Thursday, June 28, 2018

Nun Month: A Devoted Nun

The Letters (2014)
Spoiler: If you read these reviews of clergy and churches in films in great suspense, wondering what rating will be given, skip to the next paragraph, because I’m going to reveal the rating right now. I’m going to say right up front here that the clergy member in The Letters will receive our highest rating of Four Steeples. This is a film about a woman I’ve always admired greatly: Mother Teresa.

In 2014, William Riead wrote and directed this story of one of the most famous religious figures in the 20th century, and he cast Juliet Stevenson in the central role. The film examines the life of the Nobel Peace Prize winning nun through the eyes of a priest, Father Celeste (Max von Sydow), charged with investigating Mother Teresa’s life for consideration for sainthood. His primary tool is a stack of letters written to various people throughout her life.

Teresa grew up in Macedonia, but the film opens with her as a novice nun with the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland. She is given a ring, a sign of her devotion to Christ, and then she lies prostrate in prayer in the midst of the congregation. She then goes to Dangram, India, to serve as a teacher to young women in a convent school. It was a time of great unrest between the Hindus and the Muslims. One of Teresa’s students comes to her and asks if she is afraid, but Teresa urges her to trust in God.

Most of us would think going to India would in itself be service enough. But after serving for many years in India, while riding on the Darjeeling Unlimited train, she heard the voice of God calling her to serve the poor. The young women she taught at the time all came from well to do families. Teresa asked her Mother Superior for permission to serve the lower caste of the city, “I love teaching, I love being a nun, but I must do something. Surely God loves the poor outside of these walls as much as he loves the privileged girls within these walls.” She even quoted the Scriptural injunction “do not forget the poor,” but the Mother Superior refused her request because going outside the convent walls would violate the rules of their order.

Teresa’s request for permission to serve the poor had to work its way through all the church beurachracy up to the Vatican, but in 1948, she was given permission to go out to serve the poor in the slums. There she worked as a teacher again, but the children had no other schooling available. Some of the parents worried she was there to convert their children to Christianity. “She will teach them about her God! That is why she is here!”

She tried to assure them, “I am not here to convert your children to my faith. I am only here to serve them.”
One of the parents defended her, “She has not once brought up her religion, only how to read and write.”

The real Mother Teresa
Teresa said, “I may not be wanted here. But I am needed.” So she concentrated on teaching orphans, using rocks to write the alphabet in the dirt.

Eventually, she won the trust of the people while living in the slums and bringing in a dozen other sisters to work with her. Along with teaching they began to serve those with medical needs, and care for orphans. Eventually, she established her own order, the Missionaries of Charity, which now includes over a thousand sisters serving in over a hundred countries.

But there is more story. Mother Teresa’s personal spiritual life was revealed in those letters. For years she dealt with growing darkness in her heart and mind. “I have been experiencing doubt, loneliness, the temptation to go back to Loreta. I want to do whatever is Your Holy Will.” Though her letters to her spiritual advisors became darker and darker, she continued to be cheerful in her day to day life. She came to consider that darkness an essential part of her vocation serving the poorest of the poor.

So back to that Movie Churches rating. There have been those through the years, particularly men like Christopher Hitchens who criticized her for opposing abortion. Just going with what we see in the movie, Mother Teresa showed the love of Christ to those who suffered greatly. The nun of this movie deserves Four Steeples. (I believe the real Mother Teresa has already received from Christ the best praise of all, the words, “Well, done good and faithful servant.”)

Friday, June 22, 2018

Nun Month: Nuns at war

Les Innocentes (2016)
Hey, I don’t just watch movies, I read sometimes. I recently read The Last Battle, a history of the fall of Berlin by Cornelius Ryan, which followed the stories of residents of the Nazi capital as they awaited an invasion: from the West, primarily the Brits and Americans, or the Russians from the east. A small band of underground Communists hoped for the Russians, and a convent of nuns dreaded the Russians approach. The nuns’ fears were justified.

