Friday, February 26, 2010

The Secret Life of Words -- isolation and fear

Director: Isabel Coixet, 2005. (NR)

Pain. Suffering. These are part of life. But when they are taken to extremes for prolonged periods, traumatic stress can result, and this can be debilitating. How do we deal with this? What are our coping mechanisms?

Coixet gives us a poignant love story of sorts between damaged characters. Since it is produced by Pedro Almodovar (All About My Mother, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), we can expect focus on character, and we are not disappointed. But melodrama is missing. This is slow paced and low-key, but worth the investment. She brings us face-to-face with the brutality of man without resorting to violence.

The Secret Life of Words is centered on Hanna (Sarah Polley), a European woman working in a factory. Deaf and introspective, she is a loner who makes no connections. She has worked for four years without missing a day, and when she is called into the boss' office she is afraid she is being fired. On the contrary, she is being told to take a vacation, to go relax and enjoy herself. But her work is her coping mechanism. It is her avoidance. At home, order is her retreat. She is almost obsessive-compulsive, but this is another of her coping mechanisms. At work, her hearing aid is her shield. She can turn it off and keep people away, not hearing them means no involvement. No friends, no family, she is alone and isolated.

Being forced to leave work, even for just a few weeks is an ordeal. But when she overhears a conversation in a restaurant that a nurse is needed on an oil rig she immediately volunteers. It is another job, albeit temporary, and will keep her from herself and her inner demons.

Arriving by helicopter, she finds the rig is almost abandoned. It is being shut down and there are just a handful of workers left. Her job is to care for one of them, Josef (Tim Robbins, Arlington Road), a man who was injured in a fire on the rig. He is temporarily blind, bed-ridden and cannot yet use his limbs.

As we meet the minimal crew, it is clear they are like Hanna, loners. Living apart from society, they want their space. How often are we like this, needing room? Do we withdraw, like Hanna, into our work to avoid some inner pain? Getting and staying busy will keep our minds occupied but eventually we have to face this pain. Running forever is the wrong approach. We can run but we cannot always hide. We may want to, we may feel that building a shell, a castle, will be our security and protection, but we were made for community. Sometimes the best healing comes from friendships.

As Josef begins talking to her, she cannot ignore him. She is his nurse and has to be able to hear him. So her hearing aid is turned on. His conversations are one-sided; she will not answer his questions. But slowly a picture of both comes into focus. When the cook, Simon (Javier Camara, the male nurse Benigno in Talk to Her), brings breakfast one day his interaction with Josef sparks self-revelation for Josef.

All three of these characters are afraid. They are consumed with internal fears. Josef has been involved with married women and seems afraid of a permanent relationship. Hanna is scared and scarred, both physically, psychologically, and emotionally. She is suffering survivor's guilt and shame. She is petrified that people will not like her if they really knew her, and what she has been through. She will not disclose any history for this reason. Instead, like a chameleon she disappears into her surroundings, avoiding human contact and interaction. Fragile and needy, she is unwilling to let anyone inside her defenses. Simon is an accomplished chef working as an oil rig cook. His "customers" do not appreciate the global cuisine he makes; they want hamburgers and chips! He is afraid of risking his reputation in his own restaurant. Fear is keeping all three prisoner in cages of their own making.

Josef, though, through his secret life of words, gently works his way under Hanna's skin. Ever so slowly he breaks her shell of silence. And then, taking an enormous risk, she shares her story with him. Coixet chooses to use just her words rather than visual images, flashbacks. This makes it more powerful. It is her secret life painted in words. And we see her emotional shutters slowly open, until we realize the horror that she has kept bottled up inside, with only her knowing. She has seen things and experienced horrors that would devastate a grown man. She knows the depths of man's depravity, and perhaps this is why she retreats into solitude. But once she has poured out her story, she has finally made a connection with another person. She has, for the first time in years, established an emotional relationship with someone else.

Do we ever find ourselves holding back due to fear? Perhaps there is a relationship we would like to pursue but we talk ourselves out of taking action for fear of rejection. There is safety in our cave. Or a job might push us out of our comfort zone, and so we take a safer position that leaves us unchallenged. Fear can limit our growth. Fear can cause us to come up with coping mechanisms that leave us living like mechanical robots, as Hanna was. This is not really life. Jesus came that we might have an abundant life (Jn. 10:10), a life filled with the joy of the Lord (Jn. 17:13). As we receive his love, engage with his spirit, we will find that his perfect love drives out fear (1 Jn. 4:18). We can soak in the grace that God pours out, and start living by risking.

The Secret Life of Words is a beautiful and remarkably compelling reminder that even when we feel isolated and all alone, afraid of rejection, there are still people around us who care. We just need to give them a chance to show it.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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