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

Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: True-Life Heroes for True-Life Families

What kinds of movies do nuns like? The response I most often get when I ask my sisters in religious life is: “True life stories.” It seems to me that films based on real-life stories have developed into a genre that is increasingly well-crafted. One of the latest in this genre, Netflix film The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, is no exception.

 

 

The directorial debut of Chiwetel Ejiofor (perhaps best known for his award-winning role as the lead actor in 12 Years a Slave) is a moving tribute to true-life hero William Kamkwamba, as well as an uplifting portrayal of family and the power of human hope and determination to unite and save a village. Powerful acting, a traditional, well-crafted rising storyline with life-and-death stakes, all rooted in the very real famine in Malawi in 2002, make The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind a no-brainer for family movie night.

Listen to Deacon Pedro and I talk about our favorite parts of the film together at this week’s Salt + Light Radio Hour!

Strengths

Bright young teen William Kamkwamba has just been enrolled in a new school due to the great sacrifice of his family. But William is soon expelled when his family is unable to pay school tuition due to a severe flood followed by drought which destroys his family’s (and the region’s) crops. Desperate for an education, William sneaks into the library and discovers a book about wind turbines that gives him an idea for how to help his family.

As the threat of famine spreads throughout the region, William becomes more and more determined to build a wind turbine that can power the well-pump, thus making it possible to irrigate crops during the dry season and save not only his family but the village.

William’s success is never in question if you know the film’s title or have seen the movie trailers. What carries the film is the well-written script (adapted by director Eijofor from the book co-authored by William himself), the rising tension, and the creative persistence of young William through obstacles that start small—with the school principal’s not allowing William into the library—but that rapidly grow into seeming insurmountable. As survival becomes more and more precarious, it is impossible not to root for young William and his family, who so bravely face every challenge despite incredibly limited resources. Director Eijofor pulls strong performances from the entire cast, notably from young Maxwell Simba, whose portrayal of William feels absolutely authentic. (Eijofor’s own performance as William’s father Tyrell, and Aïssa Maïga’s amazing performance as William’s mother Agnes are both superb.)

 

Limitations

Despite heartwarming characters and story, I found this straightforward film a bit too predictable, perhaps with an overly-simplistic portrayal of obstacles overcome. Taken together, these can make the film feel a bit contrived and even somewhat sentimental. One of the strengths of the film’s simplicity is how comfortably easy it feels to quickly identify with the Kamkwamba family; yet this raises a question of the authenticity of the film’s portrayal of Malawian culture. Should it have taken a bit more effort for a viewer like me to enter into Malawian culture? Nevertheless, from my limited research of Malawi, the film’s depiction seems authentic. (I have been learning about Malawi situation since 2017, when my congregation, the Daughters of Saint Paul, founded our first community there.)

 

Window to the Soul?

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a refreshing choice amid the majority of Netflix’s dark and violence-driven programming. Sympathetic characters and a compelling storyline portray important human values such as community, familial love, forgiveness, humility, respect for elders, the value of education, and the power of hope. Religion receives a welcome portrayal as simply a part of life. Perhaps the strongest parts of the story were the explorations of tension between family members, as each member struggles to protect one another and then survive in increasingly desperate circumstances. Without downplaying anyone, every member of the family is portrayed as having an important role to play in the crisis.

With its somewhat simplified storyline, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is especially suitable for family viewing (with TV-PG rating). An inspiring story that enables us to enter into the very different culture of an African country on the brink of devastation, William’s example encourages us to appreciate family, to value education, and to persevere in doing the most we can with what we have, not giving up no matter how many seemingly impossible obstacles we face.

 

Meeting Jesus at the Movies Guide will be available shortly for those who wish to enhance family and classroom viewing.

Angela’s Christmas: a delightful new family Christmas classic

In the bleak landscape of new Christmas films this year, a delightful new half-hour children’s Christmas special has appeared that is perhaps deserving to be called a new family Christmas classic.

It’s been more challenging for me to keep up with the latest films this year, and perhaps I found the slate of Christmas films emptier than usual because I simply scrolled through Netflix’s offerings. (I have lately grown increasingly disappointed with a large portion of Netflix’ original programming, but that is a matter for another post.) I confess I haven’t seen 2018’s Grinch nor Disney’s Nutcracker—both of which I plan to see.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I started watching Angela’s Christmas (a Netflix original), which is based on the short story written by Frank McCourt, and I continued to enjoy the entire delightful little Christmas special. (Listen to my 5-minute review on Salt + Light Radio Hour here.)

