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!

Doing nothing for Lent

I’ve been awfully busy lately. Even on a lazy day, I’m busy busy busy, accomplishing this, working hard at avoiding that, distracting myself with this, putting a lot of effort into putting off thinking about that, praying this devotion, avoiding that one. In between activities, I was scrolling through Facebook on my distraction machine, and came across a short essay that smacked me right between the eyes: A Not-So-Radical Proposal for Your Lenten Season: Do Nothing.

The author, Jake Braithwaite, SJ, describes how his life was jam packed with busyness. And he was busy doing good things: working, studying, spending time with friends. But, he says:

“When the rare slow moment came I would be overwhelmed by the range of emotions that might overtake me: wounds I’d let fester, exhaustion I’d ignored, difficult moments I’d refused to process.

“Where had all this been hiding? Had it been here all along?”

He says:

“When starting to discern becoming a Jesuit, I was forced to take more time outside of my routine to pray. For me, the revelation of silent prayer was that I wanted something different than the life that, on the surface, was quite satisfying. I realized that part of the reason I filled every waking moment with activity was that I didn’t want to listen to that voice that was calling me in a different direction.”

This isn’t exclusively the problem of a young man discerning his vocation. This is my problem. I know what my vocations are (mother, wife, writer), but it’s very possible to do all the right things according to your station in life, and still not feel entirely present in it, because you never stop doing what you do, and just be who you are. 

I hear how clichéd that sounds. It sounds like a poster in the waiting room of someone who smells like patchouli. But the danger of always doing, without ever just being, is very real. If you don’t believe me, then think how hard it is to stop doing the things you do, and just be the person you are, even for five minutes, in front of God. 

It’s hard, very hard to do. Even when we’ve turned off exterior distractions — internet, music, TV, podcasts, physical business — it’s hard to stop the mental wheel. I’ve spent entire hours literally, physically in front of Jesus at adoration, and I don’t even realize until the time is almost up that I’ve spent the whole time jabbering spiritually away, trying to phrase things right so I trap the Lord into giving me an answer or experience I can stuff in my pocket and take home with me. Or at least to fill up the time, because I feel like that’s what I’m here to do: To fill up time. To do something, rather than just to be something. 

He’s not mad at me, when I do this. He’s still glad I’m there. But I think He’s also patiently waiting for me to shut up for a minute so He can do His thing. So He can be His thing. So He can just be God, and I can be who I am, in front of God.

We resist this — or at least I do — because we are afraid. I’m afraid God will tell me that I’m not good enough, or that I need to change something radically. Or maybe I’m afraid there will be nothing, which means — what? That God doesn’t have anything to say. Or maybe He does, but not to me. At very least, I’m afraid that, when I settle and be still, the things I half-know about myself will stop flittering around my head and will land.

But I’ll tell you what, I’m also afraid of living the rest of my life disjointed from myself, with my body and soul out of synch, building my day out of layer upon layer of camouflage, always scampering around like a monkey in front of God and calling that a life. It’s exhausting. I’m tired of it. I’m so tired. 

Braithwaite describes spending time walking in a city alone. He says:

“With long days to walk and think, I was able to sort out the parts of my life where God was most active and the parts where it was hard to find God. As Ignatius puts it, I was able to name the consolations and the desolations.

“I noticed the parts of my life–even the challenging ones–that left me feeling energized and alive. On the other hand, I noticed the parts of my life–even the surface-level happy ones–that left me feeling empty and dry and used up.

“I didn’t solve everything in my strolling, but I started to notice some patterns. I was finally able to hear God’s voice because the noise was turned down. I couldn’t block it out with the distractions–parties and drinking and social media and to-do lists and podcasts and music and movies and shows and idle fretting about work—that were my preferred methods.

“Instead, I just had to be present to exactly what I was feeling at each moment. If I was sad, I just had to be sad for a bit. If I was excited, I just got to experience it rather than try to share it on an online profile. If I was worried, I lived through the worry instead of numbing it.”

