For Christians, reading the Old Testament in light of the New Testament is sometimes almost like a game: Where is Jesus hiding? How is Jesus prefigured this time, in a story set thousands of years before he was born?
In today’s readings, we have a weird one: The Hebrews complain that they’re hungry, that they would have been better off in Egypt. God, annoyed, sends snakes to bite them, and many of them die. Then the people ask Moses to ask God to take the snakes away.
So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses, ”Make a saraph and mount it on a pole, and whoever looks at it after being bitten will live.” Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.
The people are wounded; they look at this thing raised up on a pole at God’s command, and they are saved. This is clearly a prefiguring of the Crucifixion.
I never thought it was strange that Jesus wept when he saw Lazarus dead. Why would he not? You’d have to have a weird notion of some robotic, emotionless Christ to imagine him facing the death of his close friend without feeling grief and anguish.
These tears of Christ are usually explained as evidence that he was truly human, just like us. We see him displaying human emotions many times: Getting angry, being affectionate, getting sarcastic. So this time, the explanation goes, he felt sad, just like us; he felt sorrow and pain, just like anybody.
But I think when he wept at the death of Lazarus, we are seeing something more than that. I think we’re seeing his grief as God.
What I mean is that humans know that death is bad. No one has to teach us this; it’s an innate understanding that death is an ugly, awful, unnatural thing that we hate and fear and do not want, for ourselves or for anyone.
But it is possible for us to get over this knowledge. It’s possible, over time, with repeated exposure, to become comfortable and blasé toward death. Sometimes it’s just a necessary attitude that people must develop so they can do their jobs, as health care workers, as hospice workers, as soldiers, as morticians. Some people who care for the living are repeatedly exposed to death until it no longer provokes strong emotions.
And some people, without good reason, deaden their consciences so that they no longer feel horror and repulsion at the death of other humans. They expose themselves to such violent imagery and exploitative forms of entertainment, or to such utilitarian social thinking, that they don’t feel even baseline human emotions of grief and repulsion around death anymore. They have successfully amputated that emotional organ, and the tears no longer flow.
You might think that God, of all people, has been exposed to death more than anyone. He who has existed from before the dawn of time has been present for every death — every human death, even the ones that no one else in the universe was there to witness, and every other possible kind of death as well — plant death, animal death, bacteria death, planet death. God has seen it all. Talk about overexposed….Read the rest of my latest for Our Sunday Visitor.
On the way to Mass, one of my kids asked me if it were true that people evolved from apes, because that’s what she heard in school, but she had read otherwise in the Bible.
Now, I know we have talked about this before. Many, many times. It’s just that she likes the story of Genesis very much, and she wants it to be literally true. The God she knows and recognizes is the one who is depicted literally in the pages of her picture Bible.
She isn’t ready to hear what I have told her in the past, and what I told her again this time: That I’m not really sure how modern humans came to look like they do. That it’s okay to believe that Genesis is literally true, but that I think some kind of evolution must be true; and also that I suspect scientists aren’t quite as sure about what happened as they profess to be.
What I am sure of, and what I tell my daughter she is very free to believe, is what it does say in the Bible: that God made human beings on purpose, out of love, and that He continues to love them and to want to be with them, and that he deliberately gave them an immortal soul. When and how that happened, and what it looked like, I don’t exactly know, and neither does anyone.
I told her that the story of Genesis isn’t bad science. It’s also not good science. It’s not science at all, and was never intended to be. I said that if she wrote a story about what kind of family she has, and someone told her it was bad science, she would be baffled, because it wasn’t science; it was a story. And that is what we generally mean by myth: Not something fake and made up to fool people, but just the opposite: something that attempts to tell something we think is true about what the world is like. And so the book of Genesis is a myth, in the sense that it was written to tell us all kinds of true things about how the world was made, and how humans were made, and by whom, and why, and what kind of relationship they have with God.
It tells us that the creation of the world was not violent, not ugly, not competitive, not chaotic, and not random. It was in some way orderly, it was deliberate, it was done with a plan, and it was beautiful. It was good. It was done in the context of relationships, from the very beginning. This is the myth of our creation. This is what I believe about how God made us.
My daughter is probably too young for such a subtle idea, but I’m not really sure what else to tell her. I knew she is very interested in Greek myths, so I said (probably confusing the issue more, but I was driving, and things pour out of your mouth as you drive) that Greek myths served the same purpose as Genesis: To try to explain what kind of world it was, as they understood it. They got some things wrong, but some things right.
