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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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 Descendants is Mostly Great: a Recommendation from Steve

The Descendants, starring George Clooney, is mostly great and nearly made it into my top 3 for the year, maybe even all the way to No. 1. It turns out that “mostly” and “nearly” are fairly important modifiers. Fortunately, most of the movie is wonderful. Unfortunately, the parts that aren’t wonderful are remarkably weak. Much like in The Help, I find it stupefying that a movie could contain material that felt so brilliant and true along side material that felt so banal and false. Again, fortunately, most of the movie falls in the first category, so overall I do highly recommend it. Just be prepared to cringe once in a while.

Let’s start with the good stuff. That conversation clearly begins with Clooney. He is terrific, quite deserving of the Best Actor nomination. He has to juggle an amazing array of emotions with out being too obvious about any of them. His character, Matt King, faces not only a wife in a coma due to a boating accident, but also the news that she had been cheating on him. Her condition forces him to be the primary parent for two daughters (ages 17 and 10) that he barely knows because he has been so focused on his work as a lawyer. At the same time, his extended family is awaiting his decision as the sole trustee for the family’s trust that includes a large parcel of undeveloped land in Hawaii. A change in the law requires them to sell the land within seven years or lose it. A few want to keep it undeveloped, most want it sold so they can enjoy the millions that it will bring to the family. Add to this the need to decide about taking his wife off of life support and an encounter with the man his wife was have the affair with and Matt has more on his plate than anyone should have to deal with. Clooney’s ability to present the layers of emotions that all of these plot points bring out is the greatest asset of this mostly great movie.

We’ve come to expect that kind of performance from Clooney. Unexpected, but no less amazing, is Shailene Woodley’s performance as Alexandra, the older daughter. She is the one who must break the news of her mother’s affair. She does a masterful job as a teenager struggling to grow up and trying to make sense of how she feels about her dying mother. Matthew Lillard, as the man in the affair, and Judy Greer, as his wife, give strong performances. Beau Bridges, as Hugh, the only cousin who gets enough screen time to get a sense of his character, is also quite good. In addition to those fine performances, the movie also excels in presenting in presenting the complexity of life. The bottom line seems to be that grace is possible. We can move on from the things we have messed up and strive to live in a better way. All of that, along with Alexander Payne’s assured sense of direction, makes this a movie well worth seeing.

Why then the “mostly” and “nearly” qualifiers at the beginning of this recommendation? As wonderful as so much of this movie was, it was kept from true greatness by the incredible ineptitude in presenting a number of the supporting characters. Although, the younger daughter Scottie and Alexandra’s friend Sid grew on me, there was too much that felt false and forced about their characters. This was also true for Matt’s father-in-law, Kai and Mark (friends of Matt and his wife), Scottie’s teacher and counselor, and Alex’s dorm supervisor. That is just too many weak characters, minor though some of them are, to call this a truly great movie. I think the problem lies with the writing, not the acting. There is a rule of thumb that multiple writers for a movie is a sign of trouble. This movie lists three writers in the credits. Interestingly, they are nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. For about 80% of the movie they deserve an Oscar, but for the other 20% I’m not sure they even deserve the nomination. Yes, I thought it was that bad! The weak writing showed up not just in the characters, but in the plot as well. The big family meeting to decide about the land sale fell on the same day that the life support was removed from Matt’s wife. Sure, it created dramatic tension, but it also felt incredibly contrived. They had seven years to make a decision, so what family would be heartless enough not o postpone the meeting. Things like that drag the movie down, but not too far. It is, indeed, mostly great and lands in my top 5 for the year.

