Friday, August 31, 2018

Middle Ages Month: Ladyhawke

Ladyhawke (1985)
Some things in this film call for a willing suspension of disbelief. A man turns into a wolf at night. A woman turns into a hawk by day. Centuries before the science of dentistry was common, everyone has straight, white teeth. Matthew Broderick is a streetwise thief.

Here at Movie Churches, though, the biggest stretch may be Ladyhawke’s presentation of the medieval church.
The film is set in 13th century … um… Europe? in everybody’s favorite capital, Aquila (not coincidentally, Latin for ‘eagle’). There doesn’t seem to be any secular government, power, or authority of any kind. “The Bishop” seems to be the sole authority in this country (Region? Fiefdom? Parish?) The Bishop has soldiers under his command, and the prison is located in the church. Mention is made of the Vatican (the good knight, Navarre, talks of his family defending the Holy See), but we never see anyone who has authority over the Bishop.
The film opens with prisoners awaiting execution in cells below a cathedral where a Mass is taking place. There are families and monks at the service, including a small child. Masses in this film are different than any I’ve seen in the contemporary Catholic Church. There is no sign of the Bread or the Cup, which is kind of, you know, what the Mass is all about. Instead, the service seems to consist of monks marching around chanting. As the service proceeds, a prison break is taking place downstairs. The thief, Phillipe Gaston the Mouse (Matthew Broderick), escapes through the secret passages of the prison and comes up to the floor of the church, where he is seen by a little girl. He manages to make his way outside.

The Captain of the Guard brings the news to the Bishop, “Your Grace, someone has escaped from the dungeon. But to remain free would take a miracle.”

The Bishop (John Wood) responds, “I believe in miracles; it’s part of my job.”

The Captain tries to assure the Bishop the escape of one petty thief is nothing to worry about, but the Bishop responds, “A storm begins with a single breeze; so a rebellion begins with a single act.” (The Bishop is upset that the people are not paying their “taxes” to the church, just because they don’t have anything to pay their taxes with.) So the Bishop demands the apprehension of the Mouse.

As the Mouse attempts to elude the Guard, he carries on a conversation with God, promising to amend his ways if God allows him to escape. And aid comes from an unexpected source, in the form of Navarre the Knight (Rutger Hauer), the former Captain of the Guard. Navarre is a personal enemy of the Bishop, and he’s accompanied by a hawk that occasionally rests on his shoulder, flies free, and attacks the Bishop’s soldiers when needed.

When a soldier shoots the hawk with an arrow, Navarre is distraught. He demands that Gaston take the hawk to a monastery where Imperious (Leo McKern), who seems to be a mad monk, lives. Gaston does, and the monk offers to cook the hawk for them to share a meal. When he learns the hawk came from Navarre, though, he carefully cares for the bird, and when the sun sets, the wounded hawk transforms into a wounded woman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Gaston demands an explanation from Imperious.

Imperious tells the story of a beautiful woman, Isabeau, loved by the Bishop (I thought he took vows of chastity, but that may of been one of his lesser problems). When the Bishop learned that Isabeau married the Captain of his guard, he was outraged. As Imperious tells the story, “The Bishop, when mad, lost his sanctity and his reason. If he could not have her, no man would. He called on the powers of darkness to damn the lovers and struck a dreadful bargain with the evil one.”

The Bishop cursed the knight to being a wolf during the night and the woman to being a hawk during the day. They would never be together in human form. The knight wants revenge on the Bishop, but the mad monk has an idea about how the curse can be reversed.

Of course, at Movie Churches we’re not here to evaluate films, but the clergy and church in films. If I was talking about this Richard Donner directed film, I would have to point out that it features three of the more interesting stars of the ‘80’s. Rutger Hauer may not have ever become a huge star, but Roy Batty, the replicant from Blade Runner, is one of my favorite characters in the movies. The young Matthew Broderick from War Games is topped only by the young John Cusack as one of the most appealing of movie’s youths. And Michelle Pfeiffer… Well, she is always stunningly beautiful and yet down to earth, intelligent, and charming. And the film is great fun.

