On Jeremiah and Jaws

Having come home safely from Cape Cod, and having not been attacked by anything more bloodthirsty than my 7-year-old who wanted to share my ice cream cone, we decided it was safe to sit down and watch the movie Jaws.

It is just about a perfect movie, a rare film that is monstrously famous but still somehow even better than all the hype. Even as I mouth each line along with the characters and follow every facial movement beat by beat, I find something different to admire every time I watch it.

This time, it was the girl. Not Chrissie, the girl who launches the film by getting gobbled up, but the girl in the kerchief, the one who is standing on the rocks by the estuary and calls out a warning to the crowd in a quavering voice: “Sh— shark! The shark! It’s going into the pond!”

She’s scared of two things, as far as I can tell. She’s scared of the shark, of course, which by this point has already devoured four people and a dog. But at least for a second, she’s also scared of being wrong.

Just a few seconds prior, the entire beach was swallowed up in a panic when someone spotted a fin in the waves. Someone screamed “Shark” then, too, and there was instant hysteria. Children were trampled; a mother lost her mind with fear and screamed uselessly, clutching her baby and freezing in place. An old man was left to drown in the foam as the entire populace scrambled to escape the water. And as the bathers panted and trembled on the beach, dry sobs rising up from the crowd, the word came back: It was “just a hoax. There are two kids with a cardboard fin.” (See, I told you I could quote the movie line for line.)

But before these summer people have a chance to contemplate how poorly they have behaved, there is another alarm. The girl by the estuary calls out in a trembling voice, rising to a scream: “Sh— shark! The shark! It’s going into the pond! … Somebody do something!”

“Now what?” grumbles Chief Brody, whose life has been nothing but alarms since he moved to the quiet island of Amity. But his wife reminds him their son Michael is in the pond, so he strides over to investigate. And yes, there is the fin. And this time, it is real.

I think about this girl a lot, the girl who cried shark. I know why her voice quavered…. Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

***
Image: Still from “the attack in the pond” scene

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

 

 

 

Spielberg’s West Side Story is better than the original

Last night, we saw Steven Spielberg’s new West Side Story. I grew up listening to the soundtrack of the 1961 movie repeatedly. My sister and I would put the LP on just for fun and dance around the living room. I know every second of the score by heart (and it took me many years to realize “Krup you!” is not an actual insult). I’ve seen the original movie countless times and the stage version at least twice.

So yes, I was a little nervous about how the new movie would hold up. I won’t keep you in suspense: I loved it. If you’ve never seen another production of West Side Story but you’ve seen the new movie, you have seen West Side Story. That’s how well they did. In many ways, they did better.

It’s not a slavish recreation, but it’s also not a daring new take or reinvention. What Spielberg did was make sufficient changes and adjustments and yes, improvements, so that a modern audience could understand and appreciate the show for what it always has been.

A warning: Plot spoilers here. (Guys, the show is 60 years old. You’ve had your chance.)

If you’re looking for some kind of incisive comment on racial tension that’s especially apropos for 2021 America, this isn’t it — unless maybe you’re an optimist who’s had your heart broken, and you’d like to see that portrayed on screen.

That’s what happened to Anita, played by Ariana DeBose, whose performance, sorry, has so much more depth than the beloved original Rita Moreno’s. She’s not just a fiery and sultry Latina; she’s someone who is working through conflict in her head. You see on her face and in her posture the struggle between the old and new, between tenderness and ambition. She starts out defiantly singing “I like to be in America” but ends up seeing who America has really been to her, and when she spits out the lie about Maria’s death, it feels like it’s been a long time coming. She’s suffered a lot and has stuffed down so much to try to make her new life work, and when she’s finally cornered, the least she can do is protect Maria and inflict a little pain. That was always there in the script, but in this performance, and in her betrayal in particular, you feel the deep tragedy of what has played out in these few blocks. 

But speaking of Rita Moreno, let’s turn to one of the most startling changes in the new movie: The short song “There’s a place for us” gets sung not by Tony and Maria, but by Tony’s mentor, the Valentina, who, in this production is a Latina woman who long ago married a white man — and she’s played by Moreno. They’ve added some dialogue to flesh out the idea that such couples will always struggle.

