Monday, March 30, 2020

The Painted Veil - God brings good out of an epidemic

Beautifully filmed, skillfully acted, and powerfully meaningful in many ways...this is an overlooked gem of a movie that I highly recommend, especially in light of the current coronavirus crisis. Because of that crisis parts of the movie will not be pleasant to watch, and it may be undesirable altogether for some, but if you can brave the horrors of a deadly epidemic on screen for a couple hours, you will be rewarded with some great and hopeful examples of how good can and does come from such unfortunate circumstances.

I suggest that you watch the movie first and then come back to read my spoiler review below, but before you do let me say something about its content, especially related to children. Fortunately I was able to record it to a DVD several years ago when I had that capability, so I was able to make an edited version with the unnecessary sex and nudity cut out of it, and that's what I showed to my nine and eleven year-old daughters. I'm glad I could do that, because it provoked a lot of good discussion and taught them some important lessons about the nature of true love (as opposed to lust and infatuation), repentance and forgiveness, priorities in life, the path to happiness, self-sacrifice, how God can bring good out of tragedy and suffering (as I mentioned), and other issues. It's unlikely that you will be able to watch an edited version (the one company I know who sells them doesn't offer this movie), so I will tell you where the scenes are in case you want to watch it with children and fast forward those parts. The first one is not long after Kitty and Charlie talk at the theater and when you see their shoes on the floor--it lasts about 40 seconds. The second one occurs late in the movie after Walter and Kitty are drinking at the British man's house and return home--it lasts a little over two minutes. You can simply tell your kids what happens in those scenes, like I did--they don't have to witness it in order to know the significance of what's going on.

For most adults, I don't think what is depicted will be a problem, unless brief views of a women's slip or men's naked behinds are a temptation for you. So watch the movie, thinking about the issues that I just mentioned, and then come back here for some spoiler thoughts from me about it, because I have some interesting insights that you might not catch upon first viewing it--at least my wife and daughters didn't see them until I pointed them out.

The first and most important insight is about the spiritual and religious subtext in the movie. I say "subtext" because on the surface there is very little religion--in fact, Kitty tells the head nun at the orphanage that she doesn't believe much of anything and Walter says of the nuns, "They didn't convert you, did they?" But even those scenes, which seem initially to dismiss religious faith, contain subtle elements that affirm it. Walter's face expresses disappointment when Kitty says no to the question of being converted, for example--I think he was hoping against hope that something like that would happen to her, because after all revenge was not his only reason to bring her with him to a cholera zone. He clearly harbored hope that she would change and there would be a chance for them to love again; otherwise he would have simply divorced her as he had every right to do.

Other examples of subtle spiritual content can be found in the final lines of each main character. Walter's last words are a plea for forgiveness from Kitty, which implies that he had been seeking forgiveness first from God as he lay dying. Only by recognizing his sins of pride and bitterness before the Lord could he have seen his need for forgiveness from her. And one of Kitty's final lines in the movie is to affirm (contrary to one of her earliest lines, well before her repentance) that the beauty and fragrance of flowers is still worth it even though they live such short lives. Though I don't think the filmmakers meant this to happen, that line made me think of what Jesus said in John 12:25: "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." 

The second half of that verse is definitely illustrated well in both Walter's sacrifice on behalf of the Chinese people and Kitty's experiences in the orphanage and at Walter's deathbed: "Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." They both learn that true "quality of life" lies in giving up your own desires and pleasures for the good of others, and I like to think that they also learned to do so for the glory of God. Like the filmmakers, the author of the source novel (W. Somerset Maugham) was not a Christian, but he lived in a largely Christian culture and unquestionably traded off on Christian themes. Therefore what is depicted about these characters fits well with the Christian doctrines of Divine love (agape), Fatherly discipline, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption. It is no crime against the art or artist to view the events of the film through those lenses, and it can be a wonderful blessing to do so.