Movie comment: Pearl Diver (2004)  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , ,

Pearl Diver is a film about two sisters for whom one night, long ago, propelled them into very different paths. A night of tragedy, it left deep scars that could not be erased. One sister left the Mennonite community and faith in which they were raised to become a writer, hoping to purge the hurt by telling the story. The other held onto her faith and community, hoping to forgive by holding onto long-held traditions that bring comfort and a sense of belonging.


The story told in Pearl Diver is a good one, raising issues that matter. Do faith traditions provide a community of safety where our deepest wounds can find healing? Can ancient traditions be fully embraced authentically in our modern world? Can families fragmented by tragedy find a way back together? What cost does violence wreck in human lives?


I can understand how those with a Mennonite background might be attracted to this film. There is a gentle presentation of that tradition that does it honor. The difficulty with Pearl Diver is that, like so many “religious” films, the production values are so poor as to be embarrassing. Wooden dialogue, poor editing, slow pacing (there were six—unbelievably!—six sunset scenes), uncreative cinematography, bad acting, and direction that seemed unable to realize the poignancy of their own plot. It was so bad I only watched the first third of the film and then skipped the majority of the rest. The sad thing is that though I skipped most of it, I seemed to miss nothing.


There are two ways, artistically, to discredit the notion of redemption in our sadly broken world. One way is the way of the skeptic who claims redemption cannot be found. The other way is the way of the believer who presents redemption as forgettable.


I’ll leave it to you to decide which of the two represents the greater sin.


This entry was posted at Wednesday, March 04, 2009 and is filed under , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .



Good article

Todd D.

July 16, 2009 at 3:06 PM

I enjoyed the story, I would like to know the name of that old hym that played repeatedly through the movie. The name was not listed in the credits...I recognize it but do not remember the name...I think it is a German hym.....Hattie Hogan

May 15, 2011 at 11:14 PM

I'm afraid I don't know and a quick search online revealed nothing.

May 16, 2011 at 7:50 AM

The hymn in question is "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need," the tune name is Resignation.

I thought this was a beautiful movie -- wish there were more like it.

June 21, 2011 at 4:50 PM

Dennis I am a fan of your movie reviews, but "Pearl Diver" is a film that spoke to me deeply. I understand your criticisms of the production issues, but I don't really understand you deigning to post a review while admitting you didn't even watch the film!

If you can't make it through the film, you probably shouldn't review it, or review the part you actually watched and refrain from commenting on the parts you didn't. You claim you didn't miss anything, but obviously you have no idea if you did or not!

I liked the slower pace and the quieter, revealing character moments, many of which were in the middle section of the film. Skipping them and saying you didn't miss anything is not really the work of a responsible reviewer.

I though your closing comment was unduly harsh, implying this film is even lower than the work of a cynic because it's so "forgettable" (to certain people). We need MORE films like "Pearl Diver," not fewer! I found it touching and inspiring, and was willing to accept the obvious low-budget parameters -- no Hollywood studio is going to spend millions of dollars to make a movie like this, and it obviously came from the heart of someone who struggles deeply with questions of grace and faith. Bravo to them! Keep the reviews coming -- I figured you could handle a little criticism of this one!

June 21, 2011 at 5:18 PM

Thanks for leaving a comment, even after such a long time--glad to be able to talk about it.

I should have been clearer about watching the film. I did skip a great deal of the second 2/3 of the film. Two friends however, watched the entire film and I questioned them about the parts I skipped. If they had said I was missing anything significant to my view of the film, I would have gone back to watch them. That's not quite the same as reviewing a film I haven't seen, however, and I saw all I needed to have a good sense of the film's value.

I mentioned that the story line was good, and am glad that you found it "touching and inspiring." That isn't sufficient, on the other hand, to deem a film good or well made. I stand by my comments about the production values.

My last comment was intended to be sharp. When Christians set out to represent their faith in art, they are assuming the responsibility that comes with artistic endeavor. Viewed as a work of art, Pearl Diver does two things: it tells a good story line about important themes (tradition, faith, family, violence, healing, memory, redemption) by presenting it with production values that belittle the significance of those themes. Production values are not neutral, as if they do not matter. They also communicate, supporting or undercutting the story's themes, advancing the story or implying that the significance of the story is a sentimental veneer laid over an approach to life that demeans and dismisses creation. Viewing Pearl Diver meant that I was seeing lies, non-truths proclaimed in the production values of the film. This does not mean you cannot be edified by watching the film (via the good story line), but it does mean that I do wish to distance myself from a film that positions itself as a public depiction of aspects of the gospel (family, healing, etc) while it proclaims half-truths and lies about other aspects of that gospel (value of beauty, nature of creation, image of God, etc.).

