“Two Popes” Film Commentary: Stereotypes Win Over Depth

 

Netflix’s The Two Popes is a strange mix of fact and fiction, craftsmanship and lack of research or understanding. The film, which received three Oscar nominations (best actor for Jonathan Pryce’s performance as Cardinal Bergoglio, best supporting actor for Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict, and best adapted screenplay by well-respected biopic screenwriter Anthony McCarten), centers around an imaginary encounter that takes place between the soon-to-be Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI before he announces his retirement. For those who are more familiar with both popes, the shallow portrayal of Pope Benedict is not just disappointing but so false that it detracts from the story’s believability, while the portrayal of Cardinal Bergoglio has much more depth and sympathy, including several flashbacks to significant events in his earlier life. In many respects, the film feels like a tribute to Pope Francis; unfortunately, it does this by contrasting him favorably with a “straw man” version of Pope Benedict—someone who is just a shadow of the real man and pope. For those less familiar with the Church and the individual popes, the film could easily reinforce unhelpful stereotypes of the Church and both popes.

For an in-depth conversation on The Two Popes, check out Salt + Light Radio’s Special with Deacon Pedro Guevara-Mann and Sr. Marie Paul. 

The film has many strong points artistically: strong performances and high production values with details in the costumes and sets that made me wonder if the filmmakers had somehow gotten inside the Vatican, especially the impressive reproduction of the Sistine Chapel. The close-up camera work gives an intimate feel to the story.

The two well-known actors who play the leads—Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Bergoglio and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict—both received Oscar nominations for their performances. It is to their credit that they carry the majority of the film with their dialogue, a reflection of the film’s stage-play origins. Although a few lines made me smile, overall the script lacked nuance and in-depth research. For much of the first half of the film, the dialogue focuses on the few topics that the media often assume are most important (or at least more controversial), rather than the grave concerns that both real popes have brought to the fore as most urgent to the Church and the world today. And while some of the lines of dialogue are the actual words of Pope Francis or the Pope Emeritus, they are taken out of context. A poorly researched script and story such as this doesn’t deserve to begin with the words, “Inspired by true events,” even taking into account the conventions of cinema and the needs of drama.

Jonathan Pryce’s portrayal of Pope Francis quite convincing, imitating Pope Francis’ mannerisms and projecting an openness to others that feels genuine. Hopkins gives a good performance, portraying a gradual transformation from a leader who is elderly, rigid, and “out of touch”  to someone who re-learns how to joke and trust. But this portrayal is so far from what we know of the real Pope Benedict XVI (who is well known as a soft-spoken scholar whose massive gifts of intellect, insight, and passion for Christ are enhanced by his gentle manner and clarity of expression). The portrayal is not only unflattering but is also so unlike the real Pope Emeritus that it detracts from the ending of communion and reconciliation that is the high point of the film.

Because the film mixes actual footage and some accurate information with an imaginary encounter between the two churchmen, it could be hard for most viewers to distinguish what is blatantly inaccurate or untrue. An initial example: the film shows Anthony Hopkins actively seeking election to become pope, when we know that, even before his election as pope, the real Cardinal Ratzinger asked Pope St. John Paul to retire more than once.

In addition, the uneven treatment of the two popes makes for a much poorer story. By setting up a superficial disagreement or antagonism between the two characters, the filmmakers are not just unfair to both real popes (who are both great churchmen who have contributed so much to the Church and the world). The filmmakers lose the creative opportunity for telling a deeper, more dramatic story free of stereotypes: that of two spiritually mature men who have both dedicated their lives to Christ, who approach the needs of the world and the Church in contrasting (not contradictory) ways.

The film’s portrayal of Cardinal Bergoglio has some depth and sympathetic moments, where Hopkins’ Pope Benedict is superficial: a cranky old man who needs this one encounter with Bergoglio to hear the voice of God. The filmmakers’ bias toward Pope Francis is most clearly revealed in the decision to show several flashbacks of two key moments in Bergoglio’s early life, while the film offers no flashbacks for Pope Benedict. This decision gives the audience no opportunity to develop a deeper sympathy for the difficulties Pope Benedict faced in his early life. It also makes obvious that this film is meant to be a sympathetic tribute to Pope Francis, which would be more convincing if it were more accurate in both portrayals, especially of Pope Emeritus Benedict. In a few early moments in the film, the actor playing Cardinal Bergoglio seems to poke fun at customs of Hopkins’ Pope Benedict; this is a disservice to both real popes: a deep respect for all cultures has been quite important to the real Pope Francis.

Windows to the Soul?

However, the value of the film (as well as evidence of the filmmakers’ goodwill) is evident in the development of the story itself. If we lift the dialogue out of these characters’ mouths and place it in another situation, in other mouths, then the film offers some helpful insights into how honesty, respectful dialogue, a commitment to Christ, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation can lead to deeper communion and a unified approach to doing what is best for the world and the Church. I found it helpful to listen to the dialogue as representing various voices in the Church and culture, with different concerns and emphases. In our society today that often focuses on extremism and intolerance for those who believe differently and hold different values, The Two Popes points to a path of reconciliation and communion.

Ultimately, despite its Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay, The Two Popes lacks the depth and authenticity that would make this a well-done biopic, or even an adequate depiction. The likelihood that many people who see it will either not take the time to sort fact from fiction (or error), or will simply accept the stereotypes, is problematic. At the same time, The Two Popes is an interesting portrayal of the Church from not-so-well-informed but somewhat sympathetic secular media makers. The power and beauty of the spirituality of encounter, so essential to Pope Francis’ entire papacy, is well represented here. And perhaps that is the film’s true tribute to Pope Francis.

For contrasting and thoughtful commentaries on The Two Popes, see Bishop Barron’s The One Pope and Sr. Nancy Usselman’s take, The Two Popes—Growing in Communion. For a “Vatican insider’s” perspective on the film’s accuracy, check out The Two Popes: Baloney, Brilliantly Acted by George Weigel.

The Farewell Movie Commentary: Tribute to Family

 

I feel privileged I was able to watch The Farewell during November (the month where the liturgy encourages us to reflect on the Last Things, as well as a strong family time with Thanksgiving), and especially this week, when my community is grieving the death of one of our elderly sisters, as well as two close brothers from the Society of Saint Paul. The Farewell is a well-crafted, understated and moving tribute to family, the elderly, grief, and the importance of respect for cultural differences.

The Farewell’s story revolves around Billi, a young Chinese American woman who discovers that her grandmother has advanced cancer. The twist? That her family back in China have decided not to tell her, and instead stage a family wedding as an excuse for family members to come and visit the grandmother one last time.

Listen to my commentary on The Farewell on the Salt + Light Radio Hour here.

The Farewell contains both laugh-out-loud and cry-out-loud moments in this dramedy. I admire the filmmakers and actors, especially director Lulu Wang (upon whose family this story is based) and actress Awkwafina, for being unafraid to sit with the characters as they grieve the upcoming loss of Nai Nai (Mandarin for grandmother). In the midst of sorrow, the film also showcases the true-to-life comedy of family members trying to help each other keep the family secret.

The choice of music adds significantly to the pathos of the film, even during the credits. “Come Healing,” by Leonard Cohen, sung during the credits, felt like a prayer and provides much to meditate on as the film ends.

The outstanding authenticity of this film—“based on an actual lie” is the tagline—was fought for by writer/director Lulu Wang, who brilliantly and subtly communicates the beauties and challenges of the immigrant Chinese-American experience. The acting and directing are both superb, and the script is exquisite in its realistic dialogue that also gives us a few peak moments of wisdom—much like conversation in everyday life. One favorite line is a little saying from Nai Nai, “Life is not just about what you do, it’s more about how you do it.” And the cultural wisdom offered by the Chinese elders who talk about how family should bear burdens that might overwhelm a vulnerable individual is a beautiful insight into what family is all about.

The film’s worldview is intercultural, with moments of the family comparing life in the USA and China, but lacking any direct reference to the beliefs and practice of Christianity. Yet, this flawed and loving family make beautifully evident the grace of God at work in the genuinely human experiences of their lives.

The Farewell lacks the sensationalized entertainment values of many films today, but is the richer for it. This is a movie to watch for those who wish to be deeply moved and enter into an intense human experience of family. Subtitles and the sometimes intensely sorrowful moments in the film make The Farewell more appropriate for thoughtful viewers able to discern the nuances of family, loss, and family secrets. Although rated PG, this may not be the best choice for pre- and young teens, but would be a great film for older family members and movie groups to watch and discuss together. And…make sure you watch to the end!

Themes: Family, grief, terminal illness, secrets, intercultural differences.

For another thoughtful review (with spoilers), check out Sr. Nancy Usselmann’s take on The Farewell.

Instant Family Film Commentary: Delightful Summer Flick

On this week’s Salt + Light Radio Hour, I spoke about the 2018 film Mary Magdalene (which is releasing here in the US in 2019–supposedly to DVD in September), and also about a little family comedy that would be a fun watch for the summer with a family with teenagers.

Based on a real family, Instant Family is a feel-good pro-family comedy about a couple with no children who very unexpectedly decide to adopt. Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne are truly lovable as the clueless, sometimes self-centered parents-to-be who eventually step up to the plate to become loving parents. Great acting, also on the part of the children actors, contributes to the pathos and humor of a film about what could be such a sensitive subject: adopting a child.

With some sexual innuendo and one of the crises in their new family about a teenage girl taking nude photos of herself for a potential boyfriend, the movie really deserves its PG-13 rating. Yet the troublesome situation is handled well, and overall, the movie promotes a positive view of family and a lighthearted glimpse into the joys, sacrifices, and fulfillment of becoming a parent. Instant Family is an entertaining and worthwhile summer flick for adults and teens that offers a bit more depth, highlighting the beauty, challenges, and fulfillment that can come when adopting a child.

