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‘Mass’ outlines a process for healing and forgiveness

“Mass” (2021). Cast: Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, Reed Birney, Michelle N. Carter, Breeda Wool, Kagen Albright. Director: Fran Kranz. Screenplay: Fran Kranz. Web site. Trailer.

Getting past the pain in our lives is an arduous undertaking. It goes without saying that recovering from a terrible tragedy can be exceedingly difficult. Even talking about it can be grueling, especially when unspeakable acts are involved. That’s ironic, too, given that openly vocalizing one’s feelings is often one of the most effective ways of bringing about healing. But, in many cases, that’s what needs to happen at some point if the survivors of such atrocities want to get past them to achieve a sense of closure and perhaps to be able to express forgiveness, elements that provide the basis for the new domestic drama, “Mass.”

Two middle-aged married couples are up against the biggest challenge of their lives. Having unexpectedly shared in an exceptionally traumatic experience, they have spent several years trying to unravel their feelings and to figure out how to pick up the pieces. They’re so numb that they don’t even know where to begin, and that’s kept them from moving forward to address the issues in question. But, realizing they can’t allow themselves to be permanently emotionally paralyzed, they at last begin taking steps to break the deadlock. And, with that, Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton) and Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd, Reed Birney) initiate the process of finally moving forward with the assistance of an intermediary, Kendra (Michelle N. Carter), to intervene on their behalf.

Kendra arranges for the couples to meet and open a dialogue, one designed to bring their thoughts, feelings and experiences to the surface. After sensitively finessing the conditions under which the four participants will convene, the intermediary arranges for Jay, Gail, Linda and Richard to at last assemble in a meeting room adjacent to a community Episcopal church. Under Kendra’s guidance, parish staff members Judy (Breeda Wool) and Anthony (Kagen Albright) carefully prepare the facilities, not knowing what will unfold when the couples arrive. Given what little they have been told about what’s about to transpire, Judy and Anthony don’t know what to expect, but they clearly sense that it will be trying for all concerned – including those who aren’t directly involved.

Upon the couples’ arrival, they’re escorted into the conference room for their meeting. The tension is undeniably palpable. And, try as they might to put up brave fronts, it’s easy to see the anguish on the four pained faces in the room. But that’s nothing compared to what’s about to come as they finally open up and begin their discussion.

To say more would reveal far too much about the nature of the incident that has brought them together, as well as what’s to follow during their emotionally charged conversation. Suffice it to say they all share in reaching a common outcome. But, as feelings come rushing forth to the surface, the process unleashes a tsunami of previously unexpressed emotions. It’s a case where the couples confront one another and even where spouses challenge one another. It also becomes a situation in which unexpected new alliances form, especially when previously undisclosed revelations and hurts emerge. Such developments thus take matters in directions that no one likely expected when the session began.

So how will it all turn out? That depends on the nature and course of the dialogue, especially when it comes to the specific paths the participants choose to pursue their sought-after closure. It’s a result that everyone – including the audience – wants. But will it be achieved?

Considering what Jay, Gail, Linda and Richard are up against in this film, it’s easy to understand why they haven’t been able to confront the situation – or one another – for years. The excruciating pain that they’re attempting to deal with is so overwhelming and pervasive that they don’t know where to begin. But begin they must if they ever hope to get past the devastation. And that all comes down to what they believe, for their beliefs will determine the direction in which they head thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these resources in shaping our existence.

There are so many beliefs that need to be addressed as this process begins that it’s hard to know where to start: What do the two couples believe they want to achieve through it? How do they go about it (or can they even go about it)? How will they respond once they find themselves in the midst of it? Will it bring about the desired results? And will they be able to carry on afterward? That’s a big list of considerations to address, and the outcomes of all of them depend on whatever belief input the foursome incorporates into them up front. That’s a lot to handle, especially given everything that’s weighing on them emotionally, concerns that invariably can’t be excluded from the mix of everything else that’s being examined.

The first step is creating an environment where the best hoped-for outcome is attainable. That’s a tall order considering that, at the outset, it may be unfathomable to come up with a suitable setting. But difficult is not impossible, and thanks to thoughtful deliberation and professional guidance, the two couples are able to devise a solution that at least opens the door to making the desired result possible. There’s much to be said for that in itself.

