Why Do We Watch the Movies We Watch?

the-good-manIt’s hard to be a good man, and sometimes even harder to find a good movie.

Last night I spent too long looking for a film to watch on my flight across the country. While I have books to read, it is a long trip, almost six hours. So I wanted to find something worthy of my heart.

Scrolling through iTunes, nothing on the homepage intrigued me, so I went to the foreign films section, often a place where I have found a movie that is interesting and important. Those two words are weighty, of course, because they are very much in the eyes of the beholder. “Interesting” means that the story is well-told, that it is narrated in a way that keeps me engaged, not asking me to suspend my judgment about what is and what is not in the world in which I live. But “important” matters too. Being well-known doesn’t matter at all, as often the most celebrated stories are the worst stories. More that it is about something that is important, and so worthy of my attention, and worthy of the attention of people like me all over the face of the earth.

While I am my own lone man, it is also true that I have an unusual sense of belonging to tribes and tongues from north to south, east to west. So I am never drawn to provincial truths or parochial truths. What I yearn for are universal truths, ones that reflect the truth of the human condition, that are true for human beings wherever they may be found. Sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are, we are perennial people, with the same hopes and fears— whether we are Anglo or African or Asian, or English or Latino or Indian. Why is Shakespeare told and told again on stages in every city and culture? Because we are sure that the stories are our stories— the comedies and the tragedies are our lives. Why does “Les Miserables” play the world over? Because we know that it understands us— the songs are our songs.

After failing to find the film I wanted in the foreign genre of iTunes, I began searching the independent films— and they do go on and on. But finally I found “The Good Man.” The little description intrigued me, and I rented it.

After the opening credits roll, these surprising words from John Calvin stare at us, sober, stark and true: “Mankind is knit together by a holy knot.” The eyes of my heart awakened, and I wondered, “Who is telling this story?”

And then the film begins. In the best way, it is two stories told side-by-side, one set in Ireland and the other set in South Africa. At the heart of each are senseless, awful deaths, one on the streets of Ireland and the other in a South African township— and we do groan, because we must. But the story is about more than death, as hard and harsh as that is; it is about something more complex even, our lives. Now that we know, now that we are implicated, what will we do?

We have no idea why the stories are twined together until the last minutes, and then it all becomes clear. But a good story doesn’t require that “clear” means all the ribbons are tied, that every hope and every fear is rightly addressed and answered. This is not Dickens in that sense (much as I love Dickens). Rather we are asked to enter into something more difficult, about decisions made in one place that have consequence for lives lived in another, about the relationship of individual fears and societal hopes, and the way they sometimes bump up against each other, hurting and wounding as they do.

There is even something profoundly theological in the film, which painfully comes at the most tender part of the story. Who are we? Who are our neighbors? What is our responsibility to others? Yes, Calvin’s words echo through the film, inviting us into what it means to be “knit together by a holy knot.”

Even as we laugh, and we should, we also weep, because we should. And the end of the story is the end of the story. Wrestling with what is good, and what it means to be a good man, is what the film is all about— which makes it both interesting, and important.

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