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Forgiveness and Atonement in Three Films
by Bill Thomason, Ph.D.
Forgiveness is central to the Christian experience of faith. If I wrong you, whether intentionally or not, that wrong opens up a breach between us. We become alienated, and unless something happens to overcome that alienation, the separation will grow, fester, and foster new wrongs. A vicious cycle ensues, and we come to feel trapped in it. Forgiveness is the only way we have to break this cycle and make reconciliation, a renewed relationship, possible.
Forgiveness is at the center of a whole cluster of Christian ideas about our human condition. It is necessarily connected to the idea of sin, because sin is what makes forgiveness necessary. It is necessarily related to the idea of repentance, because the experience of forgiveness depends on our willingness to admit that we wronged another and that we are prepared to do what we can to make things right. So, it is also connected to the idea of atonement: first, in the sense that we want to make up for, atone for, what we have done; and second, in the sense that we desire to be at one again with the person we wronged. We desire reconciliation, in other words.
Sin, repentance, atonement, reconciliation: these are the central realities Christians have in view when they talk about forgiveness. Since all of us sin, all of us need forgiveness. We sin against God, others, and ourselves, and we need forgiveness in all of these relationships. Jesus linked these relationships when he taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
In the Bible, forgiveness means primarily the removing or covering of sin, which makes possible a restoration of right relationships. In the Hebrew Scriptures the sacrificial cultus, ultimately centered in the Jerusalem Temple, was the primary way to experience forgiveness. The levitical laws specified the diverse sacrifices required to remove various offenses. But ritual sacrifice can easily degenerate into a form of cheap grace -- an automatic, mechanical kind of paying off your sins that never reaches the source of sin in the human heart. The prophets protested this abuse of sacrifice. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? . . . I have had enough of burnt offerings. . . and I do not delight in the blood of bulls or lambs. . . . Cease to do evil, learn to do good” (Isaiah 1:11, following).
Jesus continued this deepening process by emphasizing the inward nature of sin. In a controversy with the Pharisees over his disciples’ failure to wash their hands (for ritual, not hygienic, reasons), Jesus said to his disciples, “Do you not see that whatsoever goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles” (Matthew 15:17-18). One of Jesus’ main concerns was to change the human heart, the source of sin. Since sin issues in a vicious cycle of retaliation and revenge, the only thing that can change the heart and break the cycle is unmerited forgiveness. Jesus himself is the ultimate embodiment of such forgiveness. On the Cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Sin, repentance, atonement, forgiveness, reconciliation: these are big ideas, central to Christian understanding. Engagement with these ideas can become an abstract, intellectualized, and ultimately sterile exercise that leaves out the living heart of their reality. A good movie that honestly explores these human dynamics can be an affective counterbalance to a merely intellectual understanding. In the rest of this essay, we will examine the way three commercial films do just that, proceeding from the most recent and least overtly religious to the oldest and most explicitly Christian film.
Tommie Lee Jones co-produced, directed, and starred in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), a modern take on that movie genre staple, the Western.
Jones plays Pete Perkins, a cowboy who runs a ranch for a wealthy Houstonite (whom we never see) in Van Horn, Texas, not far from the border with Mexico. A young Mexican, Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo) rides by looking for work. Perkins hires him, and they become fast friends. One day Estrada shows Perkins a photograph of his wife and children and waxes lyrical about Jiminez, the little town where they live. He makes Perkins promise to bury him there, should he die in the United States. Perkins scoffs at that possibility, saying, “I’m a lot older than you.” But Estrada isn’t worried about dying of old age. Rather, he’s concerned that the Border Patrol might do him in.
It turns out that Estrada has good reason to fear American law enforcement. The head of the Border Patrol in Van Horn has one over-arching priority -- to avoid trouble of any sort -- and is prepared to cover up any unnecessary violence his agents commit. The sheriff, Frank Belmont (Dwight Yoakum), goes along with whatever the Patrol wants.
