þe him ær in breostum bereð bēacna sēlest.
[No need, then, for anyone to be afraid
Who already on his breast bears that best of signs.]
–The Dream of the Rood
Recently I watched Silver Linings Playbook, the acclaimed romance-comedy-drama from last year which netted a Best Actress Oscar for Jennifer Lawrence. The film justly has been praised for its daring and yet successful balance between comedy and drama as it navigates the serious themes of domestic violence, adultery, gambling and mental illness. The central character, Pat, is recovering from a violent outburst triggered by the discovery of his wife’s infidelity and exacerbated by his previously-undiagnosed bipolar condition. In the midst of picking the pieces of his life back up, he begins a friendship with a young widow, Tiffany, who also has fragile mental health. Together, they learn how to confront their demons and relearn that the joys of life consist in more than just silver linings on an otherwise bleak existence.
On the surface, Silver Linings Playbook presents human problems and human solutions without any explicit reference to spiritual integration or the need for God in coming to grips with human fragility. Along these lines, I found the film’s resolution morally problematic on a couple of levels. Nonetheless, there is a compelling spiritual undercurrent to the story that I thought was insightful. Two prominent Christian symbols in particular provided a neat focus for the spiritual aspect of the film.
The first is the conspicuous cross that Tiffany wears on her necklace during her first few scenes. As her character is introduced, we learn that her husband was killed in a car accident and that in the wake of his death she embarked on a series of inappropriate sexual encounters with multiple colleagues. Because of the latter, she has been fired from her job. To cap it off, she suffers from unspecified neuroses that prompt her to blurt out what she is thinking without the verbal filters that normal social conventions require.
Attaching the cross to Tiffany’s character may be appropriate simply because of the suffering she has endured, but its significance runs deeper. Through her experiences of sin and suffering she has come to realise her own fragility and, more importantly, her need for forgiveness. Pat at first believes (to some comic effect) that she is in much worse psychological shape than he is. At one point when he is still in this state of superiority, he calls her an insulting name. She retorts in her typically raw fashion:
I was a big slut, but I'm not any more. There's always gonna be a part of me that's sloppy and dirty, but I like that, with all the other parts of myself. Can you say the same about yourself, f----r? Can you forgive? Are you any good at that?Pat is struck by her words, but as with any deep challenge, it takes time for the message to sink in. In fact, in the very next scene he tells his therapist that he hates himself and wishes he could “control” his illness. He remains centred on himself, and, at the same time, is unable to accept his own weakness. Significantly, Pat also wears a cross, but his is much smaller than Tiffany’s and barely noticeable—it was small enough that I had to pause the video and squint to see what it was! This contrast in sizes is a clever visual reminder that Pat’s understanding of forgiveness is less developed than Tiffany’s.
|The cross: you can see it if you're paying attention.|
The motive for this directorial choice is, I believe, to signify that Pat is being called to undergo a Christ-like role in the scheme that the family has cooked up. He is reluctant to go along with the plan, but soon realises that he has to swallow his pride and do something that goes beyond merely his own interests. In the end, not only does he participate in the scheme, but he takes control of it: not control in the sense of having complete power over himself, as he desired in the earlier scene, but control in the sense that he becomes a support for others. In particular, though his presence and actions, he is able to affirm both Tiffany and his own father. From the midst of his own weakness he finds the strength to heal those around him.
We sometimes complain that Christianity has been marginalised in our culture, but often that might be because we are not good at “reading the signs”, to use a key phrase that turns up several times in the film. Such words are reminiscent of one of the teachings of Vatican II: “The Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.” (Gaudium et Spes, §4). “Scrutinizing” the signs and symbols in films like Silver Linings Playbook shows that even if we live in a time that is nominally less Christian than in the past, Gospel values continue to under-gird our culture in surprising and unexpected ways. The cross still has power to bring forgiveness; the face of Christ still accompanies us in our weakness.