Superheroes: Models of Christian Virtue?

This weekend, on Salt + Light Radio Hour, I talk about two of the latest theatrical superhero film releases: Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Both are a return to the lighter superhero film and more in tune with what I had come to think of as a “comic book” movie. Perhaps this is a reaction to so many recent superhero films Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Deadpool, Netflix’s The Defenders, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Daredevil, that are so dark and grim. Both Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming are true superheroes, not anti-heroes, following a classic hero’s journey arc. It was also refreshing to see that both films seemed to be less violent overall, and more focused on special effects.

A Closer Look ~ Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman is a comic book movie with a strong fantasy bent—more of a fairy tale than most comic book films. A mythical past (rather than a scientific “accident”), magical powers associated with magical objects, and a “love at first sight” kind of romance. My childhood partiality for fairy tales has carried into adulthood with a strong partiality for fantasy. (If a story has a dragon, wizards, magic, and a hero(ine) with a huge handicap, I’m in!) But that is not all I found appealing about Wonder Woman: the acting is superb, the romance is an important and integrated part of the story rather than just an obligatory minor plot line thrown in for convention’s sake, the characters are interesting and appealing, and the entire story—while there are probably some loopholes—is solid, if not-too-surprising. I really enjoyed the special effects because not only was I blown away, I could follow all the action.

Wonder Woman’s warrior costume alone probably deserves a whole blogpost. Her costume is one of the reasons my mother wouldn’t let us watch the TV show when I was growing up, and I have always disliked the Wonder Woman character because of it. Unfortunately, the costume is kept in the film, but it is more tasteful than I expected. (Some day, I hope we as a culture can get beyond this kind of superhero costume that oversexualizes heroic characters.) Some references to Diana’s physical attractiveness are made; most are clearly meant to be distasteful. (A couple comments meant to be humorous I found offensive.) These comments, in addition to some splendidly awkward dialogue between character Steve Trevor and Diana, plus an implied night spent together, make the film suitable for a slightly older teen (and could also open the door for dialogue about why certain comments are disrespectful). The comic book violence focuses more on the special effects, but there is still plenty of violence.

Windows to the Soul

Two points about the film I especially appreciated. Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman) is an amazing warrior, but she is also a woman who embraces her femininity. Wonderfully self-confident, she accepts and uses her powers, but is still very womanly. Her compassion, her passion to to “save humanity” from the violence of war—seeing war (or the god of war) as the enemy are all gifts that women can bring to the world. Diana Prince is, in many ways, a wonderful role model for girls today. (I think it is very, very cool that the first film about a superhero directed by a woman is about a female superhero, and I think Patty Jenkins’ directorial influence shows here.)

The film addresses the problem of evil head-on, not in a theological sense, but in addressing the question: “With all of the evil that human beings do, is humanity really worth being saved?” And in this sense, it is her experience of being loved, not her super-powers, that enable her to make the right choice and be true to her mission.

In her choice to see humanity in the midst of war’s depravity through the lens of love, I find that Wonder Woman is a Christ-figure. And it is this lens of love that gives a lightness to the film, even amidst the tragic circumstances. This sense of hope—that love makes everything worthwhile—is also present in the other superhero summer release, Spider-Man: Homecoming.

A Closer Look: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Like Wonder Woman, Spider-Man was a character I heard about from others, but didn’t grow up with. I became a fan with the Tobey Maguire films. (Spider-Man 2 is still, I believe, one of the best superhero movies ever made.) Like many others, I also wondered, do we really need another Spider-Man movie?

I don’t know if we needed one. But Homecoming is a light, entertaining, and worthy addition to the growing comic book movie collection, and it is better directed to its primary audience of pre-teens and teens.

With excellent acting, Homecoming is a superhero film that looks at how a superhero develops—and not just his superpowers, but how he matures as an individual to responsibly use those powers. In this film, romance is not much of a storyline, which is appropriate to a story about a teenager who has plenty of other things he needs to focus on.

Peter Parker is a super-believable and accessible character. His personal growth/hero’s journey through the film is, I think, immediately identifiable to pre-teens and teens. He is going through typical teen struggles, whose consequences are magnified by his superpowers. The plot is quite predictable (and also a bit messy in wrapping up, with three endings), but as a whole, the film is still enjoyable–especially with Tony Stark mentoring (!) the young Peter Parker.

