I forgot to write up this year’s Mandatory Lent Film Party plans! Thanks to a few readers for reminding me.
On Fridays in Lent, our family watches some edifying, well-made films, with at least a loosely spiritual theme, preferably one that we probably wouldn’t otherwise get around to seeing.
In past years, I’ve done short reviews for the movies we watched. My past lists are here (2021) and here (2020), and you can find the individual movie reviews under the tag Lent Film Party. I will also link them separately at the end of this post.
Here’s our list of possibilities for this year:
SAINT PHILIP NERI: I PREFER HEAVEN
THE SECRET OF KELLS
OF GODS AND MEN
TREE OF LIFE
THE YOUNG MESSIAH
THE JEWELER’S SHOP
THE SCARLET AND THE BLACK
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC
A HIDDEN LIFE
KEYS TO THE KINGDOM
We’ve already watched three movies this Lent: Fiddler on the Roof, The Scarlet and the Black, and The Secret of Kells. I’ll do quickie reviews for the first two here, but I want to write up The Secret of Kells separately.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1971)
100% stands up. I’ve seen this movie countless times, and it just gets better. We ended up watching it over two nights, because it’s three hours long (it has an intermission, so you can split it up easily).
This show is a masterclass in how to sustain a metaphor without wielding it like a club. Tevye openly tells the audience right from the beginning that “every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking our necks” — and then he proceeds to work out what that means himself, throughout the rest of the movie. At the end, he invites the fiddler (sans roof), with a nod of his head, to come along with them to whatever’s next, and as he trudges forward with his load, he follows the music. So you see that his story is not over. Oh, it’s so good. Every element is perfect, the songs, the casting, the choreography, the dialogue, the cinematography, the pacing.
It’s the story of a Jewish family in a tiny shtetl in Russia at the turn of the century, trying to maintain their identity despite cultural pressure from a swiftly changing world, and also from overt attacks in the form of pogroms. This movie shows more or less the story of my family, on both my parents’ sides. But it will feel personal to other viewers, as well, to see the Russians suddenly and senselessly descending on their neighbors. Different era, similar pointless horror and betrayal.
Early in the movie, when Tevye has agreed to marry his oldest daughter to the butcher, they go to a tavern together and drink “to life,” and their jubilant toast is joined by a crowd of Russian soldiers. Normally the two groups keep to themselves, but not tonight. The choreography here illustrates so much tension and menace and emotion. Is it an invitation, or a threat? (Which, by the way, is the question Tevye has to ask himself throughout the whole story.)
Tevye is cautious but doesn’t want to be cowardly or cold, so he accepts the challenging invitation to dance in the Russian style, and as he’s caught up in it he shouts, “I like it!” But he almost immediately learns that good will is not enough. The next scene that shows dancing, at his daughter’s wedding, starts out with such jubilation, and ends in ruin, shattering devastation. And there is nothing to do but, as Tevye roars out into the darkness, “Clean up.”
I don’t really know how it hit the kids, although I definitely heard some weeping from the couch. I was glad they saw how Tevye speaks so naturally and constantly to God, and I was glad they saw how parents struggle and suffer while trying to figure out the balance between accepting changes they don’t like or understand because they love their kids and can’t really control them anyway, and holding the line for what’s really important. It’s not as easy as it looks! When Tevye is trying to work out whether or not he can see his way to making sense of his third daughter’s relationship, he says with a crack in his voice, “If I try to bend that far, I’ll break,” and I think even a teenage daughter who thinks her overbearing parents are unreasonable ogres will see that this man is really trying, and really suffering. (I definitely did, as a teenage daughter of a sometimes ogreish father.)
The kids were resistant to watching this movie because they remember it as a huge downer, but it truly isn’t. It doesn’t shy away from tragedy, but it’s also extremely funny, and tender, and sweet, and it ends, improbably, with hope. My Lenten wish for you is that you watch this movie.
