Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Edges of the Lord

Of the movies I watched this weekend, Role Models was easily the most fun, not to mention sinful, but Edges of the Lord was by far the most edifying. If you want to know how to grow up undercover in the midst of persecution and war, Edges of the Lord is the movie to watch. Surprisingly I had never heard of this movie before, but it was released in 2001 and stars Haley Joel Osment. Bad Polish accent (admittedly, not that bad) included, he's every bit as good in this movie as he was in The Sixth Sense and then later in Secondhand Lions.

In this movie, Osment stars as 11-year-old Romek, the young Jewish protagonist. It opens in Kraków, Poland in 1942. Romek is being taught Catholic prayers by his father in preparation for his escape to the Polish countryside, where the blond-haired and blue-eyed Romek will hide from the Nazis in plain sight by pretending to be a local farmer's cousin from the city. In order to make the charade work, Romek must be able to fit in with the devoutly Catholic Polish peasants he will be living among. Fortunately, one of Romek's saviors in the Polish countryside is the local priest, played by Willem Dafoe. He helps teach his young charge the ins and outs of Catholicism while paying careful attention to respect the boy's Jewish heritage.

Romek's other chief protectors are the farmer Gniecio, his wife Manka, and their two sons, Vladek and Tolo. Once Romek arrives in his haven, he tries to go about the business of being a typical adolescent, but the circumstances he finds himself in are anything but typical. Poland is under the tyrannical heel of Hitler's Germany, whose fury extends not only to Jews but to the Polish people as well, whom the Nazis also view as inferior. Romek, in particular, must deal quietly with his fears and hopes regarding the fate of his parents, who have gone into hiding elsewhere. The most visible challenge with which Romek must deal, however, and the one with which the movie's plot deals most extensively, is that of fitting in with and gaining the friendship of his peers.

Initially, Vladek, who is closest to Romek in age, makes things extremely hard for him, playing the tyrant with the smaller and frailer boy. Of Gniecio's sons, however, the junior Tolo is most accommodating and welcoming to their guest, soon forming a close bond with Romek. Of those village youngsters not of Gniecio's family, Romek becomes most enamored of Maria, an inquisitive, pretty, and rather fierce girl who is the lone female playmate of the group and Vladek's girlfriend. That she is also kindly disposed to Romek only serves to intensify Vladek's animosity toward Romek. Even less kindly disposed to Romek than Vladek are the sons, Robal and Pyra, of the oafish neighbor Kluba. This family will later prove to bring great grief to Romek and to Gniecio's family.

At times, it seems as if the most important concerns of the youngsters are typical ones, like swimming in the quarry, eating strawberries, the battle between the sexes, and catechism class, but the devastation of the war and the brutal Nazi occupation is ever-present to mar the otherwise idyllic setting of the film.

This becomes shockingly apparent when the neighbor Batylin is caught possessing pigs after the Germans have seized all of the Poles' livestock and forbidden them from possessing any on the pain of death. The children run to Batylin's field, looking on from the trees as the priest begs the German officer for Batylin and his wife's lives. The sadistic Nazi officer makes a bargain with the priest, agreeing to spare one life if the priest can catch a pig in one minute. If he can catch two pigs in two minutes, he can save both lives. The other soldiers on hand laugh hysterically as the priest scrambles through hay and dirt, trying desperately and vainly to catch the slippery, squealing pigs running wildly through the field. He fails and the elderly couple is executed. From her place in the trees, Maria flees the scene, leaving the boys behind. Romek is not alone in having lost his parents; Tolo later explains to him that Maria had seen her parents murdered by the Nazis in a fashion similar to that which they have just witnessed at Batylin's field.

After this tragedy, life returns to "normal" in the village. The young group of friends and the priest return to the concerns of the catechism class, with the father asking the children to draw sticks on which the names of the apostles are written. He instructs them to learn all they can about the apostle they have chosen. Maria, who is an incipient feminist, inquires of the priest if Jesus played with girls too. He tells her she must learn all that she can of Mary Magdalene and emulate it.

During this session of catechesis, the priest also has another lesson to teach the children. In light of the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews and the fact that they are unknowingly associating with a Jew in Romek, the priest inquires of the children which people group Jesus was from. Pyra suggests that Jesus was from the Vatican. Only Romek is unsurprised when the priest tells the children that Jesus was Jewish.