Windows to the Soul?

In Peter’s search for his true identity and how to live it, he must “harmonize” these two very different aspects of his life: the “ordinary teenager” and the “extraordinary superhero.” The title of the film really is the theme: Peter needs to be at home with himself, and all the different aspects of himself.

In our own lives, we are called to bring together the different aspects of ourselves, especially our ordinary life with the gift of grace, or the life of God. In a time when we can feel so fragmented by a demanding world that vies for our attention and participation in a variety of roles, Peter Parker’s journey of unifying his various identities or roles into one life in which he can be most truly himself, is a journey to integrity all of us can learn from. It is not a decision or journey made in a vacuum, either: Peter’s commitment to the people of New York is his guide in his final decision. In this, Peter can also be seen as a Christ-figure—of Christ, the Good Shepherd.

Note: The PG-13 rating seemed appropriate; comic book violence and spoken sexual innuendo. There are also plenty of “in-Marvel’s-universe” jokes, from earlier Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Avengers movies.

A Question for Today’s Superheroes

In many ways, watching these two films reminds me of the times in which these superheroes were created, when Judaeo-Christian values were still mainstream and woven into many stories of the culture. As desirable as it is to have these values in both films, a “story hole” arises. Where did Peter Parker learn humility and justice tempered with compassion? Where did Diana’s conviction to guard and protect humanity come from? And where did each of them find the strength to live these virtues? If, as seems to be implied, our two superheroes lack the religious faith that creates such values as self-sacrificing love, humility, integrity, generosity, and kindness (to name a few), where do our superheroes get their values from?

While there are certainly many good people who do not have faith yet live good lives, it is also true that faith in God and God’s grace—whether known or unknown—is what gives us the strength and ability to love in a way that transcends ordinary human love. To love the betrayer, the enemy, the unworthy, the nemesis, is not always seen as an ideal any more. In today’s entertainment culture, revenge is seen as a matter of justice, and forgiveness as weakness. In watching several recent teen movies, I have been shocked by the blatant narcissism and utilitarianism of the protagonists: the happy ending is when the protagonist gets what she or he wants, no matter how they got it or who is hurt along the way. There is no recognition of moral values at all—it is what you succeed at, what you get away with, that counts. And everyone is okay with the blatant selfishness.

Yet, Peter Parker’s idea of justice is deeply Christian, as is Diana Prince’s.

It seems to me that superhero movies are successful right now in great part because they give us heroes with these kinds of virtues. On the one hand, these virtues are admirably presented as an ideal: as good, desirable, heroic. But I would also love to see more films in which these kinds of virtues are upheld, as well as positive reference to God and to the practice of faith as the source or strength of these kinds of virtues. (This is one reason I enjoy aspects of the Netflix series Daredevil—his conscience-driven behavior, qualms, and guilt, as well as his confessions and ongoing dialogue with his pastor clearly reveal his faith and his values deriving from his faith.)

The superhero is not a perfectly Christian model, yet superhero portrayals that are faithful to the spirit of the originals are deeply based in Christian virtue. I am not sure that any other culture but the 20th century Western, Christian-based culture could have created Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, or Superman as entertainment.

Is it possible to have Christian virtue without Christianity? These movies seem to say, “yes.” But as we have watched our society becoming post-Christian, we also have witnessed a troubling uprise in a blatant disregard for the importance of each human life. Christian virtue becomes much rarer when society is not built on Christianity, where Christian values and even the golden rule are no longer commonly held. Perhaps it is enough that superhero movies remind us of the ideals and virtues, attract us to them, and show us how how being Christlike—even in the face of great suffering and self-sacrifice— can transform us and the lives of others.

Advertisements

Divergent: Choosing the Greatest (Social) Virtue

What’s your favorite virtue? What is the most important human virtue for society?

Dystopian films and novels of the young adult variety are really not something I enjoy, and with so many releasing lately, my antipathy has grown. But I’d heard some interesting things from young people about Divergent, so I decided to  read the novel and see the film. I was not disappointed.

