First Reformed (2017)

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“You’re always in the Garden.  Even Jesus wasn’t always in the Garden, on his knees, sweating blood. He was on the Mount. He was in the marketplace. He was in the temple. But you, you’re always in the Garden.” 

Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese unknowingly formed a legendary partnership in making Taxi Driver (1976) that has left an indelible mark on cinema. Despite their diverging backgrounds, it seemed like they were very much kindred spirits. At least, they understood each other.

Scorsese of course, grew up in the Catholic Church even considering becoming a priest. Schrader likewise, had a deeply religious upbringing rooted in reformed theology even attending Calvin College. Aside from both being cinephiles, each man has battled through his share of demons and yet they have come out on the other side no doubt wiser.

Thus, with the release of Scorsese’s deeply spiritual passion project Silence (2016) a couple years ago, it seems fitting Schrader followed up with First Reformed soon after. I’m not sure if it’s mere coincidence or not but by this time in their lives, with space for retrospection, they have come to a crossroads to make daring, personal pictures about religious faith.

The opening shot is instantly recognizable. We have the stark symmetry of a church steeple. The religious space lacks the same type of iconography as the Catholic Church because the Calvinists came from a  tradition foregoing any amount of pomp & circumstance for a stripped-down aesthetic. All the focus was on the cultivation of the spiritual life.

There still is history, as this particular church is just about to celebrate its 250th anniversary and it was once a stop on the Underground Railroad years before. The resident reverend’s tours include touting the Dutch Colonial architecture and showing wide-eyed kids the trap doors escaped slaves used to hide in.

Now it’s ironically also a spiritual museum-piece — a creaky religious relic — attended by a few stray parishioners. The real center of religious activities is at Abundant Life a well-meaning but somewhat sanitized megachurch set up across the road. Perfectly reflected by their cafeteria wall emblazoned with the words from Acts 2.

The story actually begins with an experiment of sorts. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) will keep a journal for an entire year in a notebook and then he will destroy it. There is an obvious finality to this. He’s set himself a hard timeline.

Though he mentions word documents and digital files, he might as well come out of a Bresson picture. His possessions are few and far between. A well-worn Bible sits on his bedside table accompanied by the works of Thomas Merton and G.K. Chesterton. His landscape and surroundings are just as stark and humble. Interiors are kept equally simple and straightforward.

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The unadorned yet meticulous composition use geography whether structures or a bit of symmetry to set up scenes. Inside the church with the lines of pews that might be plucked directly from Winter Light (1961). Then, along a row of houses in a neighborhood as a car pulls up to a house.

One house he pays a call on belongs to Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant woman, who grew up in the church and is now worried about her husband Michael’s mental stability as of late. She worries it will affect their future child. The reverend might be able to help.

Upon their first dialogue together, it becomes obvious he is not a learned man. He had a stint in jail for his environmental activism in Canada and currently holds down a job at the local Home Depot.

But he gives a cogent account of why he does not want to bring a child into the world. By 2050 all scientific analysis seems to suggest dire straits are ahead if we do not make radical changes on an international level. Because climate, water levels, and everything else will not leave man unimpeded.

His question is simple. How do you sanction bringing a girl into the world who is full of hope and naivete? Then, she grows up and as a woman, she looks you square in the eyes and says, “You knew it all along, didn’t you?” And yet you brought her into this world of death. Most of what the reverend does is listen to his grief. The only response possible is that the blackness is not a new phenomenon. Man, woman, and child are born to trouble. It seems small comfort.

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As the themes begin to interweave there are continuous nods to Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1961) from the snow motif to a deeply troubled husband and even a female associate who takes a deep concern in the well-being of our protagonist. You can sense Schrader acknowledging his deep abiding affections for Robert Bresson — an obvious reference point being Diary of a Country Priest (1951) — with a man of faith suffering from a mysterious ailment. It only serves to exasperate his human relationships and give a physical manifestation to his existential crisis.

In maintaining the transcendental spirituality of the film, Tarkovsky levitations and Dreyer-like “resurrections” are also evoked and the list goes on and on. In fact, it amazes me how obvious and plentiful the allusions are. Schrader barely tries to hide his affinities for certain pictures. They are most assuredly there being represented and it’s generally satisfying.

