Thursday, February 28, 2019

Small town movie churches I: The Confession

The Confession (1920)
Sometimes it seems as if every movie takes place somewhere between the moon and New York City --either in a land of fantasy or rarified Manhattan (but I repeat myself). But some movies are set in a different place. This month we’ll be spending all of our time in small town America, in rural churches.

We’re starting with a film nearly a century old, 1920’s The Confession. When released back in the day, it would have seemed like a contemporary tale, but from today’s perspective the setting of Deer Lodge, Montana seems like the Old West.

The film opens with an illustrated Bible verse: a priest standing on a rock by a lake in the woods, with the words of Matthew 16:18 (“On this rock I will build my church”) superimposed on the screen.

Immediately the audience is given something else to read -- a title card. “The Walled Sanctuary -- Within the sacred silence of the Roman Catholic Church are recounted the sins, transgressions and sorrow of countless thousands and whatever be our religion we are bound to respect that exalted devotion which prompts a priest to hold forever inviolate the secrets of the Holy Confessional.”

It's interesting that in this film, the Confessional is treated as an exotic practice while still emphasizing the importance of respecting another faith’s practices. The concept of the confidentiality of the confessional was used in many films and television shows over the years (for example, in Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess), but this may be the first time the practice was used as a plot device.

Let’s start with a plot summary.

Father Bartlett (Henry Walthall) lives with his mother and brother, Tom (Francis McDonald), in a small, Western town. The brother is a heavy drinker, much to his mother’s distress. A stranger, Joseph Dumont, comes to town seeking revenge against the man he believes dishonored his sister. He kills the man and confesses the murder to Father Bartlett. But the priest’s brother, Tom, is accused of the murder.

Tom is arrested. A crowd of citizens forms a mob to rescue Tom (wearing KKK type hoods, with very poor cutting skills for the eye holes). Father Bartlett stands against the crowd, trusting God for salvation rather than human strength or cleverness.

The trial is held. Father Bartlett is called to testify and refuses to share what Dumont confessed to him.

Tom doesn’t appreciate his brother’s stand. When Father Bartlett visits him in the cell, Tom knocks his brother out and escapes in the priest’s clothing.

Tom hops a train to Canada, and in a train car meets the real killer, Joseph Dumont. Since Tom is still in his brother’s clerical collar, Joseph mistakes him for a priest and confesses again. The two fight and then separate. Both wind up in Canada.

Father Bartlett follows his brother north of the border, but the Mounties find Tom before his brother does and ship him back to face the gallows. Bartlett finds Dumont and convinces him to go back to Montana to confess. But will they make it in time?

If you want out what happens next, you can find the film on YouTube. The question for this blog is, what kind of priest was Father Bartlett?

On a title card, he's described as “A man who sees the beauty of all things,” even in an alcoholic like his brother and a murderer like Dumont.

He treats even a man like Dumont with respect. After the confession, Father Bartlett tells him, “You must pray morning, noon, and night, for the soul of the man you have murdered. Until the end, he may intercede for your salvation. I am about to absolve you, but before doing so you must promise, should the weight of your crime fall upon another, you will make reparation.” Some questionable theology in that statement, but it is compassionate.

Father Bartlett's treatment of his brother is even more problematic. Since he urged the killer not to let another be punished for his crime, it seems like he could have been more proactive in the situation without breaking his promise to Dumont.

But all turns out well in the end. As the priest says, “By faith in God and His infinite mercy the sunshine of love has come to stay.” So Father Bartlett earns our highest rating of Four Steeples.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

In Theaters Now! Run the Race

Run the Race (2019)
Years before Colin Kaepernick created controversy by kneeling on the football field, Tim Tebow was creating controversy by kneeling on the football field. Tebow won the Heisman during his college career, but his stay in the NFL was rather short. He’s currently playing outfield for a Mets farm team, and now he has a new role: movie producer.

Not surprisingly, the movie he produced, Run the Race, is about football. And faith.

Tebow was a controversial figure because he was outspoken about his Christian faith -- and this is a Christian film. Tebow has said it's the kind of Christian film he’s always wanted to see, where everything isn’t easy and bad things happen. Turns out, it’s not a horrible film. 

