Oculus

•April 22, 2014 • Leave a Comment

oculusposterstarring Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, and Rory Cochrane
written by Jeff Howard & Mike Flanagan and directed by Mike Flanagan
Rated R for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language
72%

Kaylie Russell (Gillan) is finally being reunited with her younger brother Tim (Thwaites), who has spent 11 years in a mental institution after murdering their father (Cochrane) at the age of 10, after their father sadistically tortured and killed their mother (Sackhoff). But Kaylie is upset to learn that Tim has forgotten the truth: the tragic events were caused by a cursed mirror that their father had acquired. Now, Kaylie wants Tim to help her prove that the mirror is malignant, and then destroy it. The mirror, unfortunately, has other ideas.

Oculus is so close to being something really good that I probably enjoyed it more than it really deserved. The concept is strong and simple, with a novel but recognizable central conceit. Despite its simplicity, the set-up feels a bit over-complicated. One scene in particular contains one of the most clumsy lecture-mode exposition dumps I’ve ever seen: a monologue by Kaylie that lasts several minutes as she explains all of the precautions and fail-safes surrounding her plan, and then proceeds to give a detailed history of the mirror and its victims. I suppose this is mostly an attempt to show that she has really thought this through, but it has somewhat the opposite effect when we see how completely ineffectual her preparation was (one item in particular, which I’ll get to momentarily, seems like a terrible idea from the beginning).

Gillan, to her credit, does her best in this scene, and manages a convincing American accent, as well. Actually, she is pretty effective throughout the movie; so much so that members of a certain fandom probably won’t spend the whole movie half-expecting a certain blue police box to show up and save the day. Thwaites is a bit wooden, as is his younger counterpart. Sackhoff gets short shrift, with almost nothing to do, while Cochrane acquits himself well, hopping back and forth between benign dad and possessed monster. The stand-out performance of the film, though, is definitely Annalise Basso as the younger Kaylie, who pulls off a perfect horror movie mix of strength and vulnerability that her older self trades in for a strangely overconfident flippancy.

Oculus really hits its stride in the 2nd act, moving seamlessly back and forth between the past and the present as Kaylie and Tim lose their grip on what’s real and what isn’t (and so do we). This psychological unmooring is the movie’s greatest strength, leading us to question everything that we see (and we see a lot of weird stuff). Tim does a good job playing the skeptic to Kaylie’s believer, until he gets drawn right in with her.

Oculus is at its best when it gives us as much room as possible to wonder how much of what we see is actually happening, and how much is due to the malignant influence of the mirror. Or even leads us to question whether the mirror isn’t just a mirror, and it is the siblings themselves that are mentally unhinged like their father. Unfortunately, that ambiguous space shrinks smaller and smaller in the film’s final act, and leaves us with less doubt than it could have in the denouement. Any such ambiguity would have been welcome, given the complete lack of surprises in the film’s final hour. There are still plenty of scares, but it’s a bit of a letdown to realize that the movie has just stayed on the track we saw laid out long before. No jumping the rails here.

The payoff of one device in particular is telegraphed from the moment we see it: Kaylie’s ultimate fail-safe, a boat anchor weighted with a barbell set to plummet from the ceiling and shatter the mirror unless she resets a wall timer every half hour. And I get it. This is probably intentional. It’s Chekov’s gun, and all that. But for all the meticulous, methodical logic with which Kaylie proceeds, this is so obviously a terrible idea. I spent most of the movie cringing while I watched Kaylie and Tim stand directly in the line of fire without any indication as to when they last reset the timer. Seriously, you two. Don’t stand in front of your own deathtrap.

Anyway, that aside, there are plenty of thrills and chills here for an evening’s entertainment. As horror movies go, this one is actually just about my speed. Though, for my money, the scariest thing of all was contemplating that all of the flashback scenes in the movie take place Many Years Ago when the adult protagonists were children, way, way back . . . in 2003. Oy.

Movie Screen, Time Machine: The 1960s

•April 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

breakfastattiffanys

The 1960s have a special place in the American popular imagination. Just saying “The Sixties” evokes a whole cascade of images and ideas that we associate with that decade. But, of course, even a decade as significant as this one was doesn’t seem terribly iconic or historic to the people who are living through it, and surprisingly little of the tumultuous sea change taking place in American culture is visible in the decade’s films.

Hollywood in the 1960s was far too self-absorbed to be troubled by what was taking place in the rest of the nation, and the world. The outlook for American cinema was, at best, uncertain throughout the decade. The long, slow decline of American movies that had begun with the anti-trust decision of the late-1940s and the rise of television in the early 1950s continued unabated. Fewer American movies were being produced, and dwindling audiences forced theaters to close by the thousands.

It was, unmistakably, the end of an era. The iconic first generation of power players in the studio system, the producers, directors, and stars, began dying throughout the decade, or worse, simply ceased to be relevant. And with them, Hollywood seemed to be losing touch with its history. The studio system itself was falling apart, and no one was quite sure what would take its place. Everything exciting and alive in cinema seemed to be happening over in Europe: Bergman in Sweden, Antonioni and Fellini in Italy, the entire French New Wave. By comparison, Hollywood films seemed trashy, shallow, and commercial in the worst way.

But the studio system wasn’t the only crumbling institution. Thanks to a variety of factors, including the popularity and the freedom of imported European films, the Hollywood Production Code was dismantled, brick by brick, as the decade wore on. The tide had turned, and the code had ceased to be culturally relevant. One by one, the studios began releasing films without a seal of approval until finally, in 1968, the Code was abandoned and replaced with the MPAA rating system in a form only slightly different from the one that remains in effect today.

Yes, times were changing in American Cinema … for the worse, or so it seemed. To some observers, the steep decline of studio dominance must have seemed like the end of Hollywood itself was imminent. The reality was quite different. The studio system had stagnated and fallen totally out of touch with the prevailing winds of American culture. In the final years of the 1960s, a New Hollywood began to emerge out of the metaphorical ashes of the old. But that’s a story for another decade.

While I was in the ’60s, I watched some of the tent-pole films put out by the fading studio system: upbeat musicals, star-studded epics, romantic comedies, and melodramas. I watched some edgier and more experimental fare: a Tennessee Williams adaptation, a Beatles musical, a risque European import. I watched the shift beginning to happen at decade’s end with an increase in violence and language and gritty realism. It was a whirlwind tour of a significant transition. This was what I saw:

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Director John Sturges famously remade Japanese master Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai as an American Western: Seven gunfighters (including Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Charles Bronson) come together to defend a poor Mexican village from an army of bandits. With all of that star personality, this film must have been incredibly difficult to make. Sturges skilfully balances his major characters and their various back-stories and motivations, playing them brilliantly off of each other. This is iconic stuff. You should see it.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

As the soothing notes of “Moon River” wafted through the opening credits, and the incomparably elegant Audrey Hepburn steps from a cab to break her morning fast in front of a Tiffany’s window, I couldn’t figure out why I remembered disliking this movie so much. Then, in the very next scene, Mickey Rooney came on screen and it all came rushing back. Rooney’s character Mr. Yunioshi is so broadly offensive that it is almost a hate crime, surely the most egregious example of an actor appearing in yellow-face in Hollywood history. Although the role is relatively minor, it taints what is otherwise a fairly charming little affair. Different times, different values.

The Longest Day (1962)

And the longest movie about it, clocking in at nearly 3 hours. The day in question is D-Day, and this exhaustive treatment of the military operations surrounding that massive event features a comparably significant list of macho-man performers, including Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, and many others. If you’ve an interest in attention to detail, I suppose this is a good pick, but it helps if you already know a lot about what’s going on, and there isn’t much in the way of storytelling here.

