Monday, October 23, 2006

Virtual Mail Bag #1: Demons, Fearless, Prison

From Paul, in (possibly) Boston;

Subject: curse of the demon
Date: Mon, 25 Sep 2006 08:20:09 -0700 (PDT)

I was sorry to note that you do not allow comments on
your blog, especially on the curse of the demon. It's
true that the demon shows up right away, but in a way,
the slower development that follows in the film almost
makes you doubt your senses. By which I mean I found
myself wondering if it had been 'real' at all. Until,
of course, the end of the film. It still belongs in my
list of favorite horror films, in which none of the
Freddy type movies has any place at all.

"It's a good thing I'm all alone when I'm by myself."
- something actually said by Paul Maybury Jr.

Thanks for your note, Paul Jr.

I know what you mean about comments. I do love a good movie chat. Thing is, visiting other people's blogs, a lot of times people post real junk. I didn't want to spend a lot of time scrubbing graffiti off the bathroom walls. Eternal vigilance has its place.

Downside is, we miss out when good people actually have something good to say. So I'm starting me a mail bag, like Bob Dylan's got on his show, like they used to have on Safety Roundup at lunch time. If it's good enough for Mr Zimmerman and the Safety Patrol, it's good enough for me.

Thanks for your comments, Paul. I like your take on CURSE - I can see how the "fantasticness" of the effect itself could lead to your experience of the film. Nice.

And thanks for taking the time to email, and for inspiring “Virtual Mail Bag.” Now we're all just a little less alone. Even if we are by ourselves.



Robert “Little Tramp” Whalley of Melbourne, Downunder writes…

Subject: Fearless Review
Date: Tue, 10 Oct 2006 08:14:41 +1000


I came across your review of Fearless and liked it a lot. I am
currently teaching an online course on "Media As Spirituality" at
the theological school, Trinity College, University of Melbourne,
and using Peter Weir's films as a template. May I quote - with
appropriate citations - your essay on the the film as part of my
online lecture? The course is in its last component, has 8 current
students, will likely run again in two years, and I would ask
permission if I were to use your work in any future work (which
isn't in my plans at this time) outside this course.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Rob Whalley

PS - For a bit about me,check out my own blog at, I do tertiary chaplaincy and adult education here in Melbourne.

Greetings, Robert.

Sorry to be slow replying. I'd forgotten that I'd given my hotmail address for the blog, and don't visit there very often.

Yes, by all means, feel free to use the Fearless piece (or any of my other film writing) in your course. It's so gratifying that you find it useful.

I'll check out your blog!


P.S. Shouldn’t that be “chaplainesque”?...


And this just in (well, I got to it within a month) from sunny Winterpeg…

From: Gordon Matties
Subject: Bless you prison
Date: Tue, 03 Oct 2006 17:39:37 -0500


I own a copy of Bless You, Prison, which I received from the Director.

You can order it from Christian Cinema (this film was not made as “Christian
cinema,” by the way) or cd universe.

I saw the film in Montreal, when I served on the Ecumenical Jury there. We
awarded it the Ecumenical Prize that year.

I’m looking forward to seeing your book! All the best.

Gordon Matties, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Biblical & Theological Studies
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, MB Canada
Seeing is Believing: CMU's Film Series
Movie Theology Web Page

Thanks, Gordon! I'll track me down a copy.

Ecumenical jury. Sounds fun, if ominous. Better than "ecumenical posse". Or "ecumenical lynch mob" Still, if you've got to be part of a lynch mob, good to be ecumenical about it.

Must check out those websites.

And say, your name's familiar: did you used to be a Vancouverite? Or maybe I met you on a long-ago arts thingamabob in Vancouver: I seem to recall a reading of "The Zeal Of Thy House" and a Catholic church shaped like a seashell. Or maybe I just dreamt it.


To which Doc Matties re-replies;


I was a regent student in the late 70s. You came to Winnipeg to do a
lecture/presentation series at Mennonite Brethren Bible College (a precursor to Concord College and CMU) in the 80s, I think. And maybe you presented something at a Catholic church here, but it that church is shaped on the outside like an oil can. Maybe it looks like a sea shell on the inside!


Well met, fellow alum! And yup, that was the gig: maybe '85 or '86. I know it was snowy.

And as for the church, yes, I think "oil can" is probably what the architects were going for, now that you mention it. Something about Aaron's beard.

Yours biblically,


Keep those ecards and eletters comin' in!

And from now on, how about all you scribes send your cinematic scribbles to - that way I'll get around to reading them much quicker! But if it bounces back to you, feel free to use

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Celluloid Saviours: Five Fave Jesus Films

A "Jesus Films" thread over at the
IMAGE Journal conversation
led to these musings. Never can resist a list…

Hasn't been widely seen yet. Screened at Sundance, where it was very well received, and recently I saw it at the Vancouver International Film Festival, where I saw both showings, I liked it that much. Developed by the South African theatre company that ran "The Mysteries" in London for two years, SON OF MAN sets the story of Jesus in contemporary Africa, which lends it a strongly political tone: I was reminded often of Clarence Jordan's "Cotton Patch Gospels." My theological friend said it was "very sophisticated," theologically, and riffed for a while on Rene Girard and the film's distinctly Johanine theology of the cross. I chimed in that it is very sophisticated aesthetically. There are some more musings, though not yet a full review, here.

Yes, the hype was off-putting. I try to make it a point not to be swayed by the mob, either joining in or reacting against, but it wasn't easy with this one. My stubborn resolve not to read more than a few paragraphs about a film before I see it (or watch anything on tv) probably helps. At any rate, this one really shook me. Aesthetically, I thought there was a bold, gothic artistry to the imagery of the film, real boldness in the use of original languages, a strong commitment to a unique vision. That it neglected the pre-passion life of Christ was no more a complaint for me than it is with Bach's St. Matthew Passion: there's a long tradition, isn't there? And something to be said for dramatic compaction. Personally / spiritually, the film had an immense impact on me: a film after which I really had no desire to talk. I dread seeing it a second time. And can't wait. Some things should be dreadful.

Equally controversial to Mel's messiah movie. I loved the way the film put me on the edge of my theatre seat, trying to discern if this truly was the son of God, if the film was heresy or holy. Loved the moment when I realized how much that stance put me in the role of the lawyers and the Pharisees, looking for something I could hang a charge on. I heard lots of PASSION fans praise that film because it was the first Jesus movie with a convincingly harrowing execution: they could only have said that because they boycotted THE LAST TEMPTATION.

I was underwhelmed when I saw it in theatres – the demythologizing really pushed my buttons, and I found the resurrection metaphor limp. But I rewatched it recently, and saw it for the densely wrought, subtle, endlessly inventive marvel that it is. And, as with SON OF MAN, I revel in its theatrical sensibility.

What a smart, biblically literate, gorgeously crafted screenplay. (From Murray Watts, the long-time Riding Lights playwright – again that connection to live theatre.) And so carefully composed, visually: who would think you could glory in the mise en scene of a play dough Jesus flick! But the meticulous attention inherent in 3D modelled animation means every frame, every sequence, every scene is shaped with incredible thought, and there is a three-dimensionality to the visual space (think of those tracking shots through Capernaum) that creates an extraordinary sense of reality, because of, not in spite of, the film's choice to eschew mere realism. Maybe there's something about the inescapable physicalness (earthiness?) of shaping the son of man out of clay? Or the way this specific medium subliminally causes us to become as little children? that lends it a surprising cumulative emotional power.

I also appreciate Zeffirelli's JESUS OF NAZARETH, Pasolini's THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW, GODSPELL, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (though I couldn't get past my preference for the original recording, and the movie it inspired that had already been playing for some years in my imagination by the time Norman Jewison got around to putting his less impressive version on celluloid), and Godard's admittely strange HAIL MARY.

One avid film fan whose movie sensibility has proved uncannily close to my own (smart lad) over the years of our internet friendship is Matt Page, whose particular enthusiasm is for Jesus films. As well as creating a blog featuring tons of really helpful Jesus film resources (including an index of 25 Jesus films referenced to the source passages in the four gospels), Matt recently launched a monthly podcast (subscribable through iTunes) featuring not only erudition and balance, but also a plummy Brit accent! The inaugural October cast focuses on Zeffirelli, with Pasolini promised for November – and, I'm guessing, Castle-Huges in December?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

VIFF: SON OF MAN absolute must-see! Tuesday only.

I saw SON OF MAN on Saturday at the VIFF, and I simply loved it. Enough that I'm going to see it again at its only other VIFF showing, Tuesday night at 9:45, at the Granville cinemas downtown.

I don't want to get all superlative about the film, and diminish other people's response when they see it. The fellow I went with is also a film buff, and he was unaffected, found it uneven. But I just want to move in to that movie like a house, drop my nets and follow.

It's got elements fairly early on that put me on edge, pushing my "uh oh this is heresy" or "darn they're completely humanizing/politicizing the story" buttons. But frankly, I like my Jesus movies that way: otherwise, I'm too sure where they're headed, and I just sit in my theatre seat checking off the Bible stories, nodding at the orthodoxy. This one rattled me enough, and shuffled the story around enough, that I was leaning forward in my seat right through.

Certainly foregrounds the danger and violence of Jesus' first century context under the Roman occupation forces to watch his story through a modern African lens. The horrors of the original story are horrific again.

Also certain is the fact that this film is made by a director (and ensemble - the company develops its ideas collectively) with a vividly visual, impassioned, utterly theatrical sensibility. (It comes out of South Africa's dimpho di kopane theatre, who also created the wildly acclaimed "Yiimimangaliso: The Mysteries," a contemporary African version of the Chester mystery cycle that ran for two years in London's west end). Watching the film, I kept thinking, yes, that's a dazzling stroke, from a truly theatrical imagination - but never stage-bound, always visually, filmically conceived. An aesthetic that's both bold and sophisticated.

There are now three films at the top of my 2006 list; L'ENFANT, SOPHIE SCHOLL and, now, SON OF MAN.

P.S. Okay, there's
a dvd version of Yiimimangaliso! Time to get out the pocketbook...)


After Tuesday's second viewing...

Dan, my movie/theology buddy, commented that the film is "sophisticated." I leapt in and agreed, "aesthetically," and he added, "theologically." Mentioned Rene Girard, and I tossed in a couple scriptures that have been on my mind about the film's crucifixion, and he "Amened" me and pointed out that the film has a very strongly Johannine theology of the cross. Can't wait to sit down with Dan and unpack that.

My UK friend Matt Page, who is something of a Jesus movie scholar (with very similar taste in film, for whatever that's worth) has posted a review at his blog.

