The BEST: The Shawshank Redemption

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The BEST: The Shawshank Redemption
Reviewed by Nati Helfgot 

Time investment to watch the movie: 2 hr. 22 minutes

Cinema is a powerful tool that affects our minds and souls in deep and long-lasting ways. While much of the popular culture expressed in movies is often uninspiring and problematic from a religious perspective, some movies have edifying and spiritually engaging plots lines and moments that can profoundly influence our view of the world and humanity. One of the best films of this ilk is The Shawshank Redemption.

Summary: This film, unwinding at a slow and methodical pace, leaving time for reflection in the very experience of watching it, tells the story of the incarceration on false charges of a young Portland banker, Andy Dufresne in 1947 at the Shawshank Penitentiary. Andy (Tim Robbins) is sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife and her lover. In prison, he strikes up a friendship with a fellow inmate, Red (Morgan Freeman), who has been in Shawshank for 20 years.  Shawshank is a cruel and unforgiving environment, with merciless guards and violent outbursts. Andy develops a deep friendship with Red, and the two learn to respect and help each other in many small and large ways.

As word of Andy’s financial expertise becomes more widely known, the warden, Norton, offers Andy a position working in the prison library, where he can better help guards (and Norton) with their financial concerns. There Andy takes an interest in improving the library and helping to educate his fellow inmates, writing daily to the State Senate requesting more books, until they finally cave and meet his demands. Andy becomes a confidante and friend to his fellow inmates, and he builds a deep rapport and connection with them, all the while keeping his hope in humanity alive. The movie traces two decades of Andy’s confinement and the people whose lives he touches, his undying hope and his eventual escape. In the final scenes, we see what he does with his freedom (as opposed to what other ex-convicts earlier in the film did with theirs). We also see his efforts to bring a modicum of justice and fairness to the world he left behind, to reaffirm the better angels of our nature and to bring some redemption to the world in which he lived.

Why it is valuable?

The film powerfully and elegantly expresses themes that any caring human being, and especially a religiously sensitive soul, would want enhanced in society. The relationship between Andy and Red is deep and existential. It models a paradigm of friendship full of loyalty, concern for the other’s well-being, and appreciation of each person’s uniqueness and aspirations. From a religious perspective, we see how each person is willing to open himself up to another’s tzelem Elokim.  It reflects what true chavrusa can and ought to be and the way it makes the human being more noble and dignified.

Secondly, the film highlights what true freedom can be and what kind of walls and barriers we put up between ourselves and what it means to live a life of worth and dignity.

Thirdly, it speaks to the unending problem of the abuse and corruption of power in the hands of those who have lost their moorings, and to the need to stand up and affirm human dignity in the face of those abuses.

Fourthly, the movie focuses on the importance of hope and the drive to achieve a noble goal, whether it is an easy one or whether it is far out of reach. This lesson of hope and desire to do the right thing and control what one can, even in the direst of circumstances, is a cinematic representation of themes within Prof. Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. In that work, as in Shawshank, we get glimpses of people who are able to survive through living hell thanks to their deep inner sense of belief in the goodness of life and its meaning. They are driven by the will to do good for others and to make their existence one of dignity and one that is “redeemed,” to use R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s terminology, even in the most restrictive of circumstances. Human beings can retain their dignity and their commitment to living lives of meaning. In doing so, they can survive and ultimately thrive.

Note: This film includes the use of explicit language and some violence, as would be expected in a narrative that takes place primarily behind prison walls in mid-20th century America.

Nathaniel Helfgot is rabbi of Cong. Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ, and the chair of the Torah She Baal Peh Department at SAR High School.

This is the thirteenth installment in TraditionOnline’s “The BEST” column, exploring exemplars of the best culture has to offer thinking religious people – click here for the series introduction and links to all entries in the series.

[Published on November 6, 2019]

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