Friday, February 23, 2007

save me

This from CT Movies (Feb 23 2007)...

Though End of the Spear—a film based on true accounts of Christian missionaries—was a modest success at the box office, and even appeared on our Readers' Choice list, some moviegoers remember it primarily for the controversy surrounding its star, Chad Allen, a homosexual actor in a Christian production.

A recent Newsweek interview reports that Allen will be calling upon the experience for his next film—Save Me, in which a gay man is sent by his Christian friends to a therapy program seeking to help him overcome his homosexuality.

Allen's character in the film converts to Christianity, but he also finds romance with a fellow "patient." The movie is said to explore the contradiction he feels between his new religious faith and his homosexual feelings.

Newsweek reports that the film is being received "warmly" by Christian audiences who have seen it; CT Movies had a writer at the Sundance Film Festival, where Save Me debuted; the writer said the movie "seems to invite dialogue between the gay community and the evangelical community."

Allen told Newsweek that his experience with End of the Spear was not the motivation behind his involvement with Save Me—in fact, he says Save Me production was already under way when the controversy began. He goes on to note how, in making EOTS, he expected to meet only bigoted or mean-spirited Christians, but instead found "smart, God-loving, God-following individuals, who were doing what they thought was the most loving thing to do."

Save Me does not yet have a distributor or a release date.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Movie Gourmet: The Last Supper

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.



February 2007
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!


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

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."


SAVING GRACE (1985, USA, Robert M. Young, wr Richard Kramer, Joaquin Montana, David S. Ward; Celia Gittelson novel)
I tell you this because it's a good story. There was once a man, known to all of you as Pope Leo XIV. Like a king who lived in a large castle with thick walls, he became increasinngly depressed and alone, unable to see, far less to know, the people who looked to him for guidance...

People love this little fairy tale of a film. Just try bidding for a copy on eBay, and watch the price soar to the heavens. I'm imagining priests all over the world recommending this one to their parishioners, Catholic families gathering around the TV to take in this sweet, simple story about an AWOL pope.

You're guessing by now this isn't the Brenda Blethyn one about a Brit widow who grows dope to make ends meet. You're guessing right. This is the Tom Conti one about (fictional) Pope Leo XIV, a reluctant neo-pontiff who grows tired of the politics and insularity of his new position. Taking a few quiet moments in the open air, he puts his head back to feel the raindrops on his face: a black-suited security man opens an umbrella above him and ushers him inside. It's all bankers, politicians, and hurried back-to-back blessings of politicos, invalids and soccer teams.

So one day, puttering in the papal garden, Leo slips out a back gate and blends in with the soccer crowds.

But what to do now? Well, even a pope can be a sucker for a pretty face. This one belongs to Isabella, a deaf girl of about fourteen who has made the trip to the Vatican all alone, to beg His Holiness to send a priest to her village. So Leo makes his way to Montepetro and, incognito, sets out to make a difference.

I'm curious to know what an uncredited David S. Ward contributed to this nifty little screenplay: while this was the feature film debut for the other writers, Ward was responsible for a wide range of noteworthy scripts, from THE STING and MAJOR LEAGUE to SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, and also – right after this one – THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR, which bears some similarities. SAVING GRACE has none of the twists and turns of THE STING: it lays out its story in straightforward fashion, moving along at the easy-going pace of a sun-besotted Italian village.

But the quiet in this town isn't peaceful: what's happening here isn't mere leisure, it's something closer to one of the deadly sins. The men of Montepetro have made a macho virtue of surly inactivity: some are involved in petty crime, but mostly they sit around drinking and smoking, while the women and children pick rags at a nearby town's dump.

When asked his name, Leo – a very bad liar – says he is "Francesco," and indeed there is something of Saint Francis in way this gentle, resolute men sets aside the trappings of wealth and power to join the townspeople in their poverty and toil. When he walks into the ruins of the Montepetro church, it seems certain his first task will be to rebuild the sanctuary, a latter-day St. Damian's: but no, there's as much liberation theology as Franciscan piety in this Francesco. It's the town's neglected aqueduct he puts his hand to, though he knows nothing of carpentry or engineering: he's just as interested in bringing real water as living water to this parched community.

The story progresses predictably, but you know, I didn't mind. The pleasures of SAVING GRACE are the pleasures of visiting an Italian stone village that must be a thousand years old. It's 112 minutes in the unhurried presence of Tom Conti's winsome, compassionate Holy Father – in a series of warm, lovable roles in Catholic-friendly films, this is his definitive performance, a real pleasure. Leo-on-the-lam isn't much good with a hammer and can't drive a car, he has little patience with Vatican politics, but his true vocation shows itself just spending time with people, talking. His scenes with Giuliano (Angelo Evans) are the real sparkle in this jewel of a story, and it's a delight watching respect and friendship grow between this not-quite-teen-aged mafioso-in-training and His Holiness-in-hiding. Giancarlo Giannini (at a career transition between playing atheist communist hard-cases for Lina Wertmuller, and popes and priests in films like SHADOW DANCER and JOSHUA?) is perfectly cast as a shepherd tending both sheep and goats, the world-weary foil to Leo's patient faith. On first meeting, he cuts through Leo's charade to get to the heart of things;
"You're Pope Leo, huh? You're pop Leo, yes. Excuse the sheep, they see so few popes. They fired you or what?"
"No, they didn't fire me. Maybe God did...."
"I can put your mind to rest on that. There's no such person."

