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Francis X. Clooney, S.J.November 27, 2011

Cambridge, MA. As you might have guessed, I am not a film critic. I go to few films, and the ones I watch on (free) cable TV I watch in bits and pieces, almost never seeing a film beginning to end. Nevertheless, once in a while I do head down to the wonderful Kendall Square Cinema to catch some unusual but intriguing film — the German White Ribbon, the Korean film Poetry, Blue Valentine, and The Tree of Life come to mind as films I’ve seen in the last year or two. (Not the happiest set of films, and you may wonder about my taste. Then again, I did see all the Harry Potter films, though not at Kendall.) On Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, I happened upon Melancholia, a film by the well-known Lars von Trier. This is a film about depression, the debilitating depression of a bride (Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst) in the midst of her tastelessly overpriced and pretentious wedding party and, as the film’s framing story and the focus of its second half, the looming possibility of the end of the world, as a planet named Melancholia appears headed directly for the earth. (Another perfect film for the holidays, you may be thinking...)

I will leave the review of the film to the professionals — other than to say that you really should see it; the last minute alone is worth the price of admission. But what struck me in particular — and why I write — was how for the first two-thirds or so of the film Justine is increasingly unable to act purposely or react appropriately, due to her depression. She is out of synch with those around her, she cannot be or remain serious or engaged in partying or in her career or even in the idea of staying married to her seemingly decent enough new husband. She is out of synch with the world around her, losing ground, in need of more and more help. Everyone thrives, or wants it to appear so, while she languishes.

But in the latter part of the film, as Melancholia approaches the earth and the possibility of the total destruction of our world becomes all the more likely, Justine begins to recover, regain her sense of self. She tunes in, she bathes, dresses, eats, and begins to take over the increasingly dysfunctional household, now paralyzed at the impending doom. Her personal depression, her languor and melancholy, her inability to participate in life in the way others do — suddenly turns out to be her strength, since the world as everyone knows it no longer makes sense or in the long run matters at all. She becomes fascinated by the approaching planet, she moon-bathes in its nightly radiance, she is the one to show her sister and nephew how to dwell quietly and without delusion or cover in the face of the fearsome, beautiful cataclysm bearing down on them.

I suppose the theme is an old one: Justine is in tune with a reality others do not see, from which they hide themselves; she was depressed because reality is depressing; she felt, before knowing why, that the ordinary life of wealth and pleasure and business, partying and marrying, had no point at all, since everything was about to change, absolutely. By ordinary standards, Justine is simply clinically depressed. In a larger perspective, in light of what actually happens, she is right. She has seen what no one else can see.

The point of this tale? I do not have anything useful to say about depression or astronomy or the end of the world, but wish to make another kind of point. I suggest that there is a sensitivity to unseen realities that utterly, radically changes the way some people live, and that makes them seem weird — odd, marginal, useless, a bother — to those who have no inkling of what they feel or see. We need to take this intuition, invisible as it may be, into account, when we judge one another.

Perhaps the subtle intuition of what no one else can see or feel is what the saints are about; they live by a sense of God, the living God, that no one else sees, feels, notices. What is just words to others, is a burning mark on their souls. On a smaller scale, this may also be what most of us experience in some way or another, the intuition that both burdens us and makes us distinct persons – not necessarily by way of depression or in an intensely palpable sense of God, but just some deep, vital connection with reality that changes everything: that slender connection others do not really “get.”

This intuition, hidden from view, could be deep anxiety about ecological collapse; empathy to the point of sleeplessness about people nearby or in far-off places who are hungry and homeless and dying in the millions as I eat my lunch; a deep and holy wrath about injustice toward women in the Church; or an insight into another religion, into Christ's being there too, that changes everything about being Christian. Etc.

To others, such “causes” seem overdone, special pleading, exaggeration, imprudent in the light of sensible apprehensions of reality. Poor taste, bad judgment, faulty doctrine. Time to move on, grow up. But to those to whom such intuitions are given, there is no point in concealing or hiding from them, for they are as real and urgent as the things we see every day.