Likable actors were cast in the lead roles of two brothers who lose their mother to cancer and are estranged from their alcoholic father. Tanner Stine plays Zach, a football star who has lost his faith. Evan Hofer plays his brother, Dave, who was knocked out of football by injury but has a strong Christian faith. The boys are supported by their godmother, Nanny, played by Francis Fisher (Unforgiven). Kelsey Reinhardt plays the girlfriend who faces conflict with Zach over issues of faith.

The boys face dramatic challenges and not everything is resolved on the football field.

Most importantly (for this blog anyway), the boys are supported by Pastor Baker played by Mario Van Peebles (director of New Jack City). The pastor is a casual guy, preaching in khaki pants and a plaid flannel shirt. Though Dave usually attends church alone or with his Nanny, both boys attend a Christmas service together. The sermon is theologically sound -- about a “moment” that changes everything, the moment God entered the world. We hear bits of two other sermons which are fine, but I don’t remember any specific Scripture.

He serves a small country church in Bessemer, Alabama*. The building is worn but respectable, which is more than can be said for the town as a whole. Bessemer just seems worn, but it does seem real. You can understand why the brothers want to escape the place.

Finally, the film does convey a tangential, but important message: the superiority of Dr Pepper over Coca Cola.

As for our Movie Church ratings, the little church and its pastor show no flaws, so they earn the full four steeples.

*Bessemer, Alabama is a real town, by the way. During our Alabama week in 2016, we camped at Tannehill State Park outside McCalla, the next town south. 

Friday, February 22, 2019

European Vacation 4: The American on a "working vacation"

The American (2010)
Okay, so George Clooney (as Jack Clarke) is on a “working vacation” rather than just a European vacation. He tells a priest that he's a photographer taking shots for magazines and tourist guides, which is not completely true. He is taking shots, but as a gunsmith and assassin. But he's still, you know, taking in the sights.

When The American (directed by Anton Corbijn) came out, many were surprised that it had a big first weekend at the box office. People went to the theaters to see a George Clooney espionage film full of sex and violence. Audiences soon discovered that though there were moments of gunfire and nudity, this was pretty much an art film with long, slow passages where we see first Sweden and then Italy -- along with large helpings of existential angst.

The few bright, lively moments in the film are supplied by a local priest. I don't think that was ever the case in, say, a James Bond movie.

While trying to place a call on a pay phone (this was way back in 2010) in a small town in Italy, Jack is approached by a priest who asks, “Can I help you?” The priest recognizes a stranger in town and isn’t at all shy.

He asks Jack if he speaks Italian, and the response is “Poco.” So most of their conversation in the film is in English. The priest asks what Jack in doing in the town, which is when Jack first lies to him about his profession. And the priest asks many more questions about Jack’s job, leading to Jack lying all the more. The priest then makes an invitation, “You must share a glass of wine with me tonight. You want to know the truth about Abruzzo?” (Abruzzo is the region where the village is.) “You must talk to me. A priest sees everything.”

It is true Jack is in Italy only partly for an assignment (to provide a weapon for an unspecified killing). He is also there to hide. When in the small town of Dalarna, Sweden, men tried to kill him for reasons he can’t determine. He is hiding from those who may wish him dead. Meanwhile, Jack does spend time with the priest.

The priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), doesn’t just offer wine, “The quality of the brandy is good.” The priest asks Jack if he’d studied the history of the area, and Jack says, “No.” Father Benedetto responds, “You come to Italy to make a guide book and you don’t care about history. Of course, you are an American. You think you can escape history.”

Later, the priest makes a meal for Jack. (He crosses himself before eating, but doesn’t say grace aloud.) Jack asks him, “Have you ever wanted to be anything but a priest?”

They discuss vocation and calling and the priest notes that “A man can be rich if he has God in his heart.”

Jack responds, “I don’t think God’s very interested in me, Father” The priest chuckles.

But the priest has secrets of this own. Jack notices a photograph in the priest’s apartment of the priest with a young man. Jack later meets that young man, who runs a small town Italian chop shop, working on stolen vehicles. Jack sees the same photo from the priest’s apartment in the chop shop. He sees a resemblance between the two men and speculates there is a relationship between the two.

Jack finds the priest on an early morning walk in the woods. The priest says during those walks, “I thank God for certain favors He has given me. And I ask him to look out for those of my friends who are sinners.”

