4 Agonizing Movie Scenes and What I Learned From Them

There’s always something to be thankful for

(photo: Register Files)

My son graduated from Notre Dame last spring, and now he’s on the verge of moving on to his first post-college job in New York City. Ben is my first “out of the nest,” as it were, and we’re all of us trying to figure out how to cope with it – him, me and his mom, the rest of the kids. Strange stuff.

We’re lucky, though, that he didn’t have to start work immediately after graduation. We’ve had a good, healthy six weeks of Benedict lounging around, sharing meals and conversation with us, and just being present. Part of that presence has involved indulging us with his plunking around on the piano. In fact, per his request, we even got the old Baldwin upright tuned so that he could more thoroughly enjoy his musical musings – and so that he’d be more inclined to keep at it for our enjoyment.

The other day I was in the kitchen listening to talk radio while I did the dishes, and my ear caught a tentative melody from the living room that gave me pause. I turned off the radio to listen – yes, it was Ben figuring out that plaintive theme from my favorite film, Roberto Benigni’s masterful Life is Beautiful (1997). Note by note, Ben was picking his way through the slow, dreamy version of the theme that so perfectly captures the movie’s rich narrative of love, perseverance and sacrifice. I wandered from the kitchen to the stairwell around the corner from the piano – I didn’t want to interrupt Ben’s performance – and I sat down to drink it in. I closed my eyes, and various scenes from the movie flooded my imagination.

When he was done, I thanked him. “Yeah, it’s a good tune,” he responded.

I agreed, but I noted that I wasn’t just thanking him for the music. It was the associated recollection of the film that I found so moving – the joy and sorrow it evokes, the abiding hope it engenders. “You know, there’s one scene in that movie that makes me cry every time,” I confessed (no surprise to him), “and just hearing the music makes me cry.” It’s the scene where Benigni’s character, Guido, separated from his wife in a Nazi concentration camp, reaches out to her by broadcasting across the compound an operatic duet by Offenbach that has special meaning to them both. You see him smiling as he turns the speaker toward the window – toward her; you see her, attired in prison garb, arise from her bunk and approach her own window, drawn to the melody and beatified by her by husband’s gesture of devotion.

The moonlight drenches them both in their separate isolation, but that shared illumination represents the coalescing of their two spirits in the shared musical experience – despite the barbed wire, despite their desperate straits and threat of death. Whenever I hear that Offenbach number, that singular, devastating love scene from Life is Beautiful plays out through my head, and the whole film’s powerful message of the indomitable resilience inherent in authentic human love inspires me – once again.

It got me thinking about other discrete and difficult movie scenes that have had a similar ongoing influence on me – intense cinematic moments that pop up, unbidden, in my consciousness which dredge up important life lessons I’d first encountered on screen many years ago, but which evidently require regular review. Here’s what I came up with – and the perpetual lessons I associate with them:

Zulu (1964) — I can remember watching this one with my dad when I was a wee lad and way too young to sort through the film’s complicated history and military science, but it stuck with me – and I made a point to show it to my own young sons. Starring a very young Michael Caine, it depicts the background and progression of the 1879 Battle of Rourke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War in South Africa. The Battle pitted 150 British troops against an onslaught of some 4,000 fierce Zulu warriors, and yet the British garrison managed to repel their foes after 12 hours of fighting – with only 17 casualties.

It’s an astounding, true story of courage and sheer determination, which is memorably captured in one particularly jarring scene. As an inebriated missionary angrily taunts the threatened garrison on the eve of the Battle, a young British soldier turns to his sergeant and pleads, “Why is it us? Why us?” Color Sergeant Frank Bourne replies, “Because we’re here, lad, nobody else. Just us.” That’s the kind of fortitude and fidelity that lie at the core of authentic masculinity and paternity, but they’re also essential to Christian discipleship in general. Sergeant Bourne’s words echo in my thoughts whenever I might be tempted to feel sorry for myself, especially with reference to my privileged duties as a dad.

Tender Mercies (1983) — This story of redemption earned Robert Duvall an Oscar for Best Actor – and it’s well deserved. He plays Mac Sledge, a washed-up singer, failed husband and father, and alcoholic. As the story unfolds, we witness how Sledge responds to grace and gestures of human kindness – the tender mercies of the title – and begins to piece his life back together.

However, there’s one critical juncture where he is granted an opportunity to reconcile with his estranged daughter, yet pulls back in self-defense. She asks about a lullaby she remembers her dad singing to her when she was a girl – “I think it went something about, ah, ‘On the wings of a snow-white dove, he sends his something, something love.’” Mac replies that he doesn’t recall the song, and then walks his daughter to the door. After her departure, he gazes outside and intones the very song she’d been asking about. We can’t see his face, but we hear the catch in his voice and his regret. It’s a painful, vivid reminder to always err on the side of vulnerability and take advantage of every chance at healing hurts.

Wings of Desire (1987) — Director Wim Wenders has recently come to the attention of Catholics because of his biopic about Pope Francis, but before that he was known to many for his ethereal and moving masterpiece, Wings of Desire (original title, Der Himmel über Berlin). Angels, dressed as late-eighties hipsters, invisibly accompany the denizens of Berlin, prompting here, urging there, but always in the background, always on the imperceptible margins of human experience. They observe it all: despair and loneliness and pain, but also sensual pleasure and relational potentialities.

When one of the angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), falls for a circus performer, he finds himself contemplating a transition to mortal existence to pursue and win her. In the midst of his deliberations, he crosses paths with actor Peter Falk – of Columbo fame and playing himself – on location for a film shoot. Falk, it turns out, is an angel-turned-mortal himself, and he offers some poignant advice to his unseen, tortured friend:

I can't see ya’, but I know you're here – I feel it! You've been hangin' around since I got here. I wish I could see your face. Just look into your eyes and tell you how good it is to be here. Just to touch somethin'…. Here, to smoke, have coffee – and if you do it together, it's fantastic. Or, to draw. You know, you take a pencil and you make a dark line, then you make a light line, and together it's a good line. Or when your hands are cold, and you rub them together – you see, that’s good. That feels good. There’s so many good things.

We have so much to be grateful for! We wake up – we’re alive another day! We exist, and we have sensory access to all of Creation. We have faith, we have the hope of salvation, and we can go to Mass and receive the sacraments – or, if not, we can pray and give thanks, and God will be present to us in that. There’s always something to be thankful for, which is the surest remedy for when we do fall prey to the temptations of self-pity, or we do fail to be vulnerable in our relationships, particularly in the family. Is there pain and hardship? Yes, there’s no denying or belittling that, but, as the Catechism teaches us, “every event and need can become an offering of thanksgiving” (CCC 2638). And, while it’s true that we mortals are “a little less than the angels” (Psalm 8:6), it’s also true that they “long to look” on so much of what we often take for granted (1 Peter 1:12).

After my conversation with Ben at the piano and the subsequent musings it prompted, it occurred to me that Wings of Desire might’ve somehow slipped through the cracks of his cinematic tutelage. “Have you seen it?” I asked him.

“Nope,” he said. “What’s it about?”

“It’s about angels,” I said. “Check it out.”

He nodded – “alright.” I hope he does, and, come to think of it, I’m going to track it down myself – just in case he wants to compare notes.