Bit of a sad day yesterday. I've been finding myself way overextended lately, and started realizing I need to do some drastic cutting back on my commitments. One of them - the hardest to give up, so far - was my film writing for Christianity Today Movies. But journalism is all about deadlines, sometimes very tight ones, and they didn't always mesh very well with my core commitments to Pacific Theatre, family and other things.
So yesterday I let my editor at CTMovies know that I needed to step back from that. Mark's a great guy, and extended the invitation to do more writing for them at a later date, when time allows. Very appealing. But for now, we'll hang up those spurs alongside a passel of others recently stowed in the tack room.
I retired just a little early for CT to run my second "Movie Gourmet" column, so we'll post it here for your reading pleasure.
MOVIE GOURMET 2
by Ron Reed
The second in our ongoing series of samplings from an international smorgasbord of lesser-known films worth tracking down for their artistic and spiritual nourishment. Bon appetit!
OUR FEATURE PRESENTATION
Ushpizin (2004, Israel) is the first film ever made within the sequestered Breslau neighbourhood of Jerusalem, a group of radically Orthodox Jewish believers whose religious practices seem centuries removed from anything familiar to most North American viewers. Usphpizin tells the story of an impoverished couple who haven't two shekels to rub together – which is a problem, when the citron you yearn for to celebrate Succoth (and maybe bring the special blessing of a much-wanted pregnancy) costs a thousand. They pray – real prayers, pleadings, fervent and unabashedly human ("What can I tell you, Father? The situation stinks!") – and God sends a miracle. A thousand dollars (which is considerably more than a thousand shekels), slipped anonymously under their door.
Reviewers frequently refer to the film as a "fable" or "fairy tale." It does have the simplicity and directness of an ancient story, but – especially for people of faith – those descriptions diminish the film. Played by a husband and wife who left the professional theatre almost a decade ago to enter Orthodox life, there's real meat on the bones of these characters: I know these people, they're not just symbols in a moral illustration. And while a world in which prayers are sometimes answered might look like a magical fantasy to some people, I can only say it looks more like the world I'm familiar with than the ones portrayed in scores of films where God is only absent, or silent, or cruel.
Here, God provides: money for the feast, a succah for the celebration, palm-branches and myrrtle and willow and citron for the special blessings, and best of all, unexpected guests – known as holy ushpizin – to share in the festivities. But as we said, the miracle is only the beginning: the visitors, friends of Moshe's from "the old days," turn out to be convicts violating their parole, and skepticism about their friend's new-found religiosity forces events that call his new life into question.
We've all seen religious films that climax with a miracle. Ushpizin only begins there, and it's not really the miracle that matters – it's what comes after. (Full review
The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005, Romania) was one of the most-praised, least-seen films to reach North America this past year. An unadorned, unsentimental portrait of an isolated old man's dying hours, it placed first in the 2006 Indiewire poll of the world's top critics.
Dante Remus Lazarescu lives alone with his cats. He drinks more than he should, more than he admits. When it comes time to die, he is shunted from hospital to overtaxed hospital by an endless series of brusque and exhausted health professionals. At two hours and forty minutes, it's a harrowing journey, as we stand by, helpless witnesses to the breakdown of Mr Lazarescu's body and mind. Harrowing, but humanizing: this fading old man can do little to earn our affection, yet his pain, his weakness, his fleeting moments of dignity stir us to compassion. People travel across continents to spend time with Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, simply to be with the poor and lonely as they die, and often those people come away tranformed. This film offers us a small taste of that experience.
The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu is a memento mori, a reminder of death, like the skulls medieval scholars kept close at hand to remember their small and mortal place in the grand order of things. G.K. Chesterton wrote that there must be priests to remind us that one day we will die. Writer-director Cristi Puiu is such a priest, believing – in the face of all the human imperfection and isolation he observes so unflinchingly – that "there is a God who created a perfect world," where "everything is related to everything." This sad, raw film is the sacrament he offers, a remembrance of suffering and death that has the power to quicken our humanity. For more, click here http://soulfoodmovies.blogspot.com/2007/01/death-of-mr-lazarescu.html
Flowers Of Saint Francis (1950) was recently released by Criterion, only the third film by legendary Italian auteur Roberto Rossellini to make its way onto DVD on our continent. And unless you’re lucky enough to live in Toronto or New York (where the exhibition has already played) or Los Angeles (where it runs Feb 16 – Mar 28), the closest you may get to James Quandt’s painstakingly assembled Rossellini retrospective “The Cinema of Intelligence” will be to track down copies of Rome: Open City (1945), Germany Year Zero (1947) and the Saint Francis biopic and have yourself a three-course soul feast – possibly whetting your palate with Martin Scorsese's wonderfully personal guided tour of Italian film, My Voyage To Italy (1999).
