Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Disappearing the girl

I'm having a 24-hour-long moment with a 2000 movie, "Waking the Dead," which tells the story of a romance between Sarah Williams, Catholic girl involved in liberation theology politics in Chile, and Fielding Pierce, her boyfriend, the Harvard-trained politician from a working class family in Pennsylvania. It might be a ghost-story in which the virtuous heroine comes back from paradise to warn her former lover about the corruption he faces in Washington. But it's unclear after a certain point whether Sarah is actually a ghost or has just been "disappeared" in the course of South American politics.

So the movie plays tentatively with a major theological point. It isn't clear that theological progressives have to believe in "eternal life" as an actual material state, or if "eternal life" is merely the transformation of a state of being here on earth. Mirabile dictu, that a sexy mainstream movie should be exploring the intricacies of how such theological perspectives play out. Fielding's life is really transformed; Fielding really does see Sarah, and it makes not a bit of difference whether Sarah is dead, communicating through God, communicating through Fielding's subconscious, alive and communicating from South America through esoteric psychic methods, or actually alive and momentarily appearing in the dead of night because she's actually in danger of being followed.

Why such a suspension of belief works so well has been studied by a literary critic, Victoria Nelson, in her book, The Secret Life of Puppets, which argues that by reserving a space for fantasy, science fiction and horror films are actually the last preserve where respectable, educated, rational individuals can allow themselves to momentarily reflect on man's relationship to the sacred and the possibility of an afterlife.

See it for the politics, relish it for the contemplation. This is a movie for our times. And I'm not just saying so because the heroine is a painfully seductive liberation theologian who reminds the audience of another theological fact too seldom in expression in this political climate, that the homeless bum in the gutter to whom no one speaks may well be the apparition of Jesus Christ.


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