Mandatory Lent Film Party, 2024: The Passion of Joan of Arc

Every Lent for the last few years, we’ve been watching a worthwhile, faith-related movie together as a family on Friday nights. (Full list at the end.)

The tradition continues! And, in keeping with tradition, right out of the gate we didn’t manage to do it on the first Friday of Lent, but instead started The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) on Saturday, had some streaming issues, and finished watching it Sunday. 

Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “MY family would never watch a weird French black-and-white silent film from the 20’s, much less one that got broken up into two nights.” You may be surprised. This is an absolutely enthralling movie. My youngest kid is eight, and she sat there gripping my arm the whole time, and when it was over, she just said, “Wow.” 

It follows Joan’s last week or so of life, from her trial at the hands of her captors, until her execution. The historically accurate synopsis is simply: Joan is interrogated, threatened, and tormented as the English and their French collaborators try to get her to sign a document repudiating her actions leading a revolt against the English. She eventually breaks down and complies, and is sentenced to life in prison, but she regrets her moment of weakness, takes it back, and is burned at the stake. 

You might think of silent film as relying on exaggerated, histrionic facial distortions, with tossed heads and fluttering fingers, pantomime and rolling eyes meant to stand in for dialogue, but that’s not how this works. It does spend most of the film disconcertingly close to individual faces, with the camera at an odd, discomfitingly low angle, looking up at faces from about chin level.

At first I was reminded of the grotesque faces in so many paintings of Jesus being mocked — Hieronymous Bosch or many others.

 

But the faces of her tormenters are not actually grotesques. Instead, when you see them leering or smirking or looking outraged or disgusted, it’s just showing humanity at its recognizable worst.

Some pieces of dialogue are displayed on the screen, in French and in English, enough to keep you current with the story. An incredible complexity of emotion is displayed on screen, so although you often see the actors moving their lips and you don’t hear anything but the musical soundtrack, you don’t feel like you’re missing anything. The story and dialogue are taken directly from the contemporary account of her actual trial. 

The backgrounds are very spare, with light and shadow making up the most important shapes on screen (although the sets and the costume are painstakingly accurate). Much is made of people passing by windows and in and out of shadow, and appearing in doorways. You could have convinced me the film, with its minimalism and startling angles, was shot in in the 1950’s, rather than in 1928. There is so little on screen besides human faces, every object that appears — especially the woven grass crown that follows Joan around —  takes on a gripping significance; and when she is allowed to hold a crucifix as she is led up to her execution space, she cradles it so gratefully and lovingly, and you FEEL that. 

You also feel how horrific it is when, previously, they try to coerce her into recanting, showing her the Eucharist — and then, when she refuses, they put the host away again, blow out the candles, and leave her to herself.  

I thought many times of people who believe they are following their conscience, and find themselves rejected by the Church, or with people who say they represent the Church. Joan is entirely focused on Jesus, her king; and as soon as her captors understand that she really is devoted to him, they use it against her, and try to coerce her literally with Jesus. It’s horrible. This movie isn’t anti-Church, I don’t think. It doesn’t seem to be trying to convey the idea that the hierarchy is by definition cruel. It does show what happens when you follow Jesus, and when you don’t. 

It includes the historically accurate charges against her, that she offends God by wearing men’s clothes, and that she must be guilty of witchcraft; but it doesn’t veer into territory that would surely be unavoidable if it had been made today: You don’t come away with the impression that these evil, patriarchal men are tormenting her because they can’t abide a strong female lead. It does show that they’re evil, but it’s because they don’t recognize holiness, and they don’t love or recognize the Lord. And they’re willing to use Jesus as a weapon. 

There are several different musical scores that accompany different versions of this film. The one we saw, from Criterion, had “Voices of Light” by Richard Einhorn, written in 1994, and I can’t imagine an improvement. It sounded both hauntingly modern and bracingly medieval, and it sometimes underscores the emotion on screen, but sometimes provides an emotional counterpoint or contrast that heightens the sense of seeing the action from a perspective perhaps beyond the natural world. Worth listening to on its own. 

In the first part, Jane is feverish and her eyes bug out in an unnatural fashion that is exhausting to watch, but after she has been bled, threatened with torture, and interrogated some more, her eyelids droop more and more, and you can’t help but internally mirror her. Although the camera isn’t from Joan’s perspective, the experience of the film is not a normal viewer experience., where the viewer watches a story unfold. It is an ordeal, in some ways, but a bracingly compelling one, that makes you feel like something is happening to you. You don’t want to look away, as you might during, for instance, The Passion of the Christ; instead, you find yourself straining all your senses so as to be as present as possible in what feels like a real encounter with something beyond a story. It’s not that it’s so realistic (although the camera seeks out every pore, hair, wrinkle, and tear on every face). It feels instead like something you remember or something you dreamed about: Not realistic, but more intimate than reality. 

Before and during her execution, the camera pans past the faces in the crowd, and you see there, as you did earlier with the judges, bald human emotion, frailty, pain, regret, and also foolishness, fear, perversion. The camera spends so much time on individual faces, not only on Joan’s but on everyone’s, that you come to realize everyone is on trial. Everyone is being searched, and is given a chance to either be faithful, or not. 

I wondered, as I always do when I think about Joan of Arc, why God chose to intervene in history in such an unusually political way. Joan apparently got direct orders to lead a military charge in order to bring about a specific regime change, and it really feels like God is rooting for one country over another, which seems . . . unusually Old Testamenty. But then I thought, maybe he does actually do this often, and the people he speaks to just decide not to respond! I just don’t know. In any case, this Joan is so singlemindedly fixed on her love of Christ, and her obedience to him, that you can see that that really is the main point — love and obedience — and anything else she does is merely the form her love happens to take.

That being said, she is terrified. She’s not brash or beyond human emotion. She trembles and weeps and struggles as she fights to stay true to Jesus, and you can see that she trusts God but is still terribly afraid of where that trust will lead her. She is holy, but also clearly only 19. Early on, they ask her if she knows the Lord’s Prayer, and who taught it to her. She says, “Ma mère” and a tear slips down her cheek.

Here is the “Has God made you promises?” scene.

Never ever have I seen such acting before. And it’s just her face. 

There aren’t a lot of tellingly clever lines or ideas, although Joan comes across as outwitting the judges a few times, just because she’s completely honest. When they hope to trap her by asking if she’s in a state of grace, she says, “If I am not, God put me there. If I am, please God so keep me.” When they ask if God has promised to free her, she says yes, but she doesn’t know the day or the hour.

This very simplicity, and the way she is both faithful and fearful, is the most memorable depiction of faith I can recall ever seeing. The movie pretty overtly shows Joan is walking in the same steps as Jesus in his final hours. It would make very appropriate viewing for Holy Week, and it would be perfect for kids of high school age.

Content warnings: It shows torture devices and many scenes where Joan is in terror; it shows her being bled to relieve a fever, and it shows her being executed. You see her alive and inhaling smoke, and then you see her burned, already-dead body through the flames, so it’s clear what is happening, but it’s not extremely graphic. The entire movie is tense and alarming, so even though you don’t clearly see the worst things that happen to her, I can imagine  this movie leading to nightmares for sensitive viewers. But she is so clearly triumphant at the end, it leaves you feeling — well, as I said, like something happened to you. Something good. 

