Sunday, January 01, 2012

New Year's Day

For several years, I kept a tradition of watching my favorite movie on New Year's Eve or on New Year's Day.  For various reasons I won't have time to fulfill this tradition this year, and besides, I watched the movie with our youth group back in July as a part of a service trip.  But, whether I manage to watch it or not, I always think about this movie and its themes when the new year rolls around.

The name of the film is "The Man Who Planted Trees," a Canadian short animated film directed by Frederic Back that is based on the French short story "The Story of Elzeard Bouffier, The Most Extraordinary Character I Ever Met" by Jean Giono.  The film, with its simple yet evocative illustrations, claimed the Academy Award for best animated short film in 1987 and competed for the Canne Palm d'Or that same year.  The English version of the film (there is a French one, too), is narrated by Christopher Plummer.  There is very little dialogue in the movie. The action and intensity of the plot is conveyed solely by the voice of the inimitable Mr. Plummer, in his subtly dignified British accent, who simply reads what I assume to be the text of Giono's original story.

It is only 30 minutes long, but it seems much longer...and in a good way.  It is not boring or pedantic.  If a true epic ever were crammed into a half-hour, this is it.  The plot sweeps through several decades, encompassing both World Wars.  Without giving away too much of what happens, the story relates the utter transformation of an entire landscape and its citizens through the efforts of one, lone shepherd.  It is one of those movies where you think, after watching, that it was a true story...or that it was at least based on a true story.  For the first several years after viewing it for the first time, I refused to believe that it was pure fiction.  Only here lately have I been able to make peace with that fact and realize that the beauty of the story lies not in any historical factuality.  What the film illustrates may happen anywhere, at any time, in any number of ways.

And that is why I find it to be such a fitting movie for each new year.  Its themes of new life amidst decay, new beginnings in the most inauspicious of surroundings, and large-scale metamorphosis through the painstaking repetition of small tasks are uplifting, to say the least.  There are many books and stories and films that concentrate on these themes, but "The Man Who Planted Trees" seems to do it better (and more succinctly) than any other I have seen or heard of.  The dedication and single-mindedness the shepherd Elzeard Bouffier applies to his task of tree-planting--an undertaking that only promises the most delayed gratification--is encouraging and inspiring for anyone who has ever been committed to some sort of long-term, ongoing activity. 

More specifically, I find the story to be a wonderful allegory for ministry in the church. Conceived and written in a milieu much more agrarian than ours nowadays, the Scriptures often talk about planting and sowing, reaping and harvesting...albeit less about tree groves and more about wheatfields and vineyards.  But the symbolism of the movie is easily to translate to the Bible.  And, furthermore, "pastor" is Latin for "shepherd," Elzeard Bouffier's main vocation.  So much of ministry in the life of the church is monotonous, and we have to wait a long, long time to see the fruits of our labors.  We preach and teach, serve and visit, console and instruct, oftentimes never really telling if anything we do takes root.  And this goes for the lay volunteers of the ministry of word and deed, not just the ordained ministers of word and sacrament.  I suppose this allegory works for just about any job where you hope to "make a difference" in people's lives.  But I find it really resonates for church work.  Tending the gospel often feels like planting trees: it takes patience, sacrifice and vision for the long-term.  The film's ending is so sweet and fulfilling that it gives me hope that our own tasks in Christian ministry may be so rewarded some day.

Lately, as I've watched the film, I have started to view things in a new way; namely, that Elzeard Bouffier is a Christ-figure.  Some people disagree with me here...or at least they don't "see" it.  But in some ways, I really like this interpretation of the story better.  In this view, Elzeard is not so much a parallel for those of us working in the gospel fields, slogging steadily away at sowing the seeds of goodwill and peace with the hope of an eventual world (or congregation, at least!) transformation.  Rather, we are desolate and war-torn hills where no water flows and no healthy life is found.  We are the barren, dry landscape that everyone else would scratch off as hopeless.  But then along comes one Planter who sacrifices every bit of time and energy he has to make us alive again.  The presence (and absence) of water throughout the movie is a strong baptismal metaphor.  Elzeard, the shepherd, is an example for us, yes, in how to work and accomplish something truly beautiful; but Elzeard is also, to my mind, a vision of the Good Shepherd.  The world does not understand him and often mocks what he does.  But he keeps at it, nevertheless, for the hope that these valleys can be verdant again.

No matter how it's viewed, the films offers an excellent reflection on the passage of time and the possibility of remarkable change.  It is a great way to begin a year.

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