Charade (1963)

The most Hitchcockian movie that Hitchcock never made, Charade was directed by Stanley Donen, best known for bright, breezy musicals like Singin’ in the RainFunny Face, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Donen’s classic romantic suspense-thriller is probably airier than the version Hitchcock would have made, and in 1963 Hitchcock would have cast blonde Tippi Hedren rather than brunette Audrey Hepburn, but Cary Grant is spot-on. With its witty dialogue, bolstered by Grant’s signature deadpan delivery, Charade is perhaps as much a comedy as anything else, and it piles twist ending on top of twist ending in delightfully anarchic fashion.

The Night of the Iguana (1964)

No one does sweaty, dirty decadence quite like Tennessee Williams. John Huston directs a heavy-weight cast in this drama about a defrocked minister (Richard Burton) who gets into hot water when he leads a tour of church ladies on a trip to Mexico. Juggling fraught relationships with three women (Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, and Sue Lyons, type-cast and fresh off of her starring role in Lolita), Burton’s Reverend Shannon maneuvers and manipulates tirelessly to stay one step ahead of his own bad choices, even as one of the women pursuing him offers a glimmer of hope for the future. Boilerplate Tennessee Williams, definitely on the downward slope after a decade of good-to-great movies based on his plays.

Help! (1965)

The second film to feature The Beatles, this zany, whimsical romp feels a bit like a Marx Brothers version of a James Bond parody by way of a stoner comedy (before that was even a thing). Actually, adjectives pretty much fail me in attempting to describe the the effortless, ridiculous charm of this movie and its mega-popular leads. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the band’s efforts to evade a sinister eastern cult after Ringo gets their jeweled sacrificial ring stuck on his finger. Along the way, they get up to the sorts of totally random hi-jinks that would feel at home in something from Monty Python (again, before that was even a thing).

Blow-Up (1966)

The first English-language film by famed Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni has, in my opinion, not aged very well (though it remains enormously influential). It sounds like a suspense-thriller, but plays out as more of an art film than a genre film, petering out confusingly at the end without really resolving anything. It’s greatest claim to fame (or, I suppose, notoriety in this case) is its significant role in toppling the Production Code, after it was released to widespread success without code approval. As a result, its interest as cultural artifact has more-or-less outlived its interest as a film, but either way, the interest is still there. I suspect repeated viewings would give me a better opportunity to peel back some of the obvious layers around what is going on in it.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967)

This is fairly typical of the many elaborate musicals that made the transition from Broadway to Hollywood throughout the 1960s. The formula was particularly successful during the first half of the decade, when musicals were represented in the top 5 box office hits 4 years out of 5 (earning the top spots during 2 years, and scoring the 2nd and 3rd spots 1 year). By decade’s end, tastes had changed, and How to Succeed saw underwhelming returns, critically and financially. Still, as out of step as it is with the cutting edge of late-60s cinema, this bit of bubble-gum fluff is still entertaining and fun. And, as good-natured as it seems, it gets off some sharp, satirical bites at office sexual politics, mercilessly mocks corporate culture, and skewers the “self-help” genre.

Bullitt (1968)

If you know Bullitt, it’s likely because it is credited with showcasing the first “modern” car chase scene in movie history, an action-packed 11-minute thrill ride through the streets of San Francisco. This scene is vastly superior to anything else going on in the movie, which unfolds sedately by modern standards. The plot is serviceable, and Steve McQueen is super-cool as the title character, even if his character is something of a massive cliche. Watching a movie like Bullitt now demonstrates the largest obstacle to film-based time travel: Trying to return your mind to a time when certain things were new and exciting, before they started showing up in literally every movie. If you can do that, this movie will certainly not disappoint.

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Sam Peckinpah’s blood-drenched Western masterpiece sent shock-waves through critics and audiences in 1969, introducing a never-before-seen level of realistic violence into the quintessential American film genre. The Wild Bunch also features a memorable cast of characters played perfectly by a tried-and-true cast of grizzled acting veterans. It tells the story of encroaching civilization closing in around an aging band of outlaws, whose considerable skills and smarts may not be enough to keep them prosperous (or alive) anymore. This is a true classic, as the consistent acclaim it has received across some 45 years aptly demonstrates.

Coming someday, The Me Seventies!

Theodicy at the Movies: Higher Ground (2011)

•April 16, 2014 • Leave a Comment

higherground Why would a benevolent God allow the suffering of innocents? Why do the wicked prosper? Why do evil and injustice exist if God created everything, and God is good and just? These are the most difficult questions people of faith have to face. “Theodicy” (from the Greek “God” and “justice”) is the word we use to describe attempts to grapple with and answer these questions. The oldest, best-known work of theodicy in the Judeo-Christian tradition is the biblical Book of Job, but many of the most brilliant religious minds in history have also wrestled with these challenges. Theodicy often takes place in the context of philosophical or theological works, but also sometimes in great works of art, including films. This is the third in a series discussing theodicy in movies from various decades and national cinemas.

higherground15Higher Ground is based on a 2002 memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs, who also co-wrote the screenplay; a memoir, according to the book’s subtitle, of “Faith Found and Lost.” The book was republished as Higher Ground in order to coincide with the release of the film, but it was originally titled This Dark World. Although the book details the author’s experiences within the world of fundamentalist Christianity, this is not the world referred to by the title. Rather, the author explains, the title is referring to the whole world, a world that is in need of redemption, and it is meant to evoke her own struggles and search for redemption. The phrase comes from Ephesians 6:12: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world [...]” (NIV).

The new title, by contrast, is an allusion to the 1898 hymn, which plays over the end credits. The song’s second verse is perhaps the most relevant to the film’s story: “My heart has no desire to stay/Where doubts arise and fears dismay;/Though some may dwell where these abound,/My prayer, my aim, is higher ground.” The search for a spiritual “higher ground” is the film’s primary theme. In the final scene, the main character, Corinne Walker, stands before the congregation she left and delivers an impromptu sermon which begins:

He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am his own. What more can anyone want, right? Taking a stroll with God in the garden. Having a chat with the creator of the universe. Asking Him questions, and getting the answers. I mean, you couldn’t be any more safe or secure. There’s no higher ground.

This is the security she craves, but her most pressing questions have gone unanswered. Forced, despite herself, to stay “where doubts arise and fears dismay,” she slowly realizes that she no longer shares the faith of her fellow believers.

higherground20Higher Ground begins at a riverside baptism where Corinne, along with several other new believers, is joyously dunked under the water. As she looks up from under the water at the smiling men standing over her, the film flashes back to a very young Corinne, staring up at the camera from underwater as she takes a bath. The movie is divided into “chapters,” the titles of which appear periodically and unobtrusively on the screen as each new section begins. This first portion is called “Summons” (a reference, presumably, to Corinne’s two conversion experiences), and takes us through her childhood and teenage years. As a child, she accepts Jesus during vacation Bible school, but her parents aren’t particularly religious, and her conversion falls by the wayside.

higherground17Corinne loves to read and write, and eventually she catches the eye of Ethan Miller, the lead singer in a small-time local rock band, who asks her to write some lyrics for him. Teenage love leads to teenage pregnancy, and Corinne and Ethan get married shortly before their baby is born. Later, they join a small, insular church community of ultra-conservative Christians with an extremely patriarchal hierarchy. Corinne’s sharp mind and natural independence earn her occasional passive-aggressive reprimands from the pastor’s wife, but she accepts them gracefully. She is a believer, and she really wants to get this right. In spite of the restrictiveness of the environment, the relationships are warm and genuine.

Eventually, though all of that changes. The change is not particularly sudden or dramatic. Actually, it’s almost chilling in its gradualness. For the most part, this is not a film where sudden, dramatic events precipitate an equally sudden, dramatic change. However, there are three tragic (or near-tragic) events, that have an obvious effect on Corinne’s life.

While Corinne is still a child, her mother suffers a traumatic, late-term miscarriage. The scenes that follow imply that Corinne’s family life unravels as a result. Her parents, extremely affectionate towards each other before the miscarriage, drift far apart. At one point, a teenage Corinne sits on the stairs listening to her parents below, silently willing her half-drunk father to show her mother some sign of affection. Instead, a violent quarrel breaks out between them.