Reading this, I thought to myself, “THAT PUNK!” Because he goes on to encourage us to take quiet walks through our own neighborhoods, to let the still, small voice of the Lord speak to us about who we are. Who has time for wandering around? Not me! I have kids! I have a job! I have dinner to a make and errands to run and emails to answer.

But. I do have time when I wake up in the morning. I have a few minutes where I’m coming into consciousness, and before looking at my calendar and checking all my various notifications, I can place myself in the presence of God.

I do have time in the car when, rather than turning on music, I can have some silence.

I have time when I’m cooking, when, rather than catching up on the news on my smart speaker, I can just do what I’m doing, make what I’m making.

I have time before bed, when I can lay down my novel and think through my day, with all its nonsense and joys and mistakes and frustrations and little triumphs, and, without even analyzing or summarizing or commenting on it, I can turn it all over to the Lord before I fall asleep.

For goodness sakes, I can go to the bathroom without bringing my phone with me. I don’t mean to alarm you, but if God can speak to Elijah on Mt. Horeb, he can speak to you on the toilet. 

I don’t have aimless hours where I can wander and meditate; but I do recall that, when I seek out and lean into smaller moments throughout the day, longer spans of time do tend to open up, once I’m more open to seeing them.  

Braithwaite says:

“Rather than optimize your Lent with a waistline-conscious fast or a bold test of your willpower, simply take time each day to do nothing. Sit before the Lord, let God marvel at you as you marvel at God. Maybe even while you’re eating french fries.”

Well, I’ve tried everything else, and I’m fresh out of ideas. I guess maybe it’s time to do nothing for Lent, and see how that goes.

***

[Portions of this essay first appeared in The Catholic Weekly in February of 2020.]

 
Image: Rembrandt, Sick Woman, National Gallery of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

What’s for supper? Vol. 242: Never never mind your meatloaf heart

Sorry, I know it’s Friday in Lent, sorry. Check out my meat anyway.

SATURDAY
Pizza

Lately I make four or five large, normal pizzas, and then with the last one I just go a little bit cuh-razy. This time we had two pepperoni, two olive, one cheese, and one with red onion, fresh garlic, anchovies, and pesto ricotta. 

GOOOOD stuff. I don’t even want to eat pizza unless is has anchovies on it anymore. Get outta here.

SUNDAY
Meatloaf, roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts

Terrifically romantic, I made two meatloaves, but Valentine. Here I demonstrate my method:

 

 

I don’t know how people even survived before silicone pans. Actually I remember there was a shop in town, Eaglewood Candies, that used to rent pans. For my eleventh birthday, my mother rented a Garfield pan and spent hours following the pattern of little bloops of frosting to make the design. I hope I said thank you! I do remember her saying, “Never again.” 

Speaking of never again, here is the Raw Meatloaf with Ketchup Glaze:

And here is how it turned out after cooking:

I’ve taken to adding Worcestershire sauce to my meatloaf, and using red wine rather than milk.

Jump to Recipe

To continue or fairy tale-style Valentine’s Day, I cut a bunch of potatoes into discs and roasted them with Brussels sprouts with olive oil, honey, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, and it was pretty good.

I did cook this in two pans and then combine it in one to finish cooking while the meatloaf cooked. Sometimes I can’t believe someone like me has only one oven. 

The original plan was to make deep fried potato blossoms with my onion blossom machine, but an astute reader pointed out that onions turn into blossoms when cut because they are made of rings.

 

 

 

If you cut something that’s not made of rings, it will come out less of a blossom and more of an octopus. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; but I didn’t feel a strong need to make potato octopuses for Valentine’s Day. If I do want to make pork blossoms, I would have to cut the pork into thin slabs and roll them into a spiral and then blossom them. Which I may! But not in Lent. 

We didn’t really have dessert, because the house was full of fancy foods Clara had provided for the Valentine’s Day party earlier. 

The kids also had parties at school, so I consider them well-valentined this year. 