We rented it for $3.99 on Amazon prime. It’s available to rent or buy on many platforms. Worth owning and rewatching.
The second movie we watched for Lent was:
THE SCARLET AND THE BLACK (1983)
Currently available to stream free on a few platforms and for rent on several more.
Synopsis: The true story of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who uses clever ruses, trickery, and brazen courage to organize an effort that hid and saved the lives of thousands of Jews and escaped POWs in Nazi-occupied Rome.
Here’s a trailer:
Terrible trailer that kind of does justice to the movie, which we all found underwhelming. At 2 hours and 23 minutes, it was made for TV, and it does not translate well into a single night of viewing. There are many extraneous scenes of people talking vehemently to each other across a desk or on the phone. The repetition may have been necessary to keep the TV viewer up to speed across several episodes, but it turns the movie into a bit of a slog.
For a movie that takes place partially inside the Vatican with a monsignor for a hero, I found it weirdly secularized. The priests who are martyred die explicitly for the people, which sounds good, but I dunno, you’d think they’d mention something vaguely spiritual while facing a death squad! I have only seen the movie once, but no portrayal or prayer or faith in God stands out, and they all seem to be relying on sweaty masculine vigor and cunning, rather than ever on grace. I understand making a religious story accessible to a general audience, but this was a pretty egregious case of Jesusectomy, except for literally the last five minutes and the little written epilogue that appears on the screen.
Tell me if I’m being unfair. It’s not that I expected it to be one kind of movie, and was disappointed that it was a different kind. It was that the final scene was extremely powerful … and completely unearned by the previous two hours. I’d pay good money for a remake that starts with what happens at the end, and then spends the movie explaining what led up to that. Instead, it was a dated, somewhat plodding adventure movie with priests, with a tacked-on religious finale that appears out of nowhere. Tell me if I’m being unfair.
It was a pretty good historical antidote to the myth that the Church just sat on its hands and made nice with the Nazis (or even that the pope was an antisemite — a view which even the author of Hitler’s Pope has recanted); but it still soft balled what actually happened. It portrayed Pius XII as an overly cautious political player who was mainly concerned with staying safely neutral and not making things worse, but had a thing or two to learn from this bold monsignor, who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. In fact, the Vatican saved tens of thousands of Jews or more through numerous secret means. Could and should they have done more, or done things differently? I don’t know. The facts are still being sorted through and analyzed. One thing I tell my kids often is that, if someone tells you history is simple and straightforward, they’re either stupid or lying.
I guess I give the movie a B- overall. It wasn’t exciting enough to be a wartime adventure movie (there was only one attempted stabbing in a shadowy Vatican hallway, followed by a punching and a shooting! There should have been one every twenty minutes!), but it didn’t have enough spiritual or even interior content to justify the ending.
So the next week, I chose something completely different: The Secret of Kells, which I hadn’t seen before. And I’ll review that next!
Here’s the direct links to previous Lent Film Party Reviews from last year:
Calvary (This one is a podcast and it’s currently only open to Patreon patrons)
And I guess that’s all we got to last year, although I feel like I’m forgetting something.
From the year before:
9 thoughts on “Friday Night Mandatory Lent Film Party, 2022: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and THE SCARLET AND THE BLACK”
I have not seen Fiddler save a few famous songs. It’s been on my list to see it.
I saw the Scarlet and the Black a long while ago. I remember it being a slow burn but not tedious. I was too busy being lost in Gregory peck’s rich intonation. And I remember being humbled by the twist at the end.
That might be because I very rarely watch movies older than the late 1970s so the novelty of that era’s sensibilities and Gregory Peck may have overridden my more critical faculties.
That’s my two cents. I did see I Prefer Heaven. It’s okay, some of the acting is a little amateur. And it felt a bit longer than I thought strictly necessary. I would definitely watch it in Italian with subtitles so you don’t miss as many of the jokes.
Love me some Fiddler!
