Thursday, August 29, 2019

Take Me Down to Vatican City: Saving Grace

Saving Grace (1986)
By my count, there have been four films and one TV show with the title Saving Grace. This post is about only one of them.

We are not looking at the 1998 New Zealand film about the woman called Grace who falls in love with a man who claims to be Christ. Nor are we watching the 2000 Craig Fergusen film about a cannabis farmer. Not the 2009 film about the Great Flood of 1951, either.

Nope, we’re looking at the 1986 film Saving Grace because it features a Pope, and I’m happy to report that this, the fifth pope movie of the month, is not deadly dull, making it unlike the others.

Tom Conti plays Pope Leo XIV, a young pope who begins to tire of his job after a year. He’s sick of going to meetings all day long. He’s discouraged by demands that he perform miracles to heal the sick and dying. He is disgusted by requests from the Vatican bank that he works to get people to open savings accounts. He misses his life as a priest, his involvement in people’s lives. Leo gets an idea when a deaf girl named Isabella (Mart Zoffoli) hitchhikes to Vatican City to tell the Pope that her village has no priest.

The Pope takes off his robes, dresses as a poor man, and makes his way toward Isabella's village. As he gets close, he discovers it's under quarantine for smallpox. He hides in the back of a truck delivering food and gets into the village. When he finds Isabella, he tells her to keep it quiet that he's the Pope. Isabella introduces him to her mother, Lucia (Patricia Mauceri), telling her Leo is a man looking for work. Though Lucia tells him there is no work to be found in the village, she agrees to let him rent a room in her home.

Undercover Pope finds some interesting things about the village. The village church has been abandoned, except for a tween-age wannabe mobster, Giuliano (Anthony Evans), who uses the sanctuary for hiding stolen goods. Leo also discovers that the quarantine is a fraud. Villagers are pretending to be sick so the government will ship in free food. The village doesn't have a good source of water for farming, but Leo also finds an unfinished aqueduct that could supply the needed water.

Leo takes on the job of completing the aqueduct and finds there are powerful opponents to the plan --particularly a man named Ciolino (Edward James Olmos) who likes the idea of living off welfare rather than working. Ciolino even gets a crew together to set the aqueduct on fire.
Someone else has noticed the construction project: a shepherd who teases Leo. Oddly, the shepherd recognizes Leo as the Pope. He also used to be a metaphorical shepherd -- the village priest. 

Leo asks why he left the priesthood, “Did you quit, or were you fired?” 

The shepherd says he was fired by God. He felt God didn’t come through for His people.

Meanwhile, back in the Vatican, officials scramble to cover for the missing Pope. To do so, they are less than honest.

Before we get on to evaluating the clergy and church (really the whole point of this blog) I want to say something about the film itself. It was fun. It was a pleasure to spend time with these characters, even the children, which isn’t always the case with child actors. After four weeks of watching Pope films that were long, pretentious, and dull, it was nice to have a film that was entertaining, as movies should be.

So what can we say in favor of Leo XIV?

First of all, nothing can be more Christlike than Leo’s choice to leave the pomp and luxury of the Vatican to go to a village as a common laborer. In Philippians 2 Paul wrote, “Being in the very nature God, [Jesus] did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
Leo’s decision to live as a commoner is a wonderful picture of the incarnation.

As a commoner, Leo has his ups and downs. He does a good job of resisting some temptations, but not others. Isabella's mother makes a pass at him, and he resists. When people mock him, he doesn’t say, “Do you know who I am?” But he does resort to violence when Giuliano is attacked. Many would have problems with a Pope who throws a punch.

As for the Church of Rome, it doesn’t come across that well. The cardinals of the Vatican seem to be petty bureaucrats who seem more concerned about appearances than ministry.

I have one other problem with Pope Leo. He returns to the Vatican for Easter Sunday. When he comes to the balcony to preach, he tells the story of his adventures in the village. It 's Easter, Papa. That's the day to tell about the Resurrection, the greatest story ever told, even if your story makes for an entertaining couple of hours.

Still, we're fans of Pope Leo XIV, giving him a Movie Churches rating of 3 out of 4 Steeples.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Take Me Down to Vatican City Month: Angels and Demons

Angels and Demons (2009)
Early in Ron Howard’s Angels and Demons, Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), accompanied by a member of the Vatican police, notices something about the statues they are passing as they walk through the Vatican. The Professor launches into a lecture (because he always launches into lectures) about “the Great Castration” performed by Pope Pius IX who had all the male statues in Vatican City “de-manned.” The officer, Inspector Olivetti, asks, “Are you anti-Catholic, Professor Langdon?” 

He responds, “No. I’m anti-vandalism.”

Both of Langdon's statements prove to be rather questionable. 

This 2009 film is a sequel to 2006's The Da Vinci Code (which we looked at earlier this year). In that film, the Catholic Church is a vile institution that employs assassins and knowingly hides the truth. If everything in the first film was true, then Langdon would have to be demented himself not to be anti-Catholic.