The Russian army ravaged the lands they passed through, stealing from civilians, killing anyone suspected of collaborating with the Germans, and -- most notoriously -- raping women. When Milovan Djilas, a Yugoslavian politician, accused the Soviet army, Joseph Stalin responded, “Does Djilas, who is himself a writer, not know what human suffering and the human heart are? Can’t he understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometers through blood and fire and death has fun with a wench and takes some trifle?”

2016’s Les Innocentes is a fictional story, but it is based on the history of the atrocities of the Soviet army in World War II. Unlike the book I read, it’s set in Warsaw, Poland. In December of 1945, Mathilde (Lou de Laage) is a student doctor working with the French Red Cross to help released French prisoners of war. A nun named Maria (Agata Buzek) tells her about a woman at the convent with a troubled pregnancy. (During a scene of the nuns singing worshipfully, a woman’s screams can be heard in the background.

Maria isn’t telling the whole truth. It takes time for Maria to admit that the woman enduring a breach birth is a nun -- and that there are seven other pregnant nuns in the convent.

Months before, a division of the Russian Army had camped out near the convent. For over a week, soldiers came three times a day and raped the nuns, young and old nuns. Along with the pregnancies, some of the nuns, including the Mother Superior, contracted venereal diseases. Nonetheless, the Mother Superior is quite upset that Maria brought the doctor to the convent. She wanted to keep their situation secret. (“You’ve broken the rule of obedience, Maria”.)

The nuns share her fear that if the people around the convent know their situation, they will judge the nuns as immoral. The Reverend Mother explains, “People will reject them, many will die. My duty is to protect them.” The Communist rulers who despise the Catholic faith offer no help, so the nuns believe they are on their own.

But Mathilde, though a Communist herself, continues to return to the convent to care for the nuns. Even examining the nuns is challenging, because they believe their vow of chastity forbids being seen without their clothes...let alone being touched where an obstetrician needs to touch them in an exam.

And, of course, there is the problem of where to take the babies. The Reverend Mother says that she has found homes for the children, but we learn that she is instead, “trusting the children to God” and abandoning the infants by a cross in the woods.

The horror that the nuns experienced is, of course, a test of their faith. One nun explained, “I never had much faith, and since this happened, I lost the faith I had… I must find my fiance.” She had fallen in love with a Russian soldier who protected her from the others. After her baby is born, she leaves the convent to find him.

But most of the nuns have a faith that endures. Maria struggles to trust in God’s love, but continues her vocation and finds peace in her relationship with Christ. Mathilde receives this letter from Maria, “Dear Mathilde, the dark clouds have moved away. I know it will make you laugh, but I believe God sent you to us. May He bring you joy in your trials.”

Mathilde comes up with the idea of the nuns bringing in orphans of the war, so the newborns can be camouflaged among the other needy children. It could be argued they should have been caring for orphans prior their horrendous experience, but this horrendous experience leads them to do a good work.

It’s difficult to come up with a steeple rating for this convent. Though this is a fictional story, many real people suffered similarly. Though it’s hard to judge, they get a Movie Churches ranking of three steeples.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

In Theaters Now: First Reformed

First Reformed (2018)
Let’s start off with a reminder of the purpose of this blog. I’ve said it here lots of times before, but I’m saying it again: this blog doesn’t exist to critique films, it exists to rate the churches and clergy in films. In other words, we’re not here to discuss Paul Schrader, the writer and director of this film, even though he has some interesting tidbits in his autobiography. He was raised in the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church and, because of the strict nature of his upbringing, didn’t see a movie until he snuck out to see one at the age of 17. (He saw The Absent Minded Professor. He was not impressed.) He earned his B.A. from Calvin College with a minor in theology. He first achieved acclaim as a writer for his screenplay for Taxi Driver. He wrote and directed a film about a character with a midwest Calvinist Reformed background, Hardcore, with George C. Scott.

First Reformed seems a return to those early religious roots, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about.

