Silence (2016)

Silence_(2016_film).pngIf we can take Martin Scorsese’s varied film career as a reflection of the human experience, then his completion of his long-awaited passion project Silence is not all that surprising. He’s crafted numerous classics, countless cultural touchstones, some spiritual, some historical, and some incredibly honest. But at this point in his career it seems like he has nothing left to prove to us as his audience and maybe at this point in life, if nothing else, we could do well to try and learn from someone like him. Because given the climate with funding and the like, Scorsese could not have made such a film just for other people or money or acclaim. He must have made it, at least partially, for himself.

There’s no question that his life has been tough at times, even taking him to the brink of death, and in Silence, we see a period tale that touches on everything that is thought-provoking and all that is paramount in life. Man has long wrestled with God. Jacob did it literally in the narrative of Genesis. Nothing is new under the sun in a sense. And Scorsese by way of Shusaku Endo is doing a truly remarkable thing to consider these very questions. I admire him for having the wherewithal to even begin to tackle this material.

Coincidentally this is also a very faithful adaptation of Endo’s novel and so rather than recount the entire plot, my best advice is to read Endo for yourself and watch Scorsese’s own musing on the text afterward. But for those who don’t know, Silence is a fictionalized account based on true events involving two 17th century Portuguese priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garppe (Adam Driver) who head to Japan in order to spread their Christian faith–a faith that already has approximately 300,000 believers. Their mission is twofold as well, to track down their illustrious mentor Father Fereira (Liam Neeson) who is rumored to have apostatized.

However, their beloved faith is under fierce attack by the Japanese magistrate and for good reason. As articulated by the oddly compelling and strangely comical antagonist Inoue, foreign missionaries sometimes come to Japan like jealous women looking to steal the country away. They often are lacking cultural understanding meaning their message is neither contextualized or delivered in such a way that is helpful to the people. Is the message missionaries brought even the same anymore or do they simply trust that it will reach the people as they intended?

But delve into this issue and doubters can beg the question, can the Truth (capital T) be universal? There are certain similarities between religions. From a cursory level, you can either draw up the similarities between Christianity and Buddhism or cast them far apart. Father Ferreira finally conceded that doing good is enough. It leads to human flourishing but also to the detriment of his previous beliefs. And that’s only the one conflict.

Silence delivers numerous other tough questions to any viewer who is willing to consider them. How do you equate personal suffering versus the suffering of others? If to die a martyr is what some call Christ-like, to let others die for you could easily be called selfish and weak.

Still, is recanting Christ, the core of these missionaries’ belief system, worth it for the safety and well-being of others? The answer seems simple and yet somehow still so divisive. Most importantly of all, and potentially the most volatile and insidious question of all is this: Can you still be worthy of love if you have doubted, turned away, or committed evil? That is the central question at the heart of Silence.

In different ways, Scorsese’s film brings to mind droves of others from the likes of Bergman and Dreyer but the polarities of the emotions are more pronounced here and somehow the nuances still manage to be incredibly subtle. Bergman’s The Silence already seems to assume God is out of the equation entirely. Ordet takes the spiritual doubts of mankind and culminates in a miraculous crescendo of hope. Scorsese’s work strikes a tougher middle ground. And for that matter, this film is undoubtedly rough going. It’s long, pensive, and unsettling.

The heroes do not arrive at some Oscar-worthy self-actualization. Violence is not some entertaining cathartic release. On the contrary, these characters are at times pitiful–even the dregs–and the violence is methodical and repetitive like a deluge of ocean waves beating us back.

But as such, this is not a film to stew in or even a film to view alone. It is meant to be seen together, ruminated over in tandem, and considered with a certain amount of thoughtfulness. It asks for its viewer to be open, to be aware, and if need be, do their own amount of soul-searching. Are there questions that you’ve never been willing to confront? And this goes for anyone from any type of background, belief, or point of view.

For the spiritual, this undoubtedly would be a tough picture because it confronts their doubts head-on. For those who do not consider themselves all that religious, it throws you right into the dilemma of fallible man and demands you at least consider the problems therein.

Thus, to call it slow or plodding completely circumvents the entire point. Such an assertion strips this film of its power which is derived from the very audacity of its silence. The way in which Garfield practically whispers his dialogue in voiceover. How there is hardly ever a score because Scorsese takes his title seriously. He’s not about to disrupt the novel’s power with Hollywood expectations. Silence can be just as powerful as noise if not more so. Some would argue that is the very power of the God of the Bible. It’s these very paradoxes that run through Endo’s entire novel.