For my five-minute take on the film, visit last week’s Salt + Light’s Radio Hour: http://saltandlighttv.org/radio/sl-hour/papal-agency-helps-christians-in-the-middle-east

THE FILM:

In Divergent, the civilized world of the future  is reduced to the city of Chicago, where its citizens are divided into five factions, each of which is based on a social virtue and has a particular role to carry out in society:

Dauntless (Courage) includes law enforcement and soldiers

Erudition (Knowledge or Wisdom) includes librarians, doctors, scientists and teachers

Abnegation (Selflessness) includes government leaders and workers

Amity (Kindness) includes farmers

Candor (Honesty, Truthfulness) includes lawyers.

So what I really loved about the Divergent world is not just that it’s based in Chicago (a city where I spent two wonderful years), but that the society is based on some of the virtues. Of course, what becomes clear pretty early on is that when the virtues are isolated, they can sometimes carried to an extreme: e.g. Candor’s symbol in the choosing system is glass—a symbol of transparency, but also a symbol of the ability to cut and divide. Without love, without the religious or Christian underpinnings of the virtues, the factions give in to an extremism that becomes destructive—especially Erudition, who seek to take over the government from Abnegation.

The film starts with the day before 16-year-old Beatrice Pryor takes the test in which the young people are told which faction they have an aptitude for. For viewers, it’s fairly obvious that some people would fit well into more than one faction. However, this comes as a surprise to Beatrice Pryor, who has aptitude for three factions—in other words, she is a “divergent.” She is told by the person who tests her that she needs to keep this a secret or she will be killed. Raised in Abnegation by devoted parents who serve in the government, Beatrice doubts her own selflessness and has always been drawn to Dauntless, eventually choosing Dauntless as her faction. But with her secret Divergent identity, the conspiracy/adventure is off to a fast start, and Beatrice has to learn who to trust in her new faction, including her mysterious mentor/teacher, Four.

Take the aptitude test for the five factions, and see where you come out strongest!

If, like me, you feel a bit “been there, done that,” because of the sheer number of YA dystopian stories and films, then the virtue backdrop of this action/adventure/coming of age/romance genre mix might make it one you choose to see. The fact that Beatrice Pryor is a strong, female heroine who lives in a violent world but doesn’t see violence as the primary solution, is another plus for this story.

Problems with the film are both artistic and age-appropriate content. The overemphasis on action in the film, and some of the battles/violence included in both book and film could be questionable for some teens. The film’s script oversimplifies the plot of the book, yet this is a plus for those who haven’t read the book because the plot is understandable, if it has a few holes that only the novel fills in. The greatest disappointment is that the film comes up quite short with regard to character development. In some ways, the film feels like an imitation Hunger Games, with just less quality all-around. Despite this, Divergent is a powerful coming-of-age story with sympathetic characters and a few story twists that are as dauntless as Beatrice herself. Acting, cinematography, and production values may not be extraordinary but contribute to a credible, solid, and well-done film. Not only did it feel quite credible to me, some of the scenes were exactly as I’d imagined them from the book.

WINDOWS TO THE SOUL

The World of the Story

It’s hard not to immediately compare Divergent to The Hunger Games, and there are many similarities—all the elements found in dystopian stories, with the addition of a strong heroine. While The Hunger Games has a lot to offer as social commentary on our culture, I don’t think its commentary is appropriate for children (tweens and younger teens) because the stories and films engage the imagination in a dark and disturbing way, rather than fostering a healthy moral imagination. (The Hunger Games uses morally abhorrent situations for its social commentary, such as entertainment that centers on children killing children that is generally accepted by society; or a society where everyone “uses” everyone else for their own ends). I find Divergent much healthier spiritually and morally for younger audiences. No one is all bad or all good; there are adults that can’t be trusted, but there are also good adults. And we don’t necessarily feel forced to participate in the moral depravity of the world we’re exploring. Divergent, while still taking place in a violent, morally challenged world, has some anchors; the world is not completely dark—we as viewers can find grace there, not just in Beatrice’s character, but in others as well.

Virtues As the Basis of Society

While the political and ultimately military struggle for power becomes the major plot of Divergent—as in any good dystopian story—the premise of building a society upon the virtues gives us as the audience the opportunity to reflect more on these particular virtues:

* As people strive to live them

* When the virtues (and the people who practice them) are isolated from each other

* How the virtues are needed together and the importance of moderation even in the practice of certain virtues.

The two virtues that are explored best get the most screen time, and reflect the factions Beatrice comes from—Abnegation (or selflessness), and goes to—Dauntless (or courage). As someone who has personally struggled a lot with fearfulness, I found the exploration of courage and fear intriguing.

This story—both the film and the book—can open a great discussion into the moral life for teenages and viewers: how do we practice virtue even in the most difficult of circumstances? Faithful to its virtue-driven themes, the protagonist Beatrice Pryor is, over and over again, put in very difficult or even seemingly impossible situations where she has to make moral choices.

Another reason I like this film is that it contrasts the virtual world—imagined simulations where the Dauntless are trained to overcome their fears by confronting their deepest fears—with the real world. Beatrice has several opportunities to practice so that, when she is finally put into the position of choosing whether or not to kill someone she loves, she makes an unexpected courageous choice.

The film’s violence gives it a deserved cautionary rating for young people: PG in Canada and PG-13 in the USA.

“The Song” Movie: Ambitious Attempt To Dramatize the Song of Songs for Today

One of my favorite (most-prayed-over) books of the Old Testament is the Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon), a long poem about the love between a man and a woman. On one level, it’s a beautiful canticle to love which highlights the good and beautiful in human love, sexuality, and marriage. (St. John Paul uses this approach in Theology of the Body.) For many of the Fathers of the Church, the Song of Songs can also be read on the level of an allegory about the relationship between God and his People; or Christ and the Church; or the search for Wisdom. And for some spiritual writers, the allegory is about the relationship between God and the individual person. Not an easy book to understand in all its depth, yet it has inspired many, many people, including St. John of the Cross and those who have read his poems about mystical union with God.

It’s relatively easy to quote from the Song of Songs’s beautiful poetry; it’s another task altogether to try to reflect the meaning of this book in other forms. Three of my favorite works based on the Song of Songs are St. Bernard’s Commentary, Da Palestrina’s 29 intricate motets, and Michael Card’s song, “Arise My Love” from his album, The Way of Wisdom.

So it was with eager anticipation that I started to watch The Song, a film inspired by the Song of Solomon that is opening Friday, Sept. 26th. Unfortunately the film didn’t meet my expectations, but I have to laud the filmmakers for trying something so ambitious.

The Song is the story of Jed King, whose early life is haunted by the popularity and public mistakes of his musical father, David King. When he marries his wife Rose, a devout Christian, Jed’s musical career takes off and he eventually becomes very popular.  Life on the road isn’t easy, and as Jed’s success grows and he sees his wife and child less and less, he is tempted and eventually falls into drugs, alcohol abuse, and infidelity to his wife. The ending is predictable, but reinforces an important Gospel message. The film seems more of an attempt to give a modern take on the life of King Solomon than a dramatization of the Song of Songs.

While The Song has several good messages and some solid production values especially in its lighting and cinematography, overall it is not a solid film artistically. The lack of artistic merit starts with the heavy-handedness of the script, but carries through in many ways by being “a message movie.” The characters are not well-developed; it’s hard to understand their motivations and sympathize with them. Perhaps the filmmakers were trying to go with archetypes rather than characters, but the film really lost out with the lack of specificity. The lack of individuality made the characters feel generic, not universal. The women especially feel generic and stereotyped: they are either idealized as practically perfect or demonized as temptress. Jed’s and Rose’s relationship—the heart of the entire film—feels flat as well. The plot is predictable and the dialogue often obvious. I didn’t find the music engaging, but enjoyed the lyrics which have a number of references to the Song of Songs. The film was also a bit heavy-handed in its use of Scripture, though it was beautifully read throughout the film as part of the narration.

Despite my disappointment in the film’s artistry, The Song offers much for reflection on themes from Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. The Song could be particularly helpful in a pastoral/educational setting, to reflect on and discuss such themes as the beauty of married love, building a strong and faithful marriage, finding meaning in life, and the power of forgiveness in relationships.

The LEGO Movie “Fits Together”

Snapshot

The LEGO Movie could be dismissed as a 100-minute commercial for LEGO toys, but it’s also true that the filmmakers went to a lot of extra trouble to make this film not just wholesome and fun entertainment, but to intertwine a couple of really good messages for kids into the story.