I don't think that particular question is ever really in doubt in SAVING GRACE, and neither is the story's destination, toward which it patiently meanders. If any of that sounds like a problem, don't go to the trouble of seeking out this hard-to-find video (still not available on DVD, who knows why, there's money to be made). But if a frankly sentimental film about the Prince of the Church trying to rediscover the heart of his calling sounds like it might appeal, maybe you'll be one of those folks that come to count this unpreposessing little film among your heartfelt favourites.

Incidentally, there's papal precedent for Leo's vocational qualms. "As long as I lived in my cell in the monastery, I felt safe for my salvation. When I was appointed Bishop, my certainty began to fade, and, as Pope, I am not safe at all about my salvation." Pope St. Pius V



THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO VIC ("Heavenly Pursuites" 1985, UK, Charles Gormley)

If the grey Glasgow setting of this faith-affirming Tom Conti vehicle is a tad drearier than the sun-blest Italy of SAVING GRACE, there's still charm in the story of a sceptical special ed teacher at the Blessed Edith Semple School who gets caught up in maybe miracles that could secure the school's namesake her place as a full-fledged saint (she's got one, needs three to qualify). Writer-director Charles Gormley borrows some off-kilter Scottish appeal from his long-time associate Bill Forsyth in this mildly comic story that blends an inspiring teacher, a tweedy romance and other divine workings in a friendly enough little film.


Sunday, February 18, 2007

Mar/Apr: Cinematheque & VIFC

Another heaping helping of Soul Food at Pacific Cinematheque and Vancity Theatre / Vancouver International Film Centre later this spring.

Fri Mar 2, 7:00
Wed Mar 7, 9:45
It's this film that leads Robert Jewett to start spelling out his thoughts on "the American monomyth" (calling it a false "other gospel," with reference to Galatians 1) in his very fine volume "Saint Paul Returns To The Movies: Triumph Over Shame." He doesn't buy the line that UNFORGIVEN undermines that super-heroic might-is-right myth, but I did, and many do. Certainly it's fascinating - and important, I think, in this day when American foreign policy seems shaped by TOMBSTONE and SHANE - to consider the arguments of the formidable Jewett. But whether you read UNFORGIVEN as a repudiation or a resurrection of that myth, there's plenty here that matters - about the weight of the past, about vengeance, about the limits of forgiveness. A fine movie. Clint's finest.

Pacific Cinematheque
Tue Mar 19, 7:30
THE NUN (1966)
Not precisely Soul Food, but of interest to Christians with an interest in important cinema. Jacques Rivette's "most conventional film" - though banned for a year because of its attacks on the Church. "Lurid in subject matter but austere and cloustrophobic in style... A young woman is forced by her family to enter a convent. The cruel Mother Superior abuses her; at a second convent, the lesbian Mother Superior lusts after her, until Suzanne escapes with the aid of a priest - who then tries to rape her." Hmmm. Think I may just skip that one.

Fri Mar 30, 9:00
Sat Mar 31, 7:00
Sun Apr 1, 9:00
Mon Apr 2, 7:00
Thu Apr 5, 9:00
No idea what to make of this, but its got one heck of a tantalizing description!
Vancity: "Fresh from prison, middle-aged neo-Nazi atheist Adam (Ulrich Thomsen) is sent to live in a country church for a stint of community service. Ivan (Casino Royale supervillain Mads Mikkelsen), the priest charged with his reform, maintains a delusional optimism as a defense against darker truths in his past and all around him. Asked to set a goal for his stay, Adam nonchalantly sets the bar pretty low: he’ll bake an apple cake. But when the church’s beloved lone apple tree is beset, in short order, by crows, worms and lightning, and fallen bibles keep opening to “The Book of Job,” it’s clear that the thunderclouds above the parish have blown in straight from the Old Testament, and a test of faith is at hand. The pitchest of black comedies, Anders Thomas Jensen’s wickedly funny film reverberates with profane dialogue, appalling behaviour and strategic use of the Bee Gees, as Adam only somewhat maliciously sets out to dismantle Ivan’s sunny armour... Assuredly filmed in frosty blues and suitably stormy weather, Adam’s Apples is a sly religious parable by a writer/director with a bracing talent for dark, astringent humour. Steve Mockus, San Francisco Film Festival"

Pacific Cinematheque
Sat Mar 31, 2:00
CT Movies editor Mark Moring's a big fan of this family-friendly Aussie indie about an imaginative little girl whose family become outcasts in a rough outback mining town. I like to be more the appreciator than the critic, so I'm a bit stuck here, as I was underimpressed by the movie, but Mark's endorsement lets me know there are plenty of folks who would enjoy this uplifting tale. Certainly an alternative to the commercial fare dished up for kids in ever-mounting heaps by the American studios. By the director of THE FULL MONTY.

Pacific Cinematheque
Wed April 4, 7:30pm (part 1)
Thu April 5, 7:30pm (part 2)
JEANNE LA PUCELLE (Joan the Maiden, 1994)
"The two great intimidating films about Joan of Arc, by Dreyer and Bresson, are purely poetic," director Jacques Rivette has said, "Whereas I was aiming for a more narrative approach - although I hope there are poetic moments."

