For a year or two in college I was obsessed with the film “The Interpreter.” It’s a great movie overall but there is one scene that I came back to over and over. Where the woman, who had been a radical activist in her native African country, explains why she left and began working for the UN.
“Everyone who loses somebody wants revenge, on God if they can’t find anyone else. But in Africa, in Matobo, the Ku believe that the only way to end grief is to save a life.
If someone is murdered, a year of mourning ends with a ritual that we call the Drowning Man Trial. There’s an all-night party beside a river. At dawn, the killer is put in a boat. He’s taken out on the water and he’s dropped. He’s bound so that he can’t swim. The family of the dead then has to choose.
They can let him drown, or they can save him. The Ku believe that if the family lets the killer drown, they’ll have justice but spend the rest of their lives in mourning. But if they save him, if they admit that life isn’t always just…That very act can take away their sorrow.
Vengeance is just a lazy form of grief.”
Around the same time I was fixated on this monologue, I watched “Man on Fire.” Cinematographically, it is an amazing movie. Beautiful filmed, and well-acted. For a violent film, it has a surprising amount of sensitivity to characterization, but I couldn’t enjoy it. Instead, it grieved me deeply.
If you have not seen it, “Man on Fire” tells the story of a former assassin, Creasy, who was hired to be the bodyguard of a little girl, Pita. Before meeting her, he drank himself to sleep most nights contemplating if God could ever forgive him. Considering suicide. He was cold and detached when he began protecting Pita. Her friendship and unconditional love give him new hope for redemption.
When Pita is kidnapped, and believed to be dead, his hope for redemption dies as well. He seeks vengeance. He tortures and kills every person remotely involved as he tracks her kidnappers. In the end, he discovers that the rumor of her death was a lie. He exchanges his life for hers, but by that time he is already a dead man.
The title of the film reminds me of the beginning of a Stars’ album, “When there is nothing left to burn, set yourself on fire.” Creasy does just this. As a result, Pita returns to a world of ash. Her father and bodyguard both gone, just when she must feel she needs them most.
It was ironic to me that what should have been such a triumphant moment, when Creasy discovered she is alive and exchanges his life for hers, is actually devastating. His vengeance seems utterly lazy and wasteful. The life that was the symbol of his redemption becomes the symbol of his condemnation.
Then and now, the ending reminds me of a line from Too Late the Phalarope (one of my favorite books), “An offender must be punished, I don’t argue that. But to punish and not to restore, that is the greatest of all offenses.” The first time I watch it, I felt this was both the sin of the filmmakers and of Creasy. Now, I wonder if that was the point: to show that vengeance turns the world to ash, allows us no option but to become ash ourselves.
Of course, most of us won’t live such an extreme experience as Creasy. But we can still cling to and build our lives around a hope and desire for vengeance. Even the rhetoric surrounding our death penalty is often more about vengeance than justice. Over and over again, I find myself coming back to the Drowning Man Trail. I definitely don’t think murders and, especially not, rapists should be wandering around free. Still, I wonder what it would look like if we lived in a culture and a world that believed that saving a life, accepting that life is not always just, can set us free from sorrow.