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.