Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch:
Independent film brightens summer movie viewing; forgiveness in the face of Amish schoolhouse killings

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the June 12, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)

Movie Review

The summer season of movies emphasizes the big fast-moving comic book heroic character, which doesn’t leave much room for human interaction. I do admit, however, that Robert Downey Jr. shows that good acting can be a part of the crowd-pleasing popcorn flick Iron Man.

My favorite summer movie so far is the small independent film by writer-director Tom McCarthy, titled The Visitor. McCarthy gave us the wonderful and reflective film The Station Agent back in 2003.

The Visitor slowly introduces us to an economics professor, Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), who teaches lethargically at a Connecticut liberal arts college. His life seems on hold. He teaches only one class and is supposed to be writing a fourth book. It becomes clear he is in a depressive fog as we learn his wife has died recently.

The chairman of his department forces Walter to go to a conference and read a paper a sick colleague has written, supposedly with help from Walter. Walter arrives in New York and goes to the apartment he and his wife have had through the years for vacations and visits to the city. There he finds a Syrian musician Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) have moved into his apartment. They have been conned by a crooked real estate agent. After some time trying to figure out what has happened, Walter invites them to stay for a few days until they can find a new place.

Earlier, Walter had been trying to learn the piano back in Connecticut, but several teachers strongly suggested that he did not have the talent to learn piano at age 62. But as the story develops and his life is opened to living again by his house guests, he is drawn to Tarek’s drumming. Walter even eventually buys a middle-eastern drum so that Tarek can teach him the rhythmic music.

But coming from Washington Square, where the two men have been playing drums with a drum circle of men, Tarek is asked for papers in a subway station by two immigration agents. The result is Tarek is removed to an immigration jail in Brooklyn. Zainab cannot visit Tarek for fear of being asked for her papers. So Walter visits as often as he can and hires an immigration lawyer. Zainab leaves Walter’s apartment to live with a relative.

Walter takes a leave from teaching and throws himself into helping Tarek. Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), arrives from Detroit to visit her son, not knowing that he is in jail. Walter convinces her to stay in Tarek’s room at Walter’s apartment.

Things go from bad to worse as the main characters blame themselves for what has happened to Tarek. But the ending of the film is beautiful and touching.

Richard Jenkins does a fantastic job of playing a man who has played his life safely with few risks. He slowly opens from his closed life through music and the care for, and care of, others.

All the principals are perfect as they help us to see more clearly the life of the illegal migrant or refugee. Tom McCarthy again shows us that the small film can speak to us deeply.

The Visitor is a movie that takes a moral issue and brings it down to the everyday life of ordinary people.

The Visitor is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates the film A-III – for adults.

Book Reviews

• Sara Gruen’s best-seller Water for Elephants is an engaging journey into circus life in 1930s America. It presents the realistic and dark side of the wonderful extravaganzas so many of us remember as children.

The story centers on Jacob, who leaves Cornell University without completing his final test to become a veterinarian and jumps on a train that he eventually finds out is the Benzini Brothers Circus. The story of his adventures goes back and forth from his remembrance of events to his life as a curmudgeon in a nursing home in his ’90s.

As Jacob tells his story with some Biblical overtones, we see his rise within the circus staff because of his ability as a veterinarian. Water for Elephants gives us a feel for the darkness of the Great Depression in contrast to the elaborate fantasy of the circus.

We meet fascinating characters who exhibit the depth of human love and hate. There are surprises galore along the way. Jacob in his youth is an appealing character who gives us an inside view of the reality of a struggling circus traveling from town to town across America. At times we view great loyalty and self-giving as we see absurd cruelty that even includes murder. And we learn about all the animals that fill the Big Top and the train.

As Jacob lets us know, remembering his father who continued treating animals long after he stopped getting paid: “No matter what I did last night, I cannot leave these animals. I am their shepherd, their protector. And it’s more than a duty. It’s a covenant with my father.”

But as the title tells us, Water for Elephants is about a central heroine, Rosie the Elephant, who is the key to the entire story.

The sections of the book focusing on Jacob as an old man who is remembering the story tell us a great deal about really living in the midst of a failing body.

All in all, Water for Elephants is wonderfully enjoyable book that is filled with passion, love, and suffering. And there are several “good shepherds” along the way.

Water for Elephants is published in softcover at $13.95 by Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.

• The question of forgiveness is one of the great challenges of the Gospels. The overwhelming violence of the horrific shooting of 10 schoolgirls at the Amish school at Nickel Mines, Pa., in October of 2006 is part of our national memory. The response of the Amish to the deceased killer, his wife, and family in forgiveness is the stuff of legends.

For those of us who are not Amish, three college professors successfully attempt to unveil how such incredible forgiveness is possible. The book, by Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt and David L. Weaver-Zercher, is titled Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, published in hardcover by Jossey-Bass at $24.95.

Today some 800 Amish families live within a four-mile radius of the small town of Georgetown. The Nickel Mines School was one of around 30 Amish schools in the area.

On Oct. 2, 2007, Charles Roberts, a 32-year-old milk truck driver, shot 10 girls in the Amish schoolhouse, and then killed himself. Five of the young women survived. In the midst of their own pain and suffering, around 40 of the Amish came to the burial of the man who killed their children. Several weeks later, members of the Roberts family met with the Amish families who had lost children. There were lots of tears that day among all the families present.

The Amish come out of the Anabaptist movement in Europe, where they were severely persecuted as heretics, even unto death, by both Protestants and Catholics. The Biblical notion of forgiveness is a central emphasis of their interpretation of Christianity. They rely on the Gospels and the Lord’s Prayer for their foundation of the need for forgiveness.

The authors compassionately explain the Amish view and struggle with the Amish notion of shunning their own members who are not faithful to their beliefs. It is remarked that the fact that Roberts died may have enabled the Amish to forgive more rapidly. One minister admitted, “We can forgive Roberts in a heartbeat, but we can’t always forgive our [Amish] neighbor.” The authors tell us, “One of the slain girls’ parents found it harder, in some ways, to forgive a family member who fed information to the media than to forgive the killer. Family feuds, sour marriages, and disputes over inheritances emerged as other examples of failed forgiveness.”

The Amish are human beings like ourselves. And yet they have a lot to teach us. Amish Grace is a gift to inspire us individually and communally to forgive.

(Father Caswell is archivist and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane, and a frequent contributor to this publication.)

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