And so the point of my point: If we cannot understand what drives and burdens and enlivens remarkable individuals around us who care so deeply about things we know and feel only in a vague way, Melancholia might be a reminder that some day, perhaps soon, we will suddenly see what this sense of justice or compassion or imagination is all about. Something will happen to us as individuals, or to the world. In the meantime, we would do well to watch and withhold judgment: it is the ordinary way of living that is the illusion; reality is what shines in the eyes of the sorrowing or ecstatic or wrathful person on the margins of our vision. And so, as Advent begins, we can at least keep our eyes open, and listen.



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we vnornm
10 years ago
Wonderful thoughts, Father Frank. I will have to see the movie. Your thoughts on the movie remind me of a number of things.

When I read the biography of Mother Teresa, I couldn't help but think that some of the immense loneliness and doubt she wrote about were part of being depresed-yet somehow, by dint of her own search for God, and her cooperation with God's grace, her despair nourished her ability to help whom she called "the poorest of the poor," perhaps because her inner understanding of their physical poverty came from her own inner battles.

Likewise in times of war or crisis-soemtimes it is the people who have lived with intense anxiety who arise to the occasion with courage and clear-headedness. They are so used to living in fright that they know how to transcend it when the chips are down.

The New York Times has had a recent series on persons with severe mental illness-like schizophrenia-who somehow transform the symptoms of the illness and channel them into productive ways.

There are indivuduals all around us who yearn for understanding. Many of them might be right next to us at Mass this Advent season. Their needs for compassion and understanding, I suspect, dwarf the importance given and opinions sallied over the changing of a few words or rubric and ritual.

best, bill
Bill Collier
10 years ago
When asked during an NPR interview whether her personal experience with depression influenced her choice to act in this film, actress Kirsten Dunst adroitly sidestepped the issue and stated that she was drawn to the film because of the opportunity to work with von Trier. I haven't seen the film, but I believe Dunst has won accolades for her work, which may (or may not) have been based on the "subtle intuition" Fr. Clooney writes about.  
Bill Collier
10 years ago
Mother Teresa's decades-long perception of estrangement from God may very well have increased her affinity for the poor. She was an expert at turning adversity to advantage. However, when I first read about her feelings of estrangement, I was struck by how incredibly deep her sense of loneliness was, and I wondered what effect such loneliness had on her psychological health. Even for someone as strong-willed and devout as Mother Teresa was, that sense of estrangement may have proven devastating but for two occurrences that provided some relief to her. One of her confessors convinced her that the feeling of estrangement was a blessing not a curse, a gift given by Christ to the very few whom He allows to share in the loneliness and rejection He felt on the Cross. As revealing and comforting as her confessor's explanation must have been to Mother Teresa, the two-week spiritual respite she enjoyed-when a personal connection to God was re-established and overflowed within her-must have been the oasis she drew strength from for the long years of spiritual aridity that followed that brief period of joy.     
10 years ago
Thanks, Fr. Clooney for your interesting review of the movie and to Brett for his apt references to the work of Rene Girard.  I certainly want to see the movie now. 

Also thank to Bill, #4 for putting in perspective the changes in the Mass that we are experiencing.  Who is there that is not longing for understanding and compassion?  Even the toughest and the holiest search for that enormous comfort and remedy for loneliness.  Those like me who suffer situational depression seem to be forever seeking that balm while knowing that only in Heaven will our needs be satisfied.  We are perfectly capable of learning words such as incarnate and consubstantial and their meanings in Theology.  It is ever so much more difficult to truly love each person we encounter in our lives but that is what Christ call us to, no matter the cost.
Bill Blackburn
10 years ago
Oh, the boggling irony of finding this essay written by a priest!  Sorry, I do not intend to offend, but my way has been hard in getting here... 

You see me, Fr. Clooney.  I feel that I see you.  I think the commenters do not see us or your meaning but I see your meaning.  I hope that's humility speaking.  Awe.  Your vision is holy and I am witness.  

Feeling the fresh grief of the Iraqi mother, feeling the dying ocean, feeling the immensity of the way things could be.  Living that way, touching lives deeply, service bordering on sacrifice, the personal anxiety for having lived according to the Call rather than future-planning - the sleeplessness when one awakens at 4 am over how the future paradigm one is living is not synching with the way things are.  Knowing that this bag of blood and bones is not who I am.    

Light is returning, even tho' it is the darkest hour.  Wayshowers may be failing and succeeding all around us.


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