Visiting prisoners has historically been central to the church’s works of mercy (Matt. 25:36). Philippe Claudel’s film, Il y a longtemps que je t’aime (I’ve Loved You So Long), pictures the challenge of a more rigorous call to compassion: welcoming the prisoner back home. The story centers around Juliette, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, who embodies the most haggard beauty, the most tired elegance, with downcast eyes that are nevertheless enchanted. The film is worth watching just for the first five minutes of her performance. But it is matched, I think, by Elsa Zylberstein playing her younger sister Lea who is the “host,” the one who has loved her so long.
It would be difficult to give the sort of rich reading I’d like without doling out spoilers. Suffice it to say that this is a must-see–a powerful meditation on love as forgiveness, an almost Derridean enactment of love as hospitality even to “the monster.” But it is also a profound study in the ultimate nihilism of autonomy, including the autonomy of the closed family unit unhooked from a wider community of support. This is not a beautiful tragedy; it is about the beauty of love in the face of tragedy, even evil–a filmic testimony to the fact that love is stronger than death, even stronger than murder.