But it is a film that is also born out of the mind who brought us Taxi Driver and the ties are closer than we might expect. Because it becomes more akin to the desolate alienation of Travis Bickle as the story plods on. After experiencing a tragic death and witnessing the ways the modern world functions, Toller seems to see the need for a martyr in an unjust world. He becomes increasingly alienated.

His life involves helping out with the homeless food line, sitting in on the youth small group, and of course, his tours and Sunday duties. But it’s the old conundrum. He feels confined to the walls of his church. It doesn’t seem like he’s necessary for anything aside from spiritual comfort. He has no true impact on people lives and he himself is struggling to keep in communication with God. Solitary prayer seems empty. Hence a nightly journal.

Something happens when he gets in a spat with a local big whig over negative publicity from a funeral for Michael Masana. It was held at a toxic waste dump with a choir singing an environmentally conscious Neil Young tune. Toller gets lambasted for his “political behavior,” though he was admittedly only upholding the man’s wishes. And yet he is beginning to question how people who proclaim to follow God cannot take a greater stake in preserving his creation.

In documenting Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts, Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2015) was a call-to-action in the realm of social justice. For all those people who claim or at least strive to be good, morally upright people, it is clear this is a universal fight. Likewise, First Reformed is a call or at least a meditation on environmental justice because humans are meant to be stewards. It is not completely about extremism (though Toller begins to inch that way) but in some ways, we are meant to live radical lives. Full of radical love and a radical conception of justice for the earth and other human beings.

But one could say this is not the true punchline. For that we must revert back to some of the deep-set themes of Schrader’s career, returning once again to his first collaboration back with Martin Scorsese back in 1976.

Because First Reformed has one of the most abrupt endings in recent memory. It catches us off guard on numerous fronts. We must start with the ambiguity which is nothing new. Travis Bickle entered the pantheon of cinema characters partially due to the enigma that clouds his fate in Taxi Driver.

Most people who have ever been ambushed by the film will recall the ending. Travis goes on his crusade to clean up the filth and it’s a violent rampage in the eyes of the world but for him, it’s an act of triumphant heroism.

In the final moments, he’s back in his cab again — his personal cathedral — driving the streets and there’s his untouchable girl, Cybil Sheppard, who appears in the back seat. He sees her through his rearview window and rides off. It seems almost impossible to read it in the literal sense. How could this be? Is this his own personal delusion? Could this actually be real? I know my own inclinations but I don’t know what to believe.

First Reformed is much the same. Here we have the Reverend about to take his poison — looking to end his life — in the face of such a dreadful world. Then a door opens and there stands the one person who might save him, Mary, appearing in the doorway like an angel.

They embrace and then beginning kissing and we spiral around and around them in one of the most violently uninhibited camera setups in the film. We have broken out of the harsh asceticism of the entire movie thus far.

Is it about this salvation coming through the physical union between two people? This could be the Ordet-like resurrection or maybe like Taxi Driver it’s all part of the ultimate delusion. The bottom line is we don’t know and Schrader doesn’t tip us. Much like Silence, what’s paramount is what we fall back on in response.

Can we read this as a story of despair or hope? The words of Toller echo through my mind, “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our minds simultaneously.” This is First Reformed at its finest, ever oscillating between the two defining poles of any life.

4/5 Stars

 

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” – Dutch Prime Minister and Theologian Abraham Kuyper

Stars in My Crown (1950)

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It speaks not only to the man but to this film, that Joel McCrea rated Stars in My Crown among his personal favorites. (Hint: It’s not because of the imminent reunion of two castmembers in Gunsmoke). The story is framed by the nostalgic recollections of an old man and it’s a singular story in the way that one life is a story. There are constant offshoots, revelations, and daily interactions with other human narratives.

John’s life (Dean Stockwell) could have been very different; it could have been drama because he was orphaned at a young age. Except he had Parson Gray (McCrea) and Mrs. Gray (Ellen Drew). Much like this film, his life was generally a joyous affair growing up as a young lad. Certainly, it was not without its roadblocks, disagreements, or minor quarrels but what remains is generally uplifting and good.

