The Common Good
March-April 1996

A Gritty Liturgy of Faith

by Rose Marie Berger | March-April 1996

The challenge of Dead Man Walking

In Oscar Hijuelos' new book, Mr. Ives' Christmas (HarperCollins, 1995), Hijuelos describes a scene in which Edward Ives dreams of "the Lord's body and His skin....He imagined passing his hand across [Jesus'] brow and feeling healing scabs and blood-damp hair. But thinking those wounds as necessary to the resurrection, when Ives came to where the nails had pierced, he dug deeper into himself." Mr. Ives had been digging into himself for 32 years, ever since his 17-year-old son, Robert, was shot to death on his way home from Mass by another teen-ager. Ives' dream is the fever-break of redemption after years of grief, hatred, and a religiously disciplined love that led him into correspondence with his son's killer. Violence is never a private act.

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Dead Man Walking is the fictionalized film adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean's autobiography by the same title (see "The State Takes a Life," January 1994). This story recounts a dangerous walk taken by a Catholic sister and a convicted rapist and murderer on death row in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Hollywood always does violence well, but rarely does it convey so well the gritty liturgy of Christian faith. In the life of Jesus, the two were seldom far apart.

Susan Sarandon (winner of three Academy Awards and a drama graduate of Catholic University in Washington, D.C.) plays the realistic and complex Sister Helen, a strong woman whose faith determines the parameters of her life. Sister Helen lives and works at Hope House, founded by two Catholic sisters in 1969. With the people of St. Thomas Housing Development, located in a poor area of New Orleans, the sisters provide adult education and other neighborhood ministries.

Prejean's relationship with convicted killer Matthew Poncelet (a composite character created from the first two death row inmates with whom the real Sister Helen became involved, and played powerfully by Sean Penn) begins simply enough. She receives a letter from him asking for correspondence, and she writes back. The delicate balance between them is captured perfectly in the early scenes, with Poncelet reading her letters in his prison cell at Angola and Sister Helen reading his letters in her sparse bedroom at Hope House: one a place of spiritual bondage and the other of spiritual freedom.

MATTHEW PONCELET raped high school student Hope Percy and murdered both she and her boyfriend, Walter Delacroix, in the Louisiana pine scrub. Poncelet is a racist who publicly proclaims his love of Hitler and shows nothing in the way of remorse for his victims. Little in Penn's portrayal of Poncelet draws the viewer into unwarranted sympathy for this seemingly unredeemable man.

Through the exquisite eyes of Sarandon, unadorned with any make-up, we become a witness in the classic Christian sense. We accompany the killer, his mother, and brothers through his appeal to get his death sentence revoked; an appeal that is denied. We accompany the families of the two victims in their pain, hate, and hunger for revenge; anything that would bring back what was lost. They are trapped, as Walter Delacroix's father says, with "memories sealed like a shrine" because of the loss of their children. We walk with Sister Helen in her tears, her prayers over the bathroom sink, her unflinching honesty with Poncelet to take responsibility for his actions (asking him to read John 8), and her rigorous desire to "follow the example of Jesus."

Much of Dead Man Walking was filmed on location in St. Tammany Parish, St. Thomas Housing Development, and the prison at Angola, including the Death House. The technique of black and white flashbacks to the rape and murder scene is devastating, but well done. The execution of Matthew Poncelet by lethal injection is sterile and anti-climactic, as this kind of execution is meant to be, protecting the strap-down team-and us as well-from their own pain and culpability.

Both Mr. Ives' Christmas and Dead Man Walking (the book and the movie) push us to see the christus where we would rather not look-in the broken bodies of murdered children and in the broken soul of a killer. None of us, no matter how progressive, righteous, or faithful, would be without the desire for revenge if a loved one was murdered. This is when the disciplines of our faith can help make our decisions for us when we are unable to make them on our own. One example is the Cherish Life Circle's wallet-size commitment cards, which read: "Should I die of a violent crime, I request that person(s) found guilty for my killing not be subject to the death penalty under any circumstances."

We are trying to work out our salvation in a culture where, in an average theater audience, a third of the viewers have been personally affected by violent crime, and where in Delaware we are hanging murderers by the neck and in Utah putting them before the firing squad. Into this breach, the gospel calls us to walk.

Dead Man Walking. Written and directed by Tim Robbins. PolyGram Entertainment and Working Title/Havoc, 1995.

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