Pacific Cinematheque
Wed Apr 18 7:30pm
Peter Chattaway picked this as the most spiritually significant film of the past year, over L'ENFANT, PAN'S LABYRINTH, SOPHIE SCHOLL or SON OF MAN (for example). Remember Jim Jones? Back in the decade of the cults. The Kool-Aid mass suicide in Guyana? This is the story of the quasi-Jesus People church that started out so good - social conscience, community, all that - and came to such a bad end.


Pacific Cinematheque
CODE UNKNOWN: The Films Of Michael Haneke
"Bresson is my idol," the Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke has said, and it very much shows in his films, but invoking the sublime French master hardly prepares you for the wallop of Haneke's shocking yet beautifully austere work. One of the most provocative filmmakers of our time...

Provocative indeed. A few of Haneke's films - BENNY'S VIDEO or FUNNY GAMES, for example - contain some of the most unwatchably vicious material to be found on films, earning Haneke the common appelation "provocateur" or "the bad boy of European filmmaking." But the challenging CODE UNKNOWN is much celebrated by Christian film lovers like Stef Loy and Jeffrey Overstreet, the stark TIME OF THE WOLF uses a vaguely post-apocalyptic setting not only to question contemporary values but also to raise spiritual questions, and the unnerving, unresolved CACHE not only enjoyed almost universal acclaim amongst cinephiles, but came close to crossing over into something like mainstream success.

Pacific Cinematheque
Fri Apr 13 7:15 - CACHE
Sat Apr 14 7:15 - CODE UNKNOWN
Sat Apr 14 9:30 - CACHE
Sun Apr 15 9:20 - CODE UNKNOWN
Sun Apr 22 9:25 - TIME OF THE WOLF
Mon Apr 23 7:15 - TIME OF THE WOLF

solitude (2001)

Jason Goode certifies this Canadian film as Genuine Soul Food. Had a life on the festival circuit but hasn't found distribution.

Here's the Telefilm blurb;

Solitude is an exploration of the fleeting interconnections that arise, one summer, between two women retreatants and a monk at a rural monastery. Michele, an awkward 19-year-old, is at the abbey as a working guest for the summer. Linda, 35 years old and in a troubled relationship, is at the abbey to sort things out. Brother Bernard, in his mid-30s, has been at the abbey for many years, but for him the questioning never stops – he believes there is no faith without doubt. All three are looking for answers – to questions of faith and purpose, love and identity. By the time the two women leave the monastery, two of the three characters have experienced an epiphany of sorts, a new way of seeing the world. Only the third remains unchanged, continuing to be stifled by the world of appearances.

Here's what Michael Crochetière had to say at Film Threat;

Robin Schlaht's first dramatic feature Solitude opens with a detail shot of Giotto's fresco Meeting at the Golden Gate. From the background of the painting, we are shown a woman concealing part of her face with a black robe. Four other figures look on, their facial expressions enigmatic and ultimately impenetrable. If their aspect reveals a subtle joy, the source of that joy remains elusive. In examining this image, we encounter several of the film's thematic concerns and formal strategies: the fragmented, ambiguous backstories and paradoxical motivations of the lead characters, the idea of emotional detachment, the motif of observation and the folly of trying to understand the heart of another. At its heart, Solitude is about personal journeys, about everyday lives filled with small victories and moments of what Henry David Thoreau called "quiet desperation".

Based on a short story by Regina writer Connie Gault, the film explores the transitory connections that develop one summer between two female retreatants and a monk at a rural monastery. Linda (Wendy Anderson) is an urbane but emotionally guarded woman in her mid-thirties who seems to be unwilling or unable to invest emotionally in her relationships. Her stay at the abbey is complicated by her encounter with Michele (Vanessa Martinez), a 19 year old with a vivid imagination. For a time, the two women fall into a comfortable mentor-protégé relationship. Michele's restless search for an identity leads her through a series of misguided infatuations and eventually culminates in her assumption of the guise of a nun. She wants to think like a nun, act like a nun and have nun-like fantasies. On an intuitive level, Michele seems to understand the dangers and rewards inherent in taking emotional risks. Her gradual movement towards a more peaceful state is witnessed and encouraged (initially from afar) by Brother Bernard (Lothaire Bluteau), a timid young monk who is having his own crisis of faith. In keeping with the Benedictine imperative - that the value of life is in engagement, in facilitating positive change in another - Brother Bernard struggles to put aside his doubts and find some practical use for his philosophical deliberations.

Solitude is a film without an inciting incident (unless one considers the arrival of Michele at the abbey, an event which occurs before the film begins). The film's structure is episodic, consisting of highly resonant privileged moments spelled by intervals of quiet reflection. Schlaht believes that these negative spaces - moments of uneasy stasis, hesitation or indecision - ultimately define his characters. The most compelling application of this concept is found in the character of Michele. Without the advantage of interior monologue - Brother Bernard regularly gives us his view of the world - Michele is most dependent upon a subdued yet charged environment which speaks eloquently for her in a language drawn from the rhythms, sounds and images of monastic life and the natural world.

