And now, for something completely different. Instead of addressing issues directly related to Pope Francis, I would like to talk about one of my favorite movies: “A Monster Calls.” Why? Because I truly think this movie conveys important lessons about truth and frailty, in light of which we can read Francis’ papacy best.
Basically, the movie revolves around Connor O’Malley, a boy whose mother has a terminal stage cancer. As if this weren’t enough, he needs to deal with school bullying, a strict grandmother and an absent father who started a new family abroad.
Connor starts delving in interior darkness, hatred and resentment… until he receives a visit from a giant yew-tree monster. This Monster tells Connor he will visit him thrice to tell him three stories… and, afterwards, Connor must tell the Monster a fourth story.
This premise seemed interesting right at the outset, so the movie caught my attention from the start… what would the fourth story be? And what would the purpose of such stories be?
Also, just as an aside, I was amazed (as an oncologist) at how thoroughly the writers made their homework regarding their depiction of cancer patients and cancer treatments.
But what caught my attention the most (and what I wanted to share here today) was how it dawned on me how the Monster could be construed as a metaphor… for God.
Now, maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe I’m being misled by my inherent Christian bias. And indeed, I can’t deny that the parallel is imperfect (some minor parts of the movie might be a bit problematic if we cling too literally to this interpretation.) However, this interpretation of the Monster’s character also exerts some fascination over me. Whether it reflected a subliminal intention from the part of the movie writers or not, it got me thinking about the nature of God… and led me to some interesting conclusions I wanted to share.
You see, I have been searching for a long time for a portrayal of God just like this. Since the catastrophic Lisbon earthquake of 1755 AD (an event that spurred a wave of anti-theist objections in the wake of the Enlightenment)… to the nazi Holocaust… to present-day movements for the legalization of euthanasia… we must admit that the relationship between Modern Man and God was (and is) shaped by human objections raised against the existence of suffering.
When confronted with this objection, it is usual for Christians to reply with pietist clichés or a series of convoluted theological arguments. All of these responses try to convey a triumphalistic image of God, distant from our suffering (sometimes, even wishing for it) looking down upon Man as a chess player looks at his pawns, all while cloaking Himself in a mantle of excuses we call “theodicies”. If there is evil, then Man and the Devil are to blame for everything, as if God was powerless to intervene, like a Pilate washing his hands of the whole affair. This answer is, of course, completely unsatisfactory for the majority of skeptics. As Christians, we should take these objections more seriously, instead of ascribing the problem to those who do not accept our explanations.
However, what do I mean when I say that God is portrayed in this movie as a monster? Well, if this movie just represented God as a monster, it would seem to portray Him as many modern people (and particularly, suffering people) do: as a monster.
It goes further than that, though. This is not a monster from a horror movie, an impersonal force of nature, lusting for blood. Rather, it is a monster that can be, yes, frightening and violent, but also tender and funny. He is wise like an ancient sage, but also child-like. He is mysterious, but also honest. Often, he is frustrating. There are other times when we get the feeling that he could solve everything if he set himself to do it, but instead chooses to cross his arms. Still, if there is one thing that the movie consistently shows, even in the darkest moments, is that the Monster is not evil… and apparently he knows exactly what he’s doing. He is in complete control.
So how can the Monster be in complete control and still not be evil, when there is so much suffering about? I can’t really describe it in words. It’s something in continuous development throughout the plot, the conjunction of all his atitudes, expressions and words right to the very end. You got to watch the movie to understand how this seemingly impossible balance can be struck.
Nevertheless, this leads me to another point: The Monster also likes to express himself through stories. Instead of hammering away lengthy sermons with very elaborate theologies, the Monster uses concrete situations, existential accounts, to express the reality of the Human Being, a reality that is too complex to fit into a simplistic formula. Some sectors in the Church, more bent on a rigorist and theoretical streak, do not seem to understand this… and much of our present day rebellion against our dear pope stems from a lack of understanding of this principle.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, however, seemed to understand this perfectly. Only through parables can Man see himself in the mirror of his true nature. We may refute arguments, but stories are lived. If we see see someone arguing against our opinions, we shut down our ears. But if we use a story to lull our interlocutor, to make him strip away his intellectual defenses, we might actually make the Gospel more palatable to them.
These stories are important. Stories are the only way to reach Connor, making him understand the only story that really matters: his own story. In fact, when the Monster tells those three stories from characters and events long past, he is trying to make those stories have a positive effect on Connor’s story, an actual story. Isn’t this how we should read the Bible stories?
In the end, what is the lesson we get from this movie? It is a very surprising lesson for a relativistic society as our own: To be confronted with truth is the only way to deal with the suffering encapsulated in our own existence.
Yup, that’s the Monster’s purpose: to confront Connor with the truth of his own story. Without this truth, Connor would just remain in a vicious cycle of self-destructivity. In a world where we deal with suffering by denying truth… in a world where we go so far as redesigning the whole fabric of society so that people won’t have to face uncomfortable realities that pain them … in a world where we create “safe spaces” to protect us from contrary opinions and facts… in a world where we use shallow entertainments to alienate people from the meaninglessness of their current lives… in a world where every single right (even the right of life) is subordinated to the avoidance of suffering… this is a truly revolutionary message.
To hide truth is not to deal with suffering. Rather, it’s repressing suffering. It’s concealing suffering behind a mask of pseudo-happiness.
But in our fight against this relativistic world we may risk falling into the opposite end. We may start to present truth irrespectively of the suffering that it may cause. Or we may start to use truth as a weapon. Or as a banner that we proudly wave in rebellion against the status quo.
In this sense, this movie shines precisely because it achieves the balance this unbalanced world of ours seems unable to reach. In this movie, the desire to escape from suffering is not cheapened. Instead it is presented as a very comprehensible reaction. It is the natural wish of a human being made of flesh and bone.
Rather than opposing truth and suffering, as both relativists and rigorists do, truth is presented as a remedy against suffering. Truth is liberating, curative, regenerating. This means that truth can never be used as punishment or as oppression against the sufferer.
It is interesting how there isn’t a single character that punishes Connor when he goes on an anger rampage and sins (and how he sins!) Viewers of a more conservative bend would claim that this movie seems to make an apologia for indiscipline. However, those same viewers would have to answer the question that every single character poses in the movie: “What would be the point?”
Would it really be so important to punish a child for these comprehensible behaviors, bearing in mind that his mother his dying before his very eyes and his life crumbling to bits?
However, in the end, it is only when Connor faces the truth of his own story (a truth he has been trying to avoid since the beggining) that he finds healing for his inner wounds. Truth as healing, not punishment.
In this sense, I think that a movie like “The Monster Calls” is the natural antidote against the extremisms we live in our everyday lives, extremisms many Christians are a part of. It’s about time that someone would represent God in a completely different way, a way that answers the legitimate concerns and questions of modern men! Yes, the Monster is a modern icon of God. A beautiful and truthful icon, which doesn’t shy away from the fact that God’s actions often seem ugly and confusing, An icon that confronts us with ourselves through a story, a story built to help with the story of each one of us. Maybe it is an icon many Christians may not understand, but it will certainly be a source of hope and solace for many. In this icon is contained a real Gospel, because it is truly “good news”, the good news of truth conveying meaning to human suffering in all its forms.
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.