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Films of Atonement

As an atheist raised in culturally Christian milieu who lives with a non-practicing Jew, I’m in no position to discourse on Jewish notion of atonement as practiced on Yom Kippur. But in my understanding, the holiday has to do with … Read More

By / September 18, 2007

As an atheist raised in culturally Christian milieu who lives with a non-practicing Jew, I’m in no position to discourse on Jewish notion of atonement as practiced on Yom Kippur. But in my understanding, the holiday has to do with self-reflection, introspection and an attempt at restitution of past wrongs. I find this model of atonement appealing in its focus on the human as well as the divine: We wrong God when we wrong other people, and we can only make things right by addressing that earthly harm. There are so many great movies built around the timeless theme of sin and repentance. Here are a few that stand out for me:

Pickpocket, Robert Bresson, France, 1959. Michel (Martin La Salle), an arrogant young thief just released from prison, trains under a legendary pickpocket after his mother dies. His young neighbor Jeanne (Marika Green) tries to save him from a life of petty crime, but he rebuffs her affections and flees to London to avoid arrest. The famous final scene, in which Jeanne visits a humbled Michel in prison, is one of the most radiantly transformative endings in movie history.


The Child, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium, 2005. All of the Dardenne brothers’ films deal, in one way or another, with betrayal and forgiveness, but L’Enfant is perhaps their rawest parable about the harm human beings inflict on each other. A shiftless, desperately poor young man, Bruno (Jérémie Renier) sells his newborn baby on the black market. When he informs the baby’s mother (Déborah François), she faints dead away—then stands up to inform him in no uncertain terms that he’s getting that baby back, or else. How far Bruno will go to find the child – and whether, even if he does, he will ever understand the moral consequences of his act – are the questions at the heart of this wrenching and rigorously unsentimental film.


The Straight Story, David Lynch, US, 1999. An old man (Richard Farnsworth) travels 300 miles on a tractor to visit the sick brother he hasn’t spoken to in 10 years. Quiet, lyrical and revelatory, this is a David Lynch movie for people who don’t like David Lynch (or have never heard of him.) It’ll also send you straight to the phone to call up everyone you thought you never wanted to speak to again.

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