‘Manchester by the Sea’: God Never Grows Tired of Showing His Mercy

The Jubilee Year of Mercy is over, but Pope Francis has urged us not to close the door and call it quits.

(photo: manchesterbytheseathemovie.com)

“Let us ask for the grace of never closing the doors of reconciliation and pardon, but rather of knowing how to go beyond evil and differences, opening every possible pathway of hope,” said the Pope in his letter that closed the Year of Mercy.

Theoretically, we can all agree that's a good idea, and certainly the Christian thing to do.

But what about man-made tragedies that get under our skin and test the limits of our ability to forgive and forget? 

Perhaps the greatest challenge to our power to forgive will not be a capital case we read about in the news, but something closer to home, something relatable.

Can we forgive the teenage drunk driver who killed our niece in a head-on collision? And what about the next door neighbor who was too busy talking on her cellphone to notice her toddler lying face down in the baby pool?

“Manchester by the Sea”, a new film starring Casey Affleck, and directed and written by Kenneth Lonergan, explores how ordinary people react to this sort of horror story — the kind that may never result in a prison sentence, but exacts an awful penalty nonetheless.  

The R-rated film is set in a Catholic working-class community outside of Boston.  At the start of the film, we meet Lee Chandler (Affleck), a janitor who performs his thankless job as if he were fulfilling some kind of extended penance.  

His interactions with hostile tenants are punctuated by flashes of poorly concealed anger, revealing a festering wound beneath the surface.

When Lee’s beloved brother dies from a heart attack, he takes a leave of absence and returns to his family circle in Manchester by the Sea.

The town is less than two hours from his solitary studio in Boston, but it introduces an entirely different world of relationships and memories that spotlight his past actions.

As he meets his relatives and is scrutinized by neighbors, he replays in his mind the decisions that resulted in an incalculable disaster.

The people around him have their own stake in his story, from his tortured ex-wife to the curious onlookers who fear the shadow of unexpected tragedy that accompanies his every move.

Still the interactions with family and friends slowly humanize this social outcast. The audience begins to wonder if the visit home could be more than a detour, and might lead to a permanent return to the world of the living.

New possibilities arise when Lee learns that he has been made a guardian of his brother’s teenage son.  

Is the brother’s decision to place his son in Lee’s charge an act of faith in Lee’s essential goodness, or just evidence that the family has no better options?

Yet as we watch Lee and the other characters interact, it is impossible not to ask the same questions that preoccupy them: In such circumstances, is forgiveness possible? Is it realistic or even practical?

In his review of the film, New York Times critic A.O. Scott, notes that the source of Lee’s “anguish is revealed about halfway through the film, which almost buckles, like Lee himself, under the weight of unimaginable horror.”

“How could anyone deal with such a disaster? How do you live with yourself afterward? Mr. Lonergan poses these questions not in the abstract, but as practical matters.”

The practical nature of this struggle within Lee and in those around him makes their colliding emotional, moral and spiritual perspectives all the more tangible.

This is not a case study in an ethics textbook or a law school course. This is what happens when people grapple with the finality of death, made more painful by the unnatural outcome of parents surviving their children.

As Scott also notes, the film’s bleak subject is mediated by a strong sense of the absurd, as characters shift between moments of profound human connection, and silly chitchat.

Just as an Irish wake may seem like an excuse for telling funny stories, the goofy moments in the film acknowledge the limits of our capacity to grapple with human loss and human fallibility.

Thus, while Lee and his relatives call themselves "Catholic", and all attend a church funeral for his brother, true forgiveness for Lee's sins looms as an extraordinary act of faith, a kind of miracle  that tests the limits of human imagination. 

I don’t want to spoil the film for those who plan to see it. Suffice it to say that “Manchester by the Sea” does not offer the resolution usually tacked onto to stories with damaged protagonists.

Each member of the audience is left to assess their own readiness to forgive, and whether and how Lee’s path could have been different.

But the plight of this outcast also suggests that the unconditional mercy he yearns for is not of this world, as Pope Francis reminds us in his letter closing the Doors of Mercy.

The film does not make this point explicit, but it is there for those who have eyes to see. We find the courage and strength to reconcile not within ourselves alone, but at the wellspring of the Father’s mercy.

"For the grandeur of his kingdom is not power as defined by this world, but the love of God, a love capable of encountering and healing all things," writes Pope Francis.

"He did not condemn us, nor did he conquer us, and he never disregarded our freedom, but he paved the way with a humble love that forgives all things, hopes all things, sustains all things (cf. 1 Cor 13:7). This love alone overcame and continues to overcome our worst enemies: sin, death, fear."