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

My Favorite New Movie Review Site…and a Few Films with Deeper Themes

In my Salt + Light segment this week, in addition to comparing two of the latest summer blockbuster comic book movies, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming, I briefly described a few other films I watched (and two I hope to see). I am planning to post about each, but as I have fallen way behind in my film commentaries, I wanted to introduce you to a couple of the films and my new favorite review column, written by a team of Daughters of Saint Paul at the Pauline Center for Media Studies’ site.

For independent film lovers:

The Florida Project (2017) — a “slice of life” film from a child’s perspective that explores the poverty and brokenness of families on the periphery: this mother and daughter live within the shadows of Disneyworld. (Sr. Nancy Usselmann’s review is here;  Sr. Hosea and I will both comment on the film from various perspectives in an upcoming post.



A Quiet Passion (2016)—biopic of poet Emily Dickinson. The form and themes of this arthouse film suit the themes of Emily’s poetry (and her life!) See Sister Nancy Usselmann’s review, subtitled: The Aesthetics of a Poetic Soul.


Lion (2016)— the amazing journey of Saroo, a five year old child who is accidentally separated from his family by train and is lost, and his attempt to go back and find his brother and mother who loved him so much. (Based on nonfiction book, A Long Way Home.) Once again, Sister Nancy offers an insightful review.


And a couple of religious films:

All Saints (2017) The true story of Pastor Michael Spurlock and his All Saints Episcopal Church community. All Saints (reviewed here by Sr. Hosea Rupprecht, FSP) is releasing digitally November 28, and on DVD on December 12.


The Shack (2017) A great film for reflection and discussion.


I haven’t seen this one, but I’ve heard good things about:


And finally, I have to confess I am looking forward to seeing The Star with a niece or nephew, come November 17th.



Advent Happenings

Our annual Christmas Party for Kids on Saturday was a big success as always, thanks to the 20 volunteers who helped with everything–from dressing families into costumes for their photo with Baby Jesus, to inflating balloons, serving cake and juice, and face painting! Several families told me that this has become their family Christmas tradition. One father told me that, when his children saw the date advertised on the sign outside our Pauline Books & Media Centre, they were so excited they went home and wrote it on the family calendar. “That’s the first time they’ve ever put something on the calendar,” he smiled. “They’ve been looking forward to it and reminding me about it all month.” Another mother brought her two teenaged boys because “We’ve been doing this for ten years and we can’t have Christmas without coming!”

The joy of the day was tangible in the air, and this year a number of children were not too shy to have real conversations with our special visitor, St. Nicholas. At the end of the day, I felt very blessed to have been able to spend such a joyful and lively time with such beautiful families–even if we did run out of cake and almost ran out of balloons!

Our Daughters of St. Paul Choir has also had a busy week of concerts, traveling to New York, New Jersey, Cleveland, and Alexandria, Virginia. This coming weekend they will be singing in the Boston area.

Saturday night I was not able to get to my computer, but the new Salt + Light radio show is available for download. I came up with some unexpected movies to review! Here is the write-up for the hour long program:

Are you a mother trying to cope in today’s hectic world? This week on S+L Radio we speak with Dorothy Pilarski about her new book, Motherhood Matters. And if you’re wondering about the purpose of your life, we’ll also speak to Ken Yasinski, founder of Face2Face Ministries. He tells us about his book, The Fullness of Purpose and we listen to his music. Our Saint of the week is St. Ambrose and Sr. Marie-Paul Curley reviews Winnie-the-Pooh and Last Holiday.

Talking about Family Films on Salt + Light Radio

Just a quick note to let you know that I’m doing a short 5-minute segment on Salt + Light Radio called DVD Picks, in which I comment on recent or upcoming DVD releases. This week, I talk about Soul Surfer and Rio as family-friendly films that have a “little bit more” to them than just good entertainment. You can listen live on Sirius Radio XM 129 this weekend: Saturdays 3-4 pm ET, or 10-11 PM ET, or Sundays 2-3 PM ET. You can also listen online here sometime after tonight, or you can do what I do, which is subscribe here or on itunes and listen to the show at your convenience!