I'm also not here to write about the acclaim First Reformed has received on the film festival circuit or the relative financial success the film has received for a low budget film (dwarfed, or course, by your average superhero film). Nor am I here to write about the film’s 96% rating at Rotten Tomatoes or its 85% rating at Metacritic (those are good numbers, but the way).

Nope, we’re just here to talk about the churches and the clergy in the film, and the film has both. First, the churches. There are two in the film: First Reformed, of course, and another church called Abundant Life.

Rev. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), the pastor of First Reformed, calls it the souvenir shop. We’re told it’s the oldest church in the state of New York. Though weekly worship services are still held as the church prepares to celebrate its 250th anniversary, fewer than a dozen people attend. The building seems to be a historical marker and tourist attraction rather than a vibrant place of worship. It has a noble history, including being a stop on the Underground Railroad with a secret hiding place. Its current status as a showcase for small t-shirts (they’re out of other sizes) and baseball caps with the church logo, is less impressive.

The other church in the film is Abundant Life. It has an African American pastor with a racially diverse congregation. It’s hard to tell what kind of church it is; it might be evangelical, might be charismatic. They seem to be theologically conservative and they sing traditional hymns. The church seems to be prospering, with a worship center that seats 5000 and a multi-person staff. The church even has its own cafeteria (with a mural with the text of Acts 2). It is puzzling that the “church choir” consists of 5 teenagers led by a director who’s on the church staff (not a volunteer).

It’s also puzzling that this church, which again seems to be theologically conservative and probably is an independent congregation, provides the financial support for First Reformed -- which seems to be part of a theologically liberal mainline denomination. It’s surprisingly ecumenical of them.

Pastor Joel Jeffers (played by Cedric the Entertainer) is the senior pastor at Abundant Life. He seems to be a good guy. The church receives money from an industrialist, which Rev. Toller seems to disapprove. Taking money from questionable sources can be a difficult question for a church, especially if the money might have been obtained illegally, but the industrialist in the film has dealt been cleared by the government of violating environmental laws. Who can judge everyone who puts money in the offering plate?

Jeffers is very concerned about the welfare of the pastor of First Reformed, and his concern is well founded. He doesn’t just work with the rich industrialist; Jeffers also has influence with the mayor and the governor. He also seems to be available to his church staff and congregation.

Reverend Toller is a much more complex man of ministry. His job description seems to be part pastor but also part tour guide. He does a good job with the tours -- we see him showing a family around, patiently putting up with the children and the father’s crude joke in order to teach them about the history of the church.

We also see Toller in the pulpit, but pretty much reading Scripture and then serving communion. We never really hear him preach. Considering the small number of attendees, we can guess that his ministry isn’t too dynamic.

We also see him help lead a “youth group” at Abundant Life. Pastor Jeffers says the kids love him, which is a baffling thing judging from what we see at the one meeting. A dozen or so teenagers sit in a circle and talk off the top of their heads. When one girl tells how her father, a godly man, lost his job, Toller says that Jesus never promised prosperity. This sets off a kid who is the embodiment of cartoonish right wing talking points saying he doesn’t want to hear that garbage of Jesus telling us to turn the other cheek. The discussion seems to fall apart from there.

We also see Toller as a counselor. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks him to meet with her husband who is dealing with depression. We discover that her husband, Michael, is obsessed with environmental issues. Mary is pregnant, and Michael asks Toller whether it is right to bring children into this world, arguing that 97% of scientists agree that climate change will make the world uninhabitable by the year 2050. Their conversations remind Toller of Jacob’s wrestling with God, and he enjoys them.

After Michael kills himself, Toller also becomes obsessed with environmental issues. He argues with Jeffers that it is their duty to speak for “God’s side,” defending His creation. (Many toward the conservative end of the political spectrum would say that defending the unborn is “God’s side” as well.) Toller seems to sink into Michael’s despair, though his favorite writer, Thomas Merton, would not approve. (Merton wrote, “Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love” because despair is a belief that one’s problems are beyond God’s capacity to handle.)

