End of the Spear

I went to see the missionary movie this weekend.

Wow. Just. Wow.

That was worth the parking nightmare that is Southpoint on a Saturday night.

There was nothing halfway about this film. The cinematography was breathtaking. The score was beautiful and compelling (arguably overly so). The portrayals were enthralling. The violence sequences were intense without being gratuitously graphic.

I am impressed, among other things, by the way that the 1956 LIFE photo essay on the death of the missionaries was woven into the film. They must've used the photo essay to guide set design, costuming, and casting, and then digitally doctored the photo essay as it appeared in the movie in order to make the integration seamless.

The only cinematic hiccup that caught my eye was when we're told that 40 years have passed and no one (except for Steve Saint, who now looks incredibly like his father, only with a scruffy beard and glasses -- and even he doesn't look as old as he ought to be) seems to have aged a day. Sorry, Rachel Saint didn't look that young and glamorous when she died. She didn't look that young and glamorous when she was young.

Now I really really really want to see Beyond the Gates, the complementary documentary, because the feature film dramatization plants a lot of questions and makes you hungry for "the rest of the story."

I did not come away with any new, profound insights about the nature of forgiveness -- indeed, had I not gone in expecting a story of forgiveness, I don't think I would have even picked that out as a theme. The "aboutness" of the film is more nonretaliation, which is a component of forgiveness, but is not identical with it.

To add to the drama of the movie, the filmmakers play up the tension between the orphaned Steve, who is expected by tribal mores to be his father's avenger, and the warriors who killed his father. But the climactic scene at the end of the movie where this is played out rang false to me -- and with good reason; it is false -- it was one of the fabricated sequences that didn't happen that way in real life.

This statement (scroll to the very bottom of the page) from Steve Saint conveys better than I can why the issue of forgiveness ends up being something of a moot point, at least from the perspective of the missionary families. For the Saints, the Elliotts, and the others, the question of forgiveness was settled before it was even raised -- those men knew that they were risking their lives trying to make contact with a notoriously ferocious society, and they and their wives willingly undertook that risk out of love for a people they didn't even know.

And the question of forgiveness gets flattened out if we look at it simply through a lens of heroic young men with nothing but good intentions getting massacred because of miscommunication and misunderstanding, and then their innocent, victimized families claiming the moral upperhand by forgiving their enemies. Good and bad in real life are rarely so cut and dry, as the internal conflict experienced by the character Mincayani in the movie hints at, but doesn't fully explore. How to forgive, and be forgiven, when you're caught in a cycle of violence and retaliation that extends back so many generations that nobody can sort out anymore who the original "good guys" and "bad guys" are? I'm not caught in that kind of web of kill-or-be-killed self-protection, but I can identify with the moral/emotional analog of needing both to forgive and to be forgiven, and yet being afraid to take the first step in either direction. That's where the challenge, and the power, of forgiveness really takes hold.

Enough of my analytical prattling. Go see the movie.

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