For some reason, the old movie Harvey just popped into my head so I thought I’d throw it out there as a suggestion. Not explicitly religious, but it does emphasize that it’s more important to be good and true to yourself than to worry about what everyone thinks of you. Even though I’m a big Jimmy Stewart fan, I don’t think I’ve seen the movie in >30 years, so I can’t remember if it would appeal to young people today.
From your list for this Lent, I highly reccomend I Prefer Heaven. It’s such a charming, adorable movie, with beautiful songs you never forget.
And I love that it is about the absolute Joy of being a Christian, something the world thinks Catholics don’t get.
It made me love St. Philip of Neri. I watched it many years ago and still think about it.
I came here to suggest A Hidden Life. Watched it a few week ago and it’s brutal (maybe a bit slow for younger kids too) but maybe my favorite movie that I’ve ever seen and so Catholic. I can’t stop thinking about it.
I recall liking the Scarlet & the Black when I originally saw it. We had it on video tape, so It’s been a very long time since I last saw it, and I probably wasn’t wasn’t viewing it as critically as you did. But you are so right about Fiddler on the Roof.
I look forward to reading what you have to say about The Secret of Kells.
I’m super interested to see what you think of The Chosen. The director really tries to incorporate Jewish culture into the story and treats it as an important part of the context, and I’m really curious what you think of how they do.
Although that’s 16 episodes of a TV show, so it’s a bit of a commitment. If I could only watch two or three episodes, I’d watch Season 1, Episode 5 (wedding at Cana…was SHOCKED how well they pulled it off), Season 2, Episode 1, and Season 2, Episode 3.
Fair warning, the first two episodes do a lot of world building and set up, so they’re very slow. I would watch episode 5 of season one to get a taste of it and then go back and start the whole season if it catches your interest.
thanks for the recommendation! I did plan to choose only a few episodes, so I’m glad to know where to start.
Simcha, thanks for reminding us of the movie, The Scarlet and the Black, though I disagree with your review. It’s one of my favorite movies, and I’ve seen it more than once. It’s rated 5 stars on Amazon Prime, and at Rotten Tomatoes has an 88% positive rating. I give it 5 stars.
It’s important to remember that almost every single person in that movie is real – it’s not simply wartime fiction. They are real, and the people and the events are almost entirely accurate based on reports and books from people who were there, writing decades ago when it was still fresh. This is what it was like in this specific time and place – in Rome during the time when the Germans were in complete control over the city. The movie is based on the book “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican” by J.P. Gallagher, now retitled as “The Scarlet and the Black.”
In my opinion, Msgr. O’ Flaherty is a saint, though there has not been any clamor for canonization, but a saint nonetheless. And the movie is an amazingly appropriate one for Lent.
During Lent, we hear the entire Passion being read during Mass on Palm Sunday. Some of us pray the Stations of the Cross or otherwise reflect on these events. And one of the key moments would be Jesus on the cross, after everything he has suffered, saying, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.” I think O’Flaherty’s actions give us a visible reminder of what Jesus did. Most of the movie is the prelude to O’Flaherty’s amazing acts of forgiveness at the end.
The movie starts with Msgr. O’Flaherty recognizing the need of people who are at grave risk of being killed by the Nazis. He steps up to take leadership but makes clear he does not want to participate in any violence against the Nazis – his work will focus entirely on saving lives. This meant risking his own life, which he well knew, which is very clear in the movie. Some of O’Flaherty’s friends were arrested, tortured and killed, like the Dutch priest, Fr. Musters – the torture is not shown on screen, but you do see that Fr. Muster has been roughed up quite badly.
Msgr. O’Flaherty’s work was in an office at the Vatican, and he was not assigned to save lives – he still had his regular work to do and often was up late at night to accomplish his regular work plus the work of overseeing a large network in which 6,500 people were saved – people of many nationalities, and various faith backgrounds – Jewish people, Allied soldiers, various refugees.
