Friday, January 27, 2017

Mob Movie Churches: Boondock Saints

Boondock Saints (1999)

Boondock Saints ends with “man on the street” interviews discussing whether vigilantism is evil or awesome. Considering the debate going on these days about police shootings, I think it’s safe to say that more shootings of "bad guys" by random people would not be a good thing.

I wouldn't think it’s at all difficult to make a Biblical case against vigilantism,but the church in the film doesn't seem interested in making it. Of course, that kind of a stand might make the Saints, twin brothers Connor and Murphy MacManus (Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus), uncomfortable.

The film opens in a church (filmed in Trinity Church of Boston, built in the 1870's) with a large crucifix and a large eagle at the pulpit. The congregation is reciting the Lord's Prayer. The priest (we learn he’s a monsignor) cites the story of Kitty Genovese, the woman in New York who was stabbed to death while her neighbors watched and did nothing. Problem is, much of the story has been dismissed now as an urban legend. He urges the congregation to not be bystanders but to get involved.

The twins take this message as an endorsement of their lifestyles. I tend to think the sermon is more about reaching out to help people rather than an encouragement to track down drug dealers and mob bosses and shoot them in the head, but it's probably just a challenge of exegesis.

Anyway, Connor and Murphy are two regular guys who work in a meat packing plant. They're assigned to train a new woman at the plant. When the woman accuses a brother of making sexist remarks and slaps him, he slugs her in return. If there was ever a case that called for turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), this would be it. Surely the boys heard about this Scripture sometime in their church experience, but they don't live it out.

Later, when they get in a barroom brawl with mobsters, they can at least make an argument for self-defense. When those same mobsters make an attempt on their lives, killing the mobsters could be justified theoretically under Augustine's Just War Theory. But then the boys go on a rampage of killing mobsters in general. From a Biblical and theological perspective, well, that isn't cool.

One FBI agent (Agent Smecker, played by Willem Dafoe) is smart enough to figure out who’s  responsible for the crimes and is on their trail. The Irish brothers’ Italian friend Rocco (played by David Rocco) follows the agent to a church.

Smecker enters a confessional. Rocco is concerned Smecker is going to ask the priest about the Saints, so he puts a gun to the priest's head. Connor doesn't like seeing anyone threaten a priest, so he puts a gun to Rocco's head.
Turns out, Smecker wanted to ask the priest for advice. He says he didn't come for "advice on salvation, but ethics." He tells the priest he doesn't want to go after the Saints, because they're doing good work.

The priest responds, "Our consciences are God's conduit for speaking to us. That's why God brought you to a house of the Lord. You feel these men are necessary... So the Lord has spoken to you twice. It's very easy to be sarcastic about religion, but it's more difficult to take a stand."

The agent responds, "I am man who's supposed to uphold the law."

The priest says, "The laws of God are higher than the laws of man." The agent takes this as permission to allow the Saints to remain on their villain-killing spree.

I really think the priest should have gone to Romans 12:17 - 19  where Paul wrote, "Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”

On the other hand, I've never had to give pastoral counseling with a gun to my head, so who am I to judge?

The Boondock Saints pray before their acts of vengeance, and they believe they’re instruments of God. Too bad they didn't get a little more clear teaching from the Church that it just isn't so. Of course, it could be they just didn't listen. Anyway, I'm giving the Boondock Saints’ Movie Church Two Steeples.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Mob Movie Churches -- The Drop

The Drop (2014)

When I was teaching a high school Sunday School class, the topic of church discipline came up. One student said she didn't think anyone should ever be kicked out of church. I asked, "What if someone was selling drugs to kids or was a child molester?" She really didn't want to make any exceptions.

I believe the leadership of a church should be good shepherds who protect the sheep from dangerous wolves, but there is something very appealing about the church being a place where everyone can come and, for a time at least, ignore their differences and worship God together.
That's what I like in about St. Dominic's Church in The Drop.

There's a bartender named Bob (played by Tom Hardy) who regularly goes to Mass at the church. The bar where he works (managed by James Gandolfini) is a front for the mob, and he certainly has a shady past (and present). There's also a policeman, Detective Torres (played by John Ortiz), who regularly attends the church. The cop isn't there to keep his eye on Bob; it's his home church. The church is a cops and robbers safe zone.

Torres likes the church because they "do Mass right." He likes that there are no folk singers, and things are done the old fashioned way (The service does seem to be in English, rather than Latin, because we hear the Lord's Prayer recited. Torres dreads the church being closed down and turned into "condos with stained glass."