Toller seems to have other problems as well. He drinks to excess. He had an affair with Esther, the choir director at Abundant Life, then treats her with contempt. He puts himself in a morally compromising situation with Mary when she’s emotionally fragile. Finally, I have to say that any pastor who seriously considers being a suicide bomber probably isn’t thinking, “What would Jesus do?”

So I’m giving Pastor Jeffers and Abundant LIfe three steeples out of four, but only two steeples to Pastor Toller and First Reformed (and one of those is just a legacy steeple from the Underground Railroad days).

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Nun Month: Bad Nuns

The Little Hours (2017)
When the most common source material for film adaptation is comic books, you’d think it would be heartening to come across a film based on one of the true classics of Western Civilization’s literary canon, Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. This classic work of literature is a collection of tales told by seven men and three women taking refuge in a villa to avoid the Black Death. 2017’s The Little Hours is based on Tales III: 1 & 2, but if you look to this film for literary uplift, you’ll probably be sorely disappointed.

Some of the tales in The Decameron are primarily remembered for their erotic content, and that’s the emphasis in this film, set in 1327 at a small convent whose nuns seem to live lives utterly without purpose. Sisters Alessandra (Alison Brie), Ginevra (Kate Micucci), and Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) squabble and bicker with each other and tattle on each other to their superior, Sister Marea (Molly Shannon).

The poor farmer who lives on the convent property and supplies the sisters’ food fares even worse. They curse at him (an amazing number of F-bombs are dropped for a film featuring nuns) and even worse (in the context of the film) call him a Jew. They throw the turnips he gives them back at him. Eventually, they beat him. Quite understandably, he flees the grounds.

Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), the drunkard priest in charge of the convent, hires a new farmer and groundskeeper, Massetto (Dave Franco). Massetto is actually a fugitive from his former master (Nick Offerman) who was enraged when he learned his servant was sleeping with his wife. To disguise himself, Massetto pretends to be a deaf-mute. Father Tommasso enjoys Massetto’s company and together, they drink a lot of sacramental wine.

Massetto is a handsome young man, and the sisters are attracted to the new workman, though only a couple of them succeed in sleeping with him. This is only one of the sisters’ vow breaking vices. They also binge on wine and drugs (belladonna or nightshade), seduce each other, and dance in naked pagan rituals in the woods. Really worse than any of these things, though, is their lack of love. Attempting to kill Massetto in a Satanic rite in the woods is not a loving thing to do. The sisters show no compassion for each other and never seem to give a thought to a loving relationship with God.

To be fair, the sisters don’t really want to be in the convent. Alessandra would like to be married (“I’m going to waste away here,” she frets). Her father, a rich man, sent her to live in the convent, and since he provides large donations, Father Tommasso is quite happy to keep Alessandra around.

Eventually, Bishop Bartolomeo (Fred Armisen) learns of the untoward doings at the convent and holds a hearing to punish them for their acts (“This is the longest list of sins I’ve ever written.”)

Father Tommasso offers the one sacrificial act in the film when he asks to take responsibility for all the sins of those under his authority. He’s sent off to live with monks, but instead, he’s met by Sister Marea. They confess their love for each other and kiss.

They might be happy together, but the nuns who lived with them in the convent will continue to live awful lives unless they stop being awful people, which is why we’re giving the clergy of the Little Hours our lowest rating of One Steeple.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Nun Month: Another Undercover Nun

Hudson Hawk (1991)
Last week, we looked at Mary Tyler Moore as an undercover nun in Change of Habit and I said, “That’s not a thing.” I guess I was wrong; here we go again with another undercover nun, but Hudson Hawk may top Change of Habit by coming through with a Secret Agent Undercover Nun. It says something about the film that a nun sent out by the Vatican as part of a counter-espionage operation working with the CIA is one of the least ridiculous parts of the movie.