The humility of the Japanese throughout the film is astounding and the utter hopelessness of the priests at times is equally telling. It flips the savior paradigm that we expect. The most substantive example is the Japanese guide Kochijiro and Father Rodrigues. The Father sees the other as the Judas figure, the betrayer, and yet he is Peter. He too has denied the one who loves him most. They’re no different. Except Kochijiro is far more aware of his shortcomings–there’s no pretense to think he is Christ-like. He is humbled just as we can be humbled by the sheer boldness of Silence.

4.5/5 Stars

Keys of the Kingdom (1944)

TheKeysoftheKingdomvideocover.jpg“Heathens are not always low just as Christians are not always high.” – Gregory Peck as Father Chilsum

Tales of humble priests are more fit for the likes of a Bresson or Rossellini, but Hollywood proves it too can offer up a film with resonance along similar lines. It’s a more melodramatic tale, a  historical and religious epic of sorts, carved out of the studio era mold, but its facets are auspicious and abundant. The script comes from veterans Nunnally Johnson and Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

It’s also hard to believe that it was this role as Father Chilsum that truly galvanized Gregory Peck’s career early on. Because if you look at him, he’s an imposing figure, kind-faced and calm. Still, there’s an unwritten maturity that seems to dwell beyond those eyes of his like he’s been doing this for a long, long time. It makes his playing an old man not all that unbelievable, in spite of any amount of makeup.

Keys of the Kingdom is also blessed by the studio system with the likes of Thomas Mitchell, Edmund Gwen, Vincent Price and a surprisingly adequate array of Asian performers including Philip Ahn, Richard Loo, and Benson Fong in an especially notable turn as the Father’s faithful right-hand man Joseph.

Despite having a loving family, Francis came from humble roots and tough beginnings illustrated by the long-held divide between Catholics and Protestants. Even as he resolved to join the clergy, his heart struggles with love and assignments that feel unfulfilling to his heart.

That is until he asks to be assigned as a missionary in a province of China. In the ensuing decades, he works to leave his mark of goodwill on a community, and he’s an upright man not looking for so-called “Rice Christians,” believing such bartering is a forgery for God. As his track record reflects, he’s a rather unorthodox as far as priests go, but he makes up for it with sincerity. His best friend is an atheist, a doctor from back home, and he’s not just concerned about the spiritual well-being his flock but their physical health too–all too soon becoming a trusted healer of the town, despite having little to no official medical training.

And although his gains are humble, he garners the respect of most everyone he meets. His fellow helper Joseph, the initially curt Reverend Mother (Rose Stradner) and even a republic soldier Major Shen (Richard Loo), who is amazed by the religious man’s resolve. True, his congregation is hardly a boon of religious conversions, but he begins an orphanage, taking in discarded children and nurturing them on the mission grounds. Many years later the Father Chilsum is to be sent back home for the sake of his health. It’s a bittersweet goodbye to this place he called home for so many years.

However, there’s a peaceful contentment to his character that Peck reflects so seamlessly. This was a man who came here to this foreign land with a vision that went beyond conversion rates. First and foremost, he cared about loving people well, and everything else was added to him.

3.5/5 Stars

A Man Called Peter (1955)

A_Man_Called_Peter.jpgThe film’s tagline reads, “Your heart will sing with joy” and that about sums up A Man Called Peter.

Henry Koster was the director behind such underrated gems as The Bishop’s Wife and Harvey, and although this film is starkly more realistic, it shares the same unabashed earnestness of its predecessors. Its tone is similarly reverent of its subject matter, the story of the man Peter Marshall (Richard Todd), but that’s hardly a point of derision because its sincerity feels well-founded.

The narrative cycles through his changing life and times from his childhood days as a rebellious boy in Scotland to the defining moment when he truly resolved to follow God’s plan in his life. Following his days in seminary, he goes on to two parishes in Covington and Atlanta, Georgia. One church flourishes from humble beginnings and the latter, while boasting a large congregation is weighed down by apathy and financial problems.

It is there where Peter Marshall’s impassioned sermons begin to breathe life into the dead bones in the pews, leading people from near and far to take heed of his words. Like any charismatic speaker like a Dr. King or even a John Knox, his words are rich and passionate. To use a film term, the sermons become stirring monologues from the pulpit delivered unbelievably convincingly by Richard Todd.

