Monday, March 4, 2013

Behind the Mustache and the Hoodie: A Theological Reflection on "Bernie" and "The Imposter"

He's not the man he appeared to be.

The statement is usually applied to dating relationships for those unfortunate romantic partners' whose initial positive reactions have dissolved with the darker realization of the truth. It also applies to two men in two strikingly similar films: Bernie Tiede and Frederic Bourdin. Both are set in small-town Texas. Both have charismatic central characters. Both involve a bizarre crime involving on-going deception and investigation.

Both are true stories that reveal deeper truths about humanity.

Bernie Tiede is a lovable guy. An assistant mortician living in Carthage, Texas (population: 7,000), Bernie takes pride in his work preparing the deceased for funerals and burial. Adored by the female geriatric population and always with a smile on his face, Bernie is living the good life. He sings gospel music and directs elaborate musicals for the local theatre. He brings flowers to recently-widowed clients and kisses the hands of old ladies in church. He exudes charm, despite being a bit eccentric.

One of his most recent clients is a sour and bitter woman, Marjorie, one of the wealthiest women in town. Her own children tried to sue her for her money, to no avail. She is bitter and aloof. When her husband passes away, Bernie brings her flowers. What follows is a bizarre semi-romantic relationship between the elderly widow and the chubby undertaker, one that takes a dark and twisted turn towards criminal action.

Bernie is based on a true story, and filmmaker Richard Linklater does his best to create an account so accurate that it plays out like a documentary. Interspersed in the narrative are real interviews with the actual townsfolk who knew Bernie Tiede; they tell the story in their own words. Bernie feels like a real-life Christopher Guest film, with the bizarre and quirky characters that could only exist in the real world.

"From as long as I can remember, I wanted to be someone else...someone who was acceptable."

This is the introduction to Frederic Bourdin in The Imposter, a gripping documentary in the vein of Errol Morris. The story centers around Frederic and the disappearance of Nicolas Barclay, a 13-year-old boy who disappeared from his Texas home. Three years later, "Nicolas" apparently shows up in a youth shelter in Spain with an elaborate story involving kidnapping, a sex slave ring, and ongoing physical torture. "Nicolas" is Frederic, a 23-year-old Frenchman pretending to be the missing 16-year-old Texan boy. When the family comes to take Nicolas home, they embrace him as their own, somehow believing that the man in front of them is their missing son.

How could they not see the truth? Denial? Lack of awareness? Just plain stupidity? They have eyes to see and ears to hear, but these are people with stuffed ears and blind eyes. Perhaps it was a simple choice--I won't believe; I can't believe; it doesn't matter what anyone says, this person is my son. "My main goal in life at that time was not to think." So says the mother of Nicolas, a woman who wears a constant befuddled and nervous look on her face. This is not a sustainable value system; to actively strive for an existence of not-think is a hollow pursuit. There something deeper going on here, and filmmaker Bart Layton has carefully crafted this documentary with the tension and suspense of any Hollywood thriller.

What kind of a person is Bernie? There is a desire to belong, a desire for freedom, at any cost. Bernie is wholly for others, an overly-generous man with an eagerness to pour out himself to the point of his downfall. Bernie ends up sacrificing his on the altar self-abnegation. He gives and gives and gives, but what does he gain in return? While his self-emptying has the appearance of being for the sake of others--even to himself--he is blinded to the truth: this is how he finds belonging and value, to give himself away in order to gain approval and acceptance. Even when he has committed a horrible crime, he continues to be overly generous with the funds he inherits, a sort of chubby Texan Robin Hood.

What of Frederic? Frederic has all the charm and charisma of Bernie, but with a bit more self-awareness: he knows what he is doing is wrong and he does not care. He is a pathological liar, a person so broken that he glories in the attention from his deception. Frederic is wholly for himself. He admits this at the end of the film, with a "f**k them all, it's all about me" send-off while the image of Frederic dancing alone in prison flashes across the screen. He is dancing alone in prison; this is self-congratulatory celebration in isolation. Both Bernie and Frederic have put on a false persona, but while Frederic is aware of his masks, Bernie only realizes the fragility of his own identity when it finally breaks. Frederic revels in his sins with a smirk; Bernie hides his sins in the freezer.

What is remarkable about both men is how quickly and thoroughly they convinced the Texan community around them of their innocence and goodness. Even when Bernie's crimes come to light and he openly admits his guilt, people in Carthage still remain entirely unconvinced that he is a criminal, to the astonishment of the district attorney. He's a good person, they claim. He wouldn't hurt anybody. The dark truth is that he did hurt somebody. So did Frederic. Despite his crimes being of a non-violent nature, Frederic wounded the hearts and the trust of a Texas family and the American government system; he fooled the Spanish police force, the US Embassy, and even the FBI, ultimately ending up as a brief media sensation while wearing the identity of Nicolas.

I've written before about Christopher Nolan's films and their faulty portrayal of truth and justice. I'm bothered by the underlying message that a false ideal is more valuable or meaningful than a difficult-yet-revealed truth. In Nolan's films, the truth is hidden or denied to the public in order to spare them, to allow them to believe the lie as a sort of act of grace. Nolan seems to be asking the ultimate metaphysical question--what is really real?--and answering with "whatever you can convince yourself is true." 

This isn't grace. It is denial and falsehood. Grace and truth go hand in hand together, companions and partners. This goes beyond truth-telling to self-awareness. Bernie, the people of Carthage, and the family of Nicolas Barclay all lacked a clarity of the reality before them. The opposite of self-awareness is self-deception, an active choice to believe in a false reality rather than embracing the truth. If grace is an unmerited gift, the grace of truth is the gift of reality. Lauren Winner writes this about the nature of sin and truth:
This is how sin works: it whispers to us about the goodness of something not good. It makes distortions feel good. It tells us we’d be better off with pleasure in hell than sanctification in heaven.
When the Texan community denied the dark reality about the person before them, they also denied the reality of the deception and darkness in their own hearts. Grace is not ignoring the darkness, but rather exposing the darkness to the light, then still choosing to forgive and accept. I am reminded of the Sufjan Stevens song "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." from his Illinois album, which has this poignant line as its coda:

In my best behavior, I am really just like him. / Look underneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid. 

Look in the freezer. Dig in the backyard. Unlock and expose the hidden secrets and fears in our hearts. We may unearth a dark truth about ourselves--we live with lies and self-deception every single day. I am Bernie and I am Frederic. I desire acceptance too. My heart has sin, too. One sinner hides behind a hoodie and a story. Another hides behind a mustache and his kindness. Both hide behind their charm and smiles. We all hide behind the fig leaf from Eden. The gift and reality is that this sin has been confronted and defeated by One who wholly embodied grace and truth, exposing our sin to the light and offering us the gracious gift of new life and freedom.

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