“All men are sinners,” Jack responds.

The priest says, “But some men are greater sinners. You have done much sinning, Mr. Clarke, and you still do.” (The priest may not know the full extent of Jack’s sin, but he knows they’re great.) “Do you wish to confess for your sake?”

Instead of confessing his own sin, Jack asks the priest whether the “car doctor” is the priest’s son. The priest confesses it’s true, “Perhaps I have no right to wear these robes. But I have a heart full of a father’s love. Something close to His heart. And for that, I am grateful and happy.”

Jack and the priest part, and they don’t see each other again until Jack is involved in a shootout at the end of the film in the midst of a parade in honor of the Virgin Mary. The priest finds Jack by the body of a dead woman, and Jack says, “I’m sorry, Father.” A short confession, but a confession nonetheless.

Father Benedetto is not without faults, but he can spot a troubled stranger and finds a way to befriend him and point him to redemption. For this, the priest receives a Three Steeple rating.

(This film, featuring a couple of small European villages, provides a nice transition to next month’s theme of small towns -- but I believe they’ll all be American towns.)

Thursday, February 14, 2019

European Vacation 3: At the Movies

Cinema Paradiso, 1988
I was a youth pastor for a lot of years, and when youth pastors got together, they all seemed to have a story about showing their kids movies they regretted. On the mild side, Eric showed his high schoolers (at a very conservative church) Close Encounters of the Third Kind -- not remembering the adult language in the PG-rated film. Then there's Paul, who showed his church kids an Italian gladiator film with a graphic orgy scene -- which wasn't in the TV version he'd seen. Incidents like these induce some youth workers to show only Christian media to their students.

If you’re a parent, you probably can probably relate to this. You remembered Gremlins as a cute film with that adorable Gizmo, so you show it to your kids -- completely forgetting the gremlins smoking and the gremlin in the blender and Phoebe Cates telling about the death of Santa. Maybe you watched the whole film with the kids, and maybe you stopped it halfway through, but either way, you felt like a terrible parent.

In a long-winded, roundabout way I’m trying to get to the point that there is a place for censorship in this world. “Censor” is always a bad word -- when someone else is doing it. Libraries have weeks dedicated to banned books and decry those who tried to keep kids from reading Harry Potter and Huck Finn, but those libraries do, rightly, censor their selections. Even when Playboy was a much more popular magazine, public libraries didn’t stock it on the magazine rack.

I’m all for the First Amendment. If people (especially children) aren’t harmed in the production of a film, magazine, or book, people need to be free to produce it and have free access to it, because freedom is the foundation of what is good in this country.

People also need to have the freedom to choose not to read or view certain things.

That's why I'm sympathetic toward the priest in Cinema Paradiso.

The film tells that story of an Italian film director, Salvatore (or "Toto") in 1980’s Rome and his memories of growing up in the small town of Giancaldo, Sicily. As a very young boy, he lost his father, who died on the Russian front during World War II. Two men take the role of surrogate father. One is the town’s priest, Father Adelfio, and the other is the town’s projectionist, Alfredo.

Toto is an altar boy, and we see six-year-old Toto falling asleep during the Eucharist. The priest needs Toto to ring a bell, so he wakes him up (“The boy will be the death of me”). We then see the priest doing another part of his job.

The town has no movie theater, so movies are shown in the church. Every night of the year, Alfredo shows a film -- except Good Friday (“If they hadn’t put Jesus on the cross, I never would have a day off,” he says). But before people in town can view the film, it must be previewed by the priest.

As Father Adelfio watches the film, he rings a little bell whenever something “objectionable” takes place on the screen. Alfredo marks the place in the film reel with a piece of paper, and before showing it for the town, he edits out the objectionable material. The most common problem is a romantic kiss. Every romantic kiss is cut out of every film. (Toto sneaks into the church for these screenings and sees the whole, uncensored film.)

The screenings in the church aren't allowed purely for the town's entertainment. The church gets a cut of the box office, and the priest is quite upset when Alfredo projects a film in the town square for free.

The audience notices the missing sections -- when couples onscreen prepare for an embrace and suddenly the scene changes to a different location, the audience boos. (One man says, “I’ve never seen a kiss in twenty years.”) But they keep coming back every night.

