Guilt and Grief, and Relief

By Tim Winterstein

Troubled Water (2008, streaming on Amazon Prime) is really a brilliantly made film. You know the whole thing is going to collapse and fall apart between Thomas and Agnes, but you don’t know when. That tension builds and builds, even when there is nothing tense happening in a given moment. And the way the story is put together brings even seemingly unimportant events to their true significance.

It’s not that the shift in perspective in the middle of the film is unique, but perhaps it surprised me because (not having heard of the movie before) I simply didn’t expect it. Even though it’s over two hours, the two couples are so entwined and paralleled, focused on Thomas and Agnes, that I never felt the length. One has seemingly overcome her grief; one has seemingly overcome his guilt; but both have been deprived (or deprived themselves) of the opportunity to face head-on the event that connects them.

Until that happens, you can feel the troubled waters begin to stir beneath the surface. The central moment is highlighted by the caretaker asking Thomas to play “some real church music” for children on a field trip—led by Agnes—and he plays “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (!).

Now Troubled Water revolves, in part, around a presumably Norwegian Lutheran church. That’s the part of the description that originally drew me in. (Any Scandinavian film, any film that features some Lutheran, is my motto.) The “priest,” however, is a priest-ess, Anna, and a single mother, having become pregnant in high school. She says that with a “less liberal bishop,” she might not have become a priest. And she doesn’t have any qualms about sleeping with Thomas, the new organist.

There is, in addition, a particularly strange interaction with the church caretaker where the caretaker asks Thomas why he doesn’t take communion. Thomas says it’s because he doesn’t believe any of it. And the caretaker says, “You don’t need to believe.” It’s the flesh and blood, bread and wine, and it will “work regardless.” I don’t know when Lutherans in Norway took up the Roman Catholic understanding that the Sacraments work ex opere operato (by the working of the work, i.e. apart from faith), but here it is—stranger, even, than (for LCMS Lutherans, at least) seeing a female priest.

Yes, I have issues with all of those things. But the fact that Anna is supposed to be the voice of God to the people of the church creates a breaking point for her character. She has a facile view of evil and how God works in it. And this brings her to a crisis when she discovers what Thomas was in jail for. She says at one point that forgiveness isn’t that important, because God forgives everything. What’s important is “atonement and accepting things the way they are.”

But that’s exactly what Thomas can’t do and what Agnes can’t do. And what sort of atonement can be made for the death of a little boy? There is literally nothing Thomas can do to fix or make up for what he did to Agnes and her family. So when Anna says, “I am naive. That’s why I’m a priest,” at least the first part is true.

I don’t want to give away the climax of the movie, except to say that you know when Thomas and Agnes finally meet, everything’s going to come apart. But there’s nothing easy about the answers that they find. And this is, perhaps, where we all need to be and where the Gospel has something to say, even to enlightened post-moderns.

To search for atonement and a final reconciliation in this creation is foolishness, and when films provide easy answers and neat conclusions, they mislead us in important ways. Can forgiveness be granted even for the most horrible of crimes? It must be, if we are to take Jesus seriously. But that doesn’t erase the wounds that have been suffered. It may alleviate them or take some of the sting out of the pain, but the wound that is opened when a child dies can’t be closed completely—all the more when someone else is responsible for that death.

And if religion’s stereotypical answers don’t satisfy (“God has a purpose for everything” and “God will bring good out of evil”), what is left? The actual Gospel holds out a future hope that is tied directly to the here and now. There is no better way to gut the Christian message than to move the resurrection to one side, out of its central and necessary place. Apart from the resurrection, “God has a purpose for everything” is no better than “things will work out” or “time heals all wounds.” “God will bring good out of evil” is nothing but insensitivity to a person’s pain and a pretense of sympathy.

The Resurrection of Jesus, which took place after a real death in this real world, and His body raised in its actual, though glorified, physicality, means that the hope of healing for our scarred bodies, minds, and souls is a real hope. This is the difference between Christian hope and a generic, gutless hope: “I hope things go well.” Christian hope has a certain end and promise and goal, which then allows people to wait in patience for the conclusion of that hope. Anything less than this robust hope in resurrection and the restoration of all things is, indeed, naive optimism and inexcusable in a world so overrun with evil.

The fact that Troubled Water refuses to give easy answers makes it much closer to a Christian movie than anything that would pretend that if you’re a Christian, everything will eventually go well for you in this world. Thomas and Agnes know better (at least by the end), and so should we.