***
Here is the list of movies we’ve watched in previous years, with link to ReelGood so you can see where to stream them, and my review (if any):

Lilies of the Field (1963) 
where to stream
 (My longer review here)

The Secret of Kells (2009) 
where to stream
 (My longer review here

Saint Philip Neri: I Prefer Heaven
available via Formed
 (My longer review here)

The Miracle Maker (1999)
where to stream
 (My longer review here

The Jeweller’s Shop (1989)
available via Formed
 (My longer review here)

The Reluctant Saint: The Story of Joseph of Cupertino (1963)
available via Formed
(My longer review here)

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
where to stream
 (My longer review here)

The Scarlet and the Black (1983)
where to stream
 (My longer review here)

Boys Town (1938)
where to stream
 (My longer review here)

Fatima (2020)
where to stream
(My longer review here)

The Song of Bernadette (1943)
where to stream
 (My longer review here

Ushpizin (2005)
where to stream
 (My longer review here

Calvary (2014)
where to stream

I Confess (1953)
where to stream
(My longer review here

The Robe (1953)
where to stream
(My longer review here)

The Trouble With Angels (1966)
where to stream
 (My longer review here

Babette’s Feast (1987)
where to stream
 (My longer review here)

The Passion of the Christ (2004)
where to stream
(My full review here)

There Be Dragons (2011)
where to stream
(my longer review here

The Prince of Egypt (1998)
where to stream

 

An unexpected movie watchlist for Lent

It’s the first Friday in Lent, and you know what that means: Mandatory Lent Film Party! At least, that’s what it means at our house. As much as we can manage, every other evening in Lent is screen-free at our house. But on Fridays, we assemble the family and watch a movie together. But unlike most other movie nights, the adults get to pick it.

The parameters: Each movie should have a religious or spiritual theme or setting (not necessarily Christian), and it should be well-made enough that there’s a reason to watch it besides the spiritual aspect. We lean toward movies we probably wouldn’t get around to watching otherwise.

Some of the movies are new to us, and sometimes they turn out to be terrible! This is not a problem, as long as we talk about why we didn’t like it. Talking about the movie afterward is also mandatory.

We’ve done this for a few years, and I’ve reviewed these movies as we watch them. (Click the title of the films below for my full review.) I tried to include age recommendations—my kids range from age 8 to 25—but it’s a good idea to check out a site like commonsensemedia.org for specific elements that may make it inappropriate for your household’s audience.

Here are some of the highlights and lowlights from the lesser-known or unexpected films on our Lenten watchlist to date… Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Image:

Meilin Lee Watching TV Template by MaksKochanowicz123
and GaryStockbridge617 (Creative Commons)

Opera nite: TOSCA (1976) review

Every year, we try to watch an opera with the family. Kids and opera are actually a great match, as long as they can read subtitles. There’s drama, there’s action, there’s blood and running around and torches and whatnot, and I think this year we found the absolute perfect opera: Tosca

Yes! I couldn’t find it streaming anywhere (well, it is on YouTube with ads), so I bought a DVD of this 1976 production, (here it is on Amazon, but I found a copy on Ebay for much cheaper) which is filmed like a movie in Rome, in the actual locations where the story is set.

We have a sad history of watching the first few hours of an opera and then losing steam and never getting around to finishing it; but this one is just under two hours long, so it was perfect. It is in three acts.

The basic plot: This painter, Mario Cavaradossi, is in love with the beautiful but tempestuous singer Floria Tosca. Cavaradossi helps a friend escape the evil and corrupt chief of police, Scarpia, who realizes if he takes Carvaradossi prisoner, he can find out where the prisoner is hiding and force Tosca to yield her body to him. OR CAN HE? The whole thing takes place in 24 hours, and there is a lot of running around in and out of churches and city streets and up and down stone staircases with cloaks flapping and gorgeous silken trains trailing. It is set in the year 1800 during the Napoleonic wars, but you don’t really have to know that. 

Cavaradossi is a youngish Placido Domingo, absolutely gorgeous.

Tosca is Raina Kabaivanska, who I was not familiar with, and I took a while to warm up to. At first she seemed too highly strung and not quite convincing as an irresistible love interest, but it started making sense, and I think this is built into the story.

Sherrill Milnes is Scarpia, and dang, he’s just so writhingly evil.

(He actually reminded me of The Generalissimo in 30 Rock, which just shows that I have brain worms, and you can ignore.)

I will admit that I’m just not very familiar with this opera, and have never listened to the whole thing all the way through up until now.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! (Go ahead and laugh at the idea of spoilers for an opera that’s a hundred years old, but I was the only one in the room who knew how it ended!)

One theme of the opera is the clash between what is real and what is art. People are kind of obsessed with Tosca, because they have seen her on stage as a diva, and they find her compelling and fascinating because of her voice and her beauty and her presence. But she herself seems to have a little bit of trouble telling the difference between art and reality. When her lover paints Mary Magdalene and uses an amalgamation of another woman and herself to create the perfectly beautiful women, she assumes he’s having an affair, and she cannot let go the idea that he should at least change the eye color.

I think this maybe is her undoing: She puts too much faith in the strength of the stage, of art and artifice. When Scarpia begins to torment her, she is shocked to her core that such a thing is happening to her, because, as she says, she has always lived for her art and has never harmed anyone. And this has always worked for her. 

When she is assured, at the end, that Cavaradossi’s execution will just be a mock one with the firing line shooting blanks, she believes it without hesitation, even though there’s no particular reason to trust this bargain. She thinks it will be just one more show, and even laughs affectionately at her lover because he’s not as good or practiced an actor as she is.

There is that savage moment when she smiles to see him shot, and cries out, “Ecco un artista!” But of course the bullets are real, and he is dead. So of course she leaps off the roof, not so much because she’s afraid of being arrested (she’s clearly not a coward), but because she is going to exit that world that does not work

I don’t know, these are all just unformed thoughts from one viewing of one production of the opera, though, and I haven’t read a single word of analysis by anyone else on the work; so I’d be very interested to know what other people have thought! 

Anyway, gosh, I loved it. I loved the combination of insanely operatic over-the-top melodrama, and then little human touches, like Tosca stabbing Scarpia in the gut and sending him to hell, and then fluttering around and laying a crucifix on his chest, because she’s not sure what else to do. The costumes were wonderful. The setting is of course ravishing.

The camera is not too flashy, but ramps up the drama when it matters most. 

 

This is not a style of opera where they have an aria and introduce the main idea, like, “I want you very much!”;”Yes, but what if my husband catches us?” and then repeat it forty six times. It moves right the heck along and keeps you on your toes. The kids vastly preferred this. The plot was also very simple, and everyone grasped it without help. 

The music is irresistible. I don’t know how to say “Puccini is very good” without sounding dumb, so I’ll just leave it at that. 

The subtitles were easy to read (not always the case with subtitles).

Everyone was cast perfectly. The whole thing was just splendid. It was also kind of fun to see Catholic references sprinkled casually in throughout the story (people genuflecting in the church, people pausing to pray the Angelus). 

So, snacks are a big part of Fisher Opera Nite. We hit up Aldi for cheese and crackers, fruit, and various cookies and chocolates and things, and then I got some sparkling grape juice.

We watched the first act, then paused the movie and had our snacks and then watched the rest. If I remember correctly, this film doesn’t stop for a formal intermission like some operas; but as I said, it’s only two hours, so you could easily watch it straight through without a break. 

As far as content: It’s extremely dramatic, but not graphic, so you see stabbing, but there’s not gobs and gobs of blood, for instance. There is a torture scene that’s upsetting but, again, not very graphic. You can see there is sexual coercion, but it’s mostly tense and dramatic, not violent. The painting in the beginning shows Mary Magdalen topless, but that’s it. Can’t think of anything else parents need to know. Definitely make sure you understand what the story is before you decide if your kids (or others) are up for it! 

I’m now really curious to see other productions of Tosca, because the plot is so simple that it must be open to some very wide interpretations. Any suggestions? I don’t know if the kids would want to watch a whole second showing, but I would be up for it. 

Lent Film Party Review: The Reluctant Saint

Fisher Family Mandatory Lent Film Party has been kind of a bust this year. So far we have only watched the second half of I Prefer Heaven, which we started last year and watched on the Formed app, and The Reluctant Saint (1962). We watched that on Tubi; it’s also currently on Amazon Prime.