And there's also a thread at Arts & Faith about the film, with some further thoughts about the politics and theology of the film.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Movie Group

Next up:
Dec 9: Dan's choice (heh heh heh...)
January: Sophie Scholl

On deck:
What's Eating Gilbert Grape?
13 Conversations About One Thing
It�s All Gone Pete Tong
Like Water for Chocolate
The Big Kahuna
Sweet Hereafter
The Runner Stumbles
Keeping the Faith
Saving Grace
Man Without a Past
About a Boy
Say Anything
Local Hero
13 Conversations about One Thing
Babette�'s Feast
The Apostle
Jesus of Montreal
Grizzly Man
Burden of Dreams
Touching the Void
Dancer in the Dark
Kent: Mr Hollands Opus, The NeverEnding Story, Nightmare Before Christmas

The Count of Monte Cristo
Les Miserables du vingtieme siecle
Born Into Brothels
Iron Giant
Waking Ned Devine
Pride and Prejudice / Bride and Prejudice
The Straight Story
Garden State (Mike)
The Mission
Chocolat (Nov 4)
Hawaii, Oslo (Nov 18)

Friday, October 06, 2006


THE THIRD MIRACLE (1999, USA, Agnieszka Holland, Richard Vetere & John Romano screenplay, Vetere novel)
You ask me, God wasted a miracle.

The border between the countries of faith and unbelief is as arbitrary as the ones we invent to mark the boundaries of more earthly kingdoms, as invisible to the naked eye. For some, passing from one side to the other is as clear and identifiable a moment as passing through a border checkpoint into a new land. For others, the two are separated by a vast no man's land, and they can find themselves stranded between warring kingdoms, unable to find their way safely to either side.

Frank Shore is such a man, a priest whose certainties about God, faith and vocation have been shattered while investigating miraculous cures which follow the death of a beloved fellow priest. Now he is called on by the Church to consider the possibility that Helena Regan, a widowed volunteer at an inner city Chicago church, may have been a saint.

What is striking about this film – apart from its fine performances and deftly structured story-telling – is that it takes questions of faith and doubt so seriously, and treats them with such a mature understanding. The story's essential question would seem to be this woman's sanctity, but that's mostly just the engine of the plot: the deeper question this film asks is whether faith, once lost, can be regained, and how such a perilous journey might be accomplished. It is the story of a man's soul.

In fact it is the story of two men's souls. Armin Mueller-Stahl plays Archbishop Werner, appointed by Rome to make the case against Regan's sainthood. In this he serves the church, which has no desire to beatify bogus saints, though it seems clear enough he takes considerable personal satisfaction in his task, as if dismayed that God might stoop so low as to work miracles through an American, and a distinctly ordinary one at that; she herself led a troubled life, her own daughter is alienated from her, she wasn't even a nun! It is the collision of Werner's arrogance and certainty with Shore's brokenness and doubt that drive the film. Ed Harris is utterly convincing in the role: as Andrew Greeley says (and he should know), Harris "looks so much like a priest that he probably ought to be one."

Which comes very close to the heart of THE THIRD MIRACLE. Frank Shore may look like a priest, he may not act like a priest, he certainly doesn't believe like a priest, but should he be one? Is he one? Helena Regan may or may not look like your image of a saint – or Archbishop Werner's – but is she one? What does sanctity look like? How many miracles does it take to prove such a thing?

And what constitutes a miracle? The young girl who was apparently healed by her is now a lost soul, a deeply troubled drug-addicted prostitute. Why would God heal someone, only to consign them to a life of misery?

This is a truly exceptional film that manages to be accessible and entertaining as well as substantial and thought-provoking. A strictly commercial American treatment might have dumbed down the story's miraculous elements into supernatural horror movie gimmicks, but director Agnieszka Holland brings a European sensibility that treats these themes with a thoughtful maturity as she lets her characters wrestle with real grown-up questions.

I say "her" characters. Credit where credit's due: novelist Richard Vetere laid the foundation here, and in making the transition from page to screen worked with Hollywood veteran John Romano to trim secondary themes and add a new narrative thread that generates real complexity and a terrifically satisfying story resolution.

THE THIRD MIRACLE came along at the end of the last millenium, one of a flurry of films that took faith and miracles seriously, heralding a new openness to religious themes and believing characters on the big screen. In the ensuing years THE MATRIX, AMERICAN BEAUTY and MAGNOLIA have all proven themselves to be massively popular films – in my opinion, deservedly so. But I urge you to seek out this smaller, quieter film, may in its own way prove a more mature and substantial consideration of spiritual themes than many of its more virtuosic contemporaries.


49 UP

49 UP (2005, UK, Michael Apted)
I'm absolutely sure that my faith has helped me through these difficult times

The task of the novelist once was, though it isn't often anymore, the presentation of the entirety of a life. Think Victor Hugo, think Great Expectations: we follow a child into adulthood, perhaps through to death, looking on from a privileged vantage point outside their circumstances. Tracing the vast arc of a human life, we glimpse what a human soul might look like viewed as a totality, outside of time.

It's a God's-eye view, a perspective our own lives don't afford us. Snapshots may remind us that the boy was father to the man, but memory distorts, reinterprets, invents, conflates, over-simplifies. And even the novelist only offers what he perceives, filtered through his own perception and imagination, rendered as fiction.

What an extraordinary privilege it is, then, to experience any of the films in director Michael Apted's "Up" series, the most recent of which – 49 Up – opens in selected theatres this week before making its way to arthouse theatres around North America and the UK over the coming months. For the first time in history, we see actual human lives charted over the span of decades, with documentary footage of the same individuals first encountered in a London playground at seven years of age, then revisited every seven years.

