Hard to Digest

Sweeny Todd has never been one of my favorite shows, but the dark humor and gratuitous bloodshed made it seem somehow appropriate as a November movie after a hurricane. I’m referring to the Tim Burton movie, of course, and as I watched it this time I noticed a few religious themes that I had overlooked in previous viewings. The story is not complex: a barber is robbed of his young wife by a powerful establishment cad and determines that the time has come to exact his revenge. Along the way he rents a room from the hapless pie-maker Mrs. Lovett on Fleet Street and puts his murderous revenge to work supplying her with meat for her pies. The song where they hatch their nefarious plot, “A Little Priest,” is filled with innuendo and even a little social commentary. As the schemers look out at the crowds of London, several of their potential victims are mentioned as clergy.

When Todd asks Lovett if the priest is good she replies, “too good at least,” noting that its only fat where it sat. “Not as hearty as bishop,” nor “as bland as curate,” Todd observes. Mistaking a grocer for a vicar because it’s “thicker,” the duet eventually warble that the friar’s drier, but overall the clergy are “too coarse and too mealy.” Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler are not theologians, naturally, but it is noteworthy that the only role the clergy play in this film/musical, which is ultimately about social justice, is as fatty meat. When Benjamin Barker is wronged, the clergy are never mentioned as recourse or balance to a corrupt official. The church is simply establishment, a comfortable and expected part of the environment.

Johnny Depp portrays a mostly believable sociopath, interestingly reversing his first big screen role in Nightmare on Elm Street where he is the victim of a psychopath with razors for fingers. Edward Scissorhands, another step on the evolution from victim to perpetrator, found Depp with blades for fingers. In Sweeny Todd he declares with a straight razor held aloft, “at last my arm’s complete again!” The pattern here is a sad but familiar one. The victim who finds no redress in society adopts the role of the vigilante or the perpetuator of victimization. Who might step in to interrupt this cycle if not the clergy? But to return to “A Little Priest”: Todd observes that what the world terms business as usual is really one man eating another (this is, after all, patriarchal Victorian London). This may be the piece that at last makes sense of the puzzle. What is truly diabolical is not one man’s revenge, but the system that insists all play by the rules of genteel cannibalism while persistently calling it civilization.

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