MONDAY
Vegetable lo mein, pork pot stickers, crunchy rice rolls

The plan was chicken nuggets and chips, but I had to run to the store, and I guess it was Chinese New Year. Chinese food at Aldi is actually –well, what’s several steps worse than a crap shoot? I guess just crap. But for some reason, I took a chance on their pork pot stickers, and they were excellent. And cheap! $3.99 for 20, so I got three bags.

I deep fried them and served them with some kind of ginger sauce I had. I also got a bunch of those sweet, crunchy rice rolls they sometimes sell, and I made a big pan of lo mein with sugar snap peas, green peppers, and fresh ginger. 

Jump to Recipe

I used spaghetti for the noodles, which is not ideal because it’s not wide enough to grab up much of the sauce. But it was a tasty and poplar meal overall. I don’t know why I never thought of this, but I finally bought one of those wire ladle skimming things for deep frying, and it’s made my life SO much easier, at least when I’m deep frying. I also got a nice deep and wide Calphalon pot at the dump, and that helps, too. 

TUESDAY
Shrimp cocktail, garlic steak, bread and butter, stray lettuce

Mardi gras! Damien was in charge of the menu, so he brought home a bunch of shrimp and steaks. One kid doesn’t like steak, so he made her a bacon cheeseburger. Then . . . he fried the steaks in bacon fat, with whole garlic cloves. 

Bad picture, great steak. 

WEDNESDAY
Spaghetti, garlic bread

Ash Wednesday. I’m already doing intermittent fasting for weight maintenance, so Ash Wednesday fasting wasn’t that difficult. But I did have to say to a kid who had just sat down with a plate of hot buttered toast heaped with scrambled eggs, “Oh, hey, aren’t you 18?” and that was rough. Then we planned to eat at 5:00 and then book it to 6:00 Mass, but supper was a little late, and then I uh forgot to call one kid, so he ended up having about four minutes to eat before the Communion fast kicked in. I guess I’m just helping sanctify the whole family this year.

Then I had to take a kid to the bathroom during Mass, and that’s how I discovered I had a largish piece of parmesan cheese stuck to my eyelid. I use a fork when I eat, I swear I do. 

THURSDAY
Beef barley soup, beer bread

Soup day! I know someone who just serves soup all through Lent. I would totally go for that, but my family would murder me. I thought it was a good soup, though. I made it in the Instant Pot and the beef got really tender.

Jump to Recipe

I also made two loaves of beer bread, which is so easy (one bowl!) to make and kind of fun. Here’s a quick video. (Next time I make a food video, I’ll turn off the washing machine first. And the radio. And I’ll take the marbles out of my mouth, and eat my spaghetti with a fork.)

 

Beer bread is spongy and tender inside, with a crisp, buckled crust outside.

Jump to Recipe

The secret ingredient (besides beer) is an entire stick of melted butter poured over the top before baking. I thought the sharp, sour taste of the beer went very well with the slightly sweet, tomatoey soup. 

Clara also made a few loaves of strawberry almond bread, which was heavenly. I’ll see if I can snag her recipe. 

FRIDAY
Quesadillas, chips and salsa

And here we are back at Friday again, what do you know about that?

How do you manage Lenten meals at your house? We generally just tone things down a bit, and I avoid any lavish, extravagant meals; but I don’t push lentils or anything, or avoid cloven-hoofed meats or whatever. I always feel bad about posting food posts on Fridays in Lent, but my brain pan is absolutely full and can’t deal with figuring out something that makes more sense. 

Oh, today we begin our Friday Night Mandatory Lent Film Party! I guess I’ll post reviews on Monday like I did last year. Leaning toward The Keys of the Kingdom for tonight’s pick. 

Also stay tuned for our new movie podcast episode later today! In this one, we review Rocky and Hard Times, filmed within a year of each other, Sylvester Stallone’s best and maybe Charles Bronson’s, too. Both movies about fighters, but vastly different in tone and otherwise. Podcasts are available to patrons who pledge as little as a dollar a month. If you’re a patron, you should receive a link to the podcast via Patreon every time a new episode goes up.

And here are the cards de recipe for the week. 

