There are many kinds of prisons.
There is only one kind of escape.
Imagine a Sundance Audience Choice Award going to a Hollywood movie which was financed by Gregory Productions, the fund-raising arm of a Mississippi Christian charity. That’s how The Spitfire Grill got to the big screen.
The Catholic aid organization was concerned about the kind of story that would be acceptable in association with a Christian enterprise. After listening to multiple story ideas, one “pitch” made the selection committee cry. Independent film making at its best, The Spitfire Grill offers the solution to a universal human theme—search for a transcendent mercy to amend wrongdoing.
Percy’s only view of Maine is from the inside of a prison. Viewers are introduced to Percy (Alison Elliott) who resides in a women’s correctional institution. Her longing for a fresh start arises out of her job answering vacationer’s questions about the state where she is incarcerated. Upon release she takes the advice of her own travel guide experiences to discover a place where she can find respite; in her case, to begin again.
But there are many kinds of prisons. The people of Gilead, Percy’s new hometown, look out at life from behind their own bars of prejudice and suspicion. “What’s she doing here anyway?” is the first of many questions whispered about Percy’s sudden appearance. Percy begins to open peoples’ jail cells with her stark announcement in the middle of serving breakfast to the crowd at the grill about her incarceration at Wyndam Penitentiary. While she was open, everyone else was quite closed.
Central to the film’s premise is keeping Percy’s secret—why had she been in jail? The question is left to linger in viewers’ minds while Percy’s new found freedom begins to loose the shackles of townsfolk in Gilead. The “Spitfire Grill” owned by a sour, angry woman (played brilliantly by Ellyn Burstyn) is auctioned off in an unusual way at Percy’s behest, setting the stage for both Percy’s capitulation and Gilead’s redemption. Subplots roil Percy’s soothing presence, indicating how many sins need the purging of mercy.
Yet, mercy is dependent upon an outside source. Lee David Zlotoff’s script utilizes an “enveloping effect”—a stranger comes to town. At the beginning, in the dark of night, people peep from behind closed doors; while the story ends with another stranger coming to town on a sunny day, the town’s people celebrating the new arrival. It took the sacrifice of one to establish the acceptance of another. And Percy, as the sacrificial lamb, opens the road to redemption.
“Nobody comes here anymore” explains Percy about the church building, her place of solitude. Though neglected by the town, even on Sunday, the edifice is crucial to finalize the tale. Clare, The Spitfire Grill’s new owner in the end is the mirror image of Percy with child. The beauty and mystery of the story is that the viewer does not know why Percy needs a fresh start. Indeed, Clare is offered the fresh start with no questions asked.
Incredible as it may seem, an outside Christian organization prompted Hollywood to produce a film that actually gives a credible answer to the question, “Can human wrongdoing be assuaged through redemption?” An outside redeemer is necessary to offer the acceptable sacrifice. People are moved by The Spitfire Grill because they see the actors playing roles which they live every day.
- It seems the critics were unaware of The Spitfire Grill’s initial funding by The Sacred Heart’s League. Many in the film industry were angry, often repudiating their original positive view of the movie, upon learning of the tie to a Catholic organization. Whether intentional or not, should Christians “hide” their views until after a project has been released? Why or why not?
- Mel Gibson’s production of The Passion chose the exact opposite approach, to the jeers and caustic criticism of hostile reviewers in the media. Comparing the two films in this way, is your answer to the first question changed in any manner? Why or why not?
- How does James Horner’s musical score affect your emotions as you watch the movie?
- Lee David Zlotoff, a Jew, partnered with a Catholic organization to write and direct this movie as long as it wasn’t anything “religious.” Do you think the film succeeds in staying clear of church-related themes? How does the boarded up sanctuary in the middle of town affect your answer? What is your response knowing that a movie was produced between a Jew and Catholics?
- “A stranger comes to town” is a strong metaphor in The Spitfire Grill. Normally the stranger metaphor in film brings violence and then healing. How would you explain the seeming replacement of emptiness left by one stranger (Eli) with another stranger (Percy)?
- Why was the hymn “There is a Balm in Gilead” chosen as the repetitious melody for this film? What does “Gilead” mean in biblical terms? Where did Percy learn the song?
- Why is “The Odyssey” a book we first see in Percy’s cell, next in the kitchen as she reads, and finally skimmed by Hannah? What possible connection to the story could be implied by its presence?
- Reflect on why quotes may be important to the story: “If the wound goes deep the healing of it can hurt as much as what caused it.”
- Discuss the multiple themes and sub-themes mentioned below as they relate to a Christian worldview and The Spitfire Grill:
Originally written as a review for a movie presentation at Moody Bible Institute, the review was then published with Denis Haack and Critique in 2003, used in multiple venues since, re-edited for Christmas 2013. Mark believes this is THE movie to demonstrate grace, mercy, sacrifice, and redemption.