One of the most profound aspects of Christian teaching is the idea of the sin of despair. It might seem either abstract or inapplicable for many people either too commonsensical or faithful than myself, but once the idea behind it became clear to me, it was like a bright, pitiless light came on in my mind, casting light where I had never had the wit or strength to shine it before.
I had this in mind while watching two of the better films released by Hollywood in the last year, both of which are set in landscapes that, for me at least, embody despair as a place. Even the title of J. C. Chandor’s film All Is Lost lets you know that despair will be front and centre, but it’s a lock when the camera pans out from Robert Redford’s sailboat, holed by a floating shipping container, and taking on water, over the vast expanse of open ocean surrounding him.
Chandor’s film is almost silent except for the sound of waves and wind and Redford’s grunts as he struggles to keep himself afloat. There’s a brief prologue where the actor reads out the note he writes and throws overboard in a bottle, his last message and testament to the world, which begins and ends with the words “I’m sorry,” and confesses his failures to the loved ones he has apparently escaped/abandoned back on dry land. We know that whatever happens next, it won’t be good.
I can’t imagine a place more awful than the open ocean, except perhaps the vast emptiness of space, which in my mind is really just an airless sea that stretches out in every direction, endless and inhospitable. This is where Alfonso Cuaron set his Oscar-winning Gravity, out where satellites orbit the earth, with land and ocean tantalizingly just below and blackness and infinity above. A space shuttle is docked with the Hubble space telescope where a team of astronauts are busy at work when a Russian missile strike creates an ever-expanding debris field that slices silently through the shuttle, the satellite, and the astronauts.
Tour de force camera work sends the camera careening around the vacuum of space while the two surviving astronauts, played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, try to make their way to what remains of the space stations still in orbit and back to Earth in a capsule. At every stage they’re met with a new calamity and a further challenge to their ingenuity and stamina while the finite resources of their space suits and the fragile orbiting platforms are depleted, much like Redford in his sinking boat and, later, the tiny escape raft he’s forced to use.
Both films reach their emotional climaxes when their protagonists reach the apex of despair and seem to give in, losing the will to live. As she shivers in a broken escape capsule hundreds of miles above the Earth, Bullock’s character looks back on her life and regrets not having the tools to address her grief and loss. “Nobody will mourn for me. Nobody will pray for my soul,” she laments. “I’d say one for me, but I’ve never prayed in my life. Nobody ever taught me how.”
It’s a bitter, heart-wrenching moment.
“It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater,” wrote Benedict XVI in his encyclical Spe Salvi, or Saved In Hope. “It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.”
There’s a deleted scene in the 1973 film The Exorcist where the two priests, exhausted from their battles with the demon possessing a young girl, try to understand why the Devil would choose an innocent as his battlefield. “I think the point is to make us despair,” says the older priest, played by Max Von Sydow. “To see ourselves as animal and ugly. To reject the possibility that God could love us.”
Obviously most of us will never find ourselves lost at sea or adrift in space, but movies aren’t made for the tiny or even non-existent minorities that will ever experience these calamities. Loss, isolation, the imminent threat, and fear of death – these are all things we can understand, however, and spectacles like All Is Lost and Gravity take us to where we can confront those terrors in the safety of a theatre seat or our living room couch. This might be the greatest gift films offer us.
And while it’s easy for me to complain about the amoral, immoral, nihilistic, and just plain cheap messages and sensations that film and television retail, it remains a fact that, when they work well, the best stories told there tap into truths about humanity that are central to what Christians – and others – believe. It might even be a reason for hope.