Stars in My Crown for much of its run is a vignette-driven tale but that proves to be the utmost blessing for this particular film. That inevitably brings us to Joel McCrea and why he must have relished this part. He’s a man of faith and no shame-faced Christian. There’s no denying his spiritual leanings. Still, while he’s not a spineless pushover, there’s not a condemning word that leaves his mouth either.

What keeps him upright and a pillar of the community is a quiet boldness and a genuine care for his parishioners. But that means not simply calling on the people who enter into his church on Sundays. I’ve heard it said before that it’s easy for anyone to love people who are just like them or who they like already.

What’s truly a test of someones heart is whether or not they are willing to reach out to those who seem alien and contrary to their station in life. The Parson is such a man. Not only does he care for the physically sick or the self-proclaimed churchgoers who are sick in the soul, he is there for those on the fringes too.

He faithfully calls on his boisterous war buddy (Alan Hale Sr. in his final role) who is larger-than-life with a strapping clan of sons (including James Arness) and a penchant for joking about religion. He’s waiting for the Parson to get God to plow his fields for him.

The good-natured Gray gently ribs him about his coming to church. But what strikes me is the worth he sees in his friend. In one resounding instance, when the local gamekeeper Famous (Juano Hernandez) has his land trampled by local bigots, it’s not the Christian folk but Jed who immediately comes to his aid. His beneficiary rightfully proclaims with all candor, “You’re a real Christian.”

Parson Gray’s rounds never seem to cease though in one instance they meet with opposition. Dr. Harris (Lewis Stone) has long been the town’s apothecary but with his ailing health, his intelligent yet rather brusque son (James Mitchell) is taking over the family business. Though more than capable, what the younger fellow is lacking is a genial bedside manner, at least upon first glance.

He does show a certain sensitivity to the local school teacher (Amanda Blake) and the certain tightness in Mitchell’s voice is stellar for articulating the feelings of a man who is hardly unfeeling — he just has trouble opening up. In fact, he’s adamant that the religious leader stays out of his way because he sees no place for such ritualism when he has practical science to help people.

The days roll ever onward with young boys lazily kicked back in a hay wagon surmising what they’d do if they were God. Namely have it always be summer. Even Christmas would be in summer. Another time a Medicine Man (Charles Kemper) and his Carnival Show pay a visit and bring the town out of the woodwork for an evening of magic tricks and showmanship.

Then come the bad times when the typhoid hits and people are dropping like flies. First, John is sick then a whole host of others. The Doctor criticizes Gray for potentially infecting the entire population of school children and for the first time in a long time we see the normally even-tempered man angered.

However, the Parson is man enough to consider that he’s wrong because he very well could have been. He’s also humble enough to give the doctor room to work. For the sake of the people, he becomes isolated and as a result poor, bereft of his usual resources. Because all he had was out of charity and the tangible blessings of those around him.

He even goes so far as closing the church for the first Sunday service as far back as anyone can remember. It soon becomes evident how very humble and meager his portion is without the bulwark of community around him.

But it’s one of those things, out of the Parson’s seemingly selfless act comes a reciprocal act from the young doctor — the man who shed his rough exterior and became one with the people knowing full well all their suffering as well as their joys. It was this chance in the trenches with the lack of the sleep and onslaught of the slow fever where he realized there was a need for something else that he never thought was lacking before. If Ordet (1955) has the most striking resurrection scene that I can recall perhaps Stars in My Crown has the most gorgeously understated.

The final stand that the Parson is compelled to take is also weighty with significance. The townsfolk have repeatedly threatened Famous and now they’ve reached the end of the road. Stringing him up and taking his property is all that’s left to do.

When they leave that burning cross and the note, cloaked in white like cowards, it somehow brought the same realization that floods over me far too often. In some ways, this film is meant to be so archaic, reminiscent of a bygone era far removed from our present. And yet as much as we might try and move away, it sadly remains relevant.

So the Parson goes to Famous’s home alone knowing what is coming for them. He forgoes the guns of his good buddy Jed. That’s not his way now. Instead, he speaks to them resolutely as they get ready to take Famous away. He confronts them with the man’s own words and in the most piercingly moving moment of the entire picture we see how one man can be so selfless in the face of so much hatred. He can boast so many riches even if his worldly possessions seem totally inconsequential. His character speaks for itself.

