Imagine a contemporary movie that portrays the power of forgiveness. Imagine a product of Hollywood that portrays the Church and the Priesthood in a positive light. Imagine a story that proclaims self-giving love instead of narcissistic self-indulgence.
Imagine Gran Torino.
Yes, it's rated "R." Yes, its protagonist, Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), is a foul-mouthed, misanthropic old man who wields guns because of a chip-grown-boulder on his shoulder from his time in the Korean War.
Set in a decaying, overrun-with-Hmong-immigrants Detroit borough, Gran Torino's grit and realism (including Walt's alienated family, gang activity, and racial strife) do not diminish the Catholic imagination of this story but demonstrate that such a setting is where we find the Church at its best, a keystone that the world rejects as thoughtlessly as it rejects Walt Kowalski and his Hmong refugee neighbors.
The movie opens in the Church, where Walt glares over the casket of his deceased wife as his estranged sons and their families' distance from him and all that he values cause him to curse and snarl. He rebuffs the young priest, Father Janovich, who, at the dying request of Walt's wife, promises to lead Walt to Confession, something the old veteran has not done since his time in the Korean War. Little wonder then, that Walt hurls racial epithets at his Hmong neighbors, despite the winning ways of their 17-year-old son, Thao, and his older sister, Sue.
When Thao, bullied by a Hmong gang, attempts to steal Walt's vintage Gran Torino, Walt is drawn into a relationship with the family as Thao recompenses for his crime by doing chores for Walt, who also saves Sue from a rape attempt. The persistence of the Hmong family is mirrored by that of Father Janovich—both are God's unlikely means of chipping away at Walt's stony heart.
Eventually, the harassment of the Hmong gang leads Walt to respond in the only way he knows: violent reprisal. Yet, Detroit is not Korea; Walt's vigilantism leads to Sue's rape at the hands of the gang and a drive-by hail of bullets on Thao's home.
Thao seeks blood revenge, and it seems that Walt agrees, polishing his rifle. He advises Thao to cool his rage and wait until nightfall so that they can take measures that will "end this thing once and for all."
While Thao waits, Walt gets a straight shave from the barber (something he's never indulged in), is fitted for a suit (again, another first), and arrives at the Church to receive the Sacrament of Penance.
You will have to see the confessional scene for yourself, but it is unlike anything you might expect. Although we do not hear the actual formula of absolution, Father Janovich absolves Walt and urges him not to resort to violence.
[The next paragraph is a spoiler; do NOT read it if you do not want to know the ending.]
Walt tricks Thao and locks him in the basement, while Walt leaves to confront the gang. Standing in front of the ganghouse, in sight of the neighbors, who watch from their windows, Walt calls the gang members to task for their crimes then reaches into the breast pocket of his jacket and mutters "Hail Mary, full of grace …" The rest of the prayer never leaves his lips as the gang guns him down, his prone body stretched on the ground in a cruciform pose, the lighter labeled with his Korean-War 1st-Cavalry-Division insignia in his open palm. He has no gun on his person. The gang is arrested for murder. Walt exorcises the evil from his neighborhood by the Christ-like offering of his very self.
[Spoiler threat over; you may safely read again.]
In Gran Torino, forgiveness—of oneself and others—is not a trite lesson but a palpable living, breathing Walt Kowalski who has been empowered by the Church and the Sacrament of Penance not merely to right his own accounts but to, through love, triumph over evil.
Throughout his life, Walt Kowalski has consigned himself to being a messenger of violence in a world that knows nothing else. Through the sacramental love shown to him by Thao and Sue, and the Sacrament of Penance persistently offered by Father Janovich, Walt is commissioned to bear Christ even to his enemies, the bearers of evil. For, to kill them, would be to kill another Thao, another Korean soldier. Instead, Walt defeats the scorpions and serpents by removing their sting, which Eastwood (also the director) punctuates with the "Hail Mary" as Walt's final words. Through Mary, the serpent's head is crushed (Gen 3:15b). Through the Grace embodied by the Blessed Virgin, the Church's Sacrament of Penance empowers Walt to die to himself and therein die for his people—white, black, Latino, and Hmong.
See Gran Torino and decide for yourself. Hollywood will not tell you that it's thunderously Catholic; but God-given storytelling power, in the hands of a veteran actor and director who has learned a thing or two about life, can tell the story God's love and forgiveness.
Father of holiness,for the journey of your pilgrim Church on earth,you have provided the Virgin Mary as a sign and beacon.Through her intercession,sustain our faith and enliven our hope,that no obstacle may divert usfrom the road which brings us salvation.Amen.(concluding prayer from Compline
in the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary)