There is a story in the Talmud about a sage, Rabbi Elazar, who made disparaging remarks about an ugly man, whereupon the ugly man said that he was created ugly by God and that was his lot through no fault of his own. The sage regretted the unkind words he said and an overwhelming sense of remorse plagued him. The sage died soon thereafter.
The takeaway lesson learned is that one should not be critical or judgmental about a person who suffers indignity through no fault of his own. On the contrary, one should try to embrace such a person and make him feel a valued member of the community. The tragic story of Ma in Room illustrates one of the consequences of holding someone accountable over events over which one has no control.
The film begins with Jack, a five-year old, saying hello to all the things in his room. He shares the room with his mother who plays with him and does exercises with him. We learn that Old Nick provides food to them and basic toiletries but does not permit them to leave the room, locking it with a padlock code. The cubicle is soundproof and has no windows except for a skylight. They have a TV, but it is on a closed circuit with limited programming. Jack thinks of the people on the screen as aliens. In spite of these limitations, Ma teaches Jack, educating him as best as she can.
We soon learn that at age 17 a man told her he had a sick dog that he wanted her to see. The man then abducted her and kept her locked up in a room. She had a child, Jack, with him and has been trapped in the room for seven years. Jack knows nothing of the real world outside, and has trouble conceptualizing information about the real world that his mother is giving him now on his fifth birthday.
Desperate to escape, Ma hatches a plan, which involves Jacob being rolled in rug and pretending he is dead. Then Ma asks Old Nick to bury him outside in the real world. The scene of Jacob traveling in the truck bed and seeing the real world with leaves and trees for the first time is a powerful emotional awakening for Jacob, one that the viewer viscerally experiences. It is a magic cinematic moment.
Ma and Jack’s release from years of forced confinement is not the end of story. The narrative continues with their adjustment to freedom and trying to lead a normal life. Jack gets vaccinated for the first time and has to wear a mask and sunscreen while he builds up his immunity to the environment. His grandfather and grandmother embrace their long lost daughter, but her grandfather has difficulty looking at his grandson, the result of his daughter being raped by her abductor.
This brief but disturbing interchange between father and daughter depresses Ma because she feels her forced incarceration, which occurred through no fault of her own, has stigmatized her and her son. It is an unsettling reality, which she now has to endure.
Judaism has a different approach to the victim of rape. Yoni Lavie, a contemporary Orthodox rabbi, observes that it is important to reassure a rape victim that there is nothing wrong with her and she should feel no guilt. She does not have to repent for she is still “pure, pristine and righteous.”
Room is a difficult film to watch because it portrays people in extremely dire straits. However, ultimately it reminds us that no matter how bad our situation may have been in the past, we can, with patience and kindness, still move beyond the most horrible of realities.