Strengths

The basic plot is your typical hero quest block-ified: an ordinary “LEGO” figure who finds a relic is mistaken as the prophesied “the Special” who will save the LEGO worlds.

Emmet is the most ordinary, generic LEGO personality you can imagine–a construction worker who follows his instruction manual to do everything, who fits so well into the LEGO world that he is practically invisible. Because he accidentally finds and becomes attached to a relic (a human artifact that is not a LEGO piece) Emmet is mistakenly identified as “the Special” who will save and bring freedom to the LEGO worlds.

Unknown to Emmet, the LEGO worlds need saving because President Business is really a mastermind criminal who seeks to control them, trying to bring perfection and order, rather than freedom and joy. After being captured for finding the relic, Emmet overhears that President Business is going to glue all the LEGO people/worlds in place, thus paralyzing everyone and everything. It will be the end of the world as he knows it. (And of course President Business doesn’t care who he has to eliminate to achieve his end.)

As Emmet is being rescued by WyldStyle from President Business, he discovers how uniquely unqualified he is to be “the Special” as she is repeatedly disappointed by his inability to build, to imagine, or to think for himself. As we explore the various LEGO worlds with Emmet, WyldStyle and the Master Builders (heroic LEGO figures like Batman and Robin Hood),  Emmet continues to be truly un-spectacular. Until almost the very end, when a new perspective helps Emmet believe that he truly is special. And not only has he discovered that he is special, he also discovers that everyone else is special too. Emmet reveals that we all have moments when our specific gifts are needed, when we are the special ones, when we can do amazing things. But our specialness can be lost if we don’t work together, if we don’t allow others to be special, too.

The plot in particular is outstanding: from the unexpected twist that reveals why everything doesn’t need to make sense, to the final resolution of dealing with President Business in a surprisingly beautiful way that “builds up” rather than tears down or destroys. Rich cultural references and great casting of well-known and familiar voices bring an extra richness to the animated characters.

On Saturday (June 28), the five-minute radio version of this commentary was broadcast on Salt + Light Radio. 

Limitations

I found an unnecessary amount of “LEGO” violence in the film–with the little brick figures falling, being smashed, hit, etc. Even though it’s so stylized–and honestly, what child hasn’t smashed a LEGO figure against something hard?–I wish there had been less, especially as this film will be seen by many very young eyes.

For the non-LEGO fan, especially the adults, the bright primary colors, constant transformation of LEGO constructions into other LEGO concoctions, and the various loud, unrelenting chases can be a bit much. However, for LEGO fans, I’m guessing the nostalgia value would be quite high. Several allusions to history and legends and many clever nods to the pop culture of the 80s and 90s–from Batman and Star Wars to Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter–add another level of enjoyment for adults and older kids.

A Window to the Soul

TheLEGOMoviecoverSome reviews have pointed out that Emmet’s self-sacrifice near the end could be an allusion to Christ. I agree, although I think that it’s better described as a powerful image of selfless, Christ-like love, rather than a great metaphor for Christ as our Savior. (Elements of a Christ-figure metaphor don’t carry through to other parts of the story.) However, where this film really stands out is its twofold message about yearning to be special. Being special is such a fundamental desire that even grown-ups can resonate with Emmet’s pain when he’s harshly told that he’s not special. But Emmet doesn’t just discover that he’s special (an important message in itself for young viewers). He also discovers how his “specialness” fits with his being part of a community, part of a team. We are all special and unique, and yet we best express how special we are when we “fit” together and work with each other. This second message is delightfully reinforced by the ending, which is refreshingly nonviolent.

This film’s theme could be described in various ways:  the tension between creative types vs. organized types; individuality vs. conformity; that the balance between conformity and creativity is true teamwork where all are recognized for their unique specialness, etc. Overall, this film explores what it means to be both individual and part of the human community. For the more reflective viewer (or for a family discussion), The LEGO Movie could open a window to the beauty of what it means to be a member of a family, or what it means to be a member of the Church, belonging to the Body of Christ.

A great Scripture passage to reflect on after seeing this film is Saint Paul’s beautiful chapter from 1st Corinthians (1 Corinthians 12).