He talks emphatically about the rationality of the Gospel and the idea of relying on a certain amount of faith.  He elucidates the character of the real Christ of the Gospels with tremendous vigor. He muses on human love and what that means for him and others — most of the young ladies present listen with baited breath.

One such admirer and a longtime faithful parishioner is the young college gal Catherine Wood (Jean Peters), and it is no wonder she falls for him. However, initially, her love for him is not so much unrequited as it is unknown. That is until the day she comes to meet her hero face to face. Their love story is equal measures tearful and romantically splendorous as they come together, pursuing what they truly perceive to be God’s will.

And they lead a humble albeit happy life before Peter makes the biggest transition of his pastoral career, moving congregations to a historical relic of a church which formerly had presidents in attendance. Now it’s a building half full of old hypocrites and a handful of apathetic souls, but once more Reverend Marshall comes with a fervency in his sermons, while still exhibiting an underlying graciousness. For lack of a better word, he drops truth bombs. Some people aren’t ready to hear, but many are.

What follows is a radical religious revival throughout Washington D.C. His congregation becomes a young people’s church and a welcoming haven for governmental officials still kicking the tires of religious faith. But Peter Marshall welcomes all in and in turn has an exponential impact on not only his community but the very fabric of this nation. He becomes trusted counsel to Congressmen, plays ball with local children and helps set up a local canteen for outgoing soldiers.

By anyone’s standards, it seems like Peter and his faithful Catherine have done so much good. But as often happens, tragedy hits their humble family with a vengeance. Catherine is stricken with tuberculosis which keeps her bedridden for many months. But together they get through it and she recovers, only to have Peter be offered a position as the chaplain of the Senate. However, once more, bad things happen to good people and Peter suffers a coronary thrombosis. Only days later he’s dead and it truly feels that only the good die young.

It simply does not make sense, but if we look at Peter Marshall himself for guidance, he gives us a roadmap of how we can try and cope. Even when his wife is sick, he encourages her that God does not trade retribution with us. It’s not like all the weight of our past misdeeds are stacked up against us. Still, he cries out to his God with the illness of his wife like the psalmists of old. He doesn’t have to be content with suffering, and he’s not, but he’s also fearless in his own life. He lives with almost reckless abandon, because of a certain confidence in his faith.

For some, this religious biopic will be admittedly pious and slogging but there’s a surprising richness to Marshall’s story, embodied quite excellently by Richard Todd. Its colored frames are rich equally matched by Marshall’s own mellifluous brogue and personable humanity. Jean Peters subverts my expectations once again with heartfelt depth. It’s a film made in an age when shot lengths could linger, allowing us to ride the waves of a single performance or a bit of dialogue. But most astonishing of all, it’s quite easy to draw parallels to now, because as it happens, there’s nothing that new under the sun.

It should make us beg the question, what if pastors and their churches were living out these kinds of lives? Genuinely loving other people well and dramatically impacting the communities around them — in a sense breathing new life into tired and weary people. If Peter Marshall is any indication, there’s a possibility for dynamic change. Reverend Marshall passed away at the age of 46, but it’s easy to conclude that his was a life well-lived. If only we were all so lucky. Thankfully there’s still time.

3.5/5 Stars

Winter Light (1963)

winterlight1In the second leg of Ingmar Bergman’s Faith Trilogy, he gets right to the core of all matters of faith. He takes an up close and personal look at a man of the cloth named Tomas (Gunnar Bjorstrand), who shepherds a small congregation in a rural Swedish town. Such is the life of a clergyman, as with any life, where there are rough patches and emotional highs that rejuvenate you, but mostly rough patches. In fact, he is going through such a spell when the film begins. We survey his humble little chapel, and there are only a few scattered members of the community present. Half seem disinterested and Tomas himself speaks words of spiritual truth and yet it seems like he is only going through the motions. Does he actually believe these benedictions and words that he is proclaiming? I’m not sure he even knows for sure.

He’s been withstanding a winter period of his life personified by the icy weather engulfing his humble city on a hill. It reflects his own heart and mind which are going through a season of extraordinary indifference. On top of that, he’s fighting a bad case of the flu, and he is discontent in God’s silence. Where is God? Why is He not more present in his life?  Why does he not more clearly reveal himself? Is there any power left in prayer? They are honest questions from a man struggling with faith, and it’s the epitome of an existential crisis. Bergman seems to be churning up all the thoughts creeping up in his own mind, and it’s very human — extremely honest.

