"Let's play Who Wants To Be A Millionaire! Who wrote the phrase "No man is an island"? John Donne? John Milton? John F. Kennedy? Jon Bon Jovi?" "Jon Bon Jovi. Too easy. And, if I may say so, a complete load of bollocks. In my opinion, all men are islands. I like to think I’m Ibiza."
ABOUT A BOY (2002, UK/USA/France/Germany, Chris & Paul Weitz, screenplay with Peter Hedges from Nick Hornby novel)
It starts with a quote from metaphysical poet John Donne and, surprisingly enough for a comedy from the directors of AMERICAN PIE, it follows through on that promise. Or not so surprising, considering Hornby and Hedges. The former’s “lout lit” is sort of turn-of-the-millenium Jane Austen for guys, tracing small awakenings of consciousness and conscience in oblivious, self-preoccupied lads – HI FIDELITY was made into a terrific film, HOW TO BE GOOD ought to be. And screenwriter Hedges brings all the heart and smarts (and, I suspect, spiritual orientation, though I’ve got no proof) that make WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE? and especially PIECES OF APRIL such quintessential soul food. About the latter film Jeffrey Overstreet remarked “It takes a village to cook a turkey,” and here’s the same…
"It doesn’t matter. Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies too it will be as though I never even existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all. Hope things are fine with you. Yours truly, Warren Schmidt."
ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002, Alexander Payne, screenplay with Jim Taylor from Louis Begley’s novel)
Starting with the toast at Warren’s retirement party, an old work buddy paying him tribute with the abrasive wisdom of a half-soused Solomon, this movie resides not only in the heart of America’s Midwest, but at the centre of Old Testament wisdom literature. You can read it in Jack Nicholson's sad-eyed, tight-mouthed, ever-so-weary face: it’s all vanity. A chasing after wind.
Approaching the end of his days – days he’s spent numbering; he’s an insurance actuary – a man begins examining his thus-far unexamined life and wonders if it’s been worth living. And so, in the finest of American movie traditions, he decides to head out on the highway looking for... Well, whatever it is he’s missing. It’s EASY RIDER in a Winnebago (“Born To Be Mild”?), a Bing Crosby / Bob Hope vehicle with no Hope.…
"I want to go some place where people die when they are sick, and don't sit in the yard eating cowboy toast when they have been shot through the head."
ADAM’S APPLES (“Adams æbler” 2005, Denmark/Germany, Anders Thomas Jensen)
I’ll say this: it’s the funniest movie I've seen for a very long time. I haven’t laughed so hard in years and years. I’ll also say this: if you find it as funny as I did, I don't want you anywhere near my loved ones. I’ll also say this: it’s as theologically stimulating, baffling, transgressive, paradigm inverting, idiosyncratic, theologically gutsy and – just maybe – spiritually significant a movie as almost any I've seen. Ever.
Adam is a very nasty neo-Nazi whose prison release requires a community service stint at a rural church. At first he can’t believe his luck: the “Put on a happy face” pastor overseeing his rehabilitation lets him name his own terms, and appears quite content with Adam’s suggestion that he need only bake an apple pie before being released back into society. When a series of wildly improbable quasi-Biblical plagues afflict the parish apple tree, preventing completion of what ought to have been dead-easy penance, Adam…
"It's easy to spot in people like me. The cancer's grown obvious. But you're as terminal as I am, you know that? You're as addicted as I am. It's the nature of the organism. Now look me in the face and tell me to go. Look sin in the face and tell it to go. Say it with authority."
THE ADDICTION (1995, USA, Abel Ferrara, wr Nicholas St. John)
Dracula - the Bram Stoker novel - evokes true horror, a sense of eternal corruption and moral dread. Alas, most films the book has inspired reduce that revulsion at spiritual evil to merely mortal terror. They're nothing but scary action movies, Good Guys In Peril flicks where the threat happens to be neck bites rather than gunshot wounds or chainsaw lacerations.
Sure, the blood-sucking is creepy, and the erotic undercurrent adds a certain repugnance, but for this viewer at least, the real Horror is to be found in the Vietnamese heart of darkness Francis Ford Coppola uncovers in APOCALYPSE NOW, for instance, or in a Holocaust film like Alain Resnais' NIGHT AND FOG.
Abel Ferrarra invokes both of those particular evils in THE ADDICTION, an explicitly theological Horror film that uses…
AFTER LIFE (“Wandafuru raifu” 1998, Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda)
In a worn, empty and utterly ordinary old building someplace between earth and eternity, a dutiful group of caseworkers guides twenty-two people in their transition from life to what lies ahead. Each client has three days to choose one, and only one, event from their lives to accompany them into the after life. Then the staff has three more days to stage and film each of the episodes on a simple soundstage. On Saturday the short films are shown, each client takes their memory and departs for whatever lies beyond the walls of this metaphysical way station. A meditation on the sacredness of the everyday, this exquisite film quietly grounds its otherworldly premise in closely observed quotidian details – including the use of actual documentary interviews – regardless of whether it is considering the making of tea, the making of memories, the making of art or the making of eternal decisions. The literal translation of the Japanese title is “Wonderful Life.”
DEFENDING YOUR LIFE, OPEN YOUR EYES, WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK
"Whilst my father prayed earnestly to God to protect commerce, I would offer up secretly the proudest prayer a boy could think of. 'Lord, make me a great composer! Let me celebrate your glory through music - and be celebrated myself! Make me famous through the world, dear God! Make me immortal! After I die let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote! In return I vow I will give you my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility every hour of my life. And I will help my fellow man all I can. Amen and amen!'"
AMADEUS (1984, USA, Milos Forman, Peter Shaffer play and screenplay)
What extraordinary writing! Economy, irony, implication – volumes are spoken in this one brief speech, themes sounded that will be repeated and inverted in subtle variations throughout the film. Salieri, speaking at the end of his life, recounts the childhood prayer that set the course of his life. He critiques the self-serving prayers of his father, a merchant, yet his own prayer is every bit as mercenary: he isn’t confiding in a loving Father, he’s unilaterally setting the terms of a quid pro quo contract, and presuming that makes it…
AMAZING GRACE (2006, UK/USA, Michael Apted, Steven Knight screenplay)
It’s a picture you wouldn’t have thought would ever get made – and certainly not by such exceptional film makers. It tells a hugely important story about the one thing Evangelical Christians got inarguably right – and, unlike AMISTAD, it doesn’t falsify the faith of its central characters.
If you’d stumbled on the historical facts, you’d have thought to yourself, this needs to be a movie – too bad Hollywood will never make it. The astonishing fact that William Wilberforce, who made the British parliament outlaw the slave trade, did so as a result of a profound Christian conversion. That his mentor, the aging John Newton, composed what may be the best-known gospel hymn ever sung, Amazing Grace. That Newton was himself a former slave trader, the song written in repentance for his sins. “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly. I’m a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.” It gives you chills.
There’s nothing fancy in the way this story gets told: it’s a good old-fashioned biopic, with wigs and breeches and chewy accents. If the…
"That's the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid. Ever. Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it... and my heart is going to cave in."
AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999, USA, Sam Mendes, Alan Ball screenplay)
In a letter Saint Paul wrote to the Philippians, he gives some good advice: "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things." So it's easy to see why many Christians, recognizing the wisdom of those words, avoid AMERICAN BEAUTY. An angry, self-preoccupied man sneers at his wife, blackmails his employers and lusts after his daughter's girlfriend. His wife commits noisy, gymnastic adultery in a motel room. Parents subject their children to physical and verbal violence, profanity proliferates and breasts are bared. And when the film offers us transcendent wisdom, it is in the person of a drug dealer.
Why, then, does this film mean so much to so many people of…
Whimsical story of a winsome, lonely, (gorgeous) young woman so delighted at the results of a "random act of kindness" she perpetrates on a stranger that she sets out on a campaign of anonymous benevolent meddling. One of the most abundantly inventive movies ever made, set in a fantasy Paris that's as glorious to the eye as anybody's dream or memory. For me, an utterly endearing "do unto others" fable: some viewers find it saccharine, or are put off by a casual sexual morality that's typically European, but I was too charmed to mind much.