Like an inquisitive Alice, she inhabits a universe where eccentric graphology students can analyze your character based upon someone else's handwriting, where a brown rabbit can lead one down the sylvan path to salvation. As a self-proclaimed novice, she engages in several incongruous (almost Buñuelian) behaviours, from buying nail-polish to stealing a miniature key-chain version of her new mentor, the Virgin Mary. Schlaht juxtaposes Michele's "nun scenes" with scenes involving her darker counterpart Brother Bernard: "You can't fight your way to God", he laments. "I find myself praying to believe. How sad is that? How ridiculous." The cross which Michele wears so lightly, without conviction, can be seen hanging on the wall of his study. Here humour and pathos exist side by side, striking the same ironic chord.

Michele's exploratory impulse eventually lead her to the bar in a nearby town, where she revives her infatuation with a local storekeeper. They exchange glances. Michele misinterprets his intent. She fixes her hair in the mirror - according to Schlaht "a place of introspection, transition and potential" for Michele - and exits. Outside, she happens upon the storekeeper again, this time in his pick-up truck. In an awkward, bold and ultimately inappropriate response to his friendly hello, she climbs in on the passenger side. Moments later, another woman from the bar (in retrospect Geraldine, his wife) approaches the truck. The storekeeper tells her that they're giving Michele a ride back to the abbey, and Michele's fantasy world crumbles.

With a confluence of elemental images (e.g. glass, water), Solitude speaks eloquently of dark metaphysical forests, personal boundaries and the invisible barriers that divide us. We observe Michele's face as she sits between the storekeeper and his wife in the front seat of the truck. It's raining. We watch through the windshield as Michele engages in small talk with Geraldine, the bursts of dialogue separated by long uncomfortable silences. In a constant rhythm, the wiper blades persist in a vain attempt to push away the relentless waves of acute humiliation. As they arrive at the abbey, Michele escapes the truck, leaving her key-chain statue (her new identity, her illusions) behind on the front seat. The scene is followed by Brother Daniel (Michele's other imaginary beau) playing a somber melody on the organ. As in Yasujiro Ozu's silent codas, these transitional sequences draw meaning and weight from the scenes that precede and follow them, speaking volumes for the characters which inhabit them.

The film's penultimate scene consists of another remarkable long take. In the forest, Michele breaks down beneath the weight of her solitary struggle. As the shot progresses, we come to understand that these are tears of redemption, that we are witnessing a deeply transformative moment. The forest ambience is, at last, broken by an off-screen voice: "I've come looking for you". Brother Bernard hesitates and then steps forward into frame. The two figures embrace. In a film dominated by tableau framings, Schlaht saves one of his few close-ups for a moment when two emotionally isolated characters finally make contact. He elects to shoot Michele's epiphany in shallow focus as a means of 'isolating the character from the outside world and directing our attention towards her internal emotional process.' The scene becomes almost impressionistic, its use of tonal gradients and iridescent light conveying her fragile emotional state. Michele's inner journey creates profound changes in both herself and Brother Bernard. The dissonance which she has injected into the status quo has grown into spiritual transcendence.

By design, Solitude is the antithesis of the tightly constructed narrative. The characters' backstories are fragmentary, the exposition gradual and ambiguous. Schlaht derives his strategy from the film's location: "It was partly due to the nature of being on retreat at the abbey. The asking of questions is not encouraged. Very few questions are asked in Solitude and even fewer are answered. The characters are so involved in the process of observing and interpreting or misinterpreting ..that it seemed appropriate to invite the audience into that same process. Not knowing keeps one engaged."

The character of Linda is the embodiment of this "strategy of doubt". At one point she is asked what she is doing at the abbey. For the first time in the film, Linda (a consummate chameleon) is caught unprepared. She hesitates, then responds: "I don't know". Throughout the film we have brief glimpses into Linda's home life (via phone calls), but the question is never fully answered. For all the pain of Michele's journey, Linda inhabits an even darker place. Soon after Michele's experience in the bar, the two women have a unexplained falling out and Linda decides to leave the abbey. In her rear-view mirror, she sees Michele emerge from the forest, waving frantically. But Linda continues to drive, pretending not to see her. She rolls up the window and shuts the world out, her last hope for meaningful change rapidly receding behind her.

Schlaht describes Linda's final gesture as a "casual, everyday act of betrayal." In Gault's short story, Michele has the chance to apologize. In the film she does not. Schlaht discusses the implications of his decision to go with a less resolved ending: "I feel it suggests something about Linda - perhaps that she is bitter about her disappointing stay at the abbey and about her own inability to break free of the life to which she is confined in the city. It also suggests that the attention she had lavished on Michele was not entirely altruistic, that Linda had wanted to try on a role as well, that of mentor. I wanted Michele's hiding in the woods to have a concrete impact on her relationship with Linda. In the final analysis, we absolve Michele. We sense that she has changed and entered a new phase in her life - one in which she will be more courageous, more aware of the consequences of her actions, and more comfortable with herself".

For Schlaht, the movie screen is a contemplative and cognitive space, a philosophy that's grounded in his background as a documentary filmmaker. Films such as Sons and Daughters (1994) and Moscow Summer (1996) are deeply affecting social documents that resonate with an intrinsic respect for his subject, the exquisite b/w imagery (often shot in slow motion) inviting the viewer to consider the importance of the gestures and inflections of everyday life. His move from documentary to narrative fiction is marked by a less formalized approach to the same humanistic values and concerns. The episodic structure remains, as do the meditative non-verbal sequences. And the film has its formal constructs, such as Brother Bernard's recurring interior monologue or the intertitles (consistently drawn from the dialogue in the subsequent scene). However, Solitude ultimately achieves a transcendence for its characters by other means, primarily through, as Andrei Tarkovsky writes, "a poetry born of pure observation...that does not signify or symbolize life, but embodies it."

