Lent movie review Vol. 5: LILIES OF THE FIELD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lent movie review Vol. 4: BABETTE’S FEAST

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

Heres the trailer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lent Movie Review Vol. 3: THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Lent Movie Review #2: THE ROBE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Lent Film Movie Review #1: I CONFESS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All around, entertaining and yes, edifying. Recommended. 

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

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

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

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

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

 

I Confess

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

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

The Miracle Maker (1999)

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

Becket (1964)

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

Calvary

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

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

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

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

The Trouble with Angels (1966)

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

Babette’s Feast (1987)

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

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

The Mission (1986)

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

The Keys of the Kingdom (1944)

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

The Robe

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

Lilies of the Field

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

Silence (2016)

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

Probably another one for teens and up. 

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

There Be Dragons.

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

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

 

Movie review: Jojo Rabbit made me laugh, but not cry

“Comedy is a red rubber ball,” said Mel Brooks, “and if you throw it against a soft, funny wall, it will not come back. But if you throw it against the hard wall of ultimate reality, it will bounce back and be very lively.”

With this quote in mind, I went to see Jojo Rabbit, which has been nominated for six Oscars. It is the latest applicant to an exclusive club: Movies that laugh at Hitler.

The film’s premise is, if anything, more audacious than anything by Brooks. It follows Jojo, a sweet and manic 10-year-old German boy who is absolutely wild for the Führer. In fact, he has made an imaginary companion out of him and spends his days palling around with a goofy, benevolent Adolph, who eggs him on and encourages him through every woe. One day, Jojo and his buddy Hitler are both horrified to discover that his mother has hidden a Jewish girl in the walls of their house.

What to do? Who to trust? Who to fear? From the very first scene, the movie puts in balance two monstrously weighty forces: Life and death, good and evil, loyalty and rebellion, hope and futility. It whipsaws back and forth between slapstick and horror, comedy and tragedy. I watched, enthralled, to see where it would land.

As a Jew, I am ready and able to laugh at the darkest of jokes. That’s how you make it through the dark. Mel Brooks managed this feat handily in his lesser-known “To Be Or Not To Be,” which contains one scene that shatters me every time.

Until this scene, “To Be Or Not To Be” is pure comedy; but then the weight shifts, and for a terrible moment, everything hangs in balance. The bumbling crew of actors must smuggle Jews out of a darkened theater bristling with Nazis. In desperation, they disguise the refugees as clowns, and it’s actually working—until one poor old babushka, her wrinkled face pathetically smeared with greasepaint, freezes. So many swastikas, so many guns. It’s too much. She’s weeping and trembling, and the audience realizes something is wrong.

So the leader of the actors looks the Nazis straight in the eye and shouts merrily, “Juden!” He slaps a Star of David on the old woman’s chest, whips out a clown gun and shoots her in the head. POW.

And that’s what saves them all. The Nazis roar with laughter in the dark, and the innocent make it through.

This scene carries the whole movie, because it has the nerve to set aside comedy and make the audience sit for a moment in naked peril: These men are killers. They do laugh at shooting an old woman in the head. The terror is real. “To Be Or Not To Be” earns the right to make Hitler jokes, because it doesn’t flinch away from knowing and showing what is at stake. The ball of comedy bounces because that hard surface is there to hit, however briefly.

There is no such hard surface in “Jojo Rabbit.”

Instead . . .

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Image: Still from movie trailer 

Knock knock. Who’s there? Rutger Hauer.

Hi, I’m The Jerk. You might remember me from that time I was marketing athletic clothing for Catholic women.

Pretty classy, am I right? Big seller in the Steubenville.

At this point, some of you may be wondering where Simcha is, and why she is letting me get away with this again.

See, for reasons even I don’t quite get, there are times Simcha ditches the blog and allows me to post here. Confidentially, this usually happens around the same time The Moody Blues tour comes around.

Dorks in White Satin

This being county fair season, Simcha is otherwise indisposed for the duration.

During the last foray into the depths of my movie watching despair, Cari  made a request for the next review. I immediately rejected her idea as stoopid. Then, I remembered some of the other movies I’ve reviewed.

OK,  so Cari gets her review.

Ladyhawke!!

 Before we delve too deeply into this mess, I gotta say, I have no memory of watching this movie.

Don’t get me wrong, I did watch it just a few nights ago. I was mostly sober too. But, it just kinda of slipped away right after watching. Strangely, this is not the first time I’ve watched this very same movie, only to forget it nearly instantly.

