Each year, as we near the close of Passiontide, I find myself increasingly drawn to films with Lenten themes. From Ostrov's reminder of our universal need for repentance, to The Passion of Joan of Arc's wrenching plea for faithfulness and perseverance, to the sweeping overview of Christ's life in Jesus of Nazareth, to the unexpectedly moving account of the Passion's Jewish roots featured in the animated Prince of Egypt, seasonally appropriate films can be a powerful part of our Triduum preparations.
But today I'd like to consider a pair of films likely to be overlooked during Holy Week. Neither immediately appears to have any overt Lenten significance, but both share the ability to remind us of some all-important truths in this somber season. In the heightened liturgical state that envelops us as we draw closer to Calvary, it should come as no surprise that we see His footsteps all around, sometimes in the most unexpected places.
Changing Lanes, the capricious Ben Affleck/Samuel L. Jackson showcase from 2002, is a genre-defying film perhaps best described as a "morality thriller." It explores the condition of our fallen human nature by subjecting its two protagonists to a series of rapidly escalating moral dilemmas. On the one hand is Gavin Banek (Affleck), a high-powered Wall Street lawyer whose rapid climb up the ladder of success has come at the expense of his principles – a man who is gradually losing his soul, one compromise at a time, but who has yet to realize the devastating extent of his loss. On the other hand is Doyle Gipson: a recovering alcoholic struggling to rebuild his shattered life and keep his fragmented family together at all costs – a man who has already lost his soul and is fighting desperately to find it once again.
Their meeting is sheer coincidence: On his way to the courthouse to file an illegally obtained document that will give him and his partners control of a massive charitable foundation, Gavin collides with Doyle's car. Doyle, on his way to the very same courthouse to persuade his wife and two young sons to give him another chance at fatherhood rather than leave him for good, asks Gavin for his insurance information. "I need to do this right," he says. "I want to be clean in all my actions."
The lawyer, distracted and unconcerned about "being clean," attempts to buy his way out of the situation. But when his hastily offered blank check is met with repeated pleas to "do the right thing," Gavin gives up in exasperation, shouting out, "Better luck next time!" as he leaves Doyle standing by his crippled vehicle. Only once he arrives at the courthouse does he realize the full gravity of what he has done: In his haste to escape from the consequences of his actions, he inadvertently left the vital document behind with Doyle.
Meanwhile, the delay could not have been more catastrophic for Doyle, who arrives at the courthouse twenty minutes too late to save his family. Unopposed and hurt by his absence, his wife has been granted custody of his two sons and is fully prepared to take them out of his life forever. Crushed by the harsh hand he has been dealt, Doyle begins the long walk home – only to run into Gavin, who has been frantically searching for his lost document. At first Doyle refuses to negotiate, but after an afternoon of inner struggle, he decides to relinquish the paper to its (semi-)rightful owner. By that time, however, Gavin has gone on the warpath, vowing to destroy Doyle for his resistance. From there, the crimes grow increasingly severe – from rage, theft, fraud, all the way to attempted murder – before the film finds its way into an unexpectedly tidy, undeservedly rosy redemption for (nearly) everyone involved.
So where are the movie's Lenten themes? True, the film's events take place on Good Friday, and there are a number of overtly Christian references scattered throughout – a confusing confessional scene chief among them – but these can easily be dismissed as mere incidental connections. And with its thoroughly unlikable characters and half-hearted attempts at moral ambiguity, the film is finally more interesting for the questions it raises than for the way it tries to answer them.
However, screenwriter Michael Tolkin suggests a clue for interpreting the film that opens up a wealth of possibilities. It is, he says, a film about moral consequences. Gavin and Doyle are reaping the whirlwind of their own sowing, paying the price for lifetimes spent indulging their vices and ignoring their fellow man. The harsh realities they are forced to confront are deserved, their Good Friday of suffering and self-loathing a just reward for their sinfulness.
