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More on Using the Film “Man on Fire” to Teach the Child Savior Motif
December 12, 2011 by | Posted in Movies, Teaching Tips

In response to my suggestion that Man on Fire be used to teach the idea of the Child Savior, I field a call from a teacher who wants to know how to juice up the lesson. She insists that a 20 minute film segment using one full class period isn’t enough to justify what she dismissively calls, “showing a movie.” As if film is not the literature of the young generations. As if film is not an art form deserving of study and respect.

So here is my response:

Motif and theme are serious concepts to be taught as part of ELA guidelines. Man on Fire makes motif so clear that students will not have to look up the word again when they read a poem or short story or novel. And the theme to which the motifs in this film snippet point, is worthy of long discussion and deep personal reflection.

Here’s how:

Before I show the snippet, I tell the kids to keep a lookout for any references to religion. More than one reference, I tell them, constitutes a tricky use of repetition to tell them something.

Early in the snippet, Creasy, played by Denzel Washington, asks his friend if he thinks God will forgive them for what they have done. The friend says no. The audience soon learns that these men have been military operatives involved in violence, including assassination. Later we see Creasy reading a bible. The mother of the girl, Pita, played by Dakota Fanning, who Creasy has been hired to protect, sees him with the bible and asks him if he reads it. He says, “sometimes.”

She then asks him if it helps and he again responds, “sometimes.” The nun who corrects Creasy for having Pita arrive late to school asks him if he ever sees the hand of God in what he does. He says, not for a long time. When she begins to recite a line from the bible, Creasy finishes the proverb and then says to her that he is the sheep that got away. It is a poignant moment. Later Pita gives him a medallion to wear. She tells Creasy it is Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. Then, finally, at the snippet’s end, we see Creasy alone in his room and watch him as he reaches for his bottle of whiskey, hesitates and turns his hand to pick up the bible. This moment is a turning point for him. He has stopped drinking and has learned to live again.

These many references to the bible constitute a clear use of motif, which is defined as a repeated element that points in the direction of a theme. All that bible talk and all those images lead the viewer to see Creasy as redeemed. Maybe God will forgive him for what he has done. Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether or not God forgives him; he clearly forgives himself.

Now the fun begins. The discussion ensues.

Some kids will argue that Creasy was redeemed, earned his personal forgiveness, through love of the child, not through religion. Others will counter that love is a biblical concept. Some will assert that through spiritual growth all losses are restored. Some will argue that through giving of oneself, guilt will begin to diminish. Others counter that guilt is a religious concept to start with. On and on it goes. These discussions will be made with passion and commitment because students are talking about the literature that engages them and grabs their emotions.

The students are talking about ideas and how ideas are presented in film, which with a little manipulation translates easily into text-based literature. There will be no right or wrong answers, but there will be many weak or strong answers.

How lucky to be a teacher with the ability to show film.

How lucky to be a student with a chance to learn important lessons using the media of his or her own generation.

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One Response to “More on Using the Film “Man on Fire” to Teach the Child Savior Motif”

  1. Kathrin says:

    Book-marked, I enjoy your blog! :)

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