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And the Nominees Are . . . Lion

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Editors’ Note: In anticipation of the 89th Academy Awards on February 26,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the nine films nominated for Best Picture. This post contains no spoilers.

So they were there even before I had learnt them, but were not in my memory. . . . They were already in the memory, but so remote and pushed into the background, as if in most secret caverns, that unless they were dug out by someone drawing attention to them, perhaps I could not have thought of them. (Confessions Book X, 17)

In book ten of his Confessions, St. Augustine writes of memory as a re-learning, a re-discovering. Deep in our memory there are visions of truth that we re-learn as life prompts their recall. Garth Davis’ Lion dives into the intimate quest of a human severed from his origins. How do the memories of who he once was and those who loved him reach through the rupture between them? And how must he respond once those memories reach him?

Based on a true story, Saroo Brierly’s journey is harrowingly unique, yet universal in sentiment. On a literal level, Saroo’s story of displacement—of feeling estranged even at home, of feeling a strain between the identity we forge in the world and the identity of our origins—rings true for many young adults who leave home and return, only to have discovered that they are not quite at home, even in their native land. But Saroo’s story is also a poignant allegory of humanity’s universal spiritual story.

Saroo, sensitively embodied by Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire), is caught between two forces: the ferocious love of his adoptive mother, Sue, a vibrant Nicole Kidman in a red wig, who has rescued him from a captive life of abuse in an ominous Indian orphanage, and the primal pull of an original maternal love whose fragmented image he slowly stitches back together.

When he encounters the smell of jalebi, a fried Indian sweet, at a university party, Saroo’s memories of the past come flooding back over him. Moments that have been lost underneath the trauma that blanketed Saroo’s memories of his previous life tumble back into his conscious memory. Sue’s love smothered the fresh pain that flared up in his life in the orphanage. Sue’s love anchored him when he was an orphan adrift in the world. Sue’s love invited him to enter into new life, and forget the old pain, but, in the process, Saroo forgot the world of love that preceded his orphan pain. As Saroo breathes in the saccharine scent of the jalebi, he glimpses the sweetness of that former life. Beneath the pain which buried the past, Saroo finds an intimation of past love. The love of Sue has forged his identity, but there was a love before even Sue’s. And he must find that love again.

Saroo is haunted by memories of his birth mother Kamla, by his brother, Guddu, who cared for him and subsequently misplaced him on the train that sundered Saroo from his home. Saroo is tortured by imagining the pain his family must be feeling knowing that he is lost somewhere in the world. Slowly, Saroo remembers more and more, recovering images of his former self, and the entire world in which that self dwelt. That world, and his role in that world, has a claim on Saroo. He cannot simply just continue on with his life: he must dig into this former life, he must answer the call that his origins place on him.

Lion is a moving picture of homecoming and of the mystical power of familial love. But Saroo’s journey is also a beautiful image of the fundamental pilgrimage of a Christian. Saroo desperately seeks his origins; so, too, we seek a home for our restless hearts, our original home which is part of the very ground of our being.

Our Origin calls to us; despite our estrangement from Him. Even though we forge our identities in myriad fires, God is still the ultimate core and key to our being. A human possesses a Voverständnis, an anticipation or pre-understanding of love, writes Hans Urs von Balthasar,[1] which allows her to comprehend the actions of a loving God. In order for God “to reveal the love that he harbors for the world, this love has to be something that the world can recognize.”[2] Humans can recognize God’s action of love because we already have a “glimmer of love.”[3] Von Balthasar imagines this glimmer coming to us as a mother’s smile. An infant smiles back at her mother, according to von Balthasar, because she has basked in the smile of her mother. The smile of the mother is woven into the child’s memory, even before the child knows what it is, and that smile shapes the child’s world.

The love of God shapes us prior to our awareness; thus, deep in our memories we know it, recollecting it in signs of grace. This God calls to us in the smallest of symbols, in the briefest whiffs of sweetness: in the words of St. Paul, in a George MacDonald novel, in the scent of jalebi. These small signs of beauty remind us of a primal vision of who we are, and the God who brought us into being. These memories place a claim on us. These memories demand conversion, a change in our direction, metanoia.

Saroo responds to his memories first with denial, with fear, but ultimately embraces the journey they demand of him, the Son of Susan, to restore his identity as the Son of Kamla.

Humanity’s homecoming, like Saroo’s, is the pilgrimage forward to the Love that is our origin, that we know from the past, the Love that is our whence and whither. It is the journey towards the God who created us, who gave us our very being. It is a journey to the loving face of the mother who first smiled at us, that we might learn to smile.

[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible, trans. D.C. Schindler (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 61.

[2] Ibid., 71.

[3] Ibid., 76.

Renée D. Roden

Renée D. Roden is a Master of Theological Studies student at the University of Notre Dame and a graduate fellow of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.