What’s the effect of putting the doomed/hopeful song in the mouth of someone who has already lost? It adds another layer of real pathos, because her husband is long dead, and things have only gotten worse since her time (and there’s also the pathos, for those familiar with the old film, of seeing Moreno still beautiful but so very old. This is a tricky maneuver, but I think they pulled it off.)

Changing this song from a romantic duet to a tragic solo also does the service of making the show slightly less sticky.  Musicals are always a little bit sticky, by which I mean there is going to be a certain amount of . . . well, couples standing side by side, staring up into the stars singing a duet about how much they love each other. This exact thing recently happened when Tony and Maria sang “Tonight,” and you wouldn’t want them not to sing it. That’s the show: It’s about gangs and stabbing and racism and attempted rape, and also ballet and rhythmic snapping and a lot of extremely graceful choreography on crumbling brick walls. People burst into song with trained voices and cleverly rhymed lyrics to express how they feel. If this is something that’s going to bother you, then please don’t watch a musical! Nevertheless, they engineered tweaks and tightenings here and there that modified how artificial the show felt, and made the whole thing make more sense emotionally. One such tightening was to have Valentina, in a reflective mood, musing on the past and the future, rather than having Tony and Maria interrupt their drama and sing about it.  

Another change that I believe was intended to de-stickify the show: They moved “I Feel Pretty” back, so it happens after Bernardo kills Riff and Tony kills Bernardo, but Maria doesn’t know it yet. I’m pretty proud of myself for noticing they did this and figuring out why: The song was always a little too cute and clever, especially for someone who doesn’t speak English well, and it’s an adorable song, but it’s hard to reconcile it with Maria as a tragic figure. By shoving it right in the middle of the action, it takes your discomfort with Maria’s inane giggling and prancing and uses it. You feel slightly ill, watching the number, because you know there are two bodies on the ground. (I was gratified to see that this L.A. Times article backs my theory up.)

I love this change not only because it works, but because it’s completely in character with the show. There has always been a desperate shred of hope in every tragic song, and a heavy shadow of dread in every hopeful song. That’s the show; always has been. So this change is an improvement. Amazing. 

The one change they made that I didn’t like was relocating “One Hand, One Heart” to the Cloisters. In the original, the couples improvise a bridal scene, and it’s very clear that, in their minds, they are in a church and are exchanging vows before God. It’s always been one of my favorite parts of the movie. The new movie locates them in a literal convent, and it’s just heavy-handed, which disappointed me. A small quibble.

One more improvement: “Cool” (the song that starts “Boy, boy, crazy boy”) makes so much mores sense in the new movie. In the new movie, Tony is going to Riff to try to retrieve the gun he’s bought, and stop the rumble. It takes place on some kind of ramshackle pier with gaping holes in it, giving Tony and Riff plenty of chances to leap precariously over and around the edges, daring and threatening and sweating and menacing each other. It emphasizes the tension and peril so much better than . . . whatever was in the original, which I can’t remember, which is telling. 

I liked the casting overall. Everyone sang well. It seems foolish to have to say that; and yet we’ve all seen our share of musicals cast with people who seem to have been hired for reasons other than their voice. Maria (Rachel Zegler) is young and fresh and lovely and impatient to start her life.

Tony (Ansel Elgort) is a vast improvement over 1961 Richard Beymer, who essentially showed up and had big shoulders and hit his notes, and that was it.

Elgort’s Tony is a good actor with a fine voice and a slightly odd, interesting face, and you feel like he’s got something going on in his skull.

He and Maria come across more like a real couple and less like a couple of movie stars. This new Tony has a lot more to work with, because they rather daringly added significant backstory: He very nearly killed someone, only avoiding it by luck, and just got out of jail. He spent his jail time thinking, and wants to change his life. Voilà, a motive, other than a vague “he’s different from the rest.” 

They also provided a bit more motive for why the gangs are so territorial in general, other than that one is white and one is Puerto Rican. There is some kind of urban renewal project going on in the neighborhood, which involves wrecking balls tearing down all the buildings these young men have grown up with. So it’s not just a slum, but a pretty explicit war zone, and so we understand better their fierce, furious desperation to hold on to the little scrap of something that that belongs to them. 

