Lent movie review Vol. 5: LILIES OF THE FIELD

I knew next to nothing about Lilies of the Field (1963), and had never seen Sidney Poitier act. I was unexpectedly delighted on both counts. You more or less know the whole plot from the first moments, but how it plays out is a pleasure to see. It’s a sort of “stone soup” story, but it’s populated with real people, all more or less decent, but each with their individual character kinks to work out. 

The plot: A cheerful, unattached fellow (Poitier) is driving through the Arizona desert and stops at a tiny, austere convent to fill up his radiator. The overbearing mother superior (Lilia Skala) persuades him to do a little work, and he quickly becomes unable to extricate himself from her grand plan to build a chapel despite having no money or materials. The five German nuns and the rest of ragged congregation need some place better than the back of a truck to celebrate Mass, and Mother Maria thinks Homer Smith, a black baptist, was sent by God to make it happen.

Mother Maria has a rock solid faith in God, but her life of struggle (only fleetingly alluded to) has made her hard as a rock, as well, and she doesn’t bend even when she should. When Homer, slowly resigning himself to see the project through, kindly turns up with cartons of groceries to feed the near-starving sisters, she goes through some kind of brief emotional difficulty and then shouts at him to wash his hands and face. As he leaves the room, she thanks God for the food. 

“How about thanking me, too, eh?” asks Homer. She answers, “No. I thank Him. You, you couldn’t help yourself.”

Which is apparently true! And we’ve all met women like this, who somehow make people do things, good things, almost entirely against their will. I so appreciated seeing on screen that people who get things done are not always people you enjoy hanging around with. But she, too, gets a small but powerful moment of comeuppance before the end, and it comes about so slyly and so naturally, it made us laugh out loud. 

Homer himself clearly has some things to work out with God, mixed up with his ambitions and his pride. In the end, he writes his name where only God can see it, and you can see that some interior need has been satisfied.

The trailer makes the movie look slapstick-y and even minstrel-y, which is misleading. It is a comedy, but in context, Poitier is a very subtle actor, and you can see his character deliberately sliding in and out of different personas depending on what’s called for. And there is a lot of complexity to manage, for a guy who tries to keep things simple and above-board. He’s a black baptist trying to hold his own with a German mother superior, a condescending white boss, and a crew of Mexican laborers. It’s a comedy, as I say, but I was surprised at how many real notes it struck along the way as it showed the interactions between people who don’t share a race, a religion, a social class, or even a language. In this way, it fully earned the hijinks and broadly joyful tone.

One funny point: In the last movie we watched, Babette’s Feast, the Catholic world is presented as being incarnational and alarmingly, joyfully fleshly.  In this one, the “Baptist breakfast” is lavish and satisfying, but a “Catholic breakfast” is a single egg. It just goes to show, I guess. 

I also loved the character of the faithful but disenchanted traveling priest in his sloppy RV, standing before the altar in his vestments and sunglasses. Very real.

My tiny quibbles: they should have picked someone else to dub Poitier’s singing. The voice (Jester Hairston, who wrote the song) doesn’t really match his speaking voice. But Poitier (who apparently was totally tone deaf) does a pretty good job of making it look like it’s coming out of his mouth. A counterpoint is that the sisters singing (which was apparently also overdubbed, but in this case to make them sound worse, not better) sound like normal women singing, not like an etherial choir, which I appreciated. 

I also giggled to myself as the Mexican lapsed Catholic diner cook speaks (Stanley Adams). Most of the time, his Mexican accent won the day, but his undeniable Brooklyn accent got the upper hand a few times. 

At one point, Poitier, in a sort of cultural exchange, teaches the sisters the song “Amen” and they instantly begin singing back to him in harmony, which injects a tiny false note; but the scene is still completely charming and effective. They use the device of Smith singing out the entire life of Jesus to the backdrop of the sisters repeating, “Amen, amen” to great effect throughout the movie (and now I’m hearing my kids singing it to themselves, which is great!).

All in all, highly recommended for the whole family, and genuinely funny. I plan to seek out more Poitier movies, too. 

Next up: Probably we’ll do a double header, and have the little guys watch The Miracle Maker and then send them to bed so the older kids and adults can watch something rougher. I’d like to watch Silence or Calvary, but we shall see.

Lent movie review Vol. 4: BABETTE’S FEAST

Last week’s Lent film party pick was a change of pace from . . . pretty much everything else we ever watch, especially the kids. It’s the 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast.

Heres the trailer:

Here’s a synopsis, which I lifted from Google:

Beautiful but pious sisters Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer) grow to spinsterhood under the wrathful eye of their strict pastor father on the forbidding and desolate coast of Jutland, until one day, Philippa’s former suitor sends a Parisian refugee named Babette (Stéphane Audran) to serve as the family cook. Babette’s lavish celebratory banquet tempts the family’s dwindling congregation, who abjure such fleshly pleasures as fine foods and wines. 

One would-be suitor would have made one sister a diva; the other would have abandoned his own wealth and status and lived a simple life. Both end up wondering if their chosen path was right. But the sisters’ pious lives are also lacking, it turns out. Simply abjuring their tiny, puritan congregation to love one another isn’t working, and even in their old age, the people are full of spite, wrath, jealousy, and regret. But they think the real danger is exterior, in the wine, rich sauces, and strange meats offered to them by Babette in the feast she insists on cooking to celebrate their father’s anniversary. Despite their misgivings, they accept it out of an unwillingness to hurt Babette, who, she points out, has never asked anything of them in all the years she’s lived among them.

The food and especially the wine opens their hearts in spite of them, and there’s a wonderfully sweet scene where the white-haired flock, newly reconciled, join hands and dance and sing around the well under the light of the stars. Notably, the song they sing is the same song they have always sung, longing for Jerusalem. 

Many reviewers have compared Babette’s transformative and sacrificial feast to a Eucharistic meal, with Babette as a sort of servant-God who gives everything she has, trading her wealth and near-divine culinary genius for voluntary exile among sinners, and saving them from their error and woe. But it’s a mistake to see the story as a condemnation of asceticism and praise of Catholic sensuous excess, and it’s definitely a mistake to see it as some kind of allegory or lesson. It is a very Catholic story, but it’s a story about the bewilderment of free will, and the forthright, uncomplicated graciousness of love.

“We get back even what we have rejected,” says the aging general. He is the only one who has tasted these fine foods and wines before and recognizes what they are, but even though Babette remembers that she used to make people happy for a short time when she fed them back in Paris, it’s hard to imagine her brilliance would have had the transcendent, transformative effect on the Parisian elite as it did on the stolid, fearful Danes. Even the fearsome patriarch, who imposed the congregation’s austerity and selfishly kept his daughters from blossoming, is clearly not simply a villain, but actually walked across the water to bring the word of God to his people, at least as he saw it. Everyone in the movie has rejected something, even Babette — some for good reasons, some for bad reasons, some for only a faint ghost of a reason. Everyone has erred; and God is good to everyone, according to their need.

The general stands up and makes a speech with the final glass of wine:

“Man in his weakness and short-sightedness believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But no, our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when your 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. And lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us and everything we have rejected has also been granted. Yes, we get back even what we have rejected. For mercy and truth have met together and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.”

It stands out as an oddly specific and articulate monologue in a story that’s told mostly through long shots of people walking, working with their hands, singing, spooning out soup. It’s hard to resist pouncing on this passage and analyzing it to pieces; but really all he’s saying is that goodness is real, and we’ll receive it when we’re ready. (I love the fact that many of the people at the feast don’t even know the wine is wine, but it works its magic anyway.) That’s the best way to watch the movie: Just sit and receive it. 

The whole family watched it, and the only one who didn’t enjoy it to some degree was the five-year-old, who couldn’t read the subtitles. It’s quiet and slow, but not dull. It’s absolutely gorgeous to look at, strange, gentle, and very funny, too, and the individual characters are drawn so deftly. So many wonderful faces. Just a joy to receive. 

We streamed this movie through Amazon for $3.99. Other movie reviews in this series:
I Confess
The Robe
The Trouble With Angels
Next up: probably The Keys of the Kingdom or Lilies of the Field

 

Lent Movie Review Vol. 3: THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS

See previous installations of our Friday Night Lent Film Party series: I CONFESS and THE ROBE

Everyone disliked The Robe pretty thoroughly and we wanted something very different, so we went with The Trouble With Angels (1966). No one in our family had seen this one before. We streamed it through Amazon for $3.99. Warning, this post will contain a spoiler.

 

The plot: Mary, a born leader and troublemaker (Hayley Mills), and Rachel, a willing follower (June Harding), are high school girls deposited at St. Francis Academy for Girls, where they immediately begin to hatch “scathingly brilliant ideas” for how to subvert the peace and stability of the school. The imperturbable Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell) is their particular nemesis whose patience is put to the test more and more.

The story is an episodic series of pranks and escapades, but it is gradually revealed that the various teaching nuns aren’t just all quirky in their own ways, but many of them have poignant, sometimes tragic pasts that led them to the convent. This is not lost on Mary, even as she continues to torment them and flout their rules. Eventually, Mary and Rachel’s mischief goes too far; but when their guardians are called in for an expulsion interview, Mother Superior discovers that Mary, too, has her reasons for being the way she is, and she has mercy on her (and sees promise in her). At the end, when the girls are graduating, Mother Superior announces that two girls will be joining the convent as novices, and one of them is Mary. Rachel is furious and feels betrayed, but Mary is at peace with her decision, and it’s clear that she can be who she is but may still have a true vocation. 

So, this is a very 1966 movie. It’s very mannered, and some stretches are tedious, and the some of the sight gags are painfully dated. There are some uncomfortable moments where the camera lingers on young girls’ thighs and bottoms for laughs. The accents are a mess, and it’s unclear exactly where the school is. There’s not a scrap of subtlety in sight.

At the same time, the movie doesn’t steal any bases. All the elements are there for the story of Mary’s gradual maturation, and Mother Superior’s growing affection, to make sense and feel real (and it is, in fact, based on a memoir, Life with Mother Superior by Jane Trahey). Haley Mills is a much better actor than I realized, and there were a few truly moving moments, as well as several funny ones. I liked that it showed true friendship between the nuns, as well. I would have liked it better if they cut about twenty minutes out, but I did like it.

Overall, recommended. The animated opening and closing credits are a lot of fun, too.

Next up: I don’t know! I’ll probably push for Babette’s Feast.  The kids somehow manage to read subtitles when they’re watching their Dragonballs, so they can’t beg off on those grounds.

Some of us also re-watched Hail, Caesar, which I appreciated even more after having seen The Robe. I love Hail Caesar so much. The Cohen brothers are upfront about not knowing what to do about God (“Divine presence to be shot,” it says on the screen of the religious epic they’re filming, to mark the place where they’ll add in God later), but it’s less nihilistic and less yearning, overall, and very sweet and very funny. Everyone is just doing their best, according to their very varied abilities. Recommended all to pieces, probably for ages 10 and up.

 

 

Lent Movie Review #2: THE ROBE

We watched our second Mandatory Lent Film last Friday. It has come to my attention that I titled the first post in this series “Lent Film Movie Review #1: I CONFESS.” If you don’t see anything wrong amiss with that title, then you, too, need to get more sleep rest, too. 

No one in our family had seen The Robe before, but we are all very fond of The Ten Commandments, so we were prepared for it to be similarly spectacular, clunky, cheesy, and heartfelt. But we all came away feeling icky and discontented. Here’s the trailer:

They set about to make a movie about the early Christians, beginning with just before the entry into Jerusalem and ending after the Ascension. You never really see Jesus; you only see Him pass by briefly in a few scenes. Instead, the story follows people who have seen Him, and whose lives are changed forever because of it.

Do they pull it off? No, they do not. (I have no idea if the novel on which it’s based is any better.) 

The plot: An alleged ne’er-do-well Roman tribune, Marcellus Galio (Richard Burton), pisses off Caligula by arrogantly bidding against him for a Greek slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature), and is punished by being sent to Jerusalem. Demetrius, who sticks with Marcellus out of honor, sees Jesus pass by on a donkey, makes eye contact, and converts on the spot. But Marcellus is ordered to crucify Jesus, and then wins his robe in a game of dice. Sadly, the robe (The Robe) apparently makes him go cuckoo, and this causes no end of troubles for him, as cuckoo tribunes are not considered the best tribunes, even in Very Degenerate Rome.

He staggers around the middle east and Capri for a while, and meets a bunch of Christians, including a gauzily serene Peter (“The Big Fisherman;” Michael Rennie) who has the highest cheekbones on the whole continent and who glides around like he’s on castors. Eventually Marcellus comes to realize that his problem isn’t The Robe; it’s guilt. Marcellus then feels better and stops pawing at himself all the time.

But Demetrius gets captured. Marcellus stages a putatively daring rescue, and Peter heals Demetrius, who has been tortured almost to death. This impresses Marcellus’ girlfriend, Diana (Jean Simmons). To be fair, everything impresses her. I’m not sure she even has eyelids.

Diana, introduced early on as his childhood sweetheart, was originally supposed to marry Caligula, but is in love with Marcellus, so she pulls strings to get him out of trouble, but then risks her own hide to stick up for him when he’s eventually arrested for treason against Rome. I forgot to mention her sooner because the chemistry between Diana and Marcellus is like the chemistry between, I don’t know, a piece of toast and a yoyo. You can push them up against each other, but nothing much happens except a sort of dry crunching sound. 

This lack of chemistry partially explains is why the ending was is so distasteful. Marcellus refuses to renounce Christ, so he’s sentenced to die, and Diana sticks with him, so she has to be executed, too. She doesn’t know much about Jesus, but she [checks notes] just loves Marcellus so much, especially the way he’s always gripping her by the upper arms. In the final scene, off they go, up a sort of celestial ramp of spiritual winning, looking drugged out of their gourds while a chorus screams hallelujah. And that’s the end. 

What the movie was supposed to show was the widening circle of influence that Christ has. He’s so compelling and life-altering that people he meets meet other people and they become Christians too, and it spreads and spreads, because it’s so powerful and new.

But you only know this because people keep saying so. The Christianity the show you in The Robe is incredibly weak tea. It’s vague idea of justice and freedom and something better. You do see some example of people being good to each other, and you see a lot of blissed-out, thousand-mile gazes, but that’s it. The dry, crunching sound of zero chemistry is how the movie presents the entire faith. Nothing I saw on screen would explain why anyone was willing to give up power and prestige and family and die for it. If the movie were about a short-lived cult that, through the use of some dubious magic tricks, inexplicably made a ripple for a few years before dying off, it would be a lot more persuasive.  

Richard Burton is painfully miscast, and never stops looking uncomfortable (even for Richard Burton). You know almost nothing about him, before, during, or after his conversion. His guilt is manifested mainly as Shatneresque convulsions and shouting, and his newfound faith is simply the absence of convulsions, with calm shouting. By the end of the first hour, I was ready to lean on my influence with the emperor to get him off that movie set.  

There are some fighting and action scenes that are complete snoozers. Clang, clang, clang, you really just don’t care. And the corn was just SO CORNY, even for a 1953 Biblical epic. Early on, we meet someone any halfwitted cat would immediately understand is Judas, but it takes several minutes for him to announce that he’s named “Judas,” and then when he says his name, there is such a deafening clap of uh-oh thunder, Cecil B. DeMille would have gasped at the excess.

Oh, here it is. The kids laughed their heads off. 

There were parts I enjoyed. Despite myself, I liked the scene where the gal is sitting in a house with new Christians, strumming a lyre and singing about Jesus. It was corny and faux-exotic, but it was also kind of nice, and I can believe that this was how the Gospel was spread at least sometimes. I liked Demetrius’ conversion, and his character was pretty solid in general. He was one character who seemed to have some specific personality after his encounter with Christ. I liked the kid who just kept shouting, “KICK HIM! KICK HIM!”

I liked the crucifixion scene best. It was eerie and upsetting, and Victor Mature did a good job with a not-much role. (Careful, don’t touch the screen. The paint is still drying on the mountains.)

 

The sets were fakey fun, very dramatic and nice to look at. And oh my heart, those costumes. If you are the kind of person who will watch anything as long as it’s draped well, then this is the movie for you. So many miles and flowing miles of silk and linen. So many shimmering colors. It really made me want to be a wealthy ancient Roman, which I don’t think was the goal. 

Welp, that’s it. It was just a turkey. Now we know. 

We streamed it through Amazon for $3.99. Have you seen this movie? What did you think? If you like it, how old were you when you first saw it?

Next up: Probably Babette’s Feast or Calvary. The older kids really hated The Robe, so I want to show them something good. We’ll probably watch Calvary first on our own, so we can decide which age group it’s appropriate for. 

 

Lent Film Movie Review #1: I CONFESS

We are watching an edifying, religious-themed movie with the family on Fridays in Lent. Complete list here. Review #1: I CONFESS (1953). Every time I number something, it peters out pathetically, but this time will be different. I can feel it. 

Honestly, I didn’t expect a lot from this movie. I expected some rather stilted drama and rushing around and dramatic lighting, but not a lot of plot. Silly me, it’s Alfred Hitchcock. It wasn’t absolute Grade A Hitchcock, but it was tightly constructed, compelling, a little weird, and unpredictable throughout the whole movie, with lots of yummy dramatic camera work. I wanted the kids to see a movie where the priest is the hero, and it did a good job of portraying a priest (Montgomery Clift) who is pretty noble and brave, but is also a regular guy. Not only does it show him struggling with the choices he has to make, but it shows him before he was ordained, as a soldier and as a normal guy with a girlfriend.

I don’t want to give any spoilers, but once the painfully suspenseful part is apparently over and Fr. Logan has come out victorious, and you think, “Ah, he’s passed the test and done what a good priest ought to do!” . . .  that’s when the really awful part begins for him. It doesn’t last long, but it’s pretty rough! Good stuff. A solid and engaging movie, and the final scene packs a good punch. 

The whole family watched this (youngest is five and oldest is 21) and they all seemed to follow it easily. Some of these kids do get squirrelly when we try to show them a black and white movie, but they seemed interested and engaged throughout.

It turned out a few of the kids were a little wobbly on the details of the seal of confession, so we did stop the movie a few times and reinforce that what they were seeing on screen was accurate (if somewhat more dramatic than what most priests face). They were impressed.

The only weensy theological complaint I had was that, when Fr. Logan is staggering around Quebec going through his agony, he doesn’t run to the tabernacle for solace, which is what I would expect a priest in dire straits to do; but he just kind of suffered around town.  He speaks and behaves as if God is very real to him, but it doesn’t actually get shown much in the movie itself. He does pass under a statue of Christ carrying the cross at one point. I just would have liked to see more of the spiritual side of his suffering. What we see is mostly the emotional side. But it’s not really that kind of movie, I guess. 

Oh, and I feel the gal (Anne Baxter) ought to have had a lot more comeuppance than she got, but in a Hitchcock movie, you should just be glad he didn’t have her skinned and made into slippers or something, I guess.  

It was odd and sad to see everyone on screen behaving as if a Catholic priest is the last one you’d ever suspect of doing something wrong (and there are so many priests! Just priests everywhere!). But the central plot was a good reminder that the priesthood itself hasn’t changed, and I know priests nowadays who would absolutely do just what Fr. Logan did. They just don’t happen to look like Montgomery Clift.

All around, entertaining and yes, edifying. Recommended. 

We watched this through Amazon Prime. It was $2.99 to stream it as a rental. 

Next up: Either Song of Bernadette or Babette’s Feast.