Anatomy of a Fall — and Faith

Micah Rickard

If you’ll permit me a loaded question: What is faith? Perhaps our minds go to a scriptural answer: assurance about what we do not see; a redemptive trust in Jesus as savior; the source of righteousness.

But how does faith show itself? Asked another way, how does the nature of faith relate to the nature of our lives? We often treat faith as parallel to our daily life but not of a piece with it. If this is how we view faith, it’s supplementary—the religious simply tack faith on to their (otherwise typical) daily life. This sort of faith becomes a thin sheet draped over our desires and habits and thoughts. It can’t give shape to our lives; it takes the shape of what’s already there. But is that all that faith is?

One of the most poignant reflections on these questions is found in an unlikely place—the French courtroom drama Anatomy of a Fall, written and directed by Justine Triet. The film, which won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and has been nominated for Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards, would seem a surprising locus of Christian meditation. The movie is a straightforward legal thriller that refuses any shocking twists and has little apparent concern for the spiritual. At the same time, it also represents a rich hermeneutic debate, appears skeptical that we can ever arrive at certainty, and critiques a culture fixated on surface-level sensationalism.

Anatomy of a Fall wastes no time. We encounter a dead body within just a few minutes: that of Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis), fallen from an upper floor of his family’s cabin in the French Alps. His wife, successful author Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller, nominated for Best Actress), soon becomes a suspect. But the nature of Samuel’s death remains uncertain. Was it murder, accident, or suicide?

The bulk of the film traces the trial. But neither the prosecution nor the defense manage to unravel much truth; rather, every new revelation can seemingly be read in opposing directions. Thus Samuel’s anger sparked Sandra’s violence, unless it instead revealed the state of his emotional despair. Sandra wrote passages with troubling echoes of spousal murder—but can fiction ever be evidence for motive? Therein lies the interpretive dilemma. What’s there is there, plain to see. But what do all of these things actually mean? What does it all add up to?

Instead of unwrapping clear answers, Anatomy gravitates toward Sandra’s relationship with her son, Daniel (an excellent Milo Machado-Graner). Daniel—whose eyesight was damaged years earlier—was the one who discovered Samuel’s body. Now he’s confronted with a terrible choice: if it wasn’t an accident, then either his father’s pain led to suicide or his mother’s rage overflowed to murder.

A brief scene depicts Sandra leaving her home late at night, in tears as the car drives away. The camera shows the view out the windshield, the headlights catching a few listless snowflakes, bends in the road appearing suddenly. Beyond the headlights is impermeable darkness. The image captures the essence of Triet’s film: our answers only go so far in illuminating our lives. Beyond their edges, we confront the unknown. But if we look to Daniel, we are given a way forward—the way of faith.

Late in the film, as Daniel faces impenetrable uncertainty, a character advises him that he must decide what to believe. This is not a naïve choice; it’s a leap of faith. But that leap is protracted into a continuous act. Daniel decides in faith. In faith, he testifies before the court. Fear and trembling intermingle with his faith as he finally confronts Sandra. Inevitably, Daniel will have to act in faith the next day and the day after that. The leap becomes a way of life.

Daniel will have to act in faith the next day and the day after that.

In his letter to the Galatian church, Paul writes at length about the nature of faith, exhorting an audience facing a very different crisis. The Galatian believers fell victim to religious legalists—including the Apostle Peter, here addressed as Cephas—who demanded that the Gentile Christians be circumcised in accordance with Jewish law. Paul refutes that command, writing that “a person is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.”

But Paul goes much further: “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Like Anatomy of a Fall, Paul contrasts the life of faith with a very different, though still impersonal, law. The French court system is too abstracted to bring any true sense of relational justice for Daniel. Likewise, following the Jewish laws could never bring about the intimate love that is encountered through faith in Jesus Christ.

Continuing the parallel with Daniel’s journey, this sort of faith is no single blaze of decisiveness. Paul was vexed by such an oversimplification: “After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” Further in his letter, Paul notes that faith frees us from the law, makes us children of God, and disintegrates worldly barriers, all through the Spirit who empowers us to serve one another in love.

Paul offers a complex, irreducible portrait, but some things become clear: Faith is rooted in relationship. It is continuous, turning a singular act into intentional practice. It begins as belief, but transforms into action. It is the very medium of the new life we have in Christ.

There’s a furtive reflection on these intricacies of faith within Anatomy of a Fall. Daniel’s act to decide—to have faith—is relational. It transfigures his life into something new, reshaping all his days to come. May we, like Daniel, allow faith to be more than a thin veil. May we allow a truer faith to transform and define our lives. In Zero at the Bone, poet Christian Wiman writes that “every life is an answer to this question [of faith].” In the face of his unanswerable question, Daniel’s very life becomes the answer he seeks. May ours do the same—may this life we now live in the body be lived by faith in Christ.

Topics: Movies