Mental illness is rarely portrayed in film and when it is the subject is even more rarely done really well. One of the first films to deal with the subject directly was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Then the best big time film on the subject won the Academy Award for best film: A Beautiful Mind. With a star like Russell Crowe it was clearly destined to be a great movie.
The first film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was brave and good, at least for the time. The second was unique and had powerful acting to boot. It was, simply put, memorable. I own it and will go back to it now and then just because it is such a great movie, period
So, I was not prepared for the 2007 award-winning movie Canvas to be such a good film when I borrowed it this week. It is a heart-warming story rooted in real facts, not fiction. The writer and producer, Joseph Greco, experienced his early life with a schizophrenic mother. From his own painful experience he wrote and produced this wonderful and impressive film, starring Joe Pantoliano, as the husband, and Mary Gay Harden, as the mentally ill wife and mother. The ten-year-old boy is played by Devon Gearhart, a superb original actor.
Mary’s illness puts her entire family in serious jeopardy. Harden could not have played this role any better, at least based upon my own experience with people afflicted with schizophrenia. She brings incredible shame on her son and disrupts his life with his friends at the most inopportune time. The father then faces a difficult work situation while he also copes with a wife that he loves but can no longer relate to in any normal way. There are poignant moments of pain and joy here, including a touch of appropriate humor, but the bottom line is that there is no healing and no perfectly happy ending here.
This film is so close to real life that it both troubles and probe the heart. As a Christian, and especially as a minister, I found myself saying, "Every pastor in America ought to watch this film." Those who deny mental illness as a category of real sickness ought to be gently shown why they should stop counseling people and those who believe in mental illness will be moved and stirred to give true sympathy and professional care both.
After watching this film I thought about the campus shootings. Since the recent one took place not that far from our home, at Northern Illinois University, I was reflecting again on why there has been a rash of these killing sprees.
The simplistic answers abound. Too many guns, guns are simply too easy to purchase or, worse yet, Satan is alive and well and destroying America. But all of these answers are, well, very simplistic. I think a major reason is seen in this film. One in every 100 Americans is schizophrenic. Most of these killers have been severely ill people. Most have been on medications but then have taken themselves off their drugs without proper care and treatment. They should not be allowed to live freely, without supervision, until they are off their drugs and proven to be considerably improved. If some program of accountability was in place then several of the college shootings would likely have been prevented. Families need help in coping as well. Patients need better care and protection. Things have improved but we still have a ways to go. And society needs to better understand mental illness. The Church could help in all of this a great deal but so long as many fundamentalists deny the category of mental illness Christians will not offer real solutions.
Whether you agree with my analysis or not watch Canvas. It is simply a great movie. It justly won a number of film festival awards in 2007. There is a good Web site where you can watch the preview of the film as well. This is the type of film that will never make it in the big theaters but it should be seen by a wide audience (PG-13). Be sure to see the "Behind the Scenes" commentary and the "Screening Q & A" done at Tufts University, both on the DVD. The psychologist who introduced the screening feature referred to Canvas as "the most accurate portrayal of this illness I have ever seen." I concur. It has some happy moments but be prepared to grieve and struggle very honestly.