The same God who redeems and speaks truth is the source of all beauty and creativity. Each aspect is significant, none are value-neutral, and each aspect explicitly or implicitly expresses something of our view of God.


June 22, 2011 at 1:17 PM

hi Denis,

Thanks for your thoughtful response to my criticism of your review; a vigorous and respectful debate leaves everyone bettered!

I thought I would unpack just a little your contention that "Pearl Diver's" production values not only undercut its themes and value as a work of art, but more troublingly, should actually be considered half-truths and even "lies."

Speaking from some personal (albeit limited) experience in the world of independent film production, it seemed clear to me that the shortcomings in what we're referring to as the production values were NOT due to any cynicism or lack of sincerity on the part of the filmmakers, they were simply due to lack of money and resources.

A word like "lie" speaks directly to the intent of the filmmakers, and (to me, at least) "Pearl Diver" was a clearly heartfelt and sincere piece of work; I imagine that with ten or twenty million dollars the filmmakers would have loved to have their film look like a Hollywood studio movie. Their lack of access to these millions of dollars may undercut their execution (and distance some viewers from the work), but it does not undercut their intent and sincerity.

I would invite you to compare "Pearl Diver" to the T&A/blood & gore fests that Hollywood churns out with alarming regularity, works that are so clearly cynical in their intent to titillate and make lots of money extremely fast; aesthetically-speaking these movies are great accomplishments, they look and sound pretty great -- but they also cost tens of millions of dollars.

Viewing and appreciating film is certainly a relative experience (we don't hold modern films and 1920s silent-era films to the same standard), and currently the aesthetic yardstick that we tend to use in measuring our filmgoing experience is the Hollywood studio movie -- movies which cost on average of about 70 million dollars.

That is why I shudder a little to hear you use phrases like value of beauty or the image of God and the value of Creation in the context of contemporary filmmaking, because in filmmaking these things come with hefty price tags, not from the hearts and hands of the creators.

It costs a mind-boggling amount of money to make a film be a rich and rewarding aesthetic experience for the viewer. It costs so much money, in fact, that the people paying for these expensive works tend to want their money back, and it leads to a system which churns out a depressingly narrow range of vapid and empty but great-looking films.

Films like "Pearl Diver" will never get made in this system, and they will never measure up to what those studio films can offer as aesthetic and visual experiences -- but that doesn't mean they're half-truthful or full of lies, or don't honor the act of creation -- or that Christian filmmakers shouldn't accept the responsibility of depicting their faith through films if they fall short of the standard we're use to seeing in studio movies.

June 27, 2011 at 6:42 PM

Thanks for your persistence in keeping this discussion alive--sorry for the delay in responding to your thoughtful comments.

To say something is a lie identifies it as nontruth, regardless of the intentions of the one who expressed it. If I post something untrue about you on this blog, it remains a lie even if I thought it was true, thought it should be published, and believed you would be a better person for my having published it.

Film making is an expensive art form, and part of the artistic endeavor therefore includes raising the necessary funds. Comparing Pearl Diver to "T&A/blood and gore fests" is unnecessary (and a bit disingenuous) because that is not the genre Pearl Diver is part of and suggests somehow they are the standard for production values. Let's compare it to other independent low budget films, instead. A quick search did not turn up a budget for Pearl Diver, but Super-Size Me ($65,000), Napoleon Dynamite ($400,000), Once ($150,000), and Station Agent ($500,000) all demonstrate low budget does not mean poor production values. In fact, some of the problems in Pearl Diver would have been solved--and the film greatly improved--by tighter editing, cutting out some of the more egregious examples of repetitive scanning shots.

I would make a similar point about the early silent era films. Though they do not have an identical aesthetic to today's best films (all art forms change and evolve over time), even then films with poor production values were recognized as such.

At one point, I must point out that we disagree on a very fundamental level. You write: "That is why I shudder a little to hear you use phrases like value of beauty or the image of God and the value of Creation in the context of contemporary filmmaking, because in filmmaking these things come with hefty price tags, not from the hearts and hands of the creators."

As a Christian I am committed to the biblical teaching that all human beings are made in God's image. One implication of this teaching is that all human creativity is an expression of that image even if the artist refuses to honor God or acknowledge his existence. Yes, it is a fallen world, and yes all artists (like all of us) are broken and that brokenness comes through in their work. But if and when a good film is made, it is not because they had money but because they bear God's image.

I love low budget films, and tend to appreciate more of them than I do blockbusters, though there are some bigger budget films that are excellent pieces of art (e.g., The Hurt Locker, The Tree of Life).

Art is a form of communication, and every part of the story-telling art expresses something, for blessing or for curse.
Thanks for talking,

July 25, 2011 at 9:00 AM

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