In 1964, the BBC's "World In Action" program produced an episode entitled "Seven Up!" which brought children from radically diverse economic backgrounds together for a day at the zoo, observing them at play and pulling each of them aside for a chat about life's Big Questions: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" "Do you believe in God?" "Do you have a girlfriend?"

It was marvelous, thought-provoking television. With the Jesuit dictum "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man" as a starting point, the original program suggested that a great deal of these children's future had already been determined, based on their economic class, family backgrounds and educational prospects. But what began as sociology with an axe to grind transformed to something much more personal and mysterious, even spiritual, as the exercise continued with follow-up conversations at fourteen, twenty-one, twenty-eight and beyond.

It wasn't until 1985 that the series made its leap to the big screen with 28 Up, the film which remains to this day the masterpiece of the series – partly because it is the last of the installments largely free of the effects of relative celebrity (due to the growing popularity of the series), and partly due to a focus and concision that becomes more diffused as later installments must cover more ground, and spend disproportionate amounts of time catching up the most recent seven years, touching more lightly on the preceding six episodes.

Tony, a rough-and-tumble East End kid enthuses "I want to be a jockey when I grow up, yeah, I want to be a jockey when I grow up!" Immediately we cut to a proud 14-year-old grooming horses at a racing stable, then cut to footage of a horse race that fades to a black-and-white glossy photo held out for us to inspect as we hear a deeper, 21-year old voice: "This is a photo finish, when I rode at Newbury. I'm the one with the white cap… I had a photo finish." Then the voice of the interviewer: "Do you regret not making it?" A slight pause, then: "I would have given my right arm to become a jockey. I wasn't good enough." Jump cut to the fourteen-year-old Tony, standing by the racetrack: "What will you do if you don't make it as a jockey?" "Learn taxi." Another jump cut, to a line of black London cabs: "At 21, he was on the knowledge (the intensive training course for London cabbies), and by 28, he owned his own cab," followed by the image of Tony grinning behind the wheel and spinning tales of the passengers he's driven about. In sixty-four seconds we have scanned two decades of dreams, disappointment, compromise, accomplishment and – above all – courage. It is extraordinary film-making, breath-taking in its economy and craft, with a cumulative emotional effect that is both devastating and exhilarating.

We meet a dozen children, and follow them through plans fulfilled or failed or transformed, hopes lost and sometimes recovered. Some struggle, some succumb, some triumph. Some breeze down roads paved by wealth or ability, others travel very dark terrain indeed. Bruce studies maths at Oxford, but departs from typical upper class expectations to teach at an underprivileged East London school – fulfilling, in a way, his childhood desire "to teach people to be more or less good." Nick's dream of working with rocket ships draws him to physics, which leads to a sparkling academic career in America – and romance, all the more delightful given his charming childhood reticence: "Do you have a girlfriend?" "I don't answer those kinds of questions."

Jackie, Lynn and Sue maintain a friendship across the years, but one becomes increasingly antagonistic toward the project and the director himself as the years progress – this becomes a significant theme in subsequent episodes, as the project takes an increasing toll on certain participants who might not otherwise consider their lives quite so scrupulously, and certainly not so publicly. Socrates remarked that the unexamined life is not worth living: some of the film's subjects wonder aloud whether too much examination might also be a problem.

While the entire series of films is eminently worth watching – with all but the latest installment now available in a splendid boxed set from First Line Features – overall the sequels lack the punch of 28 Up. Perhaps that's purely a subjective response – 28 Up was my first exposure to the series, and maybe anybody's entry point into the cycle will be their favourite – or perhaps it has to do with the particular vividness and rapidity of change during our first three decades of life. Or perhaps it relates to a subtle shift in the lives of the participants, whose relative anonymity disappeared in the wake of that first big screen release (the previous docs being lower-profile television fare): the effect of a certain sort of celebrity becomes a theme, and while it's handled with intelligence, it doesn't resonate so deeply for me as the stuff of lives more ordinary.
There is one respect, though, in which 49 Up is utterly essential viewing, particularly for those of us scanning these crowds for some sign of God's face (to paraphrase Bruce Cockburn). The "Up" films rarely delve into matters that are specifically religious, yet they are suffused with something deeply spiritual. As questions about love, work, family and meaning reverberate through these lives, we are privy to the outworking or overcoming of destinies, the growth of souls. The "Up" documentary series provides us an almost miraculous, quintessentially cinematic opportunity, in the words of Dickens, to think of other people "as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."

Yet in this most recent installment in the cycle, God's grace is all the more explicitly and abundantly evident in one particular life – and, remarkably, director Apted gives this divine "plot twist" pride of place in his documentary. (Interesting to note that Apted's next directorial release will be "Amazing Grace," the story of hymn-writer John Newton and the great Christian abolitionist William Wilberforce.) A rather reluctant participant suggests that the series has no more significance than a reality TV show, with the added appeal of watching participants "grow old, lose their hair, and get fat – fascinating, I'm sure, but does it have any value?" Then, without comment, Apted moves us into the final sequence of 49 Up, and God's amazing grace is revealed in the most broken, and heart-breaking, of the lives being lived out before us. It is in this most spiritually remarkable passage that the film recaptures the aesthetic richness and emotional power of 28 Up, juxtaposing a simple, evocative anecdote from the soft-spoken 49-year-old survivor with exultant footage of his optimistic 7-year-old self – a tacit, affirmative response to the skeptic's question, "Does it have any value?"

