The Amish Boy Saw a Murder

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A pastorale thriller in which pacifism confronts violence.

Paramount Pictures, directed by Peter Weir; rated R.

As a pastorale thriller, Witness is a deliberate contradiction in terms: a tale of murder and corruption set in a rural pacifist community. Throughout the film, similar juxtapositions of opposites are calculated to achieve an atmosphere of tension as two incompatible societies circle each other in wary curiosity. The resulting sensation is delightfully disorienting—a constant subversion of our expectations—as the ethical and social conflicts of the plot work themselves out in ways alien to modern twentieth-century logic.

The basic story is simple. With his widowed mother, a young Amish boy is visiting the city for the first time when he witnesses a murder. Investigating the crime, Detective John Book (Harrison Ford) discovers the killers are among his own colleagues in the police department and flees with the boy to hide out in an Amish community in Pennsylvania. A rather standard Hollywood concept thus becomes an instant metaphor for the differences between concepts of violent law enforcement and theological pacifism: active participation or hopeful neglect.

For each side, it is a question of involvement. The Amish believe the path to righteousness entails withdrawal from all entanglements with modernity. Detective Book, on the other hand, follows the broad path of punitive justice and revenge. Both traditions ultimately contribute to each other’s redemption, defeating sin in vastly different ways. But it is obvious from the start that this modern man has brought a plague upon their houses, and any collaboration can only be temporary. “Come out from among them and touch not the evil thing,” ...

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