Two Victims Find Something To Believe In
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Now that most politically minded documentarians have turned their attention to clearing the fog of the Iraq war, the impetus to make films about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, seems to have faded. With the investigatory and social angles nearly exhausted, and dramatized accounts such as “United 93” and “World Trade Center” in the books, the event as a dramatic subject is approaching cliché.
So why is Beth Murphy’s “Beyond Belief” arriving after all this time? Can her portrait of two September 11 widows possibly tell us a story we haven’t heard and lift it above the level of exploitation? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes. Ms. Murphy justifies the film’s raison d’être with a fascinating look at these women’s grieving process and the lengths to which they go to find peace — across the globe in Afghanistan and within themselves.
The first frames of “Beyond Belief,” which opens today at Cinema Village, do exude a hackneyed vibe: Two Boston soccer moms reminisce about their last interactions with their respective late husbands on the morning of the attacks, lending voice-over narration as the camera slowly pans through a gloomy living room, where footage from the catastrophe flickers across the TV screen. Soon we meet Susan Retik and Patti Quigley, who were both pregnant when they lost their spouses. In the months following the tragedy, in an effort to derive some understanding of the events and the people that ravaged their lives, they decided to start a charitable initiative to assist Afghan widows lacking the ability to find work and raise children in their strict caste society. The two give tearful speeches in front of police cadets and embark on a three-day bicycle ride from ground zero to their Boston suburb. One almost expects a 1-800 number to suddenly flash across the screen, asking for pledges. Thankfully, the sparkly Ms. Retik and the earthy Ms. Quigley make an interesting odd couple, and their chemistry helps move the narrative along.
“Beyond Belief” becomes worthy of note when we meet Clementina Cantoni, an Italian aid worker in Afghanistan who has been receiving money from Ms. Retik and Ms. Quigley, and inquires about their emotional stability as they prepare to travel to Kabul. It’s almost a relief to know that this film isn’t just an infomercial for grief, or some one-sided, isn’t-that-uplifting claptrap. In a country where married women can’t leave home without the accompaniment of a male relative and the covering of a blue burqa, Ms. Cantoni’s CARE International provides incubators for widows so they can become self-sufficient by raising chickens and selling poultry and eggs. The outfit allows our two heroines the means to better the lives of 400 Afghan women with the funds they’ve raised.
As the two friends talk candidly about their loneliness and sexual frustration, the decisions to remove their wedding bands, and the charitable work that helps them stay busy, they also mull over their upcoming trip, both for their own safety and for being away from their grieving children. But Ms. Murphy’s film really hits home when, over in Afghanistan, Ms. Cantoni is suddenly taken hostage and a video message from her captors arrives. It’s a stark reminder that the charity work being done in Afghanistan (and other parts of the world) is not a simply a feel-good mission or a restorative jaunt.
It’s very moving, indeed. So where can one send a check?