If you want to know about faith, don't bother with what the seminary professors say, don't try to find instruction in a religious library, talk to people who know faith and put it into practice, talk to those most derided of Christians, talk to the snakehandlers. —Will D. Campbell
When I had dinner recently with a college professor friend who was in New Orleans for an academic conference, she told me of her blackjack winnings at our city's new casino just a few blocks from her hotel. She had won six hundred dollars in two sessions of gambling. I chided her for playing for such high stakes, but she boasted of her gambling skills and asked if I wanted her to show me her system later that evening. I told her no, and when she persisted in trying to persuade me, I told her the story of my having gotten in serious trouble when I was in college, gambling for stakes I couldn't cover. I explained that in a desperate moment I had prayed to God that if I escaped from a devastatingly tight spot, I would never gamble again. With a flash of improbable luck and the support of some friends, I did escape, and I informed her that I kept my promise not to gamble again.
My friend's response to that story was to scoff, "You don't believe in God." When I protested that I did, she replied, "Oh come on." Only when I reaffirmed my religious faith a third time did she relent and only then with a scowl of incredulity, obviously wondering if I weren't playing a pointless joke on her.
I do believe in God, but that fact often proves perplexing to many of my intellectual friends. Often for thinking people, people of education, people satisfied that the existence of the universe can be explained by science, people thoroughly aware of the long and on-going list of atrocities perpetrated by believers in the name of their religion—for many such people, the notion of God is senseless and even offensive. And I understand that. For I share their concerns about the way the self-righteousness of religious practice has manifested itself in bad rather than good throughout the course of human history. Moreover, when I approach the notion of God the way my atheist friends do, I reach the same conclusion they do: that the concept of God is illogical, that the complicated theological constructs of the world's great religions are like mansions on a movie set, just elaborate facades behind which there stands nothing whatsoever. Early in my college career I was flummoxed by the power of my intellect to reduce religious faith to mere superstition. And though I came eventually to understand that faith can never be housed in the intellect but only in the stronger vessel of the spirit, I continue to doubt. I'm sure I always will. In times of drift and in times of despondency, doubt always rears its head. And yet my faith, I find, is like those joke birthday-cake candles. It can't be blown out. My need for God is far stronger than the flimsy power of my own mind.
Because we yearn for a judge against the injustice and inhumanity we cannot ourselves redress, because we hunger for virtue that always escapes our own best intentions, because we are conscious of both pleasure and pain, because we are mortal and crave immortality, many of us cling to God as our sole enduring hope, as the only way of making emotional sense of our existence. Faith is the dike that holds back the flood waters of despair. But against that dike doubt pounds sometimes in raging storms, always in the daily rising and falling tide.
A woman awakes after lying in a coma for two decades. A paralyzed man throws away his crutches and leg braces and walks unaided. A man blind since birth can suddenly see. Science is mystified. But such miracles occur. And for some, events like these are the cornerstones of religious faith because they are seen as evidence of God's presence and activity in the world. Others regard such events in different ways. But for most, God in the abstract is challenging enough a notion. God as an active agent in human events is more difficult still. Yet in recent weeks American cinema has seen the release of Paul Thomas Andersen's Magnolia, Neil Jordan's The End of the Affair, and Agnieszka Holland's The Third Miracle, three narratively dissimilar films pursuing the same theme that God is in our midst, hearing our prayers, seeking to save us from ourselves.
Based on the Richard Vetere novel and adapted for the screen by Vetere and John Romano, The Third Miracle takes faith and miracle head on. A nine-year-old girl named Maria suffers from lupus. She will not live long and what life she knows will be painful. Moreover, we discover, she is being horribly abused by her mother who jabs her arms and legs with the glowing ends of lit cigarettes. The only comfort the little girl knows is that of Helen O'Regon (Barbara Sukowa), a selfless and kind aide at her parish church. When Helen dies, Maria prays for release at a statue outside her church. The child's prayer asks that Helen bring her suffering to God's attention. When it begins to rain, the eyes of the statue run red, and the kneeling child is covered with blood. Shortly later, she is diagnosed as cured of her lupus. Is this a freak accident and strange coincidence, both of which will yield to scientific analysis, or is this a true miracle, the intercession of a saint?
