Saturday, September 5, 2009

The English Patient -- amnesia and slavery

Director: Anthony Minghella, 1996.

I love these long, slow English historical dramas. Set on a grand-scale, they almost flow across the screen like a river meandering on its merry course. This is one of those movies.

Indeed, The English Patient is like the English: patient. A nation characterized by its stoic approach, this describes the main character in this magnificent epic. Set in the 30s and 40s in Africa and Italy, it is reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia, full of grandeur and beauty. The cinematography is stunning, and was awarded one of the 9 Oscars this film took home.

From the opening scene, the expansiveness of the movie captivates the imagination. A hand is seen in close up painting a picture. It is not clear what this picture is until the final stroke of the brush: it is a swimmer. Then this pictures magically becomes a biplane flying over the dunes of a north African desert. This initial transition is indicative of those that follow. The superb editing earned another worthy Oscar.

The English Patient is the story of a mysterious burn victim, the pilot of the biplane. When he is shot down by German flak during WW2, he is rescued by nomadic Arabs and eventually finds himself in the hands of a Canadian troop en route for Italy. This mystery man (Ralph Fiennes) has no memory, and cannot even recall his own name. But his accent suggests he is English. The only clue to his identity is the book he has with him.

When Hana (Juliette Binoche), a sympathetic Canadian nurse, realizes that he is dying, she gets permission to stay with him in an abandoned monastery in Italy. Left with a pistol and morphine, she sets about trying to keep him alive. And it is in this monastery, reading his book, that the events of his life unfold in flashback, enabling both the patient and the nurse to discover more about themselves.

As he begins to remember, his identity is still in question, even to him. English Patient raises the question of the interplay between memory and identity. It posits that without the ability to recall our past and our name, we really have no identity. Memory is critical to realizing our true identity. Memento, a later film, explored this concept even further, as it delved into the idea of self-deceptive memories as a means to changing our identity.

Further, as we see the patient before his horrific crash, we realize that he was aloof. He rarely let others in emotionally. He remained a mystery even when others knew his name. But in the midst of a sudden sandstorm in the desert this mystery man finds himself in a car with Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of one his explorer colleagues. And it is here that we begin to see the pent-up passion that lurks beneath the surface. This passion slowly emerges into a tragic love affair that smolders on the screen.

In a scene of post-coital relaxation, he asks Katherine, "What do you hate most?" She answers, "A lie." How interesting that the English woman seeks truth while the English patient wants to hide. He won't reveal himself, even to her. He won't let his mask down.

Of course, lying is sinful (Lev. 19:11). All healthy relationships are built on the foundation of truth. We must be open and vulnerable if we are to touch others and be touched; if we are to share emotionally. A relationship built on falsehood and lying is one that is constructed on shifting sands, like those that brought the two lovers together and left the rest for dead.

Not only does The English Patient give marvellous visual imagery, it offers superb acting. Fiennes and Scott Thomas have a subtle and changing chemistry. Both were nominated for their roles. Juliette Binoche (Blue) is terrific as the shell-shocked nurse, and won her only Oscar here. Around them are Willem Dafoe as David Carraggio, a furtive thief who shows up at the monastery with an agenda of his own. Another mystery man, he unwittingly helps to reveal the secrets of the English patient's past. Colin Firth, as Clifton's husband, and Naveen Andrews, as Hana's love interest, round out a stellar cast.

The English patient's story is a sad one. Saddest of all, though, is his answer to Katherine's question of him ("What do you hate most"). He lets her see a glimpse into his soul: "Being owned." She wants honesty, he wants freedom. But his freedom is from people. By letting her into his person, he thinks he is giving up his liberty. He thinks she will take part of his soul in ownership. He fears relational slavery.

What the English patient doesn't realize is that we are all owned by things or others. We are all slaves in one way or another. The Bible says we are slaves to sin (Rom. 6:17) or we are slaves to God (Rom. 6:22). In Jesus' death, he has purchased us, if we choose to follow him. He has paid the ransom for our souls (Mk. 10:45). We are now no longer our own; we are his (1 Cor. 7:23). We are bond-servants to God (Eph. 6:6). But beyond this, ownership by God brings relationship. We are also children of God (Jn. 1:12); we are adopted into his family (Eph. 1:5). We enjoy all the rights of inheritance of an heir (Rom. 8:17). This is a beautiful type of ownership.

Ultimately, The English Patient reveals the identity of the man. He has lived a conflicted life. Confusion has caused him great pain. He has been a slave to the circumstances of this confusion, and he bears the scars, emotionally and physically, to prove it.

A film of love and betrayals, it leaves us contemplating which form of slavery we will choose for ourselves. Will we betray Jesus, and become the ultimate burn victims in the endless fires of hell? Or will we embrace Jesus and experience the tender nursing mercies of a loving father?

Copyright 2009, Martin Baggs

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