“But the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still small voice.”
(I Kings, c. 19, v. 11)
The American clergyman James H. Aughey (1828-1911) said that, “conscience is the voice of God in the soul” of man. After all, it is the still, small voice of conscience that lets us discern right from wrong in our conduct, intentions, and character and prompts us to do what is right. Conscience is at the very heart of who we are as moral beings, just as our failure to heed that inner voice is intimately connected with the notion of sin. If something within our essence urges us to do good, why is it that we so often do ill? Selfishness, fear, desire, and the quest for power can deflect our moral course. When they do, and we ignore the inner promptings of our conscience, we harm ourselves and others.
Questions of conscience, of how good people go wrong and do bad things, were a recurring theme at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Consider The Brave One, in which the survivor of a brutal assault is transformed into a vigilante. For most of us, violence never directly touches our lives. It may be all around us in the world, but we rarely (if ever) find it confronting us up close and personal. When we do, the effects can be as profound as they are traumatic. For the film’s central figure (played by Jodie Foster), violence shatters her normal, contented, and safe existence. The self-confident sense of security she took for granted is gone, replaced first by fear, and then by simmering fury. She takes to stalking those who prey on others, repaying them in kind for the violence they perpetrate against their victims. It empowers her; and the film makes her lethal acts of retribution more palatable – for her (and for the viewer) – by presenting them as acts of self-defence. But that does not obviate the toll they take on her conscience. In taking the lives of others, isn’t she becoming more like them – dehumanized and at war with her own innate sense of what is right?
[pullquote]Similar questions arise in Rendition, which gives us a case-study of the insidious (and illegal) practice of secreting detainees away to third countries (usually in the Third World) for interrogation under torture. Here, an American of Arab origin is abducted by agents of his own country, shackled, hooded, and flown to a secret location abroad – all on the strength of the flimsiest of circumstantial suspicions. What will the novice CIA office-worker (Jake Gyllenhaal) charged with observing the ensuing abuse do? “It’s my first torture,” he comments ironically. Will he remain detached and follow orders? Or, will he listen to his troubled conscience, take responsibility, and intervene – even at risk to himself?
There are choices to be made in Reservation Road, too, in the aftermath of stark tragedy. The lives of two middle-class Connecticut families collide one night – both figuratively and literally – when an automobile accident takes the life of the child. The driver responsible (Mark Ruffalo) flees out of fear, while the dead child’s father (Joaquin Phoenix) is consumed by rage. Each of them is on a self-destructive course – one is tormented by guilt, the other is increasingly obsessed by his thirst for revenge. There is room to feel sympathy for each of these men. But both of them are spiraling downwards; their only hope for redemption lies in overcoming their fear and anger. That means listening to their consciences and embracing responsibility and forgiveness in turn.
Taking responsibility and forgiving others (and ourselves) is also a central theme of In Bloom from director Vadim Perelman, whose 2003 feature film debut, House of Sand and Fog, was an absolute stunner of a modern morality play. The story of his new film, based on Laura Kasischke’s novel The Life Before Her Eyes, concerns two high school girlfriends. One (played by Evan Rachel Wood) is a wild thing; the other (played by Eva Amurri) is the proverbial good girl. They are as different as can be, but they are fast friends and each of them is a better person for that friendship. But only one of them is destined to survive a Columbine-style shooting rampage at their school. The survivor (played by Uma Thurman) is wracked by guilt in adulthood. What exactly happened on that fateful day? Confronted by the gunman and his cruel demand that they decide which one would die and which would live, what choice did each of these friends make? The answer to the question, and its far-reaching consequences for the survivor, are the mystery at the heart of this intriguing exploration of morality and memory.
Happily, few of us will encounter armed killers, but all of us encounter things like selfishness, anger, and fear in our daily lives. If we respond as Christians, as moral beings, we will listen in those daily encounters to our conscience, to what H.L. Mencken called “the inner voice which warns us that someone may be looking.”
John Arkelian is a writer, film critic, and editor-in-chief of Artsforum Magazine.
Copyright © 2007 by John Arkelian.