December 1, 2017

‘Novitiate’…in a changing church


Educated in a Roman Catholic girl’s school in Tennessee, Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) believes she’s been called to live her life as a nun, always in the quest to attain the perfect love of God. Much to the dismay of her agnostic mother (well acted by Julianne Nicholson), at age 17, Cathleen pursues her call and becomes a postulant in the cloistered order of the Sisters of the Blessed Rose. They are known as “The Roses.” 

The film takes place in 1964, two years after the convening of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II). The news of change in the Church brought about by Pope John XXIII is slow to arrive at the convent of the Sisters of the Blessed Rose.

Resistant to change, Reverend Mother Marie St. Claire (Melissa Leo) personifies all the sadistic and authoritarian qualities anyone has ever heard whispered about some of the women who were in this role at the time of Vatican II. The Reverend Mother tells the young women that whenever she speaks, she is speaking on behalf of God and to remember that as they’re trained in “a special kind of love.” The postulants are instructed not to ask questions, they’re to keep their eyes downcast, to obey both “regular” and “grand” silence. They’re psychologically humiliated and physically punished.

The harsh conditions of the convent could’ve been influenced by Jansenism. It was a heresy, eventually denounced by Rome, but took hold among monastics and in seminaries in the 17th century. Trappist monk, Fr. Thomas Keating writing in Open Mind, Open Heart, calls it a “pessimistic form of piety” which “deeply affected the psychological climate” of seminaries and religious orders well into the 20th century.

A visit from the Archbishop and a threat that she’ll be replaced, forces the Reverend Mother to announce the changes they must embrace. Although the film is fiction, in reality after the implementation of the changes instigated by Vatican II, 90,000 nuns renounced their orders and left their vocations.

The “Roses” postulants desperately seek God’s love. A dose of God Incarnate would’ve been a welcome relief for the young women. But the teachings are parsed out with both understatement and cruelty and while the word “love” is used often, the demonstration and actions of love, grace and gratitude by the nuns is largely non-existent.

Don’t let the historical mistakes distract you from this film. The vestments worn by the priests are clearly contemporary. And there were no container cars on railroad trains in the 1950s or 60s you’ll see in one scene. The lipstick, eyeliner, and mascara on the novices looks nice, but certainly distracts from the authenticity of the film.

The conflict around changes from Vatican II lives today. A Roman Catholic parish merger failed recently in Connecticut due to “a clash of cultures.” And most Anglo Catholic parishes in the Episcopal Church cling to pre-Vatican II liturgical practices if not theology.

We hope you see this excellent film written and directed by Maggie Bates. Watch for Melissa Leo to be recognized for her stellar performance, and while you’re at it, ask yourself the same questions that are posed to Cathleen after she makes the walk down the aisle to finally become a Bride of Christ. She is asked the defining questions, “What do you seek? What do you desire?”

October 30, 2017

'I'll Push You'


 commentary by Bonnie Anderson and Bob Bowman
 
This documentary film is about two lifelong best friends who undertake the 500 mile pilgrimage, 35 day pilgrimage across the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. But the film is much more than a trip journal.

Many pilgrims undertake this journey. So what is different about these two friends? Justin lives with a progressively worsening, debilitating muscle disease and, having lost the use of his arms and legs, is a wheelchair user. Justin’s best friend, Patrick promised to do the trek with Justin. Patrick vowed to “push” him (or ultimately do whatever it would take – carry haul, lift) to complete the journey. Justin and Patrick are unique people. As the film unfolds, and we learn more about them, we are given a surprisingly intimate look into the depth of the human spirit.

The journey and the documentation of it is clearly a monumental undertaking and the resulting film is moving and beautifully photographed. We found ourselves cheering for Patrick and Justin as they overcome a number of barriers to their progress, and we became concerned over the depths of exhaustion that Patrick was putting himself through in an effort to make the journey as easy and cheerful as possible for Justin. At the same time we would have liked to hear more from Justin during the journey.

‘I’ll Push You’ reminds us that the Holy Spirit comes to us at unexpected times and often in unusual situations. True transformation is an arduous journey for everyone, triggered in our own families by terrible accidents. But transformation can also be a choice, like the one Patrick makes to push beyond his limits. This difficult trek is the vehicle for his transformation. And although Justin occasionally talks about being a “burden”, throughout the journey we see his positive outlook and generous acceptance of help, but Patrick’s transformation is poignant, breathtaking, and demonstrable during the journey and into his new life beyond.


This film is much more than a story of two friends and the challenges they face on a rough journey. The film is a story of love, hope and community and it contains important messages for us about giving up our illusions of control and fully embracing the presence of God in our life, This is a film is to be savored among friends and loved ones.