The Patrol has just hired a new recruit named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a young man from Cincinnati, not long out of high school and only recently married to his high school girlfriend, Lou Ann (January Jones). Norton is an emotional adolescent, who seems incapable of considering the feelings or needs of others. Neither he nor Lou Ann has a clue about how to live an adult life. One day Norton is patrolling by himself. He hears shots (fired seemingly in his direction) and fires back, mortally wounding Melquiades Estrada, who was shooting at a coyote. Norton tries to cover up his mistake by burying the body, but a couple of hunters find it, and Norton has to confess what he had done. The head of the Border Patrol and Belmont agree to hush this up, since they believe it was self-defense. Casual racism contributes to their decision: Estrada was a “wetback” and an illegal one at that. His death isn’t worth going to any trouble over. However, Pete Perkins learns the truth and, when he realizes Belmont isn’t going to do anything, he takes matters into his own hands. He kidnaps Norton and makes him dig up Estrada’s body out of his second grave. (The coroner had insisted on re-burying Estrada, because the refrigerator for corpses at the morgue was on the blink -- an example of the sly, darkly morbid humor that runs through this film.) They take the body to Estrada’s shack, where Perkins makes Norton drink from Estrada’s cup and don Estrada’s work clothes. Then, they begin a long, arduous, dangerous journey into Mexico, to bury Estrada there as Perkins had promised.
We do not need to elaborate the details of this journey, though some of them in retrospect bear on the issue of forgiveness. It is in retrospect that we realize this, because forgiveness becomes an explicit issue only at the very end of the film. When Perkins and Norton arrive at Jiminez, Norton digs a grave and he and Perkins bury Estrada for the third and final time. Then, Perkins forces Norton to his knees in front of a tree, places the picture of Estrada and his family in a low notch of the tree, and commands Norton to ask for Estrada’s forgiveness. At first, Norton balks. Perkins pulls out his pistol and shouts, “Ask for forgiveness right now, or go to hell right now!”
“I don’t believe in hell,” Norton rather lamely responds.
Perkins begins shooting, first at the tree then into the ground at Norton’s knees.
“I’m sorry,” Norton stammers. “I swear to God I’m sorry. I swear to God I did not mean to kill him.”
He says this to Perkins, but as he continues, tears well up in his eyes, and he turns back to face the picture.
“It was a mistake. I didn’t want it to happen. And -- it hurts me, and I regret it every single day. Forgive me. Forgive me, Melquiades, for taking your life. Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me.”
We have to watch the whole movie to get the full force of this scene. One thing to notice is that once Norton begins to ask for forgiveness, it all begins to rush out of him like waters after a dam has burst. Perkins quietly walks away, once Norton begins to sob. This is strictly between Norton and Estrada.
The next morning, Perkins awakens Norton and tells him he can go. “Where?” he asks, and Perkins says, “To your wife. Wherever.” This last word indicates that Perkins realizes that Norton and Lou Ann may not have a future together. (Lou Ann has already caught the bus back to Cincinnati.)
“I always thought you’d end up killing me,” Norton says.
Perkins gives him a long, inscrutable look, then says, “You can keep the horse,
. . . son.”
Perkins mounts up and begins riding away. Norton follows him with his eyes until he is almost out of sight, then shouts, “You gonna be all right?”
I’ve summarized this film in some detail, because I suspect few people have seen it. Like any good movie, much of its meaning resides in small details, which show that the filmmakers were paying attention to their subject. Even if you have seen all three of these films, I would urge you to re-view them in order to pick up on these details, which will enrich your understanding. We can be briefer with the next two films, because they are familiar to us already.
Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking (1995) was based on Sister Helen Prejean’s memoir of the same title. The movie was widely viewed at the time of its release as anti-capital punishment, but we can leave that contentious issue aside and concentrate on the way it traces Matthew Poncelot’s slow, unwilling journey toward repentance and forgiveness for his crimes of rape and murder. Poncelot (Sean Penn) is a composite of several death row inmates Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) worked with at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, so the film is a fictionalized account of her actual work.
