Worlds Apart [subtitled]

Worlds Apart

Given the subtitle factor and the length of Worlds Apart (just under two hours), I’m not going to say it had my rapt attention the whole way, but this is a good, solid, well-executed film. I cared about the story and the characters.

I appreciate the fact that it’s straightforward in style, where you pretty much always know who’s who and what’s going on, while yet containing plenty of moral depth and complexity. So often movies—including some that critics seem to like considerably more than I do—are precisely the reverse, where the story itself is intentionally obscure and ambiguous, if not incoherent, and I’m left expending all my brain cells trying to figure out what the heck just happened instead of reflecting on why any of it matters, if it does.

Worlds Apart is said to be based on a true story, though I have no idea how closely. (If it’s like most such films, not very.)

The movie opens with a Danish Jehovah’s Witness family being split apart when the father commits adultery. The three children are gathered together and told that—at the insistence of the mother; the father opposes this plan—they will decide which of their parents will remain in the house with them and which will have to move out. The kids decide that the mother will move out, because her refusal to forgive her repentant husband and save the marriage is a worse sin than his adultery.

I tend to agree. But I would also add that she deserves to lose precisely for forcing such a choice on her children in the first place. (I also couldn’t help but think what awesome leverage this gives the kids over their father. He’s going to know he “owes” them in some sense for forgiving him and picking him over their own mother.)

The oldest daughter, 17, falls for a 23 year old boy, who is decidedly not a Witness. There follows much internal conflict in them as individuals and as a couple, further conflict within the family that has already been traumatized by a marital breakup, and conflict with the church. And for that matter even conflict with the “in-laws”—the parents of the boy—who are frank atheists and make no secret what they think of the Witnesses.

I really like the portrayal of the Witnesses here. Yes, they come across as delusional folks who do some things that are stupid, unkind, harmful, and/or hypocritical, but only because they are. It’s a goofy religion, maybe even a little goofier than most, so the only way for it not to come across poorly would be if it were whitewashed for the film.

In other words, the fact that the Witnesses look bad isn’t a product of bias; if they somehow didn’t look bad, that’s what would indicate bias.

But the nice thing is, that’s not the whole picture. You also see that their devout religious beliefs can have plenty of upside, including their attempts to live up to ideals of non-materialism, forgiveness, and close, mutually-supportive families and communities. That they do things counter to these ideals doesn’t change the fact that at least they’re trying.

In some ways it’s these characters’ trying to live up to what they think is their religious duty that’s tearing this family apart, but it’s also the moral ideals that stem from their religion that makes it so painful to them to have it come apart, and that drives them to try to maintain what ties they can consistent with their faith.

And while the non-Witnesses, of course, substantively have the better of the arguments, they’re not presented as flawless in contrast to the Witnesses. They’re at times inconsiderate and judgmental, and they don’t have all the answers either.

I mentioned this in the piece I wrote recently on the movie Join Us, but despite my opposition to religious extremism, I’m not always comfortable with the kind of facile condemnations of it I sometimes see. Some religious beliefs and practices are insane, but that can’t be determined solely by their being unpopular, or their running counter to certain beliefs and values of mainstream society, or their requiring acts that are contrary to an agent’s narrow self-interest.

One of the characters in the movie dies after refusing a blood transfusion on religious grounds. I think most people would say they have no problem at all with the Witnesses believing whatever they believe about God and religion, but that it’s wrong to let those beliefs cost a human life that could have been saved.

I’d say just the opposite. I think what’s delusional is the very fact that they think they have some non-rational access to supernatural communication—or whatever faith is—that warrants not only believing, but believing with certainty, that there’s a big man in the sky who has ordered them to not have blood transfusions.

The other part of it—the fact that they’re willing to sacrifice their life when they believe they are obligated to—I actually admire. Being willing to make a moral choice when it will cause you to suffer and even die means recognizing that your own self-interest is not the be-all and end-all, and having the strength to act on that realization is an awesome thing, not something I’m going to look down on a person for.

The other “fanatical” thing that stands out to me is the vivid portrayal of the effects of excommunication. People who are drummed out of the church always have the option of repenting and coming back, but until they do, no one in the church is allowed contact with them. Friends and even their own family who encounter them in the street must walk past them and treat them at all times as if they were invisible, as if they did not exist.

The closest I know of to this phenomenon is from reading Gandhi, where it is called “social boycott.” This is the notion that one of the ways to nonviolently oppose wrongdoing is to avoid participating in it indirectly through one’s ties to the wrongdoers. It’s a form of non-cooperation with evil.

On one level this appeals to me, because it has long bothered me that people “reward” wrongdoing by providing wrongdoers with their cooperation.

For example, imagine a guy who has a macho violent streak and/or engages in rapacious business practices to accumulate material wealth, and in general displays all the “alpha male” type behavior of egoism and trampling on the rights of others. Then imagine that when women see him doing that, that actually makes them less desirous of having sex with him. (I know, it’s a stretch, but just play along.) And imagine people in general don’t want to hang out with him and hero worship him, don’t want to do business with him, basically don’t want anything to do with him. How long do you think it would take for such horrible behavior to die out?

I’d say virtually no time at all. And that’s without opposing people like that with bullets or fists or lies or any of the usual tactics people use against things they oppose. Just a withdrawal of social approval.

But I’m ambivalent about this tactic to some degree as well. Gandhi saw it as being one of the trickiest of nonviolent weapons. He felt it was very rarely appropriate because it was so hard to use in a pure way, in a way that didn’t manifest ill will toward the person or people under social boycott. So he was very selective about ever advocating this one.

Indeed, the version the Witnesses use in this movie I have to think would cross the line for Gandhi into a subtle form of violence. The film does a nice job of conveying the cruelty, the coldness, of treating people as nonexistent because they are living their life in a way you disapprove of. I don’t think it’s impossible that that, or something like it, can come from a motive of love and adherence to truth, but it’s a delicate balance and I don’t think this version achieves that balance.

And that’s even without getting to the substantive point that a lot of what they’re shunning as sinful isn’t. It isn’t just that the way they oppose things can cross the line from nonviolence to non-physical violence and hurtfulness, but that some of what they oppose doesn’t warrant opposition. A lot of it’s sex (the bugbear of most religions), and in one case it’s “He read a bad book.”

The acting and the dialogue in Worlds Apart are for the most part spot on. There’s very little of it that feels like the realism has been compromised to do what works commercially or what would appeal to moviegoers’ expectations. It’s not a test-marketed sort of film. I’m sure you can pick out things here and there that slightly go against this—maybe there are elements to the main couple’s relationship that are a little closer to idealized romance than to the erratic and unreliable ways young people, especially seventeen year old girls, act in real life—but mostly these people felt very real to me, the emotions they manifested felt very real.

The female lead especially is just right for the part. She has an attractiveness, a kindheartedness, an intelligence, an ability to think for herself, and a rudimentary sexuality to her only to the degree that one can imagine someone being raised like that having. She isn’t like a movie star playing someone of that background; she’s like a real person of that background with a limited, unpredictable ability to rise above it.

A moderate thumbs up for Worlds Apart.

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