Here’s the write-up for this weekend’s complete show:

Oct 1, 2011 What do you know about Dogmatic Theology? Probably not a lot – but you have heard the word “dogma” before – to explain it all in a way you can understand, this week we are joined by Fr. James Mallon, producer and host of the new DVD series, Dogmatic Theology; Sr. Marie-Paul Curley has some suggestions for movies to watch and a featured chat with singer/songwriter and spinal chord injury survivor, Renee Bondi.

The Cardboard Village Film Commentary

Budget and time were tight this year so I only made it to see one film this year at TIFF, despite a short list of five that I really wanted to see. However, the one I saw was well-chosen: The Cardboard Village, or il villaggio di cartone, written and directed by Ermanno Olmi.

It’s always fun to pick out films to watch at a film festival, but this was a no-brainer. One of Olmi’s films made it onto the Vatican’s Best Films List: The Tree of Wooden Clogs. (By the way, Tree of the Wooden Clogs has been #1 on my ziplist for months, but I’m still waiting for it to come! I hope Zip really does have a circulating copy!) But I was also interested in the subject of the film: how does an elderly, retired priest respond to the closing of the parish church he has served in his entire life? The write up that TIFF gave the film suggested a character study, and a compassionate look at the issue of illegal immigrants in Italy (and Europe), an issue that came to a very real crisis in Italy this spring. The film did not disappoint.

The Cardboard Village
is an unhurried, richly-detailed film that rewards those who pay attention to its visual symbolism. It is a parable that intensely explores the imperative to love which lies at the heart of Christianity.

The Cardboard Village begins with the dismantling of the interior of a typical small Catholic church, as seen through the eyes of its elderly pastor, who futilely and embarrassingly resists. It’s a scene all too familiar in North America, and is powerfully lensed. The striking cinematography of the crucifix dizzily spinning as it is taken down could disorient the audience as much as it would have the pastor, played by Michael Lonsdale. Lonsdale, who recently acted as one of my favorite monks in Of Gods and Men, gives an understated performance of the paralysis of finding one’s self too old, no longer needed, and perhaps no longer relevant. After the church has closed, he gives a homily to the empty church in which he reveals his own dark night of the soul.

The pastor’s running monologue ranges from amusing to irritating to profound. Yet we need it, because it is in huge contrast with the almost entirely silent, visual narrative of the African refugees who find temporary asylum from the police in the locked-up church. The refugees’ characters are well-sketched visually, but the extremely limited dialogue leaves most of their stories up to the imagination of the audience.

The film takes place almost entirely inside the church, the sacristy, and the rectory. The outdoor shots are completely lacking in detail and simply show the invasive headlights of construction equipment or the police cars coming to detain the immigrants.

The extremely close-up scope, the lack of details, and the overt Christian symbolism make the film more a parable than a realistic narrative, although some moments are strikingly real. It’s up to the audience to imagine the ending, and to interpret the meaning of the characters’ choices that we witness.

The unmistakable Christian symbolism makes this film a meditation on the true purpose of the Church and the law of love that is the heart of Christian discipleship. What usually happens in a Catholic Church takes place in an unexpected way as the refugees hide in the torn-down church: new life, washing, Eucharist, betrayal and forgiveness, even a reference to sharing the Word of God.

Olmi’s choice to bring us into the details of the present moment of the story, without giving a satisfactory sense of what has happened before or what will happen afterwards, can make the film more intense. But the slow pace and attention to exquisite detail could make the pacing seem ponderous. The lack of closure and explicit narrative arc makes the film confusing and perhaps less accessible for some viewers.

The orchestral film score is beautiful but rather than always integrating seamlessly with the narrative, it sometimes draws attention to itself. For some, this might heighten the emotion; for me, this stylistic choice distracts from being present to the most powerful moments of the film.

Window to the Soul?
The Cardboard Village is a powerful visual parable that works on several levels. The spiritual journey of the elderly priest was, for me, the most compelling piece of the film, but the refugee narrative contains wonderful symbolism about the meaning of the Christian life, as well as an invitation to reverence and welcome the Other.

