Nomadland: The Heavenly Homecoming of the Nomads

by Dionysios Skliris | български | ქართული | Română | Русский | Српски

The original Greek version of this article was published in the site “Polymeros kai Polytropos” of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies.

Shot from Nomadland

The film Nomadland (2020) offers a spiritual glimpse into America, especially into the Western states, with the help of Chloé Zhao, a young director from China. This is a road movie in the most spiritual sense of the term, where making a road trip is a way to deal with bereavement as well as with feeling useless in a difficult age just before retirement. The film takes place in 2011, during the first years of the economic crisis that had started in 2008. The protagonist of the movie is Fern, a 60-year-old woman who had just lost her husband, but also her work, after the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada shut down. Each loss is also a painful liberation, and Fern decides to sell her belongings in order to buy a van and cross the country in search of seasonal jobs. The film is based on a documentary by Jessica Bruder on the subcultures of van-dwellers who move from state to state in search of work in the context of the precarity that is inherent in late capitalism. However, the director Chloé Zhao has added her personal existential touch. The film has been very influential in this difficult year of lockdown. This is also reflected in the many awards it has received, including an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Golden Lion for Best Picture, as well as an Oscar for best director and an Oscar for best actress in a leading role (Frances McDormand).

The van-dwelling culture

Fern is in a difficult age: too old to start her life anew with the vigour of youth, too young to retire. She belongs to a new generation of out-of-works among the middle-aged and those who are at the threshold of the third age. For the latter, it is very difficult to acquire the new skills needed to respond to the dynamic form of contemporary work relations, and thus they succumb to the low self-esteem of unbearable uselessness. Fern, however, combines an openness to life, including its failures and frustrations, with an unexpected dynamism. After a seasonal job at Amazon, she is invited to the Arizona desert, where Bob Wells leads a community that offers help to these new nomads, teaching them basic survival rules in this postmodern version of the Wild West. In many aspects, this is a community of moribunds, for example, people with late-stage cancer. The latter are, however, readier than Fern both for death and for temporary survival in the wild life of these new anchorites. Some of the nomads give naturalistic meanings to death, according to a death coaching that is but the natural consummation of life coaching, as a training for achieving a “successful” death that would be the coronation of a successful life. Nevertheless, other people, such as Bob Wells, invest in love toward unknown fellow men and women, telling them what they didn’t have the chance to tell people that they have lost. In the unknown people of the nomadic communities, they find “images” of the departed; they regard life as a way, where one can find again the loved ones either in other persons or even, as the film alludes, in the continuation of the life-trip in an after-life beyond death.

The film is in some sense a docudrama, combining fiction and documentary.  The 65-year-old Bob Wells is a real person, who has risen to be a leading figure among the van-dwellers. Many van-dwellers are women and men in their 60s who have been fired from their jobs or lost their houses or their savings just before retirement. Bob Wells is called the “burning man” of the sixty-years-olds, as he has inspired them with the idea that such losses can also be an occasion for liberation, if one leads a nomadic life close to wild nature. This is, however, a lifestyle that has deep roots in American culture: one can recall the poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) or the beatnik movement in the 1950s that is immortalized in the emblematic novel On the Road (1957) by Jack Kerouac. An interesting plot twist consists in the fact that the van-dwellers presented in the movie are not young “rebels without a cause” but old women and men who feel unable to coordinate with the demands of new work relations, while at the same time bringing with them memories from another America of the not-so-distant past. The film also has a feminist perspective and touches upon elements of a difficult gender performance. At the same time, the van-dwellers constitute an Internet community with sites, such as cheaprvliving.com, and thus communicate their wisdom about survival in harsh surroundings. As a digital narrative community, they are in constant need of Internet connection; the van-dwelling culture is based on technological modifications of their vehicles (build) as well as on the use of solar panels. Another aspect of this culture is the effort to avoid being characterized as “immobile” homeless people. They thus try to go stealth, moving from town to town and from state to state, in order to make their state of homelessness a chance for an unchartered nomadic life on the move.      

