Although its release has been strangely muted in the US to date (perhaps due to the already-overcrowded holiday movie schedule), Juan Antonio Bayona’s film The Impossible has awed audiences in Europe (becoming the second-highest-grossing film of all time in its native Spain) and established itself as one of the finest films of 2012, if not the last decade. The true story of the Alvarez-Belón family’s harrowing tale of survival in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, The Impossible is one of those movies that leaves you dazed and emotionally eviscerated as you walk out of the cinema in silence, and then keeps on haunting you in the days that follow. I’d heard going in that the film was a tear-jerker, but I was not prepared for the extraordinary emotional intensity, which had you choked up by 15 minutes in (if not sooner) and didn’t let that feeling subside until the end credits rolled. Nor did it evoke tears in just one emotional key, whether of grief or sentimentality; rather, it pulled its viewers, along with the characters in it, through the full range of human feeling: horror, hope, fear, anger, grief, gratitude, love, loneliness, and joy.
This is perhaps the greater feat because the audience, of course, already knows what is going to happen—you know when the tsunami is going to hit, you know it’s going to be bad; you know (if you’ve read any reviews whatsoever; so I wouldn’t consider this a spoiler) that this family of five will be separated from one another and in the end be reunited. But once the wave hits, you suddenly realize that you don’t know what’s going to happen. That, at least, was the case for me. I must confess to taking a very naive and detached view of the tsunami in the past; yes, people died, but it was quick, right? Never mind that drowning is a terrible way to die. One does not really grasp, until one watches this film, how a tsunami is not a mere wall of water, but one that is quickly filled with a thousand objects that can cut, slice, bruise, and puncture; that it hits at a force that will dash human bodies like rag dolls into whatever object is nearby. And the physical agony that is portrayed (though truth be told, with considerable restraint), is nothing to the emotional pain of fear and separation that follows, for families that have been ripped apart.
The film’s power, of course, comes in large part from its compelling source narrative, and indeed the fact that it is based on a true story, so that there is no hiding from the awful reality it portrays. For that reason, there are no doubt better films that have been made; films that required much more creative screenplay writing, more daring directing, more extraordinary displays of acting. But this film certainly does not rest content with a good storyline, or else it would hardly succeed in drawing in the viewer so completely. And indeed, the story is perhaps, when you boil it down to its constituent elements, a fairly thin and simple one: tsunami hits, mother (Maria) and oldest son (Lucas), are separated from father (Henry) and younger sons (Thomas and Simon); Maria struggles for survival in hospital, tended by Lucas, while father searches for them; in the end they are reunited. What transforms this simple storyline into one of the most moving depictions of human fragility, love, and courage to appear on film is its unwavering, unrelenting realism, in which every detail—every image, every gesture, every facial expression, is pregnant with meaning. This realism is underpinned by stellar acting and masterful cinematography.
The actors for all five members of the family put in fantastic performances (all the way down to the four-year-old son), but Naomi Watts’s performance as the Maria is particularly strong, and has earned her some Oscar buzz. Of course, since she spends the majority of the movie lying on a bed near death’s door, her role probably does not have enough variety to win the award, but it remains a memorable performance. Still more impressive perhaps was the young Tom Holland’s profoundly genuine portrayal of 12-year-old Lucas, who is forced all at once to grow from a boy into a man when he is suddenly responsible for his gravely wounded mother’s survival. Although the screenwriting has been criticized as one of the movie’s weaker points, I was struck by how effectively the film succeeds in connecting us emotionally with its five main characters in the brief space of 15 minutes of film time before the wave hits. We have to care about these people—just another handful of privileged white tourists taking a Christmas vacation in paradise—and to identify with them as people. And by the end of 15 minutes, we certainly do.
Some reviewers have commented that the strength of the movie is its myopia—its conscious, ascetic refusal to wallow in the sheer scale of the disaster, and instead to communicate it to us on a human scale, through the eyes of a single family. (It is for this reason, among others, that it is hardly apt, and more than a little insulting, to refer to the film as part of the genre “disaster movie.”) Nowhere is this more true than in the cinematography, in which Oscar Faura has recreated for us the family’s bewildering experience by only letting us see what they see. We are trapped within their very limited perspective, disoriented by the chaos around us, unable to comprehend the big picture, unsure where we are or what’s happening next. Only at a few key moments does the camera pan out to let us see the enormity of the catastrophe, to put into perspective this one small tale of suffering among tens of thousands of others, and because this wide-angle is used so sparingly, it is devastatingly effective when it is used.