According to Rossellini expert Peter Brunette, Open City "is widely regarded as the most important film in Italian cinema history." Filmed on cobbled-together scraps of mismatched film stock amid the rubble that was Rome at the end of World War Two, this is the story of two ordinary Italians, a communist partisan and a courageous priest who risk their lives to oppose the cruelty of the Nazi occupation forces. With memories of war atrocities only months old, in the midst of a city still ravaged by bombing and occupation, Rossellini's portrayal of the co-operation between a political idealist and an authentic man of faith – filmed in explicitly religious imagery that evokes the life and passion of Christ – carries a spiritual force that prompted noted director and three-time Motion Picture Academy president Arthur Hiller to identify it as the single film that has most powerfully influenced his spiritual life ("Screening Mystery," Image Journal Number 20).
Germany Year Zero is perhaps the darkest episode in Rossellini's filmography, a singularly despairing film that paints a dark portrait of the remnant of a German family barely surviving in the post-war ruins of Berlin – which Mike Hertenstein brilliantly compares to Chesteron's account of the blackest moment in the life of Saint Francis: "The whole world had turned over; the whole world was on top of him. It was by this deliberate idea of starting from zero, from the dark nothingness of his own deserts, that he did come to enjoy even earthly things as few people have enjoyed them." The Flowers of St Francis (originally titled "Francesco, guillare di Dio, or "Francis, Jester of God") is the director's most explicitly religious – even devotional – film, emphasizing the joyous life of the first Franciscans, portraying them as an order of "fools for Christ." The film is jarring to many viewers, with a strangely primitive style arising not only from the amateur performances of real-life Franciscans in the monks' roles and the comic over-acting of the film's one professional, but also from odd rhythms of movement and editing and the buffo physical comedy of several scenes. This is no conventional hagiography: Francis was no conventional saint. Mike Hertenstein: “The overlap between Rossellini's insistence on spiritual solutions in his content and his increasing avoidance of conventional form make watching these films a unique opportunity for the viewers to experience simultaneous growth and even breakthroughs, spiritual and aesthetic — and point up the mysterious connection between art and faith.”
The Double Life of Veronique (1991) hit the shelves in November, a long-awaited Criterion release of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s enigmatic, visually extraordinary forerunner to his celebrated Three Colors trilogy. Of all the Polish master's films (particularly the philosophically and theologically dense Decalogue series, which is based on the Ten Commandments), Veronique is the least preoccupied with ethical tensions and conundrums – which doesn't diminish its spiritual significance one bit, according to Jeffrey Overstreet: "The inquisitive nature of his storytelling, as if even he has no idea where it's going to end up, paralleled by the inquisitive movement of the camera makes Veronique an entirely unique film…. I wish I could live in such a way that I could see the world all the time the way Kieslowski's camera sees the world, the way Damiel saw the world in Wings of Desire – like an angel haunting his subjects, drawn to their beauty and the mysteries of their thoughts, choices, habits, and passions."
Becket (1964) was immensely celebrated in its day, but is neglected in ours: apart from a hard-to-find, low quality videotape, this classic film about King Henry II and the martyred Saint Thomas a Becket hasn't been in circulation for years, despite having been nominated for a dozen Academy Awards.
In 2003, Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation financed an extensive 35mm restoration, and prints are currently on tour, starting with a one-week run in New York city before making their way to at least thirty other cities in the U.S. (Steven Greydanus, who writes for Christianity Today Movies, has provided a venue schedule at his Decent Films website, which is a superb resource for cinephiles with an interest in faith).
The film deserves the big screen: the winner of numerous international awards for cinematography, art direction and costuming, it is a visually glorious evocation of the color and texture of life in the 12th century. The performances too are grand (but never false or stagey), with two of the greatest actors of the era meeting at the peak of their powers: Henry II was Peter O'Toole's first role after his electrifying Lawrence Of Arabia, and Richard Burton (as Thomas) was fresh in viewers' minds from his work opposite Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra.
