Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Play's the Thing -- Act 4

Romeo and (+) Juliet (1968 and 1996)
The idea of this blog has always been to look at how the church and clergy -- and Christianity in general -- has been viewed in popular culture today and, for the last century, in the movies. Today we’re stretching a bit by looking at a take on clergy from the late 16th century. The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is estimated to have been written between 1591 and 1595.

There have been dozens of filmed adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, even if you don’t include looser versions such as West Side Story and Warm Bodies. We love you, dear Movie Churches readers, but we weren’t about to watch -- and write about -- dozens of adaptations for this post. Instead, we watched two: Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 blockbuster Romeo and Juliet and Baz Luhrmann’s more contemporary take of Romeo + Juliet.

In our era, when comic book superheroes rule the box office, it’s hard to imagine a time when the public was excited about a Shakespeare play on the big screen, but young people flocked to see 1968's representation of literature’s most famous young lovers. It probably helped that the posters for the film showed the title characters apparently naked in bed and word got out that the young, pretty actors (Leonard Whiting as Romeo and Olivia Hussey as Juliet) would, in fact, be seen naked (briefly) in a PG-rated film. Like most of Zeffirelli’s work, Romeo and Juliet is rich with period sets and costumes and lush cinematography.

Probably no one back in 1968 was saying, “Let’s go and see that movie with the friar,” but that, of course, is our focus here at Movie Churches. And Billy Shakespeare made Friar Laurence central in the plot of the story, leading inadvertently to the death of the young lovers.

In the 1968 film, we first see Father Laurence with his herbs in the field. I can’t help but think that a certain segment of the ‘60’s audience would think “herbs” in a different way than it would have been thought of in previous decades.

Friar Laurence is Romeo's confidante. When Romeo comes to him to tell about his true love, the clergyman assumes he’s talking about Rosaline, his previous sweetheart. But no, Romeo has moved on and has fallen in love at first sight with a young woman from a family currently at war with his own family. Friar Laurence is taken aback and exclaims, “Holy Saint Francis! Is Rosaline so soon forgotten?”

Zeffirelli is not coy about the church setting where Romeo and Laurence meet. A crucifix is prominently featured in the scene. It is interesting that this young man shares most deeply about his love life with a man who has taken a vow of chastity. The friar hopes that this new romance might bring peace between the Capulet and Montague families.

Romeo also meets with Juliet’s nurse in the church. They both pretend to be pray while they discuss the Juliet's message to Romeo. We hear a choir singing in the background. Upon hearing confirmation of Juliet’s love for him, Romeo blows kisses to the crucifix.

When Romeo and Juliet meet at the church a few hours later, Friar Laurence steps between them to keep them from getting too passionate, then performs the marriage ceremony for the young lovers (without any witnesses).

The young couple continues to hide their relationship from their families, and Friar Laurence aids in the deception. Juliet’s family has arranged for her to marry a nobleman named Paris, and Friar Laurence practically flat out lies to Paris. I have problems with that lack of honesty from a man of the cloth, but compared to what he does next, this is almost a minor problem.

Romeo kills a man and is exiled. The hope of a happy ending for the lovers seems to be fading. So Friar Laurence devises a simply genius plan to reunite the lovers and prevent Juliet from marrying Paris. Laurence convinces Juliet to take a potion that will simulate death for “two and forty hours.” She is to fake her death, Friar Laurence will hold a mock funeral, notify Romeo that it’s all a ruse, and when she wakes, the two can run off happily ever after.

But sadly, Friar Laurence entrusts the message to another friar who proves to be an incompetent courier. Romeo, believing Juliet dead, poisons himself. Juliet awakens, and Friar Laurence tries to take her from the scene to keep her from finding out about Romeo's death. The friar fails, and Juliet kills herself with a dagger. (Sorry, spoilers!)

This whole plan of the friar's was based on deception and doomed from the start. If he had -- long before -- used his influence to bring about peace between the feuding families instead of involving himself in teen romance, perhaps there would have been a better outcome.

Milo O’Shea, the actor who plays Laurence in this version, comes across as a bumbling buffoon. Pete Postlethwaite provides Friar Laurence with a little more substance and gravitas in 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, directed by Baz Luhrmann. Luhrmann is not a subtle director, making lavish, at times garish productions. This telling of the lovers of Verona takes place in modern times, with guns taking the place of swords and television commentators taking the place of omniscient narrators. (This film has star power with Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo and Claire Danes as Juliet.)

