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A brush with God, as well as madness, in ‘At Eternity’s Gate’

AT ETERNITYS GATE,VINCENT VAN GOGH
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Willem Dafoe has never won an Oscar, but that may change this year for his role as Vincent Van Gogh.

Willem Dafoe has been winning praise for his turn as artist Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate. Some say that Dafoe (a three-time Oscar nominee) has never been better and as such he helps turn the dreamy biopic into one of the most spiritually challenging films of the year.

The movie’s spiritual core rests in one critical scene: Van Gogh, locked in a French asylum, sits down with a priest (played by Mads Mikkelsen) and begins talking about his paintings. Van Gogh calls his unique artistic vision “a divine gift,” one bestowed by God himself, but the priest suggests otherwise. He shows a couple of Van Gogh’s paintings to the artist, calling them disturbing and ugly, even horrific.

The priest presses further. While not dismissive of the raw power in Van Gogh’s work, he sees them as a product of the artist’s tortured mind and soul — signs of madness made manifest in paint and pigment. Why, he asks, would God “give you this gift to keep you in misery?”

Van Gogh ponders this point. “Maybe God made me a painter for people not born yet,” he muses. The priest accepts that it’s possible: All things are with God.

The movie’s Van Gogh was right, of course. While the artist was a failure while alive (legend has it that he sold just one painting in his lifetime), he became a superstar after his death. His works are routinely the most valuable in the world, and his “Portrait of Doctor Gachet” (which we see Van Gogh working on in the film) sold at auction in 1990 for a then-record $82.5 million.

Frankly, however, I found the priest’s question, not Van Gogh’s answer, the more interesting.

Throughout At Eternity’s Gate, we see the interplay between Van Gogh’s genius and madness, elements that the artist himself often couches in spiritual terms. The movie tells us that he was raised in a deeply religious home, and the real Van Gogh was a missionary for a time. Naturally, he saw the divine at work in his painting. “I feel God is nature and nature is beauty,” he tells the priest, and nature was by far the artist’s favorite subject.

But Van Gogh also speaks of dark forces at work around him — “black beasts” that haunt and terrify him. He admits that sometimes he feels an urge to commit terrible acts of violence. Art, he says at one juncture, is the only salve he knows. Without it, he’d surely be far worse off.

But contemporary scholars have long speculated to what extent Van Gogh’s art was abetted — maybe even made possible — by his tortured soul. If he wasn’t so troubled, would he have been the revolutionary painter he was?

And if we, like Van Gogh himself, believe in God, where does our Creator come into the equation in the midst of pain? We, like the priest, may ask the question: Would God give us a gift that makes us miserable?

I’m no priest, just a lowly movie reviewer. But I turned that question over in my mind when I drove home from At Eternity’s Gate. I thought about a quote from Lord of the Rings’ author J.R.R. Tolkien, in a letter he wrote to scholar Rhona Beare:

A divine “punishment” is also a divine “gift,” if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make “punishments”… produce a good not otherwise to be attained.

I’m not saying that Van Gogh’s mental issues were a “punishment.” But I do think that God has the ability — perhaps even the habit — of taking the messy, tortured, even terrible things in our lives and giving us unexpected blessings through them. It doesn’t make them any less terrible, necessarily, but we see grace at work in them. Maybe these troubles take the form of lifelong struggles inside ourselves — the thorn in our flesh like Paul talked about in 2 Corinthians. Maybe we find them in conflicts that become catalysts for better things ahead — a fight with a spouse that clears the air, a painful fallout at work that results in a much-needed career change.

Even the moments that leave us asking why, why God, did you allow this to happen? Sometimes we can find beauty in that place.

Several years ago, I visited my grandmother several states away and took her out to dinner. Truth be told, she’d been my favorite grandparent growing up, and not just because she spoiled me rotten. She’d always been, to me, the very image of genteel civilization. She played bridge and threw dinner parties and, when we had Thanksgiving dinner at her house when I was a kid, it felt like we were holding court at an English manor. If she’d been a painting, she’d be a 16th-century Flemish realist, perhaps — not a line or brush stroke out of place.

I’d been told that she was growing a little more forgetful, maybe even a little eccentric. I hadn’t been prepared, though, for who I saw. When we got to the restaurant, she became agitated and confused — flustered over the sight of a much-too-big cinnamon bun. In the 15 minutes we were there, she kept talking and laughing and muttering over the bun until, now clearly frightened by the whole noisy, confusing restaurant, she put her hand on my arm.

“Paul,” she said, turning her eyes, wide and wet, to me, “I think you should take me home.”

As I drove her home, she cried. She poured out all her fears and worries — how embarrassed she was, how scared she felt, how she didn’t know what was happening to her. And then, as I pulled in front of her townhouse, she turned to me again.

“But you know what?” She said somberly, as serious as maybe I’d ever seen her, “It’s okay. We love each other, and that makes it okay.”

The evening was terrifying for me, too, and painful. Stricken with Alzheimer’s, she lived for several more years. But that evening was the last time I saw my grandma as anything like herself again.

But as hard as that moment was, it was beautiful, too. She’d never been so open with me, so painfully transparent. In her tumult, my grandma gave me a curiously beautiful memory of her, one I treasure above all others.

We love each other, and that makes it okay.

I think that’s part of what draws us to Van Gogh’s paintings even now: In their surreal swirls and eddies, their vivid, almost shocking color, we find an honesty there — something that goes deeper than mere visual reproduction. You look at a Van Gogh and you see the mess. The ugliness. Maybe even, sometimes, the horror. But you find a dreamlike beauty, too. His paintings speak with a raw honesty that peeks behind the world’s veneer and catches a glimpse at another world, one beautiful and terrible and raw.

Why would a loving God allow us to live in pain? To be troubled, even tortured, by soul and circumstance? It’s a mystery, and one not easily answered. But At Eternity’s Gate suggests that, in the brushstrokes of that solemn mystery, we sometimes find beauty and truth. If, as Tolkien suggests, we accept it.

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