Years later Atticus Finch would have a confrontation akin to this one and yet it came to an impasse. Here the Parson is able to speak the truth into each of these men’s lives and make them human again. All thanks to Famous.

So while the picture might fall too easily back into place (Klansman aren’t rooted out forthwith for instance) there’s no begrudging such a gentle and virtuous film its closure. Because these are as much the fond memories of a young boy grown old as they are the tale of one man who left an indelible impact on a life and on a community. I’m reminded that perhaps a church is not so much a building as it is a people. Though the picture is capped by the proud moment where the Parson sees his old war buddy welcomed into the fold, I would like to think he doesn’t see that as the ultimate victory.

If anything his life reflects the outpouring of an existence lived outside of the Sunday framework. He does not have compartmentalized faith — the kind of religiosity that makes people hypocritical and prideful. I can respect a man like that even if he doesn’t pack a gun.

4.5/5 Stars

I am thinking today of that beautiful land
I shall reach when the sun goeth down;
When through wonderful grace by my Savior I stand,
Will there be any stars in my crown?

Will there be any stars, any stars in my crown
When at evening the sun goeth down?
When I wake with the blest in the mansions of rest
Will there be any stars in my crown?

In the strength of the Lord let me labor and pray,
Let me watch as a winner of souls,
That bright stars may be mine in the glorious day,
When His praise like the sea billow rolls.

O what joy it will be when His face I behold,
Living gems at his feet to lay down!
It would sweeten my bliss in the city of gold,
Should there be any stars in my crown.

Miracle Woman (1931)

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“Beware of False Prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing” – Mat. 8:15

The Miracle Woman is offered as a rebuke to anyone who, under the cloak of Religion, seeks to sell for gold, God’s choicest gift to Humanity —- FAITH. 

There are title cards that open up Miracle Woman to make it crystal clear what its intentions are. Though pointed, they hardly seem necessary given the motion picture we are about to witness. The images speak for themselves.

Inside an old-fashioned church building, we hear the opening throes of “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Most every contemporary audience knew that standard hymn well — cherishing its heavenly imagery. But when Barbara Stanwyck steps into the pulpit to pass along her father’s final words as pastor she breaks into the reverie and brings the house down. If there’s ever been a stirring depiction of righteous indignance she is most certainly it.

Like Jesus clearing out the temple of all those peddling their goods, Stanwyck empties out the entire building condemning the pews of hypocrites and lukewarm believers who sit before her. They willfully tossed her father aside for a younger man once they had no use to him. He died of a broken heart and Florence feels affronted.

A few voices chime in on her behalf but she’s all but left to wallow in her sorrows alone. One man stays behind and he’s important for this story. Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy) was just passing through town and stopped by the church but was impressed by Fallon’s knowledge of scripture and charisma up in the pulpit. With his streetwise business acumen and her stage presence, he thinks they can really make something for themselves.

They soon resurrect a “Temple of Happiness” from a converted barn and it has the words Florence Fallon, Evangelist, and FAITH boldly emblazoned on its front for all to see. The main thing that has changed in 85 years is that the Christian faith has become less widely practiced compared to back then. But this narrative puts a voice to issues that have long plagued the organization of the church in the United States.

Namely, people make a near sideshow attraction out of the whole thing with brass bands and showmanship while simultaneously promoting selfish gain over any kind of advancement of the pronounced commandment to “love God and love thy neighbor.” I am grieved to say those root issues look very much the same all these years later.

We watch as Florence is slowly persuaded into getting back at the fickle people who sold her father out and she’s very good at it, even sincere, while Hornsby runs everything else from hauling in donations to dreaming up the next gimmick.

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However, whether she meant to or not, Florence’s voice on the radio convinces a blind man (David Manners) to not give up on his life though he is struggling mightily. For that he is grateful but it becomes even more personal when he gets up on stage with her and then after that meets her face to face. There’s something inside of him that’s so genuine and attractive to a woman who is used to working with shifty characters.

The boy shows her a good time with some parlor tricks including a music box, cards, and his roommate a very forthright dummy named Al. In many ways, it’s this wooden doll who speaks for him from the depths of his heart. The things he doesn’t know how to say outright start spewing out of the little man.

