Could You, Should You Forgive?: Steve Reflects on Philomena

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. So we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, but are you able to forgive? The answer to that question probably depends on who hurt you and how deeply they hurt you. What if you were hurt by the Church itself, or at least philomenaby those who were representing the Church? What if they not only hurt you, but also did everything in their power to convince you (and anyone else who would listen) that you were in fact the guilty party? What if they heaped shame upon the original abuse? Could you forgive them? Should you forgive them? Is it not possible that their offenses are beyond forgiveness, at least human forgiveness? Those are the issues we are faced with in Philomena.

When I saw Philomena I entered the theater with some trepidation, fearing a movie experience that would become strident as the Church was bashed for its offenses, but I was relieved that the movie had much more to offer than merely holding the Church accountable for its deplorable actions. It does hold the Church accountable, particularly the Irish Catholic Church of fifty years ago, exposing its cruel treatment of young, unwed mothers who were required to work in the harsh conditions of the abbey’s laundry. Even more harsh was the way that at least some of the nuns took advantage of every available opportunity to rub the faces of these girls in their shame, announcing that their suffering was penance for their sins. The worst of that suffering came with the forced adoptions of their children.

The nuns had a point. God had given laws regarding adultery. Had these girls broken those laws? Certainly, they had. Did they need to face the consequences of their actions? Again, the answer is yes. However, this is where we come face to face with a vital spiritual truth. We need the law. We need its guidance and we especially need it to reveal our brokenness, but we even more desperately need the Gospel, the gift of God’s grace, which brings new life. When we get stuck in the law, as those nuns in the Irish Church were, we become nasty and the Church becomes a place of death rather than a place of life. Is it possible to “reprove our neighbor” as the Bible tells us to while at the same time loving our neighbor, which the Bible is even clearer about? Those young women clearly felt the criticism, but did they also experience the love?

Philomena was one of those young women. Having lost her mother at a young age, after an unwise decision she found herself pregnant and abandoned by her father at the abbey. While at the abbey, the nuns essentially steal her son and they try to rob her of her self worth. Both of those abuses will haunt her in the years to come. It would not have been surprising if she had left the Church, but throughout her life both God and the Church remain vital to her. Why would she remain in an institution that had caused her such pain? Was she that naïve? Although the movie portrays her as a very simple woman, she is not naïve. She is able to distinguish between those who hurt her and other nuns who treated her well, especially one young nun who was a messenger of grace. Her faith becomes one of the poles in the dialectic that develops in the movie.

The other pole involves the journalist, Martin Sixsmith, who ends up helping her search for her son. On her son’s fiftieth birthday, she decides that she has kept the secret long enough and she wants to find out what happened to her son. Sixsmith happens to be in need of work. He previously held a high position working for the Labor Party, but was forced out in disgrace, even though he had done nothing wrong. The injustice increases his cynicism and adds anger to it. He considers writing human interest stories as being beneath him, but he needs a project, so he agrees to work with Philomena. On a trip to the abbey, they find that the new administrators add to the sins of the past by giving Philomena the run-around. Sixsmith’s anger gets attached to the Church and increases as each offensive truth is revealed. Finally, his anger explodes and it would be easy to simply side with him. A lesser movie would have done just that. However, as I said, this movie offers us more to grapple with than that. Philomena responds to the revelations in a more complex manner. I won’t spoil the movie by revealing her response, because you simply have to see this movie!

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Steve Highly Recommends Four More From 2012

I have yet to see a movie released in 2013, although there are finally some coming out that I’m looking forward to seeing. In the meantime, I’ve been catching up on a few more from 2012, which was quite a fine year for movies. I’ve seen four recently that I highly recommend, although the best of them, Holy Motors, is an art film for adventurous viewers only. Here are short reviews of the four of them. You can also check out where they landed on my 2012 rankings page.

