by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Charles and I had made up our mind to go to the library movie — for the last time for a while since the organ concerts on Monday nights start next week — and the film turned out to be unexpectedly good: Pearl Diver, a remarkable indie (made in 2004 but not released until three years later) by writer-director Sidney King, who apparently actually grew up in the Mennonite community near Goshen, Indiana where the film takes place and drew on his personal experiences for his story. The film basically deals with the prickly relationship between two sisters, Hannah Eberly (Joey Honsa), who left the Mennonite community, settled in a large city and tried to make it as a writer (she’s had one book published, Fidel: Then and Now — a surprising choice for a subject because otherwise she doesn’t seem particularly political at all); and Marian Eberly Miller (Amy Jean Johnson), who stayed behind, married fellow Mennonite John Miller (Brian Boland) and had a daughter by him, Rebecca (Maddie Abshire, who looks about eight even though we’re told the character is six).
The film is centered around the two tragedies that seem to enclose Hannah and Marian like pincers: the violent death of their mother in an In Cold Blood-style home-invasion robbery years earlier and a recent accident involving Rebecca, whose head was crushed in when her father accidentally ran her down in his tractor when she’d gone out into the fields to bring him his lunch. Rebecca survives but her only chance of full recovery is an experimental operation her family’s health insurer won’t pay for (another one of these stories turning on the damnable fact that this country is too pig-headed, elitist or in love with its myths of “self-reliance” and the “free market” to make health care a taxpayer-funded human right the way every other affluent, developed nation has!). King sets up the expected conflicts between the tradition of the Mennonites (who are not as dementedly anti-progress as the Amish: there are scenes of them traveling in horse-drawn carriages and their women wearing long dresses and head scarves, but as the presence of a tractor on the Miller farm and a telephone in their home indicate, they’re not opposed to all manifestations of modern technology) and the city life Hannah led before she returned to her sister’s and brother-in-law’s farm to help them cope with their daughter’s accident, but he doesn’t always give us these conflicts in the expected ways.
Pearl Diver is a difficult movie to get into because it’s hard to adjust to the slow pace King has used — he obviously wanted to draw us in to the slower, more stately, less immediately exciting rhythms of life in an agrarian community — but once you make that adjustment it’s an incredible movie, vividly acted and well structured. There are periodic flashback sequences showing the mother’s murder — or rather dribs and drabs of it — including the horrifying fate that befell one of the crooks even as the other was arrested, tried and convicted of the crime — and he’s now fatally ill in prison, and on his last parole hearing Marian testifies before the parole board that she favors giving him a compassionate release so he can die in the presence of his family, while Hannah writes them a letter telling them she opposes his parole. There are other characters, including the patriarchal widower Isaac Epp (Yevgeni Lazarev), a Russian refugee (and obviously King cast a real Russian in this role because he wanted the character’s thickly accented English to be real) and his son Ryan (Christopher Collard), a cute young musical prodigy who himself is torn between pursuing a big-city career and staying on the farm and helping dad bring in the crop. Ryan and Hannah drift into a sort of romance but one that is discreet and doesn’t come anywhere near consummation (a refreshing change from the ease with which people tumble into bed with each other in so many modern movies!).
The who-stays, who-goes issues aren’t resolved anywhere near the way you think they’re going to, and while the ending is a bit sticky and depends on a deus ex machina device — Hannah has written a book about her mother’s murder; Marian is horrified and insists that it not be published; Hannah gives it to Isaac to read and it jogs his memory of the motive for the murder, and in the end … well, let’s just say that something happens that takes care of the cost of the super-operation Rebecca needs and Hannah yields to her sister’s wishes and destroys her manuscript (which she wrote on a 1930’s-style large typewriter — she refuses to use a computer, one telling detail about her King uses to indicate that she hasn’t forsaken the traditional ways of her upbringing as much as she likes to think she has) — though this is something of a cheat since there appears to be another copy that her literary agent has read (and told her will be a best-seller that will make her reputation when it’s published) — but the clunkiness and coincidence-drivenness of the ending do little to mar a quite beautiful, moving film which was quite obviously of great personal importance to King (there are a number of Kings, Eberlys and Millers credited with technical tasks in the final roll) and which he makes brilliantly and vividly come alive for us as well.