These are the questions that Father Frank Shore (Ed Harris) must ponder as he accepts his Bishop's appointment as postulator, the Catholic church official directed to investigate allegations of miracle. Father Frank is a serious and decent man. But as we meet him, he's in a crisis of doubt. He has, in fact, given up church employment and now lives in a shelter for the homeless. Frank's crisis is the product of an earlier investigation where a congregation thought their deceased pastor was a saint and was performing miracles for those in their membership. Frank was skeptical, but when he witnessed a badly crippled man suddenly able to walk, he was almost convinced. Then he discovered that the beloved priest had committed suicide. Revealing the cherished pastor as a suicide damaged the faith of many in the congregation, and Frank left the experience wondering if his actions could conceivably be God's will, wondering far more seriously if there were a God to permit his actions. Naturally, then, Frank has no desire to investigate the possible sainthood of Helen O'Regon. But he realizes that if he can prove Maria's cure a true miracle, he will restore his own wavering faith.
Frank's research on Helen quickly leads him to interview her daughter Roxane (Anne Heche) who not only doesn't believe her mother was a saint, but isn't even convinced Helen was a good person. Roxane has never forgiven her mother for abandoning Roxane at age sixteen so Helen could devote her life to church service. Moreover, Frank learns that Maria at age seventeen has become a prostitute and a junkie. Maria's mother says contemptuously of her daughter's cured lupus, "God wasted a miracle." And then, when Frank interviews Maria herself, he learns that the child prayed to Helen not to be saved but to be allowed to die. At first all these revelations seem to suggest that Frank will once again have to recommend against sainthood. The film takes an interesting additional twist when we learn how Frank entered the priesthood in the first place. When his father was gravely ill, Frank promised God to become a priest if his father recovered. His father did, miraculously it seemed, so Frank took his vows. And then his father died shortly later. Little wonder that Frank is plagued by doubt.
A sexual flirtation which develops between Frank and Roxane has the advantage of illustrating that celibacy is church policy, not divine decree, but for the most part this abortive romance draws us away from the film's real concerns. A dalliance with Roxane is treated here like a temptation, but after all, Frank need not be a priest to be a man of faith. Elsewhere, I think the film needlessly portrays Bishop Cahill (Charles Haid) as cold and contemptuous of the struggle for faith waged by the average lay person. The character of Archbishop Werner (Armin MuellerStahl), meanwhile, is a complete puzzle. Werner is Rome's representative to the tribunal on Helen's sainthood. We haven't a clue why he is so doggedly antagonistic to the idea that Helen might be a saint, why his objections to her veneration are so scornful or why his broadsides against Frank's advocacy are so personal. In short, Werner and Cahill seem to belong to a different story, one about church corruption and the arrogant abuse of ecclesiastical power, rather than one about the profound difficulty of believing that which defies logic. In sum, The Third Miracle isn't a perfect film. But it is a searching one. For the most part it asks good questions. Critically, it doesn't treat doubt as sin. And at its best it suggests the inherent faithfulness of the struggle with doubt.
The End of the Affair ponders such important questions as the nature of love, the healing magic of forgiveness and the twisting course of faith. Based on the Graham Greene novel and written for the screen and directed by Neil Jordan, The End of the Affair is the story of a torrid extramarital romance that all in a moment gives bloom to spiritual conversion. The setting moves back and forth between the war-torn Britain of 1939-1944 and a subsequent year of dislocation as Europe tries to adjust to peace. In 1946, after a two-year estrangement, well-connected English novelist Maurice (pronounced Morris) Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) becomes reacquainted with Henry Miles (Stephen Rea), a high-ranking official in the British government. Maurice and Henry first met in the middle 1930s, and several years later the writer began to have an affair with the minister's wife Sarah (Julianne Moore) with whom he broke up in 1944. Now Maurice finds that Henry is suspicious Sarah is involved with someone else. Pretending to act on Henry's behalf, Maurice engages a private detective agency to have Sarah followed. And as the cockney gumshoe Mr. Parkis (lan Hart) begins to bring Maurice reports of Sarah's activities, the writer recalls the days of their five-year affair.
Until her involvement with Maurice, Sarah and Henry maintain a correct marriage, loyal, cordial, fond even, but without a hint of passion. They are genial hosts for huge dinner parties. They treat each other with kindness and respect. But whatever sexual relationship they ever enjoyed has long since ended completely. Henry, it seems, does not miss the physical connection, but Sarah does, and when she falls in love with Maurice, they know repeated stolen afternoons of carnal rapture.
Despite Sarah's frequent declarations that her heart belongs solely to Maurice, she refuses to leave Henry, returning to their home every night, standing by his side at every public occasion. Maurice becomes increasingly impatient with this arrangement, and gradually his relationship with Sarah frays. They begin to spend as much time arguing about Sarah's loyalty to Henry as they do enjoying one another's company. In an erotically charged scene which is at once sad and fraught with tension, Maurice dresses Sarah as she prepares to go home. He's jealous of her stockings, he says, because they get to embrace her legs for hours, jealous of the button on her garter belt because it gets to serve her all the while she's dressed, jealous of her shoes because they carry her away from him and back to her husband. In short, Maurice is jealous of Sarah's cuckolded husband, jealous of all the incidental time they spend together, preparing for the day each morning, dining, attending to errands, etc. Sarah protests that despite her staunch determination to remain married to Henry, she loves only Maurice and she will love only him forever. But he is not mollified.
And then comes the event that changes the course of both their lives. Just after making love one afternoon during the German rocket attack of 1944, an explosion rips through Maurice's apartment, knocking him down a flight of stairs and leaving him unconscious for an unspecified period of time. When he awakes, he finds Sarah on her knees praying. He had not known she was a believer, had presumed that she was, like himself, an atheist. Sarah seems relieved to find Maurice alive, but she's otherwise mysteriously distant. And shortly later, the affair ends amid considerable acrimony, Sarah vague but resolute that she must stop seeing Maurice, he angry, bitter and vindictive.
As any competent fiction writer knows, it is easier to convey conflict than harmony, easier to depict hatred than love. That's probably why Jordan doesn't even try to establish the virtues Sarah and Maurice identify in each other. They meet, they are beautiful, and they fall in love. That there are reasons to cherish each other, we must take for granted. Comparably, explaining Henry's emotional blankness would likely have required far more back-story than Jordan deemed worthy. So we must simply accept the blandness of Henry's personality and the coolness of his affect. He is the kind of man you want to run your business, calm, intelligent, efficient and thorough. He is probably the kind of man you want in your foxhole in that he thinks before he acts and stands by those to whom he owes allegiance. He is not, however, the kind of man you'd want to go drinking with, and he's obviously not the kind of man a woman would want for her bedmate. Why Henry is so emotionless we never discover, but Stephen Rea's hangdog portrayal makes clear he is a man almost utterly empty of enthusiasm for anything.
I fear that Jordan overworks his visual metaphor of rain. Surely London would wash directly into the Thames if it were hit with a storm which lasted, as this one seems to do, for years. In addition, I wish that the story didn't ultimately resort to having one of its major characters die as a mechanism for resolving its narrative and thematic complications. I also regret that the revelation of certain secrets require the hoary device of a pilfered diary. And I couldn't quite make out the purpose of the Reverend Smythe (Jason Isaacs). Yes, of course, he's Sarah's confessor and defender. But the nature of her religious impulse is almost completely divorced from the institution of the church, so Smythe seems not only unnecessary but incorrect.
Otherwise, however, I do think the film handles its plotting quite nicely. The filmmakers score an important point early on by establishing that the accumulation of evidence doesn't always point directly to the truth. And at its most powerful moments, the film offers keen insights about the way humans discover God. We cry out to God in times of need. We wish for miracles. We offer whispers of thanks for undeserved good fortune. We pray when no other action is possible. And sometimes prayers are answered precisely as we wish them to be. Henry finds God through a love of which he didn't know himself capable. And through love he accomplishes the grace of forgiveness. Sarah finds God through the helplessness of yearning. She doesn't find clarity, and she attains only limited strength. But she recognizes the refuge of self-sacrifice on the road to redemption. Maurice finds God in the oddest way of all, through rejection and defiance. And it's the genius of this film that it makes us understand Maurice's defiance of God not as a conclusion but as a radical turnabout. Being angry at God is a common human phenomenon. Yet, ironically, it can become the first step in knowing God's embrace.
