For this short reflection on the power of film images to convey meaningful theological messages, we will use as our primary example a film that has often passed by general notice—“Tender Mercies” [1983, screenplay by Horton Foote, directed by Bruce Beresford, starring Robert Duvall, supported by Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Ellen Barkin, Wilford Brimley, and Lenny von Dohlen]. The film did garner recognition from the film community, winning two Academy Awards, one for Best Actor for Robert Duvall, and one for Best Original Screenplay. Despite the fact that the general public is not familiar with this title, individuals working in the area of “Faith and Film” have used it as a prime example of the successful exploration of theological themes on the big screen. For example, Sr. Rose Pacatte, has included it in her three volume work that links contemporary film to the three year cycle of liturgical readings, “Lights, Camera, Action”. Then there is the work by Roy Anker, “Catching Light,” that focuses on a more select series of 13 films with a substantial chapter on each. Somewhat unusual among American films, “Tender Mercies” does not condescend the simple faith of a Texas Baptist woman.
This is a great film to use as an introduction to film study because of its tightly focused structure. The Hollywood distractions and clutter have all been eliminated. What remains is an austere, spare, and unrelenting examination of dissolution and recreation/ death and resurrection. Every small detail, from the signage for the small motel run by the young widow and her small son—to the condition of the barren fields engulfing the three main characters is meant to reinforce the theme of the transformation of spirit.
The name of the motel (announced by a bright red sign) is the Mariposa Motel. There are several times when the film director does a full frame close-up shot of this sign—with no supporting dialogue or comment from the film’s cast. The sign is an embedded message that the viewer is meant to unlock. With this in mind, when the word “mariposa” is translated into English, the director’s intent becomes clearer. Mariposa is the butterfly that has emerged from the apparent death and darkness of the “cocoon” into the realm of freedom of movement in the light–thus referencing a significant Christian symbol of transformation.
A second way that the visuals reinforce this theme of coming to fruition is in the twin “garden scenes” that are part of both the opening and closing sequences of the film. The spring garden denotes the fragile planting of a new lifestyle, whereas the fall garden bespeaks a coming to ripeness, a harvest of the spirit. Interestingly, the whole film was shot in four weeks in November. Both the spring and late summer time frames were created by movie magic (before the use of CG design) and the time span was meant to indicate and underline the process of the spiritual growth of the gardeners. This is one film where the extra features such as the conversation with the film director lead to a much more intricate vision than what appears to be a very simple storyline.
Enjoy the adventure of the Mariposa.
MaryAnn Sheridan teaches world religions for Saint Joseph’s College Online.