To make things more clear (or perhaps more murky), though the film Angels and Demons is a sequel to The Da Vinci CodeThe Da Vinci Code novel by Dan Brown is a sequel to Angels and Demons, an earlier novel by Dan Brown. It's possible for the protagonist to go through the events of Angels and Demons without hating the Catholic church, but I don’t see how anyone could go through the events of The Da Vinci Code and still have warm fuzzies about the Church.

At the beginning of the film, Langdon is approached by a representative from the Vatican. Langdon thinks it must have something to do with his request to visit the Vatican Archives. He has already written one book about the Illuminati, but his request to visit the Vatican Archives (which he needs to do to write a sequel) has been denied seven times.

Actually, Langdon is being recruited to help with a crisis at the Vatican. The pope has died and the four Cardinals who are the leading papal candidates have been kidnapped and threatened with execution. The Vatican police believe Langdon might be able to help because they believe the Illuminati may be responsible for the crimes.

This, of course, leads to one of Langdon’s impromptu lectures -- this one about the Illuminati. Langdon claims it is an organization formed in the time of Galileo. The church persecuted scientists for teaching “heretical” things, such as a heliocentric solar system, so they formed a secret organization called the Illuminati.

When Langdon arrives at Rome, he learns that someone also stole “anti-matter” from a lab and plans to blow up the Vatican after the four Cardinals are kidnapped. Langdon claims that in order to track down the fiends, he will need to do research in the Vatican Archives, but he is told that he can only do so with papal approval and there is no pope.

Langdon counters that he knows that during the “days of the empty throne,” the time before the conclave elects a pope, papal authority is invested in the “Camelengo.” Langdon goes to see the Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor), who asks Langdon if he believes in God. Langdon answers, “I’m an academic. My mind tells me I will never understand God.” 

Huh. Thomas Aquinas and C.S. Lewis seemed to carry off being both theists and academics.

Anyway, the Camerlengo lets Langdon into the Archives along with the anti-matter scientist, Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer). He just asks them to treat the Archives with respect. Langdon develops the theory that the Cardinals will be executed at four different cathedrals, each representing one of the Four Elements, which the Illuminati honor. (I thought that was strange; the Greek teaching on the elements had a basis in philosophy but not at all in science.)

Langdon believes one of the books in the Archives contains a clue, and he asks Vittoria to copy the information. Instead, Vittoria tears the page out of the book. Which is vandalism. 

Why don't I think Langdon is really anti-vandalism? Langdon just smirks at this. Later in the film, Langdon finds himself trapped in the Archives and to escape, he knocks down bookshelves and wildly fires a gun. He places his own life over securing the archives. He’s a vandal.

But we're not here to cite the hypocrisy of Professor Langdon. How are the church and clergy presented?

Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgard), the chief of the Vatican police, makes the one good defense of the Roman Catholic Church. When Langdon makes what the commander considers a disparaging remark about the church, Richter lectures, “My church comforts the sick and dying. My church feeds the hungry. What does your church do, Professor?”

The great crowds around the Vatican as the Conclave meets to elect a new Pope indicate that the Catholic Church has a lot of fans in the film.

So how does the clergy come across in the film? We mainly see the Camerlengo. He seems like a good guy initially. He gives the professor what he needs to investigate the crimes. When it looks like the Vatican may blow up, he urges the Conclave to break and go to safely. And what appears to be his most heroic act; when the anti-matter bomb is discovered, the Camerlengo snatches the bomb and all alone takes it up in a helicopter where the bomb can safely explode, and he parachutes safely to the ground.

After that desperate act, it looks like the Camerlengo will win the Papacy by acclamation, even though he's only a priest and not a Cardinal. But then we learn the Big Twist. 

(As they say, spoilers) 

There was no resurgence of the Illuminati. There were no outside conspirators. The Camerlengo has put together the whole diabolic scheme to get himself elected pope, including murdering the previous pope, apparently, so he can oppose science. (His reasoning is never very clear.) 

This is a pretty risky plot. It doesn’t go as planned, because Langdon does manage to save one of the bishops. How could the Camerlengo be so sure he’d survive the anti-matter explosion? Since there had never been such an event before, how can he be so sure anyone could survive the antimatter explosion?

When the Camerlengo’s plan fails, he lights himself on fire (which causes white smoke to billow from the Vatican smokestack).

The Cardinal who takes the job of Pope names himself Luke, as the physician represents “science.” He seems like he might be a good guy. But that Camerlengo certainly rates our lowest Movie Churches rating of One Steeple. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Funny Movie Churches: Ecclesiastical Dating Game

The comedy Keeping the Faith seems to answer the question no one had been asking: "What if Starsky and Hutch had taken vows in religious orders rather than becoming cops?" Like the S & H TV show and inevitable movie adaptation, two hip young guys try to change the world for the better -- in "Starsky and Hutch," with guns and badges, and in Keeping the Faith, with clerical collars and yarmulkes.

Brian (Edward Norton) and Jake (Ben Stiller) grew up buddies along with their friend Anna (Jenna Elfman). Then Anna moved away and Brian became a priest and Jake became a Rabbi, but the two guys remained good friends.

As always, I'm here to talk about the churches in the movies, not the movies themselves. I'm also, as a Gentile, going to exempt myself from talking about Jake's temple; except for two things.