Corinne’s father has become an alcoholic, while her mother dresses up to go out every night. It is implied that she is “carrying on” with other men; she even flirts with Pastor Bud at the vacation Bible school while picking up her daughters. The sensuality is so palpable that even young Corinne picks up on it, imagining the two adults in a decidedly un-platonic position as they joke about Bud needing swimming lessons from her mother, a former lifeguard.

higherground19It’s not clear that Corinne is particularly aware, at least as a child, of how deeply the miscarriage affects her life. She is certainly conscious of the deep sadness of the event, and of the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, but perhaps not of how they are connected. As a child, this tragedy does not lead her to harbor any doubts or ask any questions, particularly as she seems to have no larger, guiding worldview to question.

Much later, after Corinne is married and has a young daughter of her own, she decides to accompany Ethan to a gig with his band. Traveling by bus late at night, with Ethan driving, Corinne is annoyed by the loud, obnoxious behavior of Ethan’s drunken bandmates as she tries to comfort baby Abigail. With no car seat or crib, Corinne lays Abby in an empty cooler and tries to soothe her to sleep.

Meanwhile, the other members of the group are exposing themselves to the cars behind, screaming with laughter. Ethan yells at them to stop before they get the bus pulled over, but they respond by throwing empty beer cans at him. He turns to yell at them some more, and misses a turn, driving the bus off of the road and down a hill into a river. The bus’s lights go out, and in the confusion, the lid of Abby’s cooler slams shut as the bus fills with water. Ethan grabs Corinne and rushes her out to the shore. Although Corinne has been repeatedly screaming the baby’s name, Ethan belatedly remembers that his daughter is still on the sinking bus, and he swims back out, but can’t locate her among the several coolers that are floating around inside.

higherground18Several tense moments pass, and it seems certain that this will not end well, but then Ethan finds the baby. The next scene shows the small family huddled together in bed, relieved to be alive, as Ethan comes to a realization: God saved them. God is real, and this was a sign from Him. Ethan randomly flips open a Bible (“to see what God wants to tell us”) and lands on a passage about dashing infants against the rocks. The couple share a horrified look, and a glance at their baby, then decide they might be better off starting at the beginning of the Bible.

Corinne and Ethan’s experience is essentially the reverse of a “suffering that leads to questioning and doubting the existence of God” scenario. Ethan and Corinne have faced the most devastating possibility, the loss of a child, and have been delivered from it, perhaps miraculously. This not only confirms God’s existence, but also affirms that God has a deep, personal interest in them and their well-being. Their very personal encounter with God forms the entire basis for their faith. The movie cuts back to a shot of the older Corinne submerged beneath the water as she is baptized, and the new chapter heading reads “Consumed.” This is the period of Corinne’s most intense religious fervor.

higherground11Much of this section revolves around Corinne’s friendship with Annika, another church member. Annika seems very different from the other women in the church. She is a devout believer, but she and Corinne also share an irreverent sense of humor. While the rest of the women gather around the refreshment table following a Bible study led by the pastor’s wife, Annika tells Corinne, “I know Deborah loves the Lord, and she means well, but her sermons are starting to make me feel suicidal.” A few seconds later, Deborah invites the women to come try the carob brownies. “You know what carob tastes like?” Corinne quietly asks Annika. “Disappointment.”

Annika is also not above a certain amount of dishonesty. When Corinne is pulled over while Annika is teaching her to drive, Annika pretends to have a very limited grasp of English, and tries to make the officer uncomfortable (or perhaps even flirt with him) by explaining that she had a very painful “wedgie,” the effects of which she describes in graphic anatomical detail. He lets them off with a warning.

higherground5Plus, Annika speaks in tongues, which the rest of the church regards with a fair amount of suspicion (Corinne’s husband opines that “it’s probably voodoo”), though Corinne is jealous: “I want it. You get everything! You do! I want it.” All-in-all, it seems that the rest of the church might look askance at much of Annika’s behavior, but this only seems to make the two women better friends. Annika is Corinne’s confidant, giving her (bizarre) advice on spicing up her sex life and, later, catering to her cravings and massaging her feet while she is pregnant.

Annika understands and connects with Corinne on a level no one else even seems conscious of, which makes it all the more devastating when Annika is diagnosed with a serious brain tumor. As Corinne hangs up the phone after learning this news from Annika’s husband Ned, we hear her husband in the other room leading their children to recite “There is nothing that our God can’t do.” Over the next few scenes, it becomes clear that this belief will be put to the test.

Corinne holds Annika in a hospital bed and prays with her, and the whole church gathers in the hospital corridor to pray and sing during Annika’s operation. When Ned emerges with the news that “they got it all, she’s gonna live,” the relief that washes across Corinne’s face is palpable, but short-lived. A few seconds later, she overhears Ned quietly telling the other men that Annika is “not going to be herself” because “part of her brain was damaged” by the operation. If there is nothing God can’t do, there are also things He won’t do.

higherground21This revelation precedes perhaps the most devastating scene in the film, during the church service following Annika’s recovery. The camera pans right across the front row of the congregation as Pastor Bill says, “Our God is the God who delivers. And He has delivered our sister from the shadow of the valley of death, and so we thank God tonight! We rejoice with Ned, and Annika, and their beautiful kids.” As the camera crosses the center aisle, we see Annika, slumped over in a wheelchair, her face slack and eyes dull as she stares blankly ahead at nothing.

The pastor calls Ned up to the front, and his daughter moves over next to Annika to wipe off the drool that is collecting at the corner of her mother’s mouth as the pastor continues speaking: “The Lord God has been your strength and your shield. Jehovah Jireh! Amen? He has provided for you. His ways are not our ways, but we trust in His infinite mercy. His, um . . . His loving kindness.” No one seems less convinced of the truth of those words in that moment than the pastor himself, as he falters to the conclusion of the sentence, then stands aside to let Ned say a few words:

Annika loves, loves the Lord, but she also loves drama and art and nature, and she has this uncanny ability to find the good in what other people might call misfortune or tragedy. And I just want you all to know that Annika and I are content to walk the path that the Lord has us on. It is not a path we would have chosen for ourselves, but His will, not ours. God has called of us to life, and life more abundant, and that’s the life that Annika has always lived!

As Ned resumes his seat, the pastor steps forward and sings the opening lines of the hymn “It Is Well,” famously written by Horatio Spafford after the tragic death of his four daughters in a shipwreck. When he reaches the refrain, the rest of the congregation joins in, echoing each line.

Throughout this scene, we see Corinne sitting in the row behind Annika and her family. Her somber mood matches the rest of the congregation, but as Ned begins talking about “life more abundant,” her face hardens and she turns away. As Pastor Bill sings, she struggles to hold back tears, and as the rest of the congregation sings along, she finds herself unable even to mouth the words. Her lips close in a tight line, and she stares off to the side, ignoring the service.

This scene is not followed by any major soul-searching that we see. We don’t hear any conversations about why God has allowed this to happen. A lesser film probably wouldn’t have been able to pass up the opportunity to take this route, but that would be inconsistent with Corinne’s character. She likes to read and write. She is intelligent, and she likes to study and discuss the Bible. But her faith isn’t primarily intellectual. It is based on personal experiences and strong relationships, and she struggles to set aside her doubts rather than talk through them. Besides, she has lost her closest confidant.

higherground14This is the beginning of the end of Corinne’s involvement in the church. The next scene begins a new chapter: “Wrestling Until Dawn;” words that evoke Jacob’s struggle with God throughout the night in Genesis 32. For the next half-hour of the movie, Corinne’s marriage and her faith slowly unravel. She leaves her husband, and the church, and begins a journey of self-discovery that she had left behind as a teenager, leading to her final “confession” to her former church.

