Thursday, June 25, 2015

Confession Movie Churches: "The Confessor (AKA "The Good Shepherd"), 2004

As a rule, if a movie stars Christian Slater, and it was made in this century, avoiding that movie is a safe choice. "The Confessor" (also known at IMDB as "The Good Shepherd") isn't really an exception. Like so much of Slater's recent fare, this was direct to video rather than a theatrical release, but it's confession month here at Movie Churches, and the film does have that title, so I didn't really see a choice here.

Christian Slater plays Father Daniel, a priest whose specialty is fundraising. I don't remember that being listed in Scripture as one of the spiritual gifts, but I might have to give it another look. Another priest, Father Andrew, is accused of murder and asks for Father Daniel's help. Father Andrews claims innocence. He also claims to know who the real killer is, but says he can't reveal it because he can't reveal what was told him in confession. So it's up to Father Daniel to find the real killer, as priests do, you know. (I don't remember homicide investigation being listed as a spiritual gift either, but again, I'll have to check.)

As always, we're here to critique the churches in the movie rather than the movie itself. And the churches in the movie are pretty awful. The Roman hierarchy over Father Daniel is a duplicitous bunch. They are much more concerned about the image of the church than the young man who was murdered or the priest accused of the murder.

Spoiler alert! (Which perhaps isn't possible with a Christian Slater direct-to-video film. It's like being concerned about spoiling a quart of milk that's been out in the sun for a month.) Father Andrew is murdered in prison (though it's made to look like a suicide). Father Daniel takes over Andrew's church.

Now there are things to be said in behalf of the church Father Andrews pastored. It's next to a halfway house for teenagers. So, yay for caring for the disadvantaged. Unfortunately, the halfway house is run by Lucy Gallagher, an abusive, middle aged heroin addict. She uses the kids as a part of a prostitution/drug ring. On the plus side, she does seem to be concerned about the spiritual lives of her charges. In fact, she requires that all who live in her halfway house go to confession at the church.

On the negative side, Ms. Gallagher tape records all of those confessions, and uses the information to abuse and blackmail the teens. I thought that tape recorder was the most interesting thing in the film; it's really the reason I decided to write this review. Though many churches don't have literal tape recorders around when we're confessing, we're still scared of 'em. The Catholic Church, through years of tradition, came up with a system for making confession as safe and private as possible. I do love the idea that a priest would rather go to prison than reveal what he heard in confession.

Many of us are afraid of sharing anything more personal than an allergy flare-up at a prayer meeting because we're afraid our information won't remain confidential. Our deepest secret shared as a prayer request might be used as a conversional filler when there's a lull during a friend's coffee break. And yet James 5:16 commands us to confess our sins to each other. I don't think James would have thought kindly of tape recording confessions.

I'd like to be in a church where I could confess my deepest secrets and know they won't be used for gossip, let alone for the purposes of blackmail. Perhaps I could find a place where I could even feel comfortable confessing I'd watched a Christian Slater movie without fear of rejection or judgment.

The church in the film gets one steeple.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Confession Movie Churches: Easy A (2010) and Big Eyes (2014)

I confess to enjoying both "Easy A" and "Big Eyes." I thought I should confess since that's what both films are about; an elaborate deception and the need to confess. In both films, there's an attempt to confess in church and in both films that attempt is not successful. Talking about Movie Churches is what we do here, but I'll need to tell about both movies' plots to get to the churches and the confessions.

Emma Stone stars in "Easy A" as a high school girl named Olive. She lies about losing her virginity in order to look cool in her friend's eyes. Her lie gets around and builds, plot complication after plot complication, until everyone at the school believes that the virgin Olive is a prostitute spreading venereal diseases.

There is a Christian club at Olive's school (one could stretch things and call it a church), but Marianne (Amanda Bynes) the leader of the club, shows no compassion to Olive. She calls her a "slut" and tries to get her kicked out of school. Marianne does say (at a club meeting) that Jesus calls us to "love whores and homosexuals but it's so hard" -- so hard she doesn't even seem to try.

In homage to The Scarlet Letter, Olive, like Hester Prynne, feels ostracized from the community and racked by guilt. Olive goes to a Catholic church and enters a confessional. She pours out her heart, admitting she doesn't have to confess to sexual sin but rather dishonesty and lies. She also admits she's not a Catholic but she's wilingl to say ten Hail Marys or pay a fine or whatever it takes. When there is no response, she realizes no priest is there, so she leaves the church in embarrassment.

