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Saint Ignatius High School

Breaking the Fourth Wall

A technique used in film, breaking the fourth wall, can be a powerful way to deliver a line. In this weekend's gospel story, Healey imagines Mary breaking the fourth wall during the first miracle of Jesus. How does this visual help to convey the importance of the story?
The 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Isaiah 62:1-5
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 96:1-3, 7-10
Second Reading: St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians 12:4-11
Gospel: According to St. John 2:1-11
In my senior Christian Manhood class I show the film Quiz Show during our exploration of the importance of personal integrity. The film tells the true story of the quiz show scandals of the 1950s as seen through the events that led to the revelation that contestants on the game show Twenty One, including Columbia University professor Charles Van Doren, were privy to questions and answers prior to them being asked during the show. The film focuses on Richard Goodwin, a young government lawyer who does the investigating that brings down Twenty One and its producers. Near the very end of the film Rob Morrow, who plays Goodwin, looks into the camera and states that his (Goodwin’s) intention was to “get television, but television is going to get us.” It is a chilling line and made even more so because of the fact that Morrow breaks the fourth wall in delivering it.
Breaking the fourth wall is a fantastic cinematic technique, and anyone who has witnessed the tableau scene in The Passion of the Christ where Mary holds the body of her dead Son and looks directly at the viewer knows the power that such a scene can produce.
This Sunday’s gospel story of the first miracle of Jesus produces another poignant ‘breaking of the fourth wall’ moment. Mary is concerned for the newly married couple and wants to spare them the embarrassment of having run out of wine at their reception. She looks to Jesus and simply says, “They have no wine.” Implicit in the statement was a belief that Jesus could rectify the situation. Jesus calmly replies that it is not His concern and that it is not yet His time. Frustrated, Mary does what any mother would do – she takes matters into her own hands. She approaches the servers and bluntly tells them, “Do whatever He tells you.”
Imagine in a filming of this scene the camera behind the servers and we see Mary facing them – and us, the viewers. See her looking past them to us as she breaks the fourth wall. See and hear her telling each one of us, “Do whatever He tells you.” Have any other words in all of Sacred Scripture been more important than these? For most of us, most of the time, it is a throwaway line that simply helps propel the story to its happy conclusion. But isn’t that line really the whole point of the story? And doesn’t that line take all of the alleged nuance and complexity of the moral life and put it definitively in its proper perspective?
Many things in life are difficult to understand and require the intellect of a ‘rocket surgeon’ to figure out. Morality shouldn’t be one of them. No one needs a Ph.D. in Theology to be a follower of Jesus. But what anyone worthy of the name Christian does need is a strong dose of humility – a humility that says that the wisest theology instruction ever proclaimed came from an uneducated teenage mother from the backwater town of Nazareth in first century Galilee. A humility that says to us about her: do whatever she tells you.