An interesting point: The character of Anybodys has become not just a goofy tomboy, but an actual trans character who really suffers at the thought of being perceived as a girl. It’s not inordinately magnified; it’s just another character rescued from being a caricature in the new version. 

To my relief, they don’t appear to have altered the choreography much (or if they have, they preserved the character of it very well). The dancers are wonderful, weightless.

The music was performed faithfully, which is another thing I was worried about. (In a few previews, they movified the music, for some reason; but they didn’t do that in the actual film.) The score is some of the greatest American music of any kind ever written. 

The only scene I didn’t like was “Gee, Office Krupke,” and I don’t know why I didn’t like it. Maybe it just had so many dated references, it was harder to work with. As my husband said, it suffers from the same problems as “I Feel Pretty,” but it’s harder to know how to fix it. You definitely can’t take it out of the show, but it just doesn’t land right. 

But oh my friends, this movie is gorgeously shot, every moment. The long views of the city streets with the crumbling bricks, just magnificent. The dance before the rumble is opulently heightened, the white students in blues and greens, the Puerto Ricans in reds and purples. When the two gangs approach each other for the rumble, there’s an overhead shot of their shadows mingling that’s pure abstract expressionism, just breathtaking.

And then later the shadows of the cops are shot from a different angle as they come upon the two bodies, and they’re so stubby and ineffective. There’s a little scene where Anita and Bernardo are making out in the morning sun behind some hanging curtains, and it’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. 

Beautiful, beautiful work. But it stays true to the era. It doesn’t feel like an update or a reboot; it feels like you’ve returned to the original, but with new powers. 

If you have a chance, do watch it in the theater so you can see it as big and hear it as big as possible. Bring tissues. BRING TISSUES. 

 

All images are screenshots from embedded video, above. 
Correction: In an earlier version of this essay, I repeatedly referred to Bernardo as “Roberto.” The reason for this is that I am an idiot, sorry. 

Halloween roundup! Samhain, witch burning, pumpkin carving, werewolf movies, and SPOOKY MISC.

I’ve made my annual pilgrimage to Walmart to get more hot glue sticks while wearing embarrassing pajamas, so I guess I’m just about ready for Halloween. Last night I made progress on an Athena costume (helmet, spear, and aegis) for Corrie, and Clara saved the day by sewing a pirate skirt for Benny. I did my part by buying bootlaces that don’t perpetually untie themselves, and honestly, that may have saved Halloween, too. 

I’ve been saving up a few interesting bits of reading to share, more or less Halloween related:

Is Halloween ackshully pagan?

Samhain photo by Robin Canfield on Unsplash 

Short answer: No. Long answer: No, it’s Catholic, always has been, you absolute shoehorning no-history-knowing nits. So says Tim O’Neill of History for Atheists, and he has the goods. The idea that religious people stole Samhain or some other pre-christian tradition from pagans is popular but completely without historical merit. A longish and fascinating read from a guy who can’t be accused of having a religious agenda.

Sorta related: Who burned the witches? This is an older article by Salon co-founder Laura Miller published in 2005, challenging the idea that, when we say “witch burning,” we mean some concerted effort by the big bad church to quash rebellious wise women who knew too much about how to gather healing herbs and whatnot.

Photo by Evgeniy Kletsov on Unsplash 

Nobody really comes out looking especially awesome in the witch trial era, but it really seems to have been mostly a case of people being like people be, which is horrible enough in itself:

The mass of detail can be numbing, but what it reveals is important: not a sweeping, coordinated effort to exert control by a major historical player, but something more like what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.” Witch hunts were a collaboration between lower-level authorities and commonfolk succumbing to garden-variety pettiness, vindictiveness, superstition and hysteria. Seen that way, it’s a pattern that recurs over and over again in various forms throughout human history, whether or not an evil international church or a ruthless patriarchy is involved, in places as different as Seattle and Rwanda.