1) Jake's bringing in a Gospel choir to help the congregational singing is very cool.

2) Jake dating and having affairs with a succession of women in his congregation is not cool.

So let's look at Father Brian's church with pros and cons. When we first see Brian in the church, it's a rather sad sight. He's an awkward screw-up, creating mayhem with the incense dispenser. But with a passing time montage, we see the church grow, with great crowds coming to hear Brian preach. It's unclear whether the growth is due to people being attracted to the cool, contemporary spin Father Brian brings to his ministry or whether it's because women think he's dreamy or a combination of the two. (A concurrent montage shows the same growth in Jake's temple.)

Brian talks about his calling to the priesthood. His mother thought she couldn't have children and she prayed for God to provide. She saw Brian as a gift from God and was thrilled when he decided to go into the ministry (a story that has a Hannah and Samuel feel to it).

We see Brian taking the confession of a young Hispanic man, and I like several things about the way he handles the situation. Brian has learned enough Spanish to use it in his ministry. He's comfortable as a priest talking with the young man about sexual temptation, reminding him that his feelings are natural but need to be channeled in appropriate directions.

One of the major plotlines is Brian's unexpected temptation when Anna re-enters his life, and he feels attracted to her but talks through his feelings and priestly obligations with an older priest (played by film director Miles Foreman), which is healthy. It's really important for people in ministry to have other people who will hold them accountable.

I also like that Brian works with Jake on community projects. In the film, they're planning a karaoke-focused senior center. Though the world doesn't necessarily need more karaoke, it's good to see congregations working together to meet community needs. I believe this can be done on many projects even when congregations have doctrinal differences.

My one big problem with Father Brian is his abhorrent theology, at least as demonstrated in the one sermon we hear. He talks about what a good thing it is that so many people are coming to church because it shows they have faith. He then makes a distinction between faith and religion. "Faith is a feeling, a hunch, that there is something bigger connecting everything together and that feeling is God." There is a definite pantheistic ring to that idea, rather than Christian. God is not a feeling or a hunch but our Creator, who desires to have a loving relationship with us, as a loving Father with His children.

I do appreciate the desire of the makers of this film to show members of the clergy as real people who pursue God's work for the betterment of others rather than themselves. I just wish Father Brian, in his rush to be relevant in the 21st century, hadn't left behind the best thing about the legacy of the church, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He only earns Two Steeples.

Funny Movie Churches - "A Sexy Man of God"

Sure, this thing is called Movie Churches, but we do stretch sometimes and talk about Movie Clergy. I guess there is a church in this film, but in the film, it's only used as part of St. Barnabas Lutheran School, of which Pastor Dan Parker is the principal. Unlike the Catholic priests in so many of the churches we look at here, Pastor Dan is the love interest for the title character in Raising Helen.

Kate Hudson stars as Helen (of course), a rising young executive at a modeling agency. Her sister and brother-in-law are killed in a car wreck, and Helen is left with their children (nothing gets a romantic comedy moving like vehicular death leaving behind some orphans). Helen moves the kids to New York City, where she discovers the sad state of the public schools. She then happens upon St. Barnabas (which is often called "St. Barbara's" in the film for reasons I never discerned).

Helen and the kids meet with the school principal. Helen, under the impression that the school is only for Lutherans, assures Pastor Dan that, "Lutheranism has been in our family for a long time. We all want to be Lutherans, right kids? Lutheran education is the best, right, Father?"

Comic hijinks ensue as Pastor Dan explains he's not a Father but a Pastor. Pastor Dan jokes that Helen and the kids (Audrey, Henry, and Sarah) will need to take a blood test for Lutheranism, a joke Helen takes seriously. She says the kids are hemophiliacs and can't take the blood test. Pastor Dan reminds Helen they're in Queens and couldn't possibly keep a school going with just Lutherans.

As Pastor Dan is giving them a tour of the school, Henry asks about the Lutheran position on the afterlife, do you believe in "heaven, hell, and purgatory?" Pastor Dan says, "Yes, we're pretty old school that way." It's kind of a funny response, but Lutherans aren't Purgatorians. And Henry has just lost his parents and really does have serious questions about the afterlife, but Pastor Dan never digs more deeply into the subject with the kid.

I do appreciate Pastor Dan's sense of humor and ease with newcomers; they're good pastoral qualities. But then we get into the dating life of Pastor Dan; because Pastor Dan is interested in Helen.

Pastor Dan invites Helen and the kids to come to the zoo where he's doing a "Blessing of the Animals" (and a rather pedestrian blessing it is). After the tour (accompanied by Simon and Garfunkel's "At the Zoo"), Pastor Dan asks Helen out.

She at first refuses, because it's "weird" to date a pastor. She tells him she won't be responsible for taking him away from God and his "vows". Pastor Dan explains that Lutheran pastors can marry, have kids and watch dirty movies. ("Well, not watch dirty movies, but we're working on that.")

Pastor Dan seems like a good guy, but neither he nor anyone else seems to figure out that there are more problems with his dating Helen than the straw man that pastors, like Roman Catholic priests, shouldn't date. Here are some things Pastor Dan and Helen don't seem to think about:

1) Helen probably should be concentrating on taking care of the kids rather than her dating life.

