Hollywood & Catholic Women (Excerpt)

Dead Man Walking (1995) — Synopsis

In this extremely well-balanced film showing both sides of the death penalty argument, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) is a Catholic nun living in New Orleans who works with the poor at Hope House. Receiving a letter from a death row inmate named Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), Helen is asked by a co-worker to write him. She does. Matthew writes her back, and the movie opens with Sister Helen making her first visit to the Louisiana State Prison. Before meeting Matthew, Sister Helen meets with the prison chaplain (Scott Wilson), who inquires whether she has ever been in a prison before. When she says no, Chaplain Farley warns her to be cautious and lectures her that these men will take advantage of her. Clearly in favor of the death penalty, he asks, “What is it sister—morbid fascination? Bleeding heart sympathy?” Helen responds simply that Matthew asked her to visit. Meeting Matthew for the first time, Sister Helen finds him bitter, angry, and in denial regarding his involvement in the murder and rape of two young lovers that put him in prison. Professing his innocence, he asks if she can help him file a motion for appeal. She says she will do her best to assist him, but the visit deeply affects her, and on the way home, she is stopped for speeding. Seeing that she is a nun, the state trooper lets her off with a warning.

Sister Helen reads the motion for appeal and the details of the heinous crimes Matthew and Carl Vitello (Michael Cullen) committed. She is able to obtain the services of Hilton Barber (Robert Prosky), a lawyer familiar with death penalty cases. Several days later, Matthew calls Helen with the news that the execution date has been set. Barber tells Helen a jury will be thinking of the gruesome crime and Poncelet as a monster. He believes their best chance is with the pardon board. They meet with Matthew to convince him his mother should be present at the hearing. Sister Helen goes to visit Mrs. Poncelet and convinces her to appear at the pardon board hearing. It’s obvious the Poncelets are poor and, like her son, Lucille Poncelet (Roberta Maxwell) is bitter and suspicious of strangers. She says Matthew being in prison for murder has been difficult for her two younger boys, but she agrees to testify on Matthew’s behalf at the hearing. At the hearing Hilton Barber tells the board Matthew Poncelet is on death row because he’s poor. Matthew’s public defender was a tax lawyer with no experience trying capital cases. Barber describes, in graphic detail, how organs contort and explode during the “humane” lethal injection process, trying to convince the board members the death penalty is nothing but cruel.

Photos of the teenager’s mutilated bodies circulate as the prosecution argues that Matthew has had six years and numerous appeals to make his case. During a break in the hearing, Earl Delacroix (Raymond J. Barry), father of the murdered boy, Walter Delacroix, confronts Sister Helen. He asks how she can spend her time worrying about Poncelet when she never visited them, grieving parents who lost their only son. She also encounters the parents of the second victim, Hope Percy. Their response to her isn’t much different from the Delacroix’s. Clemency is denied, and Matthew asks Sister Helen to be his spiritual advisor during the time leading up to his execution.

Sister Helen visits the Delacroix home, but only Earl is there. He invites her in and explains the toll Walter’s murder has taken on their marriage and that his wife is moving out. Helen apologizes for not visiting sooner. She meets with Chaplain Farley about Matthew’s request to be his spiritual advisor. Farley explains she would be the first woman to act in such a capacity and expresses his preference for a man in the role. When he asks Helen why she would want to accept such a job she replies, “He asked me.” Seeing that he is not terribly supportive, Helen tells Farley she will consult with Warden Hartman regarding the request. Sister Helen also visits Hope Percy’s parents. They tell her story, the last time they saw her, and how their lives were forever changed. Helen doesn’t realize the Percys believe she has become pro-death penalty. When they discover she hasn’t changed sides, Clyde Percy demands to know, “How can you sit with that scum?” Helen responds she is only trying to follow the example of Jesus. Furious, they tell her she can’t have it both ways and demand she leave.

Earl Delacroix and Sister Helen have established a friendship to try and see both sides of the death penalty issue. Earl invites her to a victims’ support group, where parents of murdered children share their stories. Helen sees firsthand how their lives have been torn apart. The experience gives her new insight into Matthew’s crimes and the affect they have had on the parents of Hope and Walter.

Matthew gives a television interview proclaiming Hitler was right to kill six million Jews. He goes on to say that he wants to come back as a terrorist and bomb government buildings. Sister Helen angrily confronts him, saying that because he has come across as a crazed mad-dog killer, some will think he deserves to die. She brings up the parents of his victims and asks if he ever thinks about what he did to them by killing their children. Still refusing to accept any responsibility for his actions, Matthew complains the Delacroixs and Percys are only trying to have him killed. Matthew is moved to the execution site, and Sister Helen asks him if he’s read anything about Jesus in the Bible. He responds Jesus was a holy man that did good, but Helen explains he was much more than that. Jesus was a dangerous man, hanging out with prostitutes and criminals, and His love changed things. People no one cared about like Matthew, realized they had dignity, an idea that made those in power so nervous they had Jesus killed.