This is, in fact, more or less how it was taught to us in public school when I was growing up. I appreciate the attempt to bring some balance to the conversation, which, if anything, has gotten dumber since this article came out. And I wish people would be willing to consider this less conspiratorial, more mundane explanation more often for . . . everything. When we can explain everything bad with a conspiracy, that’s thrilling and satisfying, and lets us imagine that there are clear cut bad guys who aren’t us; but it’s far more likely that people everywhere are petty and vengeful and prone to letting their bad impulses get out of control. Nobody wants to hear it, because it means it’s something we’re all susceptible to. 
 
What else? Pumpkins! Just a few more days until we get our dining room table back. 
 
 
If I put the pumpkins outside now, they’ll be freezing cold when we bring them in to scoop them out. And I also haven’t super duper found spots for all the frost-damaged plants I brought in, yet. So this is how we live. At least the cookie is happy. Somewhere in there is a spool of wire I bought to make the snakes for Athena’s aegis, but I can’t find it, so I got more in my pajamas.
 
I finally got my anxious paws on those pumpkins yesterday, after searching no fewer than seven stores and coming up empty and getting more and more nervous about having to carve, like, cauliflowers for Halloween this year. I told the Home Depot lady that probably Covid made people sad, which made them want to decorate more, which made them buy extra pumpkins, and she said that sounded exactly right, but even I could tell it was stupid. In real life, I blame the Masons, or possibly the Jews. Anyway, now we have ten lovely fat pumpkins to carve. I got a Dremel for Christmas last year, and I’ve barely used it, so I think I will make something splendid this year.  Check out #11. Okay, realistically speaking, I will make a sloppy attempt at it, and my family will be really supportive and nice about it. I can live with this. 
 
 
And finally, a Halloween family watching suggestion, not a new one but a solid choice: Over the Garden Wall
 

I’m still amazed it got broadcast, because it’s so weird and beautiful and thoughtful. It’s an animated miniseries of 12 short episodes, and every one is gorgeous, creepy, funny, and strangely moving, with crazy, memorable music.

Two half-brothers find themselves lost in the woods on Halloween, and as they try to make their way home, they become entangled in some terrifying otherworldly business. It’s loosely inspired by The Divine Comedy, but I wouldn’t push that too far. 

Each episode is about 11 minutes, so you can watch the entire series in about two hours. We split it into two nights. Here’s the first episode, which is pretty representative:

It’s rated PG, but some of the characters and situations are extremely creepy, so while we did let our six-year-old watch it, she has a very high tolerance for scary stuff, and some kids under the age of eight or nine could find it too scary. (Here’s a specific list of creepy stuff.) There is a lot of very silly and hilarious stuff that fixes you right up when you get creeped out. No gore, graphic violence, or sex. There is a persistent melancholy tone, but all the relationships in the show get worked out very satisfactorily, and familial love is the true theme of the miniseries, and all is restored in the end. 

This show also contains one of the most realistic depictions of a goofy little boy we’ve ever seen. We’ve come to burgle your turts! Lots of quotes and songs have become part of our family culture.

Here’s a beast costume

a Wirt costume

and a Wirt and Greg cake:

The whole thing is crowded with allusions and suggestions and portents, and you can either pursue them or just enjoy them. It originally ran on Cartoon Network in 2014. It doesn’t appear to be streaming for free anywhere right now. We bought it to stream on Amazon.

We haven’t settled on a scary movie to watch on Halloween night. We’ve seen Young Frankenstein too recently. We’ve seen Army of Darkness a million times. I may push for renting Silver Bullet (1985), which is the only good werewolf movie ever made. FIGHT ME. Here’s where you can watch it (nowhere for free right now, that I can see.)
 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1dClCykQys
 
And I guess that’s it. We have never managed to do anything for All Saint’s Day, but if you do, here’s my list of costumes that will do double duty, and work for saints and their spookier counterparts as well. I should update it to add Matt Swaim’s suggestion:
 

And if you’re really ahead of the game, here is my All Soul’s Day cheat sheet: A recipe for eggs in purgatory, a recipe for soul cakes, and a quick prayer for the dead. Donezo. 

Lent Film Review #4: BOYS TOWN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image is screenshot from trailer, above. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lent movie review #2: FATIMA (2020)

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

Here’s the Fatima trailer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, next up: Song of Bernadette.