If I can reveal a little bit about myself – don’t worry, the pants will stay on – I never forget movies, or TV shows for that matter.

Seriously, I can pretty much give you a run down of every episode of F-Troop, or anything starring William Bendix, and don’t get me started on the first season of Murder She Wrote, before that show lost its edge.

The point is, I have a mind for crap entertainment. I never forget this stuff.

Even your old buddy Kolchak?

Especially my old buddy Kolchak. Though, that zombie episode kinda blew.

Aside from the other night, the memory of which gets hazier the more write, and the more beer I drink, I did see Ladyhawke in the theater when it came out. I remember the theater lobby. I remember the popcorn. I remember the lights going down. But the movie?

You remember me, right?

Who?

I’m Rutger. Rutger Hauer.

Umm.

I starred in the Ladyhawke?

Ahhh.

The producers manage to find the Dutch equivalent of NyQuil for the leading man. Honestly, this guy is a lamer version of Christopher Lambert.

Thank you!

We’ll get to you later.

Hey, Dutch people, lookit, we kinda saved you like every time The Nazis invaded you, and you thank us with Rutger Hauer? Next time don’t expect us to come running.

The plot, as I gather, concerns this here Hauzer fellow and his pet bird, Michelle Pfeiffer.

Cheep cheep. Cheep cheep.

Some of you fellas may disagree with me here, but this lady is like the boring version of cardboard. Has she ever been interesting? She’s not even convicncing as a lady cursed to turn into a hawke every day. You wants a convincing bird lady?

BWAAAKAAAAAAAAAAAAA! 

Anyhoo, so it seems Rubarb and Birdy were in love, but it had to be kept secret from the scheming, control-freak cleric whose sexual perversions led him to use black magic.

 

Yes. Please send all hate mail to thejerksoesnotlikeyou@gmail.com.

No, the bad guy movie bishop is this guy:

He kinda looks like my grandma, before we put her in the home.

Bishop Old Lady here puts a curse on Ruger Howitzer and Birdy Bird Bird so that all day, she’s a hawke, but all night he’s a wolf. This movie easily could have been called Manwolf. Except that’s even stupider than Ladyhawke.

This wacky curse keeps the pair separated, even though they are always together. It’s one of those great unrequited romances that make up so much our our literary culture.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQc9L2RbQkw

C’mon. Like I’m the only one who sensed the tension there?

The unhappy couple was betrayed to the bishop inadvertently by their confessor, who kinda blurted it out when he had too much to drink and was talking to the bishop. Not gonna say anything about confessors I have had. Not. Gonna. Say. Anything.

The filmmakers managed to get the great Leo McKern for the role of the disgraced priest.

Leo gotta eat.

But the whole lynchpin for this movie? The one actor whose dynamism pulled it altogether into a rousing entertainment? The next great action star?

They didn’t get that guy. Instead, they hired this guy:

Yup. Matthew Broderick. It kinda makes sense to put him in a period picture set in the middle-ish ages, with knights on horses and whatnot, given his – let’s say- proclivities.

Neigh!

It’s not that this is the worst movie ever made. Far from it. It’s just kinda dull, and extraordinarily forgettable. It’s almost as if this was created as an experiment in induced memory loss. I do blame the director, Richard Donner.

 

I put the “smug” in “Smug A-Hole”

Not to be all judgey, or anything, ’cause being judgey is bad, but this guy is going to Hell. Not only did he make Superman boring, not only did he fail to ever make a sequel to The Goonies, but this is the moron who helped make Mel Gibson a major action star.

If you want to see a real movie, with a vaguely European leading man, ton of action, a kickass soundtrack, and loads of Sean Connery, I suggest Highlander.

About time, sweetheart.

Speaking of which, Highlander will be the subject of my next review. Assuming Meatloaf still plans to bring his tour out this way, expect that sometime soon.

 
 
 
 
 

The 1997 Odyssey miniseries is hokey, thrilling, and gorgeous

Need a little pick-me-up? The 1997 two part miniseries of The Odyssey is the most entertaining thing I’ve seen in ages. It’s now available for streaming on  Amazon Prime and on the Roku channel, and everyone I know who loves The Odyssey loves this production. 

Don’t get me wrong. Much of the movie, sets, effects, and acting, is hokey to the max. But it’s charmingly, enthusiastically hokey, and every minute of it is made with great love. 

Let’s start with the soundtrack. It is incredibly terrible, and some scenes may actually have been recorded inside a tin can. The incidental music is devastatingly synthetic and cheap sounding, like something from a video game. But then many scenes include people playing actual instruments, and are full of real music — tunes and sounds you can respond to as a human, but which also convey a thoroughly other time and place. 