The Cardboard Village (Italian, with English subtitles)
il villaggio di cartone
Written and Directed by Ermanno Olmi
Release in Italy: October 7, 2011

For those who are interested, themes included in the film are:

  • Dark night of the soul
  • Faith
  • The “ordinary” sacramental moments in the life of the Church
  • The human condition and the human community
  • Illegal refugees and the question of social justice
  • Jesus’ law of love

The Tree of Life: an incredibly rewarding experience

I’m haunted by a film I saw this week. By haunted, I don’t mean the usual sense of the term–as in scared by a ghost. Rather, I mean it in the sense that Flannery O’Connor used the word: a surprising and (usually) deeply moving moment, scene, or event in a story that gives me such deep insight that I will remember it for a long time. (For a definition closer to Flannery’s, and some wonderful examples of what she meant, check out Kris Rasmussen’s 2009 list of Top 10 ‘Haunting’ Movie Scenes.)

The Tree of Life
is a soul-haunting experience. As our media-saturated world becomes ever more experiential, writer and director Terrence Malick has created a film that is much more than powerful story: it’s a cinematic experience that is deeply satisfying and probing at the same time.

There is no way to describe in one sentence what this film is about. The trailers show that it is the story of one family’s journey–father, mother, and three sons–but it’s more than that because their story is placed within the context of the human experience, with plentiful “commentary” in the form of cinematic, visual poetry–I really don’t have words to describe it, but it was an amazing experience. Here’s a completely inadequate one-sentence description:

The Tree of Life seeks to explore the scope of the human experience by dramatically contrasting the intimate life of one family in 1950s Texas, with the creation of life on earth.

The fact that I cannot “capture” what this film is about in one sentence means that Malick has done what the greatest film directors do. As Flannery O’Connor used to say when people asked her what her stories meant, “If I could tell you, I wouldn’t have had to write the story.”

This film has instantly rocketed to my list of top ten films of all time.

Visually, auditorily, and narratively, this film is a delight. The scope of the film is simultaneously vast and tiny–we ponder both the evolution of life on earth, the depth of grief and loss, and the specific characteristics of a particular family living in the 1950s. The cinematography makes this journey very personal for the audience, bringing us in close and deep–to each character, to each subject, with a creative eye for details. (When the boys play “kick the can”, we watch it almost from the perspective of the can itself before it is kicked away. The close-up of the newborn son–so close it distorts–is striking.)

One of my favorite things about the film is that it demands that the audience actively engage in the narrative. Nothing is given away. There is no easy to follow, contrived storyline. The scenes from the family’s life are not in chronological order, so we must puzzle out the clues we are given, imagining what is left out. The cinematically poetic imagery and music which provides commentary on the narrative not only give us more clues, but encourages us to reflect on our own experiences: of love, of acceptance, of sibling rivalry, of the first betrayal, of the power that parents wield over their children, of the startling first consciousness of moral choices.

While we are not given a complete picture of the details of the story, we are given a well-rounded, deep perspective of the characters of the family: the parents and the two older boys. As I was watching, I didn’t even think about the actors because they were so fully the characters they represent onscreen. The film was particularly profound for me simply because the characters were so real: I have known these people in my own life; at times, I have been one of these people. Incredible directing and acting.

In places, the film is filled with one-liners that could become a power idea for your entire life, such as the mother’s line in the trailer: “Unless you love, your life will flash by.”

Yet, The Tree of Life is much more than a narrative: director Terrence Malick plays with the cinematic form to create an experience for the viewer that includes both narrative and commentary. The “commentary” contains very few words. Instead, through powerful music and gripping imagery, it evokes the audience’s emotions, encouraging us to engage even more deeply, contrasting the details of our tiny lives with the immensity of the creation of the universe.

Malick, a truly masterful writer and director, shows his mastery in using all the power of the cinematic medium to evoke not just a powerful story of the human experience, but the audience’s emotions about their own experience. I left the theater wrung out, moved, inspired, and extremely grateful for the giftedness of life.