Holy Motors

holyThe strangest movie I’ve seen all year and also one of the best, although certainly not a movie for everyone. Avoid this movie if you want a straight-forward narrative. Also, avoid it if you don’t like reading subtitles. This one is in French, but it is not heavy on dialogue, so the reading isn’t a great burden. If you do enjoy movies with a unique style and approach, see this. If you like movies that are challenging and thought-provoking, don’t miss this. What is it about? It’s a movie about the movies. No wait, it’s a movie about how the movies reflect life. No, it actually is about life (and death and sex and struggle and the difficulty of relationships and the effect of technology on humanity and…). What happens? A little bit of everything. It follows Mr. Oscar from morning until late night as he travels around Paris in a long, white limo on his way to a number of “appointments.” He is apparently an actor and at each stop he has a different role to play. I won’t tell you what those roles are because part of the fun is the sense of surprise around every corner. You will not guess where this movie is going, but it is a great ride! See it! (It is currently available on Netflix streaming.)

The Sessions

sessionsA movie about a man in his thirties, nearly totally incapacitated by polio, who has his first sexual experience, now that’s something you don’t see everyday. But, in this case it is something that you should see, unless you are quite squeamish when it comes to sex. There is plenty of sex, but just as Helen Hunt matter-of-factly disrobes in her role as the sex surrogate, so is this movie comfortable with the sex it presents. In a sense the sex is explicit, but it is not used to titillate. It is used to help us understand what this experience meant to Mark O’Brien (the writer/poet the movie is based on, wonderfully played by John Hawkes) and in so doing also help us to ponder what our own sexuality means to us. The movie makes it clear that the quality of the relationship is more important than the sexual act itself. What a novel idea! It laments the fact that our culture convinces too many people that their self worth is directly connected to the quality of their sexual experiences. It wonders if the sexual act itself might not actually be a bit overrated! This movie is not really about sex. It is about self discovery which leads to deeper relationships with others. It is also about faith and wondering where God is in the struggles of life. Hawkes and Hunt deliver fine performances, as does William H. Macy as Mark’s priest. This is in the Nearly Great category because I wasn’t as moved by the characters as I would have liked to have been, but nonetheless it is well worth seeing.

Sound of My Voice

sound voiceKeep your eye on Brit Marling. In the past couple of years she has co-written and starred in two intriguing movies, Another Earth and Sound of My Voice. She fills both of those roles again with The East, scheduled for release in May 2013. Both of those earlier films have twists at the end that make you rethink all that you have seen, but they do not rely solely on those endings for their strength. They tell interesting stories with a strong focus on the emotions of the characters. In Sound of My Voice Marling plays Maggie, the mysterious leader of a cult. A young couple decides to infiltrate the group to make a documentary on Maggie and the power that cult leaders have on their followers. When they hear the claim that Maggie is a visitor from the future, they know it has to be a hoax, but they are drawn in by Maggie’s charismatic power nonetheless. Marling gives a brilliant performance, presenting Maggie as fragile, yet alarmingly persuasive.

Liberal Arts

liberalJosh Radnor (of How I Met Your Mother fame) goes one better than Marling, handling writing, acting and directing duties for Liberal Arts and the earlier happythankyoumoreplease. Both are movies about the tricky business of relationships and finding one’s place in life. Both are well worth seeing. In Liberal Arts, Radnor plays a 30-something college admissions director who returns to his alma mater and falls for a college sophomore, played by Elizabeth Olsen. He struggles with their age difference, even as he feels drawn to her. Radnor has a gift for writing about the messiness of life, resisting the temptation to tidy up everything. Radnor and Olsen deliver fine performances, as does the supporting cast, including Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, and even Zac Efron in a decidedly strange role.