Prometheus, for instance, I said. He was a titan who dwelt in a kind of paradise, but realized that mankind below was cold, bereft, needy and alone; and so he had pity on them and brought them the gift of fire.
And what a gift. It was more than just a flame, but signified all kinds of good things, light, heat, warmth, protection, intelligence, enlightenment, and even comfort. He cared for them, and so he came down from heaven and brought them good things.
But then, I said, of course they also got a lot wrong. In this myth, the other gods didn’t want man to have all these good things. So they punished Prometheus for what he had done.
And then it occurred to me: That part was a proto-Jesus story, too, albeit very darkly. In the myth, because of his kindness to mankind, Prometheus was nailed to a rock to have his liver eaten out by an eagle; but, because he was immortal, it regrew every day, and was devoured again the next day, and his agony continued. A wretched, ugly story, so perverse . . . but so familiar.
You see it, right? Fine tune this myth, and it becomes Jesus, who came down from heaven to save mankind, and for his troubles he was nailed to a tree and now he has become an immortal meal. The suffering part is over, but yes, his body becomes our food over and over again. The ancient story distorts the reality to come until the point of it all is lost, but it’s hard to deny the basic form is there. What does it mean?
Maybe the point isn’t lost after all. Maybe the point is that we tell these stories over and over again, but they don’t take on any kind of truth or beauty until Jesus arrives. That’s the point. If you want your story to mean something, put Jesus in the center of it. At least that is how it seems to me.
We have all seen the man who is knee deep in theology, with ecclesiastical degrees and pedigrees up to his neck, but he has no love, no kindness, no spark of divinity inside him that he allows to become a flame. Why, because there is no Jesus at the center of his story. And we have all seen the man who doesn’t know the holy name of Jesus at all, and yet his whole life and all his works are animated and illumined by that presence just the same. We have all seen men whose lives make stories like this. What does it mean?
It means that Jesus hides. He hides in Genesis, He hides in myth, he hides in humanity, he hides everywhere, so that we can find him. At least that it how it seems to me.
The theme at Mass yesterday was fathers, secretly.
Our pastor has introduced a new ministry, the Men of St. Joseph, which is meant to spiritually support men (fathers and otherwise), and provide fellowship for them and so help strengthen the family. We’re having perpetual adoration, beginning on St. Patrick’s day and ending on St. Joseph’s day, to pray for their intentions. Our family takes up three short side pews, and my husband was standing right in front of me as father made these announcements, so maybe I was primed to think about fatherhood, and the various ways it manifests itself.
At our parish, there has been an influx of families from a somewhat different culture. I don’t mean ethnically; I mean that the women and girls cover their heads and wear skirts, the boys and men wear dress shirts if not suit jackets, and the fathers are unambiguously in charge of their little tribes. I love hearing more babies at Mass, which is another change they brought with them. Previously, you had to hit the later Mass with the guitars and tambourines to hear a lot of kid noise — and honestly, a certain amount of kid screaming and berserking; but now the early Mass, the one with the organ and choir and the little scraps of Latin, also has its good share of miniature Catholics making joyful and various other noises unto the Lord.
There is also a sub-contingent of new families where the kids are deathly quiet in their pews. Maybe it’s just their personalities, and do I try to mind my own business, but it always pings my alarms when I see a young kid who seems able to sit and stand very still for a full hour, but is afraid to look his father in the face. I happened to look over and see a little boy with flaxen hair and a peaked, anxious face gather up his courage to pluck at his father’s leg to wincingly ask permission to visit the restroom. He seemed terrified. I do try not to jump to conclusions, but I can’t help notice these things.
At this Mass, we heard the Gospel about the transfiguration. Our pastor drew out the contrast in how the disciples behaved when they were just having a normal day with Jesus, going for a little hike up the mountain; and even after his face started to shine and his clothing become dazzling and Moses and Elijah appeared, Peter (who, our pastor pointed out, has no filter) started talking about making plans to set up tents so they could all stay there and hang out together. Peter was clearly overwhelmed, but not so overwhelmed that he stopped talking.
But when God the Father began to speak, then he shut up. Then they were afraid. “They fell face down on the ground, terrified.” Now this is God unfiltered, unmediated by human flesh in the Incarnation, and the disciples absolutely could not handle it.
It is a strange story. I said God the Father manifests himself to them, and I said he was “unfiltered,” but really it must have been just a sort of tip-of-the-iceberg situation, or else they would have been obliterated. He spoke to them from a cloud, terrifying though that was, presumably to protect them from the full force of his presence.
And for what purpose does he speak to them in such a way that they cannot help but hear him? To point them to Jesus. He says “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
Well I would think so! When I heard this reading, I actually couldn’t remember what came next, so I listened the heck up to see what it was that Jesus was going to say, that God the father came down from heaven to particularly draw our attention to. So what does Jesus say?
He says, “Get up. Do not be afraid.”
That’s it. So what’s this about?
Jesus says a lot of things, before and after the transfiguration, and it would be a big mistake to decide that this is the main thing, and that the rest could be ignorable. But right after the Father says “listen to him!” Jesus says two things: “Get up” and “Do not be afraid.”
Two things. Our pastor pointed out how comfortable Peter and the others clearly felt with Jesus that day. He brought them up there presumably to receive the message from God, and Peter has the idea of making tents so that Jesus and Moses and Elijah can stay there. Peter wants to put up stakes and get them to come down, and stay down, and be where he is.
But instead, Jesus is asking them to come up to where he is. First he brings them up the mountain, and then he tells them to get up. I have no idea what his tone of voice was with these words! Reassuring? Annoyed? Exasperated? Tender? Commanding? Challenging? In any case, it’s their move: They have to get up. Staying down, hanging around, just keeping the status quo and either being comfortable and chill, or being terrified and immobile, is not an option.
But then he does also reassure them. “Do not be afraid.”
This is what he has been saying ever since he was born as a little nobody-baby in Bethlehem. He makes it so they will not be afraid to look God in the face, because they know him, and are comfortable with him. But now he also, I suppose, wanted to give them a little reminder of . . . who else he really is, besides their friend and companion and teacher. Because he knows what is coming soon, and he knows they will need to be strong.
He doesn’t want them to be afraid of him. But he does want them to know how high above them he is, so that they will stand up and be more like him. There are more mountains that must be scaled.
Jesus is not God the Father. But God the Father commands us to listen to him. And what he says is both comforting and challenging, both. I think what we are seeing here on the mountain is the fatherhood of Jesus. What he says is what all good fathers say. And what he shows them, in his dazzling holiness . . . I don’t know. Maybe that is what all good fathers can be. I once saw a man, a good father, kneeling on the floor, wrapping the ankle of a young man he treated as a son. There was a brightness in the room, and I was dazzled. I was afraid.
It must be extremely hard to be a good father. To be approachable without going too low. To comfort fears without making too much room for berserking. To impose discipline without instilling terror. To learn how speak to children so they will listen, so they will know that what comes out of your mouth next is the real deal. To know when they do need the occasional flattening, and then immediate inspiring after that. To be the protector of the family without becoming a threat to the family yourself. To do what must be done to strengthen them, knowing it may lose their affection. To give yourself up for your family without becoming lost. To be the one who has to tell people “get up” when, in fact, you are not Jesus and do not have supernatural aid and very much want to lie down yourself.
So fine, so I signed up for the adoration hour for the intentions of fathers in our parish (and that includes people who are affected by their fathers, which is everybody). I know there is a lot of nonsense about the crisis of masculinity and so on. But this is a very hard time to be a good father, and men who are trying to get it right are pulled in a so many more directions than we give them credit for. So many of them want to be good fathers when they have never had that for themselves, never seen it. It is hard. Harder than I realized. So let’s pray for them, to be strengthened and comforted and inspired by the fatherhood of Jesus.
The first thing you need to know about Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022) is it is beeeee-yoootiful. It will take your breath away. It is a work of art, and everyone who had a hand in it should win prizes and be proud forever. [where to watch it]
The second thing to know is that it’s absolutely full of Jesus. Or someone. More about that later!
I am recommending this movie heartily, but it’s tragic and alarming, scary, weird, and dehydrating, because your mouth will hang open the whole time. My seven-year-old loved it, but she’s a tough kid, and she was grabbing my arm the whole time. It has the death of a child and others, drunken grief, air raids and naval mines, hair-raising supernatural creatures, startling scenes from the afterlife, and lots of painful strife between fathers and sons.
It’s also extremely witty and playful, tender, suspenseful, and, I really cannot emphasize enough, so beautiful. I cannot decide, yet, whether it’s coherent or not. I’ve only seen it once so far! (This review will have spoilers, so beware.)
Del Toro has set it in the middle of World War II, and he’s given Gepetto a backstory: He’s not just a whimsical toymaker, but a skilled carpenter who’s teaching his beloved young son, Carlo.
In the original book and the Disney movie, Pinocchio is a concupiscent rascal who will always take the easy, pleasurable way out. He doesn’t go to school; instead, he choses Pleasure Island and must be put through a horrible ordeal and hit rock bottom before he cathartically emerges, chastened, ready to try to be obedient and self-sacrificial.
But in this movie, Pinocchio is more of a blank slate (and he is literally unpainted; just plain pine), and other people see uses for him. The puppet master sees the ideal entertainer; the fascist Podesta sees the perfect soldier; and Gepetto simply sees a burden, something that fails to be his son.
It almost sounds like typical theme for recent children’s movies: This young person is different from all the others, and the adults must learn to appreciate him for who he is. But it’s not so facile. Gepetto does learn to love Pinocchio for who he is, rather than trying to transform him into a substitute for his lost son Carlo (at the end, Pinocchio becomes “a real boy,” but his body remains pine, and does not transform into human flesh). But this is because the movie is just as much, or more, about Gepetto and about parenthood and what it does to you as it is about Pinocchio.
And others around him are changed, too: The monkey rebels against his cruel master; Candlewick has the courage to say “no” to the father he wants so desperately to please; and of course Pinocchio physically saves Gepetto’s life, first with his bizarre ability to extend his nose, then by dragging him up from the water in a profoundly affecting scene where, having deliberately set off a naval mine to kill the sea monster, he pathetically thrashes in the depths with his burned stump as he flails to bring his unconscious father to the surface.
In another way, his very existence saves Gepetto. The only thing left of Carlo, the first son, is the perfect pinecone he found, so that is what the father has to bury. Gepetto tends the tree that sprouts up, year after year. But he’s not doing well. He’s wasting away, being eaten up by his grief, and he continues to live while his son does not. Finally, in a nail-biting, Frankenstein-esque scene, he cuts down the tree in a drunken frenzy and crafts it into the rough body of a boy; and a passing wood sprite brings it to life while he sleeps.
Pinocchio commences to make terrible trouble for him, raising the wrath of Podesta and the priest and putting him in debt to the carnival. And Gepetto does his best, trying to tolerate him and teach him what he needs to know; but ultimately Pinocchio saves him not only by helping him out of the sea monster’s mouth, not only by pulling him up out of the depths of the water, but by being alive in the first place. Pinocchio makes him suffer, but he also draws him out of the dark hole of grief over Carlo.
Here is the real shift that this movie makes. I wondered why del Toro took out the Pleasure Island sequence, and why he decided to make Pinocchio more innocent. I thought perhaps the idea was to shift the emphasis onto cultural themes: Rather than pleasure island, the boys are sent to its sort of dark parallel, war training camp.
But there’s also something else, that happens in the first ten minutes of the movie.Before Gepetto made Pinocchio, he was at rock bottom. He was the one who had given in to his worst impulses, and was wallowing in the weakness of his sorrow. He had, you could say, gone to Grief Island and couldn’t escape. It’s only after his entire ordeal with his travels and with the sea monster and his horrible grief of losing a second son and then getting him back again that he returns to his home and resumes to something like the life he had before Carlo died. We see him back in the church at home, fitting a new arm on the damaged. crucified Christ. And we see that Pinocchio, too, has two arms once again. Gepetto has been restored.
Which part was cathartic for him? It’s hard to say. He is an old man. It was hard not to think of Abraham, taking such delight in his son, and then losing him on the very altar of God. Well, this is what I mean by not being sure how coherent the movie was. There was so much in there, I truly cannot tell if it doesn’t hang together, or if it’s just incredibly complex.
The creature that guards the hour glasses in the underworld says that human life is precious because it is short. It’s clear that this being has a somewhat different approach to humanity from her sister, and is exasperated that the sister brought Pinocchio to life. She does allow Pinocchio the free choice over whether to break the rules, smashing the hourglass and exiting the netherworld early, for the sake of his father’s love; but it’s not clear whether Pinocchio’s heroism is meant as a rebuke to the idea that the shortness of human life is what makes it precious. Being a “real boy” is clearly about more than the ability to live and die. At the end of the movie, he’s somewhere in between mortal and immortal: he outlives Gepetto, and the monkey, and the cricket, and it is suggested that he has undone the experience of his father. Gepetto, too, outlived his beloved ones; but Pinocchio, silhouetted on that same hilltop, isn’t wasting away at the grave and refusing to live on while his loved ones are dead; but he is also not suffering the terrible fate that the timekeeping creature warned him of, where everyone he loves dies while he lives on forever. It is suggested that he goes out into the larger world and is accepted for who he is; and then, says that narrator: “What happens, happens, and then we’re gone.”
Well. Listen. As far as I’m concerned, that last line was the equivalent of Gepetto mumbling something lame about the other people getting to know you better over time. That’s no answer, and I think del Toro knows it.
As a Catholic, when I review movies, I try to catch myself and make sure I’m not Jesus juking anybody, and confabulating religious themes where they weren’t intended. Here, I’m finding myself having to do the opposite: Scrambling around busily gathering up all the explicit references to Jesus, and not being able to make anything out of them. Trying to work through what this movie was doing is like trying to put together a complicated, detailed kit that has all the tiny pieces and all the directions, but no glue. Or maybe I just haven’t found it yet.
Very early in the movie, I was surprised and gratified to see Gepetto and his son making the sign of the cross to pray before a meal, and then they had a crucifix on the wall of their house. I thought, “Oh, wartime Italy was Catholic and they’re not gloss over it; that’s neat.” Next scene: Gepetto is carving an enormous crucifix for the town church. They linger over the face of Christ, and shortly afterward, after they hoist the crucifix into position at the altar, Gepetto climbs up and is painting blood onto the face. He asks his son to send him up some more red paint. I gasped.
Did you know that children make you suffer? This movie will tell you so, if you didn’t know. Children will make you suffer, and they will transform you.
But Pinocchio is not just any son. Who is he?
At one point, after Pinocchio is somewhat understandably ejected from the church (he really is kind of ungodly looking, and after wandering up the aisle, he innocently apes the outstretched arms of the crucifix and grins at the crowd),
he explicitly asks his father, “How come they like Him and not me?” Meaning Jesus. They are both made of wood, but people sing to Jesus, but they throw Pinocchio out. Gepetto doesn’t really have an answer, partly because he doesn’t like Pinocchio very much himself, yet. He mumbles something about how people will get to know him better, and he must go to school. But you can see, the question has occurred to del Toro, and he wants us to ask ourselves: Who is this, anyway? What does it mean to be made into a human? What kind of incarnation are we talking about?
And there’s more. The question of obedience to the father is brought up several times, always in terms of it being a good thing, a sign of respect, the right way to live.
But also presented as a virtue: Saying no to authority, and breaking the rules when the time is right. This is what Candlewick does when he and Pinocchio both tie their flags to the tower, and he refuses to shoot his friend despite his father’s order, and despite his desperate desire to win his father’s approval. He openly says to his father something like, “I’m strong enough to say no, are you?” You can see that the priest and others in the town feel somewhat conflicted when they clumsily salute; they’re not strong enough to say no.
And Pinocchio, of course, faces a moment when he is given a choice to break the rules. In his third sojourn in the sandy underworld, he can’t wait for the hourglass to run out to return to life, so he choses to break it, knowing it means he will die.
There’s more Christ imagery: In the final struggle with the puppeteer, Pinocchio is tied to a tree at the edge of a cliff in an unmistakable echo of the crucifix that fascinated him; then shortly after, we see Pinocchio descending down into the waters after his father and struggling to bear him up. He gives up his life for his friends! He dies, but he comes back to life! Pinocchio is Jesus! Right? Sort of? But not really!
This is fairly on brand for del Toro. I guess he can’t shake the idea that, in every movie he makes, he’s looking for that perfect, unblemished pinecone, and he knows it has to be buried, and knows it will become a tree that will be cut down and craft into something that will ultimately save him. But he can’t quite bring himself to say its true name. At one point, a terrified congregant in the church says, “Malocchio!” and the puppet brightly responds, “No, Pinocchio!”
Once during adoration, someone nudged me in the ribs with an elbow. Which was odd, because the only other person in the room was an old man in high pants, deep in prayer or possibly fast asleep, way on the other side of the chapel.
Well, he wasn’t the only other person in the room. I was, of course, at adoration to visit that other Person in the room. And there he was, jabbing me in the ribs, for some reason. I had been reading something about Jesus as brother, and there he was, by my side, pestering me.
It is hard to tell stories like this without coming across as spiritually self-congratulatory and/or insane. No, Christ did not appear in the flesh, and there were no beams of light or audible hosannas, but I sure felt that elbow with my actual, physical nerves.
I can still feel it, years later. It has meant different things to me at different times. One thing: Jesus is not a glowy, hollow-eyed, bleachy-robed, mystical, ultraman but a man, a guy, who looked and acted so normally that most of the world assumed he was just another Jew. Just our brother.
I thought of that nudge, that “by your side” sensation, when I was chatting with my husband about the Prodigal Son, who had a brother, too: the infamous elder brother. Commonly, Christians assume the elder brother is the Jewish people, kicking up a fuss as the Gentiles are grafted onto the tree. Or else maybe the elder brother is all of us, everyone who has been a good child to the father, and just cannot deal with the screw-ups getting mercy and welcome.
But my husband asked: What if the elder son is Jesus? Jesus, our brother?
Man, I really dropped the ball with movie reviews this year. Sorry about that! We did end up watching a few more movies, but not as many as I hoped. Here’s some quick reviews:
The Secret of Kells
It was such a beautiful, such an interesting movie, just visually ravishing.
but I came away unsatisfied. The kids didn’t start the movie knowing that the actual Book of Kells is the Gospels, and they didn’t know it by the end, either. Which is weird! It’s weird to have a whole movie about a powerful book, but never mention what the book is about. It’s okay for a movie not to teach religious things, but the whole lynchpin of the story is that the book, and what preserving it represents, is what chases out evil and darkness. They explicitly say so. And yet they never tell you what kind of book it is. That is a major flaw in the story. There’s also some suggestion that art itself, or the creative process itself, or possibly just uncurtailed creativity, is what conquers evil. But they simply don’t develop this idea.
I wanted to like the movie, and the images in it were very powerful. But I don’t know what it was about; and for a film that’s absolutely drenched in portent, that’s a problem. Normally I’m not a fan of voice overs, but in this case, I would be in favor of someone recording a simple explainer to tie together all the themes that someone apparently thought were speaking for themselves. Anyway, I’d like to watch it again, because I’m sure I’m not catching everything, but I was disappointed in how glib it was.
Audience suitability: Kids ages 7 and up watched it at our house. It’s not gory or anything, but it’s fairly intense, with lots of scenes of violence and war, as well as scary, threatening magical creatures. So not suitable for sensitive kids. (I found the portrayal of war upsetting, myself.) It does portray supernatural powers and creatures as factual, but that’s part of the plot: It’s the struggle between the old pagan world and the new Christian order. So we talked to the kids about how that actually happened (if not exactly as portrayed); and we also talked about how, exactly, Christianity brought light into the darkness. I just wish this movie had demanded a little more of itself.
St. Philip Neri: I Prefer Heaven
It’s a long ‘un, and we have only watched the first part, right up until some prostitutes show up and one of our kids asked what a prostitute was and my husband said he would tell her tomorrow, and then he claimed that he said “we” meaning the royal we, meaning me. And then some of the kids went on a class trip to DC, and left their fanny pack of insulin in the Botanical Gardens, and everybody’s alive, but somehow and we haven’t gotten around to watching the rest of the movie yet.
That being said, this is one of the most winsome, appealing, entertaining portrayals of a saint I have ever seen. Also some of the best child actors I have seen in a long time.
There aren’t many clips available online. Here’s the end of the scene where he has to get the kids together to try to impress the pope, so he’ll be allowed to have his oratorio.
This is one of the hokier scenes of the movie, but in context, it was also deeply sweet and moving, and they pulled it off, slow motion and all. The way he so humbly and strenuously appeals to the crucifix on his wall, clearly fully expecting to get some response, was really striking. I don’t know anything else about Philip Neri, so I don’t know how accurate the movie is, but the character is a wonderful portrayal of holiness, which is saying something. The actor did a great job of portraying a man with a specific personality, including flaws and bad habits, but also a holy self-forgetfulness, single-mindedness, and joy that really rang true. He also had the most blindingly white chompers I’ve seen in ages.
It is in Italian with English subtitles. They are pretty easy to read, and the dialogue is not terribly complicated, so everyone got into the swing of it pretty quickly. The story moves along briskly and it has lots of funny parts and plenty of bathos. It’s not a sophisticated movie, but it avoids gooey sentimentality by letting the characters act like real people, even if the situations they are in are painted in pretty broad strokes.
I also enjoyed seeing the costumes and hairstyles and food of Renaissance Italy (a real breath of fresh air while folks are learning history through, augh, Bridgerton). The whole family enjoyed it, which almost never happens. We streamed it through the Formed app.
The Miracle Maker
A stop motion animation movie from 1999. Kind of a strange movie.
I don’t disagree with anything Steve Greydanus wrote in his review of this movie, which he recommends every year. They did several tricky scenes extremely well; they used various kinds of animation to great effect; they were very clever in how they framed the whole thing, making Jairus’ daughter a full character who actually knew Jesus and spent time with him. And they more or less pulled off showing Jesus as someone with supernatural power and also as a magnetic man you would want to be friends with. That’s a lot!
But I’ve seen this movie three or four times, and I always find it mildly off-putting. Part of it is that Ralph Fiennes sounds so unlike Jesus to me. It’s partly just the timbre of his voice; but it’s also his delivery. Anyone would have a hard time figuring out how to deliver the mega-familiar lines from the Gospel, but he largely decides to go full Charlton Heston, all sweat and megaphone. Yes, the material is dramatic, but the constant sturm und drang approach just washed over me and didn’t leave a mark. As someone who’s heard those words a thousand times, a more subtle and thoughtful reading might have caught my attention.
But at the same time, if I were completely unfamiliar with the life of Jesus and the basic tenets of Christianity, and someone showed me this movie as an introduction, I would come away thinking it was an incoherent mess. It’s very episodic (which, admittedly, the Gospels also are; but if I were making a 90-minute movie, I’d keep the themes and structure very tight, and they did not), and Jesus doesn’t appear to be following any discernible plan, but just sort of chasing his moods. He comes across as a little bit nuts, honestly. The writers lean too much on the viewer to connect the dots and make sense of who Jesus is and what he’s trying to achieve. It should have been six hours long, or else they should have been much stricter about what belonged in the movie. It’s hard to say why they chose specific scenes and left others out.
I also struggled with the faces of many of the characters who were supposed to be appealing. Jesus himself was mostly good to look at, so that was a relief; but the child Tamar and several others were goblin-like and unpleasant to watch.
But, the rest of the family liked it. I did like many scenes, and the crucifixion sequence was very affecting. My favorite scene is the miraculous catch of fish, which shows Jesus laughing as they struggle to drag all the fish into the boat, which I guess he would have done!
I think it’s a good thing to see lots and lots of different portrayals of Christ, so that the ones that ring true for you get lodged in your head, rather than just the one someone happened to show you that one time you saw a Jesus movie. So this is a more than decent choice for one among many.
And I guess that’s all we’re going to manage this year! We want to finish I Prefer Heaven, definitely.
Here are my previous Lent movie reviews from this year:
If you like a good insult, you’ll love today’s readings.
First, Moses tells the people to keep God’s commandments perfectly, and God will reward them. It is the kind of reading that might drift along unheard right over our heads because we’ve heard this message so very often in Scripture. But the fact that we’re hearing it in Lent makes it a bit more uncomfortable. The entire context of Lent is: This is what happened because people didn’t keep the commandments.
The Old Testament is the story of people who got very clear directions about how to behave. Like us, they heard it over and over again, and they just couldn’t hack it. So God had to turn up in person.
And when he was there, he made things crystal clear, telling the disciples directly:
You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies,
and pray for those who persecute you.
Has anyone ever told you there are jokes in the Bible? The one I found the other day made me laugh until I cried.
A little background, first. My old therapist had one of those wretched inspirational posters on his wall. It was a stock photo of a misty lake, and the caption said something about needing the courage to step off the shore so you can begin your journey.
It never made sense to me. What kind of journey is that? We don’t have to wonder what will happen when someone steps off the shore: They sink. Step off the shore, under you go. Bloop! End of journey.
Well, that poster may have been an illogical cliché, but it also turned out to be decent advice—as long as you don’t take it literally. But it was terrifying. Feeling nothing under my feet is the worst thing I have ever felt. There is always the temptation to scramble around and flail your way back to familiar ground because even if you recognize that your old life is a disaster, at least it is familiar.
But I did it: I stepped off into the void many times over the course of several years while I was in therapy. I was learning what in my psyche was craziness, what was garbage and what were traps I laid for myself, but also what was good, sane, powerful and admirable. What truly belonged and could be developed further and how to do it. It was an untangling process, and what was salvageable about myself was much more solid and worthwhile than I had feared. It is such a cliché to say “I found myself,” but that is more or less what happened when I took a big step away from security. I discovered, to my relief, that there was a real me there, in the heart of all the dysfunction.
Then, armed with a new sense of self, I started working on untangling some relationships. This was, if anything, even more terrifying. I knew that if I cut away everything that was unhealthy, there might be no relationship left.
People are who they want to be, and if you are going to become healthier and more whole yourself, you have to let other people be who they choose to be. Sometimes this means the relationship will end. You will lose someone you did not want to lose. This is a thing that happens sometimes, when you step out, away from secure footing. Many of my relationships changed. Some became stronger. Some were lost.
Then, at a certain point, my therapist asked me to look hard at my relationship with God and with the Catholic Church.
Someone on Twitter asked, “What is your favorite line from a hymn—one line that is so rich, you think on it over and over again?”
How strange and wonderful to read the responses. I was familiar with some of the verses that people carried with them, and had never heard of others. Some seemed like things that any human would take comfort from, and others pointed to the fact that there certainly are all sorts of people in the world with all kinds of taste; there certainly are.
My own choice? “He is Alpha and Omega; He the source, the ending, He.” This is from “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” the most musically and textually perfect hymn I know, and it has come back to me, over and over again, since the day I first heard it. Listen:
It is a doctrinal hymn, which explains why it gives you so much to think about (not that more emotional, lyrical ideas can’t grip your mind and stay with you!)
Of the Father’s love begotten ere the worlds began to be, he is Alpha and Omega, he the Source, the Ending he, of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see, evermore and evermore!
I’ll add the rest of the verses at the end. This hymn is a flawless marriage between sound and sense. This recording begins with what I consider the ideal arrangement: A single male voice with no accompaniment but some medieval bells and chimes. This puts it into that otherworldly space of quiet brilliance on blackness, as if you’re witnessing something outside of time, which is what the song is about.
The first two lines, “Of the Father’s love begotten/ere the worlds began to be” climb up and then slightly down the scale somewhat tentatively, like an explorer coming upon something that compels him but fills him with awe; but “ere the worlds began to be” ends on a long note, searching for a clear view of what we’re talking about. And then we see it: In “He is Alpha and Omega,/He the source, the ending he,” the voice rises and then returns back down, digs down and then climbs back up, with the tune following the sense of the words: Wherever you go, Christ is there. Then finally, with the last three lines, I hear a little portrait of human life: “Of the things that are” gets a quick mention, and then “that ha-a-a-a-ave been” gets a more lingering treatment, because my gosh, we have been through a lot. And then “and that future years shall see” is almost muttered in a lower voice, because it is still shrouded in the future; but then: Evermore and evermore! Ah, back to Jesus. It’s always Him. All is cared for, in him. Nothing is unaccounted for.
You guys, I got so lost this year. I can’t explain it here, but I became angry and hurt and confused, and I turned my back on Jesus until I couldn’t even remember what the big deal was anymore. You get used to being cold and you don’t feel cold anymore, and you forget what it’s like to be warm. But it is coming back to me.
I hear all the jokes about how 2021 is just going to be another miserable year, and how foolish it is to hope for something better. But I can’t help it! It’s not about the things that ha-a-a-a-ave been and that future years shall see. It’s about Jesus. I know everything’s a big mess. But nothing is unaccounted for; no one will be lost or forgotten. He is so bright and so good, evermore and evermore.
Everyone who reads this, I pray for comfort and solace, answers and illumination, and rest in Jesus.
2 O that birth forever blessed,
when the Virgin, full of grace,
by the Holy Ghost conceiving,
bore the Savior of our race;
and the babe, the world’s Redeemer,
first revealed his sacred face,
evermore and evermore!
3 This is he whom heav’n-taught singers
sang of old with one accord,
whom the Scriptures of the prophets
promised in their faithful word;
now he shines, the long expected;
let creation praise its Lord,
evermore and evermore!
4 O ye heights of heav’n, adore him;
angel hosts, his praises sing:
all dominions, bow before him
and extol our God and King;
let no tongue on earth be silent,
ev’ry voice in concert ring,
evermore and evermore!
5 Christ, to thee, with God the Father,
and, O Holy Ghost, to thee,
hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
and unwearied praises be,
honor, glory, and dominion
and eternal victory,
evermore and evermore.
Image: Christ Anapenos (Eyes never-closed) Icon – By the hands of Christian Tombiling, of Indonesian Eastern Catholic Community CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons . The description reads: Christ is sitting on His bed with arms supporting His head, watching over us. He is inside the cave, eventhough the cave is too small to bear Him. Background is sky of star. The inscription is written, taken from the Psalm 120: “Behold he shall neither slumber nor sleep, that keepeth Israel”