"Their people have suffered more than ours. Their lives were full of suffering. Then he was born, and everything changed."
AMISTAD (1997, USA, Steven Spielberg, screenplay David Franzoni)
A sometimes harrowing, ultimately uplifting account of an uprising of African prisoners on a Cuban slave ship and the ensuing trial, which not only determined their fate but marked an irrevocable turning point in the Abolitionist campaign in the years leading up to the Civil War. If the film was under-praised in its day (suffering, I think, from back-to-back comparison with SCHINDLER'S LIST, Spielberg's masterpiece), it has nevertheless found an enduring audience, particularly among Christians. It is surprising to see what an important role Christian spirituality plays in the film: given that, it is also curious to realize that the film seems determined to diminish the central role Christians played in this remarkable story.
Where the film follows on from the director's deeply affecting holocaust film is in its portrayal of "America's holocaust" (well, one of them), though this film restricts its field of vision to a single group of slaves in a succession of slave ships and prisons. AMISTAD does not chart the whole history of slavery in America, but the…
"I'll never paint again. Because it's of no use to anyone. That's all."
ANDREI RUBLEV (“The Passion According To Andrei” 1966, USSR, Andrei Tarkovsky, screenplay with Andrei Konchalovsky)
This film doesn’t pander. It barely accommodates. You can watch for an hour, you might even make it all the way to the end, without being entirely sure which of the grim Russian monks is the title character. They look all alike, and names are rarely spoken.
As the film opens, a mob tries to prevent a man from taking flight in a hot air balloon made of animal skins. He soars headlong over land and water, experiencing a view of the world unavailable to the violent crowd left behind him on the ground. A dizzying, perhaps disastrous, descent to the earth. Then in slow motion, a horse rolls on its back, gets to its feet and walks past the deflating balloon. What this incident has to do with the rest of the film is never explained. It might or might not become clear on second or third viewing.
ANDREI RUBLEV might be considered the Mount Everest of spiritual film. It is intimidating, imposing, remote, yet sooner or later every cinephile with…
The one fallen evangelist movie evangelicals don’t hate. Not that Sonny’s flaws are white-washed – though they may be washed in the blood, which is what really matters. He’s plenty fallen, not only before his riverside rededication (he initiates the dramatic action by taking a baseball bat to the youth pastor, right in front of the church ball team) but after. Even once he’s washed his sins away and taken a new name – “The Apostle E.F.” – he’s still got an eye for the women, a tendency to not-entirely-righteous anger, a preacher-sized ego and, the worst sin of all, a tacky sense of personal taste. (But Lord, can that man preach! One of the great pleasures of this film is the language – it lights up whenever Sonny is on fire. “I may be on the devil’s hit-list, but I’m on God’s mailing list!” He’s a “genuine, Holy Ghost, Jesus-filled preachin’ machine.”)
This is no Elmer Gantry caricature: Sonny’s a real mess, but at least he’s real. And he’s trying. He’s a lot like us.
"Did you go on digs with him? I wanted him to leave it all in the ground. The pottery, the bones. Didn't belong up here. But... My father loved digging up old shit."
AROUND THE BEND (2004, USA, Jordan Roberts)
Did you ever think past the end of the parable? Now that the Prodigal is back, how are he and the Older Brother ever going to get along? I'm guessing the younger brother – we'll call him Turner – is going to want to be pals again, but he won't push it too hard because he's good and aware that he's no longer worthy to be called "brother" or "son" or anything else that's all that friendly. I'm guessing the real problems will like with old Firstborn over there – Jason, for the purposes of our story – who's spent his life (invested his life, to be more precise, instead of blowing through it like a sixteen-year-old with his first paycheck) being decent and loyal to their father – who we'll call Henry – and pretty much spending his days making up for the other brother's heartbreaking prodigality.
Don't worry, AROUND THE BEND is no modern retelling of a too-familiar…
"I am very, very sorry for the terrible distress that I have caused you. I am very, very sorry..."
ATONEMENT (2007, UK/France, d. Joe Wright, Christopher Hampton screenplay from the Ian McEwan novel)
Your appreciation of this high-toned yet energetic literary adaptation may depend on how much find yourself caring about its obscenely privileged and narcissistic characters – or on how much that sort of identification matters to you. The film's opening section – its strongest and subtlest – is set among Britain's upper classes during the years preceding World War 2, when an overly imaginative young girl encounters events she does not understand, and her childish response casts a dark shadow over several lives. More than a simple story of star-cross'd love, the narrative deals brilliantly with the shifting and uneasy relationships between complex layers of perception and portrayal, of truth and lies, fact and invention, error and sin. What can atone for actions that destroy the lives of others? A change of heart? Acts of kindness? Compensation of some kind? Forgiveness? By whom? I was left pondering the limits of human atonement, holding hard to the hope that there is something beyond it.
Bresson: "It is about our anxieties and desires when faced with a living creature who's completely humble, completely holy, and happens to be a donkey."
AU HASARD BALTHAZAR ("Balthazar, By Luck," 1966, France, Robert Bresson)
When the Museum of Modern Art announced "The Hidden God," a major faith and film series featuring titles as diverse as MAGNOLIA, ANDREI ROUBLEV and GROUNDHOG DAY, the curators said the one film which clearly had to be included was Robert Bresson's masterpiece, AU HASARD BALTHAZAR. The New York Times called ßit "one of the greatest films in history, and Andrew Sarris wrote "No film I have ever seen has come so close to convulsing my entire being. Bresson's Christian spirituality finds its most earthy, layered and life-giving expression. Grace has never been dramatized more lucidly, or more movingly, than it is here."
Not bad for a donkey movie. This unadorned 95-minute story follows the young colt's adoption as a family pet, through the hands of many masters, to the moment of his eventual death. It is a fragmentary portrait of a French village in the mid-sixties, tracing the interwoven lives of eight characters. It's a study of human weakness and cruelty, it's a portrait…
"There comes a time when our eyes are opened. And we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss..."
BABETTE’S FEAST (“Babettes gæstebud” 1987, Denmark, Gabriel Axel, from the Isak Dinesen story)
My entry into this soul food feast was not an auspicious one. Let it serve as both warning and encouragement.
I first saw BABETTE’S FEAST at my favorite revival house – a theatre, not a church – which happens to have bowling lanes in the basement. Now, I’d spent a hundred evenings at The Ridge, but never before had I heard those balls rumble or pins clatter. Until BABETTE’S FEAST, a film so quiet I imagined I could hear the scratch of bowlers’ pencils on their scoresheets below. A film so measured I thought I’d almost rather be bowling.
Until the feast arrived. At which point I lost track of the bowlers below, my sour attitude dissolving imperceptibly as I was caught up in textures, colors, shapes, smells, tastes – the latter entirely imagined, I’m afraid, though scarcely less delectable. Apparently the astringent opening hour cleansed my palate…
"Jesus said seventy times seven. A gift that makes sense ain't worth it."
BAD LIEUTENANT (1992, USA, Abel Ferrara, screenplay with Zoe Lund, Victor Argo, Paul Calderon)
The foulest Soul Food movie of them all. The ultimate example of how bright the slightest sliver of light can shine if the darkness is dark enough.
A nun is raped, her inner city church desecrated, and the camera never looks away. The baddest of bad cops pulls over two out-of-town teens and intimidates the driver into simulating oral sex while he masturbates beside their car. Is there any reason to see this kind of stuff?
Harvey Keitel: "I wanted to play this part because I have a deep desire to know God. Knowing God isn't just a matter of going to confession and praying. We also know God by confronting evil, and this character gave me the opportunity to descend into the most painful part of myself and learn about the dark places."
The performance is stunning, raw, naked, shameful, unashamed. Keitel’s presence in the film invokes Scorsese, though even his Catholic anguish never took us down streets so mean. This vice-ridden vice cop is beyond corrupt, he’s debauched, snorting coke off…
"What is this? Some strange Glenn Miller-based religious ceremony? No. Presbyterian."
