Before 90 Minutes in Heaven, Heaven is For Real, and The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven (since admitted to be false), there was the 1980 movie Resurrection (streaming on Criterion Channel). After Edna Mae (Ellen Burstyn, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress for this role) buys her husband, Joe (Jeffrey DeMunn) a car for his birthday, this film enters much of the same territory as those books—which I have not used up time to read, only to skim. Edna flat-lines, she sees a bright light, and she sees all her dead relatives leading her closer to the light at the end of the tunnel.
From there, with paralyzed legs, she moves back to her father’s land in Kansas. After she calms, and seemingly heals, a young girl with a bleeding nose, her grandmother tells her that God has given her the gift of healing. She focuses on her own legs until she is able to get up from her wheelchair, without braces and without crutches, and begins to walk again.
But that is where Resurrection takes leave of the “Christian” books where people supposedly come back from death. Edna Mae does not want to attribute her healing power to anything or Anyone specific. She is challenged by a fiery revivalist preacher to either attribute her power to the Holy Spirit; if not, he tells the people that they must avoid her since her power is obviously demonic. The preacher’s drinking and fighting son Cal (Sam Shepard) is attracted to Edna Mae, but becomes increasingly disaffected himself when she continually refuses to attribute her healing to God, or to acknowledge that she herself is the second coming of Jesus.
Honestly, only Ellen Burstyn keeps this from falling one step below a made-for-tv movie. It is sentimental and maudlin, and without Burstyn’s emotion, it would be a lame attempt to say something like “love heals all.” After all, all Edna Mae wants to do is help the people she can help, but cold-hearted fathers and extremist lovers want to keep her from doing so. Cal’s attraction-turned-repulsion is also a little hard to understand. Perhaps his father’s fire and brimstone have taken deeper root than he thinks? In the end, the movie pits the kind-hearted but defeated Edna Mae against the Bible-reading fanaticism of Cal. Cal’s “literal” reading of the Bible is violently opposed to Edna Mae’s love, which is what Jesus really wants. God may or may not be love, but love is God.
That, of course, means that “the other side,” or “heaven,” or whatever, has nothing to do with Jesus, only with light and “love” and some sort of soothing music, maybe like the feeling of the anesthetic taking hold in a dentist’s office, where muzak gets piped in while you go out. So even Edna Mae’s abusive and hypocritical father (Roberts Blossom) is helped along toward the light by Edna’s love, rather than any kind of repentance, faith, or forgiveness.
On our most recent episode of Saints and Cinema, Jay and I discussed movies with resurrection themes. Though we did not refer to Resurrection (mainly because I was not yet aware of it!), it is always interesting to consider how and why films use miraculous or supernatural events or themes, especially when it is outside an explicitly Christian context. The physical resurrection of Jesus is central to the Christian faith—some nominal Christians’ attempts to explain it away notwithstanding. So also in many of the films that we mentioned in that episode, the resurrection event is central, even climactic. In Resurrection, despite its title, the resurrection is not central so much as it is a convenient way to explain how Edna Mae comes by her healing power.
In some articles about the film, I see that it was supposedly based on a true story, and even that Martin Scorsese was “healed of asthma” by the film’s inspiration. I can’t find anything else verifying that, and it seems strange, since he still deals with asthma. Whether or not that piece of trivia is true, I wouldn’t have minded seeing the earlier iteration of the movie, one “more like The Exorcist.” Maybe that could have kept the supernatural from drifting into sentimentality.