Yearning for home, granting hospitality: Another Year (2010)

Posted: December 6, 2011 by jperritt in Comedy, Drama
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

A submission to Reel Thinking by Denis Haack (December 1, 2011)

Nearly two millennia ago four men—three disciples and their teacher—hiked up a mountainside outside the ancient city of Jerusalem to find a place to pray. This much was not all that unusual. The city attracted rabbis and prayer was a spiritual discipline central to Jewish faith. It was also not unusual for Jesus to take three of his followers—Peter, James, and John—aside for periods alone with him. What happened next, however, was very unusual. Suddenly as Jesus began to pray, a glimmer of his divine glory radiated out of his person, a stunning brilliance that burst into the consciousness of the disciples. They had actually gotten sleepy (prayer and all that, you know) and dozed off. And now there were six: Moses and Elijah, lawgiver and prophet, were with Jesus talking about the fulfillment of Jesus’ messianic ministry. We are told that Peter, not certain of what to say, suggested they construct three tents or booths on the spot. “Master,” he said, “it is good that we are here” (Luke 9:33). And so it was. Still, this is not remembered as one of Peter’s better moments because before he got the sentence completed, God interrupted, “This is my Son, my Chosen One, listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)

I think Peter gets a bad rap in most of the sermons I’ve heard on this text. His sincerity surely was impeccable, and I can understand his desire to make something more permanent out of the occasion. Who wouldn’t want that? I also know how hard it is to be silent and listen instead of saying something. Still, Peter’s impulse to extend the time together on the mountain was mistaken. Before the divine interruption was completed, the figures of Moses and Elijah vanished, and the group was back to four. Peter was mistaken not because such conversation is not precious or worth extending, but because he was a guest, not the host on this occasion.

Safe conversation, a listening ear, a place of shelter and welcome, all reach into the deepest yearnings of the human heart because they are echoes of home. Add the warm hospitality of simple food and drink provided with unhurried time and we begin experiencing something of grace that beckons us to consider the reality that extends past the narrow horizons of our oh-so-limited experience of space and time.

Another Year is about, well… it’s about another year in the life of Tom and Gerri played with gentle persuasiveness by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen. They live in an unimposing London house, tend a lovely garden with a rough shed in a community plot, and open their lives to a series of friends and family for whom disappointment has begun sliding towards despair in a broken world.

There are no explosions in Another Year, no caped crusaders, no special effects, no clever stunts, not even a happy ending where all the problems are solved before the final credits. So, as entertainment I suppose it would receive a low score. The film is more like a visual short story, a profoundly sensitive exploration of what simple hospitality means in a world so broken that humanness can easily get lost.

It is an error of enormous proportions to reduce hospitality as a means to an end, a way to work some agenda in order to achieve some outcome. We are talking about humanness, not programs. Biblically speaking, hospitality is ultimately rooted in the revelation that God himself serves as host. This is why the Hebrew poet celebrates God’s provision for his people in the wilderness in terms that would evoke the image of a host in a nomadic desert culture:

He spread a cloud for a covering,

                and fire to give light by night.

            They asked, and he brought quails,

                and gave them bread from heaven in abundance.

            He opened the rock, and water gushed forth;

                it flowed through the desert like a river.

[Psalms 105:39-41]

I know little about Mike Leigh, who wrote and directed Another Year, but his simple exposition of hospitality and conversation, of listening and meals, of two people willing to grant the gift of unhurried time is common grace made visible. He knows it is a messy business, because guests, like Peter on that mountain often act and speak out of turn. One of the delights of Another Year is one of Gerri and Tom’s guests, Mary, played with subtle power by Leslie Manville. Much of her role is played in close up, and Manville shows how brilliant acting can be achieved with little more than facial expression. Flitting emotions, a glance to the side, a twitch, a pause, or the way she sucks on a cigarette—we read Mary’s heart, with all her brokenness, in her face.

The characters in Another Year are not the surgically enhanced celebrities that adorn the covers of the glossy magazines we read in the dentist’s office. They are ordinary looking people (though superb actors) depicted in ordinary settings doing ordinary things. Perhaps this is why the film did not do well as a box office draw. And that is sad, because I can think of few films that unpack more truth about the human condition.

In the New Testament book of Hebrews, the author writes an imperative about opening our lives in hospitality and then provides a rather startling reason. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” the sacred text reads, “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (13:2). And yes, the writer is probably thinking of the patriarch Abraham who had just that experience (Genesis 18:1-15). But isn’t the text claiming more than that?

We are products of modernity, enthused with programs and technique, and now entrenched in postmodernity, doubtful anything short of the spectacular has much meaning. Both idolatries are deadly, stripping significance from its true resting place, faithfulness in the ordinary and routine of daily life. In Another Year we are reminded of that fact, and shown how hospitality is a gift that brings a glimmer of grace to the deepest yearning of a fallen world.

And who knows what angels are lurking in the neighborhood?

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