Angela’s Christmas totally deserves to be the new animated family Christmas classic. Centered around little Angela’s imaginative concern for the Baby Jesus being cold, the story has lots of moments of fun and suspense. The animation is delightful, and it has some fun moments that Catholics will appreciate—such as whether or not there was a miracle in St. Joseph’s Church that night! On top of the delightful story, layered writing, compelling characters, believable character arcs, the film is just so darling—it begs for a repeat viewing. Simple enough for young children, the story has more to it for thoughtful adults.

Rather than giving story spoilers, I’ll simply list why Angela’s Christmas is perfect to watch together as a family to “put us in the mood for Christmas.”

1) The Christ Child is the focus of the story, in a way that perfectly brings together the deeper meaning of Christmas (Christ came to save us by sharing everything with us, even our sufferings), and a story that little kids can relate to.

2) The focus on family. Not only is there a lovely plot line for Angela and her brother Pat learning to get along together, but also how their mother explains to them that the real meaning of family is to shelter and support one another. (We catch a glimpse of St. John Paul II’s reference to the family as the domestic church here.)

I also found it completely darling how one of Angela and her big brother’s main concerns was how worried the Blessed Mother would be about Baby Jesus.

3) A focus on the less fortunate. References to the less fortunate—beginning with Angela’s family and of course, with Baby Jesus—are interwoven throughout the story: Angela’s family generously shares their coats with each other just to go to Christmas midnight Mass; the children are obviously compassionate and generous with those less fortunate than themselves, the compassionate policeman who observes how tragic it is to separate a child from his or her family also highlights the plight of those who are deprived of the necessities of life. In a bold choice by the filmmakers, instead of telling the story of Jesus’ birth, Angela’s mother retells the story of Angela’s birth—a day that should have been full of joy but instead was full of suffering that was changed to joy by the love of her children. Her simple story, her gratitude to the children, her obvious courage in the face of hardship, point to the ways that the Christ Child still suffers in our midst today, needing our outstretched hands.

Even though such a delightful film, Angela’s Christmas is missing 2 important things that could have made it an even stronger movie:

1) A lovely Christmas hymn, for which there were many opportunities, and a setting and a tone that would have been perfect. Many hymns would have reinforced the themes of the story, especially a hymn like “What Child Is This.” This is a glaring omissionthe filmmakers really missed a big opportunity here to make this a “practically perfect” film.

2) A simple retelling of the Christmas story from a child’s point of view (Angela’s, or perhaps Pat’s). The filmmakers may have decided to let this go because all the characters are so immersed in what Christmas means that it might seem redundant. But by not simply retelling the story, I think some elements of this little short could be lost for those who don’t know the story well, who see Christmas primarily as a family holiday. And who doesn’t need to be reminded why Christmas is a celebration of love?

Despite these shortcomings, this little film packs more into it than the roster of Christmas “feel good” family films. Angela’s Christmas is appropriate for all ages and deserving to become part of the family’s Christmas tradition.

Also noteworthy Christmas movies:

If you haven’t seen The Star, the full-length animated Nativity story told from the point of the view of the donkey who brings Mary to Bethlehem, I highly recommend this wonderfully imaginative tale for children, both playful and respectful approach to the story of Jesus’ birth for little ones.  The talking animals give kids an easy way to identify with the characters in the story, especially Mary, whose affinity with all creation—including the animals, no matter how humble—is a beautiful thread running through the film. The Star is also available on Netflix. You can see my full review from last year here.

2017’s The Man Who Invented Christmas is also well worth seeing as a new version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, coming especially from the perspective of the author’s struggle to write one of the best stories of all time. (I could relate!) The title is not my favorite, yet it is a worthy retelling of A Christmas Carol, with wonderful performances, some clever writing, and a lovely focus on family. Here is a review from the Director of our Pauline Media Studies Center, Sister Nancy Usselmann. 

Putting Family First Is “Incredibles 2” True Strength: Film Commentary

Incredibles 2 may not be quite as strong as the original, but continues the Incredibles’ tradition of being a visually engaging, creative, and highly enjoyable movie that is at its best when the family is together.

What’s the Story?
Fourteen years later after the making of The Incredibles, the sequel picks up right at the point where the first film ended. Despite the “incredible” save of the city by the Incredibles family (secret identity: the Parr family) in the first film, using superheroic ability is still illegal.  Both parents (Mr. Incredible/Bob Parr and Elastigirl/Helen Parr) are out of work. In addition, the Parr family is homeless, as their home was destroyed in their last interaction with super villain Syndrome.