She goes to another church and asks to see the pastor. Please allow me at this time a tangentially rant about church fashion in films. The church appears to be of an independent, fundamentalist bent. And yet the pastor is wearing a clerical collar. In my experience, clerical collars are worn by priests (Catholic or Anglican/Episcopalian) and a few mainline pastors. And fundamentalists don't want to be confused with such "heretics." Tangential rant over; back to the movie: Olive asks the pastor if he thinks adultery is a sin, and he assures her he does. She asks if he believes in Hell and he assures her he does. He tells her Hell is underground near Asia (apparently he got his theological training from Loony Toons). Olive then realizes from a photo on the desk that the pastor is her tormenter Marianne's father. She flees again.

Failing to find a way to confess in church, she confesses her sin (or her sin of lack of sin) on the Internet.

"Big Eyes" is based on the true story of painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), who was enmeshed in a different elaborate deception. She fell in love with a man who claimed to be a painter. They married, and her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) convinced her to allow him to pass off her paintings as his own. Her "big eye waif" paintings become an international sensation and her husband takes all the credit.

Walter persuades Margaret to lie to everyone about the paintings, even to her own daughter. The guilt from the lies (and the envy of Walter's acclaim that she believes is rightfully hers) eats away at Margaret, so she goes to a confessional in a Catholic church. She tells the priest she was raised Methodist but needs to talk to someone. She tells the priest her husband was having her lie about "something" to her daughter. The priest tells her that there is probably a good reason her husband had her lie, and that as a Christian she should recognize the importance of submitting to her husband. The sexism of the priest is annoying, but Margaret was so vague in her confession that the priest had no way of knowing how serious the matter might be.

Eventually Margaret finds another venue for her confession -- the courtroom. She divorces Walter and sues him for the rights to her paintings.

In James 5:16, we are told to confess our sins to one another in order to be healed. But if confession is taking place in church, people will seek healing in other places. And I think experience has shown that the internet and the courtroom are not the most healing of places.

Easy A: 

Big Eyes: 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Confession Movie Churches: "Calvary" 2014

The best thing about the film "Calvary" is a quote from St. Augustine. Referring to the men next to Christ on the cross, he says, "Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved; do not presume, one of the thieves was damned." I'm not knocking the film at all, it is very, very good. But that quote is very, very great.

It's also a good introduction to some of the themes of the film, most obviously that the priest in the film is facing his own cross, his own Calvary. But the film is filled with many more thieves. The small town in which Father James (played by Brendan Gleeson) ministers seem to be the very incarnation of 2 Timothy, chapter 3 (For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God"), a bunch of thieves mocking Christ on the cross.

I'm not reviewing movies here, only the movies in the churches along with the movie clergy. This church and this priest look very good because they stand in comparison to some very awful people. What makes the situation even more interesting is that the awful people in the film look down on the priest and the church.

The film opens with the priest hearing a confession which isn't really a confession. Instead we hear a man describing to the priest about how he was sexually abused by a priest when he was a young boy. He explains that the church did not punish the priest, who lived a long life and is now dead. And so that is why, the man explains, he will kill Father James the upcoming Sunday.

Everyone in the film is quite aware of the pedophile scandal in the Roman Catholic Church and seems to believe that this scandal takes away the moral standing of the church. Everyone in the town seems to believe the church no longer has a role in making moral judgments. In fact, strangely enough, the pedophile scandal affirms many aspects of Christian doctrine. It affirms the doctrine of original sin and the danger every believer faces of falling into sin. It also affirms the deadly nature of sin in a society that has been arguing that no aspects of sexuality are sinful since, as Woody Allen said, "The heart wants what the heart wants."

Father James is, for the most part, a good priest and a good man. But people look at his robes and refuse to take to heart his loving words and helping hand because he is a priest in the Catholic Church. Currently, plenty of people in the United States are anxious to dismiss the evangelical church because of its stand on homosexuality or gay marriage. At heart, I think the real issue is often just a desire to feel morally superior by declaring a political stance rather than needing to live out this verse (James 1:27, NIV): "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."

I do have my own problems with Father James. We see him giving one particularly bad piece of advice to a young man who is considering joining the army. The reason the young man gives gives is that he thinks shooting people will help him deal with his pent up lust, which he can't deal with in this small town with few women. The Father's council includes some rather unbiblical sentiments. First he condemns anyone who joins the services in peacetime as being apsychopath because the Bible says, "Thou shalt not kill". And he advises the guy to use pornography and to go to the big city and find slutty women. Why he doesn't advise the young to go to the big city and find a church where he can meet some nice Christian woman whom he can marry? Baffling.

There is another priest in the parish that proves to be a sniveling weasel, and the church building itself proves to be not up to fire code. But because you see Father James giving communion to the awful people of his town with loving compassion, I'm giving this Movie Church 3 steeples.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Confession Movie Churches: "I Confess," 1953

Comparing this film with last year's "Calvary," another film coming up in Movie Churches' Confession Month, one sees a startling contrast between contemporary views of the church over the sixty year gap.