Toto asks Alfredo for some of the censored clips, which Toto puts in a canister with family photos. But film was quite combustible at the time, and the material in the canister catches fire in Toto’s room. Toto’s mother stops the fire, but gives Alfredo a tongue lashing for putting her son in danger.

Catastrophe strikes when a fire breaks out in the projection room. Everyone flees from the church, but Alfredo passes out in the projection booth. Toto goes back to get him, and the small boy drags the old man down the steps and out the door. But Alfredo is blind and can no longer do his job.

A businessman sees an opportunity and builds a theater in town, the Cinema Paradiso. Before the opening of the new theater, Father Adelfio blesses it, sprinkling holy water over the rows of seats, the concession stand, and the projection room. But during the very first screening, Father Adelfio is offended by a scene in which a woman reveals a bare shoulder. A man kisses her shoulder, then kisses the woman’s lips. The priest stands and walks out of the theater saying,“I won’t watch pornography.”

Toto has learned enough from Alfredo to become the projectionist for the new theater. He takes the job for years But Alfredo tells Toto he is meant for more, and must eventually move on. (“Now the Cinema Paradiso needs you and you need the Cinema Paradiso. But this is just a stopgap.”)

Eventually, Alfredo convinces Toto to leave the town and strike out on his own. He tells Toto not to come back, and Toto takes his advice. He leaves town. He doesn’t even say goodbye to Father Adelfio. (Though the priest tries to say farewell, running to the train station, saying “What a shame!”)

At the end of the film, Salvatore returns to his hometown for the first time in thirty years to attend Alfredo the projectionist’s funeral, conducted by Father Adelfio. (Over those thirty years he hasn’t even returned to see his mother.)

Toto discovers that Alfredo left him a gift. A film reel of the scenes Father Adelfio had censored spliced together into one glorious montage of kiss after kiss (from His Girl Friday, The Son of the Sheik, The Outlaw, and all kinds of Italian and French films I didn’t recognize). There is also a clip of a topless woman (in a bed) from 1942’s La Cena Delle Beffe that still wouldn’t air on American network TV.

We might be tempted to judge Father Adelfio as a prude who kept people from viewing innocent kisses. But if it wasn’t for him, and his decision to screen films in the church, many people would never have seen these films at all.

As someone who loves movies and the Church (that's kind of why I run this blog), I’m giving the priest a respectful rating of Three Steeples.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Godless Hollywood 2015

Back in April, 2015, we found ourselves in Hollywood, and we were surprised by what we found there. It's awards season again, so this is as good a time as any to repost a few thoughts about churches, movies, and how they intersect on Hollywood Boulevard.

I googled the phrase "Godless Hollywood" and found 1,570 results. Now some of those results, I'm sure, are using "Hollywood" to mean the media. But the media certainly isn't "godless" in the sense of God-free, or I wouldn't be able to find anything to watch when I want to write about Movie Churches every week.

Someone asked me recently whether I'd run out of movie churches to write about. There are still loads of movies about churches, and there are many more about God that I haven't gotten to yet. And there are all of the TV shows, songs. and webcasts that touch on God and religion. Many times, it's Bill Maher type of negative talk about God, but it's certainly not God-free.

Now, if some of those "Godless Hollywood" google results were about the literal location called Hollywood -- well, we saw something very different. Among the potbellied superheroes and costumed cartoon characters with only the vaguest resemblance to the actual characters, quite a few people were working to make God's presence known.

See for yourself.

We took these pictures in the neighborhood of Mann's Chinese Theater and Hollywood Bowl on a Saturday afternoon. Someone handed us the flyer on the street near the theater.

Friday, February 8, 2019

European Vacation II: Boo-worthy or Award-worthy?

Under the Sun of Satan (1987)
Though we usually focus on American films here at Movie Churches -- because, well, we’re Americans here -- this month we’re spending time in the rich tradition of the European art film. (Okay, last week’s The Da Vinci Code wasn’t an European art film. It was chiefly made by Americans. It certainly isn’t art. But it’s set in Europe.)