December 31, 2001

A report from the SXSW Festival at
Ain't It Cool News...

The ol' Loony Toon back with more tasty helpings of SXSW. Todays little slice of wonderful is a marvelous film aptly titled Solitude.

This is where film-making is headed, ( I hope). This film is not about saving the world. It's not about making a righteous political or philisophocal statement. It's not about a damsel in distress, okay, it's kind of about a damsel in distress. This is a film about a monastery where people retreat from, well whatever it is that people retreat from. Society. Bills. Family. School. God.

And yet it seems that our characters while severed from the outside, they seem to be looking for....something. The three main characters are a philisophically driven monk who can't seem to get academia out of his head and just accept things on faith. His Lovely female couterpart the distressed Michelle, (played to absolute perfection by Vanessa Martinez), a 19 year old girl who wants to try on being a nun for a while, and the Woman who is the anchor for the girl and a great third wheel, mostly because even more so than the other two, she doesn't know what it is that shes looking for. This is not a traditional narrative. It is broken into vignettes, that are also not traditional narratives. The film is scientific in it's ambiguity. Each symbol is placed with care and preserved with breathtaking cinematography. The score is also great. There is not one. There is natural sound only. Wind in trees. Bugs humming through the summer air.

Church bells ringing. Children singing. Footsteps. Whispers. The pure ecstasy of a quiet moment. And these things are precisely what the film is about. Life is not about saving the world. It's not about making a statement.
Those things are done by groups. Life for you and me is about the little things. The small things. Cool breezes. Fresh grown tomatoes and raspberries. A conversation about handwriting. These tiny moments are among the best we have, and we miss them far too often. This movie is chock full of these precious moments. This movie makes me happy. All I need is the groud beneath my feet and the warmth of the sun on my face.

March 13, 2001

Here's more on director Robin Schlaht;

Robin Schlaht graduated in 1992 with a degree in filmmaking from the University of Regina. His student films include the dramas "The Naked and the Nude" (co-directed with Carleen Kyle) - winner of the 1991 Saskatchewan Showcase Award for best Student Film - and "Making Angels" - winner of the 1993 Saskatchewan Showcase Award for Best Drama.

Robin's first dramatic feature SOLITUDE follows three lonely, inquisitive people spending their summer in a Saskatchewan monastery. The film features Lothaire Bluteau (Jesus of Montreal) as a monk so absorbed in big questions of faith and purpose that he can't hold a normal conversation. Vanessa Martinez (LIMBO) gives a striking performance as a sullen 19-year- old not quite sure what she wants, but is sure she knows everything. And there's a 30-something woman (Wendy Anderson), who forms a bond of unresolved yearning with the teenager.

SOLITUDE is based on a short story by Connie Gault who co-wrote the screenplay with Robin Schlaht.

SOLITUDE had it's world premiere at the South-by-Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas in May. In July it screened at the Stony Brook Film Festival in New York.

Robin's first non -student production was THE PEOPLE, a lyrical documentary about the Hutterites, which has been screened at many international festivals.

His second film, SONS AND DAUGHTERS, an experimental documentary exploration of childhood in seven different countries, appeared at the 1994 Toronto International Film Festival, and received awards for Best Experimental Film, Best Cinematography and Best Original Music at the 1995 Yorkton Short Film and Video Festival.

MOSCOW SUMMER Robin's third film, shot in Moscos in the summer of 1995, was named Best Foreign Film at the 1996 WorldFest International Film Festival in Charleston, South Carolina.

Robin is also known for his still photography. Check out the photos page for Robin's stills from The Heart Becomes Quiet.

Maple Lake Releasing

And an excerpt from an interview;

Solitude came about, to a degree, because I wanted to make a film in Saskatchewan ..but I couldn't find a documentary subject that excited me to the extent that I would be willing to spend three years on it. So, I started reading short stories by Saskatchewan writers, with the idea of moving into drama. I felt that The Fat Lady with the Thin Face (by Regina writer Connie Gault) could become a very simple film, with resonances that seemed very much to come from Saskatchewan. Some of these had to do with landscape. There are more landscape references in the short story than there are in the film. In the short story, the characters can think about landscape...whereas in the film, they think but we don't necessarily know what they're thinking about.

JL: In Solitude, the faces are the landscapes. I could simply gaze at your characters gazing...forever. You film them as they reflect, as they are feeling and thinking ..and you don't cut away. We see time pass on their faces. I was looking forward to this moment when I could tell you that one of the final shots in your film is this incredibly beautiful long take of Michele's face as she walks in the woods. We cannot know exactly what she's thinking or feeling...or why. But, as the shot progresses, she starts to cry. You come to understand that these are tears of redemption or transcendence. There's this epiphany, a wonderful transformative moment which you capture. And it takes its time. She comes towards the camera, the light is perfect. There is some landscape too, as she is surrounded by nature. But, to get back to my earlier thought, I think that in your film, the landscapes are the faces. I wouldn't have it any other way.