The meditative, sometimes-impressionistic style of the film may discourage some casual viewers. It’s not an easy film to watch. (At its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, it was both applauded and booed by the audience. It then went on to win the Palme d’Or–the top prize of the festival.) The engagement required by the film isn’t instantly gratifying, and this may prevent some viewers from staying with the film to experience the deep satisfaction of the journey.

The only other limitation is that The Tree of Life should be seen on the big screen. I think it might lose a lot of its power on the small screen, such as the contrast of the vast scope and the tiny details, the raw energy of some of the visuals, and the immersive experience of going so close on the details.

Window to the Soul?
The Tree of Life is absolutely a radiant window to the soul that achieves what few films do: a sense of the transcendence of God. This film is a profound exploration of the human experience: what it means to be human, to “be” family, to make a moral choice, to experience grace.

The film is framed by a quotation from Job 38: 4, 7: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding; when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” It encourages a profound reflection on the nature of the human person, on how we can discover God in the world and in our lives.

For those who are interested, themes included in the film are:

  • Giftedness of life
  • Family
  • Fatherhood
  • Motherhood
  • Presence of God
  • Loss
  • Life and death
  • The Question of Suffering/Evil in a World Created by a Loving God
  • Prayer
  • Morality

Soul Surfer

Since completing the first draft of my book, I’ve been busy trying to catch up with everything else. I am preparing for several upcoming Faith & Film Nights, as well as creating some new online content for the readers of my last published book, See Yourself Through God’s Eyes. I’m also delighted to be presenting a workshop on the Theology and Spirituality of Communication at an upcoming Media Literacy Education course being offered by our own Pauline Center for Media Studies, with the Archdiocese of Boston.

That’s not an excuse for why I haven’t been blogging, but an explanation (and update on what I’ve been doing).

This week I took a break from catching up and went to see Soul Surfer, the film based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a talented young surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack at age thirteen, and how she and her family coped with the tragedy.

Soul Surfer is a straight, uncomplicated story that fits solidly into the cinematic sports genre for a younger audience, with the “team” being Bethany’s family and friends who support her. Sequences of amazing surfing–at least to this non-expert–intentionally dazzle, as they should. Refreshingly, the Hamiltons are not a family in crisis, and the close family interactions give the film both its most entertaining moments and an endearing wholesomeness. True to its name, Soul Surfer takes a lighter approach, skimming over the surface of character and story, rather than plunging more deeply. But this style balances the harrowing tragedy which the film fearlessly takes on. Ultimately, as a film, Soul Surfer aptly matches Bethany’s inspiring courage in the waves.

The big performances of this film make it a joy to watch. AnnaSophia Robb has matured as an actress and convincingly plays Bethany. Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt are the parents who make their strong and healthy marriage not only credible but enviable. The fact that they don’t always agree on how to help their daughter move forward is played subtly and wonderfully.

In the film, the Hamiltons come across as a faith-filled family, with scenes of the family in church, Bethany going on a mission trip and participating in the church youth group. The positive image of a strong and faith-filled family and community is welcome, as is the portrayal of Christian faith as a vital and natural part of life.

The shots of the beautiful ocean and spectacular surfing celebrate God’s creation and the beauty of the human body. Bethany’s love for surfing drives the film both plot-wise and visually. This singleminded approach is a strength for those who love the sports genre, but perhaps a bit of a weakness for other viewers.

The film’s script is less complex than it could be, with only one major storyline and little character development. The lack of complexity limits the film to surfing over the depths of Bethany’s life and faith. But perhaps this is a wise choice that, in the end, is more respectful of and true to Bethany’s life.

Window to the Soul?
The overall Christian worldview of the film is evident and provides the opportunity to reflect on many themes. The most powerful moments for me were when Bethany struggles with the question, “Why did God let this happen to me?” The film does a good job with this: it doesn’t shy away from the big question, and it also avoids giving an easy, unsatisfactory answer. This excellent approach allows us as viewers to look for insights into Bethany’s character and determination, and then accompany her on her struggle to not only accept what has happened to her, but turn it into something she can give to God.