Apted's ongoing documentary project is one of the most singular and transcendent expressions emerge during the first century of this newest art form, and it is our privilege to be able to watch it as it unfolds – every seven years, to be given so intimate and respectful a window on the journeys of these dozen souls. And to be led in turn, inevitably, to examine our own lives, and to look at the lives of those around us with a longer view, a perspective that's something close to Divine.

28 UP

First published in edited form at Christianity Today Movies

P.S. My recommendation? Hie thee thither to Videomatica, rent 28 UP (which I believe to be the masterpiece of the series), then check out the original BBC-TV show SEVEN UP (both are available as part of the complete boxed set which came out a year ago), and you'll be all set for a pilgrimage to Cinematheque to see what's transpired in these lives in the ensuing years. (If you can't do the advanced prep, don't worry: 49 UP stands on its own, as do all the installments, reiterating what's come before. But when it comes to sheer filmmaking artistry, I put my money on 28 UP.)

P.P.S. Guess who else is 49 this year?...


HAWAII, OSLO (2004, Norway, Erik Poppe direction/story, Harald Rosenlow-Eeg story/screenplay)
Do you ever visit the people you save?
Are you crazy?
Go visit her. The woman you almost saved. Never stop saving them.

Vidar is a good man who's haunted by his dreams. Haunted, because they come true. Like the one about the ambulance accident that kills his friend Leon? Which hasn't happened yet, but looks like it's about to.

When Leon is scared, he runs. Tonight, on the eve of his twenty-fifth birthday, he's very scared. He's papered downtown Oslo with posters: his photo, his phone number, and the words "ASA, HUSKER DU MEG?" - "Asa, do you remember me?" If he's lucky, if he's blest, his high school sweetheart will arrive tomorrow, and maybe they will marry. But Leon is convinced that Vidar's dreams say she won't show up. So Leon runs. And Vidar runs after him.

That simple story is at the centre of a kaleidoscopic film that traces the stories of a dozen or more characters until their fates converge on an Oslo street corner one hot summer night. The intricately constructed narrative draws comparisons with other multi-plot films with morality (or even metaphysics) on their minds, MAGNOLIA and CRASH in particular. Doug Cummings, an advocate for this regrettably obscure film, notes that "it resembles a companion piece to Kieslowski's THE DECALOGUE compressed into a two hour feature, less notable for its aesthetic innovations than for its emotional clarity and ethical complexity." What strikes me are the similarities to Tom Tykwer's work – so how's that for a Soul Food pedigree!

The Tykwer references are plentiful enough to suggest that Poppe may be paying intentional homage to the German director. The running Leon evokes a certain Lola, the accident of Vidar's dream is reminiscent of the LOLA event that launched Tykwer into THE PRINCESS + THE WARRIOR, and all three films are propelled by fateful robberies and desperately ticking time-bomb timelines. HAWAII OSLO begins with a stately fly-over shot, a God's-eye view of the city below, that's a recurring motif in Tykwer's HEAVEN, and both films end with ascending shots which are in turn reminiscent of PRINCESS. And certainly the heart-pounding climax of the Norwegian film owes much to RUN LOLA RUN and its subtly shifting reiterations of repeating events.

There's little I can say about HAWAII, OSLO without running the risk of spoiling its revelations and spelling out its mysteries – little I can say except, see it! Which won't be easy. The film was a sensation in its native Norway, it charmed film festival audiences wherever it played, and was the Norwegian entry to the 2005 Academy Awards. Nonetheless, it failed to find big screen distribution, and if it weren't for the good people at Film Movement (kind of a Book Of The Month Club for foreign and indie films), there wouldn't even be a North American DVD. When you're hunting for your copy, be careful little eyes what you read: the online reviews, the film festival blurbs, even (and especially) the distributor's description are likely to rob you of a good deal of the film's narrative and thematic satisfaction. Rosenlow-Eeg is careful to reveal the interconnections among his characters gradually, artfully, and much of the delight of the the story lies in the challenge of discerning who's who, and who's whose.

Track it down, invite your friends over, and give HAWAII, OSLO a look. Or two: this really is a film that grows on second viewing. First time through, I found myself distracted by some of the plot mechanics, and certain thematic elements which seemed over-obvious to me (though many other viewers find them plenty subtle, and perfectly effective). When I returned to the film, I was able simply to live with the characters, and I found their stories moving, and brilliantly performed. Some dialogue verges on the sentimental, certain plot developments flirt with contrivance, but I value what the filmmakers are reaching for, and the fact that they embody their story in performances of such integrity and believability that these quibbles are readily forgiven.

Layered and intricate, with a willingness to tackle big ideas and explore moral quandaries, this is an eminently discussable film. And when I say "moral quandaries," we're not talking ethical abstractions, but fully fleshed human circumstances. Example: faced with the certain death of his newborn son, a short-fused father alienates his wife as he flails about to force a solution. "This is something you can't fix. He has just a few hours to live. I don't want you to waste them." In her grief, she finds a certain wisdom that her striving husband misses. And yet…

One commentator responded less positively to this film than he expected to, and wondered whether he was growing tired of portrayals of communities of broken people, almost all of whom "are are coping with severe emotional, spiritual, or psychological damage." I think what distinguishes this film from others of its kind is the fact that so many of these admittedly damaged, even desperate characters aren't lost in their own woundedness but are actively, even habitually, striving to make things better for people around them. More than anything, it's a film about salvation – not necessarily divine salvation, though the film does gesture in that direction at times, but mostly just the common, everyday human variety that quietly sustains the world day after day. Mostly, I thing it's a film about about the ordinary ways that ordinary people save each other, or strive to, or fail to, but manifest something glorious even in the striving.

