Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Scripture and Film in Dialogue: John 4—the Woman At the Well and the film, Before Midnight

Last month, we looked at the idea of how film in general can become a way of entering into spiritual transcendence. We continue to explore this theme, focusing on one particular film: Before Midnight, directed by Richard Linklater.

Before Midnight is comprised of six scenes shot almost entirely with the two characters, Celine (Julie Delp) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) talking about their relationship. The story is about the connection these characters have with each other, which started with a spontaneous interaction on a train in Vienna more than a decade ago portrayed in the film, Before Sunrise (1995) and continued in its sequel, Before Sunset (2004). They talk freely about their life, their children, their sexual relationship and their commitments to each other, their faults, their suspicions, and their fears. Even though Celine’s character seems anal at times, she is searching for a sense of security and permanence in this relationship. Jesse, too, who has had several relationships before this one with Celine, seems to have learned where he went wrong, especially with his ex-wife and mother of his son, Hank.

Now both in their forties and living together in Paris, Jesse and Celine talk about how human connection and belonging are more important than careers, even though their jobs are central to the conversations in this film. Ultimately, careers alone cannot fully satisfy the deeper longings of the soul. They need the commitment to each other. Self-giving love is not based on feelings and affections alone, but there must be a commitment to each other that ties two people in an intimate bond. We see this in John’s Gospel with the Samaritan woman when Jesus points out that she has had several husbands and the one she is now with is not her husband. The woman ponders Jesus’ reading of her soul. She looks with insight into the well. What has her life become? How are her fractured relationships symbolic? Jesse and Celine consider what has brought them together. What keeps them together even now?

Jesus’ response to the Samaritan woman offers an extended theological reflection on the existential desires of humanity, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (Jn. 4:13-14). We long for something more in life. We have a profound desire for the supernatural within us and we long for completeness. This is what drives us to other people, not only the physical attractions but the desire for fulfillment. We need others. We need connection and a sense of belonging, not only for self-fulfillment and self-discovery, but also to become fully human through self-giving love.

Other people are not to simply fit into our lifestyle, which speaks of expressive individualism. True love preserves other people in their otherness. As Rev. Gladstone Stevens would say, it is a union in Christ, which is a union of narratives where the story of humanity becomes the story of God because the incarnation becomes God’s story. God’s story of love and grace now becomes the story of humanity, as is shown in John’s Gospel with Jesus and the Samaritan woman. God seeks us out so that he alone can fill all our longings through his Son, Jesus Christ. Other people can never fully satisfy our longings for wholeness, completeness or oneness. Yet, that is what we yearn for in our relationships. Our soul still longs for more. The film, Before Midnight highlights those questions.


In our yearnings for completeness and communion, if we can surrender our frantic longings and instead focus on giving of ourselves in love to others, our restless souls will find more peace. We will have gained insight into the depths of human nature, for there still is that supernatural existential longing that is in all of us. We long for what is beyond this world. Because as St. Augustine says to God, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

How is the search for connection sacramental? If you have seen the film Before Midnight, consider it from the standpoint of media mindfulness. What images are used in the film that convey grace present and at work in the characters? What did you feel while watching these images? How is that a search for the something more? What are the ultimate longings of the human spirit? What gives final fulfillment? How is God present in this search/seeking that is often unarticulated in the human psyche?


Even if you have not viewed the film Before Midnight, you can apply this analysis to any number of films in a variety of genres. What's your favorite film?  As an experiment, view it once again with those questions of media mindfulness in mind beforehand. How is the Holy Spirit speaking to you through your favorite movie?

Sr. Nancy Usselmann is a Daughter of St. Paul, the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles and a Media Literacy Education Specialist. She has degrees in Communications Arts and a Masters in Theology and Arts. For over 25 years, Sr. Nancy has given numerous media mindfulness workshops, presentations and film retreats around the country to youth, young adults, catechists, seminarians, teachers and media professionals helping them to create the dialogue between faith and media. She is a contributing writer for Fuller's Reel Spirituality website and a board member of CIMA (Catholics in Media Associates), a member of NAMLE (National Association of Media Literacy Educators) and SIGNIS (International Organization for Media)

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