While Florence finds herself falling for John, her partner who was so warm and genial that first day they met has started to get more demonstrative — even aggressive. Because Florence means a lot him, not only as a companion but also his current livelihood. She’s fighting against him but it looks like he’s got her where he wants. She will have one final swan song and then has no choice but to go off with Bob, never to return.

However, John looks to manufacture his own miracle for her but unlike her other man, it’s not to sell tickets or pull the wool over the eyes of the public. It’s purely an act of love. He takes it a step further my fearlessly saving her life in the face of a hellish conflagration.

Capra never struck me as a terribly religious person but there’s no doubt he believed in humanity and he had faith in their capacity for good and their ability to love others. I think that perhaps this is the core of the whole “Capracorn” slogan. Because Capra as a director ultimately dwells on what he perceives to be the inherent good in people. That is not to say the conniving, corrupted, licentious side isn’t given any screen time. No place is that more clear than in Miracle Woman.

And yet the final image is of Barbara Stanwyck parading with a Salvation Army band singing “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.” True, she gave up a lucrative career worth more money than she could imagine but she gained something worth exponentially more — her soul. She has learned how to love again and how to trust a man who in turn loves her deeply. That’s enough of a miracle.

One does have to question where her belief in God stands or if she deems the romantic love of her life to be enough. Regardless Stanwyck gives a stirring ever-impassioned performance that put her on track for continued success. She was a wellspring of talent even at this early juncture in her career.

4/5 Stars

“What God? Who’s God? Yours? This isn’t a House of God. This is a meeting place for hypocrites!”

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005)

sophieschollSophie Scholl: The Final Days is a film that people need to see or at the very least people need to know the story being told. For those who don’t know, Sophie Scholl was a twenty-something college student. That’s not altogether extraordinary. But her circumstances and what she did in the midst of them were remarkable.

It’s easy to assume that life under Nazi authority wouldn’t be so bad for Aryans, nationals, or the general public. But it just takes looking at a story like Sophie Scholl’s and her older brother Hans and that assumption quickly falls apart. Because their lives reflect an alternative to the master narrative, the kind of counter example that is often visible if you look hard enough.

You see, these two young people in solidarity with numerous others took a stand against the oppressive Nazi regime calling for passive resistance, the cessation of violence, and championing the ultimate worth of all people–even Jews and the disabled.

That was a radical departure and utter blasphemy in the face of the stringent rhetoric of the Nazi party. But so were the heady words that The White Rose movement was circulating in those incredibly perilous, heavily policed and censored days and they knew full well the risks that they were taking. Yet they did it anyway, typing up hundreds of anti-Nazi pamphlets to be mailed and further distributed across their university campus.

The film takes a very direct approach to its narrative spending little to no time in building up its character’s backstory instead, throwing us headlong into their business with the printing and dissemination of their message. The film is immediately filled with a palpable tension but it does make you question where the film can go from here as it manages to reach such an unnerving state early on.

In truth, The Final Days spends most of its time in interrogation rooms and prison cells. It’s a stripped down storyline that nevertheless rings with truth and exudes an unassailable depth that says something of the characters at its core. They are remarkable human beings. Bold, brave, resilient, all those things, and yet they were only a group of young college students. Here is a woman younger than me who under tremendous duress and pressure of an astronomical nature, nevertheless showed tremendous poise, resolve, and true strength of character.

Julia Jentsch gives a phenomenal performance as the eponymous heroine in both its composure and restrained strength, never faltering and very rarely succumbing to any amount of emotion until the final moments. And even then she maintains a resolute spirit that seems content even unto death.  Some people are born older and so it seems with Sophie Scholl. Thus, let no one look down on you because you are young because if Sophie’s life is any indication at all you can do so much with this life even in youth.

But the film also becomes a bit of an ideological battle as Sophie spends hour after hour being grilled, belittled, and berated by Gestapo Investigator Robert Mohr. Initially, it all starts with an attempt of catching Scholl in her lie and yet she’s so self-assured in her answers, it’s very difficult to trip her up. And even when they get beyond the beginning hurdles of interrogation they duel on deeper topics altogether from law to freedom of speech, to spirituality.