Friar Laurence is a more contemporary looking fellow, too, sporting a cross tattoo on his back, rather like the one Robert De Niro had in Cape Fear. This friar is also first seen meddling with his herbs, and recreational drug inferences are a little stronger than in the 1968 version. Though the architecture of the church is not unlike the medieval structures seen in the Zeffirelli film, the boy’s choir sing, “When Doves Cry” and “Everybody’s Free.”

Friar Laurence's apartment is decorated with religious statuary and pictures of Jesus. When he conducts Juliet’s funeral, there are tacky neon crosses everywhere. But the friar doesn’t talk about Jesus much or seem to be interested in following his example in working with people.

Friar Laurence in this version of the story (as in the original), obviously cares very much for the foolish young couple, but trusting in his own wiles rather than looking to wisdom from Scripture leads to a tragic end. The clergymen earn both films a low Movie Churches rating of Two Steeples.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Play's the Thing Act 3 French, Godless Jimmy Stewart?

Seventh Heaven (1937)
Films often rely on a suspension of disbelief -- a giant ape, a twister carrying a house to a magical land, or a man that can fly… But Jimmy Stewart as a Parisian sewer worker in 1937’s Seventh Heaven? That’s really stretching it.

Seventh Heaven was a Broadway hit early in the Roaring Twenties. There was a 1927 silent film, but we watched the second version directed by Henry King. A title card introduces the setting, making it clear that this will be an apt subject for Movie Churches:

“Paris, 1914. On the lower slope of Montmartre hill lies a sinister square called “The Sock.” Its wretched inhabitants crowded like rats, live between heaven and hell, for their evil street is stopped suddenly by a church.”

The film has an international cast with an interesting assortment of accents (supposedly all found in France). While Simone Simon who plays the heroine, Diane, is French, Gale Sondergaard who plays her sister, Nana, is American born. Others in the neighborhood are Aristide the Astrologer (played by J. Edward Bromberg from Romania) and Durand (played by Sig Ruman of Germany). And the priest, Father Chevillion, is played by a Dane, Jean Hersholt.

So I guess Jimmy Stewart’s Chico, though a Yankee, fits right in with this multicultural neighborhood. Chico considers himself “a most remarkable fellow.” One of the things that Chico considers remarkable about himself is his atheism, of which he proudly boasts. When asked why he doesn’t believe in God, he says, “Everything made me an atheist.” He explains he prayed for two things. First of all, he prayed for promotion from sewer worker to street sweep. He paid 6 francs for the biggest candle he could find and prayed in church. “I have prayed so long and so loud, that even if God was deaf he would have heard me,” he says. But no promotion came. Then he bought a candle to pray for a wife with yellow hair. “A remarkable fellow like me should have a remarkable wife.” That prayer wasn’t answered either. “God owes me 12 francs” (for the candles).

One of Chico's friends hides in the church when the police are chasing him for stealing a watch. The Gendarmarie won't enter the church, but one officer says to the other, "He's got to come out sometime."

As the thief skulks in the church, other people are in the pews, and the priest is conversing with the altar boys. The priest sees the thief hiding behind a pillar and says to him, “Well my son, have you come back to Mother Church? I have the whole evening, time enough to confess.” He does return the stolen watch to the priest, and ruckus outside allows him to escape by dropping down a manhole -- where he is confronted by Chico in the sewer.

Chico knows where the thief's been, saying, “If you need help, come here, not a church. Priests are crafty. Sometimes all they need is a minute.” Chico is quite concerned his friend will fall under ecclesiastical influence, saying, “If you’re going to hide, hide down here, where you have to work for help, not pray for it.”

But Chico soon encounters that same priest, Father Chevillion. Diane, a young woman wearing a plain dress and a cross necklace, is at a table in her sister’s “cafe” with a man. She refuses the attentions of the lecherous older man and throws wine in the man’s face. Her sister is angry and drives Diane to the street and beats her. Chico steps between them, throwing Nana in the sewer.

This leads to a conversation with a friend about God. To prove God doesn’t exist, Chico says he’ll walk into the church and dare God to strike him dead. There he meets Father Chevillion, who had also seen the incident with Chico, Nana, and Diane. Chico says, “There’s nothing between you and me, Citizen Priest.”