A Separation: Steve Looks Back at Last Year’s Foreign Language Oscar Winner

This Iranian movie won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It achieved the highest rating (95) of any 2011 movie on metacritic. Why? Because it is that great. It does two things that great movies should do: it transports you into another world and it reveals universal truths by carefully examining a particular situation. In this case that other world is modern day Iran. We get to experience the daily life of average citizens, including some who are more secularized and others who are actively living out the tenets of their Muslim faith, and we get to see the workings of the Iranian court system. The universal truths include the difficulties of dealing with the moral complexities of life and putting one’s faith into practice. The particular situation, which gives the movie its title, is the separation of a husband and wife. It is not that they no longer love each other. Nothing in this movie is that simple. The wife wants to leave Iran because she doesn’t believe that it is a good place to raise their daughter (word is that the Iranian government wasn’t too thrilled with this part of the story!). The husband says he has to stay to take care of his father who has Alzheimer’s. They agree to separate, but then things get complicated. He hires a housekeeper to help with the care of his father. There is an accident, the housekeeper has a miscarriage and he is charged for the death of the child. They go to court, but sometimes the truth is hard to come by. Yes, you’ll have to read subtitles, but don’t let that stop you. By all means, see this truly great movie.

Big Questions: Steve’s Reflection on Prometheus

Don’t you want to know? That is a recurring question in Prometheus, a movie filled with big questions. If you had the opportunity to talk to your creator, wouldn’t you want to participate in that conversation? Don’t you want to know who created us? Don’t you want to know why we were created? My favorite movie in 2011, The Tree of Life, asked big questions about the meaning of life, and since Prometheus promised to do the same, I listed it as my most anticipated movie in 2012. As it turns out, it won’t be my number 1 movie for the year, it had too many weaknesses to achieve that lofty position, but it was nonetheless lots of fun to watch and its big questions do provide plenty of food for thought.

Whereas The Tree of Life presented its questions in the context of family drama, Prometheus does so as a sci-fi/thriller/horror film hybrid. It certainly makes for an interesting experience to be pondering big questions while waiting for monsters to fill the screen with their gory exploits. Since this movie is a prequel to Alien (whether director Ridley Scott cares to call it that or not), the gore is expected, but the violent destructiveness of the aliens is not there simply for its shock value. It provides an important subtext to the questions that are being asked. What role does evil play, not only in the destruction of that which is created, but in creation itself. To put it in Biblical terms, where did that snake in the Garden of Eden come from anyway? Or, as David, the android played so well by Michael Fassbender, says, “Sometimes to create, one must first destroy.” This may sound counter to the Christian understanding of God as Creator, but it made me think of the story of the flood, and verses such as Isaiah 45:7 (I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.) and Ezekiel 17:24 (All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.).

If God is potentially destructive, why do we trust God to care for us? We trust that God is a loving God because that is what we choose to believe. The notion of choosing to believe is a recurring theme of the movie. This is especially true of the character Elizabeth Shaw, played by Noomi Rapace. Shaw chooses to believe that the alien beings that left evidence of their time on earth through cave drawings and other artifacts had something to do with our creation, thus giving them the name Engineers. This seems like quite a jump to make given the lack of evidence, but that is part of the big question about faith and why we believe what we believe. Faith does indeed seem to involve a leap. Shaw also chooses to believe that these beings have not simply left a map of their place in the universe, but that this map is more importantly an invitation. When Shaw (and the others) discover that these beings are not what they were expecting, she must face the challenge of altering her beliefs to fit the facts at hand. There is much to ponder here: why do you believe what you believe?; how have the facts of life altered your beliefs?

I appreciated the fact that the movie did not pit science against religion. Yes, there was one scientist who claimed to have no belief in a divine being because of the evidence of Darwinian evolution, but Shaw was both a scientist and a Christian believer, showing that these two things can go hand in hand. I would argue that they must go hand in hand. Religion that disregards science quickly becomes idolatry and science without faith will never be able to enter into the mystery of the big questions. That truth is handled wonderfully in the movie when David asks Shaw if finding out that the Engineers actually did create the human race would end her faith in God. She responds that the question of who created them would still remain.