In her prison cell, when she’s not conversing with her fellow prisoner, Sophie prays to God as she puts it, “stammering to him” but she also holds unswervingly to her faith, maintaining an undeniable reverence for her God and a firm belief that every individual is made in the image of God. That she too is made in his image. Therefore no one has any right to pass divine judgment or dictate whether someone lives or dies. Certainly, the Nazis are no different.

In one striking discourse, Mohr grills Sophie with the following question, “Why do you risk so much for false ideas?” She answers matter of factly. It’s because of her conscious and going further still it’s because every life is precious. A 21-year-old girl was able to grasp what the Nazis were too poisoned, narrow-minded, and proud to see. The inherent worth found in every human being.

That’s why the court scene in Sophie Scholl will incense most viewers and it should. The man who presides over the show trial is a vindictive man seething with indignation against these insignificant, worthless traitors as he sees them. But he’s so utterly blinded. He has no legitimate right to pass any sort of judgment on them. They are so much more honorable than he could ever be. And yet he holds the ultimate authority in this regime and they do not.

To the very end, The Final Days proved to be one of the most taxing films I have watched in some time but even in its endings, it finds hope and stories worth telling. That in itself makes it a wonderful film to discover.

4/5 Stars

Note: This post was originally written on February 28th and scheduled to be released next month but it seemed like a story necessary for this particular point in time.

 

Review: 8 1/2 (1963)

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Is the subject of this film a religious one? – A Religious Leader 

Yes, well, in a manner of speaking. – Guido

It famously opens with a dream. Our main character stuck in a silent traffic jam, completely disillusioned by the scene around him until he’s able to escape everything inhibiting him and soar into the upper echelons of the atmosphere. But it hardly lasts. Soon he finds himself tethered, being brought back down to earth.

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Our protagonist of sorts turns out to be Guido (the famed Italian icon Marcello Mastroianni), a film director who is going through a spell of director’s block. His most recent activities include an extended stay at a luxury spa at the behest of his doctors. It’s also early on in the film that someone asks him if his next film is also going to be one devoid of hope. It’s a very quick statement but in some sense, it sets the groundwork for Fellini’s entire film.

And it is a very personal film and a fascinating exploration of the art of filmmaking — the thing making it the most compelling is the strange suspicion that parts of Fellini himself dwell inside of Guido. Perhaps Guido shares a bit of his philosophy and stance or more precisely Fellini is like his main character.

The film within a film soon becomes evident and in that sense, it’s also a personal picture. Its title being derived from the number of pictures the Maestro had directed thus far. And numerous meta qualities come to the fore, most obviously when Guido is going through the screen tests his producer (Guido Alberti) and wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee) among those viewing the proceedings.

But going back to that issue of hope, the film’s finale has always been striking to me but I realized that it takes on new meaning put in the context of higher issues altogether. In some respects, Guido or Fellini, whichever you prefer, is trying to derive some sort of higher meaning, whatever that means to him.

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That’s in part why he has his legions of characters join hands in an almost communal dance of absurdity. Simultaneously, a journalist can be heard throwing his questions out, “Are you for or against eroticism?” and in the same breath, “Do you believe in God?” Because this is Fellini’s answer — the solution he has drawn up for himself. There is a sense of grandiose absurdity which is full of dreamscapes — where the distinction between reality and fantasy hardly means anything. Because in the eye of the beholder they are hardly different.

On purely a level of spectacle, it’s indubitably a fascinating set-up. Fellini is known for his quintessential style. To be Felliniesque is to be wrapped up in the surreal and the fantastic. But the philosophical conclusions that go hand in hand with such a provocative approach to film are rather disheartening. If this is part of what Fellini is trying to grapple with as it pertains to love and ultimate truth then 8 1/2 does fall back on a rather dismal ending.

As Guido explains to the man of the cloth, he is looking for some flash of understanding, some obvious moment of truth, like Saul at Damascus. He, like all his peers, carries the foundations of a Catholic upbringing. The religious authorities tell them that there is no salvation outside the church. His strict Catholic school told him what was wrong. Likewise, Guido plans to have a spaceship in his next film — humanities “new Noah’s Ark.” And it’s true that space exploration has been the final frontier, a beacon of potential hopes and truths. You see that in later works like 2001 and Solaris.  However, Noah’s Ark was also a vessel to escape destruction as much as it was a ship of exploration.

