Practice of Forgiveness in Film: Owen Ellerkamp

Due to the circumstantial nature of forgiveness much of the semester has been mapping theoretical conceptions of forgiveness to hypothetical scenarios — what would be the best way for the German’s to reconcile the Nazi regime, or how I would go about forgiving a sibling? In the movies Flatliners and Dead Man Walking forgiveness concepts are explored practically as a main theme of the films. The two films are ripe for analysis through the forgiveness theories encountered in the course.

Flatliners is a 1990 American science fiction film about five medical students who attempt to find out what lies beyond death by conducting clandestine experiments that produce near-death experiences. The film is littered with Christian iconography, yet the questioning of the existence of God or reference to religion in dialogue is non-existent, but explored implicitly through the plot. Thinking in regards to Christian doctrine, some Christian traditions view self inflicted death as sinful as God has given us life and we are images of God and to kill ourselves is to kill part of God’s creation. In my interpretation of the film this theological concept was consequential because when the characters inflicted a near death upon them they did not enter heaven, but rather re-lived horrifying events from their past. While this interpretation could be valid, after further discussion of the film with peers it seems that the after life experiences of the characters has more to do with the transcendence of sin beyond a corporeal existence than the taboo of suicide.

The film posits that forgiveness is a basic virtue. It does this by haunting the patients with the people they bullied in the past that they never reconciled with. For example, during David’s near death experience he envisions himself on the playground in middle school. He is bullying a young African American girl. After he is revived, this young girl haunts him in his day to day life. When David can no longer handle the wrath of her spirit, which he simply seems to be imagining, David goes back to apologize the Winnie (girl he bullied in grade school) and she does not remember what he did to her which goes to show that notions of who we think is upset with us comes from internal forces as opposed to attitudes others actually have towards one. It’s implied that she forgives him, or at least appreciates his acknowledgement of his wronging to her. This is shown by him no longer having visions of her haunting him. This instance shows that we must live with our sins and that our sins are transcendent of this life.

Reconciliation, a precursor to forgiveness often marked by apology, is depicted in this film as a necessary action in order to live a virtuous life. This film focuses on the repercussions when one fails to seek forgiveness and focuses on the act of apology. Flatliners philosophy on apology is that it should be used generously, perhaps unconditionally, and in turn forgiveness will come. A dilemma that is not confronted in the film is that of an unforgivable act. Would the wrongdoer be haunted in the afterlife if he attempted to reconcile but failed? This raises a larger question as to whether apology always warrants forgiveness, and in cases where forgiveness is not granted who benefits from the failed attempt at reconciliation?

Flatliners depicts forgiveness as a virtue humans should strive for, while in Dead Man Walking the thought of acknowledging a wrongdoing is difficult. The two films treat the process of forgiveness is vastly different manners. Dead Man Walking approaches the process of forgiveness through an atomistic approach focusing on an inmate on death row who committed rape and murder who is having difficulty coming to terms with the crime he perpetrated. To help him cope with his imminent death a Catholic nun, Sister Helen, becomes his spiritual mentor through his mentally taxing existence on death row. Sister Helen helps him come to terms with what he did and eventually aids him in acknowledging and admitting that he committed the crime. This is just one step in the process towards reconciliation, but he does not have the capacity to apologize before he is ejected lethally and his victim’s’ parents valiantly watch his life end. In the hours prior to his death he reflects on the repercussions of his actions and seems close to apologizing, but never does. The impotence for him to apologize seems to exist with the same urgency in which death descends upon him. In other words, the emotions evoked from the impending death sentence seem to result in his desire to apologize to the victim’s families. Given this correlation between apology and vulnerability, I would guess that he never would have apologized if he continued to live, the apology seemed to be a product of his desperate circumstances and overwhelming fear.

Sister Helen plays a controversial role as a faith leader. The families of the victims are confounded that she is spending her energy aiding the criminal rather than consoling the families that lost their child. Sister Helen sees herself as a mentor for a young man who needs faith to come to terms with his difficult fate. She gives him Bible chapters to read and virtues to meditate on to cultivate a more positive and introspective mind before the death penalty. Ultimately, it seems that her goal for Matthew is for him to recognize that forgiveness can be granted to him through the vertical God to human relationship which in turn will relieve him slightly of his wrongdoing. His relationship with faith does grow as he clenches a rosary and recites a prayer moments before the ejection penetrates his skin. Faith can supply a sense of comfort unattainable by human interaction when you occupy a space of banishment and rejection in society. While this film speaks to horizontal forgiveness, the vertical forgiveness is what comes to fruition in the end.

On a more macroscale, the film represents the normalization of punitive action in the American court system. Capital punishment is illegal in most industrialized countries with America being an exception. The allowance of capital punishment is indicative of an inability to empathize and work towards reforming criminals. Sister Helen serves as a figure who champions the reformation of criminals. As a faith leader, her work is seen as “charity work” for the less fortunate. However, her work is also to recognize the humanity in people that society has a hard time seeing.



Flatliners. Dir. Joel Schumacher. By Peter Filardi. Perf. Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, and Kevin Bacon. Columbia Pictures, 1990.
Dead Man Walking. Dir. Tim Robbins. Perf. Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon. Gramercy Pictures, 1995.