Meatloaf (actually two giant meatloaves)

Ingredients

  • 5 lbs ground beef
  • 2 lbs ground turkey
  • 8 eggs
  • 4 cups breadcrumbs
  • 3/4 cup milk OR red wine
  • 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

plenty of salt, pepper, garlic powder or fresh garlic, onion powder or minced onions, fresh parsley, etc.

  • ketchup for the top

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 450

  2. Mix all meat, eggs, milk, breadcrumbs, and seasonings together with your hands until well blended.

  3. Form meat into two oblong loaves on pan with drainage

  4. Squirt ketchup all over the outside of the loaves and spread to cover with spatula. Don't pretend you're too good for this. It's delicious. 

  5. Bake for an hour or so, until meat is cooked all the way through. Slice and serve. 

basic lo mein

Ingredients

for the sauce

  • 3 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tsp sugar

for the rest

  • 6 oz uncooked noodles
  • sesame oil for cooking
  • add-ins (vegetables sliced thin or chopped small, shrimp, chicken, etc.)
  • 2 Tbsp rice vinegar (or mirin, which will make it sweeter)

Instructions

  1. Mix together the sauce ingredients and set aside.

  2. Boil the noodles until slightly underdone. Drain and set aside.

  3. Heat up a pan, add some sesame oil for cooking, and quickly cook your vegetables or whatever add-ins you have chosen.

  4. Add the mirin to the pan and deglaze it.

  5. Add the cooked noodles in, and stir to combine. Add the sauce and stir to combine.

 

Beef barley soup (Instant Pot or stovetop)

Makes about a gallon of lovely soup

Ingredients

  • olive oil
  • 1 medium onion or red onion, diced
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 3-4 medium carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2-3 lbs beef, cubed
  • 16 oz mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
  • 6 cups beef bouillon
  • 1 cup merlot or other red wine
  • 29 oz canned diced tomatoes (fire roasted is nice) with juice
  • 1 cup uncooked barley
  • salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Heat the oil in a heavy pot. If using Instant Pot, choose "saute." Add the minced garlic, diced onion, and diced carrot. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions and carrots are softened. 


  2. Add the cubes of beef and cook until slightly browned.

  3. Add the canned tomatoes with their juice, the beef broth, and the merlot, plus 3 cups of water. Stir and add the mushrooms and barley. 

  4. If cooking on stovetop, cover loosely and let simmer for several hours. If using Instant Pot, close top, close valve, and set to high pressure for 30 minutes. 

  5. Before serving, add pepper to taste. Salt if necessary. 

 

Beer bread

A rich, buttery quick bread that tastes more bready and less cake-y than many quick breads. It's so easy (just one bowl!) but you really do want to sift the flour.

This recipe makes two large loaf pan loaves.

Ingredients

  • 6 cups flour, sifted
  • 2 Tbsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 12-oz cans beer, preferably something dark
  • 1 stick butter

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 375

  2. Butter two large loaf pans. Melt the stick of butter.

  3. I'm sorry, but you really do want to sift the flour.

  4. In a large bowl, mix together dry ingredients, and stir in beer until it's all combined and nice and thick.

  5. Pour the batter into the loaf pans and pour the melted butter over the top.

  6. Bake for about 50 minutes until it's crusty and knobbly on top.

10 ways to let the pandemic shape your Lent

Didn’t we just have Lent? Aren’t we going through it still?

It comes as a shock every year when I look at the calendar and see that it’s almost Ash Wednesday; but this year feels especially unreasonable. The pandemic and all its wretched offspring have made most of 2020 and all of the new year feel so very penitential.

Almost everyone I know has lost someone to COVID. And we’ve lost so many other things that make life pleasant and rich: Eating together, gathering with friends, traveling, visiting family. Many of us can’t even go back to Mass yet. Adoration isn’t safe; confession takes massive planning and coordination. Weddings and other sacraments have been postponed or sadly muted. Even if we haven’t lost anyone we love, we have all lost so much.

So when I think about what we will do for Lent this year, I feel dull and discouraged. What to do? I know intellectually that people throughout history have suffered through much tougher times, but that doesn’t make it easier to muster up any enthusiasm for the coming season of penitence.

