The best “amend” in the history of film!
I sit here today as your humble teacher, counselor, coach, and film lover!
Years ago, I ran a support group called “Cinema Espiritu.” Our focus was to harness the power of film as another tool for self-discovery. I miss that group, and have recently felt that I might re-ignite it – or maybe turn it into a group on Facebook (or both!) But the premise — that hidden within certain great films are kernels for living well upon the earth — is one that has walked with me through all of my life.
When I was a little one and needed a vision of fatherhood that sparked of nobility and honor, I had the joy of drawing from Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. When I yearned for a present and inspiring mother, there was the beloved Marmie in Little Women, played by Mary Astor.
Last week I had the great good pleasure of seeing the film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. I truly enjoyed this quirky and loving film. My challenge now is to discuss just his this film without spoiling it for some, as I truly want many of you to go and see it. So, here I go. Wish me luck!
This wondrous Wes Anderson film is the story of a European hotel, in a time of impending war, possibly World War II. This isn’t said, though it is very much alluded to. We are introduced to the world of this hotel through the reflecting of an elder man, who recalls to a journalist how he came to be a lobby boy of the establishment. Young Zero Mostafa is an immigrant to this country, a refugee, and he is trying to establish and build a life for himself in this strange new country.
The manager of the hotel, Mr. Gustave H., takes an interest in Zero, because it’s soon clear that, although Zero has neither the experience nor the training to be lobby boy of a great hotel, what this young man does possess is a love and respect for the institution and reputation of The Grand Budapest. As its manager. Mr. Gustave takes the younger man under his wing, and in short time provides for him the training needed for the task. Zero becomes an exemplary lobby boy.
There is much else going on here plot-wise – but I will leave you to find that out for yourself. For the purpose of this essay, I will share this: Mr. Gustave is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. There is an elaborate plan to help him escape from prison, and Zero is given key tasks to perform in this task. After the complicated and hilarious breakout, Zero meets Mr. Gustave at their assigned spot, and it is revealed that Zero has not been able to complete any of the tasks assigned to him.
Mr. Gustave, overcome with rage and frustration, lets loose a litany of verbal abuse towards Zero. He shames his intelligence and heritage. He accuses him of being unfeeling and uncaring of Mr. Gustave’s situation – of being lazy, and that this laziness inherent of those of his race. He asks Zero, “Why did you come to this country?” To which Zero responds, “Because of the War”.
Zero then goes on to tell how he and his family were captured and tortured by his home government. As the sole surviving member of his family, he was forced to come to Budapest and make his way due to this traumatic event.
As Zero recalls his tale, we are witness to its effect upon Mr. Gustave. Gustave’s eyes widen in understanding, grief, shame for himself, and affection for Zero.
He stops and sits until Zero stops speaking, and then begins what I am calling the Best Amend in the History of Cinema. He completely apologizes, and he goes into detail, stating that he had no right to speak to Zero in the way that he had, and that he was beyond wrong to slight his family and heritage. He explains that, no matter how stressed out he was in his present day circumstances, his story comes nowhere near to what Zero has suffered and that he, Mr. Gustave, was completely and totally sorry. He asks Zero’s forgiveness. He states that his behavior was not only personally offensive, but unprofessional, and that it was behavior not worthy of the great establishment they both served. He apologizes on behalf of himself AND of the Grand Budapest Hotel.
I sat there speechless – that amend was stunning. It was heartfelt, real, in-depth, without equivocation, and loaded with love. This scene brought tears to my eyes, and I cried both times I saw this film. Why? I cried because an apology this clean is a rarity in our culture. I found it particularly powerful, because I as a person of color, saw something that may not have been readily felt by my fellow moviegoers; what I as witnessing was a white male apologizing to a young man of color.
Mr. Gustave realized that his current issues, pressing though they may be, are not to be compared with the slaughter of this young man’s family by an oppressive regime. He acknowledged that he had no right to malign this young man’s race and culture to appease his anger and frustration. Mr. Gustave reclaimed his humanity and restored the friendship between himself and Zero. At the end of that apology, these two men embraced each other as brothers in every sense of that word. They felt each other. They knew each other. And later in this film, as brothers are sometimes called to do – one died for the other…. I will invite you to see the film to know more on that score.
I saw this film in a week in my life where I was struggling, and angry with a matter of a similar theme. I was negotiating an event where it was perceived – by me and other people of color – that an insult had taken place. And this insult was magnified, due to the fact that a white person had spoken without conscious regard for how issues of race and class would give weight to his words. His words were about a younger man, a man of color.
I sigh deeply as I write this and I am reminded that part of me often wishes that I could inhabit the world of a well-written movie, book, or play. The matter before me in the real world resulted in nothing remotely close to an apology. What has happened was deflection, defensiveness, and passive aggression sprinkled with, what feels to me, a liberal dose of arrogance. What happened in the real world was that the relationship between and older white man and a younger man of color was that young man felt deeply betrayed and disrespected, and the older white man, as I see it, feels put-upon, blamed, and misunderstood.
One must be incredibly self-assured – or working very hard to attain self-assurance and self-awareness – to react, in the moment, to the way our actions and words affect those around us. We are all human. We all make mistakes. The word “sin” is a term used in archery; it means “to miss the mark.” And we all do this – in different ways, on different levels – every day.
A clear and clean apology offers the opportunity to begin again. It can open doors and minds. It can begin to heal a broken heart. It ought not be given flippantly or half-heartedly, but only upon reflection, and after taking the time to get a reality check from others we trust around us. Perhaps even after speaking to a therapist.
It is also vital to not keep someone waiting for an apology so long that it is received as salt on the wound of an injury, or as an afterthought or flippant remark.
It’s very possible to wound someone deeply without meaning to do so. And, in such a case, the focus (in my opinion) ought not to be on trying to get the wounded person to see how you didn’t mean it – especially while getting angry with them for not accepting your apology. For in doing this, you give the impression that you’re not truly seeking to convey sorrow, but instead are defending yourself. Or, even worse, it may give the impression that you are making your defense the focus. Instead, you should allow the focus to be on the fact that it appears your words have deeply wounded or angered another.
Yes, it takes great learning to put one’s ego aside, and to offer that apology. It takes great learning to listen, as the one we have injured shares his or her reality with us. But in this painful space, two people can truly stand together as equals. The apology can be the doorway to a profound level of intimacy. Repair becomes more possible, and both persons have the invitation to be bigger in mind, body, and soul than they ever were before.
Today’s offender might be the injured one tomorrow.
Even if the offended person cuts off contact, the apology remains as a point of entry allowing for possible reconciliation in the future…
A clear, clean apology is a blessing. It is a blessing for the people involved, for their community, and for the world entire. Imagine how many lives could be spared if an authentic apology was given swiftly and without defense. How many marriages, friendships, family bonds, and community connections would remain intact we didn’t fear our humanity? What would happen if we didn’t give in to shame-based arrogance, and instead admitted that we had taken missteps, right onto the psychic toes of our brother or sister?
I am full of emotion as I write these words, and my prayer for you today is that you have the strength to be a gracious giver and receiver of apology. Apology is one of the cobblestones on the walk of the peacemaker, and I hope that you, me, and all of us walk it with pride (not arrogance), patience, and self-love.
May your day be blessed, and please go see The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film contains a few scenes that, in my opinion, make it too harsh for young ones. But for teenagers and adults, it is a funny and heartfelt film.
The best “amend” in the history of film!