Who are we when the rubber hits the road? Trials and adversity are what strip back our illusions and pretensions, and reveal what’s really in our hearts. All of us aspire to be people who would hold on to our faith and hope even in the darkest circumstances.
All storytelling needs adversity. Conflict drives drama, which is why cinemas are full of stories about characters whose convictions are put to the test. Our cinematic heroes are people who struggle under the weight of what the world throws at them, but ultimately triumph.
One classic example of this kind of story is The Shawshank Redemption (1994), a film cited by many people as their favourite of all time. There’s a reason for this enduring popularity. The story of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), the innocent man who is shut in Shawshank Prison for nineteen years before making his ingenious escape, strikes a chord in all of us. It echoes the biblical narrative of suffering and redemption, positioning Andy as a Christ-like figure who ‘comes out clean’ in his very own resurrection outside Shawshank’s walls.
Tom Hanks endures similar trials in Cast Away (2000) as Chuck, a FedEx employee who is stranded alone on a desert island for four years. The film follows his struggle not only to survive physically, but to hold on to his humanity. He even draws a face on a basketball, gives it a name, and treats it as a friend and confidante. Creativity and humour, it seems, are survival skills too.
In 2013’s Gravity, Sandra Bullock plays astronaut Ryan Stone, who finds herself stuck somewhere even more isolated than a desert island: outer space. Though the problems she must solve to make it home are highly practical ones, matters of engineering and physics, we understand that the real stakes run much deeper. After a tragedy back on earth, Ryan needs to believe that she still has a reason to live. ‘I’ve never prayed before,’ she admits during one terrifying moment – but her ordeal leads to an emotional and spiritual rebirth. The film reminds us that adversity can be a gateway to a fuller life: or as the Bible puts it, ‘suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope’ (Romans 5:3–4).
‘I don’t know how I’m going to live with myself if I don’t stay true to what I believe.’ - Hacksaw Ridge
This winter saw the release of two films which dealt powerfully and movingly with the issue of faith in adversity. War drama Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), an American Seventh-Day Adventist and pacifist who refuses to pick up a weapon, even after enlisting to serve on the front line. After enduring bullying and a legal challenge during his military training, he is finally given permission to serve as a medic. But this persecution at the hands of his fellow soldiers will be nothing compared to the horror awaiting at the Battle of Okinawa.
Hacksaw Ridge is an extraordinary film, at once hard to watch and hard to look away from. Desmond Doss emerges as an unassuming hero, a man whose Christian faith leads him to quite literally walk into hell for the sake of others. His story stands as a profound challenge to all of us, raising the question not only of whether we’ll stand up for our faith when it comes under fire, but whether we’re truly prepared to live out Jesus’s example of sacrificial love.
Andrew Garfield also stars in Silence, the historical epic from director Martin Scorsese. This film offers a complex, troubling and ultimately revealing look at faith in adversity. Garfield plays Father Rodrigues, a young Jesuit priest who travels to Japan to search for his mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a man rumoured to have recanted his faith under torture. Based on the award-winning novel of the same name, Silence upturns our expectation of what the ‘triumph’ of faith might look like. ‘Rodrigues believes that he will be the hero of a story that we all know very well: he will be the Christ figure,’ says Scorsese. ‘But he learns that God’s love is more mysterious than he knows and that God is always present, even in his silence.’
Film club: Questions to ask
■ Which films about characters struggling through adversity do you find most moving or inspiring? Why is this?
■ Are there any films which you personally turn to for comfort during times of adversity in your life? How does their message help you?
■ The Hollywood idea of the ‘triumph of the human spirit’ runs through many films. Do you think this idea fits in with biblical thinking about overcoming adversity? Why, or why not?
This article comes from Damaris Media, who create free film resources for churches and community groups. Download exclusive videos, discussion guides and more at damarismedia.com. If you want to get in touch and let us know how you’re using our resources, or to tell us what kind of resources would be helpful to you, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Keep up to date on the latest Damaris Media resources by subscribing to our e-newsletter at damarismedia.com/signup. Free, official resources for Silence can be found at silence.damarismedia.com