The only sensible plan I can think of is to accept that the pandemic is going to make things different this year, and to lean into that. To try to accept our situation as a gift from God, and to use the pandemic as a framework for Lent.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

 
Image by mfbj from Pixabay

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.

 

Helpless

Lent hit before the pandemic did, remember? It seems like so long ago, but I do remember how Ash Wednesday brought about the traditional pious squabbles about how best to observe it — or, more accurately, about how poorly everyone else was observing it. Traditionalists sneered at the soft and feeble neo-Caths whining over the few penances modern Catholics are still obligated to perform; and left-leaners rolled their eyes at the performative masochism inherent in extravagant fasts and self-deprivations. Remember when that what we wrestled with? 

Also according to tradition, I struck a healthy spiritual balance by being annoyed with everyone.

I have scant patience for people who loudly and self-righteously announce they are exempting themselves from fasting because it makes them feel tired, and therefore it must not be healthy, and their God is a God of love who isn’t into that kind of thing, and anyway their Fitbit doesn’t have a way to track “dying to self.”

I also have zero sympathy for Catholics who are passionately in love with their faith as long as it’s gory and dramatic and self-aggrandizing (but when it has to do with loving their fellow man, not so much). Scratch a Twitter Catholic who’s really enthusiastic about old school penance, and you’re pretty likely to find an old school fetishist. (On second thought, don’t scratch him, unless you want him to think you’re asking for some amateur photography in your DM’s.)

So anyway, yeah, I recall heading into Ash Wednesday Mass with a heart full of dust. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s almost like I need a savior. 

One of the conversations around these topics did yield something fruitful, something I somehow never understood before. It is this: Fasting isn’t just an exercise in self-control, and it isn’t just something we do in solidarity with the poor, who have fasting imposed on them.

Fasting is also, maybe even primarily, a way of revealing to ourselves just how helpless we are.

It’s a way of reminding us something about ourselves which is always true, but gets masked by a razor thin veneer of strength, an illusion of control. We fast not to work our way up to crushing sin with our new spiritual muscles, but because we forget so easily how close we always are to being just plain dead. We fast because we need to be reminded that we are helpless.

Well, just in case you didn’t catch that lesson when Ash Wednesday came around, the virus followed up. And now every single one of us has had a penance, a fast, imposed on us from the outside. Want some food? There isn’t any. Think you’re in charge? Here’s an invisible enemy that can attack you through your mouth, your nose, your eyes. Forgot about death? Here are the bodybags. And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. 

It’s up to us whether or not we learn from these privations and revelations of the pandemic. We do have free will, and even when our exterior circumstances are out of our control, we still have interior options. 

The same is true with fasting. It’s entirely possible to follow the Church’s guidelines on fasting — to voluntarily undertake this discipline —  but to still do it the wrong way. We can fill ourselves full of beef broth and milk and carbonated beverages and feel as full as possible without actually eating, and thereby miss the full experience of emptiness and want. And we can masochistically revel in the perverse pleasure of our meal-deprived agonies, and end up feeling proud and accomplished at our strength the end of the day. We can waste the opportunity the Church offers us, and make it useless or even harmful. We can miss the point, which is that we are helpless, in need of a savior. 

And the same is true with the privations imposed on us by this pandemic, including the temporary loss of the sacraments.

The last few weeks have been a study in how to get through a pandemic wrong. We can trample each other, steal, hoard, and lie. We can be imprudent and reckless and cruel. We can call each other either communists or fascists based on whether we’re more comfortable with risking the lives of the vulnerable or risking the livelihoods of the poor. We can use our suffering as a chance to tell other Catholics that they, too, would disobey their bishops if they just wanted Jesus badly enough. 

But the only real answer is the same as it was on Ash Wednesday, when the statues were covered, the alleluias were taken away, and the angel descended to tell us we are dust. The answer is: We are helpless. We need a savior. We cannot save ourselves. 

