Movies for Lent, Week 1 – Betrayal (Casablanca)

Scripture Interpretation

The following is an interpretation of Matthew 26:36-41 and Mark 14:43-46 to bring out the themes being discussed this week. Quotes are taken from the CEB translation.

“I am so sad. It is as if I am dying.”

All of us will die. Our deaths are sure, but very few of us will see them coming. Death will sneak up and snatch us away from this life. Jesus, on the other hand, isn’t caught off guard. Jesus knows the time has come for his death. He sees it. He feels it. He is grieved. Jesus mourns. He mourns his own death.

He would avoid it if he could. He begs his Father to spare him from death. Like a death row inmate writing letters to the President again and again, Jesus asks God to grant him clemency. Jesus’ Father is silent. God refuses to let Jesus escape his impending demise. Jesus submits himself to his Father’s will.

Jesus’ friends prove unhelpful to him as well. In his grief, Jesus asks them to sit awake with him to pray for their salvation, for Jesus’ salvation, that they all might be spared what’s coming. Jesus needs them that night in the garden as he has never perhaps needed them before, and they each fail him. The disciples fall asleep. Jesus knows they want to do well, but wanting isn’t doing. In the moment when he most needs them to be strong, they are weak.

Finally the moment Jesus has been dreading arrives. A mob brandishing swords and clubs emerges from the darkness. They are led by one of Jesus’ own. Judas, signaling to the mob that this is Jesus, says ironically, for certainly Judas did not learn from Christ what Christ most tried to teach, “Teacher!” and kisses Christ on the cheek.

Christ is betrayed first by his Father who will not allow him to escape death.
Christ is betrayed also by his friends who cannot stay awake in Jesus’ hour of need.
Christ is betrayed finally by Judas who hands him over to be killed.

Thematic Reflection

Our focus this first week of Lent is on betrayal, and betrayal is the perfect theme to begin with, because betrayal—expecting and wanting a good thing, but finding something bad instead—is at the heart of everything we will focus on throughout Lent and peripatetically (Twist!) on Easter morning when the bad we have come to expect is overtaken by great good instead.

As we see in the Gethsemane narrative, Jesus wants good things from everyone in his life and finds something else instead. He wants reprieve from his Father. God is silent. He wants steadfastness from his disciples. They fall asleep. He wants loyalty from Judas. Judas hands him over to the mob. Christ is betrayed repeatedly.

Casablanca is also a great film to watch as we begin these cinema-inspired, Lenten reflections. The film is in many ways the most movie-ish of movies. It’s classic in the most Classic sense—filmed on a soundstage, “invisibly” directed by MIchael Curtiz, shot in two weeks and quickly released—as pure a product of film industry as we have.

And yet, Casablanca, while stereotypical in every aspect of its production, is atypical in its effect. Casablanca is constantly listed among the greatest films of all time, because it is such a great story full of characters with relationships more vibrant and complicated than most. Other movies shine like streetlights, illuminating but cold. Casablanca crackles like a campfire.

Casablanca is particularly pertinent to this first week of Lent as well, because its narrative is built upon and carried along by betrayals. As you watch the film, note the betrayals. Some are bold. You won’t miss them. They are the story. Others are subtle. For instance, how is Sam playing “As Time Goes By” a kind of betrayal?

As the story goes on, Rick, our reluctant hero, spins an ever more complicated web of betrayals to get what he wants. He is a cynical, self-serving man. He doesn’t “stick his neck out” for anyone, because no one has ever stuck their neck out for him. Everyone he has ever loved has betrayed his trust.

Watch Casablanca. Stop the film at 1:34:49, right after Louis says, “That is my least vulnerable spot.” (You’ll watch the rest of the film on Easter.) After watching the film, read the rest of the reflection and answer the questions.

Further Reflection and Questions

Rick has certainly manipulated things to work in his favor, hasn’t he? Of course, he’s had to lie to and betray everyone in his life to get what he wants, but at least he’s getting it. He betrayed Ugarte to the authorities, Yvonne to other men, Victor to Louis, and Louis to the Germans. Along the way, Rick has also been terrible to Ilsa, betraying the love they once shared and forcing her to betray her husband.

Other characters betray each other as well. Ilsa betrayed Rick long ago when they were in Paris. Sam betrays Rick when he plays “As Time Goes By” even though Rick asked him not to ever do that. Louis betrays his German superiors by allowing Rick the chance to escape. Even the conflict between the Vichy and Free France political groups is built on an accused betrayal – the Vichy government betrayed their country by siding with the German occupants. No one in Casablanca, with the exception of Victor Laslo, the film’s paragon of virtue, is trustworthy.

Love is built on trust. It depends upon it. Every time we fail to love someone, we betray that trust. We may never do anything as dramatic as handing a friend over to a murderous mob or leaving a lover standing forlornly on a rain-soaked train platform, but we betray each other nonetheless. Anytime we don’t do what we say we’ll do or anytime we do what we say we won’t, we betray.

This first week of Lent, recall the ways you have betrayed the people you claim to love. Recall the ways you have betrayed God. Confess your betrayals to one another.

1) When have you, like the disciples and like Rick, betrayed someone you are meant to love?
2) When have you, like Judas, betrayed God?

Also, recall the times you have been betrayed. Think about ways people who supposedly love you have let you down. Remember the times life has let you down. Perhaps even God hasn’t been there for you as you expected when you expected. Don’t wallow in self pity or lash out at people who care about you like Rick does the evening after Ilsa shows back up. Do as Christ does in the garden. Sit with the betrayal you have experienced, and mourn it.

1) When have you, lIke Jesus and like Rick, been betrayed by someone you expected to love you?
2) Have you ever, like Jesus, felt betrayed by God?

Now, do as Christ did and as Rick needs to do – make yourself submissive to God’s will. Trust God to fulfill God’s promises and be good to you in time. Turn and face your betrayers peacefully. Know the story isn’t over yet. Pray, “Let your will be done, God. Let your will be done.”