For those who are interested, themes included in the film are:

  • Faith
  • Family
  • Being a good sport
  • Community
  • Overcoming adversity
  • Where is God when bad things happen?

Film Commentary for Of Gods and Men

I had the privilege Monday evening of viewing Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux) at the Toronto International Film Festival. Directed by Xavier Beauvois, the film won both the Ecumenical Award and the Grand Prix du Jury Award at Cannes this year.

If you’re in the Toronto area and still plan to catch a film at TIFF, there’s another screening on Friday afternoon (September 16).

Of Gods and Men is the moving true account of the Trappist community of Mt. Atlas, Algeria, and their response to the rising violence of Islam extremists in the mid-1990s. Despite the breathtaking cinematography, to those accustomed to a Hollywood version of things, this film is in many ways a minimalist portrayal. There is no romanticizing of monastic life, nor of martyrdom. These seem to be ordinary men who dig deep–into the grace of their vocation, into their faith, into their very selves–to be faithful to their commitment. Instead of choosing to shock, the film draws its audience in, immersing us in the paschal experience of these reflective, prayerful, and peaceful men who choose to witness to hope in the midst of a world disintegrating around them.

I am not overly familiar with the story of the monks, and the exact circumstances of their deaths are still unknown, but the film is done in a way that almost plays down the drama. It feels very factual. There is no sensationalizing, even though the decisions of the monastic community has life-and-death consequences. My impression as a woman religious is that this film is a faithful rendering of both the monks’ experience and of the way they would have liked their experience interpreted. The humanness of the monks is candidly expressed and portrayed, and the prayerful routine of their life echoes in our consciousness, much like the chant reverberates in their simple chapel.

I especially appreciate the way the film highlights community. The monks are a part of the larger village community, engaged in serving the needs of the villagers. And while certain monks are more noticeable or memorable, no one monk stands out as the protagonist. It would have been very easy for the filmmaker to focus on the superior of the community, or on one member. Instead, he allows the beauty of community life to shine forth, showing the place that each monk holds, revealing subtly the strength that comes from so deeply sharing a commitment to Christ and God’s people. The monks move together, unique individuals who are ultimately faithful to their commitment to build unity and peace, both within and outside of the monastic walls.

The film gets off to a slow start, inviting the audience into the rhythm of the monastic life. At first, the deliberate tempo of the film seems to conflict with the story–the reflective, attentive, peaceable behavior of the monks versus the extremism of the fanatics, the ambiguous, threatening government presence, and the fear of the ordinary people. Yet through this slower pacing, we are invited in to reflect, like the monks, on what this increasingly dangerous conflict means.

The paradox of martyrdom is highlighted by the wonderfully understated acting, and the realistic dialogue, which also uses Scripture and some of the Testament of the superior as he faced his death.

I didn’t find any, although this film’s European sensibilities may make it less popular here in North America.

The intentional pacing shouldn’t limit the film’s audience because it combines the strength of a documentary-like reality with the added realism that a feature can give when directed by a filmmaker who is not obsessed with impressing or shocking, but instead seeks to sensitively draw out the depth of the experience of the protagonists.

The film makes the audience work more than a typical Hollywood film. Of Gods and Men has many beautiful and touching moments, but few easily “satisfying” moments that resolve the suspenseful dramatic question building up through every scene–what will these ordinary men do in the face of their possible murders? We share the unrelenting strain with them, and it forces us to reflect on what we would do in their places.

How is this film a Window to the Soul?
Of Gods and Men is a true “window to the soul” that dazzles the audience cinematically, but even more so with the light of the Gospel as it was incarnated in the lives of these peace-loving men. They were ordinary men who did not want to die as martyrs. The film doesn’t let us look away from the painful paradox they lived in their radical commitment to Christ, nor from the heroism, however reluctant, of their choice.