Although I have frequently used words like “horror” and “awful” above, the dominant theme of the movie, believe it or not, is beauty. The score, composed by Fernando Velasquez, is sublimely beautiful and moving, yet appropriately restrained in most of the film; Bayona and Velasquez, thankfully, are not among those who think the only way to elicit the requisite emotions from their audience is to subject them to a crescendo of melodious strings in nearly every scene. In the first fifteen minutes, the cinematography pierces our hearts both with the physical beauty of the landscape, and the beauty of a family’s love for one another, made almost unbearably bittersweet in its ominous tranquillity—a particularly powerful and recurrent image is the placid sea, both before and after the tsunami, so beguilingly peaceful and apparently innocuous. After the wave hits, our eyes are treated to little that is physically attractive (although we are still reminded on occasion of how little even the most horrible disaster can do to efface the beauty of creation). Instead, it is the beauty of courage and of love that overwhelms us again and again. This love is of course, above all, the love of a family for one another, and there have been few more eloquent odes to the love of a father for his son, or a mother for her son, of a husband for his wife, of a son for his mother, than this film. Hard is the heart that comes away from this without being inspired to deeper gratitude and more fervent love for family, one of God’s most precious gifts.
Yet it would be wrong to imagine that this film self-indulgently steeps itself in the sentimentality of one family to the exclusion of the hundreds of thousands of others affected. Just as in the cinematography, the myopia of the storyline serves ultimately not as a set of blinkers to insulate us from the enormity of the tragedy, but as a lens through which to come to terms with it. Fundraisers have learned that the surest way to a human heart is through one compelling story of loss and need; if treated to a barrage of images and statistics about the thousands who suffer, our emotive capacities shut down, overwhelmed. But the one story can and should serve as a symbol, a proxy, for the thousands of others, by which we are moved with compassion for all. So it is here.
One insufferably snide and snobbish reviewer complained that what we are treated to is little more than the story of “a spoiled holiday,” which trivializes the deaths of 220,000. One is tempted to wish upon this reviewer a similarly spoiled holiday, complete with impaled thigh and seaweed-vomiting. We are given, indeed, a glimpse of what a mere “spoiled holiday” might look like, when we encounter an American couple, a few hours after the tsunami, griping that “no one seems to know what’s going on” and about how they “just wanna get out of here.” When Henry staggers up to them, bloodied and desperate, and implores them to borrow their cell phone for just a minute, he is rebuffed, “Hey man, look around. Everyone around here needs something. I need this phone too. So bug off.” The suffering experienced by the family in this film is a far cry from a mere “spoiled holiday,” and yet we are never at any point allowed to forget that they are comparatively lucky. In key moments of their own joy, we are treated to brief reminders of those around them for whom the search for loved ones will have no happy ending. Most crucial is the final scene of the film, where, fortunate enough to be headed on a private plane to a Singapore hospital, courtesy of a well-dressed Zurich insurance agent, we and they are sobered by a glance out the airplane windows as it passes over the devastated coast.
Nor do they themselves forget the plights of others in the midst of their own. A key sub-plot of the film is Lucas’s transformation from the self-centered adolescent to a young man eager to help others in need. The relative selflessness that comes with caring for his injured mother is just the first step in this: right after the wave hits, he is concerned only with getting her to safety, and refuses to stop to rescue a small boy calling for help; his mother insists, asking him to imagine what he would want another survivor to do if that boy calling for help was one of his younger brothers. By the rescue of this boy, and by Lucas’s later acts of service, some of the other tragedies unfolding around them are transformed into happy endings.
Refuting the PC Police
The sheer pettiness of today’s political correctness police was on full display in some of the reviews of The Impossible over the last month. We have already encountered the snide remarks of A.O. Scott for the New York Times, calling the film the tale of a spoiled holiday, but his review was glowing compared to the sniping of some critics. Stephen Whittey, of the New Jersey Star-Ledger, opens by complaining, “Official estimates put the death toll at roughly 228,000 people, most of them children. Of the total number, roughly 9000 were European tourists, many of them on holiday in Thailand. ‘The Impossible’ is the first major movie to center on that disaster. And it ignores the Asian causalities to focuses strictly on the troubles of an upper-class British family of five,” before grumbling about how bourgeois and un-interesting the main characters are, how trivial their tragedy. The Guardian, generally a fine publication except when it comes to predictably politicized film reviews, goes much further (to The Guardian‘s credit, they published a counterpoint here). Critic Alex von Tunzelmann arranges the review under six headings: Nationality, Society, Disaster, Race, Fate, Verdict. Under the first, she complains about the English nationality of the main characters, then under the second, about their financial means—”their elegant beach resort is so jam-packed with rich white people that it could be mistaken for the Republican national convention.” Under the fourth, she rants,
“When the tsunami subsides, the film’s dubious racial politics make an unwelcome reappearance. Maria is tended to by a villageful of kindly Thais, whose job seems to be rescuing white holidaymakers while not saying anything. They take her to a hospital. En route, there are lots more wounded white tourists lying around in the road, some being tended to by yet more kindly Thais not saying anything. Both at the beach and in the hospital, almost all the victims of this disaster appear to be white.”