RC: That's the best scene in your film for me. I was thinking "don't cut away". Johanne, I like your comment about the faces but, coming from Saskatchewan, my comment about landscape in Solitude would be a bit different. You have characters moving through the landscape, often alone, far away and moving away from us. There's often a road, but you can't always see where the road leads. A lot of loneliness, melancholy. The landscape isn't hostile. It's safe and warm. And I was immediately aware of the wind. When I finished my sound mix, I said to the mixer: "There's too much wind in my movie. I've got wind everywhere. I've got wind underwater". He said "Well, you're from Saskatchewan. Of course there's going to be wind in your film". And then Robin's film starts up...and there's the leaves and in the trees. It became a bit surreal at times: the garden, the scene where she chases the rabbit. Like Alice in Wonderland. It wasn't a typical prairie landscape with wheat fields. But it felt very familiar to me. And it seemed like the characters felt safe, as I always do whenever I'm home in Saskatchewan. Part of it is that you can see so far. If there's any danger coming, you have lots of warning. You can see a storm coming miles away.

MC: There's a slowness in the pace of both films which, to me, is very prairie-like. The events acquire weight and become somewhat iconic, surrounded by so much empty time and space.

RS: Well, my approach in Solitude was to see what the characters reveal through hesitation, mis-steps and negative space. What is revealed by them not moving instead of moving. That's part of it. When you start to explore that, then suddenly when a character does start to move through the landscape, the impulse is to read something into it.

RC: There's a great scene in the kitchen where Bernard comes in with the tray. The line isn't moving. Its kind of claustrophobic. You move in on him. He's going to have a panic attack or freak out. Nobody really acknowledges that he's there. That was one of those moments.

JL: Yes. He's trying to think and there's all this chatter around him. He looks quite annoyed to be part of this human "jam".

RS: I think that Brother Bernard escapes into the prairie, perhaps. When he's looking for Michele towards the end of the film, he sort of comes into his own because he's on his own. In the dining hall, in that big crowd...the intention was that he would be feeling that everyone else falls so easily into conversation and he simply can't. I think that we associate the wide open spaces of the prairies with the absence of crowds. And the city would be the opposite. But Roy's city looks as empty as the prairie.

(and the interview continues: check out Michael Crochetières interview "Une Entrevue Dans Le Plateau"

Here's Robin's website:
You'll find his email on it and a list of his other films.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

the girl in the cafe (2005)

"Sometime it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation."
Nelson Mandela, 2005

Saw this last night on a friend's recommendation (thanks Rory!), and am so grateful. Bill Nighy has never been better (and that's saying something): he's a highly placed civil servant seated at the right hand of the Chancellor of the Exchequer as Britain prepares to host a fictional G8 summit in Iceland. Kelly Macdonald is equally smashing as the other half of this awkward, generation-gapped romance (touch of LOST IN TRANSLATION) between two Eleanor Rigby-class lonely people. Without hyperbole, I'll say the first half of the film is sheer perfection: when it leaves behind pure character study to layer in more plot and more politics (however much I'm in agreement), it stumbles a bit (implausibility, sentiment), but my great big love for this film and its characters more than covers such sins.

Nearly a small masterpiece.

Available at Videomatica

PS An opening montage of images of the Bill Nighy character instantly establishes both mood and character: a lot of its effectiveness has to do with the song that's playing over top. Turns out its Damien Rice, "Cold Water," from his "O" cd (reprises at the end, as well);

Cold, cold water surrounds me now
And all I've got is your hand
Lord, can you hear me now?
Lord, can you hear me now?
Lord, can you hear me now?
Or am I lost?

Love one's daughter
Allow me that
And I can't let go of your hand
Lord, can you hear me now?
Lord, can you hear me now?
Lord, can you hear me now?
Or am I lost?

Cold, cold water surrounds me now

And all I've got is your hand
Lord, can you hear me now?
Lord, can you hear me now?
Lord, can you hear me now?
Or am I lost?

into great silence - dvd coming soon

Few films are more deserving of the "see this on a big screen" caveat. Nonetheless, since that ain't gonna happen for many people, its good news that the DVD comes available April 3 in North America. You've got two options: join the monastery yourself, or make friends with someone who hasn't taken any vows of poverty and has a whopping big video screen.

Official site

Press kit

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Feb 18: Will Of The Wisp screening (Jody Thompson, Bruch Marchfelder)

Hey gang, we got an invite!

Bruce will be familiar to y'all - Vancouver Film School / Regent film history and film making and screenwriting courses / short film at Cannes Festival. He cinematogged this one.

But you may not know of Jody. She's a very accomplished actress, also a Christian, and also a filmmaker. This is her project, written and directed, and I'm sure hoping I can get down to see the screening. It's my daughter's birthday but hey - Thea has a birthday every year, but movies premiere only once!

Here's our invitation...

Ron: We'd like to invite you and the SOULFOOD family

to the screening this Sunday:


Little Wolf Productions and The
International Filmmakers Institute

request the honor of your presence
at a private industry screening of the short film


The Vancity Theatre
Vancouver International
Film Center
1181 Seymour Street (Seymour and Davie)
Admission is FREE

Sunday, February 18, 2007
3:30 PM reception
4:00 PM screening
5:00 PM second screening

A 10 min experimental narrative
"Beautifully conceived and photographed, 'Will of the Wisp' is a stunning and surreal visual poem depicting the struggles of a haunted young woman as she fights to reclaim her body, her sexuality and her[self]."
brief nudity, mature subject matter, viewer discretion advised

Written and Directed by Jody Thompson
Cinematography by Bruce Marchfelder

Hope to see you.