Bob goes to Mass frequently; the priest knows him by name and lets him in early. Bob likes a statue in the church, of St. Rocco with a dog (a dog is key in the film's plot), but Bob doesn't take communion. Ever. Detective Torres asks Bob that, but Bob is evasive.

Bob is certainly struggling with his conscience. He certainly isn't getting a message of cheap grace from the church, but he is hearing about true grace. At one point, we hear Bob's inner dialogue, and he says this: "There are some sins that you commit that you can't come back from, you know, no matter how hard you try. You just can't. It's like the devil is waiting for your body to quit. Because he knows, he knows that he already owns your soul. And then I think maybe there's no devil. You die... and God, he says, 'Nah, nah you can't come in. You have to leave now. You have to leave and go away, and you have to be alone. You have to be alone forever.'"

I'm not sure exactly what Biblical and theological teaching Bob is getting at St. Dominic's. But he certainly has an understanding of hell.

Toward the end of the film, we learn that St. Dominic's is indeed closing, and Detective Torres asks Bob if he's going to the final service. Though the detective is talking to Bob as part of his job, in the midst of an investigation, he seems to be asking a fellow congregant a genuine question. St. Dom's is going to be turned into condos with stained glass.

I'm just here to review the church in the film. I'm not here to tell you that The Drop is a suspenseful crime thriller with a moving performance by Tom Hardy, and James Gandolfini's  last performance, and a terrific screenplay by Dennis Lehane based on his own short story. I'm just here to give the film's church, St. Dominic's, three steeples.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Gangster and Mob Movie Churches -- On the Waterfront

Which is the church in the film: that big building with all the crosses or that long wooden structure where boats unload cargo? Father Barry (Karl Malden) seems to believe it’s the latter.

It's good you’re reading this for a critique of Movie Churches rather than movies, because how much more needs to be said about the film? It won eight out of the twelve Oscars it was nominated for, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (for Marlon Brando). It was ranked #8 in the American Film Institute’s list of best American films, and it made the Vatican's best films list as well. So, far be it from me to judge this revered classic -- but I'm more than happy to judge the church and clergy in the film.

We first see Father Barry (Karl Malden) at the scene of a murder. He’s trying to comfort a woman (Edie, played by Eva Marie Saint) whose brother was just pushed off the roof of a building. His priestly advice is "Time and faith are great healers."

This does not calm her.

He then tells her, "I'm in the church if you need me."

This also falls short of what Edie needs, and she responds, "You're in the church if I need you? Did you ever hear of a saint hiding in a church?"

Father Barry realizes she’s unimpressed by him, and he says, "You think I'm just a gravy train rider with a turned around collar. I see the sisters taught you not to lie." The priest takes what she says to heart and doesn’t hide in the church building. He acknowledges the wharf is his parish and dedicates himself to finding the killer of Edie's brother and to fight the mob that rules the dockworkers’ union.

Father Barry invites the men of the docks to meet in the church basement to talk about their concerns. He begins the basement meeting, calling himself "just a potato eater" but someone who wants to get to the truth about the murders on the docks. He asks the men to talk, "How can we call ourselves Christians if we protect these murderers with our silence?"

Another priest, Father Gregory, tries to read to the men from the Gospels, but the mob disrupts the meeting and attacks the men in attendance. One of the beaten men, Kayo, offers to testify against the mob, and Father Berry promises to stand by him.
Father John/Father Barry

But Kayo is murdered while working at the docks; crates of whiskey are dropped on him. Father Barry goes to give the man last rites, then stands to preach to the men of the docks: "Some people think the crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up. These deaths of innocent men are crucifixions as well, and anyone who stays silent shares the guilt of the Roman soldier who pierced our Savior's side. Boys, this is my church. And if you don't think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you've got another guess coming."

I recently reviewed  Angels with Dirty Faces and was rather disappointed in the priest in that film because he neglected his priestly duties in order to fight crime. Father Barry also makes fighting the mob a priority over other priestly duties, but he does so while preaching Christ and Him crucified, which is his primary duty.

Father Barry is approached by Terry (Brando), who had a part in Edie's brother's murder. Father Barry doesn't want to hear his confession and tells Terry to go to Father Gregory. (Greg does seem to be taking the bulk of the church chores while Barry is at the dock.) But Barry listens when Terry tells him about his guilt, and he stands by Terry as he takes on the mob.

Father Barry knows that Jesus stands by him. So I would stand by him. I'm giving Father Barry and his dock church 4 steeples.

(Screenwriter Budd Schulberg based Father Barry on a real priest, Father John Corridan, the "Waterfront Priest.")

