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The Last Sin Eater

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The Last Sin Eater

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Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also a consultant for Columbia College Chicago in Adjunct Faculty Affairs
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The Last Sin Eater


It seems that no one ever wants to be responsible for their own bad behavior. Everyone needs a quick fix and an instant absolution. Before there was rehab, there was the sin eater, who gobbled guilt and shame away, making one fit to enter the pearly gates as pristine as a newborn.

The Last Sin Eater is the story of a curious, guilt-ridden little girl named Cadi Forbes (Liliana Liberato). Her name is alternately pronounced “coddy” and “caddy” by others. The year is 1850 and Granny Forbes (Anne Cullimore Decker) has just died. Following an ancient Welsh custom, revived twenty years before, the body is prepared for burial on the kitchen table; lovingly bathed and dressed. A bell of mourning is rung, signaling the townsfolk of “the cove” to gather that night for the burial. Through the mist of the Appalachian forest, the sad procession of torches, pallbearers and mourners makes its way to the graveyard.

Everyone turns their back on the coffin-less corpse, prone on a wooden plank, in preparation for the arrival of the sin eater, (Peter Wingfield), dressed like death himself. With his black hood and black, tattered robes, he is reminiscent of Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come from A Christmas Carol. Cadi is cautioned not to look into his eyes. Do you think she listens?

The ominous visitor utters some words over the corpse, commanding her sins onto him so that she might enter heaven. A cloth has been laid on the body, along with a bit of bread. The sin eater devours this as a physical manifestation of sin. The mourners do not turn back to the corpse until the cursed pariah is gone and the burial begins.

The grieving Forbes family is broken and dysfunctional. Cadi’s cold mother Fia (Elizabeth Lackey) and humorless father Angor (A.J. Buckley) have the girl in serious doubt about her will to live. Her little sister Elen’s tragic death and her mother’s withdrawal from her because of it have taken a toll on the girl. She gets the idea to ask the sin eater to absolve her of her sins while she is still alive. Aided by imaginary friend/angel guide Lilybet (Thea Rose) she sets out on her quest, discovering not only the forbidden lair on Dead Man’s Mountain, but a stranger in the woods with a Bible and a mission of his own.

The Man of God (Henry Thomas) offers Cadi and her friend Fagan Kai (Soren Fulton) the story of Jesus, who he says is the original sin eater, rendering all others unnecessary. This is a revelation to the youngsters, but it is not welcome news for others, especially Fagan’s father, the resident tyrant, who fears any type of change. Brogan Kai (Stewart Finley-McLennan) is enraged by the stranger in the woods; even his own son’s inquiries about the current sin eater make him erupt into violence. The trio does not escape his vicious wrath.

Kai is unsuccessful in his mission to suppress the story of Jesus Christ. It has seeped into the psyche of the children, who question Miz Elda (Academy Award winner Louise Fletcher) about past and present events. Cadi finds out bits and pieces of the town’s history. The path to re-evaluation of the old ways has been established and the children lobby to enlighten the town. They are aided by Miz Elda, who is wise and has lived long enough to recall a kinder, gentler cove.

Flashbacks fill in missing pieces of the story. Cadi’s sleuthing unearths romantic jealousy, an old massacre, a prophetic pile of chicken bones, familial violence, and faithful, unending love, forgiveness and redemption. The cove owes a huge debt of gratitude to this 10 year old.

Director Michael Landon Jr. co-wrote the adapted screenplay with Brian Bird from the best-selling Francine Rivers novel. Welsh accents vary among the cove residents (set in Appalachia but filmed in Utah). The very green and forest-filled landscape is interspersed with surprisingly inept special effects in some scenes and bad lighting in others. Still, it’s a film full of heart, from a man who surely absorbed the basics from his famous father.

Released by Fox Faith Films, there is periodic violence, but no profanity, sexual activity, or substance abuse. The plot unfolds while avoiding the urge to preach to the viewer.

I thought this was a fascinating look into ancient historical religious practices. Liliana Liberato leads a sincere cast in representing life in an immigrant Appalachian town during the mid-nineteenth century. Her performance is impressive and believable, as is Louise Fletcher’s as the wise Miz Elda, full of kindness and regret. The supporting cast all add to the authentic cultural flavor
of the era.

Despite your own religious affiliation, if faith in humanity is what you’ve been craving, The Last Sin Eater serves up a satisfying, and guilt-free tale of hope in the face of despair.