PLEASE FEEL WELCOME to bring guests.

For More Information Please Call
Little Wolf Productions: 778-233-3210 or
The International Filmmakers
Institute: 778-839-3210

Bresson on faith

Fascinating email from my cine-pal Doug Cummings about filmmaker Robert Bresson, whose MOUCHETTE was recently released by Criterion. (I've written for Christianity Today about Bresson's masterful AU HASARD BALTHAZAR and A MAN ESCAPED.

Doug writes: ""Paul Schrader interviewed Bresson for Film Comment just prior to shooting LE DIABLE PROBABLEMENT. Bresson had to shut down the filming of LDP midway through due tolack of funds (he was later able to resume) and he later asked Schrader not to publish the interview, but after the film was released, he consented. I thought this passage was particularly interesting... I admire Bresson's willingness to wrestle with his faith and embrace his struggles. It's passages like this that cause some contemporary critics to claim Bresson was agnostic, but I think that betrays much of the tone here. But like his film, this is about as pessimistic as Bresson gets.


BRESSON: ...If I would one day feel that all that is interesting in
life is finished and I can't work any more, I'm not sure what I would
do. But it has nothing to do with my new film. I am not twenty-two
years old. You know there are more suicides among young people; they
said this in the paper the other day. In France--I don't know
why--when they are young, about twenty or twenty-two, they are much
more fragile, sensitive. They have nothing to live on, especially
religion. The collapse of the Catholic religion, this reason and
others, can work very strongly on the mind of a young person.

The young man in my film is looking for something on top of life, but
he doesn't find it. He goes to church to seek it, and he doesn't find
it. At night he goes to Notre Dame, to find God, alone. He says lines
like this, "When you come in a church, or in a cathedral, God is
there"--it is the line of his death--"but if a priest happens to
come. God is not there anymore." This is why, although I am very
religious--was very religious, more or less--I can't go to church in
the last four or five years when these people are making their new
mass. It is not possible. I go inside the cathedral and sit down.
There I feel God, the presence of something divine which doesn't
exist anymore in the mass. The young man cannot feel God's presence
in the daytime with people moving about and the priests there. He
goes to find something which he could rely on, but something happens.
The police come. I am sure there are young people who commit suicide
because they can't find this anymore.

SCHRADER: What will happen to you when you die?

BRESSON: (Laughter.) You know, I can't take my mind off the fact that
I believe you still feel things. You feel the loneliness, you feel
the darkness of your coffin, you feel the cold. Resurrection is a
most difficult thing to believe. The resurrection of the body: what
is it? I don't know. But you know, I feel that I feel it. I have this
certitude that there is something different than earth where we live
which you can't imagine, but you can imagine that you could imagine.
Sometimes I have had in my life, not now, something like a presence.
Of what, I don't know, but I have felt it. It was very short, but I
was very much impressed by it. It is something that I cannot explain.
I go very often to the country on weekends where I feel the trees,
the plants. I can't understand people who say there is no God. What
does it mean? That everything is natural for them?

SCHRADER: If you feel even for one moment that there is a presence of
something else, then it is hard to believe that when you die, you
will be completely lost.

BRESSON: Yes, except that one day you believe in the middle of the
day and at night, you don't. You know what I mean, one day you
believe and one day you don't. Faith is a shock. It is something you
get; you don't know how. But belief is something else. Your
intelligence tells you to do something. I think I am in the middle,
between faith and believing. In my film, when the woman is going to
die, I want it to appear there is something else after death. That's
why when people become so materialistic, religion is not possible,
because every religion is poverty and poverty is the way of having
contact with mystery and with God. When Catholicism wants to be
materialistic, God is not there.

SCHRADER: A good minister will say the same thing you say in 'Notes,'
which is: I am only a way to the mystery. Therefore, my personality
and the personality of the actors are not important; it is only
important that I enable you to see what there is. But then, most
ministers are like actors. They are very bad and they are interested
only in themselves.

BRESSON: I don't know what they are trying to do now, the
Protestants. They are trying to explain what is not explainable. That
is why many young people try to find something idealistic in
Tao--because they need something to live.

Friday, February 09, 2007

49th parallel new on criterion

Chattaway wrote about this one in a Books & Culture article a few years back. I flagged it at the time - I believe it's got Mennonites or Hutterites or somethingites in it, bit of a pacifism thread. New on Criterion.

At once a compelling piece of anti-isolationist propaganda and a quick-witted wartime thriller, 49th Parallel is a classic early work from the inimitable British filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. When a Nazi U-boat crew, headed by the ruthless Eric Portman, is stranded in Canada during the thick of World War II, the men evade capture by hiding out in a series of rural communities, before trying to cross the border into the still-neutral United States. Both soul-stirring and delightfully entertaining, 49th Parallel features a colorful cast of characters played by larger-than-life actors Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Anton Walbrook, and Leslie Howard.

Coming to Videomatica

screwtape coming, 2008

Ralph Winter—producer of the X-Men and Fantastic Four films—is a well-known Christian in Hollywood, and Walden Media has scored one of the biggest box office hits in recent years with their adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, by beloved Christian author C. S. Lewis.