What I know about Joseph of Cupertino is basically: He was Italian, known as kind of a simpleton, and he levitated. I don’t know how biographically accurate the movie is; I’m just reviewing what I saw. Here’s the trailer:

Here’s the plot:

Giuseppe is a grown man living with his impoverished mother and no-good father in 17th century Italy. His mother has been keeping him in school because she can’t figure out what else to do with him, because he’s so slow-witted and accident prone. She manages to palm him off on some Franciscan friars, who reluctantly allow him to tend the animals; but even there, trouble finds him, partly because, while some of the men are patient and kind, others are resentful and suspicious of his foolish, forbearing ways. He happens to meet and impress the local bishop, who is also of peasant stock, and who sees value and worth in Giuseppe’s simplicity and devotion. He directs him to study for the priesthood, to the horror of everyone including Giuseppe himself. 

His studies are a disaster, but when he reports for his preliminary examinations, the one scripture passage he is quizzed on is the only one he happens to know: about the lost lamb that the shepherd goes to find. So he’s doomed to study for another year, with even more esoteric books, and when he arrives in the city for his exam, the interlocutor turns out to be his old friend the bishop, who immediately lets him pass. 

But in the mean time (I may be slightly scrambling the order of events, but it doesn’t matter much), Giuseppe has taken up the slightly disturbing habit of floating up into the air when he prays. The fellow who previously considered himself Giuseppe’s rival tells the whole town that this is because he’s a saint, and the people swarm the monastery, begging for healing. One of his superiors (played by Ricardo Montalban), who has always eyed Giuseppe with suspicion, now believes that his powers must come from the devil, and Giuseppe is forced to undergo an excruciating exorcism. When it is completed and he is declared free of possession, he immediately begins to levitate again, and his persecutor realizes his mistake and repents. 

In the final scene, we see Giuseppe integrated happily into the community, accepted and valued at last, processing with them and chanting, and blissfully floating away, only to be tugged like a balloon gently back to earth by the very man who accused him of being possessed. 

My take:

It’s a dated movie. The characters speak with accents to show they are Italian, and moments of divine intervention are indicated by blinding light and loud, heavenly choirs. Giuseppe’s intellectual state is portrayed in a way that may make modern viewers squirm.

That being said, I give the actor, Maximilian Schell, full credit for taking on a kind of role that wasn’t really a thing at that time, and generally lending the character a dignity that’s probably ahead of its time, despite the plot relying heavily on comedy. 

Early on, it’s a little painful to watch Schell’s grinning, fumbling performance. It’s almost like the beginning of an Adam Sandler movie, where you think, “Oh my gosh, is he going to act like this the whole time?” But either the acting gets better or you just begin to accept it within the world of the movie, because it does get less uncomfortable.

It’s not entirely clear what Giuseppe’s intellectual capacity is, but he’s constantly mocked, abused, and bullied, and he tries his best to accept it with good humor. There’s some indication that he struggles with treating people well when they abuse him. It’s a comedy, overall, bbut you do feel how badly he wants to belong somewhere and be useful somewhere; and you feel how painful and awful it is for him to be dragged away from his happy world he’s found in the barn with the animals, and to have to be in a monk’s cell studying books he doesn’t understand; but you also see that he does it out of obedience and humility. 

Giuseppe is the patron saint of aviators, which is cute, but at least as he is portrayed in this movie, I think he would be especially dear to people who never feel like they belong or fit in or are in the right place, and never feel like they’re good enough, and are trying very hard to humbly work with the hand they were dealt. 

One thing I liked very much was the character of the bishop. Catholics and anti-Catholics alike generally take the shortcut of almost reflexively showing hierarchy as bad guys — but Bishop Durso (Akim Tamiroff) is so affable and lovely, it’s like balm for Giuseppe to have such a good friend. I love that he readily (correctly) identifies Giuseppe as a “true son of Francis,” and it’s pleasant to see another such man in the role of bishop. (I generally find it comforting to realize that, just like today, the church has always struggled with religious orders straying from their charisms, and has always had a problem with internal jealousy and competition and infighting cropping up in otherwise sound groups; but God, then and now, continues to raise up good, solid men and to place them where they need to be at the right time. The movie doesn’t necessarily draw this theme out; maybe it’s just something I especially needed to see right now! Nevertheless, it is there in the story. )

There was very little discussion of spiritual things in the movie, that I can recall, and that was a good choice. I mean there is, but Giuseppe doesn’t come out with any maxims, corny or profound, about God’s love or intentions; you can just tell from the expression on his face that he’s very devoted to Mary, that he tries very hard to be good, that he works hard to forgive people when they wrong him, and that it’s a constant sorrow to him that he’s always failing at what he tries, but he does love life all the same. All this makes it immensely gratifying when he eventually does find his place at the end. It’s not excellent acting, but it’s good enough. It works. 

There is no explanation or theorizing, that I can recall, about exactly why he levitates. It makes life much harder for him! It’s not something he would chose for himself. The very first time it happens, the movie (not especially creative in its cinematography in general) depicts this by showing, not him, but the statue that has sent him into ecstasy. We see it from his point of view, first over his head, then only slightly overhead, and then at face level, and that’s how we realize he’s rising into the air. This is clever, because it avoids what could be a clumsy-looking special effect of him dangling in mid-air, and it also invites us to see the phenomenon from his point of view: Just something that is happening, utterly out of his control, and who knows why. I’m not trying to read too much into it. I just appreciate that this is a movie that keeps things simple and doesn’t try to go beyond its own means. Levitation is weird. It’s something that Giuseppe just has to accept, and, well, so do we. 

When you see him levitating when he’s facing the altar, saying his first Mass, his face almost distorted with joy, it’s a short scene but quite powerful. It shows something you maybe don’t think about very often: What it feels like to be a priest. Or maybe what it ought to feel like? 

The only thing I had a quibble with is when the bishop, in the middle of their lovely nighttime chat while roasting chestnuts, admits to Giuseppe that’s he’s never really understood the trinity. That’s fine, but then Giuseppe blithely explains it by saying that it’s like his robe: You fold it into three, and that’s it: Three folds, one robe; three persons, one God. The bishop says “Brilliant!” Well, actually that’s the heresy of partialism! So if you’re watching with your kids, you might want to follow up on that scene.

It’s not really a kid’s movie, but there’s nothing graphic or terrifying in it. More sensitive viewers might be upset by how often the mother hits Giuseppe, and how mean she is to him in general, although she clearly loves him. There is nothing graphic in this movie, and although its overall tone is lighthearted, there are some sad and intense scenes throughout, mostly because Giuseppe is constantly mocked and harassed and pushed around so much. It also has a scene where he feeds a starving mother and baby, and is beaten up. His father is a drunk, and then he dies. The scene of the exorcism lasts several minutes and shows him kneeling and sweating by candlelight while in chains, while the priest dramatically prays in Latin. Kids who watch it will probably need adults to put some things in context. But as I said, the movie keeps things straightforward and simple.

Overall, I liked it very much, and I’m glad my family saw it. It was entertaining and engaging and memorable. Recommended, as long as you understand the sensitivities of your viewers. 

Friday Night Mandatory Lent Film Party, 2023 edition!

The tradition continues! In Lent, our whole family goes screen-free from 7:00-9:00 PM most days. It’s the same idea as Advent, except we’re a bit more stickerlish about it. We’ve been listening to the Bible In a Year Podcasts with Fr. Mike Schmitz, and we have fallen behind (we just started Exodus), so we’re hoping to get back on the wagon during Lent. I’ve been sketching while I listen, and so have many of the kids. 

The other thing we’ve been doing for a few years is a mandatory family film viewing on Friday nights. Damien and I choose something edifying, well-made movie, preferably with some spiritual theme. We try to choose some  that are overtly religious and some that are not; some that are more uplifting and/or lighthearted, and some that are heavier or more intense. If they are religious, they do not necessarily have to be Christian. And they are mandatory! So penitential, much gulag. 

Here are the quickie reviews of the movies we’ve watched in past years. I have tried to provide links in the reviews to where the movies can be viewed.

