I confess I shed more tears during Brooklyn than any movie I have seen in years. Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley and nominated for three Oscars, is a story about the immigrant experience, but it has been over 40 years since I emigrated to the U.S.A. It surprised me that I still have such “homesickness” but grief has layers, some of which run deep and wait many years for expression. Brooklyn is about the immigrant experience in the 1950s, portrayed in the life of a young Irish woman, Eilis Stacey played by Saoirse Ronan. It captures tenderly the tension felt by a dutiful daughter as she leaves her family to find work in America. Her face (reminiscent of a Botticelli angel) expresses the grief and longing for the old and her curiosity for the new. The scale is tipped in favor of the new world by her falling in love with an Italian plumber, Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen) in Brooklyn. Their common link is the Roman Catholic Church. In the process of integration into a new society she becomes a new person. Confidence is born within her and nurtured by supportive relationships.
The choice between old and new is revisited when she returns to Ireland for her sister’s funeral and prospects for work and marriage become attractive in the old country. The story is set up to give her a choice between going back and staying. She realizes that she must go where her heart is leading and the Italian plumber and Brooklyn have won her heart. The film makes her choice easier because the old country emphasizes duty and guilt and the new country draws her with the promise of greater acceptance, the discovery of herself and a home of her own. A. O. Scott, NY Times film critic, perceptively writes:
Inwardness is a great challenge for filmmakers. The human face is a wall as well as a window. Words lose their power. Everything depends on the ability of actors to communicate nuances of feeling and fluctuations of consciousness. And Ms. Ronan uses everything — her posture, her eyebrows, her breath, her teeth, her pores — to convey a process of change that is both seismic and subtle. Eilis is in transit, and to some degree in limbo, caught between two stages of life and two very different conceptions of home.
The archetype of “home” carries great emotional power, the reason why I was overcome with tears. I have lived in the U.S.A. for more than 40 years but I still wonder where “home” is. There are times when I think about moving back to England, because my English heritage and family is so important to me. But after my annual visit to England I feel I’m coming home when I land at Logan Airport in Boston. I have made a home in New England as well and the thought of uprooting again seems unnecessary (unless Donald Trump becomes President!) So I share some of that state of “limbo”.
The movie portrays a young person in search of her own life, work, marriage and a home of her own. These are the tasks of the younger years. Seeking “home” takes on a different meaning as we grow towards maturity, and “home” becomes more of a spiritual goal. There are many references in the Bible to our spiritual home being in God, but John’s Gospel says it best for me. Jesus said: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” What is remarkable in these words is the way God is said to make a home with us. Most people would say that they are not holy enough for such a thing to be even thought, but Jesus says it will happen because God wants it to happen. The initiative is with God.
I have come to realize that my state of “limbo” is not really between England and America. It is between earth and heaven, between the powers of this world and the reign of God, between the need to control and the desire to let go, between illusory self and true self. The writer to the Hebrews called Abraham and Sarah, “strangers and foreigners on the earth … they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one.” I identify the same longing within myself, which I call “homesickness”. It is a longing for the new world described by Jesus in his Beatitudes, a world where mercy, humility, justice, peacemaking, faithfulness and the loving vision of God are priority.
There is one scene in Brooklyn that may reveal this deeper search for a spiritual “home”. Eilis is walking with a friend on a deserted beach in Ireland after recently being on the crowded beach at Coney Island. The contrast speaks volumes: the one quiet and contemplative, the other noisy and brash. She says to her companion, “I wish it could have been like this before I left.” The challenge ahead of her in America will be to find a contemplative spirituality in the extraverted, noisy world of New York.
I hope many Americans will see Brooklyn during this election season (when immigrants are being sorely abused) and remember that we are a nation of “strangers and foreigners” who have come to these welcoming shores.