“We passed through death.”
I think Peter Weir’s 1993 film Fearless may be a very important film for the world to consider in 2021. That will be after we have come through the worst of the Corona Virus pandemic and the social and economic turmoil it is creating. What does it mean to be a survivor—to have gone through a time of fear, death, suffering? Will we see the world through the same eyes as before? Will we mourn all that was lost or celebrate the life ahead?
At the beginning of Fearless, Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) is walking through a cornfield carrying a baby with a small child at his side. We soon discover that an airplane has crashed in the field and he and a few others are survivors finding their way to the emergency personnel. Max’s response to the crash seems very bizarre. He leaves the scene and heads to Los Angeles to reunite with a high school sweetheart. When the airline tracks him down and offers to send him home to San Francisco by train, he opts to fly, showing no fear of another crash. The airline puts Dr. Bill Perlman (John Turturro), a psychologist who specializes in PTSD in the seat next to him. When Max arrives home to his family, he is somewhat distant and brutally honest.
Although Dr. Perlman can’t really connect with Max, he asks Max to visit another survivor, Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez), whose toddler son died in the crash. Carla is bedridden with shame and guilt (“very Catholic” according to Perlman). Carla and Max form a connection. Max tells his wife Laura (Isabella Rossellini) that he “feels an overwhelming love” for Carla. (Not the kind of thing Laura is happy to hear.) But Carla and Max are very different. Max is an atheist; Carla is very devout. Max feels energized and invulnerable; Carla is in deep depression. Max and Carla spend time together, but neither makes much progress with reentering the world in a healthy fashion. Max has made it a goal to save Carla. But who will save Max?
This is a film with a great deal of overtly religious image and language. One of the first things Max does after the crash is to eat strawberries, which he is allergic to. He calls it “forbidden fruit”. Max is referred to in the media as “The Good Samaritan” for the way he led some of the survivors out of the wreckage, calling them to “Follow me to the light”. Carla has a bumper sticker on her bedroom door that reads “Jesus es mi mejor amigo”. In a scene where Max and Carla go to church to pray for her son, we note that the crucifix in the chapel has a wound in the side very similar to one Max has. Even though Max espouses atheism, he frequently speaks to and challenges God. The idea of salvation pops up in various ways.
For me the key scene in Fearless as it relates to our current situation is as Carla and Max are in front of a store at Christmas time. He tells her “We’re safe because we died already.” He has her look at the others around them who don’t understand what it means to die in your mind. Then he tells her “We passed through death.” (Coincidentally, I watched this on Easter. These lines resonate very well with Easter themes.)
Is that perhaps what we are doing now—passing through a kind of death? Not just the rising toll of deaths from COVID-19, but also the disruption to education, and an economy that will certainly be seriously damaged, leading to increased unemployment, failed businesses, loss of retirement savings that will affect millions of people. What will 2021 hold for those of us who have passed through this time of trial? Will we be wracked by survivors’ guilt? Will we, like Max, think we have charmed lives that make us impervious to injury? Will we see ourselves as Max describes Carla and himself: ghosts? We will all face grief and loss in some way. Is an unrealistic outlook like Max’s any healthier than Carla’s retreat? I haven’t heard anyone say this yet, but I expect the next pandemic to hit the world could well be PTSD from all the things that we are currently living through.
At some point we will think everything has returned to normal (or some semblance of normal). It would be naïve to think that because we made it through this pandemic that we have not been affected. We are all wounded by this. We are all infected, if not with the virus, with emotional stress and fear. We need to begin now to pay attention to how we will respond to that time when we have made it out of the wreckage of COVID-19. And we will need to continue to care for one another long after we start returning to our lives.
Fearless is available for rent on Amazon Prime for $2.99.