Tomas has little in the realm of advice or comfort to offer his parishioners. For instance, when the depressed fishermen Jonas (Max Von Sydow) comes to the pastor after contemplating suicide, given the state of the world in the nuclear age, Tomas has little to say, because in order to encourage others you have to be encouraged. There’s nothing that can be done if the well you’re running on goes dry. You cannot sustain yourself that way. About all he is able to offer are a few downward glances because there’s no conviction left in him.

winterlight2On a personal note, Tomas lost his beloved wife and now he deflects the affections of local teacher Marta, who herself does not believe in God, but still, she loves Tomas dearly. In a deeply heartfelt letter, she confesses her true feelings for him, and he responds with very little acknowledgment. He cannot bear the townsfolk talking about them, and he still misses his wife dearly. It doesn’t help when he gets tragic news about Jonas.

Winter Light never reaches a clear conclusion, because life is hardly ever like that. In fact, there is an underlying irony that becomes apparent in this story. After Tomas lashes out against Marta and tells her to let him be, it becomes all too clear that Marta, though she does not believe in God, is in a sense, living a better life. They are both lost in the throes of winter still, but she at least has the capacity for love and vulnerability. Tomas’s apathy seems to be a far greater plight since he feels trapped in a labyrinth of idiotic trivialities, as he puts it.

winterlight4The sexton Algot brings up an interesting point about the suffering of Christ. His physical suffering must have been immense, but how much greater must he have suffered when everyone deserted him. The disciples didn’t understand a thing he said, Peter denied him, everyone else deserted him, and he was even forsaken by God. It suggests the importance of our interactions with one another. In the days of our lives, it becomes so easy to continue constantly in the endless cycle of life. Never getting outside of it and relating to our fellow man. Falling into apathy and indifference, which is especially easy when tough times hit.

Bergman does it again, delivering a film full of philosophical depth and questions that force the viewer to ruminate over their own condition, whatever their background or beliefs might be. Sven Nykvist’s photography is beautifully austere once more, and it adds a certain visual depth to the director’s trilogy. It’s stark, pure, and piercing with gorgeous shades of black and white.

4.5/5 Stars

Ordet (1955)

Ordet1955screenshotCarol Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet is a deeply thought-provoking, spiritual foray into the realms of faith and love. However, it is as much about doubt as it is faith, as much about discord as it is about love. It shows a spectrum that, while irrevocably Danish with its actors and setting (a bit reminiscent of Bergman), still has a universality that correlates to the contemporary world we live in. This later work by Dreyer is deliberate in pace, simple in its misce-en-scene, but the life is breathed into it by the characterizations and a beautifully subtle approach to depicting them.

The story is based off a play by Lutheran Pastor Kaj Munk, which was first performed in 1932. The majority of the tale takes place on a rural farm belonging to aged and bearded widower Morten Borgen. Aside from being a farmer, he is a prominent member of his community and a devout Christian. Now he contents himself smoking his pipe as he has three grown sons and a couple grandchildren.

His first son is happily married to a wonderful woman and mother of two, but he himself is struggling with belief in a God, and he acknowledges lacking faith in such things. His wife continues to encourage him, but he knows that such news will deeply trouble his father.

Johannes, the middle son, began believing he himself was the incarnation of Jesus Christ after deluging himself with the works of the famed Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard. So now he goes around spouting off scripture and calling out those around him for their lack of faith. What makes it so mesmerizing is the dazed sincerity behind each word. He truly believes what he is saying.

Finally Borgen’s third boy, Anders, is deeply taken with a girl named Anne from the nearby town, but of course her father Peter is from a different sect, and so everyone knows that neither father would willingly agree to a marriage.

These are the problems that plague the Borgen family, so they are undoubtedly commonplace in any spiritual community. Dreyer depicts it all in very mundane terms but not as unimportant, not without a deft hand and sensitive touch.

There is one scene in particular that comes to mind. The young girl Inger, a namesake for her mother, comes up behind her uncle Johannes and with all sincerity, in her eyes and voice, she begins to ask him to raise her mother from the dead. They talk about it for a time and while they talk pensively the camera slowly makes a spiral around them. Now if this was Tarantino (in Django for instance), he would need to bring attention to his camera and the scene loses all of its impact, because he’s a director who is often about as subdued as a toothache. But with Dreyer there is a sensitivity to his movement that’s gracefully smooth, accentuated by his long takes, with a simple backdrop, and pinpoint lighting.

