So what I know about grace in the Christian sense—grace, which is agape in Greek and (I believe) caritas in Latin—I have gleaned from books and movies (mostly from books) and from my friends with theology degrees (and I think I have a grand total of one of those). But what is grace? As I understand it, grace is divine love, bestowed upon you not through any merit on your part, but purely through the benevolence of God. It is unearned love. And because of this, it is unexpected. I think we can extend the concept of grace beyond the religious realm, and perhaps see it is as unexpected tranquility and beauty in a fucked up or despair-inducing situation. Perhaps despair is key; grace is the sudden respite bestowed upon a person in despair. Let’s look at the underlying theme in that Rihanna song, the one with the with the chorus, “We found love in a hopeless place.” They didn’t make love, they did not cultivate love, but rather, they found it, it was just there, it was presented to them as a veritable gift, they did nothing to earn it or bring it about. And the environment (a hopeless place) made this discovery of love all the more unlikely. Grace, perhaps?
The concept of grace in its more secular applications occurred to me recently while watching Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2011 film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. This Turkish masterpiece (and honestly, if the regular reader of this blog thinks that I throw around the word “masterpiece” too frequently, he or she should bear in mind that I have good taste in films (not to boast excessively), I can sniff out the good ones and avoid the bad ones, so I rarely find myself watching shit and frequently find myself watching really good movies. So the opportunities to review shitty movies are few and far between and the opportunities to review masterpieces occurs with pleasant frequency), I say, this Turkish masterpiece depicts a day or two in the life of a group of law-enforcement figures (police officers, a prosecutor, a doctor) as they drive through a rural backwater with two confessed murderers and try to determine where the murderers buried the body of their victim. It’s less a police procedural and more an “existential dread” kind of movie; if Antonioni were to make a police movie, it would probably look something like this.
Now, there’s a wonderful scene where the police and their prisoners have been driving around for half the night, with thunder and the threat of rain constantly in the background, going to different spots where the body might be buried (the murderers buried the body in the dark, and they’d been drinking, so it’s hard for them to reconstruct where exactly they left their victim). They decide to take a break and pay a visit to the mayor of a nearby town, who is known for his hospitality. So they go to his house—more of a rambling compound, really—and it’s like a wonderful sanctuary from their frustrating search and the persistent ominous weather. The atmosphere inside the mayor’s house is warm and safe. He feeds the cops and even feeds the two murderers, although when one of them asks for a cola, a police officer interrupts and says, “He can have water.”
Well, as the night plods on, the power goes out, and the would-be revelers are plunged into darkness. The mayor summons his daughter to bring candles and drinks for the guests. And here’s where the moment of grace occurs: the daughter enters the room carrying a tray with a large candle in its center, flanked by drinks, and it illuminates her face in the darkness and she’s incredibly beautiful, less in a sexual sense and more in an angelic sense, and all eyes are on her, both those of the the murderers and the police. And she makes the rounds passing out drinks and you can tell everyone is grateful for the mere sight of her. And then she takes it even further, and the tears rose to my eyes at this point, because she discreetly provides the thirsty murderer with the cola he wanted earlier. Agape! Unearned, unexpected grace! And when she comes to offer a drink to the other murderer, he too is moved to tears and lingers on her angelic face in the candlelight. Grace!
|The angelic girl. Isn't the composition perfect? It looks like a painting!|
|Vincent Gallo with Maribel Verdú, whom he |
doesn't deserve and he knows it, but there's grace for you.
Agape is a beautiful concept (or at least, what I think agape to be is a beautiful concept). On this shitty planet, trapped in these fragile bodies (soft machines, William Burroughs called them), with our fragile psyches, it is hard not to be attracted by the prospect of overflowing, undeserved, and selfless love. I think these two cinematic examples that I’ve discussed here indicate that grace is not just for the religious; we secular humanists (or whatever it is we want to call ourselves) can enjoy it as well.