Thursday, September 17, 2020

Back to Back to School Month: Catching Faith

Catching Faith

I know I need to talk about churches and clergy in these films, but I have to deal with another issue here at the start, because it bothered me the whole time I was watching Catching Faith.

A Christian high school football team is a major part of the plot of this film. The son of the family, Beau Taylor (Garrett Westton), is a senior and a star player -- presumably on the varsity team.  The football games are played on school days (Fridays?) in the afternoon. My high school had some varsity day games, but they were on Saturdays.

Surely this school has a junior varsity team. If the Varsity plays after the end of the school day and after a JV game (and perhaps after a freshman game) in Wisconsin in the fall, surely the sun would not be burning bright as it is during all the games in this film -- including the end-of-season championship game.

Okay, there is one other thing that bothered me in this film -- let me vent, and then we'll get to the part where we talk about the church and clergy. Early in the film, the mother of the Taylor family, Alexa (Lorena Segura York) is asked, “What do you do?”

Her answer was, “We have twins. My son is the star of the football team. My daughter is a valedictorian.” I have all kinds of problems with this, including, of course, that this woman defines herself solely by her offspring, but that's not even my biggest issue with this. Something else that bothers me more is that she calls her daughter, Ravyn (Bethany Peterson), a valedictorian. Since the football season is in process, this is obviously the fall (even though the sun sets inexplicably late), so that year's valedictorian is months away from being decided. We also see Ravyn's dad (Dariush Moslemi) hand her a thin, business-sized envelope at a football game. The skinny envelope contains early acceptance at some great college (anyone who watched Gilmore Girls knows skinny college envelopes don’t have good news. You want a fat envelope. Also, this movie is from 2015 -- didn't that kind of thing come in an email or online portal?) Ravyn's parents give her a quick pat on the back and then go back to watching the game. 

Also, the letter says she has to keep her grades up to keep her acceptance,t wasn’t  so it isn't really an acceptance letter.

Alright, enough of preliminaries. Is there any church or clergy in this film (since that's what we're here to talk about)? We do see Alexa leaving a church service. The building is a big brick edifice; I’d guess it was a mainline church. We never go inside that church or meet clergy from there, but there are two other Christian institutions depicted in the film: a Bible study and a Christian school.

Alexa has just started attending a small group with women who all seem to be about her age, all attractive, well dressed, and able to meet during the day. It could well be that this is a Bible study affiliated with a church, but they never talk about a church. It certainly isn’t Bible Study Fellowship, but if it is some other parachurch organization, we never hear what it is.

The group is starting a new study which doesn’t focus on any particular book of the Bible or concept in Scripture, but rather on self-discovery. (At the end of one session the group leader does say, “Read I Kings chapters 17 and 18,” but we never hear the group discuss that, or any other Scripture.)

Alexa seems to like the people in the group, but initially, she's unwilling to discuss anything personal. She feels pressured to share more deeply, and snaps at one point, “You don’t like or accept my answers.” But eventually she seems to find the women in the group to be a source of encouragement and strength.

The big conflict in the film is when Beau goes to a drinking party after a game. The police bust the party, but let Beau off. But the school has a Code of Conduct that says drinking, among other offenses, makes him a student ineligible for extracurricular activities. Beau’s parents insist on Beau reporting himself.

The school coach, Coach Z (Bill Engvall), doesn’t try to work around the school rules to have Beau play. He lets Beau sit on the bench, but he doesn’t let his star play. And he encourages Beau by telling him that just as a receiver must trust the quarterback, on the field of life each of us must trust God as our quarterback. As a teacher at a Christian school, he does serve a pastoral role and does it well.

I appreciated how Beau and Ravyn were depicted dealing with real temptation and moral choices and their relationship with each other. I was disappointed that the film culminated with the Big Game. (Will there be a way for Beau to play in the playoff game? Will the school win the game? I’ll leave you in suspense.)

The school and Bible study do encourage the Taylors to see God and live in integrity, so I’m giving them Three Steeples out of Four. (If that Bible study actually studied the Bible, they might have rated higher.)