The Human Experience Film Commentary

The Canadian premiere of The Human Experience screened on Friday night at Dante Alighieri High School. It was a low-budget setting–in the auditorium, with hard folding chairs, and no air conditioning. The filmmakers are working on increasing the film’s distribution and hopefully will succeed because as of now, there are no scheduled showings in Canada. Here’s a brief commentary on the film that might be helpful.


The Human Experience is the documented experience of two brothers, Cliff and Jeffrey Azize, who decide to open themselves to new experiences in order to grapple with questions of identity, the meaning of life, and what it means to be human. In “reality TV” style that for the most part rings sincere, the brothers’ journey takes them to share life with the homeless in a New York city winter, spend time with children who suffer from severe disabilities in Peru, and encounter people who suffer from leprosy and HIV/Aids in Ghana. The Human Experience resoundingly reaffirms the giftedness of every human life, the importance of family, and the resilience of the human spirit amid tremendous sufferings and challenges. The vision of the film is a powerful and uplifting tool to encourage young people especially to reflect on the brothers’ honesty and the insights of the various experts and companions on their journey. The repeated “summing up” of lessons learned, and a forced ending makes this a powerful educational tool for the classroom, but less appealing to a more general audience.


With the exception of the ending, Cliff and Jeffrey’s honesty and sincerity leap touchingly off the screen, and compel attention. Their courage in so dramatically leaving their comfort zone and to so honestly share their experiences is undeniable. The filmmakers effectively share the vibrant voices of the people that the brothers encounter–their shooting 150 hours of footage really pays off because the shots and the encounters are effective–every moment in New York and Peru feels real. Nothing staged, nothing exaggerated. Well-paced and well-shot, the film is reality-based but also easy to watch.


The goal of the brothers is not as compelling as it could be–a generic desire to grow into better human beings by expanding one’s experience is admirable, but it takes the film in many directions and fragments its sense of unity. This lack of unity is illustrated best by the disappointing ending which, although admirable in itself, is disconnected from the rest of the film and feels forced. In addition, several times the story’s focus shifted from the brothers to various companions on that lap of the journey. This meant that the compelling sense of narrative was lost, dissipating the power of the brothers’ testimony, and making the film feel more “preachy” than it needed to be. Lack of subtlety in the soundtrack and in the repetitious “summing up” of issues by various experts also gave some sense of feeling manipulated or preached at, rather than witnessed to. The film might have stronger general appeal if the narrative themes were tightened and the commentaries of the experts limited. But as a classroom tool, this film is powerful as it is.

Definitely a Window to the Soul

Brothers Jeffrey and Cliff, director Charles Kehane, and writer Michael Campo deserve great credit in grappling with the “big questions” of life in a coherent narrative that is compelling and timely. Using the personal memoir/reality TV genre that is familiar and fascinating, they took difficult material, personalized it, and turned it into a journey that many young people can relate to. This so easily could have been an intellectual, philosophical and moral jumble that was completely unwatchable. Instead, they pull it off, impressing indelible images into the minds and hearts of the viewers–images that can open the door to the questions that all of us need to pay attention to.

For those who might find it helpful, here are some of the themes that the brothers’ journey highlights:

  • the giftedness of each human life
  • the importance and gift of family
  • brotherhood
  • the implications of a child lacking the love of one or more parents
  • the power of forgiveness
  • the importance of the desire to grow as a person
  • the interconnectedness of every life–the fact that we are all connected because we are all human
  • the beauty of the diversity of human experience–in culture, beliefs, attitudes, etc.

Popieluszko: Freedom Is Within Us

popieluzskofilmthoughtfulOn Saturday night, I attended the second showing of the North American premiere of the Polish film Popieluszko: Freedom Is Within Us. The film courageously attempts to capture the life, character, and brutal murder of the Servant of God, Father Jerzy Popieluszko, popularly known in Poland as the “solidarity priest.”

