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Places in the Heart

October 4, 2015

PITHA movie that Andrew Greeley says ushered him into the presence of the divine was Places in the Heart (1984), the film for which Sally Field won an Academy Award in 1985 for best actress. The movie ends in a Baptist church in a small Texas town during the Depression. The congregation sings “Blessed Assurance,” and then there is a communion service. Writes Greeley, “As the cup and wafers are passed through the congregation and the camera examines the faces of each of the communicants, we become aware that all of the characters in the story are present, the good and the bad, the venal and the heroic, the living and the dead, the killer and the victim.” All are brought together as one by Jesus. This moving and vivid portrayal of “the communion of the saints” became the occasion for Greeley to again meet God. Although the meaning of the scene is so blatantly accessible that in the hands of a less skilled filmmaker it would seem trite, “the sheer, gentle beauty of the scene” rescued it for Greeley from any charge of moralizing. Greeley concludes, “Film in the hands of a skilled sacrament-maker is uniquely able to make ‘epiphanies’ happen.”

Greeley describes Eric Rohmer’s My Night with Maud (1969) and Bob Fosse’s. All That Jazz (1979) as being similarly sacramental for him.” He believes movies to be particularly suitable for the creating of epiphanies, for they have an inherent power to affect the imagination. I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’ book The Pilgrim’s Regress, when Lewis portrays John hearing words near the Canyon: “For this end I made your senses and for this end your imagination that you might see My face and live. “ Greeley argues that God discloses himself to us through the experiences, objects, and people we encounter in our lives. He writes that “grace is everywhere.” One must be concerned about the poor, thinks Greeley; but one must also be concerned with the arts, for the artist is a potential sacrament maker, one who can reveal the presence of God within creation itself. Here is the theological basis for our experience of the holy in film.
Greeley’s experience with Places in the Heart was necessarily unique to him (it was his experience), but it is also shared by others. My colleague and the series co-editor, Bill Dyrness, speaks of this same film as changing his consciousness. He writes, “I doubt I will ever think about the church in the same way after that final scene.’ Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue – R. Johnston pp. 155, 161

Set in 1935 Waxahachie, Texas, PLACES IN THE HEART tells a story — not unlike the familiar story told by the film “It’s A Wonderful Life” — of the delicate balance one life can exert upon so many others. When Sheriff Royce Spalding is accidentally killed by a drunken gunman, his wife, Edna, is suddenly thrust into the role of provider for her two small children, Frank and Possum. Then “Mose,” an out-of-work black man begging for every meal in the racist South of the Depression era, happens along with a scheme to plant cotton on her forty acres. It is the only chance Edna has to keep her family together. Meanwhile, Mr. Denby, of the bank which owns the mortgage on the farm, is quick to extend a “hand of charity” to Mrs. Spalding by depositing his blind brother-in-law (Mr. Will) with her for safekeeping. Margaret, Edna’s sister and a local “beauty operator,” is unable to provide much help; her beauty shop is all that stands between herself, her philandering husband, and a small daughter on one side and poverty on the other. A tornado offers their first challenge. Emerging from the storm cellar, blind Mr. Will asks “How bad is it?” “Well,” Mose responds, “everything’s a little bent, but it’s still here.” Next, the bottom falls out of the cotton market and Edna’s only chance to make the mortgage payment is that she be first to bring her crop to the cotton mill and claim the $100 first prize for doing so. In her way is the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan which objects to Mose’s efforts to best a white man to the prize money. In spite of the church setting of the final scene of the film, it seems karmic in its implications. (Back at the church, the choir is once again singing “Blessed Assurance”. Bud and Viola Kelsey are now leaving town passing by the church. The pastor gives a brief sermon about love to the small congregation. Margaret takes Wayne by the hand assuring him of forgiveness. During communion, the choir sings “In the Garden”. During this scene, the elements of bread and wine are passed from person to person in a now large congregation dressed casually and in their Sunday Best telling each other “Peace of God”. Included in this are the lead singer of The Lonestar Syrup Boys, the woman killed in her car during the tornado, Mr. Denby, Moze, and finally Sheriff Spaulding saying “Peace of God” to Wylie, the young negro boy that killed him. It is a symbolic scene indicating the love Jesus has for all of us and the “New Heaven and Earth” in the Bible that poverty, racism, oppression, and hatred is all gone and that love and forgiveness are now the rule.)

[first lines] Edna Spalding: [seeing her daughter’s doll at the dinner table] Possum, put that up now.

Royce Spalding: Our Heavenly Father, bless this meal and all those who are about to receive it. Make us thankful for Your generous bounty, and Your unceasing love. Please remind us, in these hard times, to be grateful for what we have been given, and not to ask for what we can not have. And make us mindful of those less fortunate among us, as we sit at this table with all of Thy bounty. Amen.

[last lines] Preacher: On the night before His crucifixion, Our Lord gathered with His disciples. He broke the bread, and blessed it, saying: “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took the cup and said: “Drink; this is my blood, which I shed for thee.” [the congregants pass the elements of communion between them]

Royce Spalding: Peace of God.

Wylie: Peace of God.

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