The opening scene of Pieces of a Woman (2020; Netflix) is like the Free Solo of recent dramas. After it was over and the title card finally came up, I had to unclench my fists and loosen my neck. Without knowing anything about the characters, we are drawn into something universal as Martha (Vanessa Kirby, who has already won awards, and should get more, for her performance) goes into labor, while the seemingly doting Sean (Shia LeBeouf) and the midwife (Molly Parker) do their best to make her comfortable. In comparison, the rest of the film is almost like a slow air leak of the pressure built up in that first scene, though it never quite fully lets up.
Although I did not find the ending wholly satisfying, because I want to know how much time has passed, where Martha lives, and whether the little girl is hers, it is fitting that we are not left with sufficient answers for our questions. This is a movie about grief, about its unpredictable fluctuations, and how no one can make it follow a predesignated course or pattern.
Rationally, we know that grief does not follow some prescribed set of steps or stages. But when someone we know is thrown into grief and its often-attendant depression, we want to do something, say something, fix it and help the person move forward. We know it when we ourselves are grieving, but somehow we forget it when others are in similar situations. Nearly everyone around Martha wants to help, but there is no one, at least at first, who is simply with her.
Pastors who counsel the grieving, while they may use the same Scriptures with which they’ve comforted others, often find themselves assuring people that they do not have to feel one way or another. They do not have to feel guilty about feeling one way rather than another. And the worst possible thing to do is to offer some easy platitude to try and avoid the responsibility of helping to bear someone else’s burden.
When Martha’s mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) sets up a dinner in order to persuade Martha to go forward with a case against the midwife who delivered the baby, she tries to force Martha to deal with her grief by getting justice by means of the courts. But even while she’s trying to be helpful, she can’t keep from speaking inexplicable criticisms of Martha, such as the clothing she’s chosen to wear “for the occasion.” “What occasion?” Martha asks. And later Elizabeth bribes Sean to leave “and never come back.”
The same day, Martha’s brother-in-law Chris (Benny Safdie) tries to offer a word of comfort to Martha after accidentally speaking insensitively. He talks about how he’s playing in a church’s band (already a hint that things are going to go badly!), and he says he heard the pastor say something helpful. We expect it to be a profound religious truth, but what he says is “Time heals all wounds.” Which is not only insensitive and unhelpful in the moment, but it is also doubtful as a truism. Does time heal all wounds? Or does time simply dull the pain a bit, until it rushes back unbidden?
The movie is full of characters making the same sort of missteps, so that Martha finds herself increasingly isolated in her grief. No doubt Sean is full of his own grief and anger at what has happened, but he is much more childish and insensible to how Martha is trying to process the very thin line between birth and death. Further, the scene where Sean tries to force Martha to have sex is more than slightly nauseating, both on its own terms, as well as in the light of similar accusations against LeBeouf in real life. Sean’s inability to deal with his own grief, as well as Martha’s, sends him careening between addiction, stony silence, helplessness, and infidelity.
When Martin Scorsese, who executive produced, saw the film, he said, “This is not a movie, it’s an experience.” And that is the way it has to be, because to try and tell Martha’s story (or the story of any woman who has lost a child, or the story of any family dealing with grief) would cheapen it somehow. The difficulty Martha has in putting words to her inner suffering is the same difficulty that anyone would have in real life. And it ought to give us pause before we attempt to comfort someone—especially if we are claiming to offer the ultimate comfort from the Word of God, made tangible in the presence of Jesus. How can we offer cheap substitutes for long-suffering and the co-suffering with those who grieve?
Some may not be able to watch this film if their grief is too raw, but Pieces of a Woman is worth sitting with for a while. It is worth absorbing for a little while the pain without assuming we have answers, so that we do not become Job’s friends; so that we who have been comforted in our own afflictions might be able to comfort the afflicted with the same comfort with which God has comforted us.