Friday, February 17, 2023

Nate Hood on WOMEN TALKING (2022)


[Trigger Warning: This review involves discussion of sexual assault.]

In 2014, the Christian film studio Pure Flix Entertainment released the movie God’s Not Dead. Though the studio had been producing and distributing movies since 2004 to moderate success within evangelical circles, God’s Not Dead—the story of a Christian college student debating and ultimately defeating his belligerent atheist professor—unexpectedly broke into the mainstream. Despite critical revulsion and noted disgust by many non-Christians for perpetuating ugly stereotypes of atheists, the film made over $62 million on a $2 million budget and gained enough word-of-mouth to become a shorthand for a specific strain of Christian media. Chances are you know the kind I mean—films with confrontational titles like I’m Not Ashamed, Do You Believe?, and War Room where faith is frequently paired with eyebrow-raising Christian nationalism. Over the last two decades, these movies have become a genre unto themselves, simply labeled “Christian films.”

I personally find that term a misnomer. Certainly, these represent a kind of Christian film. But the idea that these are the only films that can be called “Christian” spits in the face of over a century of filmmaking that has piously (and sometimes impiously) struggled with what it means to follow in Jesus. These are films that embrace the ambiguity of faith, acknowledge the true fallenness of the world, and refuse to shy away from the darkest historical crevices of organized religion. Whereas Pure Flix-esque “Christian films” reassure believers with one-dimensional victories against straw man opponents, to watch this second species of film is to feel one’s faith tested, tried, stretched, yet ultimately strengthened. These are films like Roland Joff√©’s The Mission (1986) which interrogates the Catholic Church’s complicity in the colonization and genocide of indigenous South Americans. These are films like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), a devout work of pious imagination that dares to grapple with what it meant for Jesus Christ to face the earthly temptations of the spirit and flesh. These are films like Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life (2019), the biography of a real-life Austrian farmer whose faith led to his murder in a Nazi prison.

And these are films like Sarah Polley’s Women Talking. Not only is it one of the best films of 2022, but I’d also argue it’s destined to take its place as one of the most theologically nuanced and morally courageous films ever made about Christianity. It takes as its inspiration the horrific true story from 2011 where seven men from the Manitoba Colony—a community of ultraconservative Mennonites in Bolivia—drugged over 100 of their neighbors with animal tranquilizers and raped them. These men were eventually caught and surrendered by their community to the secular authorities where all but one of them were sentenced to decades in prison. This film, however, takes a different approach. Describing itself as a work of “female imagination,” it relocates the narrative to the American countryside and wonders what might happen if the men of the community closed ranks around the rapists and gave the women with an ultimatum: forgive their attackers or be excommunicated and exiled from the community.

Sounds farfetched? Hardly. Consider the bombshell report from 2022 that revealed the Southern Baptist Convention had covered up hundreds of their pastors being accused or found guilty of molesting children. In each of these congregations, powerful men—Christian men—had cudgeled the victims and their families into silence and submission, sometimes with threats of excommunication, sometimes by using Jesus’ command to forgive one’s enemies to guilt them into not pressing charges. But one need not think of this most recent scandal; ask any group of women from any congregation and chances are at least one of them has at least one story tucked away where they were told to shut their mouths, look away, and keep quiet when some man was found doing something they shouldn’t.

Women Talking, then, wonders what might happen if the women of this Mennonite community called the men’s bluff and seriously considered leaving. After an initial vote results in a tie between those who want to stay and fight and those who want to leave, eleven of the women are elected as representatives to meet, debate, and ultimately decide their collective fate. Most of the film is comprised of these deliberations where they weigh the pros and cons of staying or leaving. Some of the arguments are practical: how are they supposed to survive outside the colony if—being forbidden to receive any education—none of them can read or write? Having never left the borders of the colony, many of them literally can’t imagine the outside world. Are there mountains out there? Rivers? Other groups of people who might help or hurt them? And what of their prepubescent sons? Should they be brought along or have they already been poisoned by their fathers’ misogyny so that one day they might pose a similar threat?

But what truly makes Women Talking special are the moments when the film turns towards the theological. As stated, the film is based on a true story, but it’s also an adaptation of a novel by Miriam Toews, a now excommunicated Mennonite who grew up in a community not dissimilar to the one in the film. As such—despite its director Sarah Polley being an atheist—it never once questions the existence or providence of God. The result is a film of devout Christians navigating an impossible situation with their faith, not in spite of it. For example, one of the women named Salome (Claire Fox) reveals that if she stays in the colony she wouldn’t be able to stop herself from killing the man who raped her four-year-old daughter. Would it be more “Christian” for her to refuse forgiveness and leave the colony if it meant saving the rapist’s life? Is forgiveness even forgiveness if the offending party remains unrepentant? Could one even call their community “Christian” if the women remained and allowed their men to continue raping with impunity? What if, instead, as one of the women named Ona (Rooney Mara) suggests, by leaving they might forge “a new religion, extrapolated from the old but focused on love.” 

Entire books could (and should!) be written on the theology of Women Talking, but what makes it a truly great “Christian film” is how it gives Christians the language and a model for how to address such scandals within their ranks. Early in the film, the narrator reveals that sex and the discussion of women’s bodies was so taboo among the community that the rape victims literally didn’t have the language to describe what happened to them. It was their confrontation with an unknown—indeed, an unknowable—cruelty that made their situation so existentially and spiritually horrific. But no more. These terrors have been named. They have been confronted. And in God’s name, may they never force victims into silence ever again.

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