What is to be said in response to these charges? Well, the first thing to be said is that no defense is really necessary. The choice of rich Westerners was not some arbitrary politicized decision to make up a story about characters we could identify with. Rather, a Spanish filmmaker encountered an extraordinary real-life story of a family of Spaniards, and decided that it deserved to be told. The decision to use well-known English actors rather than Spanish actors speaking Spanish was an understandable decision to make sure the film had as wide a distribution as possible, so as many people as possible would be exposed to this extraordinary story. Purists might complain, but the Alvarez-Belón family fully supported the decision, and judging by the film’s extraordinary reception in Spain, so did their countrymen. As an English speaker, I’m certainly not going to complain, as the power of the film is easier to appreciate without subtitles. In any case, a wealthy Spanish couple is every bit as much part of the global elite as a wealthy English couple, so this decision was not an elitizing move. Bayona cannot pretend the family, and the other tourists, are not wealthy—why else would they be vacationing at a Thai resort? And the fact that the preponderance of the victims in the Khao Lak area portrayed in the film are European is a simple submission to historical fact—this was the tourist area, and the majority of the dead and injured here were foreign tourists. (That said, von Tunzelmann and others exaggerate in claiming that we almost never see any Thai victims—the hospital where much of the film takes place is a cultural melting pot if there ever was one.)
Bayona found a good story, and told it just like it was, and there is no shame in that. Both Scott and von Tunzelmann, unlike Whittey, acknowledge that this is a good story as far as it goes, but grumble that Bayona should’ve worked in the stories of some Asian victims as well. But as mentioned above, precisely the effectiveness of the film is its resolution that “less is more.” Trying to help us better grasp the scope of the tragedy by working in a few other tragic stories, and spreading our reserves of empathy over a dozen more characters, would have almost certainly made for a poorer film. Again, as mentioned above, the narrow focus serves not to exclude other victims, but as a lens by which we may come to feel the pain of all. Viewed this way, we may ask whether the film falls prey to Whittey’s objection: “Western movies always insist on seeing global disasters through Western eyes. It’s as if filmmakers doubt we can identify with anyone who doesn’t look or act exactly like us. Which insults us, actually, and hobbles cinema. One of the great powers of this emotional medium is that it easily encourages us to identify with people who look or act nothing like us.” Whittey’s general point is true. Films of third world tragedies usually make use of a first world lens. Even in films like Hotel Rwanda, where the heroes are Rwandan, they are very Westernized Rwandans—which is why they survive, for that matter. Blood Diamond needs Leonardo DiCaprio alongside Djimon Hounsou. But this is not, I think, anything to be terribly ashamed of, or insulted by. Rather, as powerful a medium as film is, it still has difficulty dissolving the immensely powerful barriers of culture and language. I’m not saying it can’t be done; but it is difficult, and films that attempt it will rarely reach as wide an audience. We accept the need for film to mediate between reality and ourselves, manipulating reality in the process in order that we might really be brought to experience it. Real-life events do not have soundtracks playing in the background, yet few of us complain when films use music to help evoke in us the same emotions that the characters portrayed are feeling. Similar mediation, reducing the otherness of a radically different culture, is often necessary if we are to come to terms with the Third World at all, rather than it continuing to feel wholly alien to us.
This is, I’m afraid, especially true when it comes to portraying disasters. We in the West have great difficulty relating to the suffering of the Third World poor; it is simply too much for us to comprehend. The images and statistics send us into overload and cause our empathetic faculties to shut down. When the Haitian earthquake killed 200,000, it felt like just another tragic chapter in the sad saga of that nation, a tragedy almost too deep to engage with emotionally. The Japanese earthquake, although less tragic on the whole, was for this reason more moving for many of us. Bayona’s film, then, might be seen as an attempt to help us come to terms with the suffering of all the victims of the Asian tsunami by giving us that suffering in a manageable dose, in a form we could begin to relate to; by this means, our emotional faculties would be trained in the empathy necessary to begin to comprehend the suffering of all the others—those who were not rich, white, and Western.