BARCELONA (1994, USA, Whit Stillman)
Whit Stillman's wonderful trilogy of serious comedies about rich kids in love might almost be dubbed "The Discrete Charm of the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie." The second, a story of not-so-much-ugly-as-absurd-but-still-rather-charming Americans abroad, is the lightest of the three, the characters' upper-class foibles extended to the point of likable ridiculousness (to borrow Donald Lyon's apt description). It is probably also the most spiritually explicit – in Stillman's characteristic, delightfully confounding way.
Here his whole tone is sunnier and lighter hearted, as befits the Mediterranean locale: these kids are having fun, earnest and self-preoccupied though they may be. Stillman's humor is at its most direct and whimsical, turning on endless (and endlessly inventive) misperceptions and "lost in cultural translation" moments. If the stakes are higher in this story of twenty-something Americans abroad – in fact, they are truly life-and-death, with a prolonged hospital vigil and at least one funeral – somehow the tone remains less sombre throughout. And while we are dealing with far more serious matters – the end of the Cold War rather than the last days of the debutantes or the decline of…
"My prince, I wish I coUld help you." "What are you waiting for?" "For the honor of God and the honor of the king to become one." "That may take long."
BECKET (1964, UK/USA, Peter Glenville, Edward Anhalt screenplay from the play by Jean Anouilh)
This lavish screen adaptation of the acclaimed stage play was immensely celebrated in its day but completely neglected in our own, despite a dozen Academy Award nominations. Apart from a hard-to-find, low quality videotape, this classic film about King Henry II and the martyred Saint Thomas a Becket was out of circulation for four decades until Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation financed an extensive 35mm restoration, completed in 2007.
BECKET is a visually glorious evocation of the color and texture of life in the 12th century. The performances too are grand (but never false or stagey), with two of the greatest actors of the era meeting at the peak of their powers: Henry II was Peter O'Toole's first role after his electrifying Lawrence Of Arabia, and Richard Burton (as Thomas) was fresh in viewers' minds from his work opposite Elizabeth Taylor in CLEOPATRA.
Still, the real power of BECKET lies not in its historical pomp and…
"I'm the only one who does believe. I see him for the power-drunk madman he is. And we're supposed to worship such a deity? I say never."
THE BELIEVER (2001, USA, Henry Bean, from a Mark Jacobson story)
The yeshiva boy gets on the subway. A skinhead follows him onto the train, crowds him, bullies him, follows him off the train, then beats him savagely. It’s hard to watch, but it’s what comes at the end of the scene that’s uniquely troubling: the neo-Nazi pleads with his cowering victim to hit him back, but the boy cannot, or will not. Of course not: the Torah student perfectly embodies all that the vicious skinhead finds so repellent; the young man averts his eyes, his body closed in, elbows held close, shoulders collapsed. He wants to be invisible: his every gesture is an apology.
This film, like its central character, is concerned with power. Isaac’s powerlessness at the hands of Abraham, his father: God's power over Abraham. The power of the Nazis over the Jews, and the Jews' unwillingness to resist – particularly as played out in one holocaust story about a father and his three year old son. Danny finds all…
"I'm not responsible for what people think. Only for what I am."
THE BIG COUNTRY (1958, USA, William Wyler, James R. Webb / Sy Bartlett screenplay, Jessamyn West adaptation, Donald Hamilton novel)
A quiet-spoken easterner arrives out west to marry his fiancee. His manhood is tested, but he's unwilling to do the things needed to prove his honour and win the respect of those on either side of a feud between two ranching families. No gestures heavenward, not a trace of religion or Christ symbolism. But if you reckon Jesus meant what he said about turning the other cheek, this movie might matter to you. It does to me.
Wyler not only directed but had a hand in the adaptation and screenplay of this important, stirring, entertaining film. Multiple writer credits often signal a compromised screenplay: not so here, where the detailed, psychologically complex (and believable) story perfectly fills every one of its 165 minutes without melodrama. (Well okay, the soundtrack works too hard, but every other element works brilliantly, with every dramatic high point well-earned). The dialogue is intelligent, the plot reversals are startling and satisfying, the characters nuanced, the scenery and the cinematography gorgeous (as are the womenfolk).…
"We talked about Christ." "About Christ! Did you mention what line of industrial lubricant Jesus uses?"
THE BIG KAHUNA (1999, USA, John Swanbeck, Roger Rueff screenplay)
This movie is a kick. It’s all talk, but what talk – brash, ballsy, smart, and very very funny.
Phil and Bob swap jibes in the easy, prickly way of small-time corporate road warriors who’ve traveled together for years: they’re salesmen, hawking industrial lubricants. Bob’s a new kid from the tech side, idealistic, loyal to a fault, naïve, and – here’s where it gets interesting – a born again Christian.
The Wichita trip is for one purpose only: to wangle a sit-down with manufacturing magnate Dick Fuller, in hopes of landing a big fat contract. By night’s end, all’s said and nothing’s done: they’ve come up empty handed. Only it turns out young Bob’s just spent hours in a heart-to-heart with the big kahuna himself, and didn’t sell him any product – though he may have interested Mr Fuller in Jesus.
I love this movie, but it makes me mad. I don’t trust it. It asks all the right questions – about character and honesty and friendship, about allegiances to work and to God…
"To eat good food is to be close to God. To have the knowledge of God is the bread of angels. I'm not sure what it means, but..."
BIG NIGHT (1996, USA, Stanley Tucci & Campbell Scott, wr Tucci & Joseph Tropiano)
Maybe it's because I live in a city that's got more restaurants than patrons, maybe it's because I love to eat, I don't know why, but whenever things get too tough and I think it's time to shut down the theatre company I started a couple decades ago, I think about bakeries. I imagine Pacific Theatre is this bakery that makes these kinds of bread and pastries and cakes you can't get anywhere else, and we've got these customers that come through the door regular like clockwork to pick up their knishes and strudel and cranberry bread (especially good for turkey sandwiches, you oughta try some). It's where people get their soul food. There are other outlets, you can get some pretty good stuff at churches and libraries and other theatres around town, but nobody bakes what we do. And when I think about closing up shop, I think of all those customers, all those friends, who won't be able…
Then the LORD God said, `See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand, take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever' – Genesis 3:22
BLADE RUNNER (1982, USA, Ridley Scott, Hampton Fancher / David Peoples / Roland Kibbee screenplay from Philip K. Dick novel)
Great looking future-tense urban decay anticipates the high-tech/low-life frisson of William Gibson cyber-punk, with (especially in the director-maligned voice-over version) the delicious savour of hard-boiled Raymond Chandler mean streets / good man tension. Fans – and this is a movie that restores the “-atic” to the end of that washed-out word – make much of philosophical / theological themes and imagery. Bounty hunter Deckard tracks illegal replicants (ultra-human androids) who’ve become human enough to dream, feel, and even murder. Cloud-dwelling corporate robot manufacturer Tyrell is a false creator/god with a bloodless attitude toward his creations, invoking questions about bio-ethics, techno-hubris, and the nature of humanity. There’s lots of biblical imagery – serpents and satan figures, stigmata and (multiple) saviours, even s dove ascending. I’ll confess the high-minded stuff sometimes feels under-developed and over-stated to me, but the compassion evoked for borderline-humans and their pressing mortality, as well as resonances with real-world treatment of anyone we deem not-quite-as-human-as-we-are, pack a surprising emotional (even spiritual) punch. But what maybe matters most? It looks super cool.
"I could never get used to that part of the job. The power and the glory. The threat of divine vengeance. But I persevered. I was about my Father’s business. It was the morning of December 31st, 1999 when I returned, at last, to judge the living and the dead. Though still, and perhaps always, I had my doubts."
BOOK OF LIFE (1998, France/USA, Hal Hartley)
Doesn’t the Bible say Jesus’ return will be nothing like anybody expects? So maybe this is the most biblical Second Coming picture of them all. He flies into La Guardia with PJ Harvey – er, Mary Magdalene – at his side, forgiving people and marveling at Manhattan like a Midwestern tourist: “I love this town!” He’s en route to a meeting with his father’s – er, Father’s – lawyers, Armageddon, Armageddon & Jehosaphat, who’ve drawn up the papers for the legal separation of the quick and the dead. But when he picks up the PowerBook of Life from the locker of the beast (#666), he’s got serious second thoughts about the second coming. Should he really click on that icon and open the final three of those seven famous seals?
