Last Thursday, I saw a massive science-fiction epic that shakes cineplex walls with its roaring soundtrack. Onscreen, bombings blaze, storms roil, and subterranean monsters erupt from desert sands. Dune represents the work of people the number of which might equal an American city. And I loved it.

On Friday, I went back for more. This time, I saw a seven-layer cake of a film, a comedy about several journalists in Paris pursuing dramatic stories — one about a serial killer turned art sensation, another about student protests against oppression, and a third about how a brilliant chef and a persecuted journalist are drawn into a dangerous rescue mission. Every fantastical frame is stuffed with decoration, creating a busy wonderland of whimsy and wit. The cast may have been larger than the casts of all of the other films I’ve seen this year combined. And I loved it.

Cinema makes both of those experiences possible. Watching such ambitious visions, one right after the other, was both exhilarating and exhausting.

But cinema can also do this:

On Saturday, I saw a moment-to-moment imitation of life in the world as we know it — four people, sitting in a church basement, in a closed room, talking for almost two hours. They sit in ordinary folding chairs, at a round plastic table, and face each other. They are often quiet and still, their faces etched with unfathomable grief, their hearts like active volcanoes: scarred, smoking, quiet, then exploding with questions and grudges and laments and needs. They each unpack the jagged pieces of their broken lives, wreckage that no one has the capacity to reconcile.

The word raw is commonly applied to such emotional exhibitions. Actors, we’re told, live for opportunities like this — playing three-dimensional humans who careen between quaking rage and simmering silences. And it’s as if audiences — critics included — are so uncertain about what to do with such discomforting, uninhibited performances that they reach for the easiest vocabulary: Let’s give them awards! Then we can feel like the transaction is complete, and we can move on to something more crowd-pleasing and satisfying!

Jason Isaacs, as the devastated father of shooting victim, sometimes looks ready to go all Mad Max on his enemies. But his condition is far more complicated than that.

The harder thing to do is to is resist the impulse to dismiss it as Awards Bait and, instead, accept the film’s invitation to wrestle with difficult questions and reckon with these depths of suffering. In this case, though, I’d argue it’s well worth it. This film — Mass, from director Fran Kranz — earns the term “harrowing,” but it is well worth the attention. I’m hard-pressed to think of a more difficult conversation I’ve ever seen dramatized at the movies.

Mass plunges us right into a complex crucible of testimonies: Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton), the traumatized parents of a boy slain in a school shooting, and the two people they find most difficult to face and yet most essential in addressing the razor-blade questions eviscerating their hearts and minds: Linda and Richard (Ann Down and Reed Birney), the similarly traumatized parents of the boy who fired the gun. None of them have any reason to expect welcome, acceptance, attention, or respect.

As Richard, Reed Birney gives an impressively restrained performance. For me, it’s the most remarkable work of this first-rate ensemble.

And yet, they come to this place — non-religious people in an Episcopalian church, in an ordinary room that will look familiar (perhaps painfully so) to anyone with Sunday School history, a statue of Christ Crucified on the wall, and crepe paper “arts and crafts” mimicking stained glass on the windows. Chairs. A round table. A box of tissues. These provide what Alissa Wilkinson (Vox) calls “a gentle, grace-filled frame around an almost unspeakable tragedy.”

The room becomes an arena for an awkward, simmering, unfathomable outpouring: Grief. Rage. Truth-telling. Hope. Some share photographs. Some tell stories. And the words they speak are only half of the battle. This a story of faces. Hands. One character sips from a water bottle, the sound of plastic crumpling in the hand like the sound of their fragile heart being crushed inside them. One offers an almost useless bouquet of flowers.

It’s easy to focus on the two marriages, the four witnesses. And I could go into great detail about the hellscape of anguish they must navigate together in their hopes of arriving at some kind of truth, some kind of relief. But that is best experienced in the theater without a map, being surprised by revelations, stunned by outbursts, challenged by questions — with Jesus silently suffering in the background, battered and bloodied on the crossbeams of torture, that ultimate symbol of both injustice and sacrificial love.

Martha Plimpton, playing Gail, is entirely convincing as a grieving mother who has learned hard lessons about distrust.