2) The principal a school should probably be quite cautious about dating the parents of students, particularly parents or guardians of new students.

3) The religious background and spiritual life of a person a pastor dates does matter. Helen lies to Pastor Dan about being a Lutheran but never tells him what she believes about God, faith or Jesus. He does say he has had problems dating women who are intimidated or put off by his being a pastor. But it seems like he would want to be with someone who would understand and support his ministry. After all, the world of ministry can be even more all-consuming than the world of modeling.

4) The actor playing Pastor Dan, John Corbett, was born the same year I was, 1961. The actress playing Helen, Kate Hudson, was born in the year Corbett probably graduated from high school, 1979. The internet rule to avoid creepy dating is to divide your age in half and add seven. The other person should be at least that age. By that measure, their relationship is creepy, but not Gary Cooper/ Audrey Hepburn creepy. One begins to wonder why this charming, good looking pastor is single in his forties.

5) Pastor Dan and Helen get caught smooching by the kids. This happens just after Pastor Dan describes himself as "a sexy man of God".

I was a big fan of the TV show "Northern Exposure". On that show, Corbett played the local DJ. I think I'd rather have Corbett as my DJ rather than as my pastor. If he pastors a church like he runs a school, Pastor Dan's church would probably get a thumbs down from me. Two Steeples on our Movie Churches scale.

Funny Movie Churches: South of the Border Double Feature

The first of today's Movie Churches, a monastery, is in 2006's Nacho Libre (directed by Jared Hess of "Napoleon Dynamite" fame).

If you go by the text of James 1:27, that true religion is to care for orphans and remain unstained by the world, then the monks of Nacho Libre are doing pretty well. They are caring for orphans, and they seem to have no idea what's going on in the world. But maybe they don't have everything wired.

Though they feed orphans, the budget for that feeding is pretty meager. Monk Nacho (Jack Black) sticks pretty much to a menu of refried beans usually, but not always, topped with charity chips (when left outside the back door of a restaurant).

Nacho does have a fascination with at least one aspect of the world, lucha libre wrestling. He notices that while luchadores have wealth, fame and respect from the world, he isn't even respected by his fellow monks. Nacho wants to do priestly duties beyond cooking, believing he "knows a buttload about the Gospel." But those priestly duties don't come.

So Nacho goes, in disguise with a luchador mask, into the wrestling ring. He finds that even when he loses a wrestling match, he's paid. And he uses that money to up the quality of the orphans' meals, providing them with salad with their beans.

One of the orphans spies Nacho in wrestling tights and suddenly Nacho has found respect. The kids begin to wrestle and one of the nuns, Sister Encarnation, scolds them. She turns to Nacho for back-up and he says, "The Bible says do not wrestle your neighbor."

Nacho goes on living a double life until one fateful worship service in the chapel. He lights a candle and accidentally sets his robe on fire, revealing his wrestling outfit underneath. Nacho's superior tells Nacho he's "not a man of God!"

Nacho isn't too fond of himself either. He asks God in prayer, "Why did you give me a desire to wrestle yet make me such a stinky warrior?"

As usually happens in movies, it all comes down to the Big Match. Nacho trusts that "God will be with me in the ring to make money for the orphans."

The big money Nacho wins seems to make everything okay with the other monks. But more importantly, it makes life better for the orphans -- and doesn't hurt the Movie Church rating which is a thumbs up.

Three Amigos (1986) has much in common with Nacho Libre. The action in both films takes place chiefly in Mexico. And both films are about very stupid characters. Some think they're both very stupid films. Fortunately, I don't have to judge such things. I'm just here to talk about the churches in the films.

And there is a church in Three Amigos. At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to a small town named Santa Poco (Little Saint) that is terrorized by bandits. A woman from the village, Carmen, goes to a city to find help, hoping to perhaps find gunmen who will defend the village.

She goes first to a saloon where men threaten her instead of helping her. She goes out on the street and hears church bells. The church bells give her hope, and she tells her brother, "You must have faith; the Holy Mother will help us."

Inside the church, a silent film is playing, one that features the Three Amigos, western heroes. In the film, the heroes rescue a village from bandits. Carmen knows that God has answered her prayers. Though we learn that the Amigos are actors without any experience of combat, Carmen turns to them for help. And (Spoiler), in the end they do save the day.

Both films have Three Steeple Ratings.

Funny Movie Churches Everybody Sing!

I admit that I like, on occasion, to hear profanity in prayers. The occasions are when a new believers are praying with the only vocabulary they have. If a seasoned pastor, on the other hand, uses such language to show how edgy he or she is, that's really annoying.

A new believer, or even someone who doesn't believe, can be an unsettling presence in the Church. Such a person can also allow a sedate congregation to get a fresh perspective of God and his work.

The movie church in the 1992 comedy Sister Act is in great need of a fresh perspective, of shaking up. St. Katherine's is a church and a nunnery in San Francisco. The nuns stay cloistered behind their walls because their Reverend Mother is afraid for their safety. A small handful of people attend the Sunday services, which seem to be rather sad affairs.