Then by the end of the movie, the Allies have reached Rome, and the Germans are the ones in danger. Col. Kappler asks O’Flaherty to help his wife to leave Rome safely. In the movie, O’Flaherty does, though my recollection is that in real life, O’Flaherty tried to help but Kappler’s wife reached safety without his help. However, at the end of the movie, it also states that later, Fr. O’Flaherty visited Kappler in prison and eventually baptized him. And this is where I don’t think it’s hard to connect the dots even though this is very understated.
The Romans hated Kappler since he had massacred more than 300 civilians in a cave outside of Rome. Kappler was imprisoned outside of Rome, so it would have been time consuming to travel to visit. No one except Fr. O’Flaherty visited him. But O’Flaherty visited once a month over many years – this man who had tortured and killed people O’Flaherty knew and loved. Kappler did come to faith through the ministry of Fr. O’Flaherty. You get a glimpse of all the evil Kappler did throughout the movie, and you get a glimpse of the emotional pain that O’Flaherty (Gregory Peck) experienced in seeing a friend who had been tortured, who was soon to be killed. And yet the fact that he visited Kappler and was kind to him and helped Kappler to reach a point where he desired baptism – doesn’t this give us a picture of forgiveness? Doesn’t this wordlessly say “Jesus” to us?
The reason we don’t see a great deal of shooting during the movie is that during that period of time, Rome was completely controlled by the Nazi Germans – the Germans were not fighting to take control, they had control and ran a very tight ship. O’Flaherty and his helpers worked carefully and quietly to make sure that those they helped were not discovered. There is definitely suspense in the movie, but not so much shooting.
There were certainly many other priests and religious who saved lives of Jewish people. The Pope asked priests and religious to shelter Jewish people, and he sheltered many in the Vatican. The Jewish people at the time understood very clearly that the Pope was helping them, and the chief rabbi of Rome, Rabbi Yisrael Zolli, converted to Catholicism at the end of the war, stating that he had come to this faith through Pope Pius, and his efforts in saving Jewish lives. You can read more about the Pope’s role and see photos in a book by Sister Margherita Marchione, Yours is a Precious Witness: Memoirs of Catholics and Jews in Wartime Italy. The Pope certainly chose the actions that would help to save Jewish lives, more actions than words since strong words by the Dutch bishops had already triggered the Nazis to kill more innocent people including Jewish people. Photos in Marchione’s book show the truth of how the Church helped under Pope Pius’s leadership. This book does not showcase O’Flaherty’s efforts, but shows the scope of many such efforts particularly showing the efforts of Pius.
It is also true that there were some at the Vatican who opposed O’Flaherty’s work or desired for him to limit his activities. At that time, the Vatican was surrounded closely by the Nazis and there was discussion among the Nazis about possibly kidnapping the Pope. So, O’Flaherty’s struggle to know and do what was right was shown in the movie and was not entirely inaccurate. Politically, it was necessary for the Vatican to remain neutral in regard to the war while at the same time, seeking to aid efforts toward peace, and certainly always to save lives. Through it all, O’Flaherty’s willingness to lay down his life for others also shows us Jesus.
From the several books about O’Flaherty (some still available on Amazon), you get more detail than the movie can supply. Due to lack of civilian transportation under Nazi rule, O’Flaherty often had to walk all over the city of Rome to accomplish things he needed to do within his network – by the end of the war, the soles of shoes had worn out and were patched with cardboard. The books – one available on kindle – can add depth to what the movie shows, but movie does give a historically accurate picture of life in Rome at that time – and the only aspect I agree was not entirely accurate was appearing to water down Pope Pius’ position.
If you read some of the books about O’Flaherty, you will pick up more of his personality, his great compassion for all, and also at times, a sense of humor, and great creativity in meeting sometimes unusual needs.
I am extremely interested in hearing what you think of Tree of Life, if you end up watching it.