And besides, I need to look beyond the leads to note the essential work of the supporting cast, who appear at the film’s beginning and end. I recognize the remarkable “church lady” eagerness of Judy, played by Breeda Wool, as she busily multi-tasks her way around the church building after hours; Matt Zoller Seitz ( accurately describes her as “helpful to the point of being unnerving.” (I suspect most longtime churchgoers, if they’re honest, recognize the sort.) Judy has help of a sort from a young and disgruntled assistant Anthony (Kagen Albright), preparing the way for a self-serious and preoccupied social worker (Michelle N. Carter) to assess the space and identify potential disruptions, like a Secret Service agent scoping out a space for risky Presidential visit.

Without these supporting characters, the four suffering parents don’t have a safe place to struggle. And the mix of awkwardness, uncertainty, anxiousness, and tenderness in their engagement — both upon the guests’ arrival and in the strangeness of their departure (how do you conclude something that offers no closure?) — makes the whole situation feel so much more real, and seem so much more possible in a world where we need more face-to-face relationships, more long and patient and hard conversations, more truth-telling, more listening, and more forgiveness.

[Note: You’ll be tempted to skip the big screen and watch this at home. I’m glad I didn’t. If you do, resist, if you possibly can, any urge to hit ‘PAUSE.’ Its power is in its sustained, uninterrupted conversations and silences.]

Ann Dowd plays Linda, a woman so deeply confused by her son’s violence that she doesn’t know how to respond to the contempt shown by the world around her.

I’m relieved to report that, in spite of its subject matter, Mass manages to bypass the roaring waves of political posturing and convenient social media speeches about violence in schools, and gives us a glimpse behind walls of silence to questions and concerns that often don’t make the headlines. This movie isn’t driven by a need for accolades and honors, nor by some sense of Timely Relevance within a context ripped from the headlines. Rather, Kranz’s film is a dramatization of a courageous struggle with questions we don’t know the answer to. These testimonies of trouble may not lead these wounded souls to answers, but it does lead them to some unexpected new perspectives and, more importantly, to freedom from the very real threat of lifelong resentment and corrosive hatred.

Someday, some will discover Mass, then look up the Oscars for 2021, scratch their heads, and wonder — why was this overlooked? Was it even released in theaters? Others will watch it and find the honesty, the realism, the raw human emotion of it too much to endure. Others will watch it and receive its blessing: a vision of a kind of conversation that may be the only hope for families, churches, communities, and nations divided by trauma, loss, and rage. They may never be the same.

In fact, I’m confident that this will eventually rise from obscurity and earn a place on that short list of films that provide occasion for conversations about faith, faithfulness, and forgiveness without sentimentality. I’m not thinking of those films that are typically branded as “Christian.” I’m thinking of films like Calvary and Of Gods and Men. But this film is set on an even smaller and more intimate stage.

When I mentioned on Facebook that I was thinking of Mass this way, someone seemed surprised that I would think of this film as “Christian” at all.

If the title The Room hadn’t been taken already — and, let’s face it, ruined — by a movie “so bad it’s good,” it might have been the most appropriate title for this extraordinary drama. This space becomes the frame for a picture fraught with fury and longing.

But I can’t witness people gathered around a table, working their way from rage and hatred through confession and grieving toward the possibility of forgiveness, without interpreting it as a film about God at work. And when it takes place with the figure of Christ crucified hovering over it all, that is almost too heavy-handedly underlining what is really happening here.

You may have what it takes to sit through the intergalactic warfare of Dune — and even go back to see it again a few days later. I did. I will. You may have what it takes to revel in the deliberate excesses of The French Dispatch and discern a pulse of real human feeling within its many layers of marzipan and madness, and want to see it again. I did. I will.

Are you interested in — are you willing — to buy a ticket and sit and listen to a conversation between two fathers and two mothers about the kind of pain that people across the country are struggling with every day, every hour? I’m glad I did. I hope you will. Of the three films I saw this weekend, Mass — with its cast of less than a dozen, made by a modest list of artists, released quietly without a massive marketing campaign — may be the one I’ll think about most often. And I’d argue that it’s the one with the potential to offer the most meaningful illumination in a darkening world.