Punishment: Redeeming the damned

Øystein Mamen, in his documentary Punishment, takes us inside a Norwegian prison and inside the minds and souls of four prisoners taking part in a silent spiritual retreat. Along with two prison chaplains, they reflect on their past, the consequences of their choices, and what may lay ahead for them.

Although it is designed as a Christian retreat, the program was open to prisoners of any faith. In fact, the only prisoner who seems to be religious is a Muslim. One of the participants is mildly anti-religious. One mentions that he said the first real prayer of his life—only one word—while in the retreat.

Because this is a silent retreat, there are times where we watch as the men sit, think, smoke, exercise, write. But there are also times when they meet individually with the chaplains to reflect on their experience.

The chaplains lead them through a series of exercises to help them discover things within themselves that may be missing in their lives. The four subjects that are highlighted in the film are love, evil, mercy, and hope. I found them thinking about the possibility of forgiveness to be especially insightful. These men aren’t looking for cheap grace. In fact, some feel that their actions are unforgivable.

Mamen doesn’t introduce the men by their crimes. It is only after we get to know them a bit that we hear them tell us what has led them to spending years in prison. Two of these are convicted murderers. Yet by the time we learn what they have done, we have already formed a bond with them and know that they are more than their worst deed.

In theory, we hope that incarcerating criminals will give them time to consider their lives, their mistakes, their actions and be able to make changes that will help them be better people. In the US, at least, that theory is often buried under the idea of punishment. This retreat, even though it only deals with four men, gives us some insight into how prison can be a time that will improve people’s lives, not just make them miserable.

Punishment premiered at Slamdance Film Festival.

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