Pearl of Great Price

A Review of the Movie Pearl Diver

I was early for the movie. Recently I had joined this Spirituality and Film course. Tonight's movie, Pearl Diver, was about estranged Mennonite sisters. As I waited for the doors to open, I reflected on the irony of how Mennonites champion reconciliation but also struggle with conflict within their congregations. Perhaps, as Miroslav Volf maintains in Free of Change: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, forgiveness and reconciliation are related but distinct attitudes. I wondered how the movie would explore this.

Pearl Diver, by Sydney King, tells the story of two sisters born into a contemporary Old Mennonite family in Goshen, Indiana. Their lives are irrevocably changed by the murder of their mother when they are young. Hannah decides to break with her past and goes to live in Chicago as a writer. Marion remains on the family farm, impeccably modeling the values of her tradition. Years later, when a tragic accident reunites them, they are confronted with the past they are both avoiding. Pearl Diver highlights how easily families and communities skirt around wounds of the heart, and how those who love you most often hurt you most deeply.

The characters of Hannah and Marion are well matched.Marion embodies both the moral integrity and the impatient judgementalism of those who attempt to adopt a purity code.Hannah is more informed by secular culture's tolerance, but she's had to compromise her values in order to live her dream. She struggles with the ambiguity of personal achievement. The accident that reunites them also plunges each into a foreign world: Hannah into the communal piety of her past, Marion into the suspect culture of lawsuits. Reunited, they dance around each other's guilt and shame and embody the classic filial tension: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau.

But it's the Prodigal Son story that this film most clearly evokes. In that story two estranged brothers have difficulty reconciling, even when the prodigal repents and the father forgives. This parable is dynamic because both the younger son and elder brother are ambiguous characters. The father invites them both to share in his love, but they each have to find their own way in. The younger son starts to awaken to how things really are and is in the process of returning. But the story ends just as the older brother is confronted with his sin of pride.We don't know how it will continue; will he too awaken to his own dependence on the father?

When seen through this dynamic, Pearl Diver comes into focus.Hannah and Marion were inseparable when young.This is crystallized by the summer day when Marion repeatedly dives into the river to retrieve her younger sister's lost pen-knife. Like Japanese pearl divers, she dives until her nose bleeds.What tore them apart wasn't the tragedy of violent death but Marion's pride that she couldn't live up to her own ideals. As a child, her favourite bedtime story was how martyr Dirk Willms jeopardized his own escape by rescuing his jailor. Dirk saved the drowning man by reaching out a plank to him, and was then promptly recaptured and later martyred.When 8-year-old Marion was watching her mother's murderer sinking in a mud hole, she couldn't make herself reach out the piece of timber that would have saved him. She watched him disappear, and her life since then has been a desperate compensation.She withdrew herself from communion with her sister out of guilt. Her silence caused the wrong man to go to jail.

Hannah doesn't know what happened at the mud hole, and grows up feeling she is somehow to blame for the broken fellowship. She tries to find fulfillment in achieving her dreams as a writer, but success is strangely empty. When she returns to help care for her injured young niece, she is always trying to make overtures to Marion, trying to get back to the Eden of their relationship.In desperation, she is driven to write what her agent later calls her best work, a historical fiction about their mother's murder.Hannah thinks this work might help pay for her niece's medical treatment. Marion can't face her own ambiguity so instead berates her sister's secularity, accusing her of self-aggrandizement at the expense of the family. The movie ends with Hannah throwing her novel into the river as a gesture of loyalty, in order not to expose Marion's cowardice.

On the surface it appears the sisters are estranged by lifestyle. Hannah took her 'inheritance' and left the community. Marion remained dutifully at home.But the truth is they are separated by deceit. Marion's failure causes her to feel that she is a moral fraud, although she can't openly admit this to herself. Instead she tries harder. But it isn't her lapse of compassion but her expectation that she could be better, her pride, that keeps her bound. Hannah doesn't know the past and so feels guilty at the estranged relationship. They are both caught in a pattern from which neither can break free. Hannah trusts in her creativity, and Marion in her efforts, but neither trusts that God is accompanying them. Like both brothers in the Prodigal Son parable, neither sister is moral. And like the parable, it is gracious love that is needed for restoration.

But what is this grace? How is it reflected in the movie? I think Pearl Diver suggests that Hannah's willingness to dive into the depth of the past is what restores the relationship. But her throwing the novel away actually keeps Marion in bondage to her pride, and at the expense of an innocent man in jail. Their exchange preserves the family, but is this really what the gospel means when it says "the truth shall set you free?" Could Hannah have encouraged her sister to depend on her faith and not her pride, and in so doing become free from the past? That might have been a more satisfying reason to throw away her novel.

This isn't so much a story about family or integrity as about spiritual reconciliation. What does it take to heal estrangement? Miroslav Volf maintains that forgiveness can be assumed, but reconciliation must be received. When forgiveness is truly offered, there is an implicit blame. The truth must be told and heard. What if one party is unable or unwilling to do so, as in Marian's case? Do we just throw away the truth? The allusion earlier to church conflict isn't of course limited to Mennonites. The Anglican church has experienced bitter discord over the issue of gay ordination. Outside of religion, South Africa and Rwanda are examples of the attempt to marry truth and reconciliation. And many families are fractured into tense truces by this same issue. In all of these examples, accused and accuser face each other, desiring justice and restored relationship. But unless the truth is spoken, forgiveness will remain facile, nurturing resentment. Reconciliation can only begin if confession is freely given, and freely accepted.

Volf explores at root all our conflicts grow out of our estrangement from God and therefore from our true selves as being in relationship to God. And while God freely forgives us, it isn't cheap grace. We must accept that we are sinners, and specific sinners against specific people and places. However, an honest accounting isn't meant to humiliate. The intention is to realize that, as in the Prodigal Son story, we are dependent on God for all of our life, whether we are prodigal or elder brother. When we finally understand the gracious gift of life, of forgiveness, of empowerment to participate in God's purposes in the world, we are less afraid to name our sins, and more willing to forgive those who 'trespass against us'.

But the question remains, what do we do when we are willing to forgive but the other person hasn't come clean? When we are willing to admit our wrongs, but the other doesn't give you the opportunity? This was the dilemma facing Hannah. She chose to resolve it by throwing away her book. Perhaps out of compassion she didn't push the question of truth, but the cost was the relationship would never be restored until this truth was spoken. Perhaps all we can do in times like these is wait for God, and endure the estrangement. That is, after all, how God waits with long-suffering for us, waiting for us to come to our senses in the pigsty. Perhaps that is why he died for us while we were yet sinners. Perhaps when we break bread with each other, we anticipate that day of reconciliation. Meanwhile, like the Prodigal Son parable, the story isn't finished yet.

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