“A Bloody Parable”

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, based on the Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical, tells the infamous story of Benjamin Barker, who returns to London as Sweeney Todd to set up a barber shop in order to exact his revenge on those who wrongly imprisoned him. The legend of this partnership between love-robbed vengeance seeker and the widowed baker, Mrs. Nellie Lovett, who assisted him by grinding up dead customers into meat pies has been around for over 150 years.

This proves not so odd a subject/plot for a musical as it had a bit of a grand guignol vibe to it. And for director, Tim Burton, it combines a lot of his favorite elements: his life partners (figuratively) Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) and (literally) Helena Bonham Carter in the lead roles; the ghoulish and macabre, replete with 19th century London as an industrial Gothic backdrop ; the fantastic (forget the cannibalism, he has the entire cast doing their own vocals); and love, no matter how perverted. With their ghastly pale make up, the leading duo makes the movie seem like a live action Corpse Bride except with more blood. Much more blood.

Perhaps the grimness of the subject matter is simply easier to take with impassioned lyrics set to alternately sweeping and brooding melodies.

“That man is dead. The name’s Todd. Sweeney Todd and he will have his revenge.” –Sweeney Todd

As a barber framed for a crime he didn’t commit, imprisoned for 15 years, by a judge (Alan Rickman) who lusted after his wife, the story has parallels to the Biblical story of David and Bathsheba. In it, King David is struck with lust for the wife of one of his top lieutenants, Uriah. After bedding the man’s wife, David wrongly has him sent to the front lines of a war in order to have him killed. So, Sweeney Todd would be the equivalent of Uriah surviving the attempt on his life then going after David … if Uriah could give a proper shave.

In truth, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a parable on forgiveness, or rather, how hate can consume you if you can’t find a way to move past it. Someone once said that “refusing to forgive someone is like drinking poison, and expecting the other person to die.” Sweeney Todd, consumed and twisted by hate, lives this out to the bitter end.

“The mystery of the world. Learn forgiveness and try to forget.” –Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd’s simple theology is laid out like this: “There’s a hole in the world,” “It’s man devouring man,” and that “we all deserve to die”. Though he recognizes the broken/fallen state we find ourselves in, as well as our own culpability for the choices that we make, in his paradigm, there is no hope for redemption. No color, no love, no joy in his gray, cruel world; a world without forgiveness. He is trapped in a prison of his own hatred and though he seeks to be free, both of his past and of his nightmare life. For him, there is salvation only in spilt blood, except that he who is spilling others’ blood.

The mystery of Christ’s work on the cross models the power of forgiveness. Forgiveness is neither easy nor simple. Through forgiveness we let go, we join with divine grace, and are called into a new life of wholeness. Forgiveness brings closure, allowing us to let go and begin the process of healing. Ultimately, forgiveness grants us peace, perhaps even getting to the point where we can even pray for our enemies and those who did us wrong. (Though there is something to be said for the not often talked about imprecatory prayers.) Forgiveness forms you into someone who is free, whereas, to not forgive, to hold onto the hate and the pain, continues to distort and punish you.

“Think on your sins.” –Judge Turpin

You’d think serial murders done to sweet ballads would be more disturbing than they are in this movie. With necks being slit, flesh ground into hamburger—all set to jaunty tunes, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is perfectly suited for those who thought Friday the 13th would’ve been better as a musical. The movie has lush production, an exhilaration in the film-making, and acting so good—from the lust-frenzied judge to the huckster Italian barber, Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat)—it brings out the macabre humor underlying it. What happens must happen, we know that going into this dark revenge tragedy; but the pleasure, if that is the right word, lies in watching the melodrama unfold.

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