The show is full of stuff like this: Big, balls-out, broad strokes and spectacle, peppered with startling touches of authenticity that must have come from a scholar or at least a deeply invested amateur. When Odysseus leaves his men at the door to the underworld, for instance, he mentions “the land of the dead” and they all make a reflexive ritual gesture of some kind that may or may not be ancient, but it sure looks both authentic and heartfelt. 

But the real secret of this movie is not that they get everything right. The secret is that they’re enjoying the hell out of it, and that comes through from start to finish. They have an awesome story to tell, and here it is:

Some of the scenes (the show was filmed in Malta, Turkey, England, and the Mediterranean) are clumsy and corny — there’s lots of churning water filmed to look like giant waves when it’s clearly not — but others are inspired.  Viewers are very familiar with movies that take a Cecil B. DeMille-style stab at vaguely barbaric grandeur, with everything pillared and gilded and exotically alluring. This movie also doesn’t hold back, and sometimes bites off more than it can chew; but here, the alien distance of ages is made coherent through dozens of details, the sounds, the fabrics, the hairpins, the utensils. The household gods, for instance, somehow look both sacred and naive, and you can see both that the characters are praying to them sincerely, and that they have built them themselves.

The Island of Circe is stunning and otherworldly; but Ithaca itself is the real island of a real person. I almost wept when Odysseus, still in disguise, first tastes the long-remembered cheese of home. You get a real sense of place, with well-beloved specific trees and blades of grass, and you can feel how much it feels like the entire small world to Odysseus and Penelope. Their tree bed is somewhat vague and disappointingly etherial, but the room where the suitor are slaughtered is real as real, part of an actual house.

Poseidon, as a rolling, roaring face in the waves, is hilarious and also hair-raising. In Hades, the special effects are ridiculous and yet terrifying.

Odysseus stalks right through patches of fire which were clearly pasted in afterward, and gazes in horror at eternally tumbling sheets of lava projected on the green screeniest of green screens. And yet . . . it works. It’s scary as shit in there, and you’re holding your breath the whole time as you watch, because of the fumes, and because you don’t want those shades of the hungry dead to get any closer. I wasn’t crazy about Christopher Lee as a crusty, cranky Tiresias, but I was willing to go with it. 

Which brings us to another miraculous virtue of this movie. The casting is really weird sometimes. Armand Assante as Odysseus? That is NOT how I have always pictured Odysseus. And yet, three minutes in, I was sold. Man has a presence, and he clearly feels bigger than he actually is. You can see why his crew adores him, and you can see how he kept on pushing, year after year, until he makes it home. When he finally lands in Ithaca draped in a red and gold robe with his hair combed and oiled, he is very convincingly the hero we’re still talking about thousands of years later.

Isabella Rossalini as Athena, with those eyes and that posture and that voice and that skin? Brilliant. Absolutely perfect. Bernadette Peters as Circe? Sure, why not? She gives it her witchy all. Vanessa Williams as Calypso? Sufficiently slinky. The guy who plays Hermes is a gilded weirdo zipping around awkwardly in the air, which seems about right. Greta Scacchi, who I’ve never seen in anything else, is a wonderful Penelope. I’d want to come home to her, too.

Her dialogue isn’t profound (none of the dialogue is), but she does convey a complex emotional life besides what you see, and she is grippingly beautiful and strong, and she looks her age. 

I wish they had included the scene where she tests him before she accepts him as her husband. That scene carries a lot of weight to counterbalance all the sex he has with various nymphs. But all the other elements are in place, and the homecoming absolutely hits the mark.

Above all, this production understands the Odyssey not as some kind of effete literary relic but as a really exciting adventure story full of fighting and monsters, with sexy ladies here and there, and a huge, endless love propelling the whole thing. And that is what the Odyssey is. I wouldn’t change a thing. 

***

It being The Odyssey, it’s pretty violent and sexy, so I’d probably show it to kids age 14 at the youngest, depending on the kid. People get graphically ripped to shreds and eaten and stabbed, and there are some very slinky outfits and steamily suggestive scenes. I mean, it is The Odyssey. 

In defense of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST

Nobody:
Me: Sure, as a Jewish Catholic who has a reputation for resisting pop Catholic trends, I’d love to tell you what I think about The Passion of the Christ.

Here, I will focus on two criticisms: Its ultra violence, and its antisemitism; and why I think it’s worth watching. I don’t know, I felt like getting yelled at.

