“Religion is deemed by the commoners as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”
This quote opens the movie Franklyn, a thoughtful look at the problem of pain and how people attempt to deal with it.
The words are uttered by Jonathan Preest, a mercenary in the futuristic Meanwhile City. Meanwhile City is awesomely conceived, a vast metropolis with a kind of Gothic steampunk feel and lots of religious iconography. “Religion is the law” in MWC, but any religion will do. As Preest observes wryly, “These days you can form an entire congregation simply based on washing machine instructions.”
CULT LEADER: And always remember (dramatic pause) to check the tags on the clothes! (Applause)
There’s a hysterical scene (if you like black humor) at the Religious Registry:
CLERK: What’s your religion?
PREEST: What’s yours?
CLERK: Well at the moment I’m with some Seventh Day Manicurists (looks over at a group of gossiping women with pink plastic capes and beehive hairdos), but I’m thinking of changing. (Looks critically at her nails), “the level of discussion isn’t great and we’ve really run out of colors.”
Preest prides himself on being the last unbeliever in Meanwhile City, the last man unwilling to succumb to the mass delusion. His atheism comes at a price, however: Preest is a wanted man. After failing to save one of his clients, a young girl who was killed by a mysterious cult leader known as the Individual, he is betrayed by his informant and incarcerated for four years. When they finally let him out, it is on one condition: that he kill the Individual. No problem, thinks Preest, he was planning on doing that anyway, to avenge his client: “To the Individual and his senseless faith, she was just another soul sacrificed.”
The story then shifts to this reality, specifically, modern-day England. Milo is a twenty-something young man who has just been jilted at the altar, apparently the culmination of a long line of failed relationships. Emilia is a young woman bristling with anger and self-loathing, which she tries to exorcise with her art (which leads to some interesting conversations with her art professor). And Peter Esser is a church warden, whose young daughter was killed in an accident five years prior, and whose son is a psychologically traumatized Iraqi war veteran.
The writer does a skillful job of weaving these four storylines together, leading up to their inevitable intersection. We see each character trying to deal with their pain in their own way, whether through revenge, escape, self-destruction, or religion. And as the movie progresses, we start to see hints that these characters are not being completely honest with themselves, that even Meanwhile City is not what it seems.
Being a Christian myself, I empathized most with Peter Esser, the church warden. Initially we see him taking refuge in Christian tropes:
“It was God’s will that Sarah was taken from us… We have been severely tested as a family, Mr. Tarant, but I have trust in God.”
Technically true, but chilling. Did God really intend for his little girl to die?
“If God is willing to prevent evil, but is not able, than He’s not omnipotent. If He is able, but not willing, then He must be malevolent. If He is neither willing or able, then why call Him God?” – Preest
This is a question near and dear to my own heart. I long ago settled the issue that God was omnipotent: one good look at the universe will tell anybody that. But I struggled for a long time with the question of whether or not He was malevolent. There was a point in my life where I entertained the idea that God was sending me all this adversity because my salvation had somehow been a mistake, that He was trying to “unsave me” by making me so miserable that I would renounce my faith and commit suicide so He could send me to hell.
So why cling to my faith?
66 From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. 67 Then Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?”
68 But Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. (John 6)
I was in deep shit and I had nowhere else to go. There comes a time you can study all you want, plan all you want, examine options, collect opinions, draw charts and make tables, and none of it makes a difference. So I had to turn to something outside of myself, and that Something was God. Despite my doubts of His intentions.
As I matured and gained more experience, I started seeing how God could bring good things out of bad circumstances. Struggling with a career-ending illness made me see just how all-consuming my career had become to me. Medicine was not just my vocation, it was my identity: if I could not be “Dr. Putterer”, I was nothing. Illness forced me to reevaluate myself and my priorities. Having to give up my apartment and move back in with my parents forced me to address some issues in our relationship that otherwise would have gone undealt with, and gave me the opportunity to be there for my father when he died. Having too much time on my hands allowed me to explore and develop aspects of my personality that had lain dormant during all those achievement-driven years. And having to deal with my own set of adverse circumstances made me more compassionate and more understanding of other people dealing with their own battles.
Peter Esser makes something of the same journey. In the end, we see him, arms open, naked face, risking his life to reach out to his damaged son one last time. Technically this movie’s “happy ending” is Boy Meets Girl. But it was Esser’s journey that held the most meaning for me.