Saturday, February 26, 2011
The American -- living in the present, dealing with the past
Director: Anton Corbijn, 2010. (R)
The film opens with Jack (George Clooney) secluded in a snowy chalet in Sweden, cuddling up to a naked beauty. But when they are attacked by killers, Jack's career as a master assassin emerges. He must leave in a hurry and turns to his handler, Pavel (Johan Leysen). He meets him in Rome, but Pavel sends him to a remote Italian village to lay low and hide out with strict instructions: "Above all, don't make any friends, Jack. You used to know that."
In the secluded Abruzzian town, he masquerades as a photographer. But with a population in the hundreds, he stands out as the American, the lone foreigner. As a loner, he seeks no friendships. But the local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) seeks him out. Moreover, Jack (passing himself off as Edward), seeks solace and satisfaction at the local brothel, and finds himself drawn to the beautiful Clara (Violante Placido). His relationship with her moves from monetary to romantic despite the earlier warnings.
Jack's choice of friends is surprising but points both to his character and his need. A priest and a prostitute are perhaps the two people most likely to hear confessions and gossip. But they are also the two people least likely to have deep friendships of their own. The priest holds too many secrets that others might find threatening. The prostitute is often frowned upon for her immoral career choice. Yet Jack is somehow drawn to them.
People have a hunger for companionship. It is innate. Loneliness makes for a poor bed-fellow, hence Jack's need for Clara. We see Jack as a man who has money but no marriage, riches but no real wealth. God made mankind to enjoy relationships, with him and with each other. When we seek isolation we are living apart from his plan. That does not mean we must marry (1 Cor. 7:8), but we do live in community and cannot find true meaning or satisfaction apart from relationship. Friendships form the foundation for an abundant life.
When Pavel contacts him and offers him one last mission, an assignment to create a custom-designed weapon, Jack accepts. For much of the film we see Jack working as a master craftsman, methodically gathering materials and fashioning them into a rifle and ammunition. Extended wordless shots of Jack creating and thinking form the center of the film, once more underscoring the lonely nature of his life. The sparse dialog is broken by the sparkling but brief interchanges he has with the priest.
It is in these interactions that we engage the themes of the film. The priest acts as Jack's conscience. Early on, he points out the superficiality of Americans in general: "Of course . . . you're an American. You think you can escape history. You live for the present."
America is a young nation, barely into its third centennial. Where other cultures in Europe, Asia or South America can look back to thousands of years of history, America has a short memory because it has a short history. But we can learn from history. When we ignore or avoid it, seeking escape in the present, we are at risk of repeating mistakes of our forefathers, or even mistakes of our own. By living in the present only, we once more isolate ourselves, this time from our antecedents. Jack's loneliness is temporal as well as physical.
Furthermore, by ignoring history we ignore evidences of God's interactions in the past. God has made himself known in times gone, first in creation (Gen. 1), then through his relationships with the patriarchs Abraham (Gen. 12), Isaac (Gen. 24), and Jacob (Gen. 28), later in the interactions with Israel, his chosen nation, and finally in his appearance in the person of Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:2). Living in the present avoids having to face these truths, and leaves us isolated from God; that is until, he chooses to come into contact with us, in the present or the future.
Father Benedetto even points this out to Jack: "A man can be rich if he has God in his heart." But Jack's cynicism and isolation cause him to reply, "I don't think God is interested in me, Father." Jack has clearly avoided hearing the gospel. His present has been secluded and small. God is interested in him, as he is interested in us all. God wishes that all would be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), coming to a personal relationship with him through Jesus (Jn. 17:3). Once more, Jack's approach to life is self-protective but unknowingly becomes self-condemning.
Once more, the priest points out a truth that Jack would prefer to ignore: "You cannot deny the existence of hell. You live in it. It is a place without love." Hell exists, but to live in the present ignoring the future where an eternal destiny is defined by choices in this life is to evade the truth. Jack is living apart from God, apart from people. This is an apt description of hell.
Love, on the other hand, is a crucial aspect of real life. It is perhaps the foundational nature of God himself (1 Jn. 4:8), and forms the core of all true relationships. Being drawn to Clara, Jack is being drawn out of his lonely existence into a pool of love.
Priest, prostitute and professional killer all have their own secrets and sins of the past that need absolution. Living in the present is not enough to make this happen. Not even love and friendship can do this. Each must come to the living God, Jesus Christ, to find ultimate redemption and salvation. Jack's longing and loneliness may remind us of our own. We can find satisfaction only by first dealing with our past, through repentance, and then by living in the present with an eye both to the future and the past. All three dimensions of history converge in the Son of God. After all, it is all his story.
Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs