Lent Film Review #4: BOYS TOWN

Things got derailed around here, and I forgot to do a review of the movie we watched for our Friday Night Mandatory Lent Film Party a few weeks ago: The 1938 film Boys Town, the fictionalized account of Fr. Edward Flanagan’s founding of the community for orphaned boys on a bad path.

Here’s the trailer, which includes a lot of the melodrama but doesn’t really convey the charm of the movie:

Spencer Tracy is a very appealing, down-to-earth Fr. Flanagan who genuinely believes there is no such thing as a bad boy. In the opening scene, he ministers to a man on death row, who shouts in anguish that if he had had one friend when he was a boy, he wouldn’t have ended up where he is today. This gives Fr. Flanagan the inspiration to scrounge together money to rent a home in Omaha for a small group of wild street boys so they can turn their lives around.

He gets most of his initial funding from a friend and businessman (and this part is accurate, based on Henry Monsky, who donated $90). The friend is clearly Jewish, but he’s played with some nuance, not a lot of head-clasping and oy-oy-oys, which I appreciated. I can’t remember a lot of explicitly Catholic references in the movie, other than that Fr. Flanagan is a priest and has to get the bishop’s permission to continue the project. In the movie and in real life, they eventually buy land and build an elaborate nondenominational community where hundreds of boys of various faiths can worship (or not worship) as they please. 

I very much liked Fr. Flanagan’s insistence, stated and unstated, that the boys should be treated as children (and not as criminal adults), but also as real people. This is accurate: He was horrified at the juvenile justice system of the time, and thought that boys should not only be cared for, but given a chance to learn how to govern themselves. Boys Town of today offers a much more complex range of services, but the original idea was to make a small community run and and governed largely by the boys themselves.

The movie is somewhat patchy, sometimes hitting a sort of naturalistic stride and just showing how a kind, strong, singleminded man kept on doggedly fighting to make a good thing happen, and sometimes (for most of the second half, really) heading into an amped-up melodrama, especially in the scenes with the seventeen-year-old Mickey Rooney. Rooney plays Whitey, a hard-boiled teen who doesn’t want to be at Boys Town and becomes Fr. Flanagan’s greatest challenge. The scenes where his heart is gradually softened and he transforms from are hammy and histrionic, but also fascinating, because Rooney is so good at this kind of acting.

It’s got lots of drama and also plenty of humor. Some of it is dated slapstick, but some of it was genuinely funny. Everybody loved the scene where Pee Wee, who is something of a community pet, struggles manfully with his conscience and finally returns the piece of candy he earned through deceit regarding a lost toothbrush. It was sweet and funny and well acted. Lots of good child actors in this movie.

So, this is not a profound movie, but it’s engaging and moves right along, and stands on its own as a solidly entertaining story. A perfectly good introduction to Fr. Flanagan, whose cause for sainthood is underway. Fr. Flanagan reportedly liked being portrayed by Spencer Tracy, and why not? There’s also a rumor that the studio erroneously said Tracy would be donating his Oscar to Boy’s Town, to which Tracy responded, “I earned the [bleep] thing; I want it.” (And why not?) So the Academy had a second statuette made up and sent to Boys Town. 

Suitable for all ages, depending on the particular sensitivities of the audience. A man is condemned to death; someone gets shot; a child is hit by a car; lots of people scream and sob while delivering speeches. 

It does include a bit where a boy pranks Whitey by secretly putting him in blackface, much to Whitey’s horror and humiliation; so we had a little talk about what that was about and why it’s not cool. I don’t recall any other racial problems in the movie. There are a mix of black and white boys in the community, and they are portrayed as equals, although all the characters with lines are white.

I was halfway afraid there was going to be some kind of dated scene between Fr. Flanagan and a young boy that would come across as squicky to today’s more vigilant audience, but there wasn’t anything like that. He’s just a strong father figure who likes and understands boys. (Since I mentioned it, there was an incident of sexual assault in the real Boys Town in 2015. The perpetrator was a female supervisor.)

We watched the movie on Amazon Prime for $2.99. Click here to see where else it’s available

Image is screenshot from trailer, above. 

I award Boys Town one and a half ash crosses, because I enjoyed it and the kids barely complained about it being black and white. Half a cross is the soundtrack, which was a mishmash of hymns and “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes,” for some reason.

Lent Film Review #3: SONG OF BERNADETTE (and why it’s so much better than FATIMA)

Last Friday we watched The Song of Bernadette (1943) as film #3 in our Lent Film Party series. You can check out my previous reviews for Fatima and Ushpizin

I’ve avoided Song of Bernadette all my life because I expected a hokey, Sound of Music-style Hollywood spirituality that would actually be bad for my kids to see. But although the movie is clearly a product of the 40’s, it doesn’t feel dated. I actually loved it, and most of the kids thought it was good (if a little long).

Don’t get me wrong: 14-year-old Bernadette (Jennifer Jones) looks like a young starlet, not an asthmatic peasant; and Mary is a luminous statue come to life. But it’s a solid story, the pacing is great, and the dialogue and characters are engaging. It includes a surprising amount of mild but genuinely funny comedy, and it’s shot with gorgeous framing and some sweet work with light and shadow. And it’s allowed to be disturbing, as a movie about an apparition ought to be.

They wisely don’t get very close to Mary, or keep the camera on her long. Instead, they show Bernadette’s brilliant face as Mary speaks, and Jones seems filled with real delight as she listens. I struggled at first with Jones’ anaconda smile, but quickly accepted it as part of the character’s radical simplicity and un-self-awareness. She speaks in a breathy, innocent voice which gets a little tiresome, but only a little — possibly because her character is very simple, and also because the story doesn’t hang only on her character.

And here is where we begin to see the real reasons Bernadette endures, but Fatima, which strove so hard to avoid gooey, religious Hollywood piety, ends up feeling dated (and in fact has a very late 90’s feel, even though it was made in 2020). The makers of Fatima clearly had Song of Bernadette memorized; but Fatima comes across as a stealth evangelization tool, not a sufficiently self-standing story, and when it aims to round itself out with some ambiguity, it ends up shooting itself in the foot. Bernadette, on the other hand, is a kickass story, and they let it speak for itself.

Song of Bernadette is a straightforward if somewhat fictionalized biographical drama. It sketches in a few telling details about the life of the impoverished Soubirous family, the town they live in, and their relationship to the Church, and then zips straight to the day of the first apparition. 

Although the story moves along briskly and Bernadette faces resistance and skepticism as she continues to see the mysterious lady, I didn’t fully feel what was at stake for the characters until the girl, at the lady’s instruction, gets down on her hands and knees. As the crowds look on in revulsion, she scrabbles around in the mud, eating it and washing her face with it. The expressions on the faces of her aunt and mother (ohh, that mother) will be familiar to any parent of a child who is good and beloved but difficult, and too different.

Filled with shame and dismay, the family leads the girl away. She’s gone too far, and it’s too much to defend. But then, long after the crowds have dispersed in disappointment, the water begins to flow. One person, and then several, realize that this is really real. It hits home that something big has happened.

Weirdly, this moment never really comes in the Fatima movie, even in the midst of the sun zooming around the sky. In Bernadette, the miracle is integrated into the story, because the story is solid and carefully crafted. In Fatima, the miracles is used like an ace in the hole, to be brought out triumphantly, trumping everything else — but it’s also bizarrely undercut by the way doubt and skepticism are shoehorned in to story. The structure just isn’t there.

The two movies diverge most tellingly in how they handle doubt. 

One of the many elements that Fatima cribbed directly from Song of Bernadette are the scenes where the secular leaders discuss the growing problem of having a seer in town. In Fatima, the dialogue is basically, “I am a politics man, harumph! I reject this backward religion which will destabilize things. But wait, maybe there’s more to it than you’d think. Who can say? Not me.”

Song of Bernadette shows a far more nuanced and entertaining look into their machinations and motivations.  It’s not high art, but these scenes are a natural part of the story, and are interesting in themselves, without that “insert political tension here” feel. This is due largely to Vincent Price and his runny nose, but the other characters are solidly acted, and function as distinct characters; and someone went to the trouble of writing actual dialogue.

Song of Bernadette gives some space to doubt: Some of the healings might possibly have happened on their own; some of the people who claim to believe it are clearly just hucksters. Much hinges on the fact that Bernadette relays the Lady’s claim that she is the Immaculate Conception, and a backward peasant who frequently misses school couldn’t possibly have independently invented that phrase; but when she’s grilled about whether she heard it before, she says only that she doesn’t remember having heard it. And Bernadette is rather disturbingly hustled off to the convent, which is presented as the right thing to do, but it’s in no way a happy ending for her. In fact, it’s where Bernadette begins to lose her untouchable innocence, and it is where her real suffering, both physical and spiritual, begins.

It is, in other words, not a nice story. Despite the Hollywoodness of it, it’s a strange and discomfiting story, and doesn’t shy away from that. 

Fatima, too, makes a stab at including some conflict and doubt, but it doesn’t arise naturally from the story. After introducing genuine angst and turmoil between mother and daughter, in particular, they resolve it instantaneously in a very Hollywoody turn: The sun dances, Lucia was right, and mother and daughter are reconciled.

This is just cheesy. But what’s really unforgivable is how Fatima attempts to insert a quasi-intellectual ambiguity into the story — not as an integral part of the story, but by setting up but not fleshing out some alleged conflict between faith and reason. Fatima makes much of the physical barrier between the elderly, cloistered Lucia and her secular interrogator; but the conversation they have is stilted and flaccid, and feels extraneous to the story they just showed us in living color. 

In Song of Bernadette, the primary cynic is not a disbeliever, but another nun who envies Bernadette and can’t get over herself. After a life of bitterness and rigidity, she is converted only when it’s revealed that Bernadette was secretly suffering excruciating pain. Although it’s played out ham-fistedly (the sister crouches and shrieks out her thoughts before a crucifix by candlelights), she’s an interesting foil to Bernadette’s simplicity because her conversion doesn’t come about when the facts are proven; it comes when she encounters something that strikes at her heart.

I think this is what Fatima was trying to show with the Old Lucia/Cynical researcher gimmick, but because it’s never integrated into the plot or even the themes of the movie, it succeeds only in undermining the rest of the story. Rather than sincere and honest admissions of doubt, the “what if” elements in Fatima feel less like sincere ambiguity and more like a legal disclaimer meant to cover the movie’s intellectual butt. 

Like Fatima, Song of Bernadette also ends with a quote: BUY WAR BONDS. This hilariously but effectively underscores exactly how solid the movie is. No fancy footwork here. It just is what it is. 

Notably, Song of Bernadette was based on a book by a Jew, and the movie was produced by David O. Selznick, not Davy O’Selznick from County Cork, you know what I mean? And the moral of that story is this: You have to trust your source material, and you have to do the work to put it across. The makers of Bernadette do.

I rate Song of Bernadette . . . one-and-a-half out of five ashes, because it’s hardly penitential at all (thanks to alert reader Magdalena who pointed out that I had my system backwards last time).

Listen, if I’m gonna be confused, everyone’s gonna be confused. 

***
Suitable for all ages. The end scene on her deathbed is fairly intense, and you may want to be at the ready to talk about scenes where the teaching nun and others are harsh with Bernadette. 

We rented it for $3.99 on Amazon Prime. Here is where you can rent this movie

Eve Tushnet, always worth reading, has a neat take that frames Song of Bernadette as a classic horror movie. Tell me what you think!

Lent movie review #2: FATIMA (2020)

Two Fridays ago, we watched the second in our Friday Night Mandatory Lent Film Party Movie Series: The 2020 movie Fatima. (Last Friday, we watched Song of Bernadette, and I’ll have the review for that up soon!)

Here’s the Fatima trailer.

It was fine. We all thought many parts of it were fine. If you want to introduce someone to the basic story of what happened at Fatima, this movie will do the job. I don’t think it bridges the gap and makes itself a movie of interest for a general, secular audience; but it did try, rather than just assuming the spiritual subject matter would automatically make it a worthwhile movie, as so many Catholic and Christian movies do.

Overall, it had lots of missed opportunities and pointless extras, which made for a frustrating watch.

What I liked about it: It mostly had a good sense of place. I liked getting a better idea of what the town, the Cova, the clothing, and the architecture of the church and houses looked like. I was a little confused about what Lucia’s father was supposed to be growing — wads of grass, apparently? But the parched landscape effectively added to the pinched, anxious feeling of the story.

The casting of the three children was very good. They resemble the actual three children closely enough, and more importantly, they seem like normal kids.  We see the actual children posed stiffly in black and white photos, and we end up thinking of them as Historical Figures, rather than  real people. 

I liked the cheerful, androgynous, Jewish-looking angel, and I liked the character of Mary well enough. It was probably smart to make her less like some kind of supernatural, glowy, oogy-boogy . . . well, apparition, and more of a very beautiful and peaceful and clean woman. It’s really hard to find the line between awesome and hokey, so they erred on the side of making her look human but inexplicable, and it worked. It would have been more effective to show less of her, though. You begin to grow tired of her almost unchanging little default smile. But it was a respectable and respectful rendition of Mary, for sure.

I liked that the parents were clearly torn, and loved their children, but had no idea how to respond to a crazy situation in a reasonable way. The social tension in the town was illustrated fairly well, and there was some good contrast between the political leaders and the Catholic townspeople.

The relationship between Lucia and her mother was compelling and plausible, and made a good foil for the more tender connection she has with her dad. The tension builds, and a few times, the viewer is invited to compare Lucia’s mother with the Holy Mother; but then once the miracle happens, the tension just kind of fizzles out, and the mother, after having tormented and accused her daughter throughout the movie, just smiles at her, and the Lucia  grins back, and I guess they are fine. This is an example of the movie’s tendency to set up something interesting, but then decline to follow through.

All the townspeople turn up in the square to hear the names of the dead and missing, putting tremendous pressure on the children to intercede for specific beloved sons and brothers, including Lucia’s own brother — who is, in real life, actually her cousin. My husband pointed out that, as long as they were being tricksy with the story, they could have done something interesting by interspersing the story with scenes from the brother’s point of view, but they didn’t think of that. 

Instead, they cut in to the story with conversations between an elderly Lucia and a cynical, secular author, cutting back and forth between the story of the apparition and Lucia remembering and defending it.  I guess this framing technique is a Barbara Nicolosi signature move, like the Joker leaving a playing card on a corpse, because they pulled the same trick in There Be Dragons. In both cases, it should have been cut. In Fatima, it added absolutely nothing except some Harvey Keitel. At least he keeps his pants on.

Other odd choices: They show the vision of the pope being shot, which I thought everyone agreed foretold the attempted assassination of John Paul II. But in the vision, you clearly see the pope’s face, and it’s some other dude. The vision of hell was reasonably well done, though. 

My biggest gripe: The writing was l – a – z – y, with not a single memorable line in the whole movie.  The dialogue felt like a placeholder, meant to sketch out what ideas needed to be put across in each scene, with actual dialogue to be filled in later (but they never filled it in).

The dialogue was not only dull, it was thoroughly modern. The mother says to the parish priest, “Thank you for reaching out to me,” and the dad says, “At times our special gifts may lead to trouble,” which, Portuguese accents notwithstanding, convey nothing of the year 1917. There was very little effort to include the kind of small cultural touches that add so much to world-building in a movie. I felt like I was seeing an American 21st century family plunked into wartime Fatima. 

The beginning and the end were brisk, but there was a vast, sloshy midsection that went on forever. 25 minutes could easily have been cut.  We saw maybe half a dozen scenes of Lucia’s mother saying something like, “I know you are lying!” and Lucia saying something like, “No, I am telling the truth!” This grew tedious, and had the unfortunate effect of draining off my sympathy for the characters.

Essentially, they take a strange, thrilling, true story and make it a bit of a slog. One example: In real life, the three little kids were imprisoned in the mayor’s office and threatened with being boiled in oil if they didn’t recant. In the movie, they are interviewed somewhat sternly by a beleaguered mayor who’s doing his best, and then they go, “Aw, never mind” and send them back out to their parents. 
 
I also recall that, in real life, when the sun danced, the ground and everyone there became instantly, miraculously dry. In the movie, they stay wet and muddy, which is much duller than the truth.
 
The final insult was the end, where the screen goes black and a quote from Albert Einstein appears, saying, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” A bizarre choice. The quote seems to imply that miracles are what you make of them; but the whole point of the miracle of the sun was that it was undeniably a literal (and fairly terrifying) supernatural miracle.  Ironically, despite the blunting effect of the quote, the movie effectively portrays a much harder spiritual truth: That God’s ways can be hard and unfathomable, and we don’t know why some fervent prayers are answered and some are not, and why innocent people suffer, and so on. The tacked-on quote was just another self-inflicted wound by a movie that could have been so much better than it was. 
 
We all watched it, including the five-year-old (who fell asleep about an hour in). It’s rated PG-13 I guess because it shows hell, and also horribly wounded soldiers and the pope being shot. It also has some spooky dream sequences. 
 