"Lou is a has been, he’s got a big ego, a temperament and a slight drinking problem. And Danny’s got faith."
BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984, USA, Woody Allen)
The warmest of Woody’s films riffs on none of his philosophical / theological preoccupations, but is filled with affection for down-and-outs, second-rates and also-rans. Danny is talentless talent agent who champions the worst and strangest variety acts imaginable; the blind xylophone player (“But the man is a beautiful man, he’s a fantastic individual!”), the one-armed juggler, the one-legged tap dancer. There are stretches that sag, but they're book-ended by standout scenes with food on the table: for starters, a clutch of real-life old-time Borscht Belt comedians swap Danny Rose stories in Carnegie Deli, sparked with the ultra-natural comraderie that fires similar scenes in DINER and RESERVOIR DOGS; to finish, a comically bittersweet Thanksgiving dinner among the misfits that turns frozen turkey dinners and Tab into sacramental elements, a foretaste of some eternal feast of fools where the lion sits down with us losers, and we all win.
"Is it not possible, Holy Father, to live according to the teachings of our Lord? Or have we sinned through presumption? If that be the case, then we would like your Holiness to tell us of our errors. My dearest son, errors will be forgiven. In our obsession with original sin we too often forget original innocence. Don't let that happen to you. We are encrusted with riches and power. You in your poverty put us to shame."
This is a movie that's easy to dismiss. Director Franco Zeffirelli often gets accused of sentimentality, and this 1972 film and its flower power sensibility plays right into that expectation. Saint Francis is presented as the original hippie, complete with trippy folk songs and a "love will conquer all" pseudo-philosophy that gets little cred in our more savvy and cynical day.
It's too bad BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON has ended up with that reputation, because there's much more to this film than that. If we're embarassed by the movie's simplistic rejection of war and materialism, I wonder how much more uncomfortable we would be with…
BRUCE: "How do you make someone love you without changing free will?" GOD: "Welcome to my world, son. You come up with an answer to that one, you let me know."
BRUCE ALMIGHTY (2003, USA, Tom Shadyac)
Believe it or not, this sometimes-amusing, sometimes-trying-too-hard-to-be-ingratiating little flick got me thinking about the problem of evil. How actions have consequences. How maybe sometimes even God couldn't administer the medicine to salve our scrapes without all kinds of unwanted side-effects. Why doesn't he answer our every prayer, fix our every problem? Well, what if He did? Bigger problems. Either God makes us free – "free to be selfish," as C.S. Lewis puts it in SHADOWLANDS – and allows us to suffer the consequences of our own and everybody else's freedom and selfishness, or He seals us off from the discomfort, even the agonies, that follow our stupid choices – and then we're nothing but little God puppets. No, God chose to give us choice with all its consequences, and that means there's going to be pain in the world, even terrible suffering, because that comes along with our freedom to choose.
Okay, I'll admit, theodicy isn't the main theme here (though I suppose…
"I've tried to make you realize all these stories that worry you are so much nonsense, but now I see it's not the stories. It's the fact that you believe them. We don't need a King John with fire and sword, we need someone who can find the reason for your belief and cure it."
CAT PEOPLE (1942, USA, Jacques Tourneur, Val Lewton / DeWitt Bodeen screenplay)
You're drawn to her. She's sexy, sure, but not like the mankiller in a velvet gown that's on the posters. She's petite, shy, unsure, gorgeous eyes. Kittenish. Lonely, there's a sadness there, some secret wound. You just want to help her, and she wants to be helped. She's hungry for it. If you go for that kind of thing, you're doomed from the start.
The artistry of this film is something nobody expected. RKO Pictures hired a producer cheap and gave him a tiny bit of money and said, "Here, nobody went to see CITIZEN KANE, it cost us a fortune and lost us a forture, make us some creature features, people go see those and they don't cost much. WOLF MAN made a pile: here's a title, CAT PEOPLE, see what you…
"Sometimes God likes to put two guys in a paper bag and just let ‘em rip."
CHANGING LANES (2002, Roger Michell, Chap Taylor / Michael Tolkin screenplay)
The hotshot lawyer’s desperate, so he slips into a cathedral. He’s not interested in confession – at least he’s clear on that much – but demands of a priest, “I want you to give the world meaning. Because the world’s a sewer. Because I got into a fender bender with this guy on the FDR, and I had a little fight with him and I tried to do everything I could but this guy just won’t let it go.”
The irony is telling. This was no fender bender: the other man’s car may be a write-off. He has most certainly not do everything he could – at least not to help the situation. Nor has he given a moment’s thought to why the other man wouldn’t let it go: it’s all his fault, after all. Or God’s.
CHANGING LANES observes two men whose preoccupation with their own needs and addiction to lives led in chaos and at top speed lock them in a spiral of ever-increasing blame and vengeance. Roger Thomas at Ethics…
“All nations before him are as nothing They are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity. But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981, UK, Hugh Hudson, Colin Welland)
CHARIOTS OF FIRE was something of a phenomenon when it took the screen in 1981, a film about British Olympic runners in the Twenties which unexpectedly became a touchstone for believers and artists everywhere. Christians were astonished to find themselves sitting in theatres where crowds rooted for an unabashedly Evangelical character, cheering him on as he took a moral stand they would laugh at outside the theatre. And artists found themselves strangely moved to hear an athlete speak the very essence of their sense of calling.
Though there had been a time when the occasional historical figure might be both admirable and Christian – in 1964 Richard Burton could defend the honour of God in BECKET, for example, and Paul Scofield was allowed a similar stand when A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS hit the silver screen two years later – the day…
"We can't go around measuring our goodness by what we don't do. By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think we've got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create. And who we include."
CHOCOLAT (2000, USA/UK, Lasse Hallström, Robert Nelson Jacobs screenplay, Joanne Harris novel)
Like its namesake, a guilty pleasure but a pleasure nonetheless: this not particularly nourishing but undeniably yummy exemplar of the faux-foreign Miramax product tasted a tad Euro-Disney but packed art-houses and boosted concession sales – and, surprisingly, gave movie-goers with an appetite for Soul Food a thing or two to chew on.
Juliette Binoche is delish as a widow who blows into a repressive but picturesque French town during Lent and breathes chocolate-scented life into the repressed Catholic villagers: Lena Olin, Carrie-Anne Moss and Johnny Depp up the gorgeousness factor, Judi Dench provides acting cred, and there’s cool gypsy music and swell photography.
Frederica Mathewes-Green voiced and amplified my qualms in a brilliant beliefnet.com essay where she pitches a script idea for SIZZLE: a sexy, carnivorous Yankee sets up his grill in a joyless town in India and introduces those poor, misguided Hindus into the joys…
"Every time I feel sad in prison I think of the verse in the Koran which says, To remember God is the best consolation for a troubled heart.'"
CLOSE-UP ("Nema-Ye Nazkid" 1990, Iran, Abbas Kiarostami)
In Iran, it seems, you can be sent to jail for impersonating a film-maker. Whether this indicates a higher regard for film-makers or a lower regard for personal freedom, it's hard to say. But it provides the premise of a unique film that is by turns disorienting, revelatory, absurdly amusing and surprisingly moving.
The film has the look and feel of a straight-forward documentary, but we soon begin to wonder what is "real" and what is not. As one character later observes, "appearances can be deceiving." We begin with the meandering conversation of a taxi driver (who doesn't know his way around the city, and turns out "actually" to be a fighter pilot), and his passenger, who claims to be Mr Farazmand, a reporter, but who I quickly recognized as a fraud – the fellow journalists he refers to sound suspiciously like movie directors, and his approach to reporting seems hopelessly amateur and improvised. It seems that the film-maker is impersonating a reporter, and that…
"I decided I needed a complete make-over, except this time I'd make-over my soul."