Available at Videomatica

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


I wish there was a real Christian music scene. They would be selling cds for eight dollars, they would be giving full artistic licence, encouraging creativity. They would really be doing the things Christ did, and continues to do.

Ordinary biopic about anything-but-ordinary alternative band will appeal to established fans but may not win many new ones. Founder Daniel Smith pulled together his brothers and sisters to play some primitive-arty music for his art school grad show – think Partridge Family meets Frank Zappa – then took the defiantly weird show on the road, Jesus-saturated lyrics, nurse's uniforms and all. They built up a following, but to an Outsider Music outsider it looks more gimmick than genius, neither as authentically creative as Zappa nor as musical as the Partridges, though there's no questioning the earnestness of intention.

Musical friend Sufjan Stevens sits in for one of the brothers on tour, and when he sings a solo (the haunting "To Be Alone With You"), the gig's up: The Danielson Famile drifts apart, Brother Daniel struggles to find a new solo artistic identity, but donning a Nine Fruit Tree costume ("Those are the fruit of the spirit…") doesn't quite seem to cut it. His lonely struggles to lay down vocal tracks in a homemade recording studio stand in painful contrast to Stevens' easy musicality and soaring acclaim. Writ larger, this would be Herzog territory, the eccentric visionary on a lonely, possibly doomed quest, but DANIELSON is more a study in deflation than tragedy – maybe these folks are just too nice for the whole thing to really kick us in the gut. Nobody schleps a steamship over a mountain, nobody gets eaten by grizzlies: Smith's just a more-or-less talented, possibly self-indulgent but basically decent guy with a guitar who might have to fall back on his carpentry skills.



MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S ("MA NUIT CHEZ MAUD," 1969, France, Eric Rohmer)
Thanks to you, I've taken a step on the path to sainthood. As I said, women always aid my moral progress.

In the late fifties and early sixties, a group of French directors associated with the fim magazine Cahiers du cinema came to be known as the French New Wave. Truffaut, Godard and others reacted against big budget "prestige" films by creating energetic, youthful pictures that defied what they saw as the stodginess and artificiality of the so-called "tradition of quality." Rather than shooting in the controlled environment of the studio set, they took filmmaking to the streets, preferring spontaneity to caution, giving expression to the radical ideas and experimentation of their generation. What happened in Britain and America with rock and roll took place in France at the cinematheque.

Because he wrote for Cahiers through the fifties, Eric Rohmer is often included in that movement, though he's something of an odd fit. A decade older than the young lions, and with a strong literary bent, he was at times considered somewhat reactionary, or at least conservative, and his first feature films – LA COLLECTIONEUSE and MA NUIT CHEZ MAUD – didn't appear until after the heyday of the New Wave had passed. Yet in at least one significant way, MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S reconnects with something essential – indeed, essentially spiritual – in the foundation of that movement.

In 1954, Cahiers du cinema published an incendiary article by the 22-year-old Francois Truffaut which came to be something of a manifesto for the emerging filmmakers. As well as castigating established film practice for its plodding lack of originality, "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema" also chided commercial screenwriters for what Truffaut saw as an anti-clerical agenda, an expression of their pervasive (and hypocritical) contempt for common, middle-class life. The young idealist called for a kind of honest portrayal of ordinary life and faith which could deal with the intangible mysteries of human experience.

Fifteen years later, Eric Rohmer's breakout film took to heart that specific aspect of Truffaut's call to arms. MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S is the story of a perfectly bourgeois 34-year-old engineer, recently converted to Catholicism, who struggles to live out the call of his newfound spirituality confronted with philosophical challenges and temptations of a more immediate kind. Hip late-sixties audiences who expected the Mass which opens the film to be subverted for comic effect were confounded when the central character's Christian commitment was treated throughout with respect: what first reads as stiff and prudish awkwardness soon looks more like a rather winsome and self-effacing sincerity. By the time we return to the church for midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and then again on a Sunday morning toward the end of the film, we're no longer surprised that the priest's homily is not only wise but pertinent, the sacrament portrayed as something holy, even desirable.

MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S is one of Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales," stories of men whose love for a woman – as well as their chosen moral code – is tested by an encounter with another woman who tempts him to abandon his choice.No sooner is Jean-Louis smitten with the beautiful Catholic girl he sees in church – "That Monday, December 21st, I suddenly knew, without a doubt, that Francoise would be my wife" – than his Marxist friend introduces him to Maud, a sensuous, accomplished and thoroughly secular woman of the world who sets out to seduce this na├»ve, intellectual young man.

One of the film's greatest charms is the humanity with which Rohmer treats all his characters: just as Jean-Pierre is never condescended to (except, playfully, by the other characters) because of his religious convictions, neither is Vidal portrayed as a doctrinaire atheist – he has recently become fascinated by the religious writings of Blaise Pascal – nor Maud as a predatory, immoral seductress. The writer-director sets up a marvelously balanced romantic triangle where every character is believable, dimensional, likeable, and where no choice or consequence is a foregone conclusion. Indeed, there's something close to the spirit of Christ in the compassionate even-handedness that runs through so many of Rohmer's films. As he writes in his book on Alfred Hitchcock, "It is not the poet's business to judge his characters, nor any man's business to judge his fellows."