2022:

The Secret of Kells; I Prefer Heaven (about Philip Neri); AND The Miracle Maker

The Jeweller’s Shop

Fiddler On the Roof AND The Scarlet and the Black

2021:

Fatima

The Song of Bernadette

Ushpizin

Calvary (This one is a podcast and it’s currently only open to Patreon patrons. The podcast is currently on hiatus, but of course archives are still open to patrons.)

and 2020:

I Confess

The Robe

The Trouble With Angels

Babette’s Feast

Lilies of the Field

Bonus review:

The Passion of the Christ

This year, a couple of my kids have already been watching The Chosen at their Catholic high school, so we’ll let that be, although I haven’t seen any of it yet myself. Our tentative list so far is:

The second half of I Prefer Heaven, which we never got around to watching

Tree of Life

Of Gods and Men

A Man For All Seasons, which most of our kids have never seen, somehow

And that’s all I have so far. Our kids are getting older (the youngest will be 8 in a few days!) and the others still at home are 11, 14, 15, 17, 19, 22, and 24, so it’s easier to find movies for the whole family. In our family, we take movies pretty seriously, and the kids will sit around debating the themes and subtexts and allusions in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (2022) if no one makes them stop, so I like to occasionally sit them down in front of movies that have something on their mind, not to mention movies that counteract the constant cultural message that christians = vicious, hypocritical, fascist clowns. 

Any suggestions? We don’t usually manage to watch a movie every single Friday, but I would like to add a couple more possibilities to the list. 

 

Who is Pinocchio?

The first thing you need to know about Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022) is it is beeeee-yoootiful. It will take your breath away. It is a work of art, and everyone who had a hand in it should win prizes and be proud forever.
[where to watch it]

The second thing to know is that it’s absolutely full of Jesus. Or someone. More about that later! 

I am recommending this movie heartily, but it’s tragic and alarming, scary, weird, and dehydrating, because your mouth will hang open the whole time. My seven-year-old loved it, but she’s a tough kid, and she was grabbing my arm the whole time. It has the death of a child and others, drunken grief, air raids and naval mines, hair-raising supernatural creatures, startling scenes from the afterlife, and lots of painful strife between fathers and sons.

It’s also extremely witty and playful, tender, suspenseful, and, I really cannot emphasize enough, so beautiful. I cannot decide, yet, whether it’s coherent or not. I’ve only seen it once so far! (This review will have spoilers, so beware.) 

Del Toro has set it in the middle of World War II, and he’s given Gepetto a backstory: He’s not just a whimsical toymaker, but a skilled carpenter who’s teaching his beloved young son, Carlo. 

In the original book and the Disney movie, Pinocchio is a concupiscent rascal who will always take the easy, pleasurable way out. He doesn’t go to school; instead, he choses Pleasure Island and must be put through a horrible ordeal and hit rock bottom before he cathartically emerges, chastened, ready to try to be obedient and self-sacrificial.

But in this movie, Pinocchio is more of a blank slate (and he is literally unpainted; just plain pine), and other people see uses for him. The puppet master sees the ideal entertainer; the fascist Podesta sees the perfect soldier; and Gepetto simply sees a burden, something that fails to be his son.

It almost sounds like typical theme for recent children’s movies: This young person is different from all the others, and the adults must learn to appreciate him for who he is. But it’s not so facile. Gepetto does learn to love Pinocchio for who he is, rather than trying to transform him into a substitute for his lost son Carlo (at the end, Pinocchio becomes “a real boy,” but his body remains pine, and does not transform into human flesh). But this is because the movie is just as much, or more, about Gepetto and about parenthood and what it does to you as it is about Pinocchio.

And others around him are changed, too: The monkey rebels against his cruel master; Candlewick has the courage to say “no” to the father he wants so desperately to please; and of course Pinocchio physically saves Gepetto’s life, first with his bizarre ability to extend his nose, then by dragging him up from the water in a profoundly affecting scene where, having deliberately set off a naval mine to kill the sea monster, he pathetically thrashes in the depths with his burned stump as he flails to bring his unconscious father to the surface. 

In another way, his very existence saves Gepetto. The only thing left of Carlo, the first son, is the perfect pinecone he found, so that is what the father has to bury. Gepetto tends the tree that sprouts up, year after year. But he’s not doing well. He’s wasting away, being eaten up by his grief, and he continues to live while his son does not. Finally, in a nail-biting, Frankenstein-esque scene,  he cuts down the tree in a drunken frenzy and crafts it into the rough body of a boy; and a passing wood sprite brings it to life while he sleeps. 

Pinocchio commences to make terrible trouble for him, raising the wrath of Podesta and the priest and putting him in debt to the carnival. And Gepetto does his best, trying to tolerate him and teach him what he needs to know; but ultimately Pinocchio saves him not only by helping him out of the sea monster’s mouth, not only by pulling him up out of the depths of the water, but by being alive in the first place. Pinocchio makes him suffer, but he also draws him out of the dark hole of grief over Carlo. 

Here is the real shift that this movie makes. I wondered why del Toro took out the Pleasure Island sequence, and why he decided to make Pinocchio more innocent. I thought perhaps the idea was to shift the emphasis onto cultural themes: Rather than pleasure island, the boys are sent to its sort of dark parallel, war training camp.

But there’s also something else, that happens in the first ten minutes of the movie.Before Gepetto made Pinocchio, he was at rock bottom. He was the one who had given in to his worst impulses, and was wallowing in the weakness of his sorrow. He had, you could say, gone to Grief Island and couldn’t escape. It’s only after his entire ordeal with his travels and with the sea monster and his horrible grief of losing a second son and then getting him back again that he returns to his home and resumes to something like the life he had before Carlo died. We see him back in the church at home, fitting a new arm on the damaged. crucified Christ. And we see that Pinocchio, too, has two arms once again. Gepetto has been restored. 

Which part was cathartic for him? It’s hard to say. He is an old man. It was hard not to think of Abraham, taking such delight in his son, and then losing him on the very altar of God. Well, this is what I mean by not being sure how coherent the movie was. There was so much in there, I truly cannot tell if it doesn’t hang together, or if it’s just incredibly complex. 

The creature that guards the hour glasses in the underworld says that human life is precious because it is short. It’s clear that this being has a somewhat different approach to humanity from her sister, and is exasperated that the sister brought Pinocchio to life. She does allow Pinocchio the free choice over whether to break the rules, smashing the hourglass and exiting the netherworld early, for the sake of his father’s love; but it’s not clear whether Pinocchio’s heroism is meant as a rebuke to the idea that the shortness of human life is what makes it precious. Being a “real boy” is clearly about more than the ability to live and die. At the end of the movie, he’s somewhere in between mortal and immortal: he outlives Gepetto, and the monkey, and the cricket, and it is suggested that he has undone the experience of his father. Gepetto, too, outlived his beloved ones; but Pinocchio, silhouetted on that same hilltop, isn’t wasting away at the grave and refusing to live on while his loved ones are dead; but he is also not suffering the terrible fate that the timekeeping creature warned him of, where everyone he loves dies while he lives on forever. It is suggested that he goes out into the larger world and is accepted for who he is; and then, says that narrator: “What happens, happens, and then we’re gone.”

Well. Listen. As far as I’m concerned, that last line was the equivalent of Gepetto mumbling something lame about the other people getting to know you better over time. That’s no answer, and I think del Toro knows it. 

As a Catholic, when I review movies, I try to catch myself and make sure I’m not Jesus juking anybody, and confabulating religious themes where they weren’t intended. Here, I’m finding myself having to do the opposite: Scrambling around busily gathering up all the explicit references to Jesus, and not being able to make anything out of them. Trying to work through what this movie was doing is like trying to put together a complicated, detailed kit that has all the tiny pieces and all the directions, but no glue.  Or maybe I just haven’t found it yet.