But the priest says to him, “I’ve longed to get my hands on a real atheist. We should talk on neutral ground.” So they go out on the street, where Chico tells the priest he doesn’t believe in God because of mistreated creatures like Diane. He then tells the priest that God didn’t answer his prayers for promotion or for a wife.

The priest takes out a piece of paper and writes out a note for the city commissioner to promote Chico from sewer man to street sweeper. He also asks Chico to care for Diane. Obviously, the priest is taking it upon himself to answer Chico’s prayers. Father Chevillion also gives Chico two saints' medals. When Chico inspects them, he notices their price. Each is worth 6 francs.

Chico becomes. When Diane is accused of vagrancy, he tells the police officer she is his wife. Most of the rest of the film focuses on the growing romance between Chico and Diane. The great obstacle to their love comes when Chico is drafted to serve in World War I, but he goes with faith. Diane had faith in God but has come to have faith in Chico as well. Chico has come to have faith in God through his relationship with Diane.

The priest and the church play another role toward the end of the film. The church is a hospital for wounded soldiers, and Father Chevillion serves as their chaplain. In time, one of the men he must care for is a badly wounded Chico -- and eventually, Chico and Diane are reunited.

It could be argued that Father Chevillion manipulates events to lead men to God. Or it could be said that the priest serves as God’s hand in the lives of others. Because I believe the latter, Father Chevillion and his church receive our highest Movie Churches rating of 4 Steeples.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The very first Movie Church post

Back in 2014, Dean started reviewing churches and clergy at Dean and Mindy go to church. It wasn't long before we realized that those posts deserved their own blog. Now that we've finished up the church visitation project, the time is right to move all the movie churches here where they belong. (Observant readers will notice that in this first movie church post, Dean hadn't started giving steeple ratings.)

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1983)
Since this is the first movie post, I want to make it clear what this is about, so you’ll be in the know. Those poor folks who start reading after this week will be baffled but not you. These movie posts will review not movies, but rather the churches portrayed in movies.

For example, I recently saw John Wick. The film features Keanu Reeves in a mindless but stylish retread of 1980’s Chuck Norris, Sly Stallone type action films --perfectly fine if you like that kind of thing (and I do). But in this column, we wouldn’t be analyzing the direction of Chad Stahelski or the plotting of screenwriter Derek Kolstad. We'd just jump ahead to the church portrayed in the film. The church is some sort of Orthodox denomination with a massive building in NYC. But apparently, that just serves as a front for an Eastern European mob. I’m giving the church in the film a big thumbs down. Call me old fashioned, but I don’t like churches with clergy on the take with syndicate drug money, where sitting in a pew could get you shot in a spectacular gun battle.

For this first month of movie churches, I’ll be reviewing churches in Christmas films, starting with The Church with No Name in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, a cheesy made-for-TV version of a pretty wonderful children’s book.

As I’ve indicated, I never did catch the name of the church from watching the film, but let’s go through some of the church’s pros and cons before we decide on whether to give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

Pro: Thriving Children’s Ministry
Every kid in town seems to go to the Church with No Name’s Sunday School class and participate in the annual Christmas program. Well, every kid except for those in the Herdman family, youngster thugs who are devoted to extorting from other children and blowing stuff up real good. The story is about when even the Herdmans decide to become involved with the Christmas program.
Con: A Network of Gossips
When the Herdmans become a part of the Christmas program, every woman in the church seems to be on the telephone talking with every other woman in the church about how awful it is that these young reprobates are befouling their sacred building. (Jesus, on the other hand, was pretty positive about when sinners came to see Him.)

Pro: A Minor CelebrityAttending the church and directing the Christmas program is none other than Loretta Swit, television celebrity. Didn’t recognize anyone else in the church, but it would be cool to say, “You know Hot Lips from the show M*A*S*H? She goes to our church.”

Con: Cowardly, Mealy-mouthed Clergy
The pastor wants to buckle under the pressure of the gossiping women and plans to cancel the Christmas program because the Herdman children are involved. Skittish pastors are not a pretty sight.

Pro: Grape Juice Served for Communion
I know many of you probably prefer wine for communion, but in the film, the Herdman kids get into the grape juice stash. I used to sometimes get a hold of the leftover communion grape juice and drink it until I was sick. And I can tell you both situations would have been a lot worse if wine had been involved.