Perhaps that's part of the reason why MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S had such a powerful impact on Andrew Greeley, the prolific Catholic sociologist, priest and writer – whose popular novels may owe a debt to this film, combining as they do the spiritual and sexual lives of their characters (though Rohmer's film is far subtler than Greeley's fiction). In God And Popular Culture Greeley writes of this film's sacramental quality, of the personal religious epiphany he experienced when he viewed it. Of course, the Rohmer film was almost the only film of its day to take seriously the life of faith, placing a devoutly religious character at the centre of its story, which may account for the powerful spiritual effect the film had on the young priest. – that, and the script's combination of spirituality and intelligence.

The people in this film love to talk, and they're good at it – one wonders if the title of Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn's talky metaphysical masterpiece, MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, might be a tip of the hat. The flow of language, the swirl of ideas is almost intoxicating; the stuff of friendship, a means of seduction, the overflow of abundant hearts. ("I can't seem to stop talking these last few days. Like I need to pour my heart out." "You need to get married.")

These characters are not only talkers, but thinkers, readers: they meet in book shops, they investigate each others' bookshelves, they grab a random volume for a quick skim while tying their shoes (!) – even if it happens to be a dusty old tome like True And False Conversion, Or Atheism Debated. They argue Pascal's wager and apply it to Marx's theory of history, they question Pascal's asceticism ("Christianity is not a moral code, it's a way of life.") and the coldness of his calculating approach to creation, conjecturing that mathematics can be as much an occasion of sin as lust. Jansenism – think of it as Catholic Calvinism, a similar mix of grace, predestination and piety – becomes a central preoccupation of the characters, and (here's the treat!) plays itself out in the events of the story, where choice, luck, predestination and grace weave together in a playful metaphysical dance. (Notice the way Rohmer introduces morality into the question of chance, deftly transmuting dumb luck into something closer to divine providence: "I like to make the most of chance opportunities. but I'm only lucky in worthy causes. I doubt I'd have any luck committing a crime.")

I'm not much for abstract philosophizing: the whole free will versus determinism thing is a particular non-starter for me, a personal bete noir that I believe should be restricted by law to late-night dorm chats for sophomore philosophy students. But darn it all, it works here – in fact, it's downright sexy. (Now I'm thinking of Julie Delpy in BEFORE SUNRISE. Maybe it's a French thing…) But isn't it true, when we fall in love, suddenly these questions of fate and choice become not abstract, but acute? Where (and how) does "we were meant for each other" evolve into "I choose you"? The dance of destiny and desire, choice and consequence, are played out with understated brilliance in this exquisitely French, exultantly Catholic little romance, a sexy film about chastity with a head full of ideas.


The recent Criterion release of this film is available at Videomatica

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Ontario: Roberto Rossellini retrospective

If you were to put together a list of the great auteur directors whose films most directly engage with the Christian faith, the list would certainly include Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky, Karl Theodor Dreyer, probably Krystof Kieslowski, and – if your tastes run to a distinctly nordic brand of angst and doubt – Ingmar Bergman. Two others who should probably be included are Ermanno Olmi and Roberto Rossellini. Herman will have to wait his turn – you'll search in vain for copies of GENESIS: CREATION AND FLOOD or CAMMINA, CAMMINA, a retelling of the magi's journey to visit the infant Jesus – but Bob is beginning to re-emerge into the flickering light of Christian cinephile awareness.

New York's Museum of Modern Art got there first, including more films by Rossellini than by any other director in their "Hidden God: Faith & Film" series a couple of years back, showing FLOWERS OF ST FRANCIS, L'AMORE and VOYAGE TO ITALY. When the curators approached a wide range of film writers to submit essays for inclusion in the book which accompanied the exhibition, Rossellini was the most-requested filmmaker: in addition to the titles shown in the retrospective, still more Rossellini films were covered in the anthology: STOMBOLI, EUROPA 51, and LA RICOTTA.

Folks at the annual Cornerstone festival weren't far behind, making the Italian auteur a main focus of this year's Flickerings series, showing GERMANY YEAR ZERO, ROMAGNA (an excerpt from the film PAISAN, a 1947 film anthology about the Allied advance up italy: in Rossellini's contribution a monastery, isolated from the war, is visited by three war-weary US Army chaplains), FLOWERS OF ST FRANCIS, THE MIRACLE (part of L'AMORE, in which a simple peasant girl receives a visitation from someone she belives is St Joseph that changes her forever), EUROPA 51, STROMBOLI and VOYAGE TO ITALY. Wow.

Next up is a major retrospective on the filmmaker which will run at Cinematheque Ontario from Oct 6 to Dec 7. Organized by James Quandt, the series is slated to make its way to Los Angeles and New York next year - whether it will ever reach vancouver remains to be seen. For now, we'll just have to enjoy the catalog, and try to restrain our envy...