CLUELESS (1995, USA, Amy Heckerling)
“Emma” in Beverly Hills, an exceptionally witty teen flick that doesn’t wear literary inspiration on its designer sleeve. Like all Jane Austen, a closely observed portrait of small moral awakenings among the oblivious bourgeoisie: amused, affectionate, engaging. Defies expectations; nerdy teachers turn out to be human (and smart) after all, and Dad works hard but is neither distant, ineffectual nor clueless. How might conscience emerge, what might the first stirrings of altruism look like, in a culture of narcissism and consumption?
"It's men who find it hard to forgive. God forgives everything, for God is all-merciful. Don't be afraid."
LE CONFESSIONNAL (1995, Canada, Robert Lepage)
Robert Lepage is Canada's most celebrated and innovative stage director, and if this film doesn't have the breathtaking audacity of his theatre work, it is still a rich and sophisticated piece of work. When his father's death prompts Pierre to seek out his adopted brother Marc, the two of them strive to come to terms with events of their childhood that reverberate in the present – events that were interwoven with the filming of Alfred Hitchcock's I CONFESS in their city.
Lepage pays frequent homage to Hitchcock, brilliantly interweaving the two films and referencing films like VERTIGO and PSYCHO. He rarely resorts to mere cleverness, and when he does, he is very clever indeed. In one sequence, Hitchcock auditions French girls for the role of two school children who witness the murderer leaving the scene of the crime: the audition serves the contemporary story by developing character and interweaving past and present, but the sequence also gives a subtle nod to Hitchcock's cameo in the original film that almost seems to acknowledge his own "there but…
"Hey, Old Man. You home tonight? Can You spare a minute? It's beginning to look like You got things fixed so I can't never win out. Inside, outside, all of them... rules and regulations and bosses. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it's beginning to get to me. When does it end? What do You got in mind for me?"
COOL HAND LUKE (1967, Stuart Rosenberg, Donn Pierce / Frank Pierson screenplay from the Pierce novel)
There's an energy to the camera work, peculiar editing choices that jab you awake, unexpected rhythms in the story-telling that make this distinctly American film feel foreign. The prison work gang, strangely energized by some whim of the title character, shovels dirt onto fresh-poured asphalt and the camera jostles and dodges like a brothel kid with a new point-and-shoot. A dramatically charged scene chops off mid-climax, almost mid-sentence, hard cut to another that wanders langourously, maybe tells no story at all, and ends as strangely. But it's anything but sloppy: everything feels inspired, enlivens, conspires to keep you edgy, alert, alive. Like maybe you've just found yourself in a chain gang, and you've got no idea of the rules around here, and…
"Day of Wrath, for pity take My sins away from Satan’s grasp And bear my soul to Heaven at last."
DAY OF WRATH (“Vredens dag” 1943, Denmark, Dreyer)
Made in Denmark during World War Two, this film – set four centuries earlier – is heavy with the weight of German occupation, as women are tortured and cajoled into denouncing others as witches. But the ready identification of these stern, detached church authority figures with the Nazis and their collaborators, if understandable, is simplistic. For a modern audience shaped by decades of feminism and further erosion of the belief in authority or of supernatural evil, with tolerance the dogma of the day and torture one of the few remaining morally repugnant acts – and with six more decades of deplorable denunciations in Maoist China, Stasi East Germany and McCarthy’s “witch-hunting” America – the tendency to oversimplify is as strong or perhaps stronger.
Dreyer is made of sterner stuff than we. He is rigorously dedicated to making art, never propaganda, to exploring the complexities of humanity rather than trading in stereotypes. Whatever preconceptions we carry into the film about witch trials and puritanical Christianity (Lutheran, actually, in this instance), about the purity…
"I felt completely with the others. At one with them. I was Lau, I was Marc, I was Remi. Maybe it was the strong wind on the beach which mixed us..."
THE DREAMLIFE OF ANGELS ("La Vie revee des anges" France, 1998, Erick Zonka, w/ Roger Bohbot, Virginie Wagon & Pierre Chosson)
You may love Paris in the springtime: Lille in January is quite another matter. The transient Isa hits this northern French town with only the rucksack on her back, but soon her winsome directness wins her a place to stay and, inevitably, a friend or two. We know at the outset, this girl is streetwise: that she is also truly wise is the relevation of this unsentimental, beautifully acted little film.
The exact meaning of the title is elusive, but it suggests transcendence in what is otherwise a gritty and sometimes disspiriting human story. What are those images she rips from magazines to paste into cards to hawk on the street? Does the biker really call after her, "Walk in the light"? What are we to make of the yearnings in Sandrine's diary, the sense of Mystery, the imagery of wind? The same subtle nod to spiritual realities is…
(Martin Scorsese's MY VOYAGE TO ITALY is a journey through the Italian films which have shaped the director's work. Here's a transcription of what Scorsese had to say about EUROPA '51)
What would happen if Saint Francis were alive in postwar Europe, where everyone was desperate to forget the war and return to normal. Would he be recognized as a saint or would people just think he was crazy?
Rossellini asked himself these questions with his next picture, in which he took a different approach to the idea of sainthood. He made a film that takes you through the process of someone actually becoming a saint in a world that didn't believe in them anymore. He called his film EUROPA ‘51. Ingrid Bergman plays an English woman named Irene Girard. She is living a comfortable life in Rome with her husband George and her son Michel. But something's wrong. Irene and Michel have lived through the air raids of London together, so the bond between them is very intense. But now everything back to normal, Michel feels neglected. He wants Irene’s attention , and he'll do anything to get it. [They argue. Later, he throws himself down the stairs.] This…
"People say that God is dead, but how can they think that if I show them the Devil?"
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005, USA, Scott Derrickson, screenplay with Paul Harris Boardman)
I know people have qualms about this one. I can only say I was completely caught up in it, deeply affected, and extremely proud of what Scott Derrickson has accomplished. I think EMILY ROSE is one of the most direct apologetics both for the reality of Evil and the authenticity of the Christian faith that I've seen represented on film. And I don't think it's a mere tract, the kind of Christian propaganda movie we all dread that does nothing but bully an audience with over-argued apologetics that mostly just provoke us to take up the other side.
Though marketed as a straight-up horror movie, EMILY ROSE aims to be much, much more than simply scary (though it is that): it tries – and I think it mostly succeeds – to examine the possibility that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in most of our philosophies. Oh, Scott does the scary stuff real good: I'm sure there are plenty of viewers who will…
"I think gay people like Tammy because Tammy likes gay people, and she's one of the only Christians in the world who seems to these days."
THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (USA, 2000, Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato)
One of the things art does is makes us bigger. And one of the main ways it does that is by shaking up our perceptions, taking a piece of the world and holding it up at an angle that makes us see it differently. That reversal of expectations is the real accomplishment of this unpredictable documentary about "the First Lady of Religious Broadcasting" created – who would have predicted? – by two gay film-makers and narrated by infamous drag queen RuPaul.
You can see the appeal. All the camp is there, from the infamous mascara, big hair and even bigger personality to the tackiest trappings of TV religion. But even at the outset, the tone isn't mockery so much as a certain ironic celebration. And by the time we've realized the radical truth that "Jim and Tammy's gospel of fun was for one and all," we've been moved from skeptical mockery through a kind of pitying compassion into something remarkably like respect. When…
"We used to live in tribes, and when a tribe suffered a disaster – an exploding mountain, the shaking of the earth, a great flood – they would sit around fires and retell the event. Stories of death, desturction, escape, and rescue. That's why we're here today. Would someone tell us their story? "
FEARLESS (1993, USA, Peter Wier, screenplay Rafael Yglesias)
FEARLESS is a film about rebirth, about a man untimely ripp'd from imminent death who finds himself fully alive for the first time. "Behold, all things are become new" – the look and feel of water flowing through his hands, the texture of spittle mixed with dust, the taste of a strawberry. In the midst of a horrific airplane crash Max Klein has discovered an uncanny peace, and now he can't return to his old life, won't take up his responsibilities as a successful architect, as a husband and father. He flees the jangle of media questions that cast him as a fearless hero who saved fellow passengers – "Follow me to the light!" – but he flees them not because they're probably making him out to be something he's not, but because they've maybe got it right.…
"Is this heaven?" "It’s Iowa." "I coulda sworn it was heaven."