In the final scene, Corinne visits the church to watch her husband and children sing in front of the congregation, and as they finish she steps up to take the microphone and prevails upon Pastor Bill to let her get something off of her chest. I’ve already quoted the beginning of her remarks above. She concludes:

You know, when I was a little girl, my pastor told me that Jesus was knocking on the door of my heart. And, um, so I listened real hard, and I thought I heard Him. I did. I raised my hand, and I told everyone that Jesus was standing there, and he wanted me. He wanted me. Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap. So I invited him in. “Welcome,” I said, and I gave my heart outright. And I’m standing here today, and I’m telling you . . . I’m telling you today, that, uh, I’m still waiting for Him to make Himself at home. You know, I call, and I call, and there have been times where I know He answered me. Times where I’m sure of it. But other times, I’ve got the porch light on, and He doesn’t come. And I feel like I live in an empty place. And I told God, I told Him, “You know what? I’m not gonna let go.” I won’t let go until He blesses me. But I’m wrestling something nameless, you know, without form and void, and I just want it to be solid so bad. I need all of this to be real, and I don’t always know how to make it real. I don’t know how to make it real. So, I am . . . Forgive me. Okay? I admire your faith. I admire your faith. I really do.

I believe this is one of the most raw, real expressions of painful doubt that I have ever heard. Corinne references the story of Jacob wrestling God, which ends with Jacob’s refusal to let go until he receives a blessing, even though his opponent has knocked his hip out of joint. That’s where Corinne is: She is struggling with God, and she is in pain, and she doesn’t want to let go, but unlike Jacob, she’s not sure if she’s actually holding onto . . . anything. This isn’t a sudden realization, it’s something that has slowly dawned on her over a long period of time. This seems true to the experience of most people who lose their faith; it does not leave as suddenly as it arrives.

One of the most striking things about the final scene is the lack of hostility from the other church members. The camera cuts, in particular, to the pastor’s face a few times as Corinne talks, and he isn’t glaring or squirming uncomfortably. He is nodding with compassion and understanding. These people still care about Corinne, and she cares about them, but there is a chasm between them.

higherground22After Corinne turns the microphone back over to Pastor Bill, he leads the congregation in the hymn “How Great Thou Art” as she walks to the back of the church and opens the door to leave. But she stops in the doorway and looks back, and then she turns and rests her forehead against the door as she holds it with her hand, and closes her eyes and sways slightly with the music. And then she turns back again to look inside, and her weight shifts ever so slightly, but before we can tell whether she is about to step outside or inside, the movie ends.

That final image encapsulates her position perfectly, hovering in the doorway between faith and doubt; unable to stay, but unwilling to leave. And where is God through all of this? Corinne doesn’t seem to blame Him for anything, including her doubts. She is not bitter or angry. She just doesn’t know how, if God is there, to feel that He is there, but she seems to expect that it is at least as much her responsibility to have faith as it is for God to make Himself real to her. She just no longer finds herself in a place where she can do that.

It would be strange, I think, to expect a movie about the loss of faith to leave us with any real answers to questions about God. Instead, Higher Ground gives us an honest, emotional portrait of one woman’s spiritual journey into belief and back out again. Perhaps Corinne will reconnect with God one day, and perhaps she won’t, but it is clear that, either way, her journey isn’t over yet. She will always continue “pressing on the upward way” in search of higher ground.

The Moviegoings Podcast #2: Noah

•April 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment

The second episode of our official Moviegoings podcast is here! We tossed around a lot of ideas for which movie to continue with, but then we realized how much we had already been discussing Noah. It was the clear choice, and we had a great time talking about it even more. We’ve also, I hope, made a few technical improvements in quality as part of figuring out how to record our podcast now that we live in different states. Oh, and we retooled the intro, and I’m much happier with it now. Enjoy!


Why Can’t We Have Nice Things?

•March 30, 2014 • Leave a Comment

 

godsnotdead

The word is out and the fix is in, at least among the faithful: Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, which opens this Friday, is unbiblical, perhaps even blasphemous, and discerning Christians should probably avoid it. Meanwhile, the Jesus-themed Son of God hit theaters a little under a month ago. Superstar megachurch pastor Rick Warren told his congregation that boosting this film is so important, they should skip church to go see it. And it’s working. Son of God has already risen to 5th place on the list of all-time top-grossing “Christian Movies” (as defined by Box Office Mojo), behind only The Passion and the three Narnia movies. In contrast, Warren warned his 1.34 million Twitter followers to stay away from Noah, misquoting its director in support of his position. Attempts to correct him went ignored, and the comment was retweeted nearly a thousand times. Last week, Son of God was joined in theaters by the evangelistic God’s Not Dead. Even in limited release, God’s Not Dead has already slid into the 15th spot on the top-grossing “Christian Movies” list after a mere three days, and the site predicts that it will likely crack the top ten as it expands into more theaters (admittedly not a very high bar to hurdle).

sonofgodIt certainly seems likely that these two films will continue to do quite well by Christian Movie standards. And yet, Son of God currently has a very poor “37″ on Metacritic, and an even poorer “22%” on Rotten Tomatoes, and the critical consensus seems to be that it has very little to offer to any audiences outside of “the faithful.” But, for that matter, what does it really offer the churchgoing crowd? The theatrical release has merely repackaged the “Jesus” portion of last year’s 10-hour The Bible TV miniseries, which was free to watch for anyone with cable. Can this big-screen “Jesus edit” of the miniseries really be anything more than a cynical cash-grab by the producers?

fromthemangertothecrossAnd even if it is, why is there even a market for one more straightforward retelling of the life of Christ? By my count there have been as many as 10 films about all or part of Jesus’s life in the last fifteen years alone. There are many more stretching back even further. One of the oldest surviving feature films in existence, From the Manger to the Cross, is a Jesus movie from 1912, and aside from cosmetic elements like the addition of color and sound, there has been surprisingly little evolution in the cinematic portrayal of Jesus.

That’s over a century of largely moribund depictions of Jesus popping up in theaters and on television every few years. Even way back in 1912, one movie exhibitor lamented, “let me advertise a religious piece [...] and it means an off day in the box office.” With nothing new or exciting to bring to the familiar “Greatest Story Ever Told,” the same bland movie keeps getting recycled every few years with a new long-haired, bearded, white-robed actor in the lead role because evangelicals will keep ponying up the cash to see it. The only mystery is: Why?

godsnotdead2Then there’s God’s Not Dead, a movie which draws its title from a popular “Christian rock” song by the “Newsboys,” and its plot from those goofy e-mail forwards about the evil atheist professor and the brave Christian freshman who destroys him with a few Bible verses. Where Son of God is essentially harmless pablum, God’s Not Dead is aggressively peddling a particularly caustic, hostile brand of cultural warfare, wrapped inside a shallow us-vs-them caricature of non-Christians. It’s sitting at an even lousier critical average than Son of God, with a “22″ from Metacritic and a “25%” from Rotten Tomatoes.

Obviously these numbers mean nothing to the movie’s target audience. If anything, I presume the “cultural warrior” fans of God’s Not Dead might regard these reviews as further affirmation of secular hostility towards “the truth,” rather than an informed assessment of the movie’s ham-fisted lack of artistry. Perhaps most disturbing of all, at least to me, is that this film’s audience is so insular and out-of-touch that they regard a product that is avowedly preaching exclusively to the choir as a valid evangelistic tool.

noahNoah, on the other hand, is doing quite well critically, if the few dozen early reviews are to be trusted. However, though it may very well make more money than both of the other movies combined (in fact, it will have to, by a healthy margin, if it wants to recoup its budget), Noah will likely be seeing very poor attendance from the niche audience of American evangelicals that the other films are marketed to. This despite the fact that they ought to be the most interested in seeing the first big-budget Bible epic in years (decades?), a movie made by a critically-acclaimed director, and with the potential to start meaningful conversations about matters of faith. Something is terribly wrong.