The film releases as part of a one-night-only event on November 2nd, at 7:30 p.m. For theater information and tickets, visit: https://www.fathomevents.com/events/ill-push-you

February 5, 2017

Moonlight


 Stories are an important way for people to know each other, and in the story told in ‘Moonlight’ we are provided with dynamic visual embellishments and gifted actors and a director that bring this tough story about a tough life painfully alive.

For many viewers, this film will provide first-hand experience of an environment and life style with which we are completely unfamiliar. Although the plight of the impoverished in this country is often documented and publicized, there is still the opportunity for many of us to remain distanced from it. Not so in ‘Moonlight’.

The setting for the film is the Liberty City section of Miami where Director Barry Jenkins grew up. In a recent TV interview Jenkins said he never saw a white person until after high school.

When we first meet Chiron (first played by Alex Hibbert), who is a young black child, he is hiding from other kids bent on bullying him. He is skinny, quiet, reserved. We see his public housing home, his single mother (Naomie Harris) who struggles with drug addiction, his neighborhood, and the drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan kindly and authentically cares for Chiron, while effectively picking at our stereotypes, exemplifying the good we see in every person, and causing viewers to recognize the juxtaposition of his kindness to Chiron and his contribution to the distress that drugs bring into Chiron’s life.

We spend time with Chiron at various stages in his life. In three separate chapters in the film, “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black”. We get to know him intimately. Like the centaur from Greek mythology with whom he shares his name, Chiron is unique. And, along with Chiron, we learn he is gay.

Chiron moves through his life, and we move right along with him. He moves from being a quiet, reserved, skinny kid to a quietly questioning and searching teenager (played by Ashton Sanders) to an aloof, shut down adult (played by Trevante Rhodes). The strengths of this film are many. Written by gay black playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, we are given a purposeful film with language that is real, not trite.


Viewers are given the rare gift of intimacy and connection to a story, parts of which they may have heard, but did not know. This life story is one that resonates, in some unexplainable way, with the life of the viewer, who ultimately, like Chiron, in the most astonishing and grace-filled way, faces redemption, cautious hope and love.

January 14, 2017

Silence


There are comparatively few popular films that are open about Christianity. In most movies, we have to look hard and listen very carefully to find God and even then, often God is found in the nuances and subtleties of film. At first glance, it looks like God is front and center in the new Martin Scorsese film “Silence”. But in truth, the film stars a brilliant imposter known as religion.

If you are “spiritual, but not religious,” or know someone who describes themselves that way, this film has the possibility of being quite meaningful to you. At face value, the film is about two Christian/Roman Catholic priest/missionaries who, in a search for their lost mentor, travel into the hostile 17th century environment of Japan. There they find themselves trying to survive while holding onto their faith as they are immersed ever deeper into a culture where Christianity is mortally punishable and priests are forbidden.

The film demonstrates the passion of religion and the determined commitment to beliefs that enable torture and murder as punishment for believers of differing religions. The kind of missionary evangelism portrayed in the film has been an accepted method for evangelists and priests to use to invite “conversion” to Christianity. However, in recent decades missionaries have taken a different approach and many evangelists today live among the people and look for examples of the Gospel already present in their lives.

In ‘Silence’ a Japanese official tells a captive priest that love is foundational to both Christianity and Buddhism. Had the 17th century missionaries looked for common ground the outcome may have been quite different. But the film takes us to a time when the sole escape for the priests, other than death, was to become “apostate priests” renouncing their faith by stepping on a stone with an icon of Jesus or Mary and then accepting the cultural ways and religious practices of the Japanese culture.

Today, some movie-goers have become numb to extreme violence, explicit sex, and abuse in one form or another. But for many of us, repeated, horrific torture in the name of religion is new and frightening to see. The beauty of the Japanese landscape, the simple architecture of buildings and the transformative night sounds placed in juxtaposition make the scenes of brutality even more alarming.

Although much of the film is underscored by the practices of Christian and Buddhist religions, an attempt at understanding the faith of the “other” is given only a passing glance. The startling realities of this film are the battle of wills and the misuse of power, both of which are inspired by a lack of understanding of the largesse of God and the narrow interpretations of faith fueled by religion.


If you can parse out the spiritual aspects of the film as portrayed by the actors and separate them from the preoccupied focus upon religious dogma you will find poignant spiritual messages about incarnation, pride, humility and love.

December 19, 2016

Top Ten of 2016

Christy Lemire, former AP critic, offers her ten best films for this year. And the editors of RogerEbert.com differ not just in order but selection. Tribune Newspapers critic, Michael Phillips, has a slightly different order. But for those wanting to know the worst films of  2016, Phillips offer you his list. There's plenty of choices at the multiplex this holiday season but some of those listed aren't opening until January, 2017.