As Matthew’s execution draws near, he regrets his racist statements to the press. Helen pushes him for more, explaining that redemption isn’t a kind of free admission—you have to participate. When Matthew still refuses to accept responsibility for his part in the murders, Sister Helen counters that if he won’t do that, she can’t help him die with dignity. Being Matthew’s spiritual advisor is taking a great toll on Sister Helen and she faints as she’s leaving the prison. She is taken to the prison hospital, where the doctor worries she’s had a heart attack. It turns out to be stress, but the situation is very intense. In the restroom, praying for help in this environment of death, Helen doesn’t see the nurse who will administer Mathew’s final IV. Clad in a crisp, white uniform she resembles an angel of death.

Hilton Barber petitions the governor for a stay of execution and is denied. Matthew finally takes the lie detector test he insists will show he is innocent, but fails it. He meets with his family one last time and is served his last meal. Sister Helen asks him to tell her what really happened that night, but he again refuses, still in disbelief he failed the lie detector test. She confronts him about harassing couples for weeks before, telling him to quit blaming his accomplice, drugs, the government, blacks, even the kids he killed. He could have walked away, she says, but he made the choice not to.

Only in Matthew’s last hours does he admit it was he who killed Walter. He acknowledges he raped Hope and could have walked away without hurting anyone, and he confesses his sins. He inquires about the music he asked for, and Helen tells him his request was denied. She begins softly singing, “Be Not Afraid,” the song he requested, to comfort him. At a few minutes before midnight the execution begins. Sister Helen tells Matthew she wants her face to be the last thing he sees. Witnesses file into the viewing room; and as he’s led to his death, a guard yells, “Dead man walking!” Helen reads from the Bible as long as she can accompany him, then joins Hilton Barber in the viewing area.

When the curtain is drawn back, Matthew asks forgiveness from the Delacroix and Percy families. As the execution begins, Helen stretches out her hand toward Matthew and mouths, “I love you.” Throughout the film, the murders are shown, adding more details each time. As Matthew dies, the murders and rape are revealed in their entirety, with Matthew’s full involvement made known. The film concludes with Matthew’s Catholic funeral, which Sister Helen attends. She is surprised to see Mr. Delacroix in attendance.

Acknowledging her own difficulties with accepting Matthew as a human being rather than a monster, she tells him, “Maybe we could help each other find a way out of the hate.” In the final scene, Sister Helen goes to a small church where she kneels in prayer. A man is also there, and as the camera pulls back, it looks to be Mr. Delacroix—and the viewer is left to wonder if their journey of healing has begun.

Dead Man Walking (1995) — Analysis

Inspired by a true story and the book written by Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking is overall a very positive portrayal of Catholic women. But the Church’s attitude of relegating women to a status of less than equal with men is evident through Father Farley, the prison chaplain. At their first meeting, he asks Sister Helen, “Where’s your habit?” Stunned by his inquiry, Helen responds that the sisters of her order haven’t worn habits in 20 years. Farley continues, “You are aware of the Papal request regarding under garments, aren’t you?” Helen holds her own responding, “I believe the Pope said ‘distinctive clothing,’ not habits.” This is the first of a number of confrontations with Father Farley, regarding the role and place of women in both the Church and a prison environment. Still harassing her about wearing no habit, he insists it “might instill respect” in a cold-hearted killer like Matthew.

Sister Helen has found great fulfillment in her life as a nun; and unlike Gabrielle in The Nun’s Story, she is not making a trade-off—accepting obedience to God and the Church for the chance to pursue a career. When Matthew Poncelet asks, “Why’s you a nun?” Helen replies that she was drawn to it, and it was a way for her to give back. Helen comes from a wealthy family; and at the beginning of the movie, we see clips of home movies of her becoming a nun. There is a big difference between becoming a sister because you want to and believing it is the only option you have in life. Clearly Helen Prejean made the right choice for her. Sister Helen is also never afraid to stand up for herself, whether to Father Farley or to Matthew.

When Matthew’s comments turn sexual in nature, Helen calls him on it. “Look at you—death breathin’ down your neck, and you’re playin’ your little man-on-the-make games.” Early in their relationship, Matthew appears to think he can take advantage of Helen, but quickly realizes he’s misjudged her. Later in the film, Matthew asks Sister Helen to be his spiritual advisor up through his execution. Chaplain Farley tells her this would be “highly unusual”; and when Helen asks why, the chaplain explains she would be the first woman to serve in such a capacity. What’s interesting about this is that Helen is told a priest or chaplain usually fills the role, both men in this situation. Yet she performs her duties better than any of the men because she sees Matthew Poncelet not as disposable human waste, but as a person who still has dignity.

Matthew requests music at his execution, an appeal which Sister Helen must take to Chaplain Farley. Instead, the chaplain confronts her about protesting outside the prison during the last execution, a fact which she admits to. He asks her if she’s familiar with the Old Testament and “Thou shall not kill.” Helen challenges Farley saying, “Are you familiar with the New Testament, where Jesus talks about grace and reconciliation?” Farley tries on several occasions to dismiss Sister Helen as an inexperienced, bleeding heart, but she refuses to be controlled by him. Ultimately, Sister Helen is comfortable with whom she is and the role Catholicism plays in her life. Some of the men in the film, particularly the Catholic men, could learn from her example of willingness to see both sides of the death penalty issue, and her ability to see a killer not as a monster, but as a human being.