Very early in the movie, I was surprised and gratified to see Gepetto and his son making the sign of the cross to pray before a meal, and then they had a crucifix on the wall of their house. I thought, “Oh, wartime Italy was Catholic and they’re not gloss over it; that’s neat.” Next scene: Gepetto is carving an enormous crucifix for the town church. They linger over the face of Christ, and shortly afterward, after they hoist the crucifix into position at the altar, Gepetto climbs up and is painting blood onto the face. He asks his son to send him up some more red paint. I gasped.

Did you know that children make you suffer? This movie will tell you so, if you didn’t know. Children will make you suffer, and they will transform you.

But Pinocchio is not just any son. Who is he?

At one point, after Pinocchio is somewhat understandably ejected from the church (he really is kind of ungodly looking, and after wandering up the aisle, he innocently apes the outstretched arms of the crucifix and grins at the crowd),

he explicitly asks his father, “How come they like Him and not me?” Meaning Jesus. They are both made of wood, but people sing to Jesus, but they throw Pinocchio out. Gepetto doesn’t really have an answer, partly because he doesn’t like Pinocchio very much himself, yet. He mumbles something about how people will get to know him better, and he must go to school. But you can see, the question has occurred to del Toro, and he wants us to ask ourselves: Who is this, anyway? What does it mean to be made into a human? What kind of incarnation are we talking about? 

And there’s more. The question of obedience to the father is brought up several times, always in terms of it being a good thing, a sign of respect, the right way to live. 

But also presented as a virtue: Saying no to authority, and breaking the rules when the time is right. This is what Candlewick does when he and Pinocchio both tie their flags to the tower, and he refuses to shoot his friend despite his father’s order, and despite his desperate desire to win his father’s approval. He openly says to his father something like, “I’m strong enough to say no, are you?” You can see that the priest and others in the town feel somewhat conflicted when they clumsily salute; they’re not strong enough to say no.

And Pinocchio, of course, faces a moment when he is given a choice to break the rules. In his third sojourn in the sandy underworld, he can’t wait for the hourglass to run out to return to life, so he choses to break it, knowing it means he will die. 

There’s more Christ imagery: In the final struggle with the puppeteer, Pinocchio is tied to a tree at the edge of a cliff in an unmistakable echo of the crucifix that fascinated him; then shortly after, we see Pinocchio descending down into the waters after his father and struggling to bear him up. He gives up his life for his friends! He dies, but he comes back to life! Pinocchio is Jesus! Right? Sort of? But not really! 

This is fairly on brand for del Toro. I guess he can’t shake the idea that, in every movie he makes, he’s looking for that perfect, unblemished pinecone, and he knows it has to be buried, and knows it will become a tree that will be cut down and craft into something that will ultimately save him. But he can’t quite bring himself to say its true name. At one point, a terrified congregant in the church says, “Malocchio!” and the puppet brightly responds, “No, Pinocchio!” 

My dude, no, it’s Jesus. 

Boy, though, what a movie. 

Summer adventure movies! A nine-decade list

It’s so close to summer vacation! We’re going to hike! We’re going to swim! We’re going to finally fix the laundry room floor so we can have a second functioning toilet! And we’re going to watch a bunch of adventure movies. 

We’re not sure yet how mandatory it will be, but we want to have family movie night throughout the summer, and an “adventure” theme sounded like fun. I think we’ll keep this list strictly in the real world — i.e., no science fiction or supernatural or imaginary creatures. So there are plenty of great movies that I heartily recommend, like The Mummy, Into the Spiderverse, Attack the Block, Clash of the Titans (and a bunch of other classic Harryhausen), The Odyssey miniseries, Galaxy Quest, Tremors, Shaun of the Dead, Indiana Jones movies, Mad Max movies, Men In Black, etc. that just belong on a slightly different list.

Our kids are ages 7 and up. Most of these are not completely unsuitable for the youngest kids, but they may not appreciate them much. So please give me your suggestions for your adventure movies for the actual whole family!

Here’s our list so far, which not surprisingly is heavy on the theme of male friendship — or at least male interdependence. I accidentally chose one from each of the last nine decades, so I’ll organize them in that order, from oldest to newest:

Gunga Din (1939)
where to watch

IMDB summary: “In 19th century India, three British soldiers and a native waterbearer must stop a secret mass revival of the murderous Thuggee cult before it can rampage across the land.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this. Damien says it’s funny. I know nothing about it other than that it’s Rudyard Kipling, which is great, and Cary Grant, who I’m following a gradual forty-year plan to come around on. Looks like we will be doing some debriefing about blackface and imperialism with the kids; but we generally err on the side of “let’s look at this and see what we think” rather than running away screaming from anything that might be objectionable, and the kids are often capable of much more subtle thought than we expect. 

 

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
where to watch

IMDB summary: “Two down-on-their-luck Americans searching for work in 1920s Mexico convince an old prospector to help them mine for gold in the Sierra Madre Mountains.”

I haven’t seen this in yeeeears. A real change of pace from the kind of movies the kids are used to watching. This is, by the way, where the “we don’t need no stinking badges” quote comes from, except the actual quote is: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!” so it’s one of those rare occasions when people’s faulty memories actually improved something. 

“Towering adventure hurled from the top of the world! Deep human conflict to enthrall the heart of the world! Humphrey Bogart surpassing every other triumph!” Heck yes. 

The African Queen (1951)
where to watch

IMDB summary: In WWI East Africa, a gin-swilling Canadian riverboat captain is persuaded by a strait-laced English missionary to undertake a trip up a treacherous river and use his boat to attack a German gunship.

We have actually seen this with the family a few times, but I’m always up for another viewing. The ideal movie, in many ways. I’ve written a little essay about this one, too. Oops, that’s two Humphrey Bogart movies, OH WELL. 

 

Sanjuro (1962) 
where to watch

IMDB Summary: A crafty samurai helps a young man and his fellow clansmen trying to save his uncle, who has been framed and imprisoned by a corrupt superintendent.

Also recommended is the first one, Yojimbo, which we saw recently. If any of your sons has a man bun and it’s bothering you, show him Sanjuro or Yojimbo, and he’ll probably realize he’s not pulling it off. Sidenote, you know who had a massive crush on Toshiro Mifune? My mother. Also my father, I think. 

Overwhelming fascination! A juggernaut of a film! Weird trailer. I cannot remember if the actual movie has that goofy music in it or not. If I were watching with a slightly different crowd, I’d propose a game where you drink every time he scratches himself. 

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
where to watch

IMDB summary: Two former British soldiers in 1880s India decide to set themselves up as Kings in Kafiristan, a land where no white man has set foot since Alexander the Great.

Again, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen this, and I remember it being a sort of fever dream of a movie, especially toward the end. Probably better for the older kids. I do recall that the white man does not come out looking as good as he does in Gunga Din. It will be interesting to compare the two movies. 

The Black Stallion (1979)
where to watch

IMDB summary: After being shipwrecked with a magnificent horse off the coast of Africa in the 1940s, a boy bonds with the stallion, and trains him to race after their rescue.

I cheated a little bit and this is going to have to count for the 80’s movie. Difficult to find an 80’s adventure movie that doesn’t have fantasy or supernatural elements, and/or isn’t completely sleazy. 

I haven’t seen this for many years. I remember it as being intensely beautiful and emotional, and the rare movie that’s suitable for kids but doesn’t have a lot of dialogue. It will be interesting to see how it holds up. Damien doesn’t like it, but I forget why. 

The Edge (1997)
where to watch

IMDB summary: An intellectual billionaire and two other men struggle to band together and survive after getting stranded in the Alaskan wilderness with a blood-thirsty Kodiak Bear hunting them down.

I actually wrote out a full review of this underrated movie several years ago. A tense, scary, intelligently written and acted wilderness adventure story that’s just as much about salvation as it is about survival — but not in a heavy-handed way. I always make this movie sound like a slog when I write about it, but it’s a kickass movie, very funny in parts, and it has a lot of bear in it, plus Alec Baldwin really acting, plus Anthony Hopkins, plus a bear.

Master and Commander: The Far Side Of the World (2003)
where to watch

IMDB summary: During the Napoleonic Wars, a brash British captain pushes his ship and crew to their limits in pursuit of a formidable French war vessel around South America.