A GREAT Mini-Series To Watch This Summer: Les Misérables

When I heard back in January that PBS was broadcasting the new BBC miniseries, Les Misérables, this April-May, I was delighted for many reasons. Les Misérables is one of my favorite novels of all time. I am a big fan of the Broadway musical, having watched the anniversary concerts online and listened to the Broadway album. I’d also seen several screen versions. But I’d always felt that the productions I’d seen were hampered from doing full justice to the novel by their short running time. I decided, in honor of the new version being broadcast, that I would offer here a comparison between the various screen versions.

To my amazement, I discovered that Les Misérables has had over 30 screen adaptations—starting with several silent films! There was no way I could obtain or see all the adaptations in a short period of time, so I narrowed down my watchlist by trying to discover which versions were considered “the best.” Over the past six weeks, I’ve tried to watch as many as I could.

If you would like to spend your summer watching a fantastic screen version of this great classic, read on!

The Story

Some might wonder why I might be so fascinated by the various adaptations of this particular story: a novel first published in 1862 in France. Despite its sprawling nature and frequent digressions (entire chapters of description or philosophizing), Les Misérables is a truly great novel. Victor Hugo developed the story over many years, and frequently modeled incidents and characters on real-life experiences. Perhaps because the initial story and characters are so compelling and the novel itself is such an incredible achievement, I found something worthwhile and enjoyable in all of the screen adaptations that I watched, even the ones that weren’t that great or that I really didn’t find faithful to the novel.

Like all great stories, Les Misérables deals with timeless problems that will always haunt a world suffering from the ravages of sin: injustice, poverty, and oppression. The novel enables us to explore the workings of nature and grace in the lives of the poor ones of this world, the “wretches” or “miserable ones.” (And this was Victor Hugo’s intention.) With its many subplots and detailed accounts of many characters, the central story that pulls the entire novel together is the transformation of Jean Valjean, a hardened ex-convict who spent 19 years in a hard-labor prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nieces and nephews.

Les Misérables on the Screen

Watching so many film versions has been very rewarding and enabled me to immerse myself in the interior journey of the protagonist, Jean Valjean. Hugo’s insights into human nature and the workings of grace offer a great deal to reflect on for our own ongoing journeys of conversion towards holiness. To me, Valjean is a great example of an ordinary man who has been greatly sinned against and yet responds to the grace of God to become holy in both the extraordinary and ordinary challenges he faces.

The Countdown

Perhaps I will do another blog post on the novel itself, but for now, if you are interested in watching a great movie, here are my choices for the four best screen versions of Les Misérables.

 

4. 2012 adaptation of the Broadway musical, directed by Tom Hooper, starring Hugh Jackman.

The Broadway musical is famous for good reason. I have never seen it onstage, but as I mentioned above, I have listened to the music countless times. Since I’ve never seen the musical on stage, I won’t offer a critique of its fidelity to the plot of the novel. But I do know that it greatly condenses the novel’s events and leaves out great swathes of the intertwining stories. But through the music, the stage production offers a depth of insight into the characters that some film versions don’t.

The 2012 film version of the Broadway musical is even shorter. As an adaptation of an adaptation, it is also so short that it cannot possibly be faithful to the original story. For the most part, the musical performances in the film are adequate but not truly outstanding, with the exception of Anne Hathaway’s incredible performance. But even in this shortened, melodramatic version of the novel, the songs that are included are incredibly powerful and offer a wonderful interpretation of the interior sentiments of the characters, something that many of the other screen versions do not succeed in offering us.

(For those for whom the stage version is inaccessible, the best way to experience the full power of the musical interpretation of the story, is either the 10th Anniversary Concert or the 25th Anniversary Concert, both widely available.)

3. 1978 British television version, directed by Glenn Jordan, written by John Gay, starring Richard Jordan.

This adaptation is so condensed that it really doesn’t do justice to the themes of the novel, yet as the very first screen version I saw, it made a lasting impression on me.  Partly this is because it has my favorite onscreen version of one of my favorite characters — the bishop who changes Jean Valjean’s life, portrayed by Claude Dauphin.

Out of the many two-hour versions available, this would be my choice.

The final two screen adaptations go far beyond all the other screen adaptations that I’ve seen. Excellent films in their own right, they are also marvelous, in-depth adaptations that are faithful to the spirit of the novel.

2. 1934 version in French with English subtitles, directed by Raymond Bernard, written by Raymond Bernard and André Lang, starring Harry Baur.

Surprisingly contemporary in feel, this is a wonderful film on its own merits. Great direction by Raymond Bernard and a very strong performance by Harry Baur as Jean Valjean make this film stand out even today. (And make me eager to see Bernard’s other films.) Handheld camera shots bring us right into the battle scenes, and the angled camera views reinforce how askew this world is, where a man may be imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed children.

The screenplay, written by the director and André Lang, is excellent overall. With a lengthy running time of 281 minutes, the film is able to cover much of the scope of the novel and is faithful to its spirit. However, I was disappointed by a couple narrative changes that were made near the end of the film, because they take away both from the drama and Jean Valjean’s heroism.

Some of the other screen versions play around with the arc of Jean Valjean’s transformation as if he never really changed (for example, the 1934 Hollywood version). Baur’s Valjean, however, shows a realistic progression in his growth from a hardened ex-convict into a compassionate man of integrity who, in the end, has successfully chosen to love, even in the most challenging and desperate circumstances.

For the most part, the acting is superb, although the acting styles of the female characters feel quite dated—especially the melodramatic repetition in the lines and acting of Fantine, who receives a good amount of screen time that is wearing, and Cosette, who seems overly naïve.

Despite its age, this was the best screen version of Les Misérables that I’d seen, until I had the privilege of watching…

1. 2018 BBC Mini-Series, directed by Tom Shankland, starring Dominic West, written by Andrew Davies.

Amazing in scope, depth, and fidelity both to the novel and the TV medium, this is far and away my favorite screen version of Les Misérables. (The trailer doesn’t do it justice.) At over six hours, the BBC adaptation has the time to not only fully develop the novel’s intertwining stories, but also to go deep into the development of the major characters, especially contrasting various characters who find themselves in difficult situations and respond so differently.  Some original dialogue between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert (in one of my favorite portrayals of this character by David Oyelowo) offer insight into how these two men cannot understand each other, even after an undeserving Javert experiences Valjean’s compassion.

Novels and movies differ in essential ways, so no screen version would equal the novel, and vice versa. But the BBC miniseries offers insight into so many elements of the novel, with its lavish scale not just in length, but in scenery, setting, costumes, and actors. The BBC miniseries has, like the novel, a rich tapestried background of the times in France.

You can listen to my commentary on the BBC mini-series Les Misérables on the Salt + Light Radio Hour here.

In terms of the screenplay, the script by Andrew Davies is superb especially in its fidelity to the novel’s spirit, even when it varies the timeline or compresses events recounted in the novel. Davies wisely chose a chronological retelling of the story, so that the relationships between the characters are clear and unforgettable. This gives us plenty of time to get to know and connect with the characters. The only drawback to this method is that the first episode (the first hour) is rather slow-moving. But this attention to character and set up is paid off in every subsequent episode.

Even though we are treated to in-depth portrayals of the many characters, Davies uses Jean Valjean as the center of the story around whom everything else revolves. Brilliantly structured as a miniseries, almost every episode ends with a real turning point for Jean Valjean: a choice that he must make if he is to become a man of both integrity and compassion, who chooses selfless love and true justice over evil and social conformity…every time. But every time, the choice seems to be more difficult—which is a tribute to the director, writer, and actors.

Davies’ expert script also reveals the novel’s brilliant comparisons and contrasts between good and evil, law and mercy, justice and love. In being faithful to the characters, especially Jean Valjean, the miniseries explores the theme of what to do in the face of the misery of oppression. Valjean’s freedom of choice to do the loving thing is a stunning contrast to the evil choices of others (like the Thenardiers) and the constricted choices of others (like Javert), and also a clarion call that is echoed in the selfless choices of other characters.

Almost every screen version of Jean Valjean has some appeal, even when other aspects of the film were lacking. But Dominic West’s Jean Valjean is by far the most compelling. He doesn’t hesitate to portray the ex-convict almost a monster that we pity but also feel a real aversion for. His growing heroism—as each choice confirms him more deeply in being the good man he has sought to become—is not without its cost. West offers us a wonderful portrayal of a man for whom justice, mercy, and love have painfully become his highest values…and who suffers greatly at all he loses. On his journey from ex-convict to privileged and wealthy mayor, to simple gardener, to a loving father, Jean Valjean finally returns to being the simple and hardworking peasant of his youth, but transformed: a peasant who is no longer misérable, because he selflessly lives interiorly and shares with others the life of God. Recognizing the depths of his own sinfulness and the greatness of God’s grace, Valjean seeks only to love, to choose the good of others. In all the screen versions that I have seen, Dominic West best portrays this transformation, revealing just the right amount of emotion, and becoming an onscreen version of the fictional saint. (Yes, if a fictional character could be canonized, Jean Valjean would be one of the great saints.)

The story of Les Misérables has always been a story that powerfully reveals the difference between good and evil, between the Gospel and various conventional and often sinful standards of society. Victor Hugo clearly intended to show the working of grace in a desperately wounded, broken soul, and the difference that correspondence to God’s grace in one man can make to individuals and society. But the novel and this miniseries go far beyond theory: we see sin and grace at work in the lives of characters who are startlingly real and identifiable. And all along through the story—whether the novel or screen—we root for Valjean: not just for him to escape physical prison, but also to escape the prison of selfishness, unhappiness, and spiritual poverty. Despite the sacrifices Valjean makes, we rejoice with him as he makes the right choices, above all the choice to love, because we become captivated not so much by his suffering, but by his goodness.

