If a bluegrass album could become a movie, it would look like the Oscar-nominated foreign film The Broken Circle Breakdown. As a stranger living in “The Bluegrass State” of Kentucky, I have grown an outsider’s appreciation for the rhythms and depth of bluegrass music. So when I discovered this Belgian film about bluegrass, my interest was piqued. However I was not prepared for the heartrending journey this movie would take me through—the fears and questions it would pose to me about love, relationships, suffering, and life after death.
The film moves through scenes more like a bluegrass album than a chronological story, guiding you through the tracks of the couple’s romance, joys, and pains, but in the end bringing the music full circle. Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) invites tattoo artist Elise (Verle Baetens) to a bluegrass show at a local bar in Ghent, where she finds him at the microphone singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The ensuing scenes—a few of which got steamy and required my wife’s fast moving hand-blinders—unfold their unique and intimate love for one another. Elise joins Didier’s bluegrass band, bringing harmony to his music and his life.
For Didier, bluegrass is a medium of expression for the most ineffable emotions. He imparts a tale of the origin of the banjo and bluegrass music to Elise involving an Italian and a Spaniard who share their woes with one another. Didier explains, “[T]o combat the hunger and the misery they started singing songs about their dreams of a promised land, often about their fear of dying, their hope for a better life in the hereafter, and their sorrow, their hard life.” In the following scene, the two compose the band’s hit “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn.”
The couple’s love is tested when Elise informs Didier that she’s pregnant. And yet, far from interrupting their romance, their daughter Maybelle strengthens their bond and helps transform a fling into a family. The song of sorrow begins when Maybelle is diagnosed with cancer. The circumstances turn their optimism, love, and hope into fear and pain, and the couple’s conclusion that the world is harsh and unkind permeates their music.
In a particularly sad scene, Maybelle picks up a dead bird that flew into the window of their terrace, and through her tears she asks her father what will happen to it now. Later on that evening with Elise, Didier relates his frustration in his attempt to make sense of the event:
You’d think that it would eventually be written in their genes, that it’d become a sort of instinct passed on from mummy bird to chick, that when they see a frame they realize it’s dangerous to try to fly through it. But innumerable generations of birds obviously need to fly into that window before it starts to get through to them. You should try explaining to a child, how come the bird isn’t moving anymore. You want to say people have come up with all kinds of ways of dealing with it, that some people believe the bird has a soul that doesn’t die and goes up to heaven. That it’ll see its mummy and daddy again there and will fly around forever in a place where the sun always shines and there aren’t any windows….But daddy doesn’t believe in any of that. Daddy thinks that everything just dies and stays dead. But you can’t say that.
“No, you can’t say that,” Elise responds. How many generations will it take before it’s written in human genes to dodge the “windows” of diseases and cancers that we blindly fly into? Didier wishes that he could tell his daughter that there is hope, but all he can do is distract her. His trust rests solely in the advancements of science to save his daughter. But it failed him.
Circumstances in our life force us to come to terms with our beliefs. The songs of romance and frivolities don’t play forever; pain will find you. As Didier’s character illustrates, your beliefs have a massive impact on how you cope with suffering. In the middle of a concert, Didier exclaims, “I’m a monkey. And I’m afraid.” Elise tells Didier, “I always knew that it was too good to be true. That it couldn’t last. That life isn’t like that, life isn’t generous.” Is the love between Didier and Elise strong enough to bring them safely through this hard world?
After the movie, my wife and I sat silently still for several minutes. We contemplated our own lives, our deep love for our daughter, and whether our own beliefs had the power to carry us through the suffering that the future may hold. It’s impossible to predict how we would react when calamity strikes, but it at least made us consider our faith with sober and heavy hearts. Life isn’t generous. It will give joy one day and hardship the next. Science can only delay death, love can soften it, and music can mask it, but Christ alone has conquered it. The Broken Circle Breakdown will challenge you to consider how your own beliefs will come into play when you face suffering.