In "I Confess," everyone in the film seems shocked by the very notion that a priest might have committed a murder. Two young women spotted a man in a cassock at the scene of the murder (actually, the killer borrowed a priest's robe). The reaction of one of the police officers to this testimony? "It's absurd that a priest would be involved [in the murder.]" And the conversation in the district attorney's office?  "'The unpleasant part is a priest is suspected.' 'What nonsense!'" The very idea that a priest would be guilty of such a crime strikes the average character in the film (and, one assumes, the people in the audience) as outlandish.

Sixty years later, in the film "Calvary," after scandals with pedophile priests, the characters in the film and many people in the audience assume the very worst about priests and the Catholic Church. Killer priests have become a cliché in movies. Priests are even more likely to be the villain a film than CEOs and right wing politicians.

The priest of "I Confess" (actually, there are several priests in the film, but I'm talking about the featured priest, played by Montgomery Clift) is far from a villain.  Father Michael is widely respected in his community and quite trusted. He is so trusted, in fact, that when the monastery's caretaker, Keller (killer) commits a murder, he confesses the murder to Father Michael in full confidence that the priest will honor his vows and the sanctity of the confession and not reveal the truth.

His confidence proves to be well founded. Even when Father Michael is accused of the murder of a corrupt local lawyer; the priest will not reveal what he heard in confession.

The killer plants the bloody robe in the priest's car. When Father Michael testifies in court, he is asked, "Who might have put the robe in your car?" The Father takes a moment before answering. The film is set in Quebec, and a crucifix hangs above the Father's head. He answers the question truthfully but in keeping with his vows, "I can't say."

The prosecution in the trial must, of course, ascribe a motive for the priest to kill the lawyer. It is discovered that the lawyer was blackmailing the priest's former girlfriend, and the priest is alleged to continue to have a romantic relationship with the woman. This isn't true, but suspicion is planted in the mind of the public.

The priest is acquitted in the trial, but is still suspected of murder and adultery by many. Father Michael comes to know the experience of Christ: being despised and rejected by men. In time, (Hollywood being Hollywood) the true killer is revealed, but one suspects that Father Michael's experience will result in his being an even better priest.

Of course, we're here to review the Movie Church and not the movie. Which is just as well, because if you like movies, the fact that this film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock is reason enough to watch the film. Hitchcock was educated by Jesuits and many film study papers have been written about the themes and symbols of Catholicism and Christianity found in his films. In this film, those themes provide the text, rather than the subtext.

As for the Movie Church in this film...a Movie Church that has a priest with the integrity of Father Michael, willing to give his life to prison or the gallows rather than break his vows, gets this film four steeples.

-- Dean

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

June is the month for Movie Church Confessions

Confession is central to life in every true church, but in Movie Churches the Catholics have a distinct advantage over the Protestants. Confession in a Mainline Protestant or Evangelical Church is chiefly represented by Congregational Responsive Readings or a Moment of Silent Reflection which is unlikely to lead to scintillating cinema.
The Catholic Church, on the other hand, provides a great gift to the movies, the Confessional Booth. The Catholic practice of confession provides opportunities for comedy, tension and pathos. In a farce, there are the comic opportunities provided by the petitioner not being able to see who is on the other side of that little curtain...Instead of a priest, it may be a lover, a chimpanzee or no one at all. In a thriller, it may be a killer on the other side of the curtain. But sometimes the greatest drama is to be found when it is just a priest hearing a confession, and a character can finally reveal what is on his or her heart with honesty.
So all of the churches in June, Movie Church Confessions Month, will be Catholic Churches. Every film will have at least one scene in a confessional booth - played for laughs, tension or pathos. I confess to loving most of these films, except one. I'll save the worst for last.

June 4th - "I Confess"
June 11th - "Calvary"
June 18th - "Big Eyes" and "Easy A"
June 25th - "The Confessor"

Monday, June 1, 2015

The New Movie Churches Rating System

The powers that be have decided to establish a new rating system for Movie Church Reviews. I'd been using Thumbs Up and Thumps Downs but I'm afraid that the Siskel/Ebert Estates might raise copyright issues. So the new system will rate films on a 1 - 4 church system.
One of these churches will stand for a bad church. Two churches will stand for a mediocre church. Three for a good church. And four for an excellent church. No churches will not be an option. Check out how many churches Montgomery Cliff as a priest and his church receive this Thursday as we review the church and clergy in Alfred Hitchcock's "I Confess".