From Quandt's essay:

"His anti-orthodoxy makes it difficult to pin down his political or religious beliefs. Like Bresson, he was positioned as a Catholic director, though Franciscan in spirit rather than Jansenist, and again like Bresson, made various and conflicting statements about his faith. He emphasized, for instance, that THE MIRACLE, condemned by Cardinal Spellman, was "an absolutely Catholic work. I found my inspiration for it in a sermon by Saint Bernardino of Siena." Many of his films are about spiritual struggle and transformation, with central characters whose via is invariably dolorosa. Rohmer claimed that "even in his most profane subjects he is the most, perhaps the sole, indisputably religious author that cinema, that the entire art of the twentieth century has known," but Rossellini himself told Jacques Grant at the end of 1975 after making THE MESSIAH, "I am a complete atheist." One could catalogue many similar contradictions in the life and career of this most complex of directors, such as the disparity between his fine, generous sensibility and the shorthand he sometimes relied on to characterize his villains, but it is simpler to quote the artist himself in a statement that feels like a credo: "In making GERMANY YEAR ZERO my goal was the same as in all work I undertake. I wanted to reproduce the truth exactly as the camera saw it for that audience throughout the entire world which has a heart capable of love and a brain capable of thought." And so it is for a contemporary audience looking back at Rossellini's formidable body of work. As one character sings in GIOVANNA D'ARCO AL ROGO: "Prepare your hearts for the mysteries that will unfold."


Making the Rossellini Retrospective
By James Quandt

I have often been asked why, when the Cinematheque Ontario has presented major retrospectives of many of the important Italian directors (Visconti, Pasolini, Antonioni, De Sica, Rosi, Olmi, Fellini, Bertolucci, Germi, Moretti, Zurlini et al.), often in new or restored prints, we have never shown more than a handful of films of Roberto Rossellini, perhaps the greatest of them all, and those in less than pristine condition. The answer is simple: a Rossellini retrospective is impossible. My many attempts over the past twenty years to organize a retrospective of Rossellini's films, which I dearly love and highly prize, have all foundered. The reasons are many and complicated, involving legal and copyright problems, the sheer immensity of his oeuvre, the varying versions of many of Rossellini's films, the poor state of preservation of elements and prints, the lack of interest (commercial and otherwise) in anything beyond his half dozen famous works. Rossellini's centenary year provided both the impetus and the challenge to finally accomplish this daunting task, but even then such an important anniversary did little to alleviate the problems; there were one or two restorations, for which we are most grateful, but no rush to stop the slow "drip into oblivion" of his work about which his daughter Isabella has written so movingly. "My Dad's films [are] fading away," she contends in her recent book, In the Name of the Father, the Daughter, and the Holy Spirits; "My father is slowly being forgotten." This vast act of rememberance is more crucial than ever.

If a Rossellini retrospective is impossible, why, then, have there been recent ones in Madrid and Paris, and now in Toronto and New York? (London and Los Angeles follow in 2007.) I cannot speak for the other venues, but for the Cinematheque Ontario, the "now or never" impulse of the Rossellini centenary led to new determination. The gracious aegis and enthusiastic support of Isabella Rossellini was a prod to completion, and the unstinting advice and assistance of Rossellini authority Tag Gallagher was also a boon Knowing that we may have to wait years, perhaps forever, for essential restoration work, we have reluctantly accepted some inferior prints; for instance, Rossellini made most of his late films in notoriously unstable Eastmancolor and the prints of many of the late historical works have "shifted" in color. (Think pink.) Other factors turned out more favorably Several loans which had long been refused were granted. Some new prints were made--that of VANINA VANINI is very beautiful--while ones thought irretrievable turned up unexpectedly (a full-length ERA NOTTE A ROMA, for example). Materials have been gathered from many countries--Spain, Germany, England, Australia, Italy, France, the United States--from archives, private collectors, foundations, and Rossellini specialists. In a couple of cases, we have had to rely on that last resort: showing extremely rare works for which there are no showable prints on DVD (of superb quality).

Because many of Rossellini's films were never translated in to English, Cinematheque Ontario and the National Film Theatre in London have undertaken, in conjunction with the Cioneteca Nazionale in Rome, to prepare electronic subtitling for several prints. Our audience which has been accustomed to--dare one say spoiled by?--the many retrospectives we have presented in new or restored prints should be advised that this is an imperfect, traditionally "cinematheque-style" retrospective, with materials whose rarity sometimes exceeds physical quality. Equally, the audience should be aware that, with the comprehensive Godard retrospective we presented in 2001-2002 and the complete Bresson retrospective we organized and toured in 1998, this has been the most arduous series we have ever prepared. This will be your only opportunity to see many of these films, which have become legendary in their absence.

* * * *

October 20 -- And Evening with Isabella Rossellini

MY DAD IS 100 YEARTS OLD (2005) 16 min
SANTA BRIGADA (1951) 9 min

October 27

October 28

October 29

October 30

October 31 & November 5
Lecture Series: Tag Gallagher on FRANCIS, GOD'S JESTER and Rossellini as Romantic

November 3

November 3 & 4
ROME OPEN CITY (Restored 35mm print)

November 4

November 6
PAISAN (Restored 35mm print)

November 7
VANINA VANINI (Restored 35mm print)

November 8

November 10
Lecture Series: Peter Brunette on THE MACHINE TO KILL BAD PEOPLE

November 11

November 12

November 13
ERA NOTTE A ROMA (Full length version)

November 14

November 18

November 19

November 21

November 24

November 25

November 26

November 27

November 28

December 3

December 4 & December 9
THE RISE TO POWER OF LOUIS XIV (Restored 35mm print)

December 5

December 6

December 10
THE MESSIAH (Rare 35mm print)