David Gleeson's The Front Line
In his book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen writes of the tension we all feel between our human “ability to travel rapidly to another planet” and our “hopeless impotence to end a senseless war on this planet”; between our “high-level discussions about human rights” and the “torture” that continues to scar humans all over the world.
Though written in the 1970s, Nouwen’s words speak for all times and all places, as demonstrated in an award-winning Irish film The Front Line (2006). As though illustrating Nouwen’s tension, writer/director David Gleeson repeatedly inserts high angle shots of modern Dublin, its rapid travel looking cleanly high-tech, in order to contrast with the wounding depravity in the dark streets below. More significantly, Gleeson inserts a copy of The Wounded Healer into the story, encouraging alert viewers to read his film through the lens of Nouwen’s work.
Not many will, of course. The camera lingers on the book for only several seconds as a detective rifles through the detritus of a kidnapping scene. I noticed the book only because I recognized its cover art: a distinctive painting of Jesus by French Fauvist Georges Rouault (1871–1958). If I didn’t happen to own the book, I, like most viewers, would have only paid attention to the slip of paper Detective Inspector Harbison finds inside the book: a scrap with a telephone number written on it. This is unfortunate, because, just as the detective’s case depends on that scrap inside The Wounded Healer, the case for watching this film depends on what’s inside The Wounded Healer.
Inside the book, Nouwen seeks to solve a mystery: how to make “one’s own wounds a source of healing.” His answer does not call for “a sharing of superficial personal pains but for a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as rising from the depth of the human condition which all men share.” The Front Line, then, addresses the human condition we all share.
Gleeson structures the film around pain and suffering, inserting television images of tribal warfare and refugee migrations in Africa as the opening credits roll by. Even before the credits, he introduces us to a victim of pain and suffering: a Congolese refugee named Joe, who has just been granted political asylum in Ireland. As we see Joe bed down in a homeless shelter, the camera slowly zooms in on his closing eyes, cutting to a dream montage of papers burning on a wall, a blood-splattered chair wrapped in barbed wire, a bloody hand grabbing a machete. When Joe bolts upright from this nightmare, we see his back crisscrossed with thick scars. This, then, is the film’s wounded healer.
Indeed, though wounded by egregious war crimes, Joe exudes a healing presence, reinforced by the cross he wears around his neck. When his Congolese family finally joins him in Dublin, he welcomes wife Kala and nine-year-old son Daniel with tender strength, sleeping on the couch to give space to the traumatized refugees, entering their bedroom only to calm their nightmare induced screams. Daniel, fearful that the “bad men” from Africa will find him in Ireland, asks “Are there bad men in this country?” Joe replies in the affirmative, but then promises the boy, “I’ll always be here for you.” Indeed, he can support his family because he has been “always there” on his job, complimented by bank employees for the fact that no robberies have occurred since he became their security guard.
Unfortunately, “bad men” have designs on banks, and Joe is wounded again. An Irish gang, led by a thug named Eddie, shoves Joe into a van in order to inform him they have kidnapped his family and will use despicable torture if Joe refuses their request: to get the gang inside the bank vault. We quickly see that depraved behavior has no single nationality, no single color. The depredations of Irish gangs echo Congolese atrocities.
Gleeson makes the echo explicit when Joe seeks the help of a Congolese expatriate: a Dublin criminal named Erasmus. Though Joe tells him “I cannot respect the rule of the blade,” Erasmus kidnaps one of Eddie’s thugs, inflicting on him the exact same torture that Eddie threatened on Daniel. The film avoids showing us the horrific act, but its description appalls, whether articulated by a Congolese or an Irish thug.
Gleeson inserts similar echoes throughout the film. While taunting Daniel and Kala after the kidnapping, Eddie notices a brutal scar on the woman’s throat, mutters “Animals!” and leaves the room. The film then cuts to a close-up on Eddie’s disturbed face, followed by shots of his alcohol and his gun. We sense that Eddie struggles to suppress awareness of his own “animal” behavior. The echo becomes explicit as the film immediately cuts to the burning papers that entered Joe’s nightmare: papers that we now see are children’s drawings. Both in the Congo and in Ireland, Joe has been forced to ask a question articulated by Nouwen: “Who can save a child from a burning house without taking the risk of being hurt by the flames?”
The connection between Africa and Europe is reinforced by the next shot: in a close up, we see newsreel images of Congolese warfare reflected in Detective Harbison’s spectacles as he sits before a computer screen. Meanwhile, in voiceover we hear again Joe’s promise to Daniel: “I’ll always be here for you... I promise!” Only later do we understand the significance of this montage: we discover that Harbison’s son was murdered in front of his home in Dublin. Europe echoes Africa, white echoes black, all echoing Nouwen: “wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision”—like the reflection on Harbison’s glasses.
The mirroring of black and white depredations is offset by Joe’s healing of black and white relations. When a white janitor discovers Joe in the bank at midnight, his racist prejudices resurface, and he locks Joe in a closet. Chopping his way out with a hatchet, Joe threatens the racist, until the janitor yells, “I have a family! I have a family!” This leads Joe to confess that he is in the bank to save his own family. In response, the janitor then makes his own confession: he sleeps in the bank because his wife threw him out of the house; he is alienated from family. Both men have been wounded through family separation: a wounding that heals their antagonism only through mutual confession. In The Wounded Healer, Nouwen explains that “Mutual confession... becomes a mutual deepening of hope, and sharing weakness becomes a reminder to one and all of the coming strength.” Joe and the janitor work together in mutual hope and strength, stealing the bank money back from the thugs so that Joe might use it to negotiate the release of his family.