A Better Life is Not Easy: A Recommendation from Steve

A Better Life is a movie about the relationship between a father and a son. The father’s deepest desire is to provide a better life for his son. This will not be easy because the father is an illegal Mexican immigrant working as a landscaper in Los Angeles. The father lives in fear of getting caught and having his dream come crashing down. This is also, then, a movie about the immigration difficulties that we face as a nation. I highly recommend this movie because it helps to put a human face on a situation that is a mess. For the most part the movie is quite evenhanded, but my guess is that liberals will like it more than conservatives. Nonetheless, I do recommend it for everyone, no matter what your political leanings might be or what you might think  the solution to the immigration problem might be. The movie does not preach about a proper solution. It seeks, as I’ve said, to put a human face on the problem, which will hopefully help us all to be more compassionate as we seek a solution we all can live with.

Demian Bichir, who plays Carlos, the father, is nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars. His performance definitely does have a subtle power to it. His facial expressions reveal emotions of great range and depth. His quietly beautiful acting is deserving of the nomination, but still somewhat surprising given its subtlety. Jose Julian gives a solid performance as his son, Luis. Carlos Linares does a stellar job as Santiago, a man who works with Carlos. His role points to one of the strengths of the film. He does a bad thing, but he does it out of desperation, not simply because he is a bad person. Overall, the characters, even the minor ones, are not simply stereotypes. They reveal the complexity of life. The immigrants are not simply presented as noble people who should be allowed a free pass into our country. Some are good, some are bad, but none simply so. On the other hand, the immigration officers are not presented as unfeeling beasts. They show compassion in the midst of doing a difficult job.

Carlos, though, is presented quite clearly as a good man. His life exudes grace. He cares deeply for his son. He works hard and honestly. Most importantly, when given an opportunity to exact revenge on someone who has wronged him he chooses compassion, if not quite forgiveness. In doing so, he teaches his son a lesson that just might save him from the gang life that Carlos so fears will entrap his son. We can all learn a bit about grace from Carlos. Chris Weitz, who also directed About a Boy, leads with a steady hand. There is nothing flashy here, which serves this relationship-based story well. The ending is vaguely hopeful, which is also fitting given the complexity of the issue.

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!

Treat Yourself to Chocolat This Easter: a Recommendation from Steve

One goal of this blog is to lead you to movies that deal with faith issues in ways that are enjoyable, enriching, and enlightening.  I have a recommendation that is quite appropriate as we move from Lent to Easter.  ChocolatChocolat takes place during the season of Lent.  It is sometimes dark, a bit bittersweet, but ultimately delightful.  Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her young daughter move to a small French village where she opens a chocolate shop.  Her past is cloaked in mystery.  She has an uncanny ability of matching just the right treat with each customer.  However, her timing in opening the shop is problematic.  The predominately (entirely?) Catholic population is supposed to abstain from worldly pleasures during Lent.  The mayor (Alfred Molina) considers it to be his responsibility to see to it that everyone does what they are supposed to do.  He is so controlling that he insists on previewing the young Father’s sermons before he preaches them (which, as a pastor, makes me cringe).  Things get more complicated when Vianne establishes a friendship with Roux (Johnny Depp), the leader of a group of Gypsies.  Everything comes to a head when Vianne plans a Festival of Chocolate for Easter Sunday.  This movie reveals how God’s grace comes to life in the ways in which we care for others, rather than in how closely we follow the rules.  The cast is wonderful.  Binoche is perfect, as sweet and tempting as her chocolates.  Depp’s role is definitely of the supporting variety, but he adds an intriguing edge to the movie.  This may be my favorite role in Molina’s long career.  You simply have to see what happens to him on Easter morning.  The cast also includes Judy Dench in yet another delightful performance.  If you’ve never seen this, treat yourself!  If you have seen it, then, just like the chocolate it’s named for, you’d like another taste, wouldn’t you? 

Rango: a Lenten Reflection by Steve

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.  Many Christians heard those words recently as a black smudge in the shape of a cross was placed on their foreheads.  As I observed Ash Wednesday this year and pondered again those words about dust from the fall story in Genesis 3, my thoughts went to the town of Dirt.  If you’ve seen the movie Rango, you know that Dirt is the town where most of the story takes place.  Rango offers plenty of food for thought as we journey through the Lenten season.  If you haven’t seen it, I will warn you that this reflection will contain some minor spoilers.