When we first meet Poncelot, we realize he is a con-man and a liar, and part of the film’s dramatic tension lies in our concern that Sister Helen may be taken in. In fact, she never really doubts his guilt. Her concern is to protest the death penalty and to save Poncelot’s soul by getting him to admit his crime and seek forgiveness. As his execution date nears, she tells him he has a lot of work to do and little time left to do it. Gradually this sinks in and just before his execution, Poncelot breaks down and confesses what he has coolly been denying up to now. At his execution by lethal injection, he asks the parents of the couple he killed to forgive him and says he now knows that killing of any kind is wrong. Though we can never be certain of the state of anyone’s soul, we feel at the end that God has redeemed and forgiven Matthew Poncelot.
But the parents of the couple are unable to forgive, and we do not know where they will come out. Clyde and Mary Beth Percy (R. Lee Ermey, Celia Watson) refuse to feel anything but hatred and vengeance for the death of their daughter. We see this in the grim, hard expressions on their faces at the execution. Earl Delacroix (Raymond J. Barry), father of the young man, has a more complex reaction, in spite of the fact that Poncelot had in a sense wronged him more than the Percys. Delacroix’s wife has gone into a state of deep denial, leaving him to face this tragedy alone. Delacroix comes to Poncelot’s interment, though he keeps his distance from the actual burial site. After the burial, Sister Helen comes up to him and says it’s good to see him.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” he says. “I got a lot of hate. I don’t have your faith.”
“It’s not faith,” Sister Helen says. “I wish it were that easy. It’s work. Maybe,
. . . we could help each other find a way out of the hate.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so,” Delacroix says.
But the last shot of the film shows Sister Helen and Earl Delacroix sitting silently in a church praying. They have begun the hard work of forgiveness.
Roland Joffe’s The Mission (1986) is an even fuller treatment of forgiveness than our first two films, because we see how the character central to that experience lives that forgiveness out in his subsequent life. The film is a fictionalized account of a real incident that occurred in the mid-eighteenth century in that part of South America where Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay meet. The film’s protagonists -- Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert de Niro) and Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) -- begin as antagonists. Mendoza is a mercenary getting rich by capturing native Americans and selling them into slavery in Ascuncion, Paraguay. At the film’s beginning, he has extended his predation into an area previously off-limits -- both because of its location on the plateau above the intimidating Iguazu Falls and also because this plateau lies in Spanish territory where slave trading is supposed to be illegal. The native population on the plateau, the Guarani, have recently been evangelized by Jesuit missionaries led by Father Gabriel. The mission is a huge impediment to European economic interests.
Mendoza is a proud man, certain that he knows the way the world works, and believing that when he is rich enough he will marry the beautiful Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi). The problem is that while he is in the jungle trapping natives, she is in Ascuncion making love to Mendoza’s younger brother, Felipe (Aidan Quinn). The ensuing rivalry leads to a duel, and Rodrigo kills Felipe. He had loved his brother as dearly as he had loved anyone, and his fratricide drives him to apathetic despair. He seeks refuge with the Jesuits and remains isolated in his cell, refusing to talk to anyone, wallowing in guilt and self-pity.
On one of his trips to Ascuncion, Father Gabriel is asked by the head of the order to speak to Mendoza. The upshot of this intense encounter is that Mendoza agrees to return with Gabriel to the Guarani mission, where he will confront the people he had wronged by enslaving them, as surely as he had wronged his brother by killing him. Mendoza insists this will be a futile exercise, because there can be no redemption for him. To make his journey more difficult, he insists on dragging his mercenary equipment behind him in a heavy rope net. We have seen how difficult the ascent of the falls is and feel that Mendoza’s self-imposed task is impossible. But he is a man of iron will, determined to prove Gabriel wrong.
