Spitfire Grill: “A Balm in Gilead” (Film and Theology)

 (Easter is approaching. This is one of a handful of posts between now and then concerning the relationship between the arts and atonement theology. FYI: contains spoilers)

“Once in my life I knew a grief so hard I could actually hear it inside, scraping at the lining of my stomach, an audible ache, dredging with hooks as rivers are dredged when someone’s been missing too long.” (Leif Enger)

“There is a Balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole…There is a Balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.” (“Balm in Gilead,” cf. Jeremiah 8:22, 46:11, 51:8)

The above words, inspired by the prophet Jeremiah, were breathed into life in the 1996 film Spitfire Grill, a film that garnered much attention at the Sundance Film Festival before its eventual release.

The story is set in Gilead, a small town in rural New England. Gilead is, as Jeremiah’s words intimate, a town mentioned in the Bible.

Gilead was located east of the Jordan river, known for a resin from the storax tree that seems to have had some medicinal value.

Throughout the Hebrew narratives, Gilead was a place of refuge for such people as Jacob (Genesis 31:21-55), the nation of Israel (1 Samuel 13:7) and even King David (2 Samuel 17:22).

And in the context of the film, Gilead serves as both a place of hiding and a place of healing.

DEEP WOUNDS

Her name is Percy, a young woman who arrives at Gilead after being released from, hoping to find work. She finds it in the Spitfire Grill, run by an older woman named Hannah, where she also befriends Shelby, Hannah’s niece. Together the three women share an unlikely friendship that serves as the relational core of the film – though, gentlemen, without ever devolving into “chick flick” territory.

But during the course of the film, Hannah breaks her leg, forcing Percy to step up and take on more responsibility on behalf of the older woman. One scene features Percy rubbing lotion on Hannah’s leg, where she asks a question that – for me – defined the film:

“You suppose if a wound goes so deep, the healing of it might hurt as bad as what caused it?”

Percy is not the only one struggling with pain and grief. Hannah’s son Eli never returned from Vietnam, leaving her alone. “Exile,” says Thomas Merton, “is a hemorrhaging wound.” Hannah is left with her grief, wounds felt by an entire town.

But as it turns out, Eli is actually living within city limits – as a hermit whose wartime experiences were too painful to permit him to return. Without giving away too much detail, it is Percy who sacrifices herself to save Eli, returning the prodigal home and galvanizing an entire community through this sacrifice and gift of reconciliation.

THE BALM IN GILEAD

It is for this reason that many have seen in Percy something of a Christ-figure, albeit an imperfect one. And when it was learned that the film was made by a southern Roman Catholic organization, the film was criticized as being a “propoganda” piece (ironic since the director was Jewish), despite its lack of overt religiosity.

The dual motif of pain and healing is nevertheless a powerful one, and should rightly bring to mind the costliness of reconciliation, for as Percy notes, the pain we bear often runs deep. Sometimes it hurts just to be healed.

Hannah’s grief was like an open wound. Percy’s sacrifice was the soothing balm that assuaged a community’s grief. “By [Christ’s] wounds,” writes the prophet Isaiah, “we are healed.”

Something similar is seen in an ancient African ritual:

“There’s an ancient craft practiced in Rwanda, an age-old art that has been almost lost today. The Umuvumu trees that shade the [public judicial proceedings] have another purpose. Once the Umuvumu tree has matured, a small strip of bark is cut away. Like our own bodies, the tree responds to the gash. The Umuvumu produces a fine red matting of slender roots to cover the wound. The ancients then treated that matting to create a cloth, commonly called bark cloth. Historically, the bark cloth was used to make royal clothing. Today, artisans fashion the reddish-brown fabric into traditional African ceremonial dress, wallets, purses, placemats, book covers and maps of Africa, adding decorative detail through paint, print, or needlework. Strangely, mysteriously, things of beauty and usefulness sometimes come from wounds.” (Catherine Claire Larson, As We Forgive, p. 18)

The film breathes these themes to life in the lives of its pivotal characters, a timely reminder as we approach Easter, of the meaning of redemption.

Whether or not you share my spiritual conviction, I highly recommend the film. For those interested, it was rated PG-13, making it appropriate family viewing if you have older children.

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