Ever Almighty God, who because of the prayer of your most glorious martyr, St. Sebastian, called back a universal and lethal epidemic of plague, grant those asking you, that those who thus pray and bear this prayer about with them, and seek refuge in you because of their confidence that a wholly similar epidemic would be recalled, that through his prayers and merits, they will be liberated from the plague or disease as well as from every danger and tribulation. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.
--Prayer written in Germany around 1350 that was used during the Black Death
It's always with a certain amount of trepidation that I go to movies with a "medical" theme but I did want to see this one. It's a well-enough done movie that the medical inaccuracies don't hurt it, and the story line is more about the nature of human behavior than the disease itself. The movie calls the question, "Which is worse--dying in an epidemic, or living in the tension it creates?"
I went into this movie with a bit of a preconceived spiritual notion. I had read Martin Oliver's post on the blog REELigion, and the discussion about the obvious lack of religion or mention of God in it.
Oliver mentions seeing only two overtly religious images in the film--the empty mosque as the panic erupts, and the cross above the building where the remaining Chinese village children in the story are learning art. I saw a third one--in a scene where the victims were being cared for in a hockey-rink-turned-contagion-ward, a nun cares for a patient when the nurses have all gone on strike, because of the working conditions.
I think Oliver's observations are valid, at least on the surface appearance of the movie. When Matt Damon's character, is told that his wife has died, and he has trouble "getting it," the doctor tells him, "There are grief counselors for that sort of thing." No mention of a chaplain. As we see the panic erupt, we see no rush to the churches (most disaster movies tend to have the people who show up at the church because they either fear for their own immortal soul or they have no place else to go,) and as we see the bagged, duct taped dead deposited into mass graves, there are no mourners, no clergy. We are essentially being shown death, panic, and human brokenness in a non-theistic world. In that sense, the brief glimpse we see of the empty mosque is a reflection of "no sign of God anywhere."
Yet, at a deeper level, I saw two profoundly deep God-messages.
The first was the business of researcher Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) injecting herself with the vaccine that "just might work" because clinical trials in the regular fashion could be months away. It's a Luke 1 message--the willingness to say "yes" to bear a savior--the Magnificat. I thought about this possibility--are there places in our lives, places where we normally could think of a hundred good reasons to say no, that when we recognize just how broken the world is, we can find it in us to say "yes?"
I am ashamed to say that the medical field has been less than stellar in their morality in times of plague. Every biological plague we've had in history--be it the Black Death or the early years of HIV--finds physicians to often be the first to flee, the last to take risks, and highly susceptible to making a buck in times of distress.
I found my mind racing back to 1988, when, as a post-sophomore fellow in pathology, I was the first person in Boone Co., MO other than the county medical examiner to do an autopsy of a known HIV-infected person, in a morgue which now would be deemed "unsuitable" for such a post. It was my duty. I did it. What was interesting was my morgue tech, who swore up and down he'd never do such a case, assisted me, because he felt I should not do it alone--I'd be more prone to breaking my own habits and more likely to stick or poke myself. I remember some of the residents really being angry at me for doing it. If I, a lowly post-sophomore fellow did it, it would "show them up." It would put pressure on them. I looked at them and said, "I went into medicine to help people and help cure diseases. I didn't say, "when it's convenient." Your choices are yours. This is mine."
The other image was not really played out until the very end scene. Only then do we see a portion of our salvation history played out. (Plot spoiler ahead...) In the final scene, we see Beth Imhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) selling bulldozers to developers, bulldozers tear up tropical rain forest, changes affect a bat somehow and it gets a virus, bat drops guano in pig pen, pig eats guano, pig goes to market in Macao, pig becomes dinner in casino in Macao, Imhoff with clients in the casino, becoming one of the people who spread a virus that kills millions of people.
In short, it's a rough parallel to Eve, the serpent, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Fall. Only then, can we put Dr. Hextall in full frame as Mary, the Theotokos, bearing the Savior.
Yes, on the surface of this movie, God is conspicuously absent. But beneath it, God is fully present--and isn't that how it goes in real life, as well as reel life?