The best of these three worthy films is the one written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Magnolia is epic in scope, but it is structured more like a story cycle than a novel. Rather than focused on a single protagonist, its narrative is spread equally among eleven characters, some of whom are only tangentially connected and who never interact. Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is a successful television producer who lies dying of cancer. He is bitterly estranged from his grown son Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise) who has made a fortune running offensively misogynistic self-help seminars for men about how to seduce and dominate women. Earl's young wife Linda (Julianne Moore) has turned a lot of Earl's care over to a male nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman). One of Earl's greatest successes is the thirty-year run of a quiz program called "What Do Kids Know?," which has been hosted for all three decades by seemingly genial family man Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall). Jimmy's loving, loyal wife Rose (Melinda Dillon) either overlooks or is unaware of his habitual philandering. And like Earl, Jimmy is bitterly estranged from his adult child, his daughter Claudia (Melora Walters). Claudia has a serious drug problem, which brings her to the attention of Los Angeles patrolman Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly). Jim is not the most technically effective police officer; he fails to notice the evidence of Claudia's drug abuse, identifying her instead as a romantic opportunity. Meanwhile, currently wowing audiences on "What Do Kids Know?" is young Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), a sixth-grade genius whose troubled father Rick (Michael Bowen) is far too interested in the boy's mental prowess and far too little concerned with the child's emotional fragility. We have every reason to worry that Stanley may some day end up like Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a quiz kid star in his own youth but an abject failure as a middle-aged man.
In the early going of this three-hour, ten-minute film, Anderson sets out to defy our expectations, in the process developing his characters in far greater depth than movies commonly dare. Just as we often err in leaping to conclusions based on first impressions, we make presumptions about the people we meet here at considerable intellectual peril. We feel immediate pity for Earl in his enfeebled state, but later we learn that twenty years ago he abandoned a wife who also lay dying with cancer. In contrast, when Earl falls asleep and Phil instantly calls a delivery service for copies of Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler, we presume him insensitive to his patient, indecent even. But then we discover that Phil is trying to find a phone number where he might be able to alert Frank that his father is dying. Comparably, when Linda makes an appointment to see Earl's lawyer about changing his will, we expect that she's trying to improve her standing. Quite the opposite.
The film continues this way with its other characters. When Jimmy visits Claudia and she curses him out, we think she's the cruel one. But we're wrong. Because Jim mumbles a mantra about wanting to do good, we suspect he's about to commit some act of violation when he arrives to investigate a domestic disturbance at the home of a comically outraged black matron. But then we discover that Jim is the film's moral center. An average man, hardly perfect, only moderately bright, Jim has known failure and he has known suffering. His acumen is not the keenest, and his judgment is sometimes suspect. But his desire to do good is genuine. What he lacks in mental candle power, he makes up for with the wisdom of true decency.
Some viewers may grow weary of trying to distill a plot that Anderson has never devised. And there's no question that some of this gifted writer/director's decisions here are questionable. He begins the film with three real life examples of bizarre events: Three men are executed for killing the druggist in the town of Greenberry Hill. Their names are Green, Berry and Hill. When a forest fire is extinguished, a scuba diver in full aquatic gear is found in the top branches of a tree; he was deposited there by a fire department seaplane that had scooped water from the lake in which he was diving. A man tries to commit suicide by jumping off a building, but as he's falling past a window, he's shot and killed. A net he didn't know about would have saved his life. The shooter, who is indicted for murder, is his own mother. She was shooting at his father. She thought the gun was not loaded. The dead son loaded the gun as an act of malice against mother and father both.
Anderson's purpose in dramatizing these bizarre events is to illustrate that life is hardly the orderly, explainable, predictable, cause-and-effect process we like to think it. Furthermore, he wants to set up an outlandish (but factually precedented) development for his picture's climax, in which frogs fall from the sky like grotesque hailstones. Unfortunately, the filmmaker's first three episodes would seem better to illustrate violent serendipity than the divine forgiveness which is his core theme. Elsewhere, Anderson allows an instance of gun play to dissolve into frustrating translucence. Its purpose is probably to suggest that Jim is a better man unarmed and that God's own hand has been raised against his use of a weapon. But the viewer has to work too hard to arrive at such an understanding.
