Forgiveness and Acceptance

in 40th Chicago International Film Festival

by Diego Lerer

Watching the selection of films in the two competitive sections of the Chicago Film Festival, a certain trend seems to appear. It’s not related to style or to the nationalities of the films selected. It is a question of content. Or, should I say, a specific thematic concern that seemed to me especially relevant in this time.

If I had to give a name to this concept I would say that most of the films I saw in Chicago are about Forgiveness. And they are also about Acceptance. One after the other, I couldn’t believe the amount of films in which that subject appeared. And not only in American films, but also in films from Denmark, China, Israel, Uruguay, Morocco, Argentina, Vietnam, etc. In a way, you can say the subject is international enough to be repeated in different languages and situations. Or that it was a specific concern of the programmers of the festival.

Day and Night, a Danish film that someone accurately defined as “Kiarostami takes Bergman for a ride”, was about a man who’s going to commit suicide and he spends the whole day in the car meeting with the people he knows and is about to leave behind. An alcoholic, brutal and cold guy who, during the course of the film, ends up at best understanding the pain he’s been causing, especially to his only son.

The Iranian Bitter Dream tells the story of an old guy who’s been cleaning corpses and running a cemetery during most of his life. He’s the kind of difficult character that everybody around loves to hate. At one point during the film he realizes that he’s going to die and that all the employees he’s been mistreating will have to clean his corpse and bury him. That’s when the Forgiveness part of the film starts: is it too late to be liked by the others? Did he already do too much damage to the workers and friends?

Next in the New Directors Competition came The Woodsman, an American film starring Kevin Bacon as an ex pedophile who’s out of prison after a long sentence and is trying to readjust to society. A sick and complicated guy, he still feels the urge to watch and follow kids around but he’s able to contain his own instincts. At the same time, he’s being pushed around by coworkers and the police. Is he going to be able to regain acceptance into society? Is he going to be forgiven? Or, more importantly: can he forgive himself?

And you can go on and on with most of the other films we saw in the festival. The theme reappears in Whisky, the Uruguayan film who’s also about an old guy who knows, at one point during his life that he was very harsh and non-communicative to his long-term employee, so he invents a complicated scheme to be liked (or, again, forgiven) by her.

It is also one of the main themes in Campfire, the Israeli film that we chose as the winner. In that movie, the main character (a widow who has two teenage daughters) realizes the mistakes she’s been making with her kids since she lost her husband and how wrong she was in the direction she was taking them, pushing them around her own misguided desires to move to a settlement instead of listening to what they have to say.

And the titles kept coming: the Vietnamese film Buffalo Boy and the Argentine Lost Embrace (both about the complex relationships between “bad” fathers and confused sons), the Moroccan film In Casablanca, Angels Don’t Fly (between a husband who left his wife to go to work in the big city without paying attention to her desires), and in the Chinese film South of the Clouds (where the main character, an old guy, has to forgive himself for the wrong decisions he made when he was younger), there’s always the same question: is it too late to say I’m sorry? Are we going to be forgiven for our ‘sins’? How can we undo the damage we made to others?

Somehow the connection with the current world situation seemed pretty obvious to me. Can we think of this 2004 as a moment in history in which people all over the world are realizing the errors of their ways in the last few years and are asking for acceptance and forgiveness, to be able to start again in some kind of harmony with the others? Or should we think about this subject in terms of the selection, made by a group of Americans: do they want to tell something to us, to the rest of the world? Are they asking us (in the last days of the Bush administration, Part I) to be forgiven and reaccepted in the world community?

We’ll never know. The only thing we might be sure about is that, like some old folk singer used to say, “the times they are-a-changing”…

Diego Lerer