FIELD OF DREAMS (USA, 1989, Phil Alden Robinson, W.P. Kinsella novel)
Late in my work-weary third decade, God sent a book that rekindled a vital spark that hadn't fired me up since my childhood. It would be going too far (a lot too far) to say He drew me back to my first love, but it was at least a childhood crush that got stirred up again, and it kindles my heart in a way that has sustained me through some very tough years.
I didn't find this inspirational classic in a religious bookstore. Even though it's done as much for my spirit and my soul as a shelf full of devotional literature, it wasn't recommended by my pastor, or even a therapist. My muse was a scratchy voiced radio announcer, who very clearly said to me – well, to me and however many other hundreds of thousands of CBC listeners had tuned in that afternoon – "If you read it, your life will be changed." (Well, not in so many words. But I know what I heard!)
I went straight to the used bookstore and got myself a…
(Martin Scorsese's MY VOYAGE TO ITALY is a journey through the Italian films which have shaped the director's work. Here's a transcription of what Scorsese had to say about THE FLOWERS OF ST. FRANCIS)
GERMANY YEAR ZERO is about the loss, or the absence, of faith. STROMBOLI is about one woman's discovery of faith. And then Rossellini made a film about having faith, the embracing of faith. With Pasolini he adapted “The Flowers Of Saiint Francis,” a book that was written in the 14th century. In the aftermath of world tragedy, Saint Francis is example of unconditional love for every living thing.
I've never seen the life of a saint treated on film with so little solemnity. And so much warmth. FLOWERS OF SAINT FRANCIS was shot in early 1950 in the mountains around Rome. Rossellini used real monks to play all the principal roles. The film consists of a series of episodes in the lives of Saint Francis and his fellow brothers. These episodes play like little parables. But this Saint Francis is just the opposite of the somber saints with halos that were used to seeing in other movies. Rossellini made a film about a human being, but…
"After all, there's your dog, your dog's dead. But where's the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn't it? There's your spirit. There it is."
GATES OF HEAVEN (1980, USA, Errol Morris)
This film can make you cynical. Or it can break your heart. For many viewers, it does both. Memorably.
Errol Morris's first film is a markedly odd piece about pet cemeteries and the people who run them. In what became a distinctive of his documentary style, characters are not named, no interviewer steers the conversations, and there are no voice-overs to guide our response to what we are seeing. You're on your own, to make what you will of these quirky, tacky, idealistic, and possibly misguided people.
Roger Ebert famously named this eccentric little nonfiction film to his list of the Ten Greatest Films Ever Made, and writes eloquently about it in his indispensible volume of film appreciation, The Great Movies, describing it as "an underground legend, a litmus test for audiences who cannot decide if it is serious or satirical, funny or sad, sympathetic or mocking." At times an uncomfortably close observation of lower-middle class bad taste, at others a moving portrait of…
"On the day of my judgment, when I stand before God and he asks me why did I kill one of his true miracles, what am I going to say? That it was my job?"
THE GREEN MILE (1999, USA, Frank Darabont, from Stephen King novel)
Have you ever pitied God? All-compassionate, all-seeing, the whole panorama of human cruelty and suffering – “people being ugly to each other” – spread out before His unblinking gaze? Or does the thought make you angry: if He sees it, why not stop it? Stephen King has spent a lifetime contemplating the world’s evil – horrifying, pervasive, ineradicable – and his story about two good men who meet on death row goes to the heart of those questions.
Tom Hanks is the perfect Paul Edgecomb, a decent man trying to do an indecent job decently. These are the 1930s, jobs are scarce, and he makes ends meet supervising executions and managing the prison block where condemned men live out their last months. He sees “the green mile” as an intensive care ward for souls in extremis, a humane place where men can prepare to face their death.
"What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?"
GROUNDHOG DAY (1993, USA, Harold Ramis, wr Danny Rubin & Ramis)
Sometimes once in an artist's life, lightning strikes. Some creative lives are lit by regular lightning storms that go on for weeks or months at a time. Rarely, there are half a dozen whole years of lightning, like with the Beatles, say. In utterly rare instances it lasts a lifetime – Mozart, Shakespeare, maybe there's another name or two you'd add, but it's a very short list indeed.
For many of us it never strikes, not really, not the pure bolt-from-heaven indisputable electrifying probability-defying blast of unadulterated every-last-detail-is-exactly-right inspiration. Entire and entirely worthy lives are lived, artistic and creative lives are lived, by the light of distant lightning, or by electrical storms mere blocks away, or by painstakingly contructed bonfires or cleverly devised illumination systems. But lightning from on high? For many, never.
For Harold Ramis, one time. Oh, he's had his moments in the sun or spotlight, he's even himself been brilliant on occasion. But there was only one GROUNDHOG DAY. Only one perfect idea,…
"Do you ever visit the people you save?" "Are you crazy?" "Go visit her. The woman you almost saved. Never stop saving them."
HAWAII, OSLO (2004, Norway, Erik Poppe direction/story, Harald Rosenlow-Eeg story/screenplay)
Vidar is a good man who's haunted by his dreams. Haunted, because they come true. Like the one about the ambulance accident that kills his friend Leon? Which hasn't happened yet, but looks like it's about to.
When Leon is scared, he runs. Tonight, on the eve of his twenty-fifth birthday, he's very scared. He's papered downtown Oslo with posters: his photo, his phone number, and the words "ASA, HUSKER DU MEG?" - "Asa, do you remember me?" If he's lucky, if he's blest, his high school sweetheart will arrive tomorrow, and maybe they will marry. But Leon is convinced that Vidar's dreams say she won't show up. So Leon runs. And Vidar runs after him.
That simple story is at the centre of a kaleidoscopic film that traces the stories of a dozen or more characters until their fates converge on an Oslo street corner one hot summer night. The intricately constructed narrative draws comparisons with other multi-plot films with morality (or even metaphysics) on their…
"I've done a lot of damage. And really stupid, supid things. Four people died because of me and I can't live with that. I'll never be able to. I shot a defenseless person, which you know. But what you don't know is, I've ceased to believe. In sense. In justice. In life."
HEAVEN (2002, Germany, Tom Tykwer, wr Kieslowski / Pieskowicz)
A young woman prepares a bomb, then takes it into an office tower. She places it in a wastebasket, then hurries out of the building. We know, more or less, who she is. The word "terrorist" comes readily to mind, and though we don't know her specific political agenda or who her target might be, it's clear enough what she is.
Except this is a screenplay by Krytofs Kieslowski and Pieskowicz – co-creators of THE DECALOGUE and all three COLORS – and things won't be as simple as they seem. Or things may be exactly as they seem, and it's our judgements that will prove to be too simple; hasty, shallow, under-informed. When Philippa learns of the unintended consequences of her act (in a Cate Blanchett performance of immense power and vulnerability), our assumptions and easy labels begin quickly…
In the media and pop culture, the typical portrayal of Christian fundamentalists tends to err at the extremes, treating them and their beliefs with either an excess of reverence or too much mockery. Higher Ground is refreshing precisely because it finds a middle ground – in this spiritual community, there are no saints and there are no demons, no absolute wisdom and no complete idiocy. Of course, in such a vacuum, drama is harder to generate, and the film’s quiet realism demands from us our own act of faith: We’re asked to watch closely and to listen intently in the promise of a greater reward to come. ...
Essentially, it’s the story of a woman whose life is changed by two embraced discoveries. First, she acquires religion and then, painfully, she gains something that speaks to her far more profoundly – doubt. The script doesn’t quote Tennyson, but his famous dictum – “There lives more faith in honest doubt/ Believe me, than in half the creeds” – lies at the conflicted heart of the tale. That’s the faith Corinne, an evolving skeptic among true believers, labours toward.
"You say you’re a Jew and you can’t read Hebrew. What are you, then?"
