Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Mass for the Doubters: A Recommendation of Erik Poppe's Troubled Water

I'm very thankful for my librarians here at LTSS. Every time I walk into Lineberger, there is an array of new and fascinating books, films, and musical selections waiting to be discovered and enjoyed, and their recommendations seldom fail to intrigue and delight. I'd like to pass along the favor by commending a film which they led me to, Erik Poppe's Troubled Water. It's, quite frankly, one of the most powerful movies I've ever seen. (And, it's currently available to Watch Instantly on Netflix!)

At first, the movie appears to be a standard redemption story: Jan, convicted for the murder of a four-year old boy, has been released on parole to serve as the organist for a church in downtown Oslo (the film is Norwegeian with English subtitles), a talent he has developed while working with a chaplaincy ministry while incarcerated. His hauntingly beautiful music and gentle demeanor earn him the respect of the church council president, the love of the priest, Anna, and of her four-year old son Jens, who reminds Jan, now going by the name Thomas, of the boy of whose blood he claims he is innocent. One day, leading a tour of the church, the mother of the victim of Thomas' crime recognizes the talented organist, and becomes obsessed with protecting the priest's son from what she believes is imminent disaster. Thomas continues to resolutely state his innocence, while Agnes' (the mother) life continues in a downward spiral in search of closure and resolution.

Part of the film's brilliance is the way in which it skillfully reveals the perspectives and back-stories of both Jan/Thomas and Agnes, exploring the ways in which doubt, woundedness, and the desire for redemption shape their relationships to their loved ones, to themselves, and to one another. While Agnes' husband seeks to move her away to Denmark to give her a new lease on life, Thomas struggles to make sense of what it means to believe that good can indeed come of evil. In a dialogue with Anna, the substance of which I am sure is partly lost in translation, he challenges the priest's conviction that "God has a purpose for everything" by asking "what about evil? Is evil also an act of God? Or maybe you just like to bring in God when all other explanations fail?" Later in the film, Jan will challenge Anna with the same set of questions, forcing the priest to come to grips with the complexity of her self-admitted naive beliefs (if that sounds vague, I simply cannot reveal more! its worth the price of admission, however). The drama of the film revolves around such reversals and recapitulations, not to blur and make ambiguous, but rather, to reveal, to re-imagine, and to re-form our prejudices about theodicy, forgiveness, and grace.

Particularly powerful for me was the film's setting in the midst of the Lutheran monoculture of Norway, where Lutheranism is a state religion and an inexorably interwoven aspect of the general culture. While much of what is said between characters may strike more orthodox ears as undeniably liberal, there is also something to the film's frank and unassuming meditations on the ways in which God and God's grace show up in the midst of the every day and the unexpected. This is not a "Christian" film with a religious agenda - but grace is an undeniable aspect of the backdrop of the world. Baptismal imagery abounds, from Jans' holding the dead four-year old boy in his arms in a raging river, to Agne's therapeutic swimming sessions. And the Eucharist makes an appearance as well. A good candidate for the identity of the film's "bridge" over the troubled waters is the church council president, who despite knowing of Thomas' crime, resolutely tells Agnes that "this is a church. Everyone who comes here gets a second chance...If he can't get a second chance here, where will he?" Rather than accuse Thomas when he discovers his past, the councilman compliments the latter's playing of the St. Thomas Mass, "a mass for doubters," and asks, "have you ever attended communion?" When Thomas shares his disbelief in the sacrament, the councilman replies, "you don't need to believe. It's flesh and blood, bread and wine. It'll work regardless."

As the film unfolds, it becomes apparent that not only in the sacraments, but in the living out of life, of being confronted, acknowledged, unmasked, and finding oneself brought to one's knees, that grace finds us, takes hold of us, and brings us to the depths of the new life offered in the depths of the troubled waters of baptism. Not by offering a bridge, perhaps - but by being with us in the depths into which we plunge when we find the bridge has vanished from beneath our feet. In this sense, the entire film could be described as "a mass for doubters." Regardless, it is a powerful viewing experience. Whether you agree with its theology, "it'll work regardless."

I've included the International trailer for the film below. While it lacks subtitles, it is worth the view for the sample of Thomas' organ playing about two minutes in. Dip in, and if you feel moved, come to the waters to be troubled, to be moved, and to be changed.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the wonderful recommendation Matthew, when I signed onto Netflix today, this was actually the 1st recommendation they had for me based on a few other movies we've watched. We watched it this evening and it truly was a wonderful movie. His music was hauntingly beautiful.