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Back to Back to School Month: The Devil's Playground

The Devil’s Playground
There are quite a lot of films called The Devil’s Playground, but few of them would work for the purposes of this blog about churches and clergy. The 1932 documentary on fishing around the world certainly wouldn’t help. Neither would the 1937 romance with Richard Dix as a submarine officer and Delores del Rio as a dance hall girl. I love Hopalong Cassidy as much as the next guy, but his 1946 adventure pits him against a corrupt sheriff, not a corrupt clergyman. The 2002 film about Amish youth on Rumspringa comes closer, but it’s a documentary and we generally do feature films here. I’m also not going to bother with the 2010 feature about a mercenary seeking a cure in a zombie apocalypse or the 2018 short about military veterans who become cartel hitmen.

No, the best The Devil’s Playground for our purposes was made in 1976 by writer/director Fred Schepisi. Schepisi was a part of the Australian film renaissance of the 1970s and 1980s that included directors such as Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock), Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career), George Miller (Mad Max), and Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant). Schepisi first received international attention with his film about Aborigines, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.

Schepisi based the script of The Devil’s Playground on his own experiences as a student in an all-boys Catholic school in the 1950’s. The film opens in the beginning of a school year in 1953. Tom Allen (Simon Burke) is a thirteen-year-old student at a De La Salle Brothers seminary for young men in Melbourne.

In much of the film, the priests deal with the “coming of age” of the boys (chiefly issues of sexuality). The sexual abuse of young people by priests has been an important story for some time now, but this film made in the 1970’s doesn’t portray any physical abuse of the children (but emotional and psychological abuse perhaps).

Let's look at the individual priests of the Brotherhood at the school. They certainly vary in temperament and suitability for caring for young students.

Brother Francine (Arthur Dignam) most probably should never be allowed within hearing distance of adolescents. We first meet him as he is watching boys shower. Most of the boys are wearing bathing suits, but one is naked. He says, “That’s disgusting. The body is the enemy of the soul. The rest of you boys, avert your eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul. Guard against your senses at all times. Preparing to be a brother requires… self-denial, self-discipline to be one of God’s chosen few.” (As a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, Brother Francine should know that calling the body evil in this way is Gnostic heresy. God made our bodies and our bodies are not “enemies.”)

Brother Francine is the character who drops the title line, saying, “Undisciplined minds are the devil’s playground,” but as the film goes on, we learn that his mind is not disciplined. We see him take the boys to a public swimming pool and Francine peeps at women and girls in the changing room (I do hope most public restrooms in Australia were built better. In the film it is scary-easy to look into the changing rooms from the outside). As Francine rests in his bed, we see some of his lurid fantasies of swimming with naked women.

Eventually, we see Francine break down utterly in front of his fellow priests. He's sent off to a psychiatric facility after this outburst, “I hate life. It’s evil, sick, despicable. The body dominates the mind. It always wins. What else are you thinking, Frank? Your mind is a cesspool of desire. The only answer is to give in, or lose your mind. I have a damn good body, but no one has looked at it for years, let alone touched it. It’s done nothing. But the mind, it has. It’s sinned. Oh, how it’s sinned. Twisted, cowardly, perverted sins. I hate life. I hate it.” This is a man who should not have been allowed around young men.

The school brings Father Marshall (played by novelist Thomas Keneally) to speak at a special retreat for the boys that focuses on sexual purity and preparing for a future in ministry. He has a much more positive view of life than Francine, “Don’t give into falderal and fanatics, be yourself. Keep your smile seen around the world.” He concludes the conference with these words, “I’m sure you all have a future in the religious life. This retreat should have helped you grow in confidence for your future vocation. I have no more to say. I’ve enjoyed being with you. I’d give my right arm to stay with you longer. By the way boys, if you ever become a missionary, don’t use that phrase with a cannibal.” He then blesses the desserts the boys are about to enjoy after a two day fast.