In drawing other cinematic comparisons, Fellini’s film revolves around a pointless MacGuffin (the phrase Asa Nisi Masa) rather like Welles famed Rosebud. Truthfully, this is a comedy in the same way perhaps Citizen Kane is a comedy. In a similar way, Guido seems isolated, but his mind, in particular, is twisted up with fantasies.

The most divisive scene in the film is yet another fantasy conjured up by Guido that is either extraordinary humorous or sadly indicative of his state of being depending on how you view it. He dreams himself in the stead of all the women he has crossed paths with thus far. — all ready and waiting on his whim — his personal harem of sorts — totally and completely objectified for his pleasure. Again, it’s played for truly comic effect but what are the implications?

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As the eternal beauty Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) notes, “He doesn’t know how to love.” She speaks of Guido’s protagonist but as the meta-ness suggests, this protagonist is Guido himself and going down even a layer further maybe even Fellini too. It’s precisely these problems that tie back into Guido’s disillusionment. “There’s no part in the film. And there’s no film. There’s nothing anywhere,” he says to Claudia.

Chaos and nothingness. True perfection is nothingness. His final conclusion? Life is a celebration. Let’s live it together. In essence, it’s true but the carnival showmanship and parlor tricks cannot obscure the bottom line here. As Francis Schaeffer once noted someone like Fellini “has no way to distinguish between right and wrong, or even between what is objectively true as opposed to illusion or fantasy.” That’s a terrifying world to come to terms with. During filming, Fellini supposedly kept a note on his camera to remind himself that this was a comedy film. But much like Citizen Kane, perhaps there’s a need to label it a Tragicomedy. You cannot deal with such issues without elation being matched with some amount of melancholy.

5/5 Stars

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

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

larsandtherealgirl1

This Canadian-American production, written by Nancy Oliver, undoubtedly frightens the more suppressed of us in the audience (mainly me) with its main hook, a man who begins a relationship with a female sex doll, but just like his entire town, most of us leave this film with a very different perspective. There’s an innate somberness to this film that hearkens to the palette and tone of Alexander Payne, and yet Lars and the Real Girl feels surprisingly innocent. The beauty of the film is how an entire community gets behind this one man and truly accepts him for who he is.

Lars Lindstrom as played so impeccably by Ryan Gosling is an isolated, lonely young man who goes to church on Sundays, lives across from his brother and sister-in-law, and avoids the cute girl at work with averted eyes. He’s an Elwood P. Dowd for the modern age. He trades in a disarming personality for an aloofness that conceals a deep well of loneliness and nevertheless shies away from normal everyday human interaction.

His views of sexuality and intimacy have been in many ways twisted up inside of him due to the specters in his past and a modern culture that does not know how to deal with sex by normal means. For Lars, it manifests itself in the form of a doll he buys off the internet. But far from using it to gratify his utmost desires sexually as we would expect, what he really does is project what he truly cares about onto this figure, christened Bianca.

She wears clothes like you and me, holds a nursing degree, lived the life of a missionary, and is constrained to a wheelchair, relaying all her thoughts to Lars and Lars alone. Harvey was an imaginary being whereas Bianca is tangible–in the flesh–sort of.

At first, this situation feels slightly uncomfortable and increasingly strange and in the moments of discovery Lars’s brother (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) are beside themselves. What will the town think? He’s crazy. What are they to do?

But the beautiful thing is that they seek counsel from older, wiser people in the community including the local minister and they preach a message of love, accepting Lars for who he is, and helping him through his healing process, whatever that means.

Everyone else only sees the freak, the dysfunction, but they fail to see the dysfunction in their own lives. It’s the ones who realize that–realize that they too have their own problems. They shed their hypocritical point of view and take Lars for who he is, quirks and all. By this point, the film has subverted expectations and the joke’s on us because although some people stop and gawk, the majority of the locals begin to rally around Lars.

He still maintains his delusions as his own insecurities, fears, and the dark recesses of his childhood become more evident. He’s fearful of contact, scared of being close, and it’s these moments that dredge up all the FOO, and he’s forced to deal with it.  But that makes way for some intricate conversations, brother to brother and between Lars and the kindly psychologist Dagmar.