But the real power of Becket lies not in its historical pomp and star casting – or even in its language, which is glorious – but in one of the great stories of spiritual transformation. When the young and profligate King Henry decides to make a mockery of church interference in his kingdom by appointing his drinking and womanizing buddy to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, he has no idea that Thomas will find there a divine calling, a man without honour who finds himself defending the honour of God, "vulnerable as a boy king fleeing from danger." It is the story of a great friendship torn asunder by the gospel that comes "not with peace but with a sword," just as it is the story of a soul's regeneration. In his book Reel Spirituality Robert K. Johnston identifies Becket (along with Dead Man Walking, Babette's Feast, Breaking The Waves, The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, Andrei Rublev and The Green Mile) as one of those films that seem "uniquely able to mediate the holy, to be the occasion for epiphanies." He points to the film's pivotal role in his own calling to the ministry, in spite of a sense of personal unworthiness: "You need not be holy. Thomas was not. You only have to be obedient to my call."
Into Great Silence (2005, France/Germany) is currently touring cinematheques and festival theatres, as well as having a New York opening this month. The very definition of "contemplative cinema," this mostly wordless documentary is the first in history to take us inside the mother house of the strictest monastic order in Catholicism, the Carthusians – whose first English monastery, incidentally, was established by King Henry II in penance for his role in the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket. Sean Farnel observes that "this transcendent, closely observed film seeks to embody a monastery, rather than siimply depict one," and such is the experience of many viewers. Approaching the screening as something of a spiritual retreat, one can enter into the unhurried rhythms of the piece, its pervasive silence, the extended shots of a novitiate praying or a lay brother preparing vegetables, of a candle, an empty chapel, or the mountain view from a monk's cell. The 160 minute running time provides enough space for the viewer to revel in the sense of timelessness the film evokes, without obvious narrative or structural markers to indicate how much time has passed or how much remains – a small experience of the "eternal present" to which the film refers at one point.
Sweet Land (2005) won the Audience Award at the Hamptons festival, the story of a German mail order bride who encounters suspicion from the Norwegian Lutheran farming community to which she travels in Minnesota, shortly after the end of the First World War. Questions of faith, love, and the true nature of marriage emerge in this gentle romance whose cinematography is compared by both The Village Voice and Entertainment Weekly to that of the masterful Days Of Heaven. Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) calls it "a treasure, one of those films that keeps me going back to the art houses." Check the official website for a screening schedule.
The Painted Veil (2006) was unjustly overlooked in the deluge of year-end releases, a handsome treatment of Somerset Maugham's story of a narcissistic and over-privileged young woman "taken in adultery" who is challenged to some sort of spiritual awakening when her husband volunteers to fight a cholera epidemic in a remote Chinese village. Maugham's characteristic British restraint and psychological insight tempers what might sound like melodramatic stuff into something understated and substantial, with rooted lead performances by co-producers Naomi Watts and Edward Norton.
Angel-A (2005, France) opens March 23, a fetching bit of eye candy that might just provide some nourishment for the soul. Director Luc Besson is known for his predominating sense of visual style, but a glance at his resume suggests some sort of spiritual interest beneath the gloss – The Fifth Element was a sci-fi adventure with something like agape on its mind, and his last outing in the director's chair was a 1999 Joan of Arc treatment, The Messenger. In this one, Andre and Angela "meet cute" (Euro-style) attempting to commit suicide on the same bridge: he saves her, she resolves to be his guardian angel, and the result is "a chic hybrid of It's A Wonderful Life and Wings Of Desire" in sexy black and white.
Beyond The Gates (2005, UK / Germany) has been slow to reach theatres, probably in order to avoid living in the shadow of the highly acclaimed Hotel Rwanda, which also dealt with the events of the Rwandan genocide. But now, shorn of its darker, more daunting original title (Shooting Dogs) and in the hands of a distributor who's not afraid to play up the film's primary distinctive – the faith perspective of one of its central characters, John Hurt as a Catholic priest whose faith is tested by the violence he witnesses – this BBC Films production opens March 9. Variety comments that the picture "is unquestionably at its most compelling in its depiction of Father Christopher's steadfast reliance on spirituality…. Even as the violence reaches its zenith, he continues to perform Mass and seems more concerned with making sure each child receives communion than in formulating a possible exit strategy."