For Greater Glory: Film Commentary

Snapshot

For Greater Glory is a re-telling of the impressive story of the Cristeros, Mexican freedom fighters who fought for the freedom to practice their Catholic Faith during the period after the Mexican Revolution (1926-1928). For those who are not familiar with the true-life stories that are included in the film, this review will be a bit more general in the hope of avoiding spoilers.

Strengths

The filmmakers obviously have a profound understanding of Catholic spirituality, morality, and teaching, as these are all convincingly and naturally reflected in the film. For a Catholic, it’s a rare but heartening experience to see one’s Catholic worldview reflected so naturally and accurately in a film. For Greater Glory is a well-made, well-casted, well-acted, and beautifully lensed film. (In particular, the performances of Peter O’Toole, Andy Garcia, Oscar Isaac, and the luminous Mauricio Kuri, are a joy to watch.) The film follows several storylines to give the audience an understanding of the wide composition of the people who became Cristeros–not just soldiers and ranchers, but also ordinary people who took up arms, and the women who provided nursing care and supplies–including ammunition. Even priests became involved in the war effort, and the actions of one priest who chooses to fight provides us as the audience with the opportunity to mull over the role of the priest in the community. The Cristeros risked their lives to fight for the right to worship Christ freely. And the filmmakers chose well which figures to represent the fervor, conflicts, suffering, and heroism of the people who stood up for what they believed in, in many cases to the point of martyrdom.

Limitations

Yet, trying to tell a range of stories in one film is difficult to do. The film wanders in places and the stories are unevenly told. One story is so compelling that it outshines the others. This one character and storyline make the entire film worth watching, but in comparison, the rest of the film can seem a bit flat.

The violent nature of some scenes of the film restrict the audience of For Greater Glory to mature adults: there are scenes of battle, cruel executions of noncombatants, and torture. However, the violence is never sensationalized or glorified, and it is true to the actual events that happened. Its portrayal is necessary to understand the reactions of the pacifists, some of whom eventually take up arms to defend the rights of the Church. The way the violence towards religious figures and symbols is portrayed is clearly respectful of the faith that they represent.

Window to the Soul?

It’s not easy to capture or point to transcendence in film–many movies end up simply being “preachy.” But For Greater Glory begins and ends with moments which hint at or actually bring the audience to a moment of transcendent clarity: about the true purpose of life, about the greatness of God, about the nobility of laying down one’s life for Christ.

The movie loses some opportunities to explore more deeply some themes such as the mystery of faith, the problem of evil and human suffering, and the morality of using violence to defend one’s faith. Nevertheless, for Catholics today who must struggle for the right to witness to faith in a public arena, For Greater Glory is particularly relevant and thought-provoking. Even though this film may not be of the highest artistic merit, I highly recommend For Greater Glory  for the witness that it offers us today, and for seeking to re-tell an important part of our Catholic history in North America.

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

  • Witness to Christ
  • Social justice
  • Use of violence to defend religious freedom
  • Faith (and the journey of coming to faith)
  • Religion in the public arena
  • Prayer & spirituality
  • Role of the priest in society and in the Church
  • Martyrdom

Mighty Macs Film Commentary

I write this blog during my free time, which is why when I’m traveling, not much blogging happens. Lately however, I haven’t been traveling, I’ve just been extra busy. I’m doing some pretty intense writing, and prepping for some wonderful upcoming events (our Lenten Discernment Retreat, and our upcoming Cinema Divina evening with the best Catholic film in recent memory, Of Gods and Men).

I have freed up a little chunk of time that I will try to fit in blogging more consistently–a couple evenings a week. Hopefully you’ll see the fruits of those efforts in the next few weeks.

One other writing update: the extra materials that I’ve prepared for the readers of See Yourself Through God’s Eyes have finally found an online home! The material I’ve already prepared is going to take a different format, so I’ll be working on that in the next couple of weeks as well. Right now, it looks like the new material will go up in May.

I know I’m behind on my blog when I have film commentaries ready to post and never actually put them up. Here’s my commentary on Mighty Macs, which recently released to DVD.

Mighty Macs is a light-hearted, worthwhile family film that deserves a wider viewing than provided by the limited theatrical release in the US and the total lack of a theatrical release in Canada. The story of Mary’s basketball team (“Mac” is short for  “Immaculata”), the small women’s college basketball team who amazingly won the first ever collegiate award for women’s basketball in 1972. At the time, both Immaculata College and its team were struggling to survive. The team had no gym—it had burned down the year before; no money—the school itself was struggling for survival; and horribly outdated uniforms. A typical sports movie, Mighty Macs is about a “little” team overcoming all odds.

