From Cheap Grace to Embodying Forgiveness in Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino
Priest: Good afternoon Walt
Walt: I told you I’m not going to confession.
Priest: I’ve been thinking about our conversation about life and death. About what you said. About how you carry around all the horrible things you were forced to do, horrible things that won’t leave you. It seems it would do you good to unload some of that burden. Things done during war are terrible. Being ordered to kill. Killing to save yourself, killing to save others. You’re right. Those things I know nothing about. But I do know about forgiveness. And I’ve seen a lot of men who have confessed their sins, admitted their guilt, and left their burdens behind them. Stronger men than you. Men at war who were ordered to do appalling things and are now at peace.
Walt: Well I gotta hand it to you, Padre. You came here with your guns loaded this time.
Priest: Thank you.
Walt: And you’re right about one thing. About stronger men than me reaching their salvation. Well, halle-fucking-lujah. But you’re wrong about something else.
Priest: What’s that Mr. Kowalski?
Walt: The thing that haunts a man the most is what he isn’t ordered to do.
It’s a well-worn scene. A patronizing priest, clothed in clericals, approaches a surely man and offers him some unasked for advice: he should make a confession. The prospect of the surely man (Walt) confessing to the priest is made even more absurd by the contrast in the two men’s appearances. The priest, under thirty, is equipped with a baby face that would assign wisdom to a toddler. Walt, face lined with a bitter old age, wears a grittiness only Clint Eastwood’s features can bear.
It takes only a few lines of dialogue before the audience understands the characterizing back stories of each. The priest, whose occasional insights are clouded by his vocational infancy, recently left the seminary. Walt, a veteran in the Korean War, never left the battlefield. The priest, believing he can exercise a kind of forgiveness that can relieve its recipient of the burden of guilt, continually offers the sacrament of confession. Walt, believing such forgiveness is not meaningful in relation to the crimes he has committed, continually rejects it.
The struggle for a meaningful forgiveness is at the heart of Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film, Gran Torino; a film that raises important questions for Christian practices of forgiveness: Who has the power to forgive? How is forgiveness given? What is the relation between the individual seeking forgiveness and the community? And what does all this have to do with the sacrament of confession? Continue reading