One thing I appreciate about European film culture is their willingness to boo films. Even (especially) at film festivals such as Cannes, if the audience doesn’t like what's on the screen, they let their feelings be known. When this week’s film, Under the Sun of Satan, screened at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival, it was booed by many, but it went on to win the Palme d’Or, the top prize of the competition.

Directed by Maurice Pialat and starring Gerard Depardieu, the film is based on a novel by Georges Bernanos, the Roman Catholic writer who also wrote the film that was the basis of The Diary of a Country Priest. This film tells another tale of a troubled priest living in a small town in France in the 1920s.

Father Donnisan (Depardieu) was not a good student in seminary, and many in the Roman Catholic hierarchy didn’t want to promote him to priest. Even Donnisan doubts his own gifts -- he says, “I’m like a zero, only good with numbers,” implying that he only has value when he works with others. But the Dean of his seminary supports him and helps to place him with a rural congregation. Still, he believes “It took a miracle to become a priest.”

He has a hard time relating to his congregation and frets that he's not a good priest. He wants to be a good priest, but he seems to hate himself, is racked with guilt, and we see him whipping himself and wearing hair shirts. On the other hand, we see him kicking around a soccer ball with children.

Along with Donnisan’s story, we follow the story of Mouchette, a young woman who becomes the mistress of powerful men in her community. She becomes pregnant and is confronted by one of her lovers, and she shoots and kills him.

Eventually, Mouchette and Donnisan meet and she mocks him. He tries to share with her the hope of the Gospel. “Keep your sermons to yourself,” she tells him. He agrees to baptise the child when it is born.

The film takes an even stranger turn when the priest meets a stranger while walking to another town. The man claims to be a horse trader but turns out to be Satan himself. Satan affirms the priest’s doubts and his feelings that he has been deserted by God. (This portion of the film brings to mind the  temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4.)

The priest becomes more depressed and hopeless, but Mouchette is even more depressed and hopeless. While the priest is going to see her again, she cuts her own throat. To the shock and scandal of the congregation, the priest drags the dying woman to the church, but she dies before she can confess her sins.

The priest is even more despairing, and in his prayers, he offers his life and his soul in trade for the people of his congregation (reminiscent of Paul’s willingness to be cursed for the Jewish people in Romans 9).

A woman visits Father Donissan to plead for the life of her son. The boy has meningitis and dies, but the priest prays for him and he is resurrected. The congregation hears the news and is revitalized by this hope.

But then, as Father Donissan is hearing a woman's confession, he dies in the confessional.

A word, "FIN" appears on the screen. If I ever make a feature film -- not likely -- it will have a sad, oblique ending, then the word "FIN" on the screen, because that is what European art films are all about.

Though Father Donissan loses a steeple for the hair shirts and the self-flagellation, he still earns a Movie Churches rating of three steeples for his desire for God and passion for his people.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Miracle Movie Churches part 1

Back in 2015, Dean started writing about movie churches and the clergy who served in them. At first, he posted at Dean and Mindy go to church, but after only a few months, he started this blog. Oscar season seems like a good time to move those old posts here, where they really belong. 
Little Boy (2015)
A cinematic bomb is usually not a cause for celebration. An atomic bomb killing tens of thousands of people is an even more unlikely cause of celebration, except in the cinematic bomb that is Little Boy.

Perhaps that's a little unfair. But the film cost $20 million and looks unlikely to recoup its costs anytime soon. And as for the atomic bomb celebration -- well, let's talk about that later, because really, we're here to discuss churches, and there is a church in this movie along with a couple of priests. So we're in business.

I guess I should first let you know what the film is about. Pepper (abnormally diminutive, thus the nickname, "Little Boy," which is also a title drop), is growing up in a small California coastal town during World War II. Pepper and his father are big fans of a comic superhero "Ben English, Magician," and after his father leaves with the army to fight in the Pacific theater, Pepper believes he possesses similar magical powers that can bring his father home.

When he hears a sermon at his local Catholic church about the faith of a mustard seed moving a mountain, Pepper takes it to heart. The priest is put off by Pepper equating the faith Jesus was talking about with a comic book character's magic powers, but another priest, Father Oliver (played by Tom Wilkerson), takes interest in Pepper's mission.