Another Biblical allusion that caught my attention was a scene in which David has a drop of liquid which presumably has the alien DNA in it on the tip of his finger. He says something along the lines of “big things have small beginnings.” Having preached on the parable of the mustard seed that very morning, this line jumped out at me. As my co-blogger, Bill, has pointed out in a number of his posts, the theme of self-sacrifice is important throughout the Biblical narrative, including, of course, Christ himself, and that theme appears in a couple of interesting ways in Prometheus. I don’t want to include any huge spoilers here, so I won’t mention the sacrifice that comes late in the film, but I think its safe to point out the one that comes at the very beginning. The opening scene shows an Engineer who drinks a black liquid that seems to break down his body so that his DNA can mix with Earth’s water. It this where human life began? The movie doesn’t say so for sure, but it does seem that the Engineer is sacrificing his life in order to create life. What do you think?

Since seeing the movie a couple of days ago, I find myself thinking about the implications of many of the scenes. So much so, that I look forward to seeing it again to see how things strike me the second time around. As I said earlier, I don’t believe that this will be my top ranked movie for the year. At the moment, I rank it just a bit below The Hunger Games, another movie that gives us questions to ponder and one that I found to be more purely entertaining than Prometheus. Prometheus is well worth seeing, but it does contain those horror elements, so be prepared for that. Although, I actually didn’t find it to be all that scary or suspenseful. I didn’t find anything that happened to be all that surprising, which is part of what works against the movie’s impact. There has been much discussion about the weak writing of the movie and I would agree, but only in a certain sense. I’m not concerned that the movie left so many things unanswered. The movie was clearly designed with a sequel in mind, so the fact that the big questions are left hanging is not a big surprise. My chief concern was that too much of the dialogue was dumbed down. It was as if the screenwriters weren’t content with merely obvious, but had to push things to the point of being painfully obvious. I found myself snickering too many times at lines that weren’t meant to be funny. I also felt that the actions of the characters were too often ridiculous. Much of the crew was composed of scientists, but one wonders how these scientists made it onto the crew of this trillion-dollar endeavor. They paid so little regard to proper scientific methods. Now I know that in horror thrillers folks have to do foolish things in order to set up the consequences that follow, and that certainly happens here, but beyond that too many of the actions of the characters seemed simply ludicrous. Despite that, though, I enjoyed most of the characters and thought the acting was mostly quite strong, especially Fassbender. I wasn’t sure about Rapace early on, but her performance as Shaw grew on me. Charlize Theron’s performance as Vickers and Idris Elba as the ship’s captain, Janek, should also be mentioned. Not surprisingly, Scott has given the film a marvelous look and feel, which makes it a worthwhile place to spend a couple of hours pondering those big questions.

Five Quick Reviews and Rankings by Steve

What are you in the mood for? A good old fashioned, but bloody, samurai movie? A family film starring friends from the past? An historical drama filled with sexual tension? A heart-felt comedy? A sci-fi thriller? I’ve added five films to my 2011 rankings. (Check my Ranking page to see where they landed.) None of them are high on my list, although two are currently in the top 25. However, even the lower ranked ones are worth seeing. Here are short reviews of the five.

13 Assassins

A classic samurai movie. A classic good versus evil movie. After a violent beginning that establishes the cruelty of an evil lord, the movie settles into a quiet middle section in which the thirteen assassins are assembled for a suicide mission against the lord and his army. The final third of the movie is an epic battle scene. The fighting here is realistic (and bloody) with none of the floating warriors that became all the rage with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This is a movie about honor, tradition, and sacrifice. Unless you speak Japanese, you will need to read subtitles, but it is well worth it!

The Muppets

What is better than a reunion with a friend? A reunion with a group of friends! I’ve been humming the Muppet theme for a couple of days now. I actually never was a huge Muppet fan, but I have long enjoyed their unique brand of humor and heart. While this reboot of the Muppet franchise doesn’t bring much of anything new to the table, it is delightful nonetheless. In addition to the theme song, there is a reprise of “The Rainbow Connection” and a batch of new songs. None of the songs are overly memorable, they all work well in the movie. In fact, everything works well. Simply put, see it!