Between the bickering over Ander’s betrothal and the sudden decline in the condition of the pregnant Inger,  there is a lot of soul searching to be done and problems to be parsed through. In a sense, it looks like any life full of conflict, pain, and unforeseeable suffering. It’s all there and it hurts the Borgen family and turns neighbor against neighbor. This film has so many different worldviews and philosophy colliding at once. There are those who are devout in their faith, but their faiths differ. There are those who doubt it all or want cold hard facts. Some have blind faith and others are off-putting with their message. Then there those who seem content in their spiritual lives even though they are not perfect people. So essentially we have almost every iteration or cross-section of society, at least to some degree. It makes for an interesting battleground, but within that, it’s interesting how these characters start to find common ground and build rapport instead of breeding bitterness.

Furthermore, the final moments of the film are so surprising in their sincerity as they are for what actually happens. It’s in a sense wholly unbelievable, but we don’t disbelieve it — in fact, we want it — because we have followed this film thus far. What happened felt so close to home and so the ending, although somewhat unusual, feels right. It’s a strikingly beautiful conclusion to a film that speaks to our doubts, questions about faith, and ultimately our capacity to love and be loved.

This is the sort of film that would probably never see the light of day in Hollywood. It’s either you make God’s Not Dead or something that has no spirituality in it whatsoever. Ordet goes far beyond the depth of such films and it is better for it. I will not say I agree with everything that each character says, but that’s the point, because they all come from different perspectives. The best we can do is come and try to understand what others think so we can move forward from there. But spiritual conversations matter.

4.5/5 Stars

Calvary (2014)

calvary1We meet Father James (Brendan Gleeson) as he sits listening to one man’s confession, but it turns out that this confession is more of a threat. The unseen figure threatens to kill the Father by the end of the week, not for anything he has done, but because the world is an unfair, ugly place. The vengeful man had a traumatizing experience as a boy that rightly so alienated him from the church. The Father listens and does the most humanly thing possible. He doesn’t act as if he has the solution to all the problems, he can’t attempt to fix what has already happened, so he simply acknowledges it and extends his sympathy.

The same goes for the threat of death. He’s not sent into some hysterical fit of terror or rage. He continues through his life, making his rounds through the community to the people in his parish. He goes to their shops, their places of residence, and the bars. You can tell he truly cares for the people around him, but there is an underlying jadedness to everything he does. You can see it on his face wherever he goes. But it doesn’t come from a lack of conviction or faith in his God like father Tomas in Bergman’s Winter Light. James is a priest for the modern age, and it all makes sense if you look around his town.

True, this film starts off with a death threat to a priest, but it’s hardly a mystery because James knows who the Judas is. What’s really paramount are all the people he interacts with. They are the ones who are truly sucking the lifeblood out of him, not the threat of death. The young people are fully engulfed in a secular world and have little notion of how religion plays a role in life. They’re not against it so much as they’ve lived a life without it.

The adults are perhaps worse because they look at the Father and his calling with a cynicism. They say his way is finished. They scoff, belittle, and make light of him for no good reason. Simply because they have no need for Him or his faith. This is the modern world after all. Butchers, bartenders, mechanics don’t need someone to repress them and act as a moral compass. That’s so archaic and constricting.

Meanwhile, they stand by as his church is razed to the ground and they do nothing. The throat of his beloved dog Bruno is slit and Father James is left to weep alone. There are a few characters on the outskirts, who seem to care for him, and one happens to be his daughter Fiona. She too has grown up in the secular world, but they love each other dearly. Her serious contemplation of suicide is yet another anxiety plaguing her father’s life.calvary2Interestingly enough, Father James notes how there’s much more talk about sin rather than virtues. He realizes that forgiveness is highly underrated and that is something that he learns a great deal about over the course of his week. Whether it’s in easier circumstances when responding to his daughter or invariably more difficult forgiving all those hard-hearted individuals around. Or perhaps the most difficult of all, forgiving the man who is going to kill him.