Friday, January 6, 2017

Gangster and Mob Movie Churches -- Angels with Dirty Faces

There comes a point in this 1938 film, Angels with Dirty Faces, when I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the priest, Father Jerry (Pat O’Brien), say, “You kids need to accept basketball as your Lord and Savior.” He’s spent months trying to get a group of young thugs (the Dead End Kids) to join his basketball league. They wouldn’t dream of it until a released prisoner named Rocky (James Cagney) encourages the boys to play. Then they rush to the court (basketball, not criminal, court).

What puzzled me is why the priest should spend months trying to get kids to play basketball if they didn’t want to play? Is his goal to lead kids to God and the Bible or to James Naismith and his playbook?

As you can see, I had some problems with the ministry style and goals of Father Jerry, but I have few problems with the film itself, because it’s a gangster film with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, and it’s hard to go wrong with Cagney and Bogart and guns and wise talk. But remember, we’re not here for film critique but Movie Church critique.

Father Jerry and gangster Rocky were boyhood friends who went to church together and stole together but took different paths in life. Fortunately for viewers’ interest, most of the film focuses on Cagney’s criminal escapades rather than Father Jerry’s church and his outreach to youth.

Besides running a basketball league, Father Jerry also runs a boys’ choir. The choir is, in fact, very good. But we never see the priest interacting with any of the kids in the choir. We also never see Father Jerry performing mass (though he invites Rocky to come).  We never see Father Jerry working with adults. His sole concern seems to be keeping kids away from lives of crime through singing and basketball. We never see him encouraging kids to say, read the Bible or pray.

Sadly, the kids continue to admire the glamorous lives of gangsters like Rocky and aspire to a life of luxury found by pursuing a path of crime. Father Jerry despairs of helping kids from, as he says, “the bottom,” and decides to change society “at the top.” He decides to pursue an indictment against his childhood buddy Rocky, dedicating himself to that goal full time.

So, apparently he’s going to give up performing Mass, visiting the sick, feeding the poor, etc. Of course, we’ve seen no evidence that he was performing the normal functions of a priest in the first place. He’s apparently also going to give up his choir and basketball league.

He sounds a bit like people in the Church who make their exclusive priority seeking social justice. I think it can be a good thing for people in the church to try to change social institutions, the government, schools, businesses, etc. But someone in ministry should never pursue such things exclusively.  A vital role of clergy is to care for the spiritual needs of individuals. There are politicians, police officers, teachers, and, yes, basketball coaches, who can deal with other societal needs. Priests should never neglect the spiritual needs of their congregants and communities.

Pat O'Brien has the same expression in every pic
One thing I do respect about Father Jerry, before I move on to a rather horrible thing he does at the end of the film. Gangster Rocky tries to give Father Jerry thousands of dollars for a “recreational center,” but Jerry refuses it because the money was gained illicitly. Props to Jerry on that.

This is a big spoiler, so if you haven’t seen the film and want to (and you may well want to), don’t read this last gripe…. At the end of the film, Rocky has been caught, convicted, and
sentenced to death. The neighborhood kids still look up to Rocky, so Father Jerry asks Rocky to set a negative example by going to his death as a coward. How about if Jerry addresses Rocky spiritual state rather than staging a rather sick display for the kids back home?

End of spoiler.

Though I can’t recommend the Movie Church ministry of Father Jerry, I can never get enough of Cagney and Bogie. (I so wish The Roaring Twenties had a church in it.)

Two steeples for the church in this film.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Movie Churches in 2017

We’ll be posting here less frequently than we did in 2016, but don't worry! We'll still be posting regularly. Last year, you'd find a new post two or three times a week, mostly about films in the states we were visiting. There was a post about the going to the movies in each state, and another about films set and/or filmed in that state. Since we aren’t traveling now, you won't find those posts this year.

But as you probably remember, the original purpose of this blog was to examine how the Church and clergy are presented in films of the past and present. Those posts will continue on a weekly basis.

This month we’ll be looking at Mob Churches, or more precisely, Churches and the Mob.

A story has been repeated in sermons since the supposed incident happened (in 1949). During Billy Graham's first great Los Angeles crusade, the evangelist had extended conversations with the notorious gangster Mickey Cohen. When Graham challenged the mobster to change, Cohen has been quoted as saying, “You never told me I had to give up my career, you never told me that I had to give up my friends. There are Christian movie stars, Christian athletes, and Christian business men. So what’s the matter with being a Christian gangster?”

This month, we’ll be looking at films where characters must decide whether to be a Christian or a gangster. Perhaps there will be some characters who want to be both.