We see Brothers Jim (Peter Cox) and Frank in civilian clothes when they go to a soccer game in the city. After the game, the men stop at a bar where they drink freely. Frank begins to flirt with a woman in the bar, and when he is asked what he does for a living he responds, “I’m a school teacher.” Jim is shocked by Frank and stumbles drunkenly out of the bar and Frank must follow him. (At the end of the film -- spoiler! -- when young Tom flees from the school, Jim and Frank give him a ride to the boy’s home in the city.)

Brothers Frank and Jim seem like nice guys who encourage the students. Brother Arnold (Jonathan Hardy) who leads the boys in singalongs and soccer games. Brother Victor (Nick Tate) is assigned for sharing the facts of life with the students and seems to do so in a comfortable and practical way.

Also on campus is a retired member of the faculty, Brother Sebastian (Charles McCallum), who seems to be getting senile. He has a different view of things than most priests saying, "What’s so wrong with masturbation? We spend so much time hating our bodies.” He is opposed to Brother Francine in every way, particularly in temperament. Toward the end of the film, Sebastian talks with Tom and encourages him to live his own life, which is a turning point in Tom deciding to leave the school.

So the priests are a mixed bag. A worrisome thing is that the school doesn’t quash a secret society of students whose sadomasochistic practices lead to the death of a student.

So what's the steeple rating for the seminary and clergy in The Devil’s Playground? Two Steeples, which isn't our lowest rating, but it isn’t great.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Back to Back to School Month: The Mighty Macs

The Mighty Macs

This film makes an ideal transition from Nun Month to Back to School Month (though it would also work as a changeover to Sports Month). The Mighty Macs tells the true story of Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino), a first-time college basketball coach who led the women’s team of a small, Catholic college to a national championship (actually three national championships.)

Like any film based on true events, some liberties were taken with the facts, but some of the more incredible details of the movie were true. Rush was only 22 years old when she began coaching, barely older than her students (though Gugino was 38 when she played the role). She was married to Ed Rush (David Boreanaz), an NBA referee (the film leaves out that she was already the mother of two young children who she would sometimes bring to practices). 

The school was sadly lacking in supplies. Rush began coaching at the school with only one basketball and no gym (it had recently burned down; all games the first season were away games). The school couldn’t afford new uniforms, so they were forced to go with a “retro” look.

But we, of course, are not here to write about basketball but about the clergy in the film, which in this case is nuns. And to start with, this is a pretty good group of nuns.

Immaculata University in rural Pennsylvania was founded in 1920 by nuns of the order of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and run by nuns. When the film opens, in November of 1971, the school is financial straits. Rush goes in for a job interview with the school’s head who is also the convent's Mother Superior (Ellen Burstyn).

In the film, one of the first questions the Reverend Mother asks Rush is “Which Catherine are you named after?” 

Rush dodges the question but does nothing to dissuade the Reverend Mother from thinking she was from a Catholic background (which was not the case). The Mother Superior makes it clear her main objective for the basketball program is to suppress the girls’ hormones. She is rather alarmed by the thought that Rush’s coaching policy is to turn the girls into real athletes but offers Rush $450 a year to coach the team. Rush accepts (this was indeed her salary). 

The coach tells her, “Mrs. Rush, I hope you are a better coach than negotiator. I would have paid you $500.”

Rush laughs, "I would have done it for nothing."

The sisters, students, and staff attend mass together, though we do see Coach Rush arriving late (she does cross herself upon entry). She passes a note to a student during the service, urging her to join the basketball team. The coach seems to take every opportunity to recruit.

Rush also works to raise funds for her team (really, to obtain any funds at all for her team) from the school's administration, but the Reverend Mother responds, “We’re also requesting once again for the heating system in the freshman dorm be replaced.” As Rush continues to pester her for money, she eventually shows the coach the meager resources used to care for ailing and elderly retired nuns on the grounds and her own quite humble living quarters. She tells Rush, “This is my room, you can help yourself to anything I have.” 

Rush begins to seek outside sources, appealing to the townspeople and alumni.

