Our Lent group this year was partly based on the film ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. In the first session we watched the sequence where the protagonist spends his first night in prison, and one of the other new arrivals is beaten so badly that he dies. It’s an intentionally shocking sequence (though comparatively mild by contemporary cinematic standards) and it provoked a discussion about watching violence. Not suprisingly, given the constituency of Lent groups, a number of people said that would not have chosen to watch it, that normally they shy away from portrayals of any sort of violence.
The depictions are there in abundance, whether fictional or the real thing in news coverage. But we have an option, we can decide not to look, to cocoon ourselves, knowing but not knowing. Films come with category labels, TV programmes are shown before or after ‘the divide’, and the reliable characters telling us about today’s news will warn us when there might be something too nasty to watch: yesterday, the warning came in the context of a report on vivisection.
I’m one of the opters-out. Every time I go to a performance of ‘King Lear’, I look away during the blinding of Gloucester; I scarcely ever go to films which I know to be bloodthirsty; I salve my conscience by paying my subscription to Amnesty International, but I can rarely bring myself to read the stories which come in its magazine.
And then Holy Week brings me up short. From Palm Sunday, with its reading of the passion, through to Good Friday’s Stations of the Cross, I am compelled to look, to follow the story of betrayal, and torture, and death. I can remember, as a teenager, hearing Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and wanting to stop listening, but needing to go on.
A year on from the opening of Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion’, I still have questions about its particular theology, its way of telling the story, and its implicit claim to a physical suffering beyond that of other human beings, just as I did when it first came out. But on reflection, I respect the need to make us accept the reality of suffering.
Tomorrow I will find my mind filled, as it is every year, by unwanted, undesired images of the world’s major and minor cruelties. Tomorrow, I cannot tuck myself inside the cocoon of film-ratings and warnings to the viewer. Tomorrow, I must look, and know that there will be no easy comfort; for that we must wait.