A nun becomes a spiritual mentor for a convicted man during his last days on death row.
Based on the novel by Sister Helen Prejean, this movie tells a semi-true story. Sister Helen (Susan Sarandon, ”Rocky Horror Picture Show”) really did council a number of men on death row, and this movie (along with the book) combine a number of those men into a single amalgamation. As I write this, Sister Helen is still living in Louisiana, and today still works diligently ensure voices for the condemned are heard. (In fact, just glancing at her twitter, the last thing she tweeted about was the failed execution of Doyle Hamm that took place in Alabama on February 22nd of this year.) Sister Helen’s compassion for Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn, director of “The Pledge”) is an incredible representation of God’s grace, and this film is a beautiful and tragic look at forgiveness, conviction, and what it means to be human.
(SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW)
Sister Helen receives letters from convicted murderer Matthew Poncelet and decides that she would like to spiritually advise him before he is to be executed. What she sees when she meets him is a broken man; he’s racist, he’s unsympathetic towards others, and he’s unapologetic for his crimes (he maintains his innocence). Despite his less appealing qualities, Sister Helen talks with him and tries to get to know him. She learns that Matthew has been accused of raping and killing a woman, and also killing the woman’s boyfriend. Matthew says that he was there when the crimes happened, but he was not responsible. Sister Helen continues talking to him, and as week progresses, and Matthew’s execution grows nearer, the two grow closer and she realizes how scared he really is to face the end.
This was one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. It’s quiet and somber and sad; it allows the viewer time to ponder over what’s happening onscreen, and it doesn’t pass any judgments. This is perhaps the best part of this movie: its ability not to judge. We see this case through the eyes of Sister Helen, and she knows that even thought this man may be guilty of horrible crimes, he is still a child of God and he still deserves respect. The film doesn’t try to be overly dramatic; there are no shocking revelations or twists near the end of the story. It’s simple, but in that simplicity it has so much to say. It makes the viewers take a step back and look at their own views on Capital Punishment. Whether you’re for or against the idea of the death penalty, this film gives insight into how it affects both the convicted and those who the victims left behind.
The acting is pretty incredible from both Susan and Sean. Sarandon actually won her Oscar for this in 1995, and Penn was nominated. It’s easy to see why. Sarandon’s performance is subtle, but shows so much depth and so much range. Her character is subjected to criticism over her want to help Matthew, and she shows her internal struggle to provide compassion to the monster of a man whilst still giving empathy to the victim’s family. Her character is incredibly complex, but Sarandon did such an amazing job. Sean Penn, too, did quite an incredible job. He’s able to make us hate the sin that he committed, but somehow we see past his atrocities and see the human being underneath. His character shows the most growth in the short amount of time that we spend with him, and through his transformation we are shown the changing power of God’s love. The best part about this transformation, however, is that it’s not overly preachy. It’s done in a way that lets the viewers make their own conclusions about why Matthew has changed, and in doing so the moments leading towards his scheduled execution are so much more powerful.
Tim Robbins’s (“Jacob’s Ladder”) direction is also pretty great (he also received a directing nod for this film). I believe the biggest thing this film is trying to do is say something about God’s grace and love vs the compassion given by human beings, and Robbins has a way of making this message known without being overtly in your face about it. His direction is subtle and quiet and allows time for reflection. Tim Robbins also wrote this picture and he did a fantastic job there too. His ability to portray a hardened criminal in a way that is balanced between sympathetic and condemnable is amazing.
While I don’t imagine many people would look at this film and immediately think that it is a Christian film, I would wholeheartedly disagree. This is one of the best films with Christian morals I’ve ever seen. Why? Because it is able to show God in a real world situation, where some of the people involved are heinous individuals, but their lives are still altered by His love. This film does so in a way that doesn’t shove the message down the viewers’ throats; it allows them to watch what’s happening and make their own decisions about what they feel about capital punishment, and how we should try to forgive those that have wronged us. I was completely blown away by this film, and while it’s subject matter is a little dark, I think the message it’s trying to convey is a bright light in that darkness, and this film is absolutely worth checking out.
If the idea of Christian themed films created by secular production companies interests you, or you'd like to learn more about what makes a film Christian, check out Michael's article on the topic.
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