Strengths

One of the reasons sports movies can be so enjoyable is their powerful themes of perseverance and following your dreams. Mighty Macs has those elements with a special twist: overcoming inequality.

Based on true events in 1972 where women’s collegiate basketball was just beginning to gain recognition, Mighty Macs highlights the many inequalities these young women were struggling against: family expectations, no money, lack of respect, societal pressures, and a history of losing. First time basketball coach Cathy Rush (abrasively but likably portrayed by Carla Gugino) faced the same pressures–even from her loving husband who at first didn’t support her goals. The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary–the community running the college–seem to care more for the exercise than for the sport at first. Then we discover the sisters are desperately trying to ensure the college’s survival, in a world dominated by big universities and a primarily male board of directors. The sisters are also being told what to do, and the unexpected wins of the basketball team help to level the sides of the dialogue.

The strength of the film is that it’s about the team working together. With strong acting, a solid script,  and no “preachy” moments ringing false, Mighty Macs is an enjoyable family film and a must-see for fans of women’s basketball.

Mighty Macs is not a film about faith; rather, it’s a faith-friendly film where the characters work out their difficulties in an atmosphere of faith. The faith element is visibly present–two of the main characters are nuns in habits–but faith is not the focus of the film, it’s the context.

A personal side-note here: Often the portrayal of religious life in film is either negative or extremely superficial. While this film doesn’t have time to delve deeply into the characters of any of the sisters, I came away liking the image of religious life Mighty Macs offers. It’s obvious the screenwriter knows sisters: that they’re real people, who actually need to have a special spirit–a determined kind of courage–to live religious life.

Limitations

I’m not a huge fan of the sports movie genre. The sports arena can feel somewhat predictable, and thus the triumph of winning the game at the end can seem overly sentimental to me. While this is somewhat true for Mighty Macs, a couple of the games were dramatized so well that I was not sure if they would be wins or losses.

The “team” character of the film means that no one character is deeply developed; rather, there are many characters with smaller character growth. I found myself caring less about individual characters, but more for the team as a whole. I wanted to join the cheering nuns on the sidelines! With so many subplots, not all of them were resolved by the end of the film. This could be a flaw for some viewers, but I think it makes the film more realistic.

How is Mighty Macs a Window to the Soul?

While sports movies aren’t my personal favorites, they offer great metaphors for the spiritual life.

As portrayed in the film, the upstanding values of Coach Cathy Rush, as well as the selfless generosity of Mother Superior, are high notes. Both women–as well as the basketball team–are up against huge obstacles. Their strength, honesty, negotiating skills, and sheer grit in the face of overwhelming odds are inspiring. Just as moving are the efforts of Sister Sunday, a young sister discerning her call as a religious who gives the team and its coach unqualified support. Finally, the way the young women finally came together to become a team is inspiring as well. Equality—or the dignity and worth of each person—is the true “Catholic” note in the film: rich or poor, male or female, big university or small college.

Might Macs is a fascinating portrayal of the journey of this women’s team, who truly overcame impossible odds just to make it to the championship games.

Gospel Themes:

Equality–the dignity and worth of every person
Faith in difficulty
Perseverance
Team spirit (Community)
Discernment in Following Christ

THE STONING OF SORAYA M.–A Close-up of Tragedy

IMG_1338compressThe Stoning of Soraya M. is a raw drama which emotionally pummels the viewer with the injustice it so directly and unapologetically portrays. It is based on the true, tragic story of a young wife and mother in Iran 22 years ago, which was reported by a French-Iranian journalist, Freidoune Sahebjam (played by Jim Cavaziel in the film).

 

Like The Passion of the Christ, also produced by Steve McEveety, this is an extreme close-up of a horrifically violent and unjust death. All the considerable power of cinema is leveraged to draw us into the story, both visually and emotionally. Making the valid choice to tell this story of grave injustice through an “extreme close-up” enables us as viewers to uniquely experience in some small way the emotional and physical beating and stoning of Soraya.  But as powerful as the film’s approach is, it will most likely limit the audience of the film. Which is too bad, because this is a story that needs to be heard now, perhaps even more urgently than in the past.