The brief relationship between Joe and the janitor adumbrates that between Detective Inspector Harbison and Joe. Like the janitor, Harbison first assumes Joe has criminal intentions, an assumption confirmed when his research reveals that Joe lied to authorities: Kala is not actually his wife; Daniel is not his son. (And we suddenly realize why Joe sleeps on the couch.) When Harbison’s associate suggests that perhaps Joe lied for “a good reason,” Harbison sneers, “You’ll see what kind of man he is.”
We are given a chance to see just that when Kala escapes from the kidnappers and ends up at the police station. Harbison immediately assumes Joe has been abusing her, until she reveals the truth. Kala and Daniel are not related to each other. They were the only survivors of tribal genocide, discovered among bloody corpses by Joe. “A good man,” Joe lied about their status to get them asylum in Dublin. But Kala refuses to tell Harbison more. She has promised Joe she will never reveal his identity.
Harbison must discover Joe’s identity on his own, and he finds a major clue when he opens The Wounded Healer in Joe’s apartment. The phone number stuck in its pages connects him to Erasmus, who is brought in for questioning. Through Erasmus we learn of the graphic torture Joe underwent: beaten and tied with barbed wire to a chair, Joe was forced to watch as village children were murdered in front of his face. As Erasmus relates the lurid tale, Gleeson cuts in shots of Joe rescuing Daniel from the kidnappers’ hideout. Thus, while we hear of his brutal wounding we watch Joe tenderly inspect Daniel’s wounds, touching each scrape as though to heal it. Gleeson thus illustrates Nouwen’s words: “the minister can make his own wounds available as a source of healing.”
This touching moment (in both senses of “touching”) is destabilized, however, when the shot returns to Erasmus. He says of Joe, “We saved him... but he died that day.... The man we lifted from that chair is a ghost.” We didn’t expect “ghost” as the resolution to Harbison’s prediction that we’ll “see what kind of man he is.” This disturbing assessment of Joe’s humanity is foreshadowed by a scene earlier in the film: Erasmus asks one of Eddie’s thugs, “What is it that makes a man? The head? The heart? Something else?”—right before he tortures him.
As though implying that violent brutality turns men into ghostlike shadows of themselves, Gleeson laces the film with shadows. When Eddie’s gang first enters the bank to rob it, we see their forms as shadows on venetian blinds. After Eddie notices the scar on Kala’s neck and mutters “Animals,” we see his shadow rocking back and forth over Daniel’s quivering body. When Joe enters the same room to rescue Daniel, we initially see only his shadow hovering over Daniel’s bed. Then, after Joe tenderly touches Daniel’s wounds, we are given shadows once again: Joe places headphones on Daniel’s ears, but we see the action only as shadows on the wall. Significantly, this shadowed image immediately follows Erasmus’s reference to Joe becoming a “ghost.” We are left wondering why the wounded healer is reduced to shadows like the malicious thugs.
Erasmus, whose phone number was found inside The Wounded Healer, has the answer. He reveals to Harbison that Joe is a Catholic priest: “Father Joseph; a good man... a man of peace who tried to bring our tribes together.... Father Joseph; he could not believe in a God after what he had seen.” The camera immediately cuts to another ghostlike image: the silhouette of Joe’s form with a stained-glass window behind him. As we watch the form pick up a machete on the church floor, Erasmus tells us in voiceover that “Father Joseph spared no one.” In other words, Joe became a ghost of himself when he gave up on God in order to employ the violence he preached against. As Erasmus puts it, “Regardless of the man, the demon lies in all of us. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting for revenge.”
Immediately after these words we discover why Joe put headphones on Daniel. Still in the kidnappers’ hideout, Joe grabs a knife and heads to an adjacent room where the thugs count their money. The headphones, in other words, will block out sounds of mayhem as Joe once again takes revenge. As throughout the film, we don’t see the violence; instead we see shadows of chaos on the walls. Significantly, when Joe returns to Daniel’s room, we see his shadow rock back and forth over the boy: a direct echo of Eddie’s shadow rocking back and forth over Daniel in the exact same spot. The demon of violence turns all men—white and black, European and African—into shadows of humanity. Just as Father Joseph’s name has been reduced into “Joe,” so the “man” has been reduced into a shadow.
“He’s long gone,” as one policeman puts it. He refers to Joe’s disappearance after returning Daniel to the police station. But viewers realize that the officer unwittingly echoes the message of Erasmus: the wounded healer died from his wounds; he is only a ghost of a man; he is long gone.
What hope is there for Joe? He is like the “ministers, priests, and Christian laymen” discussed by Nouwen, who “have become disillusioned, bitter, and even hostile when years of hard work bear no fruit, when little change is accomplished.” Nouwen’s answer to such despair is profound:
So long as we define leadership in terms of preventing or establishing precedents, or in terms of being responsible for some kind of abstract “general good,” we have forgotten that no God can save us except a suffering God, and that no man can lead his people except the man who is crushed by its sins.
Crushed by horrific sins, including his own, Joe leaves Daniel at the station in order to return to a church lit up against the dark night. There Joseph seeks healing. He seeks what Nouwen calls “a definitive breach in the deterministic chain of human trial and error.” He seeks, in other words, “the historic Christ-event” that provides “dramatic affirmation there is light on the other side of darkness.”
What happens in the church is too touching for words. Like Harbison before his computer screen, you will need to sit before your own screen, allowing The Front Line to glimmer on lenses provided by Nouwen. Aching for the wounded healer, you will behold images lit up against the other side of darkness.
Crystal Downing teaches literature and film at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. Her first book, Writing Performances: The Stages of Dorothy L. Sayers (2004) was honored with the 2009 Barbara Reynolds Award for scholarship on Dorothy L. Sayers. Her second book, How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith (2006), is used as a textbook in various Christian institutions across North America.