On Sin, Trauma, and Forgiveness

Catching up on a bit of film-watching and research, I recently watched Oliver Hirschbiegel‘s Five Minutes of Heaven, a 2009 film inspired by the Protestant/Catholic wars in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and based on a script by Guy Hibbert. Not only is it a stirring image of the effects of individual and collective violence, it is a strong cinematic example of trauma and PTSD, about which Serene Jones writes in Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World, a book about which I will write more in a subsequent post.
Alistair Little (Liam Neeson) and Joe Griffin (James Nesbitt) both grow up in war-torn northern Ireland, and the violence there leaves lifelong scars on both of them. In an effort to belong…to matter to someone…Alistair kills Joe’s older brother in an act of retaliatory violence. Basically, Joe’s brother just got the wrong end of the random stick. Alistair didn’t count on Joe being a witness. Young Joe couldn’t have expected his mother would have actually blamed him for his brother’s death (couldn’t he have done something to stop him?). Not only does Joe suffer from the traumatic experience of seeing his brother shot three times in the head, he carries around the guilt placed on him by his traumatized mother. The rest of Joe’s family slowly dies off after the murder (heart attack, overdose, etc.).

As part of a television series called One on One, Alistair and Joe are brought together for an ultimate moment of truth and reconciliation. Since his release from a twelve year prison sentence, Alistair has been traveling around the world speaking to individuals and groups in conflict about the necessity of reconciliation and how best to nurture it. He’s also, of course, eager to get on with his own self-improvement. Joe is, understandably, unable to follow through with it all. Nevertheless, the two eventually meet on their own terms (off camera) with a violent result that does not end their relationship but certainly marks a changing point in it.

A young Alistair (back right, here played by Mark Ryder) falls into...and leads...the wrong crowd.

Five Minutes of Heaven is a marvelously directed film by Hirschbiegel, thanks in large part to Hibbert’s script. While it’s not based on a true story…it is a true story that finds its source not only in war-torn 1970s Northern Ireland, but in the times, people, and places that have been marred by conflict throughout history. Hirschbiegel constructs his film on a series of cuts between Alistair’s and Joe’s efforts to connect with (or avoid) one another, after a brief opening that lays the historical foundation of their ruptured relationship. Nesson and Nesbitt’s performances as Alistair and Joe are near perfect portrayals of grief, anger, and brokenness that follows violent, traumatic experiences…for both victim and violator.

A strength of the film is that it gives equal time to victim and violator. It shows the scars that both bear after a violent experience. The memories of Joe witnessing his violent act haunt Alistair for the rest of his life. He sees the face of Joe as a young boy when he wakes up in the morning and it stays with him throughout the day, forever accusing him of the crime he committed. On the other hand, Alistair’s growing popularity as a voice for reconciliation only further strengthens the hold that he has on Joe’s psyche, which is also crowded by memories of a mother who verbally and physically abused him with accusations that he (Joe) killed his brother.

Nesbitt’s portrayal of the victimized Joe is another enlightening glimpse into PTSD and the experiences of the traumatized. Joe replays the memory (or more accurately stated, it replays itself) of his brother’s murder over and over in his head, along with his mother’s screaming accusations. These memories break into his day-to-day experiences without a moment’s notice and draw him further back into that violent experience and away from his contemporary lived experiences. He has internal dialogue with himself that frequently spills over into his surroundings, putting many people off. He is not fully present to anyone or any experience that he encounters as his trauma pollutes his present, lived reality.

As the film painfully reveals the need for forgiveness and the self- (and other) destructive tendencies of holding onto anger, guilt, and resentment, it is also critical of our obsession with truth and reconciliation…of cleaning everything up nicely for a half-hour documentary. The film asks us in what ways we use victims for our own peace of mind…to put violent experiences behind us as a community or society. Alistair recognizes and tells others that Joe has to make all the initiative and consent to every aspect of their televised meeting, but his own “knowledge” of the “reconciliation process” betrays a firm belief in the way everything should go…as if all reconciliation processes are, at heart, the same.

Joe and Alistair at a crossroads in both their lives.

Five Minutes of Heaven is also a not-so-subtle, but still important, look into the driving forces behind individual participation in group terror. Alistair’s assertions that “once you sign up for terror, it’s too late” are chilling reflections that are applicable to our own time and place…even if the singling out of Muslims in the script is a bit too narrow of a focus. At the same time, Alistair makes a prophetic call that in-group voices need to be heard denouncing violence as a viable and acceptable means to address difference or handle disagreements.

The title, Five Minutes of Heaven, refers to how Joe thinks about his first encounter with Alistair, one in which he fantasizes killing his brother’s murderer. It takes on an interesting twist when the two finally meet. Joe does try to kill Alistair, but the outcome is not what he expects. In the end, the film seems to suggest that even a violent reconciliation might be a piece of heaven too.

Five Minutes of Heaven (89 mins.) is rated R for language and some violence and is available on DVD.