Saturday, January 26, 2013

“The Sessions”: Why Avert Your Eyes?

The Best-Picture nominators overlooked “The Sessions,” as did many moviegoers, but I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

It’s the film in which the remarkable, lovely-in-all-ways, Oscar-nominated Helen Hunt, 49, plays sexual surrogate to a disabled man confined 20 hours a day in an iron lung because of childhood polio. He is embodied brilliantly by John Hawkes. “The Sessions” is based on the real-life account of poet Mark O’Brien, who wrote about his experiences with Cheryl Cohen-Greene in an essay, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” which I have not read.

I was unaware seeing the film last night at the local art house—my brother invited me while Katie and her sister were having an at-home pajama party watching “Beasts of the Southern Wild” on pay-per-view—that it is based on a true story. There is much that seems cooked up about these “Sessions.” Especially William H. Macy in the role of a long-haired, slack-faced, flummoxed but resilient Catholic priest consulted by O’Brien about the morality of hiring a surrogate. O’Brien is a devout Catholic who wakes up each morning in his iron lung facing and talking to a picture of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

“I take sex seriously,” O’Brien says early on, as every serious Catholic does. Thirty-eight and approaching what he calls his use-by date, he is a virgin, though capable of achieving an erection and hungry for love. Wondering what the Church would say about his experiencing physical intimacy with a surrogate, the disabled man is wheeled on a gurney into private talks with Father Brendan. The priest listens, grimaces at the complexity of the questions, prays to Our Lord, then says to O’Brien, “I think He’ll give you a pass on this one.” Whereupon, overcoming stage fright, O’Brien hires Hunt and the two hit it off.

I bet there’s no chapter covering all these topics in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I am working my way through, or The Theology of the Body, which I have not read. But there are many things Catholic, or at least catholic, about this compelling movie.

It does take sex seriously—as a sacramental act one considers and undertakes thoughtfully, with the deepest possible respect for one’s partner. A surrogate is not a prostitute, Cheryl assures Mark during their first session. He is quicker to pay her than she is to accept payment.

The human body is treated as a beautiful gift here. Hunt, who let’s just say must have had some pretty top-quality “work” done,” appears fully naked, yet completely dignified. And in a powerful scene near the end, she brings a full-length mirror to the final session so that Mark can see himself entire. Throughout the film, it is hard to escape the sense that his gaunt, wracked body is meant to remind us of Christ naked on the Cross.

Remarkably, this movie’s portrayal of Father Brendan is likely to raise more eyebrows among Catholics (“Would my priest be so accepting of this approach?”) than among non- or anti-Catholics, who are likely to find no grounds here to fault Church “teaching,” if that’s what it is. Longer-haired than most priests and not necessarily more open-hearted than “liberal,” Macy’s is a weird, warm, wonderful portrayal.

The most doctrinaire Catholics will probably want to avoid these “Sessions,” and no home-schooling parent will be showing it on DVD, but others open to the mystery of love and the human heart may find their own hearts moved. I leaned forward in my seat during most of the two hours, not with prurience but more like in prayer.

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