It occurs to me that I should be applying some kind of ratings to these Lent movie reviews. I guess this one gets three out of five ashes. 
 

Is this too irreverent? I’m so tired, I don’t know anything. 

Anyway, next up: Song of Bernadette.

Friday Night Mandatory Lent Film Party, 2021 edition

During Lent this year, our family be doing the same thing we did last year: Going screen-free from 7-9 PM, except on Fridays, when we will come together to watch an edifying, well-made movie, preferably with some spiritual theme. The kids were not crazy about this idea, but they ended up liking some of the movies in spite of themselves, and we had some good conversations even about the ones they didn’t like. 

Our proposed watch list for this year includes some that we didn’t get around to last year, and a few new ideas:

Fátima (2020) I don’t think much of Barbara Nicolosi’s work in general, but Steve Greydanus found this movie an improvement over previous movies about Fatima, and it sounds like the didn’t go all oogy-boogy with special effects. 

 

Ushpizin (2004) My mother was always begging and pleading with everyone to watch this movie, and I never got around to it. It looks really worth while. 
Synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes:

Moshe (Shuli Rand) and Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand), an Orthodox Jewish couple in Jerusalem, are childless and without means to celebrate the weeklong holiday of Succoth. After much prayer, they receive unexpected money, and Moshe is told about an abandoned shack where he and Malli can properly deprive themselves and receive guests. However, they are visited by two ex-convicts with an unexpected link to Moshe’s past, and the celebration becomes a series of emotional trials.

 

The Keys To the Kingdom
Synopsis from imdb:

A young priest, Father Chisholm is sent to China to establish a Catholic parish among the non-Christian Chinese. While his boyhood friend, also a priest, flourishes in his calling as a priest in a more Christian area of the world, Father Chisholm struggles. He encounters hostility, isolation, disease, poverty and a variety of set backs which humble him, but make him more determined than ever to succeed. Over the span of many years he gains acceptance and a growing congregation among the Chinese, through his quiet determination, understanding and patience. 

 

 

Calvary Definitely just for the oldest kids.

Silence Also for the oldest kids.

Of Gods and Men. Somehow this completely passed me by when it came out in 2010. Synopsis:

“Eight French Christian monks live in harmony with their Muslim brothers in a monastery perched in the mountains of North Africa in the 1990s. When a crew of foreign workers is massacred by an Islamic fundamentalist group, fear sweeps though the region. The army offers them protection, but the monks refuse. Should they leave? Despite the growing menace in their midst, they slowly realize that they have no choice but to stay… come what may. This film is loosely based on the life of the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine in Algeria, from 1993 until their kidnapping in 1996.”

The Passion of Joan of Arc, maybe?? This one looks pretty bonkers but gorgeous. One kid is taking a film class in high school and the other got a subscription to the Critereon Collection for Christmas, so there has been some Widening Of Horizons lately, and I think a silent movie might be well received. 

Fiddler on the Roof. This one doesn’t uhhh quite fit in with the others, but we haven’t seen it in ages and ages, and nobody’s ever in the mood to start it. I think the older kids remember it as mostly a tragedy, which is certainly is not. I like having a lot of options, so we can choose something that makes sense at the time. 

A Hidden Life (although, three hours, I dunno!)

The Young Messiah 

Paul, Apostle of Christ. Less excited about this one, but it’s supposed to be pretty solid. 

Millions. A bit of stretch. We saw this movie years ago and I remember thinking, “What the hell was that?” But it was interesting, probably worth another watch. Same director who did Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire.

Other possibilities:

Beckett or A Man For All Seasons, but probably not both. I actually bitterly disliked both these movies when I was young, but I should probably give them another viewing as an adult. 

Song of Bernadette I’ve still never seen this movie. I have less and less patience for Hollywood Catholicism, but I’m willing to be talked into it, especially since this list needs more movies that the younger kids can watch.

Well, that should be enough to keep us busy. 

Here’s my reviews for the movies we watched last year:

I Confess

The Robe

The Trouble With Angels

Babette’s Feast

Lilies of the Field

We also watched The Miracle Maker, but I don’t seem to have reviewed this one. We thought it was weird but powerful, and we overall gave a thumbs-up to the portrayal of Jesus. 

(The Passion of the Christ) We didn’t watch this one, but I did write a review of it a few years ago.

 

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.