Blog Directory CineVerse: Speaking a universal language

Speaking a universal language

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Differently-abled people are often given short shrift in Hollywood films. It’s refreshing, then, when filmmakers honestly and authentically depict the lives and challenges experienced by persons with disabilities. Such is the case with Children of a Lesser God, a film that stands out not only for casting a deaf actress in a leading role but for having a female director at the helm. CineVerse spoke some universal truths about this movie last week, including the following (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here):

What did you find interesting, memorable, rewarding, or curious about this film?

  • It was a movie of several firsts. It marked the first time a Best Picture Academy Award nominee was directed by a woman – Randa Haines (although it didn’t win). Actress Marlee Matlin became the first deaf performer in a lead role as well as the only deaf actor and the youngest female ever to win a Best Actress Oscar. Interestingly, William Hurt had won the Best Actor Academy Award the year prior, so he was scheduled to announce the Best Actress winner at the Oscars; Hurt ended up bestowing the statuette to his girlfriend.
  • It brought attention to the deaf community, particularly deaf actors, and introduced many Americans to the benefits of American Sign Language (ASL).
  • Here, life imitated art in that William Hurt and Marlee Matlin engaged in a serious offscreen romance that lasted a few years after meeting on the set of this film. The chemistry and passion are evident in every scene together between the actors.
  • For greater realism and verisimilitude, the film employs real-life deaf actors and individuals – most importantly Matlin, who had been deaf since young childhood. The actors had to use ASL signing during their scenes, which meant that several performers had to learn how to accurately sign and communicate with the deaf.
  • The filmmakers could have chosen to use subtitles or internal monologue and not have Hurt speak Matlin’s messages aloud as often as he does, which some critics believe was overused in the film.
    • Roger Ebert, for instance, said: “By telling the whole story from Hurt’s point of view, the movie makes the woman into the stubborn object, the challenge, the problem, which is the very process it wants to object to.”
    • He and others contend that, if the filmmakers had chosen to tell the story more from Matlin’s POV (by, for example, occasionally presenting completely silent scenes and using subtitles), it would be a more balanced narrative that gives a more privileged and intimate look into Sarah’s world.
  • The title of the film and the play is based on a line in an Alfred Lord Tennyson poem called Idylls of the King.

What themes or conflicts are explored in this picture?

  • The inability to fully communicate with and understand differently-abled people. Sarah insists that trying to teach her to speak instead of using hand signing is an unfair means of trying to control and manipulate deaf individuals – forcing them to conform to the hearing community as opposed to the other way around. James believes that deaf people should adapt and use verbal language in addition to signing.
  • Finding common ground. For James and Sarah, arguably they are best able to connect, express their love, and understand each other in water and light.
    • The intimate scene in the swimming pool demonstrates that James needs to see the world from Sarah’s perspective; underwater, they are both deaf and speechless and must learn to bond in a nonverbal way.
    • Likewise, light is a signifier of passion and connection between these two lovers, as demonstrated by the scene where they get into an argument that quickly leads to hot-blooded lovemaking in front of a bright swivel lamp that they forcefully push out of the way.
  • Also, music is a way for hearing and deaf people to come together, if they can appreciate music from the other person’s perspective. James loves music for the way it sounds, while Sarah enjoys dancing to music (which James is not good at).
  • The degree to which special needs individuals are disregarded, misunderstood, and underestimated by most people.
  • Lasting love requires compromises. “There is a happy ending where James suggests that they can come to a compromise where there is not all silence but there is also not all speaking,” wrote blogger Jesse Marpoe.

Other films that Children of a Lesser God bring to mind

  • The Miracle Worker
  • Love Story
  • The Other Side of the Mountain
  • My Left Foot

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