The Spitfire Grill is a deeply theological film packaged as a
feel-good drama which has been panned by a number of secular critics who sense
its emotional tonalities but miss the theological content and thus end up dismissing
the movie as overly sentimental. Featuring Ellen Burstyn as Hannah Ferguson, the
aging owner of Spitfire, Alison Elliott, as the young Percy Talbot who arrives
in the picturesque down-east village of Gilead soon after being released from
prison, and Marcia Gay Henden as Shelby Goddard who becomes Percy's best friend
and the third member of the triad at the center of the story.
In the middle
of Gilead stands a church, boarded up and empty even on Sunday's, but still used
as a retreat by Shelby, and eventually by Percy, both of whom go there for a moments
of quiet reflection and prayer. Gilead is a village in which institutional religion
may be on the skids, but the hearts and souls of its central characters are very
much alive. As the film unfolds, we are drawn into a drama of sickness and healing,
death and resurrection, sin and redemption. But all of these weighty themes are
packaged within an all too human story in which overtly religious language seldom
appears at all. And this is the beauty of The Spitfire Grill, as well as
the reason it represents a powerful parable of our time.
Spitfire was originally
commissioned by Gregory Productions with backing from the Sacred Heart League,
a Roman Catholic organization, who approached writer/director Lee David Zlotoff,
a Jew, about his possible interest in collaborating on a film. Zlotoff told representatives
from Gregory, "If your intention is to make a movie with religious overtones,
don't hire me." What emerged from their eventual collaboration is a film
in which organized religion has been kept largely off screen, so that the deeper
theological themes can be given all the more prominence. When Percy Talbot, sitting
on a hillside overlooking the Green Mountains, sings several verses to the hymn,
"There is a Balm in Gilead," we can sense the possibility of a healing
power at work here that is even larger than the beauty of her natural surroundings.
is an ironic parable for our times, an age in which institutional religion is
often seen as dead or dying, even as there is a renewed interest in and even a
passion for all things "spiritual." Despite his aversion to "religious
overtones," Zlotoff has written and directed a story which parallels the
parable of the Prodigal Son, or even the New Testament gospels themselves. You
know the story. A stranger comes to town, and by circumstances that do not seem
entirely subject to human understanding or control, is called upon to make the
ultimate sacrifice, which somehow becomes the agent of a grace through which a
miraculous healing is offered to all.
Go out and rent or purchase see
this winning film, and see if you don't agree with me, "There is a balm in
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.