Rango is the story of a chameleon’s journey of personal discovery, just as Lent is meant to be a time of personal examination.  However, as the movie reveals, if that examination remains self-centered, it will end in failure.  God spoke the words about being dust as Adam and Eve were being evicted from Eden.  They had just eaten the forbidden fruit in order to gain the wisdom of God, in an attempt to be something that they were not.  The danger of  attempting to pass one’s self off as something greater than you truly are is played out in Rango.  As the movie begins, Rango has his Eden,  a terrarium where all his needs are provided for, but then he finds himself cast out into the wilderness where he will have to learn how to survive and, in the process, discover who he is.

When Rango (who is still unnamed at that point) arrives in the town of Dirt, he realizes that since no one knows him he can present himself in any way that he desires.  Rather than blending in, which would seem to be a natural move for a chameleon, he decides to cast himself as a tough as nails gunslinger.  It is at this time that he gives himself the name Rango, undoubtedly thinking that it sounds like the name of someone you shouldn’t mess with.

As he presents this bold and false front, one of the critters in the saloon asks him if he is the one who killed the bandit brothers.  He sees this as an opportunity to solidify his new persona and therefore claims that he is indeed the one who killed them.  However, he is not content to stick with that simple lie.  He adds to it by claiming that he killed them with one bullet.  My guess is that he was assuming that there were two bandit brothers.  Rango was surprised, along with the rest of us, to find out that there were seven of them.  Now Rango must spin a tale to cover up his original lies.  That’s how it is with lying, isn’t it?

During this season of Lent it might be good for us to ponder the dangers of getting caught in a web of lies, but Rango doesn’t need to worry about that, at least not yet.  The townsfolk buy into his story, as outrageous as it is.  Their need to have something to believe in as they face the struggles of life, including the shortage of water, is as great as Rango’s need to have them believe him.  His position of honor is quickly confirmed when he manages to kill the hawk that harasses the community, using just one bullet.  The death of the hawk is clearly the result of dumb luck, not Rango’s skill or bravery, but the critters of Dirt only see what they want to see.

Rango is given the title of sheriff and he proudly wears that badge, the symbol of justice in the West.  However, he (and we) are soon reminded of the instability of any security based in human institutions when the tombstone of the former sheriff is shown.  It reveals that he managed to hold the office from Thursday to Saturday!  As the dark forces that threaten the community mount, the townsfolk begin to lose faith in Rango, but he reassures them that as long as the Sheriff sign hangs in front of his office there is hope.  At that moment shots ring out and the sign is blown to pieces.  The gunman turns out to be Jake the Rattlesnake, who then proceeds to blow Rango’s cover.  When his lies are exposed, Rango leaves Dirt in disgrace.

As my co-blogger, Bill, points out in his reflection on this movie, what happens next could be seen as death and resurrection.  Although Rango does not literally die, he does cross over to the other side.  His encounter with the Spirit of the West is the turning point of the movie.  When Rango laments that he was unable to live up to the role of hero, the Spirit says, “It’s not about you, it’s about them.”  Taking those words to heart, Rango is able to return to Dirt and to be a hero, no longer as an act of selfish grandiosity, but as a servant to those he has come to love.

Our Lenten journey needs to take the same turn that Rango’s takes.  Self-reflection is an important part of the season, but the truth is that we find ourselves by losing ourselves.  The Spirit’s words, “It’s not about you, it’s about them,” remind me of Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  Rango’s sheriff badge proved to be an empty symbol, but we return to the sign of the cross, recently marked on our foreheads with ashes.  As long as we have that sign, we have hope.  Rango named himself, but we remember how God has named us his children in the waters of baptism.  As the townfolk of Dirt celebrate the return of the water that brings life to their community, we celebrate those waters of baptism and the resurrection life that they promise to us.