ONE STAR - Empty
There is nothing sweet about the death of a child. The bitterness which comes from our shock and anger flavors our entire lives. When the loss is 20 children from the same small town we choke not only on the anguish but also on the immensity of the grief.
Difficult to watch and clearly misnamed, “The Sweet Hereafter” is a story of a small Canadian community in which a school bus accident takes the lives of their children.
In the hour of their grief, an equally grieving and troubled lawyer comes to town to give “a voice to their anger.” His personal pain comes from the slow death of his own daughter from drug addiction.
Portraying a pathos which only deep sorrow can produce, Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) has come to the village as much to express the rage of his own grief as to give expression to theirs.
Using the cold, barren, snowy landscape as a backdrop to his tale, Director Atom Egoyan shows his ability not only to allow us to empathize with his characters, but also to participate in their hopelessness.
Though powerfully presented, this lack of hope is the major deficit of the film. Although it is possible for there to be a town in which no one has hope or faith, it is unlikely and makes this a difficult and unpleasant film to view.
In real life, the community of Paducah, Kentucky experienced a similar pain of losing their children due not to an accident, but to the evil of human behavior. Michael Carneal, a 14 year-old student, shot and killed three students, paralyzed a fourth and wounded four others.
Having just completed a prayer meeting in the halls of their school, these students were lost in a senseless tragedy not unlike that of the film.
But rather than entering into a hopeless state of angry pain, the aftermath of this real-life tragedy has been resplendent with redeeming acts of love.
The community has surrounded both murderer and grieving families with loving care and acts of faith which have not only salved the anger and brought the community to forgiveness and new levels of commitment to one another, but also has transformed the tragedy into a symbol of care.
This is more typically the experience of human beings. We care for one another and express the hope of our faith at times of deep tragedy, and so we are lifted from our anger into higher places of the soul.
There is no such message of hope in this film. Rather than community support surrounding the grieving families, there is only an anguished lawyer opportunistically fanning the flames of their rage.
Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley) is a 13 year-old victim in a variety of ways. The paralyzed survivor of the crash, she is a key witness of the event and central to the lawyer’s successful vendetta. But Nicole is also the sexually molested child of a duplistic father who wants to use the tragedy to become rich.
Through Nicole’s eyes, Director Egoyan masterfully weaves the poem of the “Pied Piper” by Browning. Paralleling the anguish of a town in which the Piper takes away their children as punishment for their lack of payment in ridding the town of rats, the reversed symbolism is obvious. Nicole is ridding the town of her rats as she lies to undermine the legal case and simultaneously ends her father’s molestation by removing the fantasy he used of making her a rock star.
Though perhaps Director Egoyan may have intended to create a “realistic” film by exploring the bitterness rather than the sweetness of the events after a tragedy, his view is not true to our experience, or to the experiences of other people of faith.
Death, regardless its many causes, often provides situations in which friends and communities display a caring hope and faith that truly creates a “sweet” hereafter.
A film truer to the spiritual transcendence of tragedy would have been a far greater work and provided a hope for all who suffer.
Life is full of tragedy, but that is not the whole of life. Faith and love bring us together into a truly “sweet hereafter” based on God’s love for us and our love for one another.
This common-unity around the love of God and others creates a community of life painfully missing from this film.