Con: Little Support for Volunteers
Ms. Swit seems to be on her own directing the Christmas program (with the exception of her reluctant daughter).

But I have two pros left:

Pro: Christmas Program Goes Well
The Herdman kids manage to inject some earthy reality into the show, and it touches people.

Finally, one more Pro:

Early in the story, after a church service, one of the Herdman kids asks, “What isthe Christmas program about?” and someone responds, “It’s about Jesus.” And the Herdman kid says, “Everything in this church is about Jesus.”

Now if “everything… is about Jesus”, then that church definitely would get a thumbs up and I’d want to go to there.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Play's the Thing Act Two: (Or is the Movie the Thing...I'm not sure)

Doubt (2008)
What a difference a decade makes. Doubt was made in 2008, and the film set in a Catholic school seems to have great sympathy for Father Brendan Flynn. He's a hip, happening young priest -- as opposed to old, repressed Sister Aloysius Beauvier. Flynn is possibly a pedophile, but he coaches basketball and has fun stories in his homily, so is that such a big deal?

John Patrick Shanley wrote the play, Doubt, based on his experiences as a boy in parochial school in the 1960’s. The play started off-Broadway, made it to Broadway, and won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Drama. (Shanley was also an Oscar winner for his Moonstruck screenplay.)

Sister James is played by Amy Adams. Shanley claims that the character is based on one of his first teachers, Sister Margaret McEntee (to whom the film is dedicated). Sister James is a new math and history teacher at Saint Nicolas Church School. She has two very different superiors; Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the school principal, and Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the priest.

Sister Aloysius is a harsh disciplinarian who encourages Sister James to be much more strict with her students. She is distrustful of technological advances, confiscating transistor radios (which spread secular music) and ballpoint pens (which encourage lazy penmanship). She patrols the aisle during chapel services, hitting the back of students' heads if they chat or doze.

Sister Aloysius hosts dinners for the nuns; quiet, joyless affairs. The highlight seems to be recapping the Sunday homilies -- of which Aloysius is quite critical. She seems to live a life of fear and loathing, cloistered from the scary world.

On the other hand, Father Flynn initially seems to be the essence of cinema’s fighting young priests. We hear his homily shortly after JFK’s assassination in which he talks about how sorrow united the nation. “Your bond with your fellow being was despair. It was awful, but we were in it together. How much worse to be alone in grief? Doubt can be a bond powerful and sustaining as certainty.” (He also introduces both the title and theme of the film). It should be noted that all of Flynn’s preaching in the film seems to be Scripture free, and for the most part, God-free.

Flynn jokes with the kids of the schools, asking “How are the criminals doing today?” We see him taking a special interest in an altar boy, the first African American to attend the school. He gives him a toy, a dancing ballerina. And when the boy drinks the sacramental wine, Flynn meets with him.

But Sister Aloysius thinks there's more to the priest’s relationship to the boy. In a meeting about the school Christmas pageant, she accuses him, but Father Flynn makes plausible explanations.

Still concerned, Sister Aloysius goes to talk with the boy’s mother (Viola Davis), who admits that she too is suspicious of the priest. But she doesn’t care. In so many words, she admits she suspects her son is gay. If so, she thinks it's just as well if a kind man initiates her son. Even more, she appreciates the advantages the school offers her son, and she doesn't want to jeopardize her son’s opportunities.

This is too much for Sister Aloysius. She brings the matter to her superiors and tricks Flynn into thinking she has material to blackmail him. He does leave the school -- he's promoted to head of another school. The issue of his sexual conduct is, however, left in doubt.

The really strange thing about this film is that it seems to share the boy's mother's attitude. If Father Flynn was molesting a child, was it really that bad? I mean, since he was nice about it and all. And since we don't know for sure, the film seems to say, it wouldn't be worth a really thorough investigation. Surely he isn’t as bad as the sister who smacks a kid in the back of the head for napping in chapel.

Again, this film was made only ten years ago, but continuing revelations about abuses in the Roman Catholic Church along with the #MeToo movement put the events of this film in a very different light. The film gives Father Flynn a much greater benefit of then the character would receive if the film was made today. He seemed guilty to me.

I’m not giving this film our lowest clergy score, because though Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn are awful, Sister James appears to be a decent teacher. We’re giving the clergy and church of Doubt two of a possible four steeples.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Play's the Thing at Movie Churches Act One: (Because you want More...)

