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:















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. 


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: 


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:


The Song of Bernadette


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




Praying for Ukraine

This week we are praying for Ukraine, of course. I keep circling and circling the news like an anxious animal at a closed door, looking for a way in.

My great grandparents were from Ukraine, from somewhere around Kyiv. That is pretty much all I know. The photo above is them, about halfway through their migration. 

Their names were Zelda and Feivel, and the children in this visa photo are Gosel, Hana, and Schloima. Hana, the little one in the hat, was my father’s mother. It took years for the family to finally get off the continent — so long that my great grandmother had a whole other baby before they made it. I believe this photo was taken in Bucharest, partway through their escape. 

My great grandparents shed their old names and became Jenny and Philip, and the children became Jerry, Anne, and Sammy. They also left behind most of their physical possessions. My great grandfather was rich, a fur merchant. The story goes that he hid in the root cellar while the bolsheviks pounded on the door to conscript him into the army, so his wife told them he had deserted the family. Then they escaped Kiev and sold my great grandmother’s jewels, and just about everything else they owned, to buy boat passage.

So our family now has very little in the way of heirlooms. There are two brass candlesticks that one of my sisters claimed, which I assume are from the old country. I always thought they looked like someone had dropped an egg down inside them, but that’s all I know about them. There is a framed piece of yellowed cloth with a scene embroidered faintly on it, a girl leaning on a fence to face a young man in a cap, loose pants, and high boots, with a gun and a pack like a soldier. It has Cyrillic letters picked out along the bottom, and someone told me it says “Give me a kiss before you go.” (My mother wanted me to bring it in when our third grade class was supposed to bring in very old objects, but I chose instead a German beer stein carved like a bear that I had found at a yard sale.)

We have other little scraps of information and pieces of stories. My great grandparents were Jews, but the boat they boarded to cross the ocean was named the S.S. Madonna, and of course about eighty years later, my parents were received into the Catholic Church — at St. Mary’s, in fact. That’s the nice part of the story. The less lovely part is that, according to family lore, Gosel the little baby kept crying and the captain said that if they didn’t shut him up, they would throw him overboard. They eventually made it to Romania and then to Ellis Island. But any time that kid (my great uncle Jerry) made trouble, his mother would say, “I SHOULD HAVE THROWN YOU OVERBOARD LIKE THEY TOLD ME TO.”

Two more girls were born, Beatrice and Miriam, and there was another baby brother, who died in a freak accident, when an older brother was throwing him in the air and he hit his head. My great grandfather also died, and the family struggled to keep afloat, and they moved a lot. Once, when they moved to a new apartment, they sent my great aunt Beatrice off to camp so they could pack up, and she assumed they were just getting rid of her, just like that.
But what she’s still mad about is the lost jewelry. My great grandfather replaced some of the jewels his wife had to sell, but it was pawned over and over again, and then lost. Aunt Bebe is in her late nineties, still angry about the lost rings. Or I guess just the loss, in general. I don’t know. 

So you can see, you leave the furniture and the jewelry and the furs behind, but the trauma travels light, and always comes with you. It always translates well. It takes a few generations to decide whether or not to laugh at these stories. I say terrible, murderous things to my dog; I try not to say them to my children. 

I’m not trying, as my friend would say, to “me-planet” the news, but as I say, I’m circling it anxiously, looking for a way in. It feels wrong that I don’t have more of a sense of connection with the Ukrainians than I do. I probably have relatives, actual family there right now. But my family who did leave Ukraine tried so hard to leave the old country behind and be 100% American, and they really succeeded; so all the connection I have is the story of how we fled. And as my brother said, when I see the photos of Ukrainians fleeing, they look familiar. They look like my grandmother. 

I am just praying that the Ukrainians don’t have to leave their homes. I have seen the pictures of the families sheltering in subway tunnels and I just want them to be able to come out again, to move back into their houses, to pick up the books they were in the middle of reading. To find that the milk in the refrigerator has not spoiled yet, and their great grandmother’s jewels are still in the box in the bedroom.

I cannot fathom the trauma that has already been imposed on them. There have already been deaths, heroic sacrifices, senseless losses. People say, “Ukraine matters to us all! Look how much wheat they produce! Look how much uranium ore!” Uranium ore? People have already had to flee with their lives packed into a suitcase. Dreadful things have already been demanded of children, of old people. I just don’t want them to have to lose it all. I’m praying that they can keep their homeland. Everyone ought to be able to keep their home.