In 1991, Bruce Willis was golden. With huge success in television (Moonlighting) and movies (Die Hard), and even music (The Return of Bruno) he could do almost any project he wanted. He wanted to do Hudson Hawk. A film that best remembered as a box office flop and a critical failure. He has story credit for this tale of the world’s greatest safecracker and cat burglar, Eddie “Hudson Hawk” Hudson (Willis). He’s newly released from jail, and he’s blackmailed into stealing the writings and art of Leonardo da Vinci in order to create “Le Macchina dell’Oro,” a machine that can manufacture gold.

That sounds silly enough, but throw in Mayflower Industries, a “psychotic American corporation;” CIA agents named George Kaplan (James Coburn), Snickers, Kit Kat (David Caruso), Almond Joy, and Butterfinger; cartoon sound effects; and a robbery method that incorporates Big Band renditions of the Great American Songbook -- then you have a very weird film. So the addition of a seductive nun, I guess, is just par for the movie’s course.

Andie MacDowell plays Sister Anna Baragli, who disguises herself as an art collector in a stylish grey suit. (I take it for granted that Hawk does not have her in mind when he says, “Is looking like a constipated warthog a prerequisite for getting a job in the art world?”) The Vatican has sent Sister Anna to guard a valuable statue. When other thieves try to take the statue, Hawk rescues it, and Sister Anna rewards him with a kiss. Understandably, Hawk begins to get non-Vatican sanctioned ideas.

But Mafia bad guys, the Mario Brothers, still want Hawk to go back to his life of crime. They tell him, “My man, you’re going to hit a church. We want you to steal Da Vinci’s sketchbook. The Codex.”

Hawk responds, “I’m robbing the Vatican? The nuns at St. Agnes predicted this.”

Anna sees Hawk at the Vatican and expects the worst. She goes to her superior, a cardinal, with her concerns. “Father, it’s obvious he’s up to something.”

The cardinal assures her that the Vatican has stopped pirates and terrorists, and they’ll stop this plot. He does worry about Anna’s relationship with Hawk, “Must you flirt with him so effectively?”

Hawk helps foil the robbery at the Vatican, and Anna takes him to her apartment. He tells Anna some of his story which she acts surprised by, “Wow! You the joint. Doing...hard time? You know, it’s funny, but that excites me. I seem to have a thing for sinners.”

Hawk answers, “Well, I seem to have a thing for sinning.” Nothing goes further in the evening than a back rub and a few kisses, but even that seems like a bit much for a nun.

Sister Anna turns Hawk over to the CIA to work for them. She feels bad about it, though, so she goes to confession, “I betrayed a man. A good man. An innocent man. A thief. We kind of messed around.”

Her confessor, the cardinal, give her seventeen Hail Marys and asks for five minutes to talk to her outside. He tells her not to trust the CIA, which in this case proves to be good advice.

Later, Anna comes to Hawk’s rescue but admits she’s a nun. She tries to explain to him, “It doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”

He retorts, “Oh, no! You love me! It’s your job! You probably love Butterfingers over there.”

“Well, yeah,” Anna says, “In a weird sort of Catholic way I do.”

Hawk seems quite unsettled about having fallen for a nun, but fortunately, more life-threatening situations distract him from his moral puzzlements.

They find a way to defeat the bad guys and escape using one of Leonardo’s flying machines. Hawk asks her, “Anna, will you play Nintendo with me?” (The game system came along while Hawk was in the slammer.) She thinks that sounds like fun. “What about your boss?” Hawk asks.

“I think He wants me to keep an eye on you,” she answers.

The film ends and the audience is left to wonder whether Anna’s next confession will be about video games or something a little more racy and/or vow breaking. And one really wonders why the Vatican wouldn’t look toward, say, the Swiss Guard for help with security and espionage rather than convents. It seems it would lead to less moral compromise.

I’m giving Sister Anna and the Vatican bureaucracy of Hudson Hawk rating Two Steeple rating (out of four.)

Friday, June 1, 2018

Nun Month: Undercover Nuns

Change of Habit (1969)
Is being an undercover nun really a movie thing? This week’s film (the first for Nun Month) features a trio of undercover nuns, and at least one more film this month will feature a sister who pretends she isn’t, but really, why?