For those who don’t know him, Father Jerzy Popieluszko was born into a devout Catholic family in eastern Poland in 1947. Despite the political atmosphere, he decided to study for the priesthood. After two mandatory years of military service, he was ordained and served in several parishes, finally being assigned to St. Stanislaus Kostka parish in the city of Warsaw. In 1980, Solidarity was born, and Popieluszko was asked to celebrate Mass for the striking workers. He became their chaplain and their champion. On December 31, 1981, the government imposed martial law and started persecuting the leaders of Solidarity. Father Jerzy was tireless in assisting the workers and their families. He also became famous for his widely attended monthly Mass for workers, where he preached about human dignity and the possibility of peaceful change. After several years of intimidation by the government (including arrest, imprisonment, and death-threats), Father Jerzy was brutally murdered by the Polish secret police on October 19, 1984. Here’s a link to a one-page biography: http://saltandlighttv.org/blog/?p=7563

The film, Popieluszko: Freedom Is Within Us, is not always easy to watch–but for those with a little patience, it is compelling and rewarding, because of its artistry, its attempt to “bear witness” to the life of Father Jerzy in a respectful and honest way, and the hope it offers to all who have known oppression.

Biopics, when well-done, are probably my favorite genre. But many are so poorly done that they seem to fall into another, separate genre altogether. It is extraordinarily difficult to weave the many strands of a person’s life into one compelling portrait that is also a cohesive story with unity and thematic depth. Poor biopics seem to use the fact that it’s a “true story” as an excuse to avoid this difficult work. Which means good, solid biopics are to be appreciated all the more.

popieluszkofilminformalPopieluszko: Freedom Is Within Us achieves this. While the film may not be a “great” film, it compellingly covers the major events of the Father Popieluszko’s life, and gives us glimpses of other, less important events which, nonetheless, give us insight into his character. Actor Adam Woronowicz actually seems to become Popieluszko onscreen, imitating his very gestures. The film is slow in places, even grueling–because during its 2 1/2 hours, we witness an oppressive government’s efforts to crush the soul of the Polish people. But writer/director Rafal Wieczynski skillfully directs the acting and pacing, so that it builds to a powerful end where we not only accompany Fr. Jerzy in his martyrdom for truth, but also begin to grasp the powerful impact this humble man has had, and may continue to have, on so many.

One aspect of artistry which stands out is the filmmakers depth of research and commitment to accuracy.

popieluszkofilmglempThe film seems to capture well the tension of those times where it was dangerous to say the rosary with too much devotion, never mind express a political opinion. One interesting facet of the film is the director’s choice to occasionally cut in real historical footage, which, rather than distracting, heightens our awareness that this is a true story.

I know of no other feature film where a cardinal acts as himself onscreen, and yet this is exactly what Cardinal Glemp does. (And the first scene is not so complimentary.) This gives a unique “texture” of authenticity to the scenes where Father Jerzy interacts more directly with his superiors–a texture which otherwise might be hard to believe: that someone so actively and intensely devoted to the spiritual care and the human dignity of his people could combine that with a humility about his own opinions and a real trust in the obedience he has vowed, in the persons of superiors who did not always agree with him.


Another distinction that the film makes is that, while the government called his preaching “political,” Father Jerzy was basing his preaching on the social teaching of the Church. From what I have read, the film actually underplays the intimidation and threats from the government that Father Jerzy suffered in the last years of his life. As the film progresses, we see his awareness and preparedness for giving his life grow dramatically.

How can a story that ends in a brutal murder be uplifting? Despite my tears and the turbulence I felt at the end of the film, I have been uplifted and inspired since Saturday night. The beautiful strength of the film lies in its gradual revelation of Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, tracing his spiritual journey of transformation from an ordinary, devoted priest with attitude, into a pastor who grows always more Christlike and, in the end, willingly lays down his life to defend the rights of the people he serves. Father Jerzy Popieluszko’s cause for canonization was introduced in 1997. October 19th, 2009, was the 25th anniversary of his martyrdom.

popieluszkoempirePopieluszko: Freedom Is Within Us is a powerful and insightful film, well worth viewing. It is not being carried nationwide, but can be seen locally at the Empire Theatre at Square One in Mississauga in the upcoming week. I have not yet seen a rating for the film, but due to its violence, the film can be quite disturbing and is not suitable for young children. Made in Poland, the film is in Polish with English subtitles.