Like Mark Reidy (I say I say) last week, I was deeply affected by the film Valkyrie and for similar reasons. With Gran Torino and In Bruges, it forms a trio of hard-hitting films out lately.
Though vastly disparate in storyline and style (and I would not recommend In Bruges to anyone), they yet, intriguingly, seem to share a common theme highly suitable for this time of the liturgical year.
Perhaps unwittingly they are all intensely Christian films, about the highest form of love, and the redemptive value and the power of sacrifice freely given for those who don’t at first glance seem worth the sacrifice.
All involve the protagonists giving their lives to save others who they do not even particularly like, after all else has failed. They are all deeply personal stories – ‘who is my neighbour’ becomes painfully literal in two of the three.
In no case are the ones being protected completely innocent, but the innocence or otherwise of those who need protecting is not the issue.
We do not know the future of the ones who are saved by these heroic acts of self-sacrifice performed by less-than-perfect men, any more than they do. We hope they do not waste the chance they have been given, but that is not central to the story.
The gross injustice that causes the dilemma facing the three is not central either. The focus is more on how to fight on when aggression – even justified aggression – does not work. In all three, there is a history of solving problems using aggression – Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino is a misanthropic Korean War veteran full of old prejudices; Ken and Ray of In Bruges, as an experienced hitman and a rookie respectively, habitually use violence to settle everything; and von Stauffenberg in Valkyrie is a good soldier, fighting Hitler’s war.
The realisation that this is not what is required to solve the dilemma, and the search for what response is called for begins in the mind of each man at a different point in each film; but it all amounts to the same thing, that they cannot walk away from this. And perhaps more important, that somehow they will redeem themselves for past sins in this last total commitment to justice.
And in each case it seems a monumental failure on every level. You think that Kowalski just hasn’t been quick enough on the draw in a suburban shootout and has been shot by the thugs; until you realise that he is unarmed, and has consciously given his life to get the gang behind bars and give his young Hmong neighbour a chance to live a law-abiding life.
After Ken’s refusal to ‘liquidate’ Ray, his boss Harry arrives in Bruges to finish them both off. Ken’s attempts to get Ray out of Bruges before Harry arrives fail.
As Harry chases down the hapless Ray after killing Ken, you think Ken has died in vain, until the subsequent rapid chain of events cause Harry also to die, and Ray is given a chance of beginning again.
It appears that von Stauffenberg and his confederates in the plot to assassinate Hitler have failed completely, all the more so when the voiceover tells the audience that Hitler is claiming his survival as proof of Divine protection; fortunately we all know that within months the war was over and Hitler dead by his own hand.
Kowalski, Ken and von Stauffenberg die with no blood on their hands this time.
And in the end it is their own apparently useless sacrifice of themselves that swings the pendulum in the favour of the downtrodden against all odds.
Yes, the films are very confronting in their raw and uncompromising presentation.
But, so, I think, was Calvary.
The personal response called for by the intensely challenging literalness of the great act of redemption performed by Christ on the first Good Friday presses home ever more closely as Lent begins.