1969’s Change of Habit tells the story of three women, about to take their final vows to become nuns in the Roman Catholic Church, who leave the convent temporarily to serve in a Los Angeles ghetto’s medical clinic. They do so wearing civilian clothes, hiding their identity as nuns. Mary Tyler Moore as Sister Michelle explains, “If we’re going to reach these people, we must be accepted first as women and then as nuns.”

Okay, maybe I’m missing something, but why is it important for them to be accepted as women? I’ve seen Mary Tyler Moore in many other things, and I’ve never thought there was a danger of her being mistaken as something else, say a Pomeranian puppy or Indian Star tortoise. Is she saying nuns are something other than women? Her explanation is confusing to me (and the other two nuns seem a little surprised as well).

The film opens in a worship service as the Mother Superior tells the sisters they must go into the world and preach the Word. They must have been prepared, but it seems she picks three random nuns who stand as she prays for them, leaving through the chapel’s back door. In the title sequence, we see the three women go to a dressmaker for clothes and have a bit of a nun striptease as they change. It’s relatively discreet, working within the film’s G rating. I’m pretty sure that a film with a discussion of drugs and abortion along with the depiction of an attempted rape would not get a G rating today -- but it was a different time.

Anyway, Sister Irene (Barbara McNair) and Sister Barbara (Jane Elliot) join Sister Michelle to serve in a medical clinic run by Dr. John Carpenter, played by Elvis Presley. (This was Elvis’ final acting role. In his remaining films, he played himself.) The women say they are medical professionals sent by the Catholic church, but Dr. Elvis assumes the pretty young things won’t be able to cope with the realities of the inner city. He also immediately begins hitting on MTM. (Which, of course, would not happen if she was wearing her nun duds, but then where would the plot complications come from?)

All the nuns have their own little subplots showing them trying to effect change in the big city. In the clinic, Sister Michelle provides an accurate diagnosis of autism for a little girl Dr. Elvis thinks is deaf. As a trained speech therapist, Sister Michelle also helps a young man with criminal inclinations and a stutter.

Meanwhile, Sister Barbara is in charge of setting up the women’s apartment. She flirts with men to get them to help move furniture and is shocked when they expect her to party with them. She also takes on the local bodega owner because she believes he’s cheating the locals. She makes no attempt to talk civilly about his policies (“You are a walking social injustice”), but in the spirit of the 60’s moves immediately to picket and protest.

Sister Irene goes to apartments to provide home nursing care and comes across the local loan shark, called “The Banker” (Robert Emhardt.) She decides to take him on by borrowing money to throw a neighborhood fiesta, then -- at the party -- publicly refuses to pay him back. Irene, an African American, also encounters local Black activists who disdain her willingness to work with white people.

The only person in the neighborhood who’s aware of the women’s true identity is the local priest, Father Gibbons. He doesn’t approve of most of what the nuns do: abandoning the habit, letting men visit the apartment, singing secular songs, etc. He only grudgingly allows them into his locked church to pray.

In the end, of course, the women must reveal they are nuns and have to decide whether they will take their final vows. Sister Irene seems to have no doubt about pursuing her calling. Sister Barbara abandons life as a nun (but she says not her faith) to pursue social activism. And we last see Sister Michelle in church while Dr. Elvis leads in worship with the song “Let Us Pray”. She looks from Elvis to the crucifix on the wall, seemingly still trying to decide whether to be a nun or marry the King of Rock and Roll.

We have to give the nuns credit for caring for the poor in the inner city, even if they use some rather foolish methods. We’re giving them a rating of Three out of four Steeples.

A couple of unrelated bits of trivia I feel the need to tack on. This film was made just before Mary Tyler Moore began the popular sitcom named after her, and a police officer in the film is played by Ed Asner, who would play Mary’s boss in the series. Surprisingly, considering the setting of the film, Elvis doesn’t sing “In the Ghetto” even though he recorded it at this time. He does sing the title track “Change of Habit” which I don’t think I’d ever heard before and don’t expect to ever hear again, which is just fine.