The Father makes his way to the beach ready to meet his assailant as a stoic solitary figure, not simply ready to meet his executioner, but ready to meet his maker. This is a dark and heavy film, but certainly not without merit. It’s weighed down by cynicism, but at its core is a man of immense strength and personal conviction. He’s not a perfect example of a man of faith, but does anybody really want a perfect example?  It’s an impossible expectation, but Father James is a living example. Living, breathing, and dying. A man who was just as prepared to forgive those who despised him as much as he loved those ones who actually cared. Kudos to Brendan Gleeson for a truly stirring portrayal.

4/5 Stars

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Chariots_of_Fire_beach“Now there are just two of us – young Aubrey Montague and myself – who can close our eyes and remember those few young men with hope in our hearts and wings on our heels.” ~ Lord Lindsay

I am hardly a world traveler but one of the places I fell in love with early on was the British Isles. London is a wonderful city with so many memorable landmarks from Big Ben to Buckingham Palace. Harry Potter to Sherlock Holmes. There are the Salisbury plains hosting the monolithic Stonehenge, and the Lake District which is undoubtedly some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen. No wonder Wordsworth and Blake were so enamored by it. However, St. Andrews Scotland has to be one of the most starkly beautiful places I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. It’s steeped in golf history due to the Old Course and despite being the home of a university, it is surrounded by a charmingly quaint town.

And of course, most pertinent to this discussion, its beaches became the perfect setting for the opening moments of the now iconic Chariots of Fire. Really it is so much more than its stellar theme by Vangelis because these sequences bookend a truly remarkable story. We enter the narrative in 1978 where two old men eulogize about the old days and their good friend Harold Abrahams who has recently passed.

Cross_and_HaversBack in the 1920s, a brash young Abrahams (Ben Cross) is about to enter university at Cambridge intent on becoming the greatest runner in the world, and taking on all the naysayers and discrimination head-on. He’s a Jew and faces the antisemitism thrown his way with defiance and a bit of arrogance. He’s a proud young man who loves to run, but more than that he loves to win. His best friend becomes Aubrey, a good-natured chap, who willingly lends a listening ear to all of Harold’s discontent. Soon enough Abraham’s makes a name for himself by breaking a longstanding record of 700 years, at the same time gaining a friend in the sprightly Lord Lindsay. Together the trio hopes to realize their dreams of running for their country in the Paris games of 1924. They are the generation after the Great War and with them rise the hopes and dreams of all those who came before them.

Charleson_as_LiddellSimultaneously we are introduced to Eric Liddell (Ian Charleston) a man from a very different walk of life. He’s a Scot through and through, although he grew up in China, the son of devout Christian missionaries. Everything in his life is for the glory of God, and he is a gifted runner, but in his eyes, it’s simply a gift from God (I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure). His sister is worried about his preoccupation with this seemingly frivolous pastime, but Eric sees a chance at the Olympics as a bigger platform – a platform to use his God-given talent to glorify his maker while living out his faith. Abrahams is a disciplined competitor and he goes so far as to bring on respected coach Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) to help his chances. Liddell is a pure thoroughbred with life pulsing through his veins, and of course, they must face off. It’s inevitable.

But this is only the beginning as all these men we have built a connection with travel across the sea for the Olympic Games grappling with their own anxieties and consciences. For Abrahams, it’s the prospect of failure and success. Failure will burn because his whole existence has always been about running — about winning. He has only a few seconds to justify his very existence. However, the fear of winning is almost greater, because at 24 years of age, where else is he supposed to go after winning a gold medal? It scares the life out of him. Liddell’s tribulation is of a different nature as he must stand true to his beliefs even if it seems to be sabotaging his own success. And of course, Aubrey and Lord Lindsay have their own successes and failures that run the spectrum. Perhaps most importantly these men prove their worth not only to their American opponents but the entire world. They can return home with their heads held high — champions of a feel-good tale to be sure.

Yes, this is a story about two strikingly different individuals, but Chariots of Fire becomes so engrossing due to all its characters. Aubrey resonates with me due to his general contentedness. Lindsay has an air of playful charm that is refreshing. Harold embodies my own hopes, fears, and anxieties. Eric reflects every person’s struggles with spirituality and personal conviction. In essence, the narrative goes back to the glory days to bring light to the universal and continual rise and fall of man. We’re far from perfect, but in spite of all our failures, there is still space for redemption.

The refrains of the theme music paired with William Blake’s majestic “Jerusalem” get me every time. I love being steeped in this atmospheric periodness and my heart yearns to be back in England so I can run on those very same beaches with wreckless abandon. But even if I don’t get there soon, I will be content in running life’s race to the best of my abilities wherever I am. That’s all that any of us can do.