In a landscape of media that tout selfishness and evil, and victory at all costs, Les Misérables is an inspiring and rewarding story about the transforming power of self-sacrificing love, a love modeled on that of Christ.

If you love great stories or the classics, great acting, nuanced and fully developed characters, and a masterful plot that pulls all of these elements together, this Les Misérables is a must-see. Rarely do I find a film or show that is truly binge-worthy, but this BBC/PBS Les Misérables mini-series is an exception: a great choice for your viewing this summer.

Mary Magdalene Film: Best for Film Buffs

Inventive but neither Scripturally nor historically accurate as an interpretation of the life of the apostle to the apostles, Mary Magdalene (2018) is a niche film for those who enjoy arthouse flicks and won’t be bothered by how the film favors a 21st century artistic vision over fidelity to the Gospel narratives.

My own response to the film gives me strong reservations about how enjoyable, helpful, or inspiring the film will be to those who might be assumed to be its core audience: devout Catholics and Christians who are looking for insight, inspiration, and a scripturally faithful account. Instead, Mary Magdalene offers significant food for thought for the reflective film buff who is interested in general spirituality and portrayals of what “might have been” in the abbreviated time in which Mary Magdalene knew Jesus during his earthly life and just after the Resurrection. (You can listen to my five-minute commentary on Salt + Light Radio here.)

For another perspective on the film, read ‘Mary Magdalene’ is a film perfect for Holy Week by Sister Rose Pacatte, FSP.

Mary Magdalene is thoughtfully constructed, framed almost entirely by the viewpoint of Mary herself. With fine camera work and proficient acting by Mara Rooney (Magdalene) and Joaquin Phoenix (Jesus), the high production values strongly contribute to the artistic vision of the film. Directed by Garth Davis and written by two women, the film offers a welcome feminine approach to a world that is typically presented as almost entirely male, with a sometimes glancing reference to Mary the Mother of Jesus. (Here, the depiction of the Blessed Mother, by actress Irit Shelg, is brief but sensitive and nuanced.) With little detailed historical information about Mary Magdalene, the filmmakers creatively used these gaps to create her as a strong, active and contemplative woman whose desire for God drives her to seek out Jesus and follow him as one of his disciples—but not in the expected roles of wife and mother.

However, the script seems to overemphasize Mary’s role, so much that some scenes are quite unconvincing for New Testament times, and others contradict the Gospels’ account. Instead of bringing to the fore what gives Mary her true importance, the filmmakers focus on situations that aren’t in the Gospels—especially conflicts with the other apostles. In the film, Magdalene becomes the “outsider” disciple who interprets Jesus’ unspoken desires better than everyone else, thus setting her up against the other apostles (especially a rather shallow Peter). This disappointing false dichotomy (one of several) imposes a contemporary feminist agenda on the film, rather than portraying the richness and complementarity that Mary’s feminine approach would have contributed to Jesus’ ministry and the early Church. Even with Jesus, Mary Magdalene is more protagonist than disciple in her relationship with Jesus.

The skewed emphasis of the script is carried to the point that other characters—most notably Jesus—become rather one-dimensional and passive. Even the scene of Mary announcing the Resurrection stresses the conflict between Peter and Mary, rather than about the miraculous event!  Other imaginative scenes that I was eager to see—such as the scene of Jesus calling Mary Magdalene to follow him—were neglected entirely.

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Christ is fair, but his scripted character seems passive and curiously uncommunicative with the apostles. Further on, Phoenix’s Jesus becomes a rather flat character who is so distressed about his coming passion and death that he stops responding to and teaching his apostles. The film’s stress on Jesus’ very human fear overlooks the love that motivates his adherence to the will of God the Father; it also completely leaves out Jesus’ claim to divinity (and divine Sonship), ignoring the miraculous nature of the Resurrection. At a certain point in the film, one might wonder why the disciples—and why Mary—would choose to follow Jesus in the first place. 

Taken by itself, the depiction of Mary Magdalene as a woman of prayer, strength, compassion, and conviction is quite appealing. But the flawed depiction of Christ devastatingly weakens the film overall: how can we truly know Mary Magdalene without understanding more about Christ, around whom she centered her life? And the film misses the point of some of the most important moments in Mary’s life—even when it depicts them—such as her response to the resurrected Jesus and her announcement to the apostles.

Windows to the Soul?

Despite its limitations, Mary Magdalene presents some compelling material for reflection. Mary is a convincing and engaging character whose closeness to Jesus is enviable. The way the filmmakers imagine her offers the discerning film viewer much to reflect on: her feminine perspective of the Gospel, her focus on prayer and desire for God, her commitment to discipleship, and the emphasis that she gives to transformation. The film beautifully depicts how Mary Magdalene, unlike the apostles, was able to accompany Jesus at the foot of the Cross, despite her great grief.

The theme of transformation, beautifully expressed both visually and narratively in the film, ties together both the film and Mary Magdalene’s journey of discipleship. For those mature in their faith who are comfortable with the more reflective, interpretive stance of an arthouse film, Mary Magdalene has much to offer.