There is no system that will bring about only good things for all people. Someone always gets broken. Someone always gets infected. What we are, what we always have been is helpless, helpless. In need of a savior. 

So now we’re rounding the corner toward Holy Week, and I still have a heart full of dust. I have stuck to my penances, more or less. I have fasted. I have prayed. I have bleated out my confession to a priest six feet away. I have done my best to be prudent. And I have still been infected with rage and disdain for my fellow man, still allowed fear to colonize my heart. I have still scrambled to mask myself with a thin veneer of control as I watch everyone I know wrestle with this angel, and watched them receive what I know will be a permanent limp.

It says in the Torah: Accustom your tongue to say: I do not know, lest you become entangled in a web of deceit.

I do not know how to do this right, any of it. The sanitizing, the fasting, the sacraments, the seclusion, the shopping, any of it. I do not know. Because I am helpless. It’s almost as if I need a savior. 

***

 

Image: Detail of Jacob Wrestling With an Angel from The Ridpath Library of Universal Literature via wikipedia

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.

Ain’t no party like a Lent film party, ’cause a Lent film party is MANDATORY. 

During Lent this year, we’re going to watch an edifying, well-made family movie every week, possibly on Friday nights. That means everyone has to watch it. That means you can’t be on Instagram or drawing BTS fan art while you’re watching it! My stars, how penitential can you get? 

We haven’t watched many of the typical Catholic movies that Catholic families watch, so this is probably a pretty basic list. There are seven Fridays in Lent this year, but I guess we’ll skip Good Friday. Here’s my list so far. Suggestions welcome!

 

I Confess

“With the brand of Alfred Hitchcock burned into every scene!” Sold! I could go for a “priest as hero” movie. 

Song of Bernadette. I have never seen this movie, but we are way, way behind on our apparition education. The kids know about Our Lady of Guadalupe and I think that may be it, oops. People tell me this movie holds up, if you can put up with some dated acting, and it has Vincent Price in it. Good enough for me. 

The Miracle Maker (1999)

A stop motion animated life of Christ I saw several years ago, and was impressed by. It does have some scenes that would be alarming for little guys. I remember it as being not perfect but pretty gripping. 

Becket (1964)

Mehh, maybe not. I think the older kids have actually seen this one, so this is not high on my list. The one thing I learned from watching it is that excommunication is extremely dramatic and noisy, and it turns out it’s actually not, so I may have an unreasonable grudge against this movie. Gosh, I love Richard Burton’s face, though. I always want to bring him some hot milk and give him the day off. 

Calvary

Well, this looks really good. I somehow missed hearing about it when it came out. 

Looks like it would be for teenagers only. I am always drawn to movies that portray characters as fully human, but with great dignity. Looking forward to it. 

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Again, I think the kids have seen it, and I’ve seen it a few times. I’m not excited about watching it, but I’m not ruling it out. 

The Trouble with Angels (1966)

In my head, this is mushed in with The Bells of Saint Mary’s and other goofy, disposable Catholic kitsch, but Damien says there’s something more to it. So let’s find out!

Babette’s Feast (1987)

It turns out Damien hasn’t seen this! It’s very hard to find a movie he hasn’t seen. 

I haven’t seen this movie since college. I remember it as weird, funny, beautiful, moving, and nice and dark so the subtitles actually show up. Also, it’s not about priests or sisters, which makes it a standout on this list. 

The Mission (1986)

I haven’t seen this since college but a few scenes have stayed with me. Probably just for the older kids, right? It’s not actually high on my list, but I could be persuaded.

The Keys of the Kingdom (1944)

Here’s one I know nothing about. Looks interesting. Anybody? 

The Robe

Damien and I have both neither seen this. (I know that sentence has some problems, but I’m on vacation. You know what I mean.) I guess I’ll sit and watch Victor Mature and Richard Burton try to out-act each other; twist my arm. I gather The Robe is essentially the movie they were making in Hail, Caesar (which I LOVED, by the way. We can watch that one after Easter, I guess.) I looked up a review and the first one makes scathing reference to “leftist Hollyweird,” and the second one is a complaint that it’s revisionist Christianity because it doesn’t make the Jews look bloodthirsty enough. Yeah, you know what, we’re watching it. 

