A Jesuit friend of mine and I often trade movie recommendations— “magnanimity movies,” we call them. These movies open and tug at the heart and are usually best watched alone. I made the mistake of watching one such movie on a plane and have never been more grateful for my mask to disguise the buckets of tears.
AppleTV’s recent film CODA is most definitely a “magnanimity movie.” The title is an acronym for its subject– “child of deaf adults.” A coda, “tail” in Italian”, typically refers to a concluding section of a musical piece that repeats the thematic material previously heard. It is apropos, because CODA is a remake of the 2014 French film, La Famille Bélier.
CODA is a story about Ruby, the only hearing member of a deaf family, who is torn between pursuing her love of singing and helping her family keep their fishing business afloat. Growing up as a child of deaf adults, Ruby had no idea she even could sing. She sang all the time, but had no audience. No one to hear her or witness her gift. That is until she signed up for choir at school. But, when asked by her teacher to sing the all-too-familiar “Happy Birthday” song to identify her vocal part, she flees the classroom.
Even though Ruby loved to sing, she’d never sung in front of anyone before. What would she do if she wasn’t any good? It’s a terrifying prospect for anyone: to question if that thing you love so much, that thing that just pours out of you is, well, not any good after all.
When was the last time you sang—I mean really sang your heart out like no one was listening?
Maybe you were alone in the car on a long drive, at a concert of your favorite musician, or singing Karaoke with friends.
It can be cathartic, yet it is also vulnerable, especially singing in front of others. What if I don’t sound good? Thoughts like this are often huge barriers to singing at all. And if we do, we often try way too hard to sound nice, making our voices overly controlled, timid, and weak.
It took me a long time before I could sing in front of another person. I’ve always loved singing —whether in music class or in an ensemble or a choir, but singing solo has always been terrifying.
During the pandemic, a Jesuit brother and I started playing guitar together—learning the usual favorites from Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to Ed Sheeran’s latest hit. At some point, our guitar playing turned into playing and singing. I can’t forget how difficult it was to sing in front of him—to let my voice be heard. Now, there was no ensemble or fellow chorister to hide behind. It was just us. It sounds silly but I had to turn the other way so he couldn’t see me while we sang together. I felt myself reverting to my timid high school choir days, just trying to blend in and do my best not to stand out.
One day, we played the old hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” together. As soon as I took my first breath, something broke free. I sang without any hesitation or need to turn away to avoid being seen. My voice floated out to meet his in a harmonious dance that seemed to come out of nowhere. Immediately, I was covered in goosebumps and I felt a welling up inside. Our eyes met in a mutually knowing glance. This moment was sacred – no words necessary.
After fleeing in fear, Ruby returns to the classroom, and Mr. V who is waiting for her. She finally sings and she is good.
How do you feel when you sing?, Mr. V asks.
I don’t know, Ruby replies.
Words fail her, so she starts “signing” her feelings. Her gestures evoke her spirit floating, heart leaping, soul breaking free.
Watching CODA invited me to see singing as a metaphor. The act of singing is itself an incredible act of courage and vulnerability. In singing you put your voice (and whole self) out there. It’s hard. It may not be pretty or perfect. But in the presence of someone we know is fond of us and accepts us, it doesn’t matter. We’re able to make the leap and risk being fully and utterly ourselves.
Whether it’s Mr. V with Ruby or my Jesuit brother with me—there are people whose presence draws us out—allowing something beautiful and holy and previously unknown in ourselves to be born and grow.
CODA reminds us what a treasure it is to be truly recognized, that is, to be truly seen and heard, even if only for the length of a song. CODA reminds us, too, to let our voices be heard, no matter how off key we think we are.
Please share your “magnanimity movie” recommendations by email or in the comments on social media.
Image courtesy of AppleTV+.