(Note: With scenes of the Crucifixion and other strong scenes (of childbirth and an attempted exorcism), I would not recommend this film for children; due to some inaccurate depictions of Gospel events, this film may not be helpful as a formative tool for catechesis.)

Heroism vs. Holiness in Today’s Movies

In the last few weeks of Lent, I watched a number of 2018 films—many biopics, but others as well—that were made 2018, the same year in which Pope Francis’ document on The Call To Holiness in Today’s World  was released. And it made me start to think about why these particular stories are being told—they represent what heroes our culture presents to us today—for admiration, for imitation. Heroes are people we admire, sometimes for their extraordinary abilities, sometimes for their extraordinary choices and their will to persevere. What kind of heroism is the world holding up? And how does that compare with the “heroism” of holiness?

You can listen to my take on heroes and holiness in 2018 movies here on the Salt + Light Radio Hour, Easter Edition!

This is an especially pressing question during Holy Week and Easter week, when we witness again, in the Liturgy of the most sacred weeks of the Church year, Jesus’ love for us, and the truest heroism—Someone who freely gives his life to save everyone; Someone who allows himself to be tortured and most cruelly executed after dedicating his entire life to teaching, healing, and loving; Someone who forgives those who crucified him and makes his death become a source of life, healing, hope, and redemption for anyone open to receiving him.

It helps us to look at heroes in own time and culture to understand what heroism and holiness might look like for us. Below, I’ve included a few mini-commentaries of the movies I sampled from 2018: superhero films Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity Wars and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse;  some very well-produced biopics Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Private War; and several fictional stories, including the sci-fi thriller that really spoke of heroism, A Quiet Place, and Roma, which is fictional but based on the life of the real person.

I think all of these movies can offer us some inspiration in how we are called to live as human beings made in the image and likeness of God. The protagonists in each movie have heroic attributes. However, I was a bit troubled by the continuing trend I often see—and saw particularly in some of the biopics from this year—that reinforce the myth of the “tortured genius.” While it is true that heroism comes at great personal cost, several films highlighted the protagonists’ failures on the level of relationships (including relating to one’s self), to the point of self-destruction. True heroism is not self-destructive…. The people portrayed as Freddie Mercury and Marie Covin are in these films are admirable: for talent, for commitment to the truth, for wanting to make people happier. But they don’t offer us an example of how to live true heroism on a day to day basis.  

Imperfect Heroes

Not that we expect our heroes to be perfect. But heroism can become even greater when it is nurtured by the strong relationships in our lives: first of all a strong relationship with God, and then, strong relationships with the special people in our lives: family, community. These enable us to grow personally into well-balanced individuals who can live and appreciate the little moments of our lives, to learn how to truly give of themselves in love, and to be at peace with themselves even in the midst of great suffering.

God calls us to a holiness that is 360 degrees—it permeates our whole life, including the little moments. Living the mission that God has entrusted to us is an essential part of that journey to holiness. We can make a case that Freddie Mercury had a mission from God to bring “harmony” to the world and to unite people through music, and that Marie Colvin’s heroic drive to spread the truth about the tragic consequences of war was also a mission from God. And whatever our mission in life, it will take a toll, because it is a giving of ourselves in love, putting others first. But if we, like Freddie and Marie (in the films) become emptied out by the mission God entrusts to us, then we are missing an important part of that mission. Our mission in life doesn’t need to cut us off from our loved ones, from our humanity, from ourselves.

This is where I think Pope Francis’ description—meditation, really—on holiness in Gaudete et Exsultate can enrich our culture’s portrayals of heroism. In addition to his beautiful reflection on the Beatitudes (which are truly a portrait of Jesus), Pope Francis highlights five signs of holiness that he feels are especially meaningful in today’s world:

5 Signs of Holiness especially meaningful in today’s world:

  1. Solid grounding in the God who loves and sustains us (#112): perseverance, patience, meekness,
  2. Joy and a sense of humor
  3. Boldness and passion
  4. In community (including the little gestures of love)
  5. In constant prayer

These five signs of holiness today can be summed up in a characteristic that Pope Francis calls, “more human, more alive,” which I’ve included as a sixth characteristic below:

1 & 5) Solid Grounding in the God Who Loves and Sustains Us & Constant Prayer: “God is the Father who gave us life and loves us greatly. Once we accept him, and stop trying to live our lives without him, the anguish of loneliness will disappear (cf. Ps 139:23-24). In this way we will know the pleasing and perfect will of the Lord (cf. Rom 12:1-2) and allow him to mould us like a potter (cf. Is 29:16).” (GE, #51) “Only on the basis of God’s gift, freely accepted and humbly received, can we cooperate by our own efforts in our progressive transformation.[62] We must first belong to God, offering ourselves to him who was there first, and entrusting to him our abilities, our efforts, our struggle against evil and our creativity, so that his free gift may grow and develop within us…”  (#112)

2) Joy and a Sense of Humor: “The Lord asks everything of us, and in return he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created. He wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence.”  (#1)

“Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self. To depend on God sets us free from every form of enslavement and leads us to recognize our great dignity.” (#32)

3) Boldness and Passion (in Holiness, in our Personal Mission): “All the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord—each in his or her own way—to that perfect holiness by which the Father himself is perfect.” (#10) “The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts [rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them.]” (#11) “Each saint is a mission, planned by the Father to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel.” (#19) “You too need to see the entirety of your life as a mission.” (#23)

4) Belonging/In Community: “Growth in holiness is a journey in community, side by side with others.” (#141) We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people.” (#6) “This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures [of love].” (#16) “Live the present moment, filling it to the brim with love.” (#17)  “Cherish the little details of love.” (#145)

6) More Human, More Alive :  We need a spirit of holiness capable of filling both our solitude and our service, our personal life and our evangelizing efforts, so that every moment can be an expression of self-sacrificing love in the Lord’s eyes. In this way, every minute of our lives can be a step along the path to growth in holiness.” (#31) “We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves…. Holiness, in the end, is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in your life.” (#14-15)

(You can find the entire document Gaudete et Exsultatet or The Call to Holiness in Today’s World here.)

Many of the 2018 films show boldness and passion in carrying out one’s mission, and sometimes they also include, at least in part, the aspect of community. But even when movies get both of those right, they miss the “grounding” in God and how that relationship with God fills all the aspects of our lives to overflowing.

That’s why I find it helpful to sum up these five “signs” of Pope Francis in his phrase “More Human, More Alive.” It’s a helpful phrase to describe our path to holiness in today’s world. “More human, more alive!” captures the joy, the sense of belonging, the little moments of family or communal life, that so often our recent portrayals of heroes—especially the tortured genius—leave out.

“Holy Wholeness”

We can look for this “holy wholeness”—that gives us heroes we don’t just admire but also emulate, who can truly bring us closer to the imitation of Christ—especially in two films from 2018: Roma and A Quiet Place.

Roma is an exquisite portrayal of a humble servant and nanny who, in both the little and big moments of her life of service, is dedicated to the family and children she serves. She is far from perfect—and yes, she looks for love in a superficial relationship—but we never see her hold back from giving herself in love, especially to the children. Even when she’s tired. Even as we witness the striking contrast between her hard-working, difficult life and the ease in which the family lives.

The word “exquisite” really captures how the film is rooted in details, in the “little gestures of love” that Gaudete et Exsultate talks about. To me, Roma is a meditation on one of God’s anawim, who are God’s chosen ones who are vulnerable, little, poor, and yet who live the Beatitudes. This Easter season, I plan to watch the film again, this time looking for the Beatitudes—to see if I can find all eight of them illustrated.

The other film that brings us closer to a genuine portrayal of a “holy wholeness” is A Quiet Place, the sci-fi thriller that could be a family film, depending on if your older children will enjoy a really scary film with lots of breath-robbing, edge-of-your-seat moments. A Quiet Place is the post-apocalyptic story of a family who hide from the indestructible monsters who hunt humans down through their extremely developed sense of hearing. Yet, the parents’ love for each member of the family—even their unborn child—is so great that, despite the dangers of raising children, they seek to survive all together and both protect and nurture the lives of all their children—even at the risk of their own lives. And their efforts are incredibly creative and poignant.

A Quiet Place has many thriller moments, but we are also treated to haunting, intimate moments of tenderness, kindness, and true sharing of life—which is, I believe, one of the reasons we find the characters so believable and the story so incredibly moving.

Both A Quiet Place and Roma highlight the noblest quality of both heroism and holiness: self-sacrificing love that lays one’s life down for the sake of the other. And while they awe us with the characters’ heroism, they help us to see that we are all called to be heroes, each in our own God-given way.

Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse is the 2018 film that can be watched as a family to explore heroism: what heroism is, costs, and means for the world and for the heroes themselves. The truest “comic-book” movie I have ever seen, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse is a tribute to comic books, superheroes, and all forms of animation. I’d like to conclude with a line from the protagonist, Miles, a teenager who has just taken on the role of the masked Spider-Man. Miles offers viewers—and us—this Pope-Francis-like challenge: “I never thought I’d be able to do any of this stuff. But I can. Anyone can wear the mask. You can wear the mask.”

 


Mini-Commentaries on Some Popular 2018 Films

Bohemian Rhapsody: Perhaps the most acclaimed film of 2018, the story of hugely popular rock group Queen and especially lead singer Freddie Mercury, whose driving ambition as expressed in the film is to give people what they want, musically (and thus experientially) speaking. A fan-like tribute to the music of Queen.

A Private War: The story of heroic journalist Marie Colvin, who covered the tragedies of war for almost 20 years, seeing her role as a reporter to “bear witness” and to make others care enough about the sufferings she witnessed. This documentary-like film is realistic, grim, and inspiring at the same time.

