turns a viewer’s expectations upside-down: Friendship turns out to have enabled a crime, and action taken in rebellion against an oppressor results in a horror.
In this Kafka-esque nightmare, Otilia’s fight seems to be against poverty, against oppression, and against a devilish doctor. Many will hope to see her prevail and survive. But in spite of encounters with great hardship and fearsome monsters, Otilia is left looking at herself in mirror, haunted by conscience, taking the measure of damage done by her own choices.
Months and Sweeney Todd are stylistic opposites. Where Todd is sensational, 4 Months is subtle. Todd is cartoonish, 4 Months brutally real. But the central characters in both films seem incapable of conceiving that there might be a better way out of trouble than a rash and violent solution. Both Todd and Otilia have admirable intentions: Sweeney wants justice, and Otilia feels pity for a friend in trouble. Their lack of hope causes them to stumble into hasty and catastrophic error.
Moviegoers may be relating to this sense of despair because of the nature of current events.
Consider the surge of documentaries about American action in the Middle East. In the best of the bunch, No End in Sight, filmmaker Charles Ferguson might have done the easy thing — he might have let opponents of the war effort stand before the camera and rant about their objections.
Instead, Ferguson puts the microphone in front of agents chosen by the Bush administration, experts who were selected to go to Iraq and bring about order in Baghdad. These proponents of the invasion report from the front lines. As a result, No End In Sight escapes any tone of partisan bias.
But it also reveals a stark discrepancy between the stories these experts sent back to the United States, and the information that was delivered to the American public. It becomes clear that, in their hurry to make a meaningful difference, U.S. decision-makers made costly compromises. The conclusions are clear: If we seek to bring hope to others, we’d best consider our steps carefully, or we may spread hopelessness where we meant to shine a light.
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