But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. There is the positive image of Imperious, the mad monk, who helps the knight and lady overcome their curse. (A hint about how he does this: a solar eclipse -- and if we learned anything from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it’s that solar eclipses happened frequently in the Middle Ages.)

But any positives from Imperious are wiped away by the evil Bishop. He lusts after a young woman and is willing to go to any lengths to keep anyone else from having her, whether that means murder or a deal with the devil. It is made even more nauseating because the Bishop insists that the things he does are all part of the will of God. He claims that God speaks to him (Gaston is puzzled by this, “I talk to God and he’s never mentioned you.”) The Bishop earns our lowest Movie Church rating of One Steeple.

It’s tempting to say the Bishop is over the top, but I read the news about the sexual abuse and the coverup of that abuse in the Catholic Church. The Bishop of Ladyhawke’s schemes seem almost quaint. One can cheer for the downfall of the Bishop in Ladyhawke while taking encouragement from Gaston’s active faith. The actions of real Bishops in the world has destroyed the faith of many, and will do more.

In the movies, at least in ‘80’s films, a happy ending was a sure thing. I have faith that the God of Scripture has promised His justice is even more sure.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Middle Ages Month: The Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal (1957)
When people think of art films -- if they think anymore these days of “Art Films”-- they may well think of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal as the quintessential art film. It’s Swedish, it’s black and white, it uses a lot of symbolism, and it’s philosophically existential, with a literary reference for a title (taken from the Book of Revelation, chapter 8). The film brought Bergman to prominence outside of Sweden, and he is now regarded as one of the greatest of all filmmakers. The film isn’t a stale old classic. It has grim aspects, but it also has wonderful actors playing appealing characters, and there is even humor to be found in the film.

The Seventh Seal has become a subject of parody through the years, so I’m sure many people are more familiar with the parodies than the original. In Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, Death challenges the dim boys to a game -- with their souls at stake -- and they play Battleship, Clue and Twister. The scene’s a spoof of the famous chess scene in The Seventh Seal where the Knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), challenges Death to a game of chess.

In one scene toward the end of Monty Python’s The Meaning of LIfe, Death comes to a dinner party, clearly paying homage to one of the final scenes of The Seventh Seal. But more to the purpose for us here at Movie Churches, a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (recently reviewed here) clearly echoes a scene from The Seventh Seal. Both films have processions of self-flagellating monks.

In Holy Grail the monks were hitting themselves on the head with boards. In The Seventh Seal, monks march with peasants (a man on crutches among them); as they walk, some whip others’ backs. There is wailing, and someone is wearing a crown of thorns. They also carry a large crucifix before them.

One of the monks stops to preach to the crowd, “You shall all perish of the Black Death! Don’t you know you’re going to die!”

Not the most encouraging of sermons.

He prays, “Be merciful for the sake of Jesus Christ” He implies that purification through fire might not be a bad idea, “Better to die pure, than face hell.”

It is understandable that at the time of plague, the Church would discuss death, but in this film, the church makes death the focus of everything. We see a man in a church painting a mural that the priest ordered. The subject is “The Dance of Death.” The priests also hire a troupe of actors with death masks to perform on the church steps in Elsinore for the Saints’ Feast. One of the actors says, “If priests didn’t pay us so well, we’d turn them down”.

The emphasis of the teaching is on sin and death rather than the God’s grace. Block and his squire, Jons, come across a woman in stocks who is accused of being a witch. She’s accused of associating with the devil, and the plague is blamed on her. (Though this woman is burned at the stake for “causing” the Black Death, the clergy also manages to blame anyone else within earshot of culpability for the world’s ills.)

Scripture teaches that death came into the world through sin (see Genesis chapter 3), but when Jesus was asked who was to blame for a man’s blindness, the man or his parents, Jesus said neither. Even his blindness was to be a means of bringing glory to God. And He healed the man.

That is nothing like the message of the church in this film.

Antonius Block goes to a church to seek God. He goes before the crucifix and tells God to reveal Himself through Block’s senses. The knight wants to see God, but He isn’t visible; hear Him, but He is silent. Block goes to confess to a priest, but the priest is actually Death in disguise. As Scripture makes clear (in First Corinthians 15), Death is the enemy.

Block says of his inner struggle, “Faith is a heavy burden, it is like loving someone you never see.” And the knight knows about loving someone you don’t see -- he went off to the Crusades for ten years and when he returned, he didn’t know where his wife was. Yet at the end of the film he finds his wife. So is there hope in putting faith in a God one doesn’t see?
In later films, Bergman is even more pessimistic about the existence of God, but in this film, there are -- possibly authentic -- visions of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. In Block we have a character who wrestles with God and accomplishes good. Nonetheless, the best the church and clergy in this film deserve is a two steeple rating.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Middle Ages Month: History of the World Part 1

History of the World Part I (1981)
There’s there's a Mark Twain quote, "Humor is tragedy plus time,” that Mel Brooks quoted when talking about the Spanish Inquisition sequence from his film History of the World Part I. Some might argue that people being tortured for their religious convictions is nothing to laugh at, but this time period has been used for comedy before. Last week, we looked at Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and on the Pythons’ TV show (Monty Python’s Flying Circus), the group did a skit about the Spanish Inquisition that no one expected.

History of the World Part I, written, directed, and starring Mel Brooks, is not a comprehensive view of humankind. There are about half a dozen skits based on different eras, and religion gets a number of jibes. One sequence set in old Rome has Jesus (John Hurt) at the last supper at the same time that Christians are being thrown to the lions -- so the history isn’t exactly precise. In this same section, a standup comic gives his routine before the Emperor. He says, “Have you heard about this new sect, the Christians? They are so poor…”

The audience calls out, “How poor are they?”

“They are so poor, they only have one God!”

But though that segment has jokes about religion, the church or clergy doesn’t really show up until the segment on the Spanish Inquisition (set in the 1400’s, thus qualifying the film for Middle Ages Month). A title card reads:

The Spanish Inquisition
1489, plague sweep the continent, infamous auto-da-fe where infidels were tortured for public amusement, tortured and burned in carnival atmosphere, His Holiness, Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition.”

Brooks plays Tomas de Torquemada, a Castilian Dominican friar, who began as a regular inquisitor in 1482, but was appointed by the Pope as the Grand Inquisitor the next year and served until his death in 1498. Both Jews and Muslims were “encouraged” to convert to Christianity. All manners of persuasion were used to encourage conversion, including counseling, lecturing, and, most infamously, torture.

We see the Iron Maiden being used, along with water torture (Jackie Mason is among the victims), and they add another tool of persuasion, song and dance. The whole sequence is donein the style of a Busby Berkeley musical, with lyrics like these:

“Embrace the True Church now or face the fires of hell...
Convert the Jews, make an offer they can’t refuse...
It’s better than lose a skullcap than a skull…
We know you’re wishing we’d go away, but the Inquisition is here to stay.”

Those chained to the wall can’t fully participate in the dance, but they do what they can. We also see nuns strip down to swimsuits for the big pool numbers. Jews are thrown in the pool, but they drown.

Someone asks the Inquisitor if there were any converts today. “Nah, not a one,” he answers.

Though told through comedy, Brooks and the Pythons are keeping the memory of the Inquisition alive. It’s important to remember the horrors that were committed in the Name of Jesus, but it should be noted that the films don’t tell the whole story. In fact, many who tell the story these days don’t tell the whole story.

Initially, governments, not the Church, were persecuting the Jews and Muslims. The Catholic Church believed Muslims and Jews were being treated unfairly and believed the Church would be more accurate arbiters of faith than Kings. They did treat Jews and Muslims better than the civil governments did, it’s just that by our standards, both were horrors.

I’ve linked to where you can see this argument made. But as for the way the Catholic Church and Friar Torquemada are presented in this movie, they receive our lowest Movie Church score of One Steeple.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Middle Ages Month: Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
People don’t take comedy seriously enough. When someone’s offended by the material in a comedy, someone else is sure to say, “Don’t take it so seriously, it’s just a joke.”

Why even bother looking at how comedies present the church or clergy, if it was all in fun? Don’t you get it?