On a related note, I would suggest that part of Bayona’s point is to emphasize the way in which such disasters radically level social and economic hierarchies. When struggling for survival, we are all reduced to the same common denominator: human. For many critics (interestingly, themselves all rich white Westerners, who perhaps enjoy tropical vacations from time to time), it was unconscionable that we should pause to lament the suffering of a rich white Westerner, who probably deserved what they had coming to them. And yet such a reverse discrimination, a cultivation of cultural self-loathing, is no way to overcome the barrier between the privileged and the poor. On the contrary, the recognition that we too can suffer, that we too can bleed, can be forced to struggle barefoot and barely-clothed through swamps in search of medical help, that we too can be subject to great forces of nature beyond our control, that we too can find our families torn apart by disaster, that vulnerability and suffering are not the sole prerogative of poor Asians and Africans—this is a powerful message of the film. Indeed, not only does the tsunami result in a leveling, but in an inversion, as rich Europeans are thrown into a position of absolute dependence on the kindness of poor Thai villagers.
This was the most bizarre of von Tunzelmann’s complaints, as she carped about the racism of depicting “kindly Thais rescuing white holidaymakers without saying anything” (for the record, they were saying plenty, but in Thai—presumably von Tunzelmann would’ve considered it less racist if they miraculously spoke English). Exactly how is it racist to depict another culture as “kindly”? Are we to demand rather that other cultures all grow up and learn to display the kind of callous self-absorption that we in the West have perfected? Scott’s review perhaps clarifies the source of the complaint, charging that “these acts of selfless generosity are treated like services to which wealthy Western travelers are entitled.” But it is difficult to see where on earth Scott and von Tunzelmann have concocted this impression from. On the contrary, one of the most powerfully moving scenes in the film is one in which a Thai family, having dragged Maria to safety, bandages her wounds, puts her on a makeshift stretcher, and, in a wonderfully human gesture, puts a fresh clean blouse over her bleeding and partially exposed breasts. Far from treating this like a “service” to which she is “entitled,” Maria is overwhelmed, and struggles to find a way to articulate her gratitude, weeping and croaking “Thank you” over and over again. One could hardly ask for a more touching depiction of the kindred humanity we all share, regardless of wealth or nationality.
This review has grown overlong, so I will confine myself to a few brief remarks on the theological dimension. The 2004 tsunami, of course, called forth a flood of reflections on theodicy in the weeks and months afterward, asking how a good God could cause or allow such suffering. One of the most eloquent, but ultimately frustrating, responses was David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea, which rightly called out callous hyper-Calvinists for their presumption and lack of compassion, but failed to provide any convincing alternative to the bogeyman of Calvinism into which he lumped together so many of his opponents. Bayona’s film avoids all such questions; indeed, is so staunchly secular and empty of God that it must be a self-conscious omission. The film’s tagline is “Nothing is stronger than the human spirit,” and sure enough, the film’s characters find all the physical and emotional resources they need in themselves, never calling upon God either in anger or for aid. It would be easy to pick on this humanism, and it is probable that Bayona is a doctrinaire secularist. From a Christian standpoint, however, I think it is preferable to think of this silence about God as another dimension of the film’s self-imposed myopia, its “less is more” aesthetic. (And after all, the Book of Esther reminds us that God does not have to be mentioned for us to recognize him as the chief Actor.) By focusing its spotlight so resolutely and single-mindedly on the truly extraordinary power that is the human spirit, on the marvels of human courage and human love, I found that the film indirectly did homage to the One in Whose image humankind, and human love, were created. As Richard Hooker argued, we give God the greatest honor not by denigrating His handiwork to focus on Him alone, but by honoring Him in His handiwork, of which we—and our capacity to love—are the greatest expression.
This then indirectly suggests a theodicy of sorts. It can sound tired, clichéd, and even callous to say that God allows tragedies and natural disasters to happen in order to make a more beautiful story. Yet it was no exaggeration when I said above the the most prominent theme of this film is not grief, but beauty. The beauty of human souls and human love, which is purified and given occasion by physical suffering, outweighs the worst ugliness that a fallen nature can inflict upon us. Death provides the occasion for love, love which overcomes all death. This cannot, of course, be the whole answer, or a fully satisfying answer, to the problem of evil and suffering (no answer can be), but it remains one we must not forget, and one that anyone who has seen The Impossible is not likely to soon forget.