When the Jesuits with Mendoza trailing behind reach the top of the falls, a young Guarani boy recognizes the former slaver and runs screaming with terror to the chief. What follows is one of the most moving scenes of forgiveness and redemption in a movie. On orders from the chief, one of the Guarani runs to Mendoza with a knife. But instead of slitting Mendoza’s throat, he cuts the rope to which the burden of weapons is attached and pushes it into the river below. Mendoza, on his knees, covered with mud, is the very antithesis of the proud man he had once been. He is completely at the mercy of the Guarani, and mercy is precisely what he receives from them. His burden of guilt has been removed. The Guarani have forgiven him, and he can now forgive himself. He becomes a Jesuit and a member of the tribe, spending the rest of his life doing selfless acts of love for his new community.
We now have before us three stories of people who, one way or another, exemplify the idea of forgiveness. Can these secular movies made for commercial reasons tell us something about the Christian experience of forgiveness? I think they can, because all three stories follow the same general pattern implying that this pattern will be true of all experiences of forgiveness.
First, each of these stories is an inward journey each protagonist takes from ignorance to awareness, from lack of feeling to an emotional recognition of what they have done and who they are. Mike Norton, Matthew Poncelot, and Rodrigo Mendoza all have to be forced to pay attention to the kind of persons they have become. Without this seeing themselves as they really are, they will never seek forgiveness or find redemption.
Second, this inward journey is difficult, arduous, and dangerous. There is no guarantee that it will be successful. Norton almost dies on his trek into Mexico. Sister Helen insists to Poncelot that he has a lot of work to do and not much time to do it. Mendoza is convinced that his journey will actually lead to nowhere. The physical journeys in Three Burials and The Mission mirror the arduous difficulty of the interior journey.
Third, a significant part of this inward journey to forgiveness is our ability to identify with the ones we have wronged. We see this most clearly in Three Burials
when Perkins makes Norton drink from Estrada’s cup and wear his clothes. For the first time, Norton begins to understand how it might feel to be someone else and how his behavior might affect another. His question to Perkins at the end of the film -- “You gonna be all right?” -- shows that he has begun to understand the way someone else might feel.
Fourth, and closely related to the third point, the inward journey to forgiveness brings about a release of emotion. When because of our identification with the other we begin to feel what we have done to the other, the hurt we have caused them becomes a hurt we now feel ourselves. Mike Norton says that “it hurts me, and I regret it every day.” Poncelot says that he hopes his death will give the Percys and Earl Delacroix some measure of relief from the pain he has caused them.
And Mendoza lets go of his self-hatred in a flood of emotion that perfectly illustrates
Frederick Buechner’s famous phrase “confession, tears, and great laughter.”
Fifth, the inward journey to forgiveness requires a guide to keep the penitent focused on the goal. Pete Perkins leads Mike Norton into Mexico (and into his unrepentant soul). Sister Helen Prejean forces Matthew Poncelot to start being honest with himself before it is too late. Father Gabriel leads Rodrigo Mendoza to the Guarani, knowing that Mendoza can only find salvation by confronting the people he has wronged.
Finally, when forgiveness happens, the sinner finds new life and becomes reconciled to God and self, if not with the people he has wronged. Mendoza’s experience is the fullest, since he finds reconciliation with God, the Guarani, and himself. In a sense, Mike Norton is also reconciled with Estrada, because he has become the instrument through which Estrada’s wish to be buried in Mexico is fulfilled.
We do not generally expect secular movies made for commercial purposes to be theologically significant. These three films, however, show that any well-made film about a subject of genuine human concern may be worth of our attention as Christians. In taking serious films seriously, we come to exemplify those who Jesus said have “eyes to see and ears to hear.”
Dr. Bill Thomason is the Academic and Trade Sales Representative for the Eastern United States for Westminister/John Knox Press.
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