Green Book: The story of two men who overcame their prejudices and assumptions about their differences—in race, upbringing, and culture—to work together to bring the beauty of music to Southern USA, blinded by racism. It’s a remarkable film about a remarkable friendship and how it affected both men to grow into becoming more than they were.

Roma: The fictional but based-on-a-real-person story of a young indigenous woman who served as a domestic servant and nanny to a wealthy family in Mexico in the 1960s. A slow-paced, artistic film, shot in black and white, that allows us to contemplatively witness what it means to be a humble servant. Especially rewarding film for movie buffs.

A Quiet Place: The post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller about a family whose love for each member of the family—including the unborn child—is undaunted even in the face of utter destruction from undefeatable aliens who have destroyed human civilization by hunting down human beings through sound.

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

Seeds of Hope for Discouraged Writers, Part 2

One of my favorite series of moments each year is when I spot the first signs of spring. No matter how mild or exciting the winter, mid-February always finds me restless and ready for springtime. Often, I will search the grocery stores for an inexpensive miniature rose plant whose beauty offers me a daily multi-sensory reminder that spring is coming.

As I struggled last month with a very real temptation to give in to discouragement, I decided that, even though I didn’t feel like doing anything, I would counteract the temptation by immersing myself in something I loved: nature. I visited a nearby park with the sole purpose of looking for signs of spring, even though technically it was still winter. The signs that I found became metaphors for hope that questioned or replaced my discouragement. (Photos are from midMarch.)

1) Melting snow and ice

After living through ten Canadian winters, where ice didn’t melt till May and snowfall after snowfall just piled up throughout the entire winter months, the sight of snow and ice melting has become a powerful promise that the world around me will not stay frozen forever.

Discouragement can be a bit like a frozen state: so strong that it freezes out other feelings. As I walked and watched the sun melt away the frozen snow, I started to think about the causes of my discouragement. Is there something in me that I need to allow to gradually “thaw” out? Just as the gradual thaw of spring allows the ground to absorb the needed moisture, perhaps I can peacefully let the warmth in my life prepare me to face the feelings, experience, or loss that caused me to feel discouraged in the first place. Melting ice reminds me that my creative spirit will not be frozen forever.

2) Mud

Mud might seem like a strange welcome sign of spring, but I have grown to love the sight of brown ooze. Wet, messy earth might be ugly, but it is incredibly fertile, teeming with potential for new life! Planting in the moist earth of a garden is an incredible sensory experience, digging one’s hands into mud to plant seeds and young seedlings. Mud is also incredibly easy to manipulate: whether digging holes, clearing out weeds, or shaping flower beds.

Yes, mud is ugly and messy, something that most of us avoid, skirting around it when we are out walking because it leaves a trail, a residue to clean up. New life—and the fertile patches where new life can take root—can be messy, too. Spring isn’t just about beautiful flowers, but about growth and new life—and mud is an important part of that. Is there something in my life that I dismiss as “too messy” or too risky—or perhaps too insignificant—to pay attention to?

3) Flowing Water

Bodies of water, whether a gently bubbling brook, a rippling pond, or the ocean tide, have a natural rhythm to them that can soothe a restless spirit. Flowing water can encourage us to simply “be” in the moment, to “go with the flow.”

I am blessed to have always lived near a lake or river, and sometimes only an hour away from the ocean. When I need to reflect, get away, or simply don’t know what I need, I often choose to go walking near a body of water.  Allowing the movement of the waters—whether gentle or strong—to simply surround me is almost always helpful—even if it just makes me feel better. Sometimes it is in simply watching the water that I will discover whatever it is in me that is blocking my creative flow. Other times, simply enjoying the tranquility in the rhythmic motion will remind me that the “creative flow” that I seek in my writing cannot be forced but will return in its own time and way because it, like my writing, is gift.

4) Buds

This photo is an early bud of a broad-leafed lilac. The “usual suspects” that herald spring in New England are forsythia, crocuses, and the yellowing branches of willow trees. Yet, I unexpectedly found these brave lilac buds before I saw any of my “usual” markers of spring. And lilacs are one of my favorite flowers: their fragrance is an all-too-brief delight that I unabashedly seek out during the few weeks of their blooming. What an unexpected delight to discover these buds of my favorite flower!

Paying attention to the unexpected is an essential part of my creative process. Yet in the past few years, too often I have allowed this process to often be short-circuited by deadlines, by an over-emphasis on trying to do too much too fast.

Feeling discouraged and creatively blocked are also unexpected. Usually I see them as being negative, but perhaps they, too, have a message to give me about allowing myself the time to slow down, to listen, to be quiet, to anticipate or to “smell the lilacs” present in my life right now.

 

5) Song of the red-winged blackbird

The red-winged blackbird’s call can be one of the more obnoxious birdcalls, especially when an area is overtaken by them. But in early spring, their call is a welcome sign that red-winged blackbirds have returned from their winter migration! On my walk, these cacophonous birds reminded me again that even frozen winters pass, and to take advantage of whatever writerly season in which I find myself, because it too, will soon be over. Even if the season is a time to deepen rather than blossom!

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