“An entrance understanding of the gospel rarely creates good art.” That sentence popped out at me in a book I read a few years ago, although it was mostly a throw-away aside. An “entrance understanding,” in this case, refers to a biblical perspective that is focused on the altar call as the culmination of the Christian faith experience; in other words, on the “entrance” into the faith. An “entrance understanding” is different from an “entry-level understanding” of the gospel. An entrance understanding reduces the gospel message to answering a single question: How can we escape hell and get into heaven? The dramatic high point of this narrative is praying the Sinner’s Prayer. The rising action is the sinner’s life without Christ. The falling action is life with Christ.

Imagine if Roald Dahl’s classic children’s tale Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was entirely about Charlie’s life before he gets the Golden Ticket, and the climax was his discovery of that piece of foil wrapped around a Wonka chocolate bar. Or what if the whole Harry Potter series climaxed with Harry being told by Hagrid that he is really a wizard? What kind of story would that be? No Willy Wonka or Dumbledore, no chocolate factory or Hogwarts, no magic or mystery, no wonder. So much evangelistic Christian storytelling is like that, ending at the point where really great stories begin. This is storytelling that “reduces the good news to a ticket, a way to get past the bouncer and into the club” (or the chocolate factory or the wizard school). Not only is this bad art, it’s uninspiring storytelling, and that’s nothing short of a travesty.

babettesfeastWhat do glimpses of the kingdom of heaven look like on film? Surely not a shallow, low-budget production with a thinly-disguised message that an American church can build a 6-week Bible study around. I can’t help but think here of Babette’s Feast, a film that is basically about a group of elderly Christians who discover the “explosive, liberating experience” that was missing from their entrance understanding of the gospel. After a lifetime of denying themselves what they deem to be “pleasures of the flesh” in pursuit of the higher life of the spirit, the group experiences a radical transformation when they gather for a meal more luxurious than anything they have ever imagined.

At first, they don’t appreciate it. At first, they force themselves to pay no attention to the culinary delights that are melting in their mouths. They are determined not to enjoy themselves, lest their enjoyment lead to temptation, gluttony, sin. But, in spite of themselves, they begin to feel the effects of the food and the fellowship, and the result is a renewal of faith where they had feared just the opposite, and a renewed sense of joy as well. They find that, as one character says, “mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.”

Babette’s Feast isn’t about what its characters have to do in order to be welcomed into eternal life after they die. It’s about learning to experience the joy of that life together here and now. The movie isn’t “peddling fire insurance.” It’s exploring “joyous participation” in a life that believers and nonbelievers alike can recognize as desirable and fulfilling. It’s about learning that all truth is God’s Truth and all beauty is God’s Beauty, and experiencing a community revival through that realization. This makes it, perhaps, my favorite cinematic parable. It’s a great film, and a deeply Christian film, that effectively demonstrates why Christian films should be great works of art first, and evangelistic sermons last or not at all.

adamsundayschooladamart

Too often it seems Christians find more value in a Sunday school coloring page, say, than in a great religious masterpiece like Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam.” (After all, the painting features full-frontal nudity, and depicts a scene that is not accurate to a literal reading of Genesis.) What are we doing wrong in our churches that Christians are emerging with such a distorted perspective of the world?

 

themissionImages of “thriving in God’s good world” are everywhere in The Mission, as well. 18th-century Jesuit missionaries work with a South American tribe to carve a piece of heaven-on-earth out of the remote jungle, and the result is a community any Christian would aspire to join. Everyone lives in harmony. There are no possessions. Everyone contributes equally in work and in play. They have systems of education, beautiful churches, and glorious musical talent.

But trouble lurks all around this earthly paradise. European slavers are tired of the sanctuary created by the missions cutting into their profits. As it happens, a threat to cash-flow is just the sort of thing most likely to prompt the colonial governments to write furious letters home encouraging their own governments to put more political pressure on an already-embattled Church. The upshot of all of this is that the Church sends an emissary to evaluate whether the missions shall continue to be protected, but the decision to withdraw Church support has been made in advance.

Ultimately, the missions fall and the natives and Jesuits in the area are hunted into extinction. The glimpse of the kingdom of heaven is tempered by the brokenness of the world around it, a world in which the Church itself plays a role in the destruction. This is another message that Christian Movies frequently neglect. Life in the kingdom of heaven begins here on earth, but expect resistance, and even failure and defeat!

Our fallen human nature and brokenness as believers isn’t always manifested in ways as dramatic and overtly evil as the Church turning over a group of innocents for murder and enslavement. Sometimes it looks more like the recent imbroglio over World Vision International, for example, or like producing and praising a “Christian” movie that “takes every available chance to unfortunately stereotype, almost to the point of offensiveness, every people group represented.” Whatever the situation, however grave or seemingly trivial, these are failures of Christian community and Christian love. And when it comes to the mainline evangelical approach to movies, there is also a chronic failure of Christian imagination, impoverished by sanctimony without discernment, and atrophied from lack of use.

The solution to all of these problems, in my opinion, is a willingness to engage with and have conversations about works of art that do not revolve around evangelism. The ability to tackle difficult and challenging material, and to discuss it reasonably with people who may not agree, is critical to fostering a strong community. Learning to listen to and understand people who are different from ourselves is essential to being able to love them. Broadening our horizons by seeking out and enjoying high-quality works of art is the best way I know to exercise and ignite the imagination, and enrich my theology and my experience of the world around me.

That’s why I am so disheartened by the widespread rush to condemn Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, often sight unseen, by prominent evangelical and conservative voices. It’s not that they’re saying it’s a poorly-made film. In fact, in general, these people care very little about a film’s quality (which they generally lack the expertise to judge anyway) in comparison with its content. Furthermore, many of these sweeping criticisms have been marred by uncharitable half-truths and outright falsehoods. I had intended to link to some of these, but I don’t want to drive additional traffic in their direction, and I have seen so many of them since I first conceived of commenting that the thought of setting that much record straight has become exhausting.

For example, Barbara Nicolosi would like everyone to know that this movie is so terrible and stupid, the only possible reason a Christian could say they like it is if they’re lying for money or attention, and the non-Christians are only saying they like it because they think we won’t, and they just hate us that much. Glenn Beck is confused by the movie because he always thought prophets of God were a really sweet, nice bunch of guys, and Russell Crowe doesn’t seem very nice. Todd Starnes thinks we’re trying “guilt” Bible-believing Christians into seeing a movie that mocks their faith, and clearly thinks we should feel guilty about guilt-tripping people. Ray Comfort has made his own 30-minute counter-Noah movie so we won’t have to go see Aronofosky’s version, in which he mostly wanders around with a microphone asking people what they think about sin and judgment. And the list of “usual suspects” goes on and on.

Suffice to say, don’t believe everything you read about Noah and its supposed apostasy, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and a lot of it seems deliberate and malicious. The tone of many of these comments communicates the impression that Darren Aronofsky is not “One Of Us,” and therefore he and his film must be mocked, derided, and denounced for every reason that can be found, or simply made up. Only people who have been approved by these self-appointed arbiters of Christian taste are allowed to distort the biblical text.

I have seen every other film by Darren Aronofsky. Some I liked, and some I did not, but in all of them I recognized a filmmaker who deserves serious attention as an artist. I trust that, even if I disagree with his vision of the biblical account, his talent and his unique perspective may help me see the story through new eyes. If he has made an ambitious film about faith and doubt and judgment and mercy, I want to see it and be part of the conversation about it. I understand people who aren’t interested in joining that conversation, though that saddens me, but people who actively discourage Christians from doing so make no sense to me.

Besides, all of the reviews from people I actually trust are saying that this is a film worth seeing. So here’s some worthwhile reading if you’re looking to cut through the fog of sweeping negativity:

Steven D. Greydanus has reviewed Noah for the National Catholic Register. He begins: “Darren Aronofsky’s Noah pays its source material a rare compliment: It takes Genesis seriously as a landmark of world literature and ancient moral reflection, and a worthy source of artistic inspiration in our day.”