A Dangerous Method

An interesting look at the beginning of psychotherapy. Michael Fassbinder and Viggo Mortensen give solid performances as Jung and Freud. My favorite performance was by Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross, who has an “if it feels good, do it” attitude towards life. Jung tries to get him to see how destructive such an attitude can be, but then ends up in affair himself with Sabina Spielrein. She is played by Keira Knightley in a performance that received mixed reviews. Some love her dramatic portrayal of Spielrein’s struggle with inner demons, others cringe at her jaw-jutting histrionics. I agree with those who feel her performance would have benefited from a more subtle approach.

Cedar Rapids

I liked this more than I thought I would. The trailers made it look like a Judd Apatow kind of movie, long on sex and alcohol/drug jokes, short on much of anything else. The crass jokes are certainly there, but they serve a story that actually has a lot of heart. John C. Reilly is responsible for much of the rude humor, but his character also has a tender side. I’m not a big Ed Helms fan, but he was believable as the small town insurance salesman at his first convention in the big city. Yes, in this case the big city is Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

In Time

An interesting premise that results in a fairly entertaining movie. It is a story set in the future when time is literally money. If you run out of time, your life is over. The poor face that threat every day, always living on the edge. Meanwhile, the rich can accumulate enough time to live forever. In this day and age when the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, the story strikes a chord, but the writing could have been a little less obvious. Also, the way in which time was transferred from one person to another was a bit ridiculous. Nevertheless, Justin Timberlake, as a man accused of stealing time, and Cillian Murphy, as the time cop sent to hunt him down, make the movie worth watching.

Finding Faith and Doubt in Higher Ground: a Recommendation from Steve

Why do we believe what we believe? To what degree is our adult faith the product of our childhood exposure to religion? To what degree is our adult faith a reaction to our childhood exposure to religion? What do we do when life gets complex and messy and simple answers that once worked don’t seem to work anymore? Higher Ground is not a great movie, but it is a very good movie that leads to great pondering on those and other questions about faith, doubt, and the presence and/or absence of God. I highly recommend it to anyone who would like to examine questions about their faith and why they practice their faith in the way that they do. However, it must be made clear that this is a movie for adults. Not only does it tackle deep issues, it also does not shy away from the fact that faith is not one part of our life, but that it touches every part of our lives, including our sexuality. There are no sex scenes in the movie, but there are frank discussions about sexuality and imagery of a sexual nature. As with most things in the movie, they are handled in both a sincere and a humorous way. I do not think many adults will find these scenes to be offensive, but you might want to keep them in mind as you consider who your viewing partners might be.

Higher Ground is based on the memoir of Carolyn Briggs, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Corrine, the main character, is played by Vera Farmiga. This is also Farmiga’s directorial debut. She handles both of those roles well. The story follows Corrine from the time when as a young girl she answers her pastor’s altar call at Bible School and opens her heart to Jesus to a time about twenty years later when Corrine wonders if Jesus actually accepted her invitation into her heart. Along the way, Corrine marries her high school sweetheart at a young age. After a nearly tragic event, they feel that God has protected them and as a response they join an close-knit evangelical group. The heart of the film is Corrine’s clear desire to have her faith nurtured by this group and her growing realization that her desire will not be fulfilled. This group could have easily been stereotyped and ridiculed, but the strength of this movie is in the fact that they are presented in an evenhanded manner. Their simplistic faith is evident, and although that particular style of belief clearly does not work for Corrine, the group and its beliefs are not bashed in the film. Certain elements of the movie are somewhat cliched, but even these ring true in their own way because, let’s face it, sometimes life is a bit cliched.