But then the plot happens. Whoopi Goldberg is a casino lounge singer named Deloris who witnesses a gangland murder and must hide at St. Katherine's disguised as a nun (I'm pretty sure this is fairly standard law enforcement procedure). And as can happen when a new person enters a church, there is some disruption, good disruption. With the arrival of Deloris, the church and convent change in two major departments: music and outreach.

In my opinion, there are three important components to music in the church:

1) Lyrics that honor God

2) Musical quality

3) Worship from the heart.

If anyone of these components are subpar, then worship can be painful. We've visited churches that had excellent musicians, but the lyrics were insipid, and the people in front seemed to be performers rather than worshipers.

The choir of nuns pre-Deloris in "Sister Act" seem sincere-- far be it from me to complain about the lyrics to "Crown Him with Many Crowns." But they sing boring musical arrangements of classic hymns, not in harmony or even on key. One is under the impression that the torturous tunes from the choir play a part in keeping people from attending the Sunday morning services.

Deloris contributes her musical skills to the choir, taking over as director. Initially, she uses traditional hymns with more jazzy arrangements. She also demands more rehearsal time for the women and gives them proper training. People in the community hear the improvement in the music and begin to flock to the services. The Reverend Mother is upset by this "blasphemous boogie-woogie," but the Monsignor is too happy to have people at his service.

Deloris also introduces songs that are adaptations of Motown pop. "My Guy" becomes "My God," and "I Will Follow Him" capitalizes the male pronoun in the lyrics. Sadly, these lyrics are not very profound, but they do attract people to church. And the lyrics really aren't much dimmer than those found in your average song on K-Love. Overall, the music of the church is much-improved post-Deloris' arrival.

Prior to Deloris' arrival, the Reverend Mother kept the nuns "safely" within the walls of St. Katherine's. But Christ's Great Commission (found in Matthew 28) calls His disciples to go out into the world. The only true place of safety is in God's will, and it's questionable whether the nuns doing arts and crafts separate from anyone not wearing the white and black is either safe or profitable to the Kingdom of God.

Deloris sneaks off to a bar across from the nunnery and is followed by two of the nuns. The nuns are inspired by the lively atmosphere and the jukebox. Apparently, in 1992, Motown was all that could be found in jukeboxes in San Francisco bars.

Over the objections of the Reverend Mother but with the support of the Monsignor, Deloris encourages the nuns to go out and serve the community. They go out to serve, painting over graffiti and repairing vehicles with musical accompaniment (Motown, of course). The nuns' ministry to the community attracts good publicity (which is a swell thing, unless one is hiding from criminals who have access to newspapers and television news programs).

"Sister Act" is at times cute ("That nun is dancing like a teen!") at times funny ("Whoopi Goldberg in a habit? Get out!") and at times dumb (nuns chartering a plane from San Francisco to Reno is quicker and more practical than making a phone call to the Reno police). But as always, I'm not here to review the film. The church at the beginning of the film might not get a thumbs up, but St. Katherine's at the end of the film earns Three Steeples.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Take Me Down to Vatican City Month: The Cardinal

The Cardinal (1963)
I'm sad to report that though it's Pope Month here at Movie Churches, you never see the Pope (or the Popes) in the 1963 film The Cardinal, though much of the film takes place in the Vatican and the pontiff(s) is(are) referred to (but never by name and you never see them). Since the film begins toward the end of World War I (1917) and goes through the beginning of World War II (1940), three popes, Benedict XV, Pius XI, and Pius XII led the Roman Catholic Church, but we don’t hear those names in the film. It reminds me of films where “The President” is discussed -- but not by name. Or Ben Hur where Jesus is talked about, but we never see His face.

So this is a Pope film without a Pope, but we do get (as you probably guessed from the title) a Cardinal. The film opens with the Cardinal’s commissioning service, and the vast majority of the film is a flashback to events in the life of Steven Fermoyle, the man being commissioned.

The film obviously isn't relying on the suspense of who the Cardinal will be...We know it’s Steve. And there’s no suspense about what will happen to Steve...He’ll become a Cardinal.   

Since we don’t have that suspense, perhaps we’ll be drawn in by the charismatic leading performance of… Tom Tryon. From what I could find, this was Tryon’s one big starring role in a film (though he was the star of The Magical World of Disney’s mini-series about Texas John Slaughter. The theme song went, “Texas John Slaughter made ‘em do what they oughta, and if they didn’t, they died.” That's how they made kids' shows back in the day.)

What did this movie have to offer? 

Director Otto Preminger was known for making movies about bold social issues, and this film takes on a bunch of them. The flashbacks begin with Steve coming back to Boston after studying in the Vatican. He finds his sister, Mona (Carol Lynley), is dating a Jewish man (John Saxon). Through Mona's story,  we face the significant issues of premarital sex, interfaith marriage, and abortion. Dealing with these issues causes Steve to question his faith. He wants to leave the priesthood but is given a leave of absence from the ministry to consider if he wanted to remain a priest.

Then we get an intermission. (Because like the Pope films for the last two weeks, this film was designed as a Roadshow Attraction with an intermission, with intermission music. Because theaters need to sell popcorn.)