The road movie of the “ever-moving repose”

Chloé Zhao goes beyond these important sociological issues, also engaging with the existential problem: in the terms of Giorgio Agamben, Fern’s time is the “rejected time,” the one between the important event (in this case the death of Fern’s husband) and the end of the story. This is a condition in the antipodes of the Aristotelian time, which measures the passage from potentiality (δύναμις) to actualization (ἐνέργεια), i.e., the existential success of a happy realization of natural finalities. Fern’s time is one of openness to new potentialities, brought by the “repose” (ἀργία or inoperosità in Agamben’s terms) that is the opposite of the Aristotelian energeia. In the film, this is not the opening of new possibilities in a success story of youth that celebrates social mobility and the freedom of choice that the latter entails. The new potentialities arise through weakness and passion, in Fern’s case through aging, waiting for the imminent death and feeling useless due to being jobless. This combination of movement and repose reminds me of the “dromic ontology” that one finds in traditional theologians such as St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus the Confessor. The latter draw from Aristotelianism concepts, such as potentiality (δύναμις), movement (κίνησις) and actualization (ἐνέργεια), which point to the ontological fulfilment of being; however, their heart is rather moved by the vision of perpetual existential mobility toward the infinite God that is characteristic of the Judeo-Christian tradition, being however combined with the “repose” in personal love. Terms such as the “extension” (ἐπέκτασις) by Gregory of Nyssa or the “ever-moving repose” (ἀεικίνητος στάσις) by Maximus the Confessor endeavour to synthesize between, on the one hand, Hellenic ontology and, on the other, the Judeo-Christian eschatology of a nomadic life toward the kingdom. In the thought of Christian Fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor, the eschatological “rest” will be another kind of “perpetual movement” (δρόμος, ἐπέκτασις, ἀεικινησία) in love.  

This element of life as a perpetual way (δρόμος) is evident in contemporary “Narrative Theology,” a theological project that endeavours toward a transcendence of static metaphysics, focusing on how communities perform their meaning through the narration of stories. The point of departure for Narrative Theology is the reception of the language-game theory in the late thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein. According to the latter, each community has certain rules according to which it plays the game of its language, thus regulating its narrative. Among the most influential proponents of this current, one finds George Lindbeck, Hans Wilhelm Frei, and Stanley Hauerwas, but Narrative Theology transcends any particular ideological agenda, being rather an anti-essentialist way of theologizing. In Greece, one can find some elements of Narrative Theology in the theological epistemology of Nikos Nissiotis (1924-1986), whereas more recently this way of theology is performed by theologians such as, among others, Fr. Evangelos Gkanas, Pantelis Kalaitzidis, and Spyridoula Athanasopoulou-Kypriou. A meeting between post-Wittgenstein Narrative Theology and Orthodox Theology might prove fruitful, since the latter traditionally emphasizes the role of narration, for example through the interpretation of the scripture or the lives of saints. The performance of life as a journey in via for the eschatological kingdom would also have an effect of liberation from closed metaphysical systems.

Yet, Narrative Theology might include not only the interpretation of traditional texts, such as the Scripture or the works of the Fathers, but any text that concerns the performative character of communities. The film by Chloé Zhao offers occasion for reflection on the biblical aspect of nomadic life, searching for a “promised land” in the future. Van-dwellers never bid farewell in a final way; they promise each other to meet again “down the road” of this or, possibly, another life. In Chloé Zhao’s Narrative Theology, the road movie becomes a metaphor for a life in via, when mourning becomes an occasion for love toward new fellow women and men brought on our way by divine providence, whereas the sabbatism of inoperativity (according to Agamben) barely conceals a very dynamic perpetual movement. 


Dionysios Skliris is a teaching fellow at the Theological Faculty of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, and a PhD in Greek Studies (Université Paris IV-Sorbonne).

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.