The Content of Our Characters

Two March events consistently wreak havoc on my Lenten disciplines: the March Madness of NCAA men’s basketball and the annual Academy Awards ceremonies. Smack dab in Holy Week, I was a wee bit distracted.

First, the Academy Awards. The English Patient, a movie of extraordinary depth and beauty, cleaned house with nine awards. Not only recipient of best picture honors, this movie took most of the technical awards, including cinematography, sound, and costumes. Cinematographer John Seale’s stunning visual effects and screenwriter Anthony Minghella’s rich imagery create a feel that is alternately haunting and compelling.

But this should not lead us to romanticize the historical figure upon whom the film is based. Revisionism is always a danger with a powerful medium such as film. In several recent films—notably Private Parts, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and The English Patient—men of questionable character are re-created as sympathetic mavericks worthy of our respect.

Count Laszlo Almasy (played by Ralph Fiennes), around whom the interwoven stories of The English Patient revolve, is a lonely explorer whose heart is as barren as the Saharan sands he has chosen as home. In the film, and the equally compelling novel by Michael Ondaatje, Almasy is portrayed as a man with little use for ideology and whose emptiness is filled by his passion for Katherine Clifton (played by award nominee Kristin Scott Thomas), adventurer and wife of a British photographer-turned-military-spy. In the end Almasy dances with the devil by trading military secrets with the Germans in exchange for a plane with which to fetch his injured lover.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1997
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