Saw this for the first time last year, and it totally deserves its popularity. A thoroughly enjoyable, thrilling, fascinating, beautiful movie with engaging characters and relationships and gripping action and a well-crafted script. Really can’t wait to share this one with the kids. This trailer makes it look kind of cheesy, but it’s really not at all. I think we may watch this one first, because it’s long, but it leaves you wanting more adventure. 

 

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
where to watch

IMDB summary: A national manhunt is ordered for a rebellious kid and his foster uncle who go missing in the wild New Zealand bush.

People keep recommending this, and it certainly looks like a change of pace from the rest of the list! Taika Waititi is never boring, anyway. 

Honorable mention, for movies that would be on the list except we’ve watched them too recently, or too many times:

Castaway

True Grit (2010) I may move this into this summer’s watch list, just to get more females onto the screen. 

Robin Hood with Erroll Flynn

Die Hard

National Treasure (I don’t want to talk about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie, but my kids will die on the hill of National Treasure being a Thanksgiving movie. You can come over and argue with them if you want, but you won’t get anywhere.)

Jaws. This is on the honorable mention list solely because we are spending a week in Cape Cod this year and some people are already sufficiently nervous. But it’s one of the best movies ever made, and maybe we can watch it in the fall, when we’re all dry. 

That’s it! Please add your suggestions in the comments, or let me know if I’m making a horrible mistake by exposing my kids to Alec Baldwin, or just say hello! It’s almost summer, and I’m just so ready to sit on the couch. 

Final quick Lent Film Party Movie Reviews! THE SECRET OF KELLS, I PREFER HEAVEN, and THE MIRACLE MAKER

Man, I really dropped the ball with movie reviews this year. Sorry about that! We did end up watching a few more movies, but not as many as I hoped. Here’s some quick reviews:

The Secret of Kells

It was such a beautiful, such an interesting movie, just visually ravishing.

but I came away unsatisfied. The kids didn’t start the movie knowing that the actual Book of Kells is the Gospels, and they didn’t know it by the end, either. Which is weird! It’s weird to have a whole movie about a powerful book, but never mention what the book is about. It’s okay for a movie not to teach religious things, but the whole lynchpin of the story is that the book, and what preserving it represents, is what chases out evil and darkness. They explicitly say so. And yet they never tell you what kind of book it is. That is a major flaw in the story. There’s also some suggestion that art itself, or the creative process itself, or possibly just uncurtailed creativity, is what conquers evil. But they simply don’t develop this idea. 

I wanted to like the movie, and the images in it were very powerful. But I don’t know what it was about; and for a film that’s absolutely drenched in portent, that’s a problem. Normally I’m not a fan of voice overs, but in this case, I would be in favor of someone recording a simple explainer to tie together all the themes that someone apparently thought were speaking for themselves.  Anyway, I’d like to watch it again, because I’m sure I’m not catching everything, but I was disappointed in how glib it was. 

Audience suitability: Kids ages 7 and up watched it at our house. It’s not gory or anything, but it’s fairly intense, with lots of scenes of violence and war, as well as scary, threatening magical creatures. So not suitable for sensitive kids. (I found the portrayal of war upsetting, myself.) It does portray supernatural powers and creatures as factual, but that’s part of the plot: It’s the struggle between the old pagan world and the new Christian order. So we talked to the kids about how that actually happened (if not exactly as portrayed); and we also talked about how, exactly, Christianity brought light into the darkness. I just wish this movie had demanded a little more of itself.

***

St. Philip Neri: I Prefer Heaven

It’s a long ‘un, and we have only watched the first part, right up until some prostitutes show up and one of our kids asked what a prostitute was and my husband said he would tell her tomorrow, and then he claimed that he said “we” meaning the royal we, meaning me. And then some of the kids went on a class trip to DC, and left their fanny pack of insulin in the Botanical Gardens, and everybody’s alive, but somehow and we haven’t gotten around to watching the rest of the movie yet.

That being said, this is one of the most winsome, appealing, entertaining portrayals of a saint I have ever seen. Also some of the best child actors I have seen in a long time. 

There aren’t many clips available online. Here’s the end of the scene where he has to get the kids together to try to impress the pope, so he’ll be allowed to have his oratorio. 

This is one of the hokier scenes of the movie, but in context, it was also deeply sweet and moving, and they pulled it off, slow motion and all. The way he so humbly and strenuously appeals to the crucifix on his wall, clearly fully expecting to get some response, was really striking. I don’t know anything else about Philip Neri, so I don’t know how accurate the movie is, but the character is a wonderful portrayal of holiness, which is saying something. The actor did a great job of portraying a man with a specific personality, including flaws and bad habits, but also a holy self-forgetfulness, single-mindedness, and joy that really rang true. He also had the most blindingly white chompers I’ve seen in ages. 

It is in Italian with English subtitles. They are pretty easy to read, and the dialogue is not terribly complicated, so everyone got into the swing of it pretty quickly. The story moves along briskly and it has lots of funny parts and plenty of bathos. It’s not a sophisticated movie, but it avoids gooey sentimentality by letting the characters act like real people, even if the situations they are in are painted in pretty broad strokes. 

I also enjoyed seeing the costumes and hairstyles and food of Renaissance Italy (a real breath of fresh air while folks are learning history through, augh, Bridgerton). The whole family enjoyed it, which almost never happens. We streamed it through the Formed app. 

***

The Miracle Maker

A stop motion animation movie from 1999. Kind of a strange movie. 

I don’t disagree with anything Steve Greydanus wrote in his review of this movie, which he recommends every year. They did several tricky scenes extremely well; they used various kinds of animation to great effect; they were very clever in how they framed the whole thing, making Jairus’ daughter a full character who actually knew Jesus and spent time with him. And they more or less pulled off showing Jesus as someone with supernatural power and also as a magnetic man you would want to be friends with. That’s a lot!

But I’ve seen this movie three or four times, and I always find it mildly off-putting. Part of it is that Ralph Fiennes sounds so unlike Jesus to me. It’s partly just the timbre of his voice; but it’s also his delivery. Anyone would have a hard time figuring out how to deliver the mega-familiar lines from the Gospel, but he largely decides to go full Charlton Heston, all sweat and megaphone. Yes, the material is dramatic, but the constant sturm und drang approach just washed over me and didn’t leave a mark. As someone who’s heard those words a thousand times, a more subtle and thoughtful reading might have caught my attention. 

But at the same time, if I were completely unfamiliar with the life of Jesus and the basic tenets of Christianity, and someone showed me this movie as an introduction, I would come away thinking it was an incoherent mess. It’s very episodic (which, admittedly, the Gospels also are; but if I were making a 90-minute movie, I’d keep the themes and structure very tight, and they did not), and Jesus doesn’t appear to be following any discernible plan, but just sort of chasing his moods. He comes across as a little bit nuts, honestly. The writers lean too much on the viewer to connect the dots and make sense of who Jesus is and what he’s trying to achieve. It should have been six hours long, or else they should have been much stricter about what belonged in the movie. It’s hard to say why they chose specific scenes and left others out. 

I also struggled with the faces of many of the characters who were supposed to be appealing. Jesus himself was mostly good to look at, so that was a relief; but the child Tamar and several others were goblin-like and unpleasant to watch. 

But, the rest of the family liked it. I did like many scenes, and the crucifixion sequence was very affecting. My favorite scene is the miraculous catch of fish, which shows Jesus laughing as they struggle to drag all the fish into the boat, which I guess he would have done! 

I think it’s a good thing to see lots and lots of different portrayals of Christ, so that the ones that ring true for you get lodged in your head, rather than just the one someone happened to show you that one time you saw a Jesus movie. So this is a more than decent choice for one among many. 

***

And I guess that’s all we’re going to manage this year! We want to finish I Prefer Heaven, definitely.

Here are my previous Lent movie reviews from this year:

The Jeweler’s Shop

Fiddler on the Roof and The Scarlet and the Black

Ready or not, here comes Easter!