Super-wealthy business tycoon Winston Deaver and his technical-genius sister Evelyn contact Bob and Helen to invite them to help restore public and government confidence in superheroes. Their ultimate goal? Making superheroism legal again. Perhaps unexpectedly, they choose Elastigirl as their lead superhero, which means Bob (Mr. Incredible) is left feeling left behind as the kids’ stay-at-home dad whose self-confidence has been deeply shaken. New villain Screenslaver arrives on the scene to hypnotize/manipulate both the general population and superheroes, so that superheroes will be outlawed once and for all.

Strengths
Once again, writer/director Brad Bird and Pixar/Disney team have made a strong family film that offers exceptional entertainment with “something more” to it. Excellent casting and voice-acting overall, fantastic action scenes—especially as Bob discovers Jack-Jack’s powers—and plenty of laughs will make Incredibles 2 an easy family favorite. (Did you see the Jack-Jack Attack short produced for the original The Incredibles DVD release? Hilarious in its own right, the short is also a great preview/teaser of what I consider the funniest scenes in Incredibles 2—scroll down on Disney’s Incredibles 2 site for a sneak preview of those scenes.)

Weaknesses
The movie runs a bit long—both for the genre and for this particular storyline. A couple of scenes when the family members are apart are not just overly long but repetitive, especially Helen/Elastigirl with the Deavers and Bob griping to himself about their choice of Helen as superhero over him. Character development felt weak overall with continued stereotypes. Helen’s arc is nonexistent and Bob seems to have already forgotten the humility that he learned just a few days before. Apart from Bob, the characters are less vulnerable than in the first movie, and just about everyone in the family makes at least one potentially serious and/or really dumb mistake. But in the end, we are still rooting for this zany, lovable family that needs a second adventure for everyone to realize that they are at their best when they work together as a family.

An “Incredible” Windows to the Soul

Not just as a family but also as a movie, Incredibles 2 is at its best when the family members are interacting together. This theme of family—the love and unity of purpose at work in a family with such gifted and unique members—makes this movie a great watch for kids and families and offers lots of potential for deeper discussion.

Being “different,” or how to be special and use our unique gifts is a theme raised in both Incredibles movies. Every member of the family struggles with how to use their superpowers (except for baby Jack-Jack whose powers explode into the second film). Both Incredibles movies raise the question of what is a hero. Is it just having superpowers (or devices that give you extraordinary power)?

This theme of “superpowers” can be discussed from a human perspective, too. What do we do when we have unusual gifts that prevent us from “fitting in” like everyone else? How do we have a responsibility to use those gifts when they’re not considered acceptable? One theme I would have liked to see better addressed (as it is so well done in The Lego Movie) is how everyone matters, whether or not they have a superpower.

A third angle is to see “superpowers” as a metaphor for the supernatural gifts that we have as Catholics which can make us stand out in today’s society (the sacraments, the Commandments, the Beatitudes, the virtues we are called to live), and how we are called to live these gifts in a culture that doesn’t always respect our Faith and our values.

Most of the characters in the film seem to be explored through stereotypes: the working mother who is finally recognized as heroic, the dad with the fragile ego, the obnoxious little brother who fights unceasingly with his teenaged sister who is selfishly obsessed about one thing. The stereotypes feel a bit stale, perhaps not as funny as they could be, but in the end, the comedy still works because several characters move beyond the limitations of their stereotype.

Bob’s journey is by far my favorite: from a frustrated, clueless stay-at-home dad whose eyes are on the prestigious job he doesn’t have, to becoming a dad who decides to give it his best, even seeking out the help he needs so that he can become the best father for his kids: someone who really listens and attends to the real needs of his children. It’s a great illustration of how hard—and wonderful—good parenting really is, and a wonderful example of the special gifts a father can bring to his children.

A few other themes that the movie “cracks open” a door for discussing but does not directly address are:

  • the tension between men and women (who is better, smarter, etc., especially the scenes between Helen/Elastigirl and Evelyn Deavers when they talk “down” or seem to make fun of men—I’d love to see a Theology of the Body discussion on the complementarity of men and women here!), and
  • the negative influence of technology, in villain Screenslaver’s rant and ability to hypnotize anyone who is looking at a screen (namely, how watching screens instead of engaging with real life and real people can make us “dumber”). This is a great opportunity to think about how much time we spend looking at screens, and how we spend the time we look at screens.

If you haven’t seen the original movie in a while, it is well worth taking the time to watch both films, with their refreshing emphasis on the importance of family. Putting family first and keeping family together are the true strengths of the Incredibles.

Ready Player One: a fun movie that raises questions about VR

Ready Player One is a classic Steven Spielberg movie: a hugely entertaining, action-driven story jam-packed with 1980’s pop culture references, a movie that only raises questions about (rather than offering insight into) the world of virtual reality.