Given the time frame, the part of Corrine is played by three actresses: McKenzie Turner as the young Corrine, Taissa Farmiga during the teenage years, and Vera as Corrine in her 20s and 30s. When I saw Taissa’s name in the end credits, I thought Vera had cast her daughter in the part. It turns out that Taissa is Vera’s younger sister, 21 years younger! It was her first film role and she does a more than adequate job. When Vera took over, I thought she seemed too old for the character at that point, but as Corrine aged, Vera settled nicely into the role. The story does occasionally move ahead without a clear sense of the timing involved, but Vera always provides a few clues to help the viewer get a sense of where things are at. That technique points to an overall strength of the movie. There is no attempt made to give all the answers, or really any answers at all. This is a movie about questions and doubts, but also about the desire for faith even in the midst of those questions and doubts. That being the case, it should be no surprise that the movie does not have a neat and clean ending. Corrine is left pondering and seeking and so are we. I’m thankful for movies that give me the opportunity to do just that.

The Tree of Life: Steve Recommends a Near Masterpiece

In The Tree of Life director Terrence Malick strives to create a masterpiece. He nearly succeeds. This is a strange and fascinating film. It is also one of the most deeply spiritual films of this, or any, year. A good portion of the dialog is not between the characters themselves, but between various characters and God. In other words, it is prayer. These prayers serve as narration throughout the movie. Most of the prayers are variations on the question, “Where are you, God?” The opening words of the movie come from God, or at least from God’s response to Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Job demanded that God give him some explanation for his suffering, especially in light of his innocence. I’ve never been quite satisfied with God’s response to Job. God essentially says, “I’m God and you’re not, so deal with it!” Job accepts God’s answer, but I’m not sure that I do. If God is the great creator, doesn’t he have something to answer for given the magnitude of suffering in the world, especially the suffering of the innocent. Pondering that question is one of the major themes of the movie. Malick, who also wrote the screenplay, seems to accept God’s answer to Job. In various ways, the movie indicates that all things come from God, both good and bad, and that bad things will indeed happen to good people. We need to simply accept that. It is possible that the movie also wants to claim that there is a plan behind all that happens, but that is never stated explicitly. In fact, few things in this movie are stated explicitly! This is a movie for pondering big questions, not necessarily giving any answers. I’m not comfortable with some of the answers that are hinted at, but I salute Malick for making a movie that dares to go places few other movies do.

There is no doubt Malick and his film will be saluted time and again during the award season. It will be interesting to see if that leads to an Oscar or two. Generally the critics love this movie, but there is also a vocal contingent among critics and general viewers who loathe this movie. Maybe that is true if all great art, you either love it or hate it, it doesn’t allow you to remain neutral. I’ve read many comments about how boring some folks find this movie to be. I can understand that reaction. In a sense, not much happens in terms of plot. Most of the movie focuses on the day to day life of a family in Waco, Texas in the ’50’s. But then again, you get the creation of the earth, complete with dinosaurs and a view of the afterlife (or at least, it seems to be the afterlife). That’s pretty big stuff! Of course, it does take some work to sort through the connections between the big stuff and the particularities of this family’s life. I urge you to see the movie, but do so knowing that it is a movie about images, rather than about narrative and plot. While watching the movie, my 14 year old son remarked, “This doesn’t make sense.” I responded, “Don’t worry about that. Just let the images work on you.” I think that is the right approach to watching this movie. And some of those images are incredible! I am tempted to continue on with what I feel that those images convey, but I think I’ll leave that for a later reflection piece. Instead, I’ll close this recommendation with a brief explanation why I refer to this as a “near” masterpiece and why I rank it at number 2 for the year (so far). As grand as the movie-making is here, the movie never truly drew me in. I was delighted by portions of it (especially the scenes dealing with the births and early years of the boys), but I was not moved by it. I shed nary a tear. For me, that is important. Strangely enough, in a movie that ponders grace, I did not feel grace. But, I’ll certainly be giving The Tree of Life another shot. There is so much to see here. Flawed though it may be, don’t miss it!