FOUR STARS - Powerful
DEAD MAN WALKING is not an easy film to watch since the scenes of the murders are persistentlypresented as a backdrop to the ministry of SisterHelen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), but it is a film which does not trivialize the horror of murder, the complexity of criminal justice, or the overpowering healing of Christ’s redeeming love.
When someone takes the life of another human being, the power of death invades their soul.
Infested with a numbing guilt and an unrelenting denial, the murderer is in need of a love which can restore his life.
Director Tim Robbins tackles the complexities of such a redemption by exploring the spiritual and emotional damage a brutal murder can cause.
The genius of his film is in his depth of exploring the humanity of each person affected by the crime, and the healing that each receives when affirmed with the love of God.
DEAD MAN WALKING is the autobiography of SisterPrejean a Roman Catholic nun in Louisiana who brings the love of God to a man on death row, as well as to the families whose children he murdered.
The prisoner, Matt Pontele (Sean Penn] is the central figure of Sister Prejean’s care.
Using a montage of images to balance our developing empathy for the convict with the brutality of the murders, the film does not become a simplistic political statement about the death penalty. In scenes in which we begin to feel sympathy for the scared and damaged man who is about to die, we then see flashbacks of the brutal inhumanity of his actions toward the young man and woman.
Both realities describe his soul, and both are in need of the healing love of God. That love comes in the form of a sensitive and humble nun.
Though Matt’s honest confession of his innocence or guilt is a central focus of his spiritual struggle, the film demonstrates both the difficulty and the importance of spiritual care.
Sister Prejean’s ability to restore Matt’s life comes from both her own surrender to God making her willing to do whatever He asks, and her conviction of God’s love for every human being. This surrender and conviction empowers her to love even those who are difficult to love.
For instance, when Matt proclaims his belief in white supremacy and his racial prejudice towardblack persons, Sister Prejean is repulsed, but she does not turn away.
Often this is the beginning of ministry. We are seldom asked to minister God’s love to those who are easy to love, but rather, we are most often asked to love a person in the midst of their sin and accept them as a person valuable both to God and to us.
As Sister Prejean explains, she comes to be with Matt because she is simply trying to do what Jesus did. His love is not based on the merits of the person, nor is it withdrawn because of a heinous act, Jesus’ love is available to all who will receive it.
But it is hard for Matt to receive anyone’s love. Hiding behind his walls and lies, it is Sister Prejean's simple love which enables him to confess the truth and come out of hiding to receive God’s love through her.
Though this ministry to Matt is the central drama, two correlating ministries occur as Sister Prejean attempts to reach out in love to the families of both victims.
Painfully real, the parents want nothing to do with a nun who would reach out and love the murderer of their children. They too are like “dead men walking” as they continue to reel directionless from the grief and pain of the evil done to their children.
Demonstrating the truth that a Christian is not on the side of murderer or victim, Sister Prejean steps into their homes with equal love.
Just as with Matt, she offers the simple gift of God’s love and care, finding her ministry to be both rejected and accepted, hated and desired.
The complexity of sin is that its ripples disrupt the lives of all effected by the act. The murder broke into these parent’s lives without warning. The loss created places of the soul in which revenge, hatred, judgment and unforgivness could take root. Their innocence is now the banner behind which an equally evil dehumanizing of Matt now lives.
Without disclosing the concluding images of the film, the presence of Sister Prejean in the lives of the prison guards, families and Matt himself gives a powerful image of the effectiveness of the love of Jesus Christ working through a willing person’s life.