All of us are likewise plagued by the consequences of our sins. Our trials may be less cinematic than Gavin and Doyle's, but the self-inflicted nature of nearly all human suffering is one of life's great constants. Yet Christ, hanging upon the cross on the first Good Friday, was profoundly undeserving of such suffering. The Good Thief recognized the merciful injustice of Calvary, speaking on behalf of the entire human race: "We indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong" (Lk 23:41). For a good person, St. Paul said, someone might possibly dare to die. But Christ died for all of us – for the Gavins and Doyles of the world, as well as the good; saints and sinners alike He has redeemed. How easily we allow ourselves to overlook the profound profligacy of His Mercy.
More clearly Lenten-themed than its American companion, the 2004 German film The Ninth Day is the loosely fact-based account of Abbé Henri Kremer's struggle for survival in Dachau's Pfarrerblock 25487 (Priest Block #25487).
As a member of a wealthy and politically prominent Luxembourg family, Father Kremer's internment has been a shocking and devastating ordeal. Writing to his mother, he reveals that it is only through a detached, almost subhuman existence that he has been able to survive the camp's daily brutalities. Yet despite the constant support of the priests imprisoned with him, Kremer feels his humanity slowly slipping away: In one of the film's most powerful moments, he recounts how he concealed a secret water supply from his fellow sufferers, lamenting the level of degradation and selfishness to which he has been driven.
Yet Father's life in Dachau, brutal and overwhelming though it may be, serves only as the film's opening act. The true ordeal begins when he is inexplicably granted a nine-day furlough at the request of the Luxembourg Gestapo. Upon arriving home, he is summoned to the local headquarters by Untersturmführer Gebhardt, an SS officer who reveals the true reason for Father's release. The Third Reich's Vatican experts, thwarted by the local bishop at every turn, are seeking a prominent religious figure willing to denounce the bishop as unreasonable and untrustworthy. Father Kremer, by virtue of his family connections, is the perfect candidate. And as a prisoner granted only temporary reprieve from the terrors of Dachau, there is every reason to expect the good priest to be a willing ally.
Kremer, however, is made of tougher stuff than Lieutenant Gebhardt realizes, and their conversations move quickly from threats of continued suffering to more theological problems. Gebhardt, himself a one-time seminarian who rejected the altar for the sake of his Führer, is honest about his discomfort over some of the Reich's foundational principles. But when Father demands to know how he can possibly align his religious sensibilities with his government's harsh and inhuman policies, Gebhardt is terrifyingly blunt. "Judas paved the way to redemption," he says. "Judas intrigued me for years. I claim Judas was pious; maybe the most zealous of all. No Judas; no Christianity."
As the end of his nine-day furlough approaches, Father Kremer is confronted with a crucial dilemma: Can he do evil for the sake of a much greater good? Should he publically betray his beloved bishop, assuring the release of every Luxembourgian priest in Pfarrerblock 25487? Guaranteeing their liberation would not only assuage his guilt-ridden conscience; it would confirm his humanity once again, freeing him from the devastating consequences of his imprisonment. A priest is, after all, a shepherd. And what better way to lay down one's life for one's sheep than by willingly embracing a little evil for the sake of their far greater good?
Director Volker Schlöndorff said that his interest in Kremer's story was deeply influenced by his childhood viewing of Carl Theodor Deryer's previously mentioned silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc – an unsurprising admission, given the striking thematic similarities between the two films. At their core, both Dreyer's and Schlondorff's works revolve around the same all-important struggle to remain faithful to God at all costs.
In the eyes of the world, willingly embracing the flames of execution rather than telling a small lie about one's supposed visions is seen as pure madness. So, too, is refusing to write a seemingly insignificant letter of condemnation when so many lives could be saved by the stroke of a pen. But what could be more absurd in the eyes of the world than having the power to free oneself from ignominious and painful death and yet refusing to do so – choosing instead to suffer and die for the very people responsible for putting you there?
Faithfulness to Christ and His Church will never be easy. We are all tempted to betray Him in a thousand little ways, each and every day. But with such an extraordinary example of Divine Madness and Mercy lifted up before us, how could we not follow in His footsteps, even though they lead us to the Cross? For despite the fear and pain of the many little crucifixions to which He calls us, we must remember that Good Friday is only a step along the path that leads to Easter.