Returning from intermission we see Steve in civilian clothes as a high school teacher in Vienna. A beautiful woman, a teacher named Annemarie (Romy Schiender), falls in love with him, not knowing he is a priest. Steve must decide whether to keep his vow of celibacy, which leads Steve to return to the priesthood because God is his true love. He returns to serve in the Vatican, as a liaison for American relations.

Once back in the priesthood, Steve must face two more big issues. The first is racism. A Catholic school in Georgia won’t allow black students in. Steve goes to investigate for himself after an African-American Catholic church is burned. He confronts bigotry while coming to the aid of a young black priest (Ossie Davis). Frankly, I would have liked the film better if this was the only story. though the way it was told seemed anachronistic. The protest signs, “God’s Law is Segregation” and “Keep Our Catholic Schools White” seem to be out of the 1950s and 1960s rather than the 1930s, but I could well be wrong about that. Steve fights to get the Pope to take a stand, but he must work through the Cardinals to present the case.

The final big issue Steve must deal with is Fascism. The Vatican sends him to Vienna again, just after the Anschluss (Nazi Germany’s invasion of Austria). The Austrian Bishop welcomes the German troops with the ringing of church bells. The Austrian people must vote on a plebiscite to determine whether they want to live under German rule. The Vatican orders the Austrian Bishop to remain neutral on the issue, but instead, the Bishop publicly gives a Heil Hitler salute and encourages priests throughout the country to support the Nazis, because he believes Hitler's promise that the Catholic Church in Austria will be left alone. Hitler immediately reneges on his promise after the plebiscite is approved by the Austrian people.

With war approaching, Steve is made a Cardinal. He preaches at his commissioning ceremony, “Freedom is America’s creed and at the heart of the Gospel… Pray for me that I might not falter, and pray for our beloved country.” Steve, the Cardinal, is sent back to America, and the film concludes. So, if you are looking for pro-American clergy, Steve is your guy.

Every week, we rate the clergy and/or church in a film, examining their approach to ministry. So, to begin with, let’s look at how Cardinal Steve approaches those significant social issues tackled in the film.

Pre-marital sex - Steve condemns it as sinful.

Inter-faith marriage - Steve is okay with it, as long as the non-Catholic spouse agrees to not interfere with the faith of Catholic spouse, or have anything to do with the religious education of the children (so standard Catholic take)

Abortion - Steve, as the family member making the medical decision, doesn’t okay an abortion for his sister’s health (sister dies, baby is saved).

Celibacy for priests - He’s for it

Fascism - He’s against it.

Racism - Stands with Scripture in opposition to it.

So, Steve’s positions on these various issues are reasonably consistent with the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church in the first half of the 20th Century.

What I found troublesome was Steve’s take on salvation. We see him teaching a Sunday School class of middle schoolers. Two boys approach Steve, asking him to settle a bet. “Joe says only Catholics can go to heaven. Why can’t Protestants go to heaven?”

Steve asks the class what they think. Someone calls out, “Because they ain’t Catholics.” The class murmurs agreement. And Steve tells them, “You’re all wrong. The Catholic Church teaches anyone: Catholic, Protestant, Mohammedan, Jew, who does God’s will according to his conscience will go to heaven.” There is a problem with this, which comes from the Apostle Paul quoting the Psalmist in Romans 3 talking about Jews and Gentiles:

“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Paul goes on to say, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile.” (You could fairly replace this with ‘There is no difference between Catholic and Protestant.’) “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

So while Steve is talking about salvation through people’s conscience, Paul says that's hopeless, and salvation comes only through the grace of Jesus. This brings Steve down a full Steeple in the Movie Churches rating system. But since he's anti-Ku Klux Klan and anti-Hitler (half of which might have been bold stands in 1963), we’re giving Cardinal Steve three out of four steeples.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

In Theaters Now: The Farewell

The Farewell (2019)
This film doesn’t have any clergy, and it doesn’t have a church. So what is The Farewell doing here at Movie Churches? 

Someone tells a story about a church in the film, and in this case, that's enough.

Writer/director Lulu Wang created a film “based on an actual lie.” It tells the story of an extended family separated by the countries where they choose to live. Awkwafina plays Billi, whose parents left China and brought her to New York City when she was six. Her paternal grandmother -- still in China -- is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the family decides to keep the information from her. But the family finds another way to gather to say goodbye -- Billi's cousin, who lives in Japan, will marry his girlfriend in China. All the family can gather at the wedding banquet and other festivities surrounding the wedding.

As the family gathers around Grandma’s dining table, Billi’s father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) talks about what he appreciates about America. Not long after they immigrated, he says, they visited an American church. Billi wandered toward the piano, but her father shooed her away. The pastor of the church asked why. Haiyan explained that since they moved to America, Billi hadn’t played the piano as she had in China. In the U.S., they couldn’t afford such an instrument. The pastor turned and left. She returned shortly and gave Haiyan a key to the church. “Please, let her come in whenever she wants to play.”

That’s all we know about the church, but we were reminded of a real-life church we visited in Hawaii. Their membership class consisted of a barbeque for people interested in joining. During the barbecue, church leaders discussed their doctrine and opportunities for people to serve in the church. At the end of the barbeque, anyone who wanted to join the church was given a key to the building.