Lilies of the Field

Another movie I know nothing about. I have never actually seen a Sidney Poitier movie, and that ain’t right. I gather this is about a Baptist trying to out-Bible a Mother Superior, and failing. I’m in.

Silence (2016)

I know this isn’t unusual or anything, but I will always give Martin Scorsese movies a chance. 

Probably another one for teens and up. 

Passion of the Christ is out this year, although I think it’s great. I’ve seen it often enough that I can call it up in my memory, and the older kids are mad at us for making them watch it at one point, so we’re taking a pass; may revisit in future years. I did review it here, and defend it against accusations that it’s gratuitously violent and inherently anti-Semitic

There Be Dragons.

Just kitten. I watched this once and I’m still mad.

Okay, what do you think? Have you seen these movies? Are there any egregious gaps on my list? The kids insist we watch The Ten Commandments during Holy Week most years, thereby getting our Vitamin Heston infusion for the year. 

 

This Lent, be quiet

What to do for Lent? That question reminds me of that old joke about the two seminarians. One of them asks the bishop if it would be okay to smoke while praying.

“No,” his excellency answered sternly. “When you’re praying, you should be giving your whole heart and attention to God.”

Seminarian walks out gloomily and sees another seminarian pacing up and down the courtyard with his breviary, puffing happily on a cigarette the whole time. The first seminarian tells him, “Don’t let the bishop see you smoking while you pray!”

“No, it’s fine,” the second one replies. “I just asked him if it would be appropriate to pray while I was smoking,” and he said, “Yes, my son. That would be most salutary. Pray all the time!”

There are a few different morals here. One is that many seminarians are punks, and there’s a reason they have to be in school for seven years before they’re released out into the wild. The second moral is that bishops . . . well, you don’t want to know what I think about bishops. Let’s move along.

The third moral is that both seminarians were pretty caught up in what they were supposed to be doing, with their hearts and minds and hands (and lungs), and neither one (at least in the space of the joke) is putting a lot of thought into what they are supposed to be . . . being. And even though I smoked my last cigarette 17 years ago, that part feels very familiar.

Even on a lazy day, I’m busy busy busy, accomplishing this, working hard at avoiding that, distracting myself with this, putting a lot of effort into putting off thinking about that, praying this devotion, avoiding that one. I was scrolling through Facebook on my distraction machine this morning, and came across a short essay that smacked me right between the eyes: A Not-So-Radical Proposal for Your Lenten Season: Do Nothing.

The author, Jake Braithwaite, SJ, describes how his life was jam packed with busyness. And he was busy doing good things: working, studying, spending time with friends. But . . .

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly

Image: elisandropootcarrillo (pixabay.com) (Creative Commons)

Today I’m on The Catholic Podcast . . .

talking with Joe Heschmeyer and Chloe Langr about Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, for their series on the way of the cross. This episode, #57, is called “The Women of the Way,” and includes passages by the great Josef Ratzinger.

You can hear and download the episode here.

I talk about how I came to understand why and how Mary truly understands our suffering; and about the sensation of helplessness that so often comes along with motherhood and with love in general, and how that sensation can either tear us away from God or help us meet him more intimately. (This conversation was the impetus for my essay, Mary who stays.)

Their other guest is Deacon Brad Sloan who works with women who’ve been caught up in sex trafficking in the midwest. He says so many of them have never experienced what it means to be loved, by anyone else and certainly not by their maker.

The podcast isn’t just discussion; it’s intended to help you meditate on various themes in the stations of the cross. The goal is to help us understand that we’re not alone in our suffering, and to give us the courage to confront evil in our lives. 

The Catholic Podcast homepage is here and feed is here; and you can follow them on Facebook @TheCatholicPodcast.

Image: Station of the cross, Saint Symphorian church of Pfettisheim, Bas-Rhin, France. XIXth century. Detail of the 4thstation : Jesus and his mother. Photo by Pethrus [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]