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The Spitfire Grill: Sacrament of the Senses

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.

This 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 Gilead."

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.