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Volver, Notes On A Scandal, & Letters From Iwo Jima:
When Everything Is Caving In Around You

            All three movies are about people on the precipice of disaster.  Their worlds are falling apart.  And they have to try to cope somehow.  But there will be much carnage in the aftermath.
            In "Volver" (written and directed by Pedro Almodovar), Penelope Cruz is Raimunda, a Spanish woman trying to hold her life together after she finds out that her husband attacked her daughter, her aunt is dying, and her mother has come back from the grave to visit her sister, all while trying to hold down three jobs to make ends meet.  It's both tragic and comic, and Cruz shines in a role that calls for much range of emotion.  Yes, American audiences are reluctant to put up with subtitles, and yes, there is some sexual material here that will offend some people.  But at its core, this is a movie with heart.  It is especially sympathetic toward women who are trying to cope with difficult circumstances, and in the end, there's nothing more important than family ties.
            Family ties are exactly what's missing in "Notes On A Scandal." A married English teacher, Sheba (Cate Blanchett), has an affair with a fifteen-year-old student (Andrew Simpson), which is discovered by an older teacher, Barbara (Judi Dench), the self-described resident "Battle Axe".  Mean-spirited Barbara pretends to befriend Sheba, but actually uses their "dirty little secret" for emotional blackmail.  When this is revealed, and the shoddy affair blows up in everyone's face, the collateral damage is significant, not only in all their families, but in the school itself and its entire neighborhood.  There are two obvious problems with this film:  the subject matter, which makes it very difficult to watch, and the fact that the main characters are despicable, which makes it not very much fun.  Nevertheless, the performances, especially by Blanchett and Dench, are very powerful.  At least in "Volver" the sexual scene involving a youngster was with an actor "of age."  Not so here.
            In "Letters From Iwo Jima," Director Clint Eastwood tells the story of the epic World War II battle from the Japanese point of view (following close on the heels of "Flags of Our Fathers," told from the American point of view).  Though the new commander of the island fortress, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), does an impressive job marshalling his troops and preparing them for the inevitable invasion, the real poignancy is the point of view of the ordinary soldier, Saigo (Kazunari Ninmiya), who was a baker before the War.  He witnesses all the physical hardship, the bravura, the carnage, the camaraderie, the cowardice, the chaos, and the apocalypticism of war.  All the while he writes his young wife at home, letters which would only be discovered much later, exhumed from the cave where other soldiers' letters were hastily buried, rather than have them fall into the hands of the enemy.
            In this desperate struggle to the death, what the ordinary soldiers slowly realize, especially after they capture an enemy soldier and one of their officers talks to him in English, is that the Americans are not necessarily devils, or savages.  They're vulnerable young men with parents and wives and children at home, just like them.  But as long as they're all stuck on this remote fortress island with no escape, slaughtering each other until only side is left standing, there's nothing more to do other than choose how to conduct yourself when your whole world is literally exploding around you.  This film feels so real that it's depressing, at the end, to think of all those young men, both American and Japanese, who lost their lives, not only in that bloody battle, but in the whole incredible carnage that was World War II.  Maybe if we keep realistically portraying the horrors of combat violence on the screen, we'll all be more reluctant to become participants in it "for real." 
Questions For Discussion:
1)  Have you ever lied to family members about the parentage of another family member?  Was it worth it?
2)  What should be done with teachers who seduce students?  Should female teachers be punished the same as male teachers?  Should the underage students be disciplined?
3)  At what age should teenage actors be allowed to portray sexual roles? 
4)  Have you known somebody who didn't come back from a War?  Did that experience change your attitude about supporting our country's involvements in other armed conflicts?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Terrell, Texas