He tells the boy his faith must increase. The kid wants to know how and so the Priest gives him a card with "The List" -- wisdom for growing his faith in God:
Feed the Hungry
Shelter the Homeless
Visit those in Prison
Clothe the Naked
Bury the Dead

The priest adds one more: "Befriend Hashimoto." Hashimoto is a Japanese man in town, recently released from an internment camp. Pepper has learned from his brother that he should hate the Japanese that are fighting his father, so he sees this as the most difficult of the assignments.

I'm frankly undecided about whether Father Oliver is wise in presenting the list to Pepper. Most of it is simply the teaching of Jesus, which obviously a priest should provide for his people. But he allows the boy to look at the list as good works that will force God's hand, or even worse, works that will give Pepper special powers to change the world through his own will.

Though "Befriend Hashimoto" isn't to be found in Scripture, Jesus did teach, "Love your enemy;" it seems a good contextualization of the command. The priest himself has befriended the Japanese man, who has been ostracized by most of the community. Pepper eventually becomes very good friends with the old man.

Pepper probably profits from considering how to fulfill the assignments on the list. Most Christians could give more thought and action to fulfilling the teaching of Matthew 25, to provide for the needy. The one strange thing on the list is the assignment to "Bury the Dead," which is not found in Matthew 25. In fact, Jesus said in Luke 9:60, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God." This seems to be added as a plot point to present Pepper with a dilemma that doesn't really involve Pepper's decision making at all. All in all, I'd commend the work of Father Oliver and give thumbs up to his movie church. He can't help it if Pepper proves to be a bit of a megalomaniac.

As for the mention above about the celebration of an atomic bomb -- though it has little to do with the movie church in the film, this is the thing the film will probably be remembered for. Historians among you probably realize that "Little Boy" is not only a mean nickname for the young boy in this film, but also the name of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Pepper has taken to pointing his hands toward Japan and grunting and wishing in hope of ending the war. Everyone in town notices this strange behavior. But when the newspapers report that the bomb named "Little Boy" has killed tens of thousands of people, everyone in town celebrates. They lift Pepper on their shoulders and shout with joy.

It's understandable at the time why the devastation of a Japanese city would be treated with such festivity. But to see it now on film makes one feel more than queasy, especially in a film targeted toward people of faith. It's too bad, because the message of loving your enemy comes out clearly in much of the rest of the film. Sometimes it seems that to make a great film about faith would be a true miracle.

Friday, February 1, 2019

European Vacation Week 1: The Genius is Stupid

The Da Vinci Code (2006)
For a long time, I thought the God’s Not Dead trilogy had a secure place as the stupidest film series I’d view for Movie Churches. Sure, there were those Christian Slater direct-to-DVDs which pushed dumb thriller cliches to the limit, and yet… I think The Da Vinci Code may be stupider than any of them. What gives this film a special edge is that everyone is supposed to be super-smart, ultra-genius-level masters in their fields, but… no… just no.

I know I’m late getting to this. Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, debuted in 2003, and it was a best seller that everyone was talking about. Aside from the work of J. K. Rowlings, there just aren’t many novels that become part of the national conversation. It took just three years for director Ron Howard to bring the first adventure of “symbologist” Robert Langdon (in the person of Tom Hanks) to the screen.

The stupid of this film (and the novel) begins with the title. Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, the historical figure -- great artist, inventor, and scientist -- is most commonly referred to as “Leonardo da Vinci” or “Leonardo.” “Da Vinci” refers to the place the man was from. It's the same way that Jesus Christ is sometimes referred to as “Jesus of Nazareth.” While He was, on rare occasions, referred to as “The Nazarene,” if you talked about Him as “of Nazareth” as in “I follow the teachings of ‘Of Nazareth,’” people would definitely look at you funny. But instead of referring to "The Leonardo Code," Dan Brown essentially called his book The of Vinci Code.

The movie tells the story of Harvard professor Langdon, who investigates a murder at the Louvre in Paris and is drawn into a battle between two ancient organizations. The Priory of Sion represents Pagans, while Opus Dei (not to be confused with Otis Day) represents the Roman Catholic Church. Ultimately, his involvement becomes a search for the Holy Grail, which is quite a different thing than one would expect from Arthurian legend.