This week and next, we’ll be looking at two comedies that satirize religion. Even though both were made decades ago, they’re still watched. People are still quoting Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and The History the World Part 1 while Monsignor (1982), The Runner Stumbles (1979), and even the slightly more recent Priest (1994) -- dramas with hard hitting takes on the church -- are long forgotten.

Those comedies have rather interesting takes on the church. Monty Python and the Holy Grail also happens to be one of the funniest films ever made. Monty Python started off as sketch comedy series on the BBC first airing in 1969. The cast (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and a cartoonist, Terry Gilliam) decided to parody the story of King Arthur. Any story from that time, the middle ages, would have to deal with religion.

The film opens with very funny opening credits that include moose. We then see , then a title card reads, England 932 A.D. We then see King Arthur pretending to ride a horse (apparently the budget couldn’t cover actual horses). God appears to Arthur and tells him to search for the Holy Grail (Jesus’ cup from the Last Supper). God is drawn by Terry Gilliam as the grouchy, bearded head of a King. It was not a flattering portrayal; mean, narcissistic, and brutal.

The first clergy we see in the film is a parade of monks who smack themselves on their heads with boards as they chant, “Pies lesu Domine, Dona eis requiem” (Latin translated roughly as “Pious Lord, give them rest”). There were monks and other “holy men” during the middle ages that hurt themselves; wore hairshirts and whipped themselves. Their pain was intended to pay for the sin for themselves and others -- which is really bad theology, of course. On the cross, Jesus paid it all. As Isaiah 53:3, says, by His stripes we are healed. But watching those monks hit themselves on the head is funny.

It’s also interesting where clergy aren’t seen in the film. When people are called to “bring out your dead,” no clergy is around. When a witch is on trial, about to be executed, there is no clergy present. When there is a wedding in the film, a priest is part of things, but we don’t hear much from him. (Those who think the Red Wedding was a new idea in Game of Thrones haven’t seen this movie. Though it is much funnier in this film.)

The most prominent member of the clergy in Holy Grail is a firearms expert, Brother Maynard, who carries the sacred relic of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. In order to fight a deadly beast, a bunny (yes, a bunny), he is called in.

He consults the book of Armaments, chapter 2 verses 9 - 21, “And St. Attila raised the hand grenade up on high saying, ‘O Lord, bless this thy hand grenade that with it thou mayest blow thine enemies to tiny bits in Thy Mercy. And the Lord did grin and the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths and carp and anchovies and orangutans and breakfast cereals and fruit bats… And the Lord spake saying, ‘First shalt thou take out the holy pin, then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shalt be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it. Amen.”

Sorry for the very long quote. But one gets the feeling that some of the writers (who were also the cast) had to sit through long Old Testament readings in chapel and wanted to convey the tedium they felt. And to be fair, it is the expertise of the priest that brings about the destruction of the killer beast.

Still, a rating of two steeples out of four is the best I can do for the clergy in this comedy classic. (Next week we’ll look at that other comic visit to the Middle Ages from the very funny Mel Brooks.)

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

In Theaters Now: Mission Impossible: Fallout

Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)
Mission Impossible: Fallout, the sixth film in Tom Cruise’s popular series (based on the over fifty-year-old TV show), has been #1 at the box office the last two weeks and may be again next week. There’s not a lot of church in the film, and the little that’s there has nothing to do with the star’s church of choice, Scientology. No clergy are featured in the film.

I’d wager most film goers wouldn’t recall that an important theme of the film is religion -- one scene takes place in one of the world’s most iconic sanctuaries. That’s fine. Reminding people of such things is one of the reasons Movie Churches is here.

The film begins, as these stories do, with a mission that IMF (Impossible MIssions Force, not the International Monetary Fund) leader, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) must decide whether to accept. As often is the case, he’s asked to stop a terrorist plot. The terrorist is described as an anti-religious zealot whose first targets are the Vatican, Jerusalem, and Mecca; the gang of terrorists call themselves “the Apostles.” Not much is made of this motive as the film goes on, as the terrorist seems to become more fixated on a personal vendetta against Ethan Hunt.