HOMICIDE (1991, USA, David Mamet direction and screenplay)
This one feels like a real find –until the Twistmeister gets too fancy at the end, muddling thematic complexity with plot contrivance that’s completely unnecessary. Up to the point where the thoughtful Mamet gets shouldered aside by the clever Mamet, it’s a fascinating character study, a conversion story of sorts with a strange string of circumstances that challenge homicide detective Bobby Gold to decide who he is – a cop, or a Jew – at the risk of ending up neither.
Cinematog Roger Deakins gives us lots to look at: ominously silent after opening credit music, a slow tracking shot starts abstract, just shapes, texture, and motion, then reveals itself to be a banister moments before shapes enter the frame, moving against the camera motion, men with shields and guns working their way up the stairs for a deadly raid on a tenement apartment. Scene after scene, everything is old, cracked, peeling, neglected, a wearing-out world of rooftops, stairways, rundown storefronts on mean, dreary streets. Until we enter the apartment of a wealthy Jewish doctor, where the contrast…
"Hasn't God forgiven me, thanks to you? The police never would."
I CONFESS (1953, USA, Hitchcock)
Alfred Hitchcock was raised a Catholic, and if this isn't his best – or best-known – film, it's certainly his most explicitly spiritual. In the 1930s, Hitch saw a stage production of Paul Anthelme's turn of the century drama "Nos deux consciences," and its story about an innocent priest accused of murder haunted him for years. This transference of guilt theme shows up in any number of his films: here, the Master Of Suspense tells the story with images that connect Father Logan with Christ, suffering for sins he didn't commit and refusing to answer his accusers. The ending Hitchcock intended to shoot underlined the symbolic connection with Jesus as sacrificial victim, but the one he actually shot is more satisfying at a human level.
It really is a compelling premise: the seal of the confessional forbids Logan from identifying the real murderer, a frightened parishioner who ends up turning suspicion in the priest's direction. I'm not convinced this film does all it could with the material: though French critics and Canadian movie buffs make much of the flick, I'm not sure it's more…
"How do you ever expect to get to heaven, with one foot in the voodoo houmfort and the other in the church? Some of this native nonsense..." "The houngan has his prescription, Dr Maxwell and I have ours." "You never talked about voodoo before, Mrs Rand." "It's just part of everyday life here." "You don't believe in it?" "A missionary's widow? It isn't very likely, is it?"
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943, USA, Jacques Tourneur, Val Lewton / Curt Siodmak / Ardel Wray screenplay, Inez Wallace article, loosely adapted from Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre")
If CAT PEOPLE affects us so potently because of our compassion for its central character, this follow-up from Tourneur and Lewton achieves its greatest effect by maintaining a chilly, chilling distance. Again, a young woman (possibly in peril) is at the centre of the story, but we view her with an odd detachment: she seems a sweet enough girl, but perhaps her immediate attraction to the cold, even cruel Paul Holland distances us from her from the outset – her psychology grows increasingly complex as the story progresses, and it's not easy to hope (or imagine) that everything will work out for these two.
"Doesn’t it make you furious when they walk all over you this way?" "No. I can’t afford to hate people. I haven’t got that kind of time."
IKIRU (1951, Japan, Kurosawa)
Akira Kurosawa's epic Samurai films are among the greatest movies ever made. But it is a quiet, intimate story about a very different sort of hero, a mid-level bureaucrat confronted with the futility of his own life, that may be the director's masterpiece. Certainly it is one of his most spiritual films.
IKIRU is the story of Mr Watanabe, the paper-shifting Section Chief of the municipal Public Affairs Department. For decades he has hoarded his money, his time and his affections until, with only months left to live, he discovers he no longer knows how to spend them. Played with wrenching vulnerability by Takashi Shimura, this may be the definitive portrait of a man who, examining his life, discovers that it may not be worth living.
The film opens with a stark X-ray image and the unemotional declaration that "This stomach belongs to the protagonist of our story. At this point, our protagonist has no idea he has this cancer." He shifts papers from one pile to another. He…
Philip Groening's Into Great Silence is one of those rare films that I hardly know how to begin to praise.
As a rather feeble point of departure, I saw nothing released in 2006 that I would venture to compare to it, in terms of achievement. Perhaps even nothing released in the few years I've been writing reviews. A shortlist of most valued films I've seen as new releases in my critical life might include The Son, The Passion of the Christ, Spirited Away, and a few others. This film is of a different order than any of these, or any I might add to the list.
Into Great Silence is more than just a documentary of monastic life. It is a contemplative, transcendent meditation on the human pursuit of meaning, on man as a religious and social creature; on the form and function of symbols and ritual and tradition; on the rhythm of work and prayer, day and night, winter and spring.
The film offers an implicit challenge, not so much to the trappings of modernity (modern technology crops up here and there in the monks' world, occasionally to humorous effect), as to the…
"Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives, and when he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946, USA, Frank Capra, screenplay with Frances Goodrich / Albert Hacket / Jo Swerling / Dorothy Parker / Dalton Trumbo / Clifford Odets, from Phillip Van Doren Stern's short story "The Greatest Gift")
I know. For many it's pretty much just one of those sentimental Christmas favourites, a harmless exercise in seasonal nostalgia that kind of makes them feel nice. Warm apple cider for the soul.
That's not my experience. Somehow I managed to reach my early forties – and something akin to early onset midlife crisis – never having seen this holiday classic. Somebody happened to rent the video, and I sat down blithely for a taste of some sweet, easy-to-digest Capra corn.
Frank blindsided me completely. By the last half hour, my face ran with tears. Eventually I was sobbing. Not because of sweet platitudes about how everything will always work out, not because Christmas will always be cheery, but because of the opposite. It showed me my life, which didn't feel so wonderful.
"Do you believe in God?" "I believe in myself." "What does that mean?" "I have confidence in myself." "I've been doing some soul searching lately, asking myself some pretty tough questions. You know what I found out? I have no interest in myself. I start thinking about myself, I get bored out of my mind."
JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO (1990, USA, John Patrick Shanley)
You know the Tom Hanks – Meg Ryan romcom you never rented because you thought you didn't really need to see Tom and Meg do their thing again, and besides you thought it might be a little weird? Well, you thought wrong: it's a lot weird, it's like no other romantic comedy you'll ever see, and you do need to see it.
John Patrick Shanley is one of America's most widely produced playwrights, and his writing and directing for the theatre has kept his imagination alive in a way that frees him from the genre restrictions and market orientation of so much commercial screenwriting. There's a whimsical imagination at play here that goes way beyond the conventions of what's supposed to pass for realism in standard issue romantic comedy: painting with freer, broader strokes and wildly…
(Martin Scorsese's MY VOYAGE TO ITALY is a journey through the Italian films which have shaped the director's work. Here's a transcription of what Scorsese had to say about VIAGGIO IN ITALIA.)
"VOYAGE TO ITALY, made in 1953, is one of my favorites. Now, I first saw it when I was a film student, and I was kind of prepared for it. So my first reaction was immediate and emotional. But over the years I've found that other people didn't always share my feelings about the picture. Like many of Rossellini's films, it's not instantly accessible. But if you give yourself to the film, if you spend time with it, you find it can be a rich, moving experience. I think the reality is that Rossellini was one of the few filmmakers who actually became more adventurous as he got older, and that's rare. His work from the fifties, sixties and seventies is as impassioned as his neo-realist films. It's just different…"
"There's still a kid inside. But you grow up when you decide to do right, okay, and not what's right for you, what's right for everybody, even when it hurts."
LARS AND THE REAL GIRL (2007, USA, Craig Gillespie, Nancy Oliver screenplay)
Certified Soul Food. Folks called it "the LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE of 2007," but that's misleading: the tone is less boisterously comic, it feels more authentically indie, not trying to be a Hollywood feel-good film on a low budget.
