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By Roy Anker

Dead Man Singing

Redemption is a hard thing to pull off, either in life or on the screen, but in "Dead Man Walking" the very deep mystery of a relentless Love assumes a palpable heft that rolls right over audiences, even secular ones.

Most stories are journeys of one sort or another, but very few take us to the place "Dead Man Walking" travels. The waters there are deep and troubled, made so by the confluence of many "rivers" of tears, as one character puts it. Topically, the film takes viewers into the tangled debate on capital punishment.

To his great credit, director Tim Robbins's screenplay avoids Hollywood's accustomed sanctimony and deck-stacking in treating "serious" moral or political issues. Refusing to mince the horrors of either the crime or the punishment, Robbins eschews formulas, staying close to the heart and bone of those who do murder and those who suffer its aftermath. Here are no last-minute escapes, revelations, reprieves, or pardons, not for anybody: victims, families, activists, murderers, or viewers.

"Dead Man Walking" is mostly about people who by different routes find themselves amid life's worst tragedies and deepest griefs, a place where cliches--cinematic, political, or religious--simply don't work very well. In particular, the film centers on the search by a nun and a convict for a Christian redemption of the old-style guilt-contrition-forgiveness sort. For this soul-shaking excursion, we must thank Robbins's tough-minded screenplay and direction, riveting performances by Academy Award-winner Susan Sarandon (Best Actress) and Sean Penn (who was nominated for an Academy Award), and perhaps most of all, the candor, compassion, and courage of a real-life nun, Sister Helen Prejean, on whose book the story is based.

The result is an arresting, utterly credible, and profoundly moving exploration of Christianity's capacity to console the earth's most forlorn creatures. Surely, the film's wrestling with capital punishment is passionate, smart, and honest, but it also ...

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