Now these two forces are joining for another Lewis adaptation—this time, his cherished spiritual warfare novel, The Screwtape Letters. Variety reports that Winter will produce the adaptation in association with Walden Media.

The adaptation—described as a "midbudget," mostly live-action film—is slated for release some time in 2008. The novel, first published in 1942, is written as a series of letters between two demons, the elder Screwtape and his young nephew, Wormwood, with the seasoned demon offering his young protégé advice on undermining Christian faith and spreading wickedness.

Lewis' stepson, Douglas Gresham—who supervised the production of Wardrobe—will be producing alongside Winter.

From CT Movies

chattaway on "the sin eater"

At a time when Christian filmmakers are eager to prove that they can make movies that are just as generic and formulaic as anything Hollywood puts out—Christian political thrillers, Christian serial-killer mysteries, Christian romantic comedies, and the like—there is something to be said for a movie like The Last Sin Eater, which doesn't even try to follow any secular trends. The FoxFaith film, which concerns an obscure quasi-religious ritual that was practiced by some Britons and emigrants from Britain as recently as the 19th century, also puts spiritual concerns front-and-center, instead of trying to smuggle them in through the back door.

So if the characters get a little preachy at times, as people in Christian movies are wont to do … well, at least it fits this story in a more organic sort of way.

The film takes place in the Appalachian mountains circa 1850, and the title refers to a custom that the characters have brought with them from their native Wales, in which a man—usually a beggar or some similar social outcast—takes the sins of the newly deceased upon himself in exchange for food and drink. Because sin eaters are thought to have the sins of many people weighing on their souls, they are shunned by their communities, except when someone dies and their services are required—and even then, to look a sin eater in the eye is to invite a curse.

Of course, if you tell someone not to do something, the odds are pretty good that he or she might do it—especially if that person is a child. And so it is that a young girl named Cadi Forbes (Liana Liberato) attends the funeral of her grandmother and looks a particular Sin Eater (Peter Wingfield) right in the eye, while all her friends and relatives are making a point of looking the other way or closing their eyes altogether.

Cadi becomes obsessed with the Sin Eater, and not simply because she is curious to know who he is, where he lives, how he got his peculiar job, or why that blonde woman down the road goes looking for him up the mountain every now and then. Cadi's younger sister died recently, and Cadi feels that the death is somehow her fault; what's more, she believes her mother (Elizabeth Lackey) would have preferred it if Cadi had been the one that died, instead. So, traumatized by the harm that she thinks she has caused, Cadi wants to ask the Sin Eater to take her sins away.


The very concept of "sin eating" is so unusual that the film cannot help but be at least a little interesting. However, the movie suffers from the same sense of inevitability that afflicts so many other Christian films; at times you suspect the filmmakers are not all that interested in the phenomenon of "sin eating" for its own sake, but regard it as just another set-up for an evangelistic punch line.


The film is based on a novel by Francine Rivers, and directed by Michael Landon Jr. from a script he wrote with Touched by an Angel producer Brian Bird. All of Landon's previous directorial efforts have been adaptations of Janette Oke novels (the Love Comes Softly series) or tributes to his father, the Little House on the Prairie star; and The Last Sin Eater would be quite at home sitting next to those stories on someone's DVD shelf.


The film suffers from pedestrian direction, but it benefits from decent performances, especially where its young star Liberato is concerned. As a window into an older culture, or an evening's entertainment with the family, you could certainly do worse. Just don't be surprised when the movie starts preaching to the converted—that is, to the fellow believers who will undoubtedly make up the bulk of its audience.

Complete review at CT Movies

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

CT Movies: Top Films Of 2006

Last week, Christianity Today Movies posted their critics' selection of the ten Most Redeeming films of 2006, and this week the Critics' Choice list is up. Both are pretty swell lists. I had intended to add my comments on the flicks, but those notes got lost when my computer died this evening, so for now it'll just be the lists.

2006 Critics Choice Awards
1. Children Of Men
2. L'Enfant
3. The New World
4. United 93
5. The Queen
6. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
7. Casino Royale
8. Little Miss Sunshine
9. Tsotsi
10. Little Children
The Ones That Got Away
Apocalypto - selected by Russ Breimeier
Charlotte's Web - Todd Hertz
Lassie - Mark Moring
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont - Steven D. Greydanus
Pan's Labyrinth - Jeffrey Overstreet
The Proposition - Lisa Ann Cockrel
Requiem - Ron Reed
Thank You for Smoking - Peter T. Chattaway
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada - Josh Hurst
Wordplay - Camerin Courtney

Most Redeeming Films of 2006
1. The Nativity Story
2. The New World
3. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
4. Joyeux Noel
5. The Second Chance
6. Charlotte's Web
7. Tsotsi
8. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
9. Akeelah & The Bee
10. Children Of Men
The Ones That Got Away
Aquamarine - chosen by Todd Hertz
Babel - Josh Hurst
The Death Of Mr Lazarescu - Ron Reed
The Fountain - Russ Breimeier
Half Nelson - Lisa Ann Cockrel
A Prairie Home Companion - Jeffrey Overstreet
The Pursuit of Happyness - Steven D. Greydanus
Superman Returns - Mark Moring
Ushpizin - Peter T. Chattaway
We Are Marshall - Camerin Courtney