Ryan Gosling and Patricia Clarkson are as fine as you'd expect them to be (which is very fine indeed - they are two of the best working today), yet they don't dominate the picture: Emily Mortimer (who's played great moms before - once in claymation, once in DEAR FRANKIE - as well as a standout turn in MATCH POINT), Paul Schneider as her husband (having acted in ALL THE REAL GIRLS, I guess he was an obvious casting choice) and Kelli Garner (as the real real girl) are really, really fine. Authentic, unshowy performances that are far more emotionally complex than the star turns generating Oscar buzz for something like AMERICAN GANGSTER, f'rinstance.
"I'm going to turn over a new leaf in Spain. I'm going to turn over several new leaves. You know that Shakespearean admonition, 'To thine own self be true?' It's premised on the idea that thine own self is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if thine own self is not so good? What if it's pretty bad? Would it be better in that case not to be true to thine own self? See? That's my situation."
THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (1998, USA, Whit Stillman)
Indeed, that's the situation of all the characters in this closing chapter of Whit Stillman's NYC WASP triptych (acronyms cluster around these films like debs around a punchbowl). Of course, none of them know it at the outset: when first we meet them, they're out for a disco night on the town, flushed with youth, good looks and the high spirits that come from gaining admission to New York's most exclusive dance club. They're on top of the world, neither sadder nor wiser than their younger METROPOLITAN counterparts – but they will be by the end of the movie.
"Why didn't you tell me there were mysteries?" "David, my whole life has been about a mystery." "No! You stood in that church and explained them away! Dad, I've been taken with some sort of otherness, and I don't know what to do. We've lost our dreams. And they come back, and we don't know what they mean."
THE LAST WAVE (1977, Australia, Peter Wier)
David Burton is a wealthy corporate tax lawyer called on to provide legal aid to five aboriginal men charged with murder. As he tries to penetrate the mystery surrounding the man's death, he is drawn deeper and deeper into the Mysteries in his own dreams, in global weather changes, in the spiritual beliefs of this ancient people.
When I saw the film in its day, I was (to use a phrase of the time) blown away. Instead of heading straight home after the credits, I wandered the neighbourhood for a long time, not so much trying to figure this one out as to live for a while in its "unfigurables," to let its potent atmostphere and evocation of spiritual questions resonate. I felt I had been brought into fleeting contact with elusive realities I couldn't…
"If people think that makes me weak... or mad... so be it. That is the path I am committed to. To love the sinner, but hate the sins. To assume the best in people, and not the worst. To believe that anyone, no matter how evil, can be redeemed... eventually."
LONGFORD (2006, UK/USA, Tom Hooper, Peter Morgan screenplay)
Here's an overlooked film that's 100% Soul Food, an HBO production that premiered at Sundance in 2007. Lord Longford (a transformative portrayal by Jim Broadbent, who also happens to have played Professor Kirke in THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE) is a British aristocrat whose outspoken Christian faith led him to champion the cause of Myra Hindley, the notorious serial killer involved with England's horrific "Moor Murders." The SF Chronicle aptly calls the film "languid but always fascinating," the story of "one man who tested his faith and his reputation by refusing to pass judgment."
Longford's Christianity is front and centre throughout. Just as with the historical events, this smart film doesn't make up our minds for us. Is he is a well-meaning but misguided Pollyanna whose "look on the bright side" religiosity makes him an easy mark for a manipulative…
(An early piece by one of my favourite cinephiles, Doug Cummings. This was posted at PTAnderson.com back where there was a PTAnderson.com, but now that there isn't, I think it deserves a new home....)
MAGNOLIA: SPIRITUALITY IN FILM
"And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just 'something that happened.' This cannot be 'one of those things...' This, please, cannot be that. These strange things happen all the time."
MAGNOLIA (1999, USA, P.T. Anderson)
These words, spoken in the beginning of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, inaugurate the movie's unpredictable narrative that many reviewers claim is a comment on "chance" as a part of life. However, careful viewers will note an ongoing obsession with the numbers 8 and 2 that reveal a different message. "82" appears attached to a hanged man, on an airplane's fuselage, and on a rooftop beside a suicidal jumper. It provides an 82% chance of rain, an unlucky combination of playing cards, and appears in everything from apartment numbers to answering machines to public meetings at 8:20. Eventually, the motif refers to Exodus 8:2, a verse citing a plague God used to deliver the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt. The…
"We’ll meet up." "In another life, maybe." "In this life. Have faith." "Have faith in your hooks and ropes. And in yourself."
A MAN ESCAPED ("Un condamné à mort s'est échappé, ou Le vent souffle où il veut" 1956, France, Robert Bresson)
Robert Bresson is one of those directors film lovers inevitably discover, and his Catholicism, shaped by the traumas of World War Two France, make him especially fascinating to cinephiles with a taste for spiritual things. This is a film you can return to over and over again, a stark and powerful experience that reveals layer after layer of mystery and understanding the more we consider it.
The “man” of the title is Fontaine, a French Resistance fighter locked away in a Nazi prison. We know from the blunt title and his past-tense narration that he has escaped and is recounting his story at some later time. Or do we? If we know that his ultimate fate is secure, why do we feel such tension and suspense?
As relentless as the film-maker’s attention is to the inescapable physical realities of this prison – wood and iron and stone, fabric and wire and water on a face – we’re also…
(How very odd. When called on to choose his favorite film, the potty-mouthed director of rude little movies like CLERKS and DOGMA chooses the story of Saint Thomas More. Well, there are reasons. "This New York Times article by Rick Lyman is the 12th in a series of discussions with noted directors, actors, screenwriters, cinematographers and others in the film industry. In each article, a filmmaker selects and discusses a movie that has personal meaning. The articles have been gathered into a book, "Watching Movies.")
A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966, UK, Zinnemann)
WORDS, words, words. They come spilling out of ''A Man for All Seasons'' in great torrents that spin and swell into rapids, a furious river of words. And Paul Scofield wraps his dour face and deep-timbred voice around Robert Bolt's dialogue with such satisfying, calculated calibration.
Kevin Smith laughed and nodded his head. ''This language, it's so great,'' he said, leaning back again in a swivel chair in his baby-blue bungalow on the CBS Studio Center lot, where he is finishing the editing on ''Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back,'' his latest sex-and-drugs comedy.
In one scene, Mr. Scofield, playing the soon-to-be-martyred Sir Thomas More in Henry…
"When I think that one man, one body, and one spirit was enough to turn a desert into the land of Canaan, I find after all that a man's destiny can be truly wonderful. But when I consider the passionate determintation, the unfailing generosity of spirit it took to achieve this end, I'm filled with admiration for this old, unlearned peasant, who was able to complete a task worthy of God."
THE MAN WHO PLANTED TREES ("L'homme qui plantait des arbes," 1987, Canada, Frederic Back, story by Jean Giono)
The simple story of Eleazard Bouffier, a shepherd who passes his days unnoticed, planting acorns in an arid, desolate highland in Provence, rendered by Canadian animator Frederic Back in what look like pencil crayon sketches come to life, an airy cinematic impressionism. There comes a moment when the curve of a treeless hilltop proves to be the brim of a man's hat. Another when unrelieved sparsities of brown and grey give way, at last, to richly exuberant colours: we hear of the death of the man's wife and son, played out before us in extreme simplicity, a still and sorrowful moment in a modern dance piece; then for a very long…
"Therefore, Jew, though justice be thy plea, consider this, That, in the course of justice, none of us Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy; And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy."
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (2004, USA/UK, Michael Radford, play by William Shakespeare)
Director Michael Radford's MERCHANT OF VENICE is a gift. Since the Holocaust, to present this brilliant, challenging play about Jew-hating Christians and hateful Jewish caricatures is to invoke controversy, inviting accusations of aiding and abetting gross anti-Semitism. Just ask the artistic director of your local Shakespeare festival.
But to avoid the play simply because it makes us uncomfortable is unthinkable. That's what art - and Jesus - are all about: to afflict the comfortable (right alongside the corollary task of comforting the afflicted). MERCHANT offers a complex and confounding window not only into our proclivity to mix racism and religion, but also into love and greed, mercy and justice, the contradictions of the human heart. Radford and his cast have created a MERCHANT for our day, grounded in the sensibilities of Shakespeare's.
The first image we see, centre-screen, is a cross, mounted at the stern of a boat…