The theme of redemption, which begins to reveal itself even prior to this moment (Romek sees the priest beating himself in the barn after he fails to save Batylin and his wife, which Romek interprets as the priest's arguing with God), begins to come into sharp relief as Tolo insists that there can be no apostles without Jesus. He takes it upon himself to play the part of Jesus, vowing to undertake "Jesus exercises" to prepare. Romek, a quick study about the Christian faith, suggests that if Tolo plays the part of Jesus, he must hang on a tree all through the cold and dark night. Tolo is unfazed; if that is what it takes to become like Jesus, that is exactly what he will do, not to mention wearing a crown made from a rosebush and, oddly, running naked in the rain.

The children take to the "Jesus games," though perhaps in ways the priest had not intended. For instance, highlighting the theme of growing up and discovering love, Maria imitates Mary Magdalene, telling the boys that she is going to take her beloved into the barn for an hour, after which they are to pretend to pick up stones to throw at her. To Vladek's chagrin, Maria chooses to take Romek into the barn with her instead of him. What ensues in the barn is an expression of innocence and naïveté when it comes to matters of love and sexuality, which Romek and the older Maria both display. It deals with the matter in a touching, modest, and appropriately awkward way.

In the wake of Batylin's death, Gniecio decides it is time to sell his own family's pig. He ventures off into the night with Kluba to sell the pig in town. In a pouring rain, Kluba returns the next afternoon, hauling Gniecio's bloodied, lifeless body in his cart. A heart-rending scene ensues as an inconsolable Manka beats her husband's lifeless body, pleading for him to wake up. Kluba says that Gniecio had left him the previous night with the man to whom he was selling the pig but did not return. Kluba had found him later, shot in a ditch. Some neighbors had reported that the Germans had done it. Young Tolo comforts his anguished mother, but, as Romek relates in his narration, Tolo does not cry for his father.

With the tragedies in the village and in all of Europe closing in around them and finally coming to rest in his own family, Tolo comes to understand in an ever deeper way the need for redemption from human brutality and suffering. He expresses this in his continuing and escalating "Jesus exercises." The night after his father's funeral, for instance, he runs naked in the rain. Lying sick in bed the next day, Tolo summons his friends to his bedside and has them make a solemn vow.

Tolo: I have a plan, and all of you are in it. On that special night, I'm going to hang on the tree all night, and I am going to make them all come back.
Vladek: Who, Tolo?
Tolo: Papa. . . . And yours (pointing at Maria). And yours, too, Romek. . . . And we all have to take a bath together.
Romek: Get baptized?
Tolo: Get baptized together to get ready. . . . You all must say yes.

They all do. In the next scene, Tolo has his friends dip their heads into a bucket full of water and he kisses each one as they rise from their "baptism." After removing his "priestly vestments," Tolo gives one of the best baptismal sermons I have ever heard. Imagine that he is Jesus: "Because you shiver . . . (coughs) in this holy river and you might get cold, listen to me and remember that you all put your heads in the bucket, and now you have to follow me. I'm going to suffer for you. But I'm going to make things better."

The final significant conversation I want to lift out from the movie is between Romek and the priest. It has significance not only for its statement about humanity but also for Eucharistic theology and ecclesiology, but I won't get into that here. In this, Romek's most important catechism session, the priest is preparing hosts for Communion. He asks Romek if he would like one. Romek, perhaps not understanding transubstantiation fully, declines with a look of horror on his face. The priest laughs, assuring him that they are not holy hosts just yet and that he can freely eat them. Besides, he assures Romek, these are only the edges, which he never blesses. Recognizing the cosmic significance that Catholics attach to the bread, Romek asks a profound question about humanity.

Romek: Are we blessed, or are we just the edges?
Priest: We are all scraps, Romek. We are all blessed the same.
Romek: But not all the people. Right?

The priest does not answer. Romek begins to break the edges into pieces representing all the people who have been lost: Batylin, his wife, Vladek's father, Maria's parents.

Romek then informs the priest that he has been to the trains that pass through the village and asks him point blank if his parents are going to come back for him. The priest tells him that they probably will not, so Romek breaks off two more edges to represent them.

Edges of the Lord is a poignant and powerful story but a melancholy one. It treats with depth and sincerity the various ways in which war warps the young, bringing out the worst in some but also bringing out the best in others. In the process, Edges of the Lord calls on all of us to answer humanity's highest calling regardless of the circumstances—the calling to love our neighbor. It is exhortation for us to sacrifice for the edges of the Lord just as we would for Jesus himself, to love and to seek an end to all the terrible things that people do to one another. The ending to this film, as much and more than anything I have described so far, is a great statement of redemption and sacrifice—a terrible, sad, and unforgettable one but a great one nonetheless. Can we recognize Jesus in the despised and persecuted other? Can we identify with the condemned like he did?

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