A Man for All Seasons (1966)
We're kicking off the year here at Movie Churches with a new theme: “The Play’s the Thing.” During January, we'll be looking at plays adapted to film (as always, they're films with clergy and/or churches). This week’s film, A Man For All Seasons barely qualifies though. It’s about a layman, Sir Thomas More, who was a politician during the time of Henry VIII of England. Even though he wasn't a clergyman, he had plenty to say about the church, and though he tried to avoid it, he gave his life for the Church. Eventually, the Roman Catholic Church made him a saint, so I guess that counts for something.

Robert Bolt’s first telling of More's story was in the form of a radio play in 1954. Then it was a teleplay for the BBC in 1957. It took to the stage at the Globe Theater in London and went on to Broadway, where it was a hit that ran for a year. It was adapted for the screen in 1966 and won the Academy Award for Best Picture along with an Oscar for Bolt, director Fred Zinnemann, and Best Actor for Paul Scofield for his performance of as Sir Thomas More.

In our first view of More in the film, he’s laughing as others mock the priests of the church (in England at the time, the Roman Catholic Church was the only church). A man jokes,  "Every second bastard is fathered by a priest.”

Another man makes a reference to More’s classic book, Utopia, “Why, in Utopia that couldn’t be.” 

“But why?” 

“Well, there the priests are very holy.” 

“Therefore, very few.” 

Sir Thomas seems to find the whole conversation rather amusing.

More lived in a turbulent time. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other reformers were leading movements to break from the Roman Catholic Church in various parts of Europe. More’s critical writings about the Church inspired some of these men, but ultimately, More remained faithful to the Catholic Church.

When a good young man, Matthew Roper, came to ask if he could marry More's  daughter, Alice, More refused. Roper was sympathetic to the Reformers. More, who liked Roper, still wouldn't allow his daughter to marry a “heretic.” The situation leads to family tension.

But it's nothing compared to the tension that begins when the King, Henry the VIII, wants to break from the Roman Catholic Church. The other Reformers had theological differences with the Church regarding faith, works, grace, and salvation. Henry’s disagreement was over whether he’d get his own way.

Henry had been given a special papal dispensation to marry his brother’s wife after his brother’s death. But that wife, Catherine of Aragon, gave Henry no sons, so Henry wanted to divorce Catherine to marry a younger woman, Anne Boleyn. The pope would not grant the divorce, so Henry decided that England would leave the Catholic Church. He would create a Church of England --  the Anglican Church.

Of course, Henry tried to put his decision in a holy light. He said he should never have been allowed to marry Catherine in the first place. God was punishing him for this sin by denying him an heir.  Since the king's was correcting his earlier error, anyone who opposed his course of action was opposing God as well. King Henry (Robert Shaw) says, “I have no queen! Catherine’s not my wife! No priest can make her so! They that say she is my wife are not only liars but traitors!”
At this turbulent time, More was the King's Chancellor. Naturally, all who served the king were expected to endorse and support the King’s policy, so More resigned from his position without saying anything against the king. More, a lawyer, argued that the law -- technically -- takes "silence" to mean consent. 

The people of England, though, know that More believes the king to be wrong in his decision to leave the Roman Catholic Church (and to marry Anne). Forces within the King’s administration, particularly Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern) attempt to require More to choose between supporting the king in verbal or written form -- or being executed for treason. 

More uses every trick and twist he can find in the law to keep himself alive. In the end, he refuses to violate his own conscience and stays true to the Church. And loses his head to the executioner.

I probably should admit why I included this film even though More isn’t a clergyman. This is one of my favorite plays and screenplays, and More is one of my heroes.

Come to think of it, there is one clergyman presented prominently in the film: Cardinal Wolsey, a slippery fox of a politician in a red church robe. People say he’s “a butcher’s son, still a butcher.” Like most of the clergy in England of the time, he is more than willing to sell his soul to the king and those in power when it is to his advantage to do so.

As More says of Richard Rich, a man who betrays him, “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Wales?”

The church in this film -- both the Roman Catholic and the Anglican -- doesn’t come off too well. I’ll give it a rating of Two Steeples. As for Sir Thomas More? I’m sure he wouldn’t care what I rated him.

When More tried to persuade Richard Rich to stay away from politics for his own good, he said, “Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.”

Rich asked “If I was, who would know it?”

More replied, “You. Your pupils, your friends. God. Not a bad public, that.”