Check out my radio review of Ready Player One on the Salt + Light Radio Hour here.

Ready Player One is set in a dystopian future of 2045 in Columbus, Ohio, where people live in “the Stacks,” or vertical trailer parks, with the situation so dire that most people spend much of their lives in escape in a virtual universe called OASIS. In OASIS, with one’s self-designed virtual identity, it is possible to do or be anything. Although it might seem like play, in OASIS people can earn their livings or lose everything, to the point that they fall so deep into debt that they are sent to a futuristic version of the Victorian workhouse: a cube where you work off a debt that you might never be able to repay.

Young Wade Watts from the Stacks, spends most of his time in OASIS where he is know as Parzival. The creator of OASIS has recently died and left behind three “Easter eggs” (the gaming world reference for a hidden message, taken from the familiar real-world Easter egg hunt). These Easter eggs, found within 3 challenges, are clues that lead the winner to become the new “owner” of OASIS. The rival VR company has hundreds of gamers working on discovering the first egg, but no one has found it. Wade is determined, along with other “gunters” (short for egg hunters) to succeed.

What makes this movie so entertaining is its countless cultural references to the 1980s, the visually dazzling virtual universe, and the very cool adventures in OASIS (an incredible car chase, dancing in the air, etc.).  The seamlessness of going back and forth between the real world and VR shows the master craftsmanship of Spielberg at work: seamless, brilliant, absolutely amazingly well done. Even someone not familiar with video games can easily follow, and we don’t “lose” a sense of Wade’s character, even though much of the time we only see his avatar. One weakness of the movie, however, is that few of the secondary characters are well-developed; instead they are mostly stereotypes, whether avatars or in the real world.

In one way, I expected much more of this movie because I have a special love for Spielberg’s films:

  • Spielberg directed one of the greatest films of all time, Schindler’s List.
  • He has never made a movie without a gripping story.
  • Spielberg knows how to create entertainment that has “something more” to it—perhaps that “something” could simply be described as a human and/or spiritual depth. My favorite example is the adventure film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which, when looked at from the perspective of faith, traces Indy’s journey of coming to faith in recognizable beats.
  • Spielberg’s journey as a filmmaker, from creating pure entertaining flicks to profound films that explore the height and depth of human experience as well as issues that our society needs to reflect on and examine today.

Disappointingly, Ready Player One doesn’t have the depth that it could, even though the topic—virtual reality—is certainly something that we need to explore as a society. But the attentive viewer can take away more than simple enjoyment from the movie because of its accurate portrayal of virtual reality.

A Window to the Soul?

Ready Player One is classic Spielberg because it is high adventure of a Davidic Wade against an internet company Goliath. The shift from Wade’s individual hunt to the building relationships between Wade and his friends is a welcome development: Wade could not and would not succeed without his collaborators. As these relationships continue to develop in the real world, Wade’s friends bring a shift in the motivation to win. Their quest is no longer just a game, but a cause: to prevent the control of OASIS from falling into corporate hands who will take the commercial aspects of OASIS to a new level of exploitation of its “players” for their own profit.

What is really interesting is the movie’s self-contradictory approach to VR, which rather than offering insight or answers, raises questions:

  • By the end, Wade clearly understands (and states) that it is not good to spend “all” your time in VR, especially for the most important relationships in your life.
  • However, the movie spends most of its time in the virtual world which is so much more visually attractive than the real world.
  • Virtual identity and “real world” identity: how the two can enhance, reflect, or deceive.
  • At the end of the movie, Wade calls on all the players to risk their virtual lives to save the freedom of the OASIS. (In essence, to “save” the VR, they have to “die” to it—or leave it.)
  • What is Ready Player One really saying? The movie doesn’t offer any answers, but it is a great launch point for a discussion, especially with young people and gamers:
  • Is virtual reality a good thing or a bad thing for the human person? for society?
  • What is the movie saying about VR? Do you agree? disagree?
  • For a VR universe, is connecting to it in moderation the answer? What is true moderation when it comes to “living in” or “escaping to” a virtual world?
  • How connected do we “need” to be? What are the risks of spending too much time and energy in VR? How is being connected good for the human person?
  • What are the differences between having online and in-person relationships? What are the benefits of each? the cons of each? What kinds of personal relationships do I have, and how can I improve my interactions with those whom I care for?

Ready Player One is a fun adventure that offers an easy “in” for beginning a discussion on Virtual Reality–what it is, how it affects us as persons and as a society, and what we need to put in place or keep in mind when we engage with a fantasy world. (And while you watch, keep a list of 80’s pop culture references—Spielberg’s Easter eggs perhaps?—and compare lists at the end of the movie!)