In manifesting circumstances like these, there are several significant sets of beliefs that factor into the process. For instance, Jay, Gail, Linda and Richard need to act courageously, dropping their fear-based beliefs as they move ahead. Simultaneously, they must all believe it’s possible to work together, on the same page, in developing the means and methods for bringing about what they seek to achieve, a deliberate act of co-creation. Then they must allow themselves to be open to pushing past limitations, specifically the barriers in their beliefs that have kept them locked in place for so long. This requires that they consider envisioning possibilities that haven’t been tried before, particularly since what they’ve already attempted hasn’t gotten them anywhere.

Those all might seem like obvious and highly practical notions. In fact, one might rightfully ask, why haven’t they sought to implement them before? However, when considering all of the other painful emotional beliefs that are caught up in this mix, it’s understandable that such seemingly commonsense approaches might have been overlooked or purposely set aside. Their preoccupation with their feelings could well have hindered them from taking those steps, keeping resolution – or even the initiation of the process aimed at achieving it – at bay. The fact that they are at last moving ahead is a tremendous accomplishment in itself and one that’s to be highly commended for the quartet’s commitment and bravery.

Ideally, however, as much as the foregoing can set the couples on the road to success, it would be even more helpful if they could take an even grander step – leaving themselves open to new concepts that not only meet but exceed their expectations. Given the burdens they’ve been carrying, any form of relief would naturally be of benefit. However, if they were to consider the possibility that matters could work themselves out beyond the minimum level of probability, they could afford themselves an opportunity for a truly new beginning, one that extricates them from their sorrow and puts them on a path for a fresh start, one that incorporates elements of not only healing and forgiveness but also the prospect of genuine optimism, something they haven’t experienced in a very long time. Now that would be quite a creation. All it takes is appropriate beliefs.

For all of the promise contained in these proceedings, however, the couples must also be cognizant of the possibility that one slip in their beliefs could potentially cause everything to come crashing down on them. Given the emotionally charged influences that are caught up in this process, it wouldn’t take much for one errant belief to creep into the mix and unravel all the progress that has been made, potentially leaving the participants back where they started – or possibly even worse off. With these possible undermining influences lurking in the background, they must be kept in check (or, preferably, purged) to keep the process moving forward. To do otherwise could lead to irreparable backsliding, and what a shame that would be – compounding an already-terrible tragedy from which there may be no coming back, no matter how painstakingly the participants might work to do so. We can only wish them the best – and hope that they avail themselves of what this opportunity affords.

It’s hard to imagine that a film consisting almost exclusively of dialogues and monologues can make for a compelling watch, but such is the case with writer-director Fran Kranz’s debut feature. The pained conversation documented here opens many doors that have long been closed, releasing a deluge of raw emotions while simultaneously paving a path to healing, a truly cathartic experience for anyone who screens it. Although the film starts off slowly and somewhat clumsily (probably by intention but not especially effectively), it soon finds its voice and manages to captivate from that point forward. Credit the film’s carefully crafted screenplay, solid camera work and skillful editing for making engaging viewing out of material that might otherwise be considered dull, talky and visually monodimensional. But the picture’s greatest asset is the stellar acting of its four principals, who turn in riveting performances that stand out both individually and collectively. And, as the story plays out, viewers come to see how the film’s title is a brilliant double entendre that captures the essence of what happened and what the proceeding hopes to achieve.

It’s unfortunate that this offering has not garnered the kind of recognition it deserves (most likely due to its anemic distribution and a dearth of publicity), but it has been receiving ample critical acclaim and well-earned awards season accolades. Thankfully, this moving and powerful release shows that a movie doesn’t need to rely on endless explosions and high-powered special effects to capture and maintain viewer interest while delivering profound insights into the human mind and heart. The film initially played in limited theatrical release last fall and is now available for online streaming.

Despite the picture’s lack of visibility, it has garnered its share of awards season recognition. “Mass” has been named the winner of the Independent Spirit Awards’ Robert Altman Award, which honors excellence in casting. It also earned an ISA nomination for best first screenplay. In addition, the supporting performance of Ann Dowd has been deservedly singled out as a nominee in the Critics Choice and BAFTA Awards competitions.

Unfortunately, it can be all too easy to stay stuck in our grief. The effort to pull ourselves out of it may seem so daunting that many of us might look upon it as hardly worth it. But what kind of life would that be? Saddling ourselves with perpetual sorrow wouldn’t leave us with much worth living for, and that would be an even bigger tragedy than the one that put us in this state. Renewal is possible if we engage in the work – especially where our beliefs are concerned – to provide ourselves with the means for starting anew and at last putting our anguish behind us.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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