It’s when he finally realizes just how much people care, that he’s able to let go. Give up Bianca and engross himself in the real world with a real girl. He doesn’t have to live life scared anymore. The film wins because of its sincerity. It never belittles. Never plays its story like a joke. For that, it deserves our respect as an audience. Even in the moments that it feels utterly absurd, pay it the respect it is due — just like what all these characters give to Bianca and in turn Lars.

What struck me in particular, was the nuance of all the main female characters. When we first meet Karin (Emily Mortimer) she is a generally caring sister-in-law who has such a great capacity to extend grace towards Lars. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), although she is a doctor, never becomes didactic–trying to change Lars or alter him– instead allowing him to heal of his own accord. Meanwhile, Mrs. Gruner (Nancy Beatty) is spot on as the Christian lady we all wish we knew. She cuts the holier than thou attitude, covering it with a heavy dose of genuine neighborly love. That speaks more than any amount of sermons or platitudes that can be spouted off as actions invariably speak louder than words.

Finally, Margo (Kelli Garner) is the epitome of the girl who Lars deserves. Sweet, authentic and a faithful friend. When Lars finally let’s go and finally concludes the grieving process, she is right by his side ready to live life next to him. She’s a real girl, through and through.

3.5/5 Stars

Philomena (2013)

Philomena_posterStephen Frears is not the foremost of directors, but he very rarely makes bad films, and Philomena is yet another jewel in his crown. It’s a simple enough story, but those are oftentimes the most rewarding because they tap into something near and dear to most of us. This is indeed another one of those based-on-true-events type tales, and it starts off with Martin (Steve Coogan) a former journalist and political spin doctor. He’s now not doing much of anything aside from contemplating writing a book on stuffy Russian History. He’s also lacking in conviction while being weighed down by cynicism, so it’s not exactly the most uplifting of perspectives.

But then he’s put in contact with the retired nurse and spirited Irish lady Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), on track for a great story. Although he’s not very experienced with human interest stories, he forges ahead with her’s. 50 years before Philomena met a young man and ended up getting pregnant, but the local nuns forced her to work in the convent out of penitence for her “sin.” She could only see her son briefly each day and then one day she lost her Anthony altogether when he was taken away from her, never to be seen again. The events still haunt her years later, but she is finally ready to share her secret.

With Sixsmith by her side, they first visit the convent where it all happened, but very little information is unveiled because while the nuns are polite, they are far from obliging. Martin is able to discover that Anthony was adopted by an America family as was the custom in the 1950s, and he ultimately ended up in the United States. He and Philomena travel across the sea to D.C. to try and get a lead on him.

There Martin makes another discovery. In the U.S. Anthony went by the name Michael Hess and was a prominent aide to both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The hardest discovery, however, is that he passed away 8 years prior. Although deeply troubled by this news, Philomena resolves to try and meet anyone she can who knew her boy. They make the rounds without much luck, but there are several revelations that make the whole trip worthwhile.

Everything comes full circle, and it’s in these difficult moments that Philomena shows her true character, and her unwavering ability to forgive in the hardest of circumstances. By now Martin is as invested as she is, and for the life of him, he cannot understand how she could forgive such injustice done to her. But that’s exactly what grace is, an undeserved gift, and she gives in willingly.

For the entire film Martin has been hounded by his editor about angles and getting the juiciest bits for his story, but by the end, it resonates with him too much for him to publish it in some superficial outlet to grab waves of media attention. He respects Philomena too much for that, and yet being the strong and resilient lady that she is, she resolves that people need to and deserve to know all that has happened.

This film was a lot more thoughtful than I would have initially given it credit for because I assumed it would be a weepy tale full of heart, which it was, but it also had great insight into life. Some may see the film as an indictment of hypocrisy that crops up in religion and that is certainly noticeable, but what stands out more to me is the indefatigable spirit of Philomena. She is a woman of great resilience and faith, loving others well even when it is most difficult and really reflecting what it is to be a genuine person of faith. Thus, the dynamic between her and Martin is a wonderful one, because their differences in temperament and worldview do not stop them from forming a far deeper bond of friendship.

4/5 Stars