Peter T. Chattaway, who has covered this film extensively for some time, records his first impressions at Film Chat. The post is quite lengthy and detailed, and contains some things that might be considered “spoilers” (insofar as that’s really possible), but it’s a good read. He says: “I am very grateful that this film exists — partly because it has the potential to bring back the Bible epic as a genre to be reckoned with for the first time in almost half a century, and partly because I have learned a bit more about the Jewish tradition while reading up on this film and its source material, and partly because it’s a dynamic piece of filmmaking in its own right, but also because the film takes the Bible seriously and asks us to do the same.”

Alissa Wilkinson has written a fantastic review for Christianity Today. She expounds on several reasons why she thinks you should go see the film, and concludes by “busting some myths” that have sprung up around the production. She concludes: “So the best reason to see the movie is to enjoy it, to think about it critically as a work of art, to learn about storytelling and re-envision a story that for many has become old, stale, and ridden with clichés. Noah is not poorly made or shoddy. It is not political. It is not evangelistic. It is not a theological treatise. Rather, it’s a movie that approaches the level of “good art.” It asks big questions. It explores concepts like grace, justice, pride, guilt, and love. It respects its source material and respects the power of human imagination. It takes a sober look at the evil in the human heart.”

Gregory Alan Thornbury describes his impressions of the movie for The Gospel Coalition.

Finally, Jonathan Merritt contemplates some of the same questions I’ve been asking about Noah and the response it has received. He points out that Noah “was never intended to be a heavy-handed evangelistic tool, but rather good art. And I’m sorry to say that few evangelicals today have an eye, ear, or stomach for such things. Not much has changed since the late Francis Schaeffer wrote [...], “I am afraid that as evangelicals, we think that a work of art only has value if we reduce it to a tract.” [...] What Aronofsky has done is similar to Rembrandt inserting himself into “The Raising of the Cross.” The Bible obviously doesn’t mention Rembrandt lifting the cross with the executioners more than a millennium earlier, but the artist was making a deeper point. Christians traveling to Munich could boycott the Alte Pinakothek museum where the painting is on display, but they would miss an opportunity for theological reflection.”

I have more to say now that I’ve seen Noah, but I wanted to take some time first to share thoughts on a topic that is never very far from my mind: Too many Christians consistently fail to comprehend the value of a work of art outside of a very narrow, artistically-impoverished range, and in doing so, they deprive themselves of opportunities to enrich their faith and their lives, and they deprive the larger culture of our faith’s unique perspective on these matters.

Theodicy at the Movies: Ponette (1996)

•March 14, 2014 • Leave a Comment

ponette

Why would a benevolent God allow the suffering of innocents? Why do the wicked prosper? Why do evil and injustice exist if God created everything, and God is good and just? These are the most difficult questions people of faith have to face. “Theodicy” (from the Greek “God” and “justice”) is the word we use to describe attempts to grapple with and answer these questions. The oldest, best-known work of theodicy in the Judeo-Christian tradition is the biblical Book of Job, but many of the most brilliant religious minds in history have also wrestled with these challenges. Theodicy often takes place in the context of philosophical or theological works, but also sometimes in great works of art, including films. This is the second in a series discussing theodicy in movies from various decades and national cinemas.

Ponette begins with a shot of the title character, a four-year old girl, lying in a hospital bed. Her arm is in a cast. Her father is telling her that her mother is hurt very badly, and may die. Her expression does not change. She gazes up at the ceiling, sucking calmly on the thumb that is poking through her cast. This is inconceivable. It means nothing to her.

ponette2The film cuts to Ponette riding in the car with her father, on their way to stay with her young cousins, Matiaz and Delphine. Her father is upset. He rages about her mother’s stupidity and carelessness for being in a car accident. Ponette defends her. Finally they stop and get out of the car. Ponette’s father carries her on his shoulders and makes her promise that she will never die. Then he tells her that her mother is dead. In that moment, her entire world crumbles around her, and she will spend the rest of the movie trying to put it back together.

For the most part, she undertakes this task alone. The adults in her life (and there are very few) are sympathetic but inept. Her father is the worst, too caught up in his own anger and grief to be of any use to her, and absent for much of the film. He is also, seemingly, an atheist, and has little patience for the religious “delusions” that Ponette is picking up from everyone else. The others feed her on a steady diet of platitudes and theology that is way over her head. Everyone (except her father) seems to agree that her mother still exists, somewhere, but she cannot come back. (“Only zombies can,” says cousin Matiaz, who appears to be the same age she is.) Or can she?

Ponette’s Aunt Claire tells her the story of the Resurrection of Jesus. She is enthralled: “He got back to normal? And mommy? Will she come back to life, too?”

“She’s with Jesus. One day, everyone will be resurrected. Everyone will be together: mommy, daddy, you …”

“When will that happen?”

“It will happen when God wants it to happen.”

ponette9Naturally, the one thing she takes from all this is that she should go sit and wait for this to happen. She spends the better part of a few days parked in the same spot outside before her aunt realizes what she is doing: “I’m sorry. [...] You shouldn’t wait. She won’t come. Jesus came back, but when other people die, they don’t really come back. She hears you, sees you, and she still loves you. But she can’t come back. I’m sure of it.” Ponette is not convinced. Maybe her mother won’t come back because no one else wants her to come back.

A few days or weeks later, Ponette is sent off to boarding school with Matiaz and Delphine. The woman in charge of her dorm floor, Aurélie, is even less helpful than her aunt, full of shallow bromides and syrupy smiles like a walking, talking “Precious Moments” figurine. Taking Ponette to the bathroom late one night, the two have a conversation about her mood:

“You shouldn’t be too sad. Your mommy was sad too. She cried on her way to heaven. God cried as he waited for her. When God was Jesus on Earth, he also cried. But usually he’s as joyful as a child.”

Ponette knows better: “It’s not joyful being a child.”

“When we need God, he makes a sign. He touches you and you feel better.”

“He didn’t touch me.”

“You weren’t paying attention.”

“I was too! But I don’t know what he looks like. [...] Daddy says that it’s not true. And that it won’t stop me from hurting. It’s not nice to lie to me!”

ponette6Noticing that she is still sad and withdrawn, Ponette’s older, world-wise cousin, Delphine (who is perhaps 6), tells her she should talk to Ada. Ada is the only Jewish girl at the school, and being Jewish, she is a “Child of God,” and may wield some special influence with the Big Man Upstairs. Ada confirms this, and offers to put Ponette through the same trials she underwent in order to become a Child of God. Ponette readily agrees, and is subjected to a battery of playground tests.

Ponette also sneaks into the “God Room” (the school’s small chapel) at night to pray. And she pretends to be sick during class so she can return to her room alone, all in an effort to speak to God in private: “God Almighty, I hope you told mommy that I prayed. It was a prayer for you and for her too. I’m okay. I’ll wait on my bed. That way, it’ll be a secret. No one will see. This is my second prayer and I’m very happy. Thank you, God.”

Still, nothing happens, and God seems mysteriously unresponsive. Ponette wonders, “If God is almighty, why won’t he make a sign? He won’t talk to me. My prayers didn’t do anything. Not for mommy, not for nothing.” She has tried everything there is to try. She has done all the right things. She has been patient. She needs this. Where is God?

Throughout all of this, the film remains completely chained to Ponette’s point of view. The camera tends to be close to the ground, using low-angle shots to include the adult characters, or framing them from the waist down, unless they stoop to speak to Ponette on her own level, or scoop her up to carry her. Ponette’s face is on-screen for almost the entire film, often in extreme close-up, which requires a performance of a caliber that I wouldn’t have suspected anyone this young could deliver (and that few people of any age could match). This is a child so young that it appears perfectly natural when she sucks her thumb throughout the movie. (And, indeed, she became the youngest person to win the Best Actress Award at the prestigious “Venice Film Festival” when Ponette was screened there.)