I do need to talk about the church and clergy in the film because that's why we’re here, but first I need to unburden myself of some of the film’s stupid. For instance, Langdon goes to London to see his former mentor, Sir Leigh Teabing -- an expert on the Holy Grail. And Teabing says to Langdon, “I trust you know The Last Supper, the great fresco by Da Vinci…” This is like one New Yorker saying to another, “Have you ever heard of the Empire State Building?” Or one film critic saying to another, “Are you acquainted with series of science fiction films known as Star Wars?”

A little later in the film, they discover secret backward writing (Leonardo's notes on his sketches are generally written right to left. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone). Langdon has something like a photographic memory. His expertise is in “symbols,” and he has studied a number of languages, codes, and ciphers. Yet he needs a mirror to read the backward writing. Backward writing isn’t such a great challenge if you practice just a little. These people do not seem like experts in their fields.

The central conceit of the film is all kinds of stupid: Leonardo's painting of The Last Supper, Jesus' final meal with his disciples, has a secret message, you see. In the painting, according to our experts, the apostle John isn't the one sitting at Jesus' right. It's Mary Magdalene. According to the film's symbologist, Leonardo intended people looking at the painting to realize this because they'd know that Mary was the “companion” of Jesus. (Teabing explains “back then ‘companion’ meant ‘spouse.’” In what language? Aramaic? Greek? Latin? And what language would Leonardo have been interpreting anyway?)

So we are to take the clues of this painting, created a millennium and a half after the life of Christ (and painted on the wall of a monastery dining room), for information about Jesus. We're supposed to believe an artist's interpretation over the manuscripts of the Gospels and the Epistles, some of which have survived intact from as early as the first century. Teabing argues there is additional evidence to prove that Jesus wasn’t divine and that he fathered a child by Mary, citing the Gospel of Philip, which he claims is a true gospel despite being discredited at the Council of Nicea.

The fact is, there is a huge body of textual and historical evidence that the Gospels of the traditional canon were written much earlier than Gnostic Gospels (like the Gospel of Philip) that support unorthodox views of Christology.

And the basic argument of the film is just so stupid. It argues that the Holy Grail is not a cup. It is the Sarcophagus of Mary Magdalene, and the Roman Catholic Church has -- through the centuries -- been trying to hide this evidence. There are descendants of Jesus, and they could be proved by comparing DNA within the coffin. Which makes no sense, because we don’t have “Jesus DNA.”

Here are the alternatives offered: the traditional Christian position that Jesus is the unique Son who offers salvation through His death on the Cross paid for our sins (represented by the Cup of communion) or the pagan view (presented in the film) that salvation comes through sex, and the evidence that Jesus was just human can be found through this proof that he had offspring.

But here's my biggest problem with the premise of the film. If Jesus wasn’t God and Man, fully human and fully divine, then who gives a rip about his descendants? If he was just a good teacher, who cares about whether he was married or not, had offspring or not?

As C. S. Lewis argued, Jesus left us three options. He was the Lord, a liar, or a lunatic. Pagan Pioneer and husband and dad aren't among those options.

There are plenty of sound, intelligent arguments against the Christian faith. The Church has been engaged in such debates for centuries, but this film doesn’t present sound, intelligent arguments against the Gospel.

As to the presentation of the clergy and the church in the film -- most of the clergy are murderous scum. There are exceptions, a nice nun here or there, but, pretty much the Roman Catholic hierarchy is just awful.

The film opens with an albino monk, Silas (Paul Bettany), chasing a man through the Louvre. He says to the man, “Is there a secret you would die for? As you wish,” as he shoots the man. This monk is an assassin for Odus Dei. You know, I’ve worked for a number of churches and none of them had contract killers on staff.

Silas works for Bishop Manuel (Alfred Molina), who is able to have the gendarmerie do his bidding through police who have an allegiance to Opus Dei. The leaders of the Catholic Church all seem to know that Jesus wasn’t really God, but they’re covering up to keep their power (unlike those nice pagans who, through the centuries, were always, ever nice and unconcerned about power).

So, the clergy and church in this film receive our lowest rating of One Steeple. And the film will probably hold a secure place as the stupidest film in the Movie Churches archives. Unless -- maybe -- it’s topped by Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. But I’ll need to give myself a rest before that ever happens.

(If you would like to see a more intelligent, realistic film about the Holy Grail, I'd suggest Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Even the Havard professor is cooler.)