It it gratuitously violent?

Yes and no. No doubt some viewers reveled in the sadistic violence and graphic gore; but I’m also quite sure others came for the gore and saw more than they bargained for. But I don’t think the violence was just a hook to trick gore-happy viewers into an edifying movie. It was also a way to express how unanswerably outrageous the crucifixion, the murder of God, really was.

Gibson is far from the first to depict the passion and death of Jesus in grotesquely heightened terms, because if we have a hard time grasping the spiritual horror of what happened, we can at least feel the corporeal horror, and go from there. It’s not necessary to depict the crucifixion this graphically, but it’s not illegitimate or inherently inappropriate; and it does have a purpose other than to feed viewer’s blood lust.

For instance: After the notorious interminable scourging scene comes a heart-stopping aerial view of Jesus’ blood splattered all over the courtyard. An impossible amount of blood. Pilate’s wife comes out with a stack of fresh linens and tremblingly offers them to Mary and Mary Magdalene, and the two climb down on their knees and begin to carefully mop up every drop. An impossible task. That scene is responsible for a permanent change in my thinking, transforming the phrase “precious blood” from a pious nicety into a central reality that changed how I approach the Eucharist.

The violence may simply be too much for many viewers. But I didn’t see any violence that was there simply for the sake of showing violence. It was an ordeal to watch, and it was supposed to be.

Is the movie antisemitic? 

I mean? No, but actually yes. Yes and no. Mostly. . . . (heaven help me) no.

Mel Gibson assuredly is antisemitic. After an outcry, he did cut a “blood oath” scene from the original version; but declined to meet with the ADL, basically saying: Look, I hope you get over this not-being-Catholic thing someday. Newsflash: The man is an asshole. But my policy is to evaluate works of art on their own merits as much as I can.

Most accusations of antisemitism in the movie seem to fall into two categories: Things that were probably intentional, but which the average viewer (which I am) wouldn’t pick up on; and things which you can interpret according to your own baggage.

In the first category, intentional but missable, includes details like the sign on the cross. Sr. Rose Pacatte at NRO says:

That Gibson was making a conscious choice to reject and negate Judaism is indisputable when we see the sign on the cross. “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” is written only in ecclesial Latin and Aramaic. He rejects the Greek as detailed in John 19:20, and Greek was the common language of the Roman Empire at that time. Thus, according to Adlerstein, Gibson creates “a tension between Aramaic/Hebrew; he does not create a bond but severs it.”

and

One [viewer] mentioned the tear that fell from the cross and the earthquake, which is significant because the scene shows the destruction of the temple at the time of Jesus’ death, but the destruction did not happen until A.D. 70. According to Gomez, this scene points to a “replacement theology,” upholding the mistaken medieval idea that Christianity (Ecclesia) has replaced Judaism (Synagoga). The brokenness visible in the temple evokes the brokenness of Synagoga. In other words, it’s a “dig” at Judaism that does not appear to be there by accident.

I just plain didn’t notice the historical discrepancies, so if these details were attempts at antisemitism, they failed.

It’s harder to deny that Gibson portrays the Jews using offensive stereotypes, and shows the apostles as some sort of “high Jews” or “white Jews” by portraying them as separate from the others.

But . . . the Jews who crucified Jesus were the bad guys, and the ones who didn’t betray him did make themselves separate. I understand the dangers of feeding stereotypes, but how is a moviemaker supposed to portray evil without signaling to the viewer that it is evil? You tell me. The High Priests were concerned mainly with retaining power; Judas did sell out Jesus for money; the Jews who insisted on Jesus’ execution did reduce their faith to a bunch of ritualistic formalities which were threatened by his new commandment. These evils portrayed are what Jesus came to get rid of. To refuse to depict them would be to refuse to depict what actually happened. There isn’t a lot of nuance in character among the Jews who condemned Jesus because it’s not that kind of movie. The good guys don’t show a lot of nuance, either.

The question is, does the movie say “These men did something evil” or “These Jews did evil Jew things”? This is why I say it depends what you bring to the movie. If you’re an antisemite and you want to know why Jesus had to die, you’ll see that the Jews killed him because Jews are bad. If you’re not an antisemite and you want to know why Jesus had to die, you’ll see what kind of people rejected Jesus: Those who want power. Those who want money. Those who value order over truth. Those who are cowards. Those who are cruel.