Her conversations, whether with adults or other children, are extremely short and apt to jump randomly between topics and ideas. While Aunt Claire explains that Ponette’s mother cannot come back like Jesus, Ponette begins talking about flying mice, how they fly, and why no one can see them. Ponette’s friends chatter randomly about candy, games, toys, their parents, their “boyfriends.” They certainly never have any particularly helpful answers to her questions, though they generally seem to want to make her feel better.

ponette3Young children do not tend to sit still and talk, and Ponette is in constant motion, even while in conversation. When her father sets her down on the hood of their car and informs her that her mother is dead, even as she begins to cry she is distractedly climbing up to the roof of the car and sliding down the windshield over and over. Her conversations with Ada about becoming a Child of God take place as she follows the other girl around the playground: walking, jogging, climbing, jumping. She asks her friends why God will not send her a sign while they stand at the sink together brushing their teeth. This seems so natural, and is shot so brilliantly, that it isn’t even noticeable until you start to think about it.

The passage of time remains as hazy for the audience as it is for the young characters, and it is never clear whether days or weeks or months are going by as Ponette grapples with her grief. Individual scenes and sequences feel like vignettes without an identifiable arc; just life going on, as it is apt to do. How will Ponette ever find peace? Will she be able to at all? Her expectations seem to be building towards a visit to the cemetery with her father, who will pick her up on a Friday afternoon. She waits anxiously outside for him to arrive, but she is off by a day; it is only Thursday. Waiting another day seems unthinkable. Waking from a vivid dream about her mother, she sets off to the cemetery on her own in the middle of the night.

It’s not clear how she knows where to go, or how far she travels to get there, but she walks cross-country for hours. She arrives at the cemetery and parks herself at her mother’s grave to wait, but no one comes and nothing happens. Finally, Ponette begins to paw at the dirt and sob for her mother, and her mother appears! She steps into the frame without fanfare, bends down, and scoops Ponette into a hug. They have the conversation Ponette has been dreaming of having for the entire film as her mother walks her back to the school.

ponette8This time, when her mother says goodbye, Ponette knows that she will not see her again. This is clearly a struggle, but she goes on to meet her father, who has been waiting to pick her up. No one seems to have missed her, though she has clearly been gone all day, and contrary to his earlier impatience, her father calmly accepts her story about going to the cemetery alone and spending the day talking to her mother. As they drive off together, Ponette seems happy for the first time, smiling directly into the camera for a brief moment before the car pulls away.

What are we to make of this final sequence? Roger Ebert, reviewing the film in 1997, regarded the ending as a misstep: “Is this a fantasy, or a miracle? A miracle, I fear–and Ponette deserves better. In the real world, when mothers die they don’t come back. Ponette has just about dealt with that when the movie sneaks in a happy ending. She’ll never learn that way.”

I’m not convinced, though. If he’s right about the ending being an invasion of the miraculous, then his judgment is also correct. However, as he also points out, this scene does not seem to be of a piece with the rest of the film. Ponette raises very serious theological questions by starkly revealing mere theology to be unequal to the task of helping a young child accept or understand the death of a loved one. At the same time, it is about the very practical ways that children go about this process on their own. Children are, after all, incredibly resilient.

Ponette spends the film picking her way through the stages of grief. She isolates herself and tries to pretend that her mother still visits her at night. She is angry with her cousins for not caring as much about what has happened as she does. The bulk of the movie revolves around her attempts to bargain with God. I haven’t mentioned perhaps the darkest scene in the movie, where Ponette, depressed after being tormented by a playground bully, asks Matiaz to “make her die” so she can visit her mother in heaven, or alternately, help her kill the bully. Matiaz clearly knows this is a bad plan. (“But if we kill him, Aurélie will yell at us.”) He comforts her as best he can instead.

It doesn’t make sense, then, for Ponette’s conversation with her mother to be the result of a miraculous appearance (like in Danny Boyle’s Millions, for example), or to be a sudden shift into magical realism after an hour and a half of impressively naturalistic situations and dialogue. No, this is the closure Ponette needs in order to accept her mother’s death and move on. It’s the final conversation that they never had, ending most importantly with her mother’s assurance that she loves Ponette.

ponette7She “imagines” it, though I think that’s a clumsy, simplistic way of describing what’s going on in her head in these scenes. There are none of the signifiers that we are conditioned to expect when a movie presents us with a dream sequence or a fantasy, because this is all from Ponette’s point-of-view, and her young mind doesn’t draw a distinction between fantasy and reality. It is all of a piece with the way writer-director Jacques Doillon flawlessly captures the inner life of childhood.

So, what of God in all this? There are many scenes in this movie that are genuinely heartbreaking to watch. A young, innocent child loses her mother pointlessly in a stupid accident that was no one’s fault. She is devastated. She turns to God for consolation, and she gets no answer. Or does she? Obviously she doesn’t get the answer she wants, and she doesn’t get an answer she recognizes as an answer, but by the end she has found the peace that she needs. Does that count as an answer?

Ponette confronts us with the reality that terrible things can and do happen to the people we most want to shield from terrible things. As the father of an almost-three-year old girl, I ached for someone in Ponette’s life who could enfold her with the love and security she needed. But Ponette also ends by comforting us with the possibility of grace and healing. It’s not an easy thing, and it takes time, and that time is filled with pain. But eventually, healing can happen.

ponette4Hopefully, as part of that healing, Ponette can also come to understand, not that God was indifferent to her pain, but that His love and attention were not conditional upon a legalistic model of doing just the right thing to be worthy. She did not need to recite magic words, or undertake a series of playground trials, or fold her hands just so while praying (as she shows Matiaz in one scene). Only when she has utterly exhausted her efforts to insert precisely the correct change into the Deus Ex Machina can something transcendent take place. Maybe she will learn that way, after all.

Theodicy at the Movies: Silence (1971)

•March 11, 2014 • Leave a Comment

silence

Why would a benevolent God allow the suffering of innocents? Why do the wicked prosper? Why do evil and injustice exist if God created everything, and God is good and just? These are the most difficult questions people of faith have to face. “Theodicy” (from the Greek “God” and “justice”) is the word we use to describe attempts to grapple with and answer these questions. The oldest, best-known work of theodicy in the Judeo-Christian tradition is the biblical Book of Job, but many of the most brilliant religious minds in history have also wrestled with these challenges. Theodicy often takes place in the context of philosophical or theological works, but also sometimes in great works of art, including films. This is the first in a series discussing theodicy in movies from various decades and national cinemas.

Silence is based on a 1966 novel by Japanese Catholic author Shūsaku Endō, adapted by Endō himself for director Masahiro Shinoda. The story takes place amid brutal religious persecution of Japanese Christians in the 17th century. The film opens with a voice-over juxtaposing two important pieces of historical context: First, the Jesuits are described as a militant order formed in opposition to the ongoing Protestant Reformation. Second, their arrival in Japan in the 1500s is connected with the simultaneous arrival of firearms, implying both the secular element of the Europeans’ mission to the Far East, and the violence that resulted.

By the time the story-proper begins, in 1638, Christianity is outlawed in Japan, and Japanese Christians have been driven underground by persecution, torture, and death. Into the midst of this desperate situation, two Jesuit priests (Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garrpe) arrive on the shores of Japan under cover of darkness, led by Kichijiro, a guide they feel they cannot entirely trust. We soon learn that they have come to learn the fate of Cristóvão Ferreira, their former mentor and a missionary in Japan for 20 years, who mysteriously vanished 5 years ago.

silence4Kichijiro brings them to a village of Christians who have continued practicing their faith in secret, albeit without the benefit of a priest to perform the sacraments. Unable to search openly for Ferreira, they take up the work of ministering to the villagers. Meanwhile, Kichijiro begins bragging about his role in smuggling two Jesuits into Japan. As word spreads, Christians from other villages come looking for the priests, and it seems only a matter of time before the authorities are alerted.

As expected, soldiers eventually arrive and slaughter most of the villagers. Rodrigues and Garrpe are separated, and Rodrigues falls in with Kichijiro, who ultimately betrays him for the reward of 300 silver pieces. Rodrigues is forced to witness the torture and execution of several other Christians, including Father Garrpe, who swims out into the ocean and drowns after witnessing the execution of several Christians who were to be spared if he would apostatize. Eventually, Rodrigues is tortured himself, and told that the other Christians will continue to be tortured until he apostatizes. Finally, he is brought face-to-face with Ferreira, who has apostatized and adopted a Japanese name (“Sawano Chūan”) and wife, and who encourages Rodrigues to do the same for the sake of the others who are suffering.

Up until this point, Father Rodrigues has clearly expected to follow in the footsteps of Christ. Betrayed by his disciple Kichijiro, he explicitly draws the parallel himself when he learns about the bounty for his betrayal (remarking in awe that Judas’ reward was much less). He is brought in on the back of a donkey, and then marched, barefoot and bloody, through crowds that pelt him with jeers and rocks. He endures physical torment at the hands of his captors. The logical conclusion of this story is a glorious martyrdom, which he is peacefully resigned to endure with quiet strength and dignity, secure in his faith and his spiritual reward.

silence3But the Japanese authorities don’t need another Christian martyr. They need an apostate missionary to symbolize their victory and demoralize the remaining Japanese believers. Rodrigues cannot hope for a noble death, only an ignoble existence in which he clings to his beliefs while other Christians are forced to die for them. Initially disgusted by Ferreira’s “betrayal” of the faith, he slowly begins to understand the impossible choice Ferreira was given.

Woven throughout the trials of Father Rodrigues, the film also pays a great deal of attention to its troubled Judas figure, Kichijiro. We learn early on that he was once a Christian, and that he and his family were taken by the authorities and tortured many years before. Of his family, only he succumbed to the suffering and apostatized, while the others were executed. His weakness has made him an outcast among the other Christians, but his role in the arrival of the priests has restored him to the community.

Sometime before the village is ultimately destroyed, however, Kichijiro and three other believers are captured and subjected to the fumie test (literally “stepping-on picture”). Suspected Christians are required to step on a likeness of Jesus or the Virgin Mary (called a “fumie plate”) to prove they are not believers. When all four of the captured Christians reluctantly step on the plate, their interrogator pushes further by demanding they spit on it, as well. Only Kichijiro will do so, and he is set free. The other three Christians are bound to wooden crosses planted just off-shore and drowned when the tide comes in, singing hymns together as the whole village watches and prays. Kichijiro, tormented by this new failure, visits a prostitute and asks her to spit in his face.

silence5Having lost a second chance at redemption, Kichijiro follows pathetically after the fugitive Father Rodrigues, begging for forgiveness and absolution even up to the moment Rodrigues is taken by the soldiers. As the priest is hauled off, Kichijiro remains prostrate on the beach, weeping with his face buried in the sand, while the captain of the guard dumps his payment over him. Still hoping to be absolved, he trails desperately after the group, breaking into the prison to beg Rodrigues again to hear his confession and forgive him. When the guards come to kick him out, he tells them he is a Christian and demands to be locked up, and they oblige.

From the neighboring cell, he tearfully explains to Rodrigues that the circumstances he finds himself in are unfair. He did not betray Rodrigues for the money, about which he cares nothing, but because he was threatened by the authorities. “I betrayed my faith,” he wails. “But if I had been born a generation earlier, I might have found my way to heaven as a good Christian. But I was born after Christianity was outlawed. I was born too late.”

Soon enough, he apostatizes yet again under threat of torture, and is set free. But he keeps coming back, seeking forgiveness and restoration from Rodrigues. The guards at the prison stop bothering to arrest him, regarding him as a poor lunatic, and merely threaten him until he leaves. The last time we see him, he wades out into a body of water, and then begins thrashing madly about, ducking his head under as though to drown himself and end his torment, but lacking the courage even for that.

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Meanwhile, much of the film’s final half-hour consists of a series of fierce debates between Rodrigues and the former Ferreira, in-between torture sessions in “the pit” (during which the prisoner is bound tightly and dangled head down in a hole for hours and days on end, with a cut behind the ear to drain the blood rushing to the head and prolong the agony). Ferreira argues that Christianity was doomed in Japan from the beginning, likening it to a “terrible swamp” in which anything that is planted soon begins to rot. He tells Rodrigues that none of their converts were ever truly Christians, having immediately folded the priests’ teachings into their own Buddhist beliefs.

Rodrigues is appalled by what he regards as the ease with which the authorities were able to subvert Ferreira’s decades of faith and service. Seeing that Rodrigues will not change his mind about Japan, Ferreira reveals that he did not apostatize because of the torments of the pit: “Even while hanging upside down, I never uttered a word of betrayal against God. The reason I apostatized was because God … Because God did nothing to intervene. I prayed fervently to God. But God did nothing to intervene.”

Rodrigues is enraged, but Ferreira continues, lamenting the plight of the Christians they can both hear groaning in the pit: “Why should they have to suffer like that? [...] If Christ were here at this moment, I feel sure, for the sake of those men, he would apostatize. Christ would have apostatized for the sake of love. Come now. You must perform the most painful act of love, that no one has ever before done. Come. You must be brave.”

The guards bring the plate, and Rodrigues slowly stands and places his foot on it. As he does so, Ferreira closes his eyes and mouths a prayer and the interrogator grins diabolically. The camera cuts to a shot of the deserted hallway between the cells, sunlight streaming in from a window just out of sight, as a rooster crows, evoking Peter’s denial of Christ from the Gospels. The film ends with Rodrigues and Ferreira working together to aid the authorities in their quest to keep Christianity out of Japan. Rodrigues has assumed the name of an executed Christian, and taken the man’s wife, who apostatized earlier in the film rather than see her husband killed in front of her.

silence1What does God’s silence mean in this story? Was God truly silent? Ferreira and Rodrigues both certainly knew Jesus’ words in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Through Rodrigues’ painful journey to apostasy, Shūsaku Endō suggests a different meaning to those words; one that is much more difficult to understand.

Near the end of the novel, as his foot hovers over the plate, Rodrigues imagines that the image of Christ is speaking to him:

“Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross. [...] Your foot suffers in pain; it must suffer like all the feet that have stepped on this plaque. But that pain alone is enough. I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason that I am here.”

“Lord, I resented your silence.”

“I was not silent. I suffered beside you.”

“But you told Judas to go away: What thou dost do quickly. What happened to Judas?”

“I did not say that. Just as I told you to step on the plaque, so I told Judas to do what he was going to do. For Judas was in anguish as you are now.”

[...] “There are neither the strong nor the weak. Can anyone say that the weak do not suffer more than the strong?”

[...] No doubt his fellow priests would condemn his act as sacrilege; but even if he was betraying them, he was not betraying his Lord. He loved him now in a different way from before. Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring him to this love. “Even now I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.”

The God of Silence suffers, in silence, alongside us, with love and understanding for our weakness as well as our strength, and with a bottomless well of grace and forgiveness for our inevitable failures. And, in turn, He makes His presence known to others through us.

In the foreword to a new edition of Silence, director Martin Scorsese writes: “Silence is the story of a man who learns – so painfully – that God’s love is more mysterious than he knows, that He leaves much more to the ways of men than we realize, and that He is always present … even in His silence. For me, it is the story of one who begins on the path of Christ, and who ends replaying the role of Christianity’s greatest villain, Judas. He almost literally follows in his footsteps. In so doing, he comes to understand the role of Judas. This is one of the most painful dilemmas in all of Christianity. What was Judas’ role? What was expected of him by Christ? What is expected of him by us today?”

Scorsese, who describes himself as a “lapsed Catholic,” is set to explore that dilemma himself with a new film adaptation of Silence next year. Whatever Scorsese brings to the text, this profound Japanese classic of literature and film already has a message worth contemplating about the Silence of God.

 
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