 

Mandatory Lent Film Party 2022: THE JEWELLER’S SHOP

Last Friday we watched The Jeweller’s Shop, a movie about married love based on a play written by John Paul II while he was extremely high. This is the fourth movie we’ve watched this year for our Mandatory Lent Film Party series. Still haven’t gotten around to reviewing The Secret of Kells yet, but my watch list and mini-reviews of Fiddler on the Roof and The Scarlet and the Black are here

We watched The Jeweler’s Shop on the Formed app, which we paid a fee to access for a month. 

Rather than attempt to write a review, I will simply recreate the experience for you as best I can, hitting the highlights.

The movie opens with some music that can best be described as “ready to autoplay in midi form when someone opens your Blogspot blog called ‘Marian Musings’ with the purple rosary wallpaper.” The man who wrote it also wrote “The Windmills of Your Mind” and “Brian’s Song” which my sister’s ballet class danced to in sixth grade in Mrs. Jenkins’ ballet class, and that is exactly what it sound like. 

As the story begins, a group of extremely sweatered young people are hiking in the mountains with a priest. The scenery is beautiful, the banter is top notch, the careless gestures between male and female are meaningful but not too meaningful, and the guitar part doesn’t last too long. But, then, THERE IS AN EXTREMELY ALARMING HOWLING ANGUISHED YETI(?) SOUND.  The group scatters, some in fear, some to help. It is clearly very significant, and you will think to yourself, “Whoa, what was that about? I can’t wait to find out!” 

Just you wait.

Later, one of the couples goes for a walk at night and has an awkward conversation about love, and the dude asks the girl to marry him. She darts away and buys a pair of white, high-heeled shoes, and then comes back to him wearing them, explaining that she can’t have the conversation unless she’s as tall as he is.

Now, by this point in the movie, we have already stopped it and had the “Okay, look, clearly this is not a normal movie, but we’re going to try to meet it on its own terms and see what we can make of it, so everybody be cool, okay?” conversation. So we were trying.

So we start the movie again, and watch them having this conversation about love in the middle of the night in the middle of the street, and he doesn’t think it’s strange that she ran off and bought shoes to talk to him. And I can live with this, because it’s a different kind of movie, as we discussed.

But the fact remains that, even with the shoes, he’s still a good eight inches taller than she is. So even if you suspend your disbelief that it means something for her to be as tall as him, she isn’t as tall as him! It just don’t add up! I found myself not only listening to the dialogue very carefully, but watching everybody’s mouths, because I couldn’t shake the feeling that the movie was dubbed from Turkish or something. It is not. It just feels very much like a movie that can’t possibly be what was originally intended by its maker.

You guys, I wanted so badly to like this movie, and to be moved by it, and to hear something that would strike me to the core and make me see my life in a new light. But I had no idea what the hell was going on.

The story itself was easy enough to follow. Synopsis: There are two couples in Poland. One couple is good, but the guy dies in the war, and then the wife has a baby, who grows up to be a hockey player. The other couple is bad, and they go to Canada and have a baby who grows up to be Jan from The Office. The hockey player falls in love with Jan, and she loves him, too, but she’s afraid of marriage because her parents are terrible. The hockey players asks his widowed mother for advice, and she responds, “Even your father would be doing better than you right now, and he’s DEAD! Well, bye!” and flies off to Poland.

Then I forget what happens, but the bad couple realizes they need to get it together, so they do, and the young couple decides that they’re going to run away to Poland to get married, as one does. And guess who’s there? The jeweler!

Simcha, you forgot to tell us about the jeweller! No, I didn’t. I just don’t know what to say. There is this jeweller, Burt Lancaster, who spends most of the movie aging unconvincingly and coming out with uncalled-for metaphysical pronouncements. He’s some kind of omniscient pre-Cana guy, and is also sometimes in Canada, in a slightly different format. Toward the end, the young couple turn up in his shop, and they’re like, “Hello! Our parents both bought rings from you, and apparently you have a scale that can read human hearts, so we would like to buy our wedding rings from you, and also we have heard that you have a lot to say about love. So, could you say something about love?”

That last part is almost a direct quote. But apparently they front loaded all the good jeweller love quotes in the first part of the movie, because the one time someone actually requests a fraught aphorism about love, and he just stands there, grinning at them.

Possibly he is thinking about washing his hair. Possibly he is thinking about that screaming sound they heard in the mountain, and thinking about how insane it is that it’s almost the end of the movie, and apparently this is all we’re going to get on that topic. (Earlier, one of the characters mentions that hearing a yeti(?) scream in the mountain was some kind of existential crossroads for her. Who was howling? We don’t know. Why was it important? Also extremely unclear. This is sort of like Chekhov’s rule, except instead of someone firing the gun that’s been hanging the wall, someone takes the gun down, sucks apple juice out of it, and then declares this is why they never liked bowling.)

Olivia Hussey is the prettiest lady I have ever seen, and it was okay to just watch her for an hour and a half. Very pretty lady. But the rest of this movie was not okay. Very little happens, but it also skips abruptly from scene to scene, making it hard to understand what is happening. Some of the dialogue is extremely mannered, and some of the characters deliver their lines in a formal, stage-like manner, but some of them try to toss them off like they’re in an after-school TV special, so the viewer can never settle in to a mode of viewing. Sometimes it tries to be very accessible and naturalistic, and then sometimes you have a scene where the priest comes to tell a young woman that her husband is dead, and when she tells him she’s pregnant and asks, weeping, why she feels so alone, he says we’re all empty, waiting to be filled up by God. And I do realize times have changed, but there has never been a time when that was a normal or helpful thing to say to a weeping pregnant new widow. 

So you think, “Okay, we’ll just settle into viewing this movie as some kind of highly poeticized formal drama, rather than a standard human narrative.” And that should work, because much of the dialogue is extremely meaningful, and it’s delivered with full gravity. The problem is, it’s not . . . very good. I’m someone who thinks about love and marriage and the meaning of human relationships constantly, and I don’t know what this is supposed to mean:

The Jeweller : The weight of these gold rings is not the weight of metal, but the proper weight of man. Man’s own weight. Yes, the proper weight of man. It’s the weight of constant gravity, riveted to a short flight. Freedom and frenzy trapped in a tangle. And in that tangle, in that weight which at the same time is heavy and intangible, there is love – love which springs from freedom, like water from a rift in the earth. So tell me, my young friend, what is the proper weight of man?

André : I don’t know.

The Jeweller : Man is not transparent. He’s not monumental. He’s certainly not simple. As a matter of fact, he’s rather poor. Now, that’s all right for one man, maybe two. But what about four or six, or a hundred or a million? If we took everyone on Earth and multiplied their weakness by their greatness, we’d have the product of humanity, of human life.

I will admit, I found myself profoundly moved by a passage which came somewhat later in the film, as follows: 

The jungle is every place for bitterness. It sows and reaps it like so much cane sugar. The jungle gets into your blood and builds tiny little houses of pain and you don’t wanna be there when the rent’s due because the anaconda, funny thing, they don’t know how to read a lease.

[chuckles]

Seems they’ve never learned! But the only thing longer than a croc’s mouth is the time it takes to swallow you whole. So next time you talk to me about jungles and bitterness, next time you’re trying to find your eyes with both hands, just keep that in mind… that is, if you still have a mind.

Jungle Brad: The jungle is a dangerous place, that’s true, but anyone who has ever seen two monkeys give each other things knows, that it’s a happy place, too. So let’s remember that and keep in mind you can eat pretty much anything you see, so have fun.

Oh sorry, that’s actually from The Lost Skeleton Returns Again, a sequel to The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. But go ahead, make the argument that it’s significantly worse writing than the Jeweller stuff. 

I’m sorry, I love John Paul II. We named one of our kids after him.  Maybe in some other lifetime I would watch the play he wrote, but this movie was completely opaque to me. I sat down to watch it with an open mind and an open heart, and I like all kinds of movies, and I feel like I’m ready to work with just about anything, as long as it works in some way. I tried really hard to figure out how to watch this movie, and it didn’t work. It wasn’t profound or personalist or metaphysical. It was just silly and confusing and amateurish, and I’ll stand by that. I’ll go up in the mountains and scream it if I have to. Apparently sometimes that means a lot to some people!

Next up, we want to watch that Philip Neri movie, I Prefer Heaven. That was the reason we got the Formed app in the first place, but we couldn’t get the Neri movie to play, for some reason. Wish us luck, because we’ve had a lot of misses this Lent, and we really need a win.

Friday Night Mandatory Lent Film Party, 2022: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and THE SCARLET AND THE BLACK

I forgot to write up this year’s Mandatory Lent Film Party plans! Thanks to a few readers for reminding me.

On Fridays in Lent,  our family watches some edifying, well-made films, with at least a loosely spiritual theme, preferably one that we probably wouldn’t otherwise get around to seeing.

In past years, I’ve done short reviews for the movies we watched. My past lists are here (2021) and here (2020), and you can find the individual movie reviews under the tag Lent Film Party. I will also link them separately at the end of this post. 

Here’s our list of possibilities for this year:

SAINT PHILIP NERI: I PREFER HEAVEN 

THE SECRET OF KELLS

OF GODS AND MEN

TREE OF LIFE

THE WAY 

SILENCE 

THE CHOSEN

THE YOUNG MESSIAH

MOLOKAI

THE JEWELER’S SHOP

THE SCARLET AND THE BLACK

THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC

A HIDDEN LIFE

KEYS TO THE KINGDOM

We’ve already watched three movies this Lent: Fiddler on the Roof, The Scarlet and the Black, and The Secret of Kells. I’ll do quickie reviews for the first two here, but I want to write up The Secret of Kells separately. 

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1971)

100% stands up. I’ve seen this movie countless times, and it just gets better. We ended up watching it over two nights, because it’s three hours long (it has an intermission, so you can split it up easily). 

This show is a masterclass in how to sustain a metaphor without wielding it like a club.  Tevye openly tells the audience right from the beginning that “every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking our necks” — and then he proceeds to work out what that means himself, throughout the rest of the movie. At the end, he invites the fiddler (sans roof), with a nod of his head, to come along with them to whatever’s next, and as he trudges forward with his load, he follows the music. So you see that his story is not over. Oh, it’s so good. Every element is perfect, the songs, the casting, the choreography, the dialogue, the cinematography, the pacing. 

It’s the story of a Jewish family in a tiny shtetl in Russia at the turn of the century, trying to maintain their identity despite cultural pressure from a swiftly changing world, and also from overt attacks in the form of pogroms. This movie shows more or less the story of my family, on both my parents’ sides. But it will feel personal to other viewers, as well, to see the Russians suddenly and senselessly descending on their neighbors. Different era, similar pointless horror and betrayal. 

Early in the movie, when Tevye has agreed to marry his oldest daughter to the butcher, they go to a tavern together and drink “to life,” and their jubilant toast is joined by a crowd of Russian soldiers. Normally the two groups keep to themselves, but not tonight. The choreography here illustrates so much tension and menace and emotion. Is it an invitation, or a threat? (Which, by the way, is the question Tevye has to ask himself throughout the whole story.)

Tevye is cautious but doesn’t want to be cowardly or cold, so he accepts the challenging invitation to dance in the Russian style, and as he’s caught up in it he shouts, “I like it!” But he almost immediately learns that good will is not enough. The next scene that shows dancing, at his daughter’s wedding, starts out with such jubilation, and ends in ruin, shattering devastation. And there is nothing to do but, as Tevye roars out into the darkness, “Clean up.”

I don’t really know how it hit the kids, although I definitely heard some weeping from the couch. I was glad they saw how Tevye speaks so naturally and constantly to God, and I was glad they saw how parents struggle and suffer while trying to figure out the balance between accepting changes they don’t like or understand because they love their kids and can’t really control them anyway, and holding the line for what’s really important. It’s not as easy as it looks! When Tevye is trying to work out whether or not he can see his way to making sense of his third daughter’s relationship, he says with a crack in his voice, “If I try to bend that far, I’ll break,” and I think even a teenage daughter who thinks her overbearing parents are unreasonable ogres will see that this man is really trying, and really suffering. (I definitely did, as a teenage daughter of a sometimes ogreish father.)

The kids were resistant to watching this movie because they remember it as a huge downer, but it truly isn’t. It doesn’t shy away from tragedy, but it’s also extremely funny, and tender, and sweet, and it ends, improbably, with hope. My Lenten wish for you is that you watch this movie.

We rented it for $3.99 on Amazon prime. It’s available to rent or buy on many platforms. Worth owning and rewatching. 

The second movie we watched for Lent was: 

THE SCARLET AND THE BLACK (1983)

Currently available to stream free on a few platforms and for rent on several more.

Synopsis: The true story of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who uses clever ruses, trickery, and brazen courage to organize an effort that hid and saved the lives of thousands of Jews and escaped POWs in Nazi-occupied Rome. 

Here’s a trailer:

Terrible trailer that kind of does justice to the movie, which we all found underwhelming. At 2 hours and 23 minutes, it was made for TV, and it does not translate well into a single night of viewing. There are many extraneous scenes of people talking vehemently to each other across a desk or on the phone. The repetition may have been necessary to keep the TV viewer up to speed across several episodes, but it turns the movie into a bit of a slog. 

For a movie that takes place partially inside the Vatican with a monsignor for a hero, I found it weirdly secularized. The priests who are martyred die explicitly for the people, which sounds good, but I dunno, you’d think they’d mention something vaguely spiritual while facing a death squad! I have only seen the movie once, but no portrayal or prayer or faith in God stands out, and they all seem to be relying on sweaty masculine vigor and cunning, rather than ever on grace. I understand making a religious story accessible to a general audience, but this was a pretty egregious case of Jesusectomy, except for literally the last five minutes and the little written epilogue that appears on the screen.

Tell me if I’m being unfair. It’s not that I expected it to be one kind of movie, and was disappointed that it was a different kind. It was that the final scene was extremely powerful … and completely unearned by the previous two hours. I’d pay good money for a remake that starts with what happens at the end, and then spends the movie explaining what led up to that. Instead, it was a dated, somewhat plodding adventure movie with priests, with a tacked-on religious finale that appears out of nowhere. Tell me if I’m being unfair. 

It was a pretty good historical antidote to the myth that the Church just sat on its hands and made nice with the Nazis (or even that the pope was an antisemite — a view which even the author of Hitler’s Pope has recanted); but it still soft balled what actually happened. It portrayed Pius XII as an overly cautious political player who was mainly concerned with staying safely neutral and not making things worse, but had a thing or two to learn from this bold monsignor, who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. In fact, the Vatican saved tens of thousands of Jews or more through numerous secret means. Could and should they have done more, or done things differently? I don’t know. The facts are still being sorted through and analyzed. One thing I tell my kids often is that, if someone tells you history is simple and straightforward, they’re either stupid or lying. 

I guess I give the movie a B- overall. It wasn’t exciting enough to be a wartime adventure movie (there was only one attempted stabbing in a shadowy Vatican hallway, followed by a punching and a shooting! There should have been one every twenty minutes!), but it didn’t have enough spiritual or even interior content to justify the ending. 

So the next week, I chose something completely different: The Secret of Kells, which I hadn’t seen before. And I’ll review that next! 

Here’s the direct links to previous Lent Film Party Reviews from last year:

Fatima

The Song of Bernadette

Ushpizin

Calvary (This one is a podcast and it’s currently only open to Patreon patrons)

And I guess that’s all we got to last year, although I feel like I’m forgetting something. 

From the year before:

I Confess

The Robe

The Trouble With Angels

Babette’s Feast

Lilies of the Field

Bonus review:

The Passion of the Christ