I wondered what the filmmakers thought of the terrorists’ cause. Is being “anti-religious” like this terrorist a bad thing? Is his cause just, but his methods are bad? The film never really wrestles with issue.

A thanksgiving service at St Paul's Cathedral CREDIT: PA
As for the scene in the church… Sorry about this spoiler, but there’s a scene where Hunt is chasing a bad guy through the streets of London while being chased himself by other bad guys. (Hope I didn’t give too much away there.) Hunt runs into St. Paul’s Cathedral while a service of some kind is in progress. Maybe it’s a state funeral, since all the seats of vast sanctuary are filled with an elegantly dressed crowd that includes representatives of the military and perhaps some of the royal family. When Hunt barges into the proceedings, followed by armed thugs, everyone remains politely seated. Hunt apologizes to the congregants before dashing off.

One of the selling points of these films, like Bond films before them, is the opportunity to see some of the world’s most beautiful sights. St. Paul’s is certainly a gorgeous edifice, and it’s a cute little scene, if not at all realistic. I know, it’s shocking there would be something in these films that doesn’t achieve perfect verisimilitude, but here it is: in one of England’s great national landmarks, no one has given a thought to security.

In the wake of church shootings in the United States, most congregations have paid some attention to plans in case of a shooter scenario. Surely, in one of the most famous churches in the world, the leadership has given this some thought, and their plan would not be to have everyone sit quietly, looking polite but perplexed when a group of threatening men enter the building and go to the altar. Even aside from security plans, surely the military officers in the congregation would instinctively take action.

The film is a great summer action ride, with marvelous stunts and set pieces. As for the church in the film, until the cinematic St. Paul’s improves its security, the best we can give it is Two Steeples.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Middle Ages Month begins: Morality Play

The Reckoning or Morality Play (2002)
The Reckoning (in Spain it was called El Misterio de Wells or Morality Play) provides an excellent transition from Mystery Month to Middle Ages Month, nicely fitting into both categories. It is set in England in 1380 (the title card reads, “For more than 300 years, Norman barons have ruled their domains with absolute power. Church and State speak with one voice to maintain the existing order…”) and tells the story of a disgraced priest solving a murder with the aid of a traveling troupe of players.

The film begins with a priest named Nicholas (Paul Bettany) ispeaking to his congregation from the pulpit, “Seek what is above, not what is on the earth… Every day I hear a grumbling against God. Times are hard. But let us not forget the writing of the Apostle to the Romans… Life has to be harsh to keep human happiness from being loved. It is still dark; we cannot yet see God or all He has promised us.”

As he preaches, he is distracted by a young mother nursing her child. Another woman seems to catch his attention as well. Flashbacks show us the priest sleeping with that woman, and we soon see him fleeing from the villagers -- who seem to have learned about the priest’s adultery.

Now on the run, the priest comes across a group of traveling players. They think the worst of him, referring to him as “robber scum”, but he convinces them to allow him to join them. Eventually they figure out that he was a priest.

The acting troupe performs only Biblical stories, often retelling the stories of Creation, the Flood, the Passion, etc. Many of the players believe that varying from Scriptural truth with their plays would be blasphemous, but their leader, Martin (Willem Dafoe), thinks telling other stories might bring in more money. When they come to a small town where a boy has been murdered, Martin decides they should do a play that recreates the murder. The priest encourages them, saying, “God is everywhere, even in this story.”

But through the play, the priest comes to believe that the woman accused of the murder may be innocent, and he tries to convince the acting troupe and the village of her innocence. The question becomes, who did commit the murder?

But Nicolas is more than a detective in the film. When the troupe discovers he is a priest, they urge him to give a proper burial to a troupe member. Villagers call on him to do the same, and these functions bring great comfort even to those who seem not at all pious. Martin asks him, “What kind of God would allow such suffering in this world?”

And the priest responds, “Or such suffering for HIs own Son?”

We later learn some dark secrets from the priest’s past, but in pursuing the answers to the boy’s murder (and other killings that follow), he seeks redemption for himself and salvation for the village. The former brings down the Movie Churches Steeple rating for Priest Nicholas, but the latter brings him up to a rating of Two Steeples.