 

Mozhan Marnò as Soraya M.

Mozhan Marnò as Soraya M.

Director Cyrus Nowrasteh gives the film an immense commitment to the details of the world of a tiny Iranian village. The writer, director, and all the actors except Jim Cavaziel are Iranian, Iranians in exile, or Iranian-Americans. Powerfully written, acted and directed, all the elements of the film conspire together to make the story seem an entirely credible, eyewitness account. Despite the victimization of Soraya (in a marvelous understated performance by Mozhan Marnò), the strength of her character in facing death is inspiring, as is the strength of her aunt Zahra, in a moving all-out performance by Oscar® nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo.

 

Shohreh Aghdashloo as Zahra

Shohreh Aghdashloo as Zahra

Jim Cavaziel as the journalist

Jim Cavaziel as the journalist

Actor Jim Cavaziel was present at the screening, and he made a point I could not agree with more. He pointed out that while some people might be upset by the violence in the film, in reality, they should be upset–outraged!–that this violence really happened to a young woman named Soraya, and still happens to women today. This is a film that should disturb, anger, and hopefully, provoke to action. The horrible injustice against this one woman reverberates in and against every woman, in every society.

 

Producer Steve McEveety also talked about the film as a way of “bearing witness” to these kinds of tragic, senseless deaths. He feels the film is for anyone who’s been a victim, and I agree. The Stoning of Soraya M. gives a voice to Soraya herself who, during her lifetime, could not be heard.

 

The Stoning of Soraya M. is a movie with a profound message: it compellingly and artistically tells a story of injustice solely from the victim’s perspective (or more accurately, from the perspective of the victim’s nearest relative). In being faithful to this eyewitness account, the pain is heart-rending. But the film’s single perspective can be a two-edged sword–limiting the complexity of the film and making the actions of everyone but Soraya and Zahra not only inexcusable, but incomprehensible. On the one hand, this kind of close-up, single-minded account could lead to an immense outrage against this kind of injustice, a prod to prevent similar injustice in the future. But on the other hand, the lack of complexity in this film could lead to a loss of something precious–a sense of compassion–that we are not so very different from the people of this village.

 

Who of us has not given in to some of the familiar social behavior in the film–granted, without such consequences? Haven’t we all traded favors? Haven’t we all fallen into the trap of thinking like the people surrounding us? How many of us have perverted religious ideals by using them to look down on someone else? Who of us hasn’t tried to protect someone we love at someone else’s expense? Manipulation, pressure, taking sides, fear tactics, and abuse of power are the engines that drive one man’s desire to be free of his wife into a communal murder.

 IMG_1158compressed

The Stoning of Soraya M. is not comfortable to watch because, at the end, we have to decide what we will do with the immense sadness and anger roiling around in us. We are left with burning questions: What happened to the villagers afterwards? They must have been (and most likely still are) haunted by the atrocious murder they committed together. What could make a difference so that those who seek to draw closer to God through living Shariah law do not use it to oppress women? And what is our response to the oppressors–not just the villagers, but especially the conspiring murderers at the center of the plot–whom we have seen involved in nothing else but murder? We cannot lose sight of the respect each person deserves, even when it seems they have forfeited the rights of being human. When one woman is condemned simply because she is a woman, we are all condemned along with her–even the oppressors. How can we respond to this injustice?

 

The question is particularly compelling to me, living in Toronto. In 2004, allowing a form of Shariah law to be practiced as part of faith-based tribunals was seriously discussed in Ontario. Shariah law is a code of life that many Muslims adhere to, but its place in Canada continues to be an ongoing concern because there is no consensus in its interpretation. Of much greater concern is the injustice against many women around the world, with the excuse of Shariah law.

 

This film is not suitable for children because of its horrific violence. But it is an important film–especially for people interested in religion, anthropology, and human rights. Becoming aware is the first step to ending injustice. There is not yet a theatrical release date for Canada, but I’ll post a link when there is.

If you can’t see the film but still want to make a difference, why not take the time to find out more about the rights of women and children in countries where human rights violations are common? For those of us who can see the film, perhaps researching how Shariah law is practiced in various countries can nuance the film’s presentation of Muslim customs.