If key gifting is the only thing we have to go on, we’re giving the church mentioned in The Farewell Four Steeples.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Take Me Down to Vatican City Month: The Shoes of the Fisherman

The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)
This week’s Pope film, 1968’s The Shoes of the Fisherman, has a number of things in common with last week’s film, The Agony and the Ecstasy. Both were epics released in the “Roadshow” release style used by studios in the 1950s and 1960s in an effort to make movies into “events” to battle television's growing competition. Before a film had a wide release, screenings where moviegoers had to buy tickets in advance were held in major cities.

An overture consisting of music from the film's score played before the movie began. At the end, exit music played. (I'm all for bringing back overtures, thus killing the extra-insipid, plot-spoiling trailers and theatrical ads for Coke and Hulu.) "Roadshow" films also had intermissions that usually lasted fifteen minutes. That makes sense for a film like Lawrence of Arabia (clocking in at 3 hours and 36 minutes) or Ben Hur (3:32), Shoes is only 2 hours and 42 minutes and Agony is even shorter -- 2 hours and 18 minutes, which is about the length of your average Avengers film. The attempt was to make these films appear more epic than they perhaps deserved.

Both films are also based on 1960s New York Times bestselling novels. Shoes is based on a novel by the Australian writer, Morris West, who has specialized in novels focused on political intrigue within the Roman Catholic Church. Shoes of the Fisherman (the novel) had the PR blessing of being released on the day Pope John XXIII died. The novel The Agony and the Ecstasy was written by Irving Stone (who also wrote another bestseller-turned-into-a-major-motion-picture, Lust for Life, about Vincent van Gogh). Unlike the books featured in July’s “I Read the Book” Month, I doubt I’ll ever get around to reading these novels because if they're anything like these films, they’re long and tedious. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, and you probably shouldn’t judge a book by its cinematic adaptation, but there you go.

But since they both feature popes and other clergy, I'll watch them. That's sort of the point of Movie Churches.

We meet the central character of this story, Kiril Pavlovich Lakota (played by Anthony Quinn) as a political prisoner in the Soviet Union, who has served two decades in Siberia. During his time of imprisonment, the authorities pressured him to renounce his faith. Stories are told of how Kiril was forced to watch other priests killed, but he stayed true to God and his vows.

His release is a worldwide news story, and Kiril gives an exclusive interview to a network reporter, George Faber, played by TV star David Jannsen. (The film wastes so much time on Faber’s marriage and affair with a younger woman. I guess they wanted to throw some romance into a story about a group of men who made vows of celibacy.)

Kiril is soon promoted to the role of Archbishop and makes the questionable choice of making Father David Telemond (Oskar Werner) his main advisor. Telemond is a theologian and Kiril is bothered by the fact that Telemond never discusses the soul in his writings. He writes the “Cosmic Christ” more than of Jesus of Nazareth and his theology seems quite dodgy from an orthodox position. Telemond says, “I believe in a personal God, Christ, and the Spirit. But if I lost faith, I would still believe in the world.” So he believes in the world more than God. Okay, interesting take for a priest.

The pope dies and the film focuses on the political intrigue involved in selecting a new pontiff. Eventually, Kiril is chosen as the new pope. (Jannsen’s reporter breathlessly tells his audience, “It’s the Russian! There’s going to be a Russian Pope!”)

It takes some convincing, but Kiril eventually agrees to become pope, “I accept, and may God have mercy on me.” But he won’t take a new name. “I will be called by my own name.” Personally, I always found the tradition of a pope taking on a new name charming, just as “Simon” became “Peter,” but Kiril isn’t into it, wanting Mother Russia to be remembered in his Vatican role.

As Pope, Kiril makes the surprising decision not to publish Telemond's work under the authority of the church because the beliefs he writes about are heretical. Not a bad choice, but you have to wonder why Kiril's had this guy as his chief advisor.

As Pope, Kiril wears civilian clothes to visit the common people in Rome. He comes across reporter Faber’s wife, Dr. Ruth (Barbara Jefford) and goes with her to visit a dying Jewish man. He gives the man a blessing in Hebrew. He also gives Ruth some marital counseling (“You must ask yourself whether your love has been misplaced, or if it was never really there.”)

He also puts on a civilian suit to attend a summit between the Premier of the Soviet Union and the Chairman of Communist China. Throughout the movie, the two countries have been on the brink of war because the people of China are starving. The Soviet Union's grain could be theirs if they invade, Pope Kiril hopes to be an emissary of peace, but the Chinese Chairman says, “You come only with words.”

The Pope counters, “There is a man buried in London who had only words, but he brought about both of your revolutions.” Hearing this Pope praising Karl Marx, whose philosophy had led to both governments and whose teachings led those governments to oppress Catholics as well as other people of faith, rather astounded me. It's arguable the words of Marx led to the actual famines during Stalin’s reign and the film's fictional Chinese famine.

