Who is my neighbor? Part I: "Goodbye Solo"

This week I find myself working on an article on "The Good Samaritan" figure in contemporary film.  Rather than looking at films that explicitly retell the story, I have decided to look at a few films whose characters enact elements of the narrative form found in the parable: persons in need being aided and assisted by those whom the narrative audience would consider least likely to come to assistance.

I've narrowed by thoughts down to three or four films.  Since the article is not due until the end of November, I thought I'd use my blog for the next couple of weeks to reflect on a few films I've been watching lately.

The first film I'd like to reflect on is a lovely indie shot by the Iranian director, Ramin Bahrani, entitled "Goodbye Solo."  This 2009 film was shot in, of all places, Winston-Salem, NC, here in my neck of the woods.  In the film, a Senegalese cabby, Solo, is offered $1000.00 by one of his fairs, an older white North Carolinian named William, to drive him later in the week to Blowing Rock, up in the Appalachian mountains.  When Solo finds out that William is planning only a one way trip, he suspects him of wanting to go to the mountains to jump off Blowing Rock.  The narrative unfolds with Solo trying to help William, offering a place in his home, finding him a hotel, taking him out nights to socialize, while trying to find out and resolve William's secret.  The film's characters are a study in contrasts. Solo is surrounded by friends, has a newborn infant and a bright and charming step-daughter, and spends meaningful days in a lively and exciting immigrant community.  William, on the other hand, goes to the movies alone with the sole purpose of having brief conversations with a boy at the teller window, a boy who is utterly unaware that the old man talking to him is likely is mother's long-estranged father.  The contrast between the two characters is also artfully illustrated in the cinematography.  Through much of the film, we see Solo's cab driving through the hauntingly gritty post-industrial night-time streets of Winston Salem.  The final scenes provide a shock to the senses, with the yellow cab driving in the colorful morning excesses of the late-October North Carolina mountains.  The film concludes at Blowing Rock.  Yet the narrative remains unresolved, with William's fate implied only by the image of leaves and sticks blown upward off precipitous rocks.

Whether intentional or not, this film captures beautifully the apocalyptic context of Jesus' parable.  There is a sense of urgency to Solo's efforts.  Solo's frenetic and bubbling wit, his chaotic life, and lively friendships contrast so sharply with William's tense and laconic vocalizations, his chill loneliness, and flat apathetic aspect.  Yet the film is not a cheap morality play. While Solo is deeply disturbed by William's plan, and as a "Good Samaritan," tries everything to prevent it, the main point of the film is not so much either to focus on Solo's good will or the tragedy of William's suicidal desire.  Like Jesus' parables, the film elegantly expresses the sense of urgency, expectancy, and surprising nature of new life, the coming Kingdom of God, even in the face of human despair and decay.

By looking at the parable again through the light of this film, I am reminded of how strong the compulsion is to moralize the parable.  After all, Jesus does conclude the parable with the command, "go and do likewise."  But what if the parable is more about the man who was robbed as it was about the one who stopped to help him?  Note that the expert in the law is asking "who is my neighbor?"  and Jesus concludes the parable with the question, which of the three (the Rabbi, Levite, or Samaritan who encountered the wounded man on the road) was a neighbor.  The narrative draws the parallel not between Jesus' interlocutor and the Good Samaritan, but between Jesus' interlocutor and the wounded man on the road.   By moralizing on this parable, the church preaches this as a story about how we are to help others.  However, the question is not so much,  "who are we a neighbor to?" but "who will be a neighbor to us?"  I don't think we're being urged to compare ourselves with the Good Samaritan.  Jesus compares his audience to the wounded man on the road.

In the past couple of weeks, I've finally gotten around to reading Putnam's book "Bowling Alone."  While some of the data in the book is probably quite dated by now, the trends he points to about the increasing isolation in many parts of American society--the dissolution of families, churches, and neighborhoods--have likely only accelerated in the past ten years.  "Goodbye Solo," however, points to hope.  There are small pockets, perhaps among the ones whom the "majority culture" prefers to ignore, where people are experiencing the apocalyptic hope and vibrancy of renewed community.  Maybe there is hope that some among us are experiencing life and community in various subcultures, whether among Latin American sojourners, or among the "Wall Street" tent protesters that have set up in the hearts of urban America.   I hope only it is not too late for the rest of us to give up our craven desire for isolation and find a group where we can join.

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