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Jim McDermottFebruary 24, 2023
From left, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod and Jessie Buckley in a scene from "Women Talking." (Michael Gibson/Orion - United Artists Releasing via AP)From left, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod and Jessie Buckley in a scene from "Women Talking." (Michael Gibson/Orion - United Artists Releasing via AP)

The Oscar-nominated film “Women Talking” begins in a revelation of horror: The girls and women of a rural Mennonite community are being systematically drugged and raped in the night. The men of the community insist that their attackers are ghosts and demons, and as bizarre as that sounds, the women have accepted it. Then a child catches sight of one of the community’s men as he assaults a woman. Soon an entire group of men is arrested.

Rather than stand by their mothers, wives and daughters, the men of the community leave to bail the perpetrators out, telling the women they have two days to come around to forgiving their attackers for what they have done. As a group, the women must decide how to proceed—“forgive” (i.e., do nothing); stay and fight back; or leave the community forever.

“Women Talking” is an exploration of the way that religion can be used to imprison people—and what’s worse, to teach them to imprison themselves.

If you are wondering why you haven’t heard about this incredible film, you are not alone. Since it was released in December, “Women Talking” has earned only $4 million domestically; maybe 250,000 Americans have paid to see it. I guess it’s not surprising that people would be more interested in Tom Cruise smiling or blue undersea C.G.I. aliens…I don’t know, farming? But among this year’s Oscar nominees there is no more compelling film than “Women Talking,” nor any that wrestles more honestly with what it means to be a member of a faith community.

After setting up its story, “Women Talking” spends almost the entirety of its run time in a barn with the small group of women appointed to decide what the larger group should do. From a storytelling point of view it’s a big swing. Cinema is a visual medium; 90 minutes of people sitting around talking does not sound like a formula for success. And yet the film’s writer/director, Sarah Polley, and this amazing cast, which includes Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Rooney Mara, Frances McDormand, Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy, use the constraints of the story to create a unique space of care.

As the group debates what to do, a number of the women end up sharing elements of their own experiences; and at their rawest moments, others silently come and sit with them or place a hand upon their shoulder. These actions never intrude on the character speaking. Instead, they somehow make more room for the speakers and their questions, their pain. It’s as though each person’s experiences have been pressed down within the characters into spaces far too small to contain them. The quiet presence of the women gives each speaker the permission to allow all of that out into the open. They can each be who they truly are, whether that is angry, ashamed or damaged, and find themselves accepted and loved as such.

It is one of the most profoundly Christian takes on community and friendship I have ever seen.

It is worth watching this film simply to watch that process unfold. It is one of the most profoundly Christian takes on community and friendship I have ever seen.

As much as their conversation is marked by the traumas they have been through, fundamentally what the women are wrestling with are questions of faith. They have spent their whole lives being taught to understand themselves as subservient to men, to accept the words of men as fact and their decisions as divinely inspired. They have also been taught that to reject their role in society will damn them literally to hell. How do you walk away from your community, violent though it may be, if the potential consequences are eternal torment—and not only for you but for your daughters?

“Women Talking” is an exploration of the way that religion can be used to imprison people—and what’s worse, to teach them to imprison themselves. In one of the most startling and yet genuine turns of the film, some of the women begin to wonder whether the men in their community can even be blamed for their actions. They, too, are trapped within the way of thinking they have been taught. These women are right, of course, but facing that fact when the consequences have been so damaging is also brutal. When you start confronting the truth of your reality, there’s just no telling where you’ll end up.

As different as the Mennonite community is from our own, our recent Catholic history, too, is filled with horrifying stories of communities of faith who were taught and groomed over many years to ignore the violence happening in their midst. The startling recent report about Jean Vanier, founder of the international network of residential communities for handicapped adults known as L’Arche, is a case in point. While widely viewed as a saint for his work with these communities, in secret Vanier wasusing L’Arche as a cover for the recreation of what seemed to be a “mystical sex” cult, and ended up sexually exploiting dozens of women over almost 60 years.

Is it truly possible that no one ever witnessed or heard stories of what was going on there, as has been asserted? What seems far more likely is that in looking back people will realize they did see things, but did not have the ability to face their reality. Even after decades of revelations, it is still so hard to overcome the essential trust we have been taught to have in religious figures.

But in “Women Talking,” with greater awareness comes not only a deeper sense of grief and loss, but the unexpected possibility of a deeper relationship with God. Many of the characters are actually more grounded in their faith at the end than they were at the beginning, and more joyous, too. Indeed, the choice they end up making is grounded in a sense of invitation from God, and the hopeful possibility of real forgiveness.

Even as Catholic leaders have worked to make our communities safer and more transparent, there are so many wounds that we carry as Catholics that have not been given opportunity for expression. Women and L.G.B.T. Catholics find their identities, even their physical selves, often defined by men who say their interpretations come from the word of God. “Women Talking” charts a different path. And there is much the church could gain from offering spaces where women and others are allowed to speak and listen with a similar kind of care.

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