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 YOUNG MESSIAH
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)
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:
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: