Church films used to have a lot more nudity back in the day. And “back in the day” I’m talking about over a century ago. At least in Hypocrites from 1915, one of the surviving works by writer and director Lois Weber. Weber was the writer and director of over 200 films, chiefly of in the silent era, though only about twenty of her films have been preserved. Weber, along with D. W. Griffith, was one of the first American auteurs of cinema, initiating techniques such as the split screen and the use of sound. She also introduced into cinema controversial topics and social issues such as poverty, political corruption, and even birth control and abortion. She is still, arguably, the most influential American female film director, even though she died in 1939.
I’m sure there are times when you read movie reviews and mean to get around to watching the film, but aren’t sure whether it’s on one of the steaming services you’re signed up for or whether the DVD is at the library...but fortunately you can watch this film on Youtube. Why not watch it right now before you read the review.
Hypocrites opens with a strange introduction of characters and a naked woman standing before “The Gates of Truth,” before the film moves to a church, where a pastor is preaching a sermon from an elevated pulpit. His text, on hypocrisy, is Matthew 23:28: “Even so ye outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.”
As he goes on about the Scribes and Pharisees, we see the congregation not giving rapt attention. Some people are chatting in the pews. Others are nodding off to sleep. There is even giggling in the choir loft as one young man reads a disreputable newspaper barely concealed. It does seem like a time and place where everyone felt obligated to be at church, whether they wanted to or not.
After the service people shake hands with the pastor telling him “Great sermon this morning!” That's what they say to the minister’s face. We also see a group of men in top hats with a different opinion. One of the men says, “Ask for his resignation, but keep my name out of it.”
The pastor talks to the man who was reading the newspaper in the choir loft, taking the newspaper away from him. The pastor is obviously distraught by the state of the congregation. One woman was obviously moved by the service and is on her knees praying in the sanctuary.
After everyone has left, the pastor sits down to look at the newspaper. The headline reads “Why the Truth Has Startled Wicked Paris,” and it has a sidebar with a quote from John Milton, “Hypocrisy is the only evil that walks invisible except to God alone.” So you have to appreciate that the guy brought a newspaper that was relevant to the topic of the sermon. He was taking the multimedia approach to sermons long before it was fashionable.
Then the pastor then falls asleep and dreams. He’s leading his congregants up a mountain path, but one man decides it’s too difficult. A family leaves because they can’t force the child to move up. Another man can’t carry his gold up the hill. Another doesn’t want to get his clothes dirty. “The Broad Road or the Narrow Way” reads a title card. For a time, a couple of women do follow him (including the woman who was praying after the service), but then the pastor is alone.
He makes it to the top of the mountain where he sees a beautiful valley with a river. And then he has fleeting glimpses of the naked woman from the film’s opening (a title card reads, “Truth is ever elusive”). The pastor eventually catches up with the woman and says, “Since my people won’t come to you, come to my people.”
We see what seems to be a dream within a dream as the pastor finds himself in the Middle Ages as Gabriel the Ascetic. He is part of what seems a rather jolly monastery, and he's a monk among monks. “With prayers and fasting he found the Truth,” reads a card. He’s working on a project, and his Abbot tells him he should present his project on “Fete Day.”
On Fete Day, the monks join with the nuns and the people of the town for eating, drinking, and merrymaking. Everyone gathers to see the Abbot reveal the work of Gabriel. He pulls a curtain off the work to reveal a statue of the naked woman. A title card reads,“The people are shocked by the nakedness of Truth.” Through a few men laugh, most everyone else flees. But a crowd attacks the Monk Gabriel, killing him. The statue vanishes.
But the Naked Woman, Truth, goes about the world holding her mirror to various aspects of society. She holds it to Politics to reveal corruption. She hold it to Society and is told, “Truth is welcome if clothed in our ideas.” She holds it to love, and we see unfaithfulness.
When the dream ends, we see the pastor is dead on the floor of his church. We see another newspaper with a headline, “Prominent Minister Expires in Church” with a subhead, “After preaching sermon on hypocrisy, it was unfortunate he was found with a Sunday newspaper in his hands.” Yes, that was the makings of an ecclesiastical scandal at that time, clergy stained with newsprint on the Sabbath.
Though he apparently wasn't a great communicator, we at Movie Churches still appreciate that this pastor sought after truth and was a dreamer. So we’re giving him 3 steeples.