“I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, “Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you. If with all your hearts, you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me.” If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.” – Eric Liddell

4.5/5 Stars

Lilies of the Field (1963)

Original_movie_poster_for_the_film_Lilies_of_the_FieldStarring Sidney Poitier, the film opens with a black construction worker who has an overheated car in the middle of a desert. He spots at the residence of some European nuns to get water. Homer is intent on making a quick pit stop but the mother superior has other ideas. She sees him as a gift from God so that their Chapel might be built. He reluctantly decides to stick around for a little while to help them out and teach them some English. The stubborn Mother Superior wants everything her way and Homer ends up leaving them. Although he realizes he will not get paid, Homer’s ambition to be an architect leads him to eventually start the Chapel for the nuns. He takes on a part-time job and starts the undertaking while the nuns request materials. Soon the locals want to help but Homer is adamant that he do everything. Eventually, they do join in and more materials come. Progress picks up and Homer becomes the foreman. The building is finally put up and yet the proud Mother will not thank Homer. That night she is finally tricked into thanking him and Homer leads them in a spiritual one last time before driving off into the night. This film is a battle of sorts between two strong-willed people. In the end, it brings a great deal of good.

4/5 Stars

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

6d281-passionarcAs cliche as it will sound, this is one of those films that transcends the years for me. It is still that powerful after so many decades.

Using low angles and numerous close ups Carl Theodor Dreyer pulled me into this story early on. It was tense and claustrophobic causing the viewer to become emotionally involved in the trial and the plight that surrounded Joan.

The actors that he chose have wonderfully expressive visages that are so distinct even with out makeup of any kind. Then there is Falconetti who undoubtedly has a pair of the most expressive eyes ever shown on the silver screen.

I watched the film without any score so the complete silence was a new experience for me, but it forced me to pay particular attention to the images. Those were enough to keep my attention by  making me squirm and empathize the entire time.

By the end of the film there is an immense connection for Joan built because she seems an innocent victim. A martyr to be sure who reflects the sufferings of Christ. That is the story of The Passion of Joan of Arc. Certainly a simple tale but a master work of silent cinema nonetheless.

I am intrigued to see more from Carol Theodor Dreyer especially because his filmography is so sparse.

4.5/5 Stars

Ida (2013)

28ceb-ida1At hardly an hour and 20 minutes, you would think Ida has very little to offer, but that just is not the truth whatsoever. Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski blessed us with a nuanced film full of power and strangely pleasing visuals. It’s stark, yet crisp, black and white cinematography did not have to be that way, but it looks absolutely beautiful.

In the opening sequence, we see a young nun carving a statue and then carrying it to the grounds outside. We realize it depicts Christ and it feels rather reminiscent of La Dolce Vita and yet this film has a note of reverence.

We have been transposed to Poland during the 1960s where novice nun Ida lives a simple and disciplined lifestyle within a convent. The meager plot follows her pilgrimage to meet her only relative before taking her vows. It’s the aunt who refused to take her in after Ida’s parents passed. They have never met before now.

There doesn’t seem to be much to say. In fact, what can you say? Ida has taken up a religious calling and her aunt, a former judge named Wanda Gruz, lives life the way she pleases. Men, alcohol, and smoking are all a part of that lifestyle.

Thus, they have little in common until the moment when Gruz discloses the truth to Ida. Her real name is Ida Lebenstein. She is Jewish. Her parents were killed during the War, but the details are not too clear. They can probably guess how it happened.

Ida’s whole identity is rocked because she is now a Jew within a convent which seems like a gross incongruity. Ida’s resolve is to find her parents’ resting place and so the unlikely pair set off looking for answers.

That’s about all the film’s plot right there, and though it does not sound like much, it is far more engrossing than a lot of the other fair we come across. There are moments when it feels like we are watching something from Robert Bresson. It’s simple. There are not frills but it is chock full of humanity and seemingly real characters with real emotions.

Ida is very rarely in the center of the frame, more often than not her eyes are averted, looking away from the camera. Pawlikowski also has a curious habit of focusing on one character during a scene of dialogue. It seems to denote how isolated and confused many of these characters are. It’s one of those films that leaves us with more questions than answers and that lends itself to a truly insightful viewing experience.

4.5/5 Stars

This Jesus of yours adored people like me” ~ Wanda Gruz