So Mel Gibson and his pals may be saying, “This is what Jews are like,” but I don’t think that’s what the movie is saying, unless you’re specifically looking to hear that message. It’s the same with the Gospels themselves. If you read the Gospels shallowly, you’ll think they’re a story about how the Jews betrayed Christ. God knows many have read the Gospels this way! But if you read the Gospels with an open heart, you’ll see it’s a story about how we all betrayed Christ. So the movie gives you what you’re ready to get from it. It would be easy to watch the movie in 2019 and recognize, for instance, the College of Cardinals among the crowd of grasping, preening, vicious high priests willing to sacrifice an innocent victim to retain their power.

It’s also hard to make the case that the movie blames only the Jews for Jesus’ suffering, when the gleeful sadism on display is clearly a Roman thing. When Caiphas sees the scourging, he winces and turns away.

However, it’s weirdly pro-Pontius Pilate, which bothers me a lot. Pilate is a cultivated man who’s been assigned to a fractious backwater, and he has Jesus tortured and executed with great reluctance, to keep the mob at bay. That’s in the Gospel, as far as it goes. But the movie adds a scene where Pilate basically tells Jesus, “Look, I feel really bad about this” and Jesus basically says, “Hey, I see who you’re working with here. Don’t worry about it.” That scene is inexcusable, and makes the biggest case that the movie is antisemitic.

So, with these issues, why watch it?

It’s so freaking interesting. So outlandish and bold, but somehow never heavy-handed. Do you know how difficult it is to make a movie with a scene like the scourging scene and have people remember other scenes besides that one?

Gibson doesn’t take the easy way out in any scene. It’s a long movie, but the pacing is great (the scenes that feel long are meant to feel long). Herod is crazy, and weird, and sad. Judas devolving is so terrifying. Veronica is so appealing. The moment with Simon of Cyrene is gripping. Satan is scary as shit. Some people think it was just dropped in for spooky-ookiness, but Steve Greydanus says:

At certain points this androgynous figure is depicted in opposition to the Virgin Mary — but never more arrestingly so than before the pillar, where there is a kind of anti-Marian vision that I will not describe, except to say that it is so bizarre and grotesque, yet ultimately meaningless, that it seems to come straight from hell.

Works for me. I have never seen a depiction of Satan that works better.

Filming it in foreign languages was brilliant. Brilliant. When you’ve been a christian for a long time, it is so very hard to hear the familiar words of the Gospel as new. And it is so very ticklish to figure out what accent you should speak in when you’re playing Jesus! The solution? Put it in words that almost no one understands, and let subtitles, with their layer of psychological remove, work their magic. Or just let the visuals speak for themselves.

Best of all is Mary. Her face and the way she carries herself, and the way everyone keeps coming to her for help. This Mary was a major revelation for me, and helped me see a warmth and strength that’s missing from . . . really most depictions of Mary in art of any kind.  When Jesus is in prison and she comes to find him, you’re so glad they have each other.

And then the resurrection scene. (I had a little larf to myself when IMDB sequestered a plot synopsis that described this scene, warning that it included a spoiler. Boo!) It’s not corny. It’s not lame. It’s glorious, and terrifying, and it redeems everything you have endured during the rest of the movie.

Must you see this movie? Of course not. There is no movie a Catholic must see. If we’re not required to believe in Fatima, not required to pray the rosary, not even required to be literate to be practicing Catholics with a genuine relationship with God, then we can certainly make our way to heaven without having seen The Passion of the Christ (or Unplanned, or Fireproof, or God’s Not Dead, or Here Be Dragons, etc. etc. etc.). Movies are just movies, and you don’t have to come up with some particular reason to dispense yourself from seeing them.

But Passion is different from other movies that Catholics tend to guilt each other into watching. It doesn’t just carry a Positive Message that We Should Support; it’s a great work of art, and because of this, it at least can be tremendously powerful spiritually. Good for Lent; good for a Lenten retreat.

If you’re going to show it to anyone, know your audience. As described above, it could fuel antisemitism in those susceptible to antisemitism. But it doesn’t automatically deliver that message; and it could genuinely spur true spiritual growth.

It’s not for kids, for goodness’ sake. It’s not for people who can’t endure violent movies. Don’t make anyone watch it. But if you can stand some gore, and if you are yearning to feel more engaged in a story that has become stale with retelling, then don’t be scared away from this movie, thinking it’s just torture porn or propaganda. It is an ordeal, but a worthwhile one; and as a work of art, it’s a great.

***

P.S.
I deliberately didn’t read Steve Greydanus’ reviews of the movie until after I finished writing. I don’t always agree with Greydanus, but he gives lots of illuminating analysis here.