These are entirely minor complaints, however. And the diminution of conventional plot is precisely what Anderson intended. People's lives encounter crises, but those crises don't play themselves out in tidy three-act packages. Resolution, of a kind, is provided for some; others are left still in process, their fates to greater and lesser degrees uncertain. In short, Anderson is interested in storytelling centered in character and theme rather than plot. He wants to reveal a series of contemporary people in all their contradictory complication, to highlight their flaws and to urge that God's grace extends to them, no matter their sins. Frank is a sexist monster. He is also a devoted son to a stricken mother and a man desperately yearning for the love of a father who abandoned him. Earl is a heel, a man who.put his own comfort and pleasure above such higher virtues as duty, loyalty and paternity. But he is also a man who knows he has sinned grievously and regrets it before it's too late. Linda is a self-confessed gold digger who married an older man solely for access to his wealth. She is redeemed by recognizing her perfidy; more, she is redeemed by discovering love for the man she initially sought to exploit. A jive-talking street urchin we meet named Dixon (Emmanuel Johnson) is a hustler who tries to sell the police information about a murder. At a critical moment, he takes advantage of someone incapacitated and steals all her money; he also bothers to call an ambulance.
Absolutely instructive in Andersen's determination to show the light and the dark in everyone are the developments in Jimmy Gator's life. Like Earl, Jimmy is dying of cancer. His remaining days are few. Like Earl he wants to make peace with those he has abused. But unlike Earl, Jimmy cannot make a good act of contrition. He confesses some of his sins but not all. Thus, whereas Earl is first reunited with his child and finally released from the torment of his body, Jimmy is left alone. Bereft of love from his family, facing an increasingly painful path toward death, Jimmy decides to take his own life. He raises a pistol to temple, his index finger positioned on the trigger. And then a frog falls through a skylight and knocks the gun away before Jimmy can fire, the Weapon of self-destruction almost literally slapped away by the intervening hand of God. Jimmy is denied release, perhaps to be damned, on the other hand, perhaps yet to be redeemed.
Magnolia frets that parents too often indulge themselves at the expense of their children's psychological well-being. Earl's selfishness begets Frank's sexual viciousness. Jimmy's lack of self-control begets Claudia's helplessness. Donnie Smith's parents' greed has left him an emotional and occupational cripple. What fate lies in store for young Stanley? But Anderson is no mere finger pointer. He offers a road to recovery. The first step has to be remorse. But the second, far more difficult step is that of forgiveness. Anderson obviously believes in miracles, but the one he's most interested in is the notion of grace, that God's love for humankind is so great it transcends inevitable human failing. For Christians, the Apostle Paul states the proposition bluntly in Romans 3:23: "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." And yet central to Christian theology is the hope of redemption, a state that cannot be earned, but through the grace of God's forgiveness can be accepted. And crucially embodied in that requisite contrition lies Jesus's instructions in the Lord's Prayer to reflect God's forgiveness of our own trespasses by forgiving "those who have trespassed against us." Clinging to this theology, without including a single image of a church, Anderson submits that his retinue of inherently sinful characters can know the blessing of salvation without hearing the utterance of even a syllable by a cleric.
I was raised a Baptist, so I do not have, much less fully understand, the Catholic tradition of saintly intercession. I do not believe in saints in the way Catholics do, and I do not believe in miracles the way Catholics do. I do not believe in statues which cry human blood. But I do believe that God acts in this world and that the example of Jesus teaches us that the road to salvation is paved with olive branches of forgiveness. And I believe in the power of prayer. I have prayed the kind of prayer that Sarah Miles prays for her stricken lover. I identify with Frank Shore's prayer to be worthy of blessings and responsibilities, his prayer for the knowledge of the right course of action and the strength to take it. And I also identify with Frank's persistent doubt. For I understand wavering faith and a desire to know God more certainly. I understand the yearning for confirmation. I understand it in the way I understand my friend Will Campbell's yearning to know the faith of those who would take writhing vipers into their hands and raise them to heaven in praise of their maker.