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Into the Confessional with Don Jon
In Don Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Jon Martello, a New Jersey man dedicated to, as he puts it, “my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my guys, my girls, my porn.” Jon is a ladies’ man, but his greatest addiction is not sex, it’s porn. Even when he sleeps with a woman, he is seen sneaking out of bed to go masturbate afterwards — that is, until he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) and, later, Esther (Julianne Moore), two women who challenge his view of what relationships and sex really mean.
Don Jon tackles a great many issues — pornography, addiction, relationships, and society’s view on women to name a few — but the moments that hit home with me the most were the ones that focused on change. Take, for example, what might just be my favorite moment of the whole film: the confessional scene.
Throughout the movie, Jon and his family are shown going to church every week, and every time we get a close-up shot of Jon in the confessional from the perspective of the priest, as Jon runs down his laundry list of sins. “Since last Sunday, I have had sexual intercourse out of wedlock x times,” he often begins, “and I have watched pornographic films and masturbated x times. For these and all the sins of my life I am truly sorry.” The repetition of the scene over and over speaks to Jon’s dependence on porn, and the prevalence of sin in his life (also indicated by his weekly workout routine featuring him counting off his reps by reciting the Lord’s Prayers and Hail Marys of his penance.) But it’s not just the repetition of the Reconciliation scene that makes for impactful cinema; what really hits home are the moments where we see this scene alter.
The first comes shortly after Jon starts dating Barbara. Invigorated by the relationship (and following through on a promise he made to Barbara) he proudly reports to the priest: “I’ve stopped watching porn and masturbating. That’s it.” When he receives only five Lord’s Prayers and Hail Marys as penance instead of the usual 10, he responds with a proud and elated, “Yes!” practically jumping out of the confessional, and you can feel the excitement Jon has in that moment. I’ve been there, and honestly I believe we all have — a moment where you believe in making a change in your life, where you’ve started down a path toward self-improvement and had that step in the right direction affirmed. It’s a beautiful feeling, one I do often associate with exiting the confessional, and definitely something that I was glad to see echoed on the silver screen.
Yet the other side of the coin is represented as well. Later in the film, after suffering a relapse into his porn addiction and overcoming it again, Jon revisits the confessional to profess his change. “I’m really done with porn now,” he says, and is met with “Ten Lords Prayers and 10 Hail Marys.” He tries to confront the priest about this: “Father, I expected that there’d be some change!” he cries. But the unseen priest remains staunch in his penance. “Have faith,” he tells Jon, closing the curtain.
At first, I identified with Jon in this scene. How could the priest simply tell him to “have faith” and stick to the old penance even though he’d already worked toward removing porn from his life? But as the movie went on and I thought about this more, it became clearer. Watching Jon discover how “having faith” in himself, in God, and in the people around him could change the struggle to overcome his porn addiction made me come to a better understanding of the priest’s message in the confessional as well.
The confessional scene, I began to realize, speaks to the difficult side of overcoming a bad habit or addiction — sometimes there may seem like there is no outward change. It may take a long time before there is any real discernible difference between life with the habit and life without it, other than the lingering and all-too-present temptation that threatens to pull us back into our old ways. But as the priest tells Jon, we must have faith. We must trust in God to forgive us for our mistakes and give us the strength to move on in life and become better than our bad habits and addictions. We must seek solace in earthly support as well, finding friends and family, as Jon does, to help us through the difficult process of overcoming the things that hold us back. If there are people who stand beside us on the journey, it makes every step of the way easier, the ups and the downs alike. Having faith not only in God, but in a support network like this, can make a major difference in the difficult process of achieving a major shift in life. If we allow our bad habits to drag us down, there can be no progress for the better; if we trust in God, however, and keep moving forward even in the times that are tough, there will be change and improvement in our lives. It comes from inside of ourselves, it comes from the people we love, and it comes from God.