Upon his return to the Vatican, Pope Kiril (in his first major address to the world) vows to give all the wealth of the Roman Catholic Church, selling all art and properties, to the “starving brothers in China.” He doesn’t consult with anyone before making this decision, which I consider rather rash. Though I am rather critical about the wealth stored by the Vatican, would the authoritarian rulers of China be better stewards of that wealth? And how is he going to go about selling the art? Is the Sistine Chapel going on the auction block?

Jesus said His followers should be as shrewd as serpents but as harmless as doves. This pope seems as shrewd as a sheep, and that can be a dangerous thing. But because he wants to do what is right, Pope Kiril still receives a three (out of four) steeples as his Movie Churches rating.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Take Me Down to Vatican City Month: The Agony and the Ecstasy

The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
I was ordained in the Evangelical Free Church, and I’ve got to admit I have no idea of the name of the current president of the denomination. (Kevin Kompelian. Okay; thanks, Google.) I currently attend a Presbyterian Church (P.C.U.S.A.) and have never given thought about who is the denomination’s president. (Kathy Luekert. Gee, thanks Alexa, but that’s not really the point here.) Whereas most every person who pays attention to media of any kind, even if that person has never set foot in a Catholic Church, knows the name of the Pope. (Yes, Siri, Pope Francis. Everybody knew that. That was kinda my whole point here.)

Whether he wants to be or not, the Pope is a power player in the political world and popular media. This is rarely true for any other religious or denominational leader, and that’s why we’re going to take a whole month to look at films that feature the Pope and the power center of the city/state of the Vatican. After all, I couldn’t find a single film about the President of the Evangelical Free Church of America (not even a documentary.)

We're kicking off Pope Month with Julius II, a pontiff from history, in director Carol Reed’s 1965  spectacular, The Agony and the Ecstasy. Julie really isn’t the big draw for this film, which tells the story of Michelangelo’s painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. People want the story of Mikey, not Julie, though both are played by big stars (Rex Harrison plays Julius II and Charleton Heston as Michelangelo).  Still, the story (adapted from Irving Stone’s novel) of the film is about the battle between two large personalities. According to the film, Michelangelo didn’t want to do the work, partly because he considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter, but the Pope badgered him to do the work throughout the project.

Of course, here at Movie Churches, we're here to evaluate clergy and churches, not art, but we can't help bringing art up for this movie. But to the point: what kind of clergyman was this Pope Julius II?

One of the first things we hear about him is that he’s “more of a warrior than a Pope.” We first see him in a full suit of armor (literal armor, not the full armor of God of Ephesians 5.) The film takes place during the War of the League of Cambrai, which began with the Papal State joining France to war against the Republic of Venice. The war eventually became the Papal State with Venice battling France (with various European nations pitching in between 1508 and 1516.)

This identity for the Pope is a problem for me. It makes me think Julius II wasn’t wearing a WWJD bracelet. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight… My kingdom is not of this world.” Julius II is all about the fighting.

He fights continually with Michelangelo. They fight over what project to work on (the artist wants to continue working on Julius’ tomb when Julius asks him to paint the Sistine Chapel. Julius wanted the chapel to have a tableau of the Apostles and Michelangelo wants to paint… something else. And they argue over money.

Whenever Michelangelo raises the issue of money, the Pope says he shouldn’t discuss such things in the presence of the pontiff. When a price is negotiated, Julius always stipulates that rent will be deducted from payment (rent for housing the Pope provides). At times Julius demands Mike pay the rent, even though the Pope hasn't paid the artist. (To be fair, the Pope is often strapped for cash because he needs money to fight his wars. And when he's really short on cash, he sells more appointments in the church. To help fund the chapel, he promotes five men to Cardinal rather than four.)

Nonetheless, Julius does appreciate Michelangelo’s work. He is impressed by the portrait of God as thoughtful and loving, not vengeful. He says, “What you have painted here, my son, is not a portrait of God. It’s proof of faith.”

Michelangelo responds, “I hadn’t thought that faith needed proof.” 

The Pope replied, “Not if you’re a saint or an artist. I am merely a pope.”

He also defends the nudity in Michelangelo’s art against some of the cardinals' charges of obscenity. The artist proclaims that the human body is a creation of God, and there is no need for shame, “Shame is a gift from the cardinals”.

When the Pope believes he is dying, he calls Michelangelo to his bedside and commands him to finish his work. The Pope recovers, and the work is finished.

Years later, when the Pope truly faces death, Julius has many regrets. “You make a better priest than I do, Michelangelo. Yet I have tried to serve Him in the only way I know how… It’s a terrible thing to strive for a lifetime and come to the final realization that you have failed.”

From our perspective, Julius II wasn’t a total failure. He not only urged the work of the Sistine Chapel, but also construction on St. Peter’s Basilica. The great art and architecture of this period have led many to the worship of God. Julius considers the best thing he did was commissioning the work of Michelangelo. Speaking to the artist, Julius says, “I take no credit. I was moved by another hand. As easily and skillfully as you move your brush. Strange how He works His will. Let us share pride in having been made His instruments.”

So when it comes to our Movie Churches ratings, Pope Julius II earns a meager 2 Steeples. (And though we don’t rate church buildings, if we could we’d give the Sistine Chapel more than our 4 Steeple rating.)