Rush gets assistance from a Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton), a young nun who serves as her assistant coach. The young nun had been praying for God’s guidance about continuing in her calling and taking her final vows. We see her in the church praying, “I implore You to send me a sign. I am listening for Your voice.” Just then, she hears a basketball whistle downstairs. She goes downstairs to see the team working out in the cramped recreation center and is recruited. She enjoys working with the practices and Rush appreciates having another driver to get the team to games.

Sister Sunday and Rush invite local boys to scrimmage against the girls. (We actually see Sister Sunday slap one of the boy’s butts during one of these practices!) When the Reverend Mother learns of this, she reprimands them -- no males were allowed on campus at that time. Rush also gets into hot water when they run some unorthodox drills. When it's found out, Sister Sunday takes the responsibility and the hit, but the Reverend Mother threatens this will be Rush’s last season.

Rush and Sunday and their team do quite well. They are eventually invited to the National Tournament, but they have no money for transportation to the tournament. But the girls on the team sell soaps and “soothing creams” that were donated to the school, going door to door in the community. They also sell buttons reading “We Will Be #1.”

The Mother Superior is eventually won over to their cause. She gives them the money she saved from her poker winnings. (Poker night had, in more prosperous times, been one of the more unusual recreations for the sisters at the school.) There's enough to buy bus passes for the team, but not the coaches.

They discover another way to cut costs. At that time, airlines allowed clergy to fly free. Sister Sunday wears her habit -- and Coach Rush dons one too. As they wait for their flight, Rush confesses another “sin” to Sister Sunday. She isn’t really a Catholic, she’s a Baptist. Much is forgiven by those who win games. Even that.

The other nuns at the school also support the team, dipping into their personal funds to support the team by attending the championship games. A banner can be spotted in the stand at one of the Macs' games, reading “Mark 9:23.” (“Everything is possible for one who believes.”)

Rush and the Macs did win that championship -- and two after that. But that isn’t our concern here. What is important to us here at Movie Churches is that the Sisters of Immaculata University guide their students with love and care and present an example of simple, godly living, earning our highest Movie Church rating of Four Steeples.

(This film is rated 'G' which is pretty rare these days.)

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Movie Churches goes back to Back to School

Is it just me, or do other people find it strange that stores are still having “Back to School” sales in areas where kids will just be going to school virtually? Do kids really need a new backpack to show off on the Zoom calls? 

So much is different in this school year, even for those physically going back to campus. Most school sports aren’t happening -- at least not this fall --  and I have no idea what life on the playground is like these days. Fortunately, at least one thing about this back-to-school season hasn't changed one darn bit, and that is Movie Churches “Back to School” posts. Yes, we’re going back to it. 

It has been a whole year since we did this, so if you want to review any of our past posts, here’s your opportunity to review in order to be head of the class.

- Another Christian film from the Kendrick brothers about the superiority of Christians in sports. (This film has a bonus of really questionable ethical competitive choices.)

Heaven Help Us - There is a subgenre of Catholic High School films, and this is a decent representative of the form. We’ll be returning to more of the same this month.

Breakthrough - A well-produced Christian film based on a true story about the miraculous healing of a young man who fell beneath the ice.

Girls’ Town - As a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I was happy to be able to enjoy snarky one-liners as I watched yet another film about a Catholic school (though this was an all-girls school for delinquents.)

Holy Goalie! - Can a school be saved by its soccer team winning the big championship game? I’ll leave you in suspense.

Sister Act II: Back in the Habit
- Will Whoopi Goldberg ever return to this franchise (this time as a teacher at a Catholic School)? I kind of hope so, because at the least, these films have decent soundtracks.

A Matter of Faith - This film deals with the conflict between Creationism and Evolution. The judge is from Night Court and there's not a lot of nuance.

Saint Ralph - The cross country running of Overcomer joins up with the Catholic school of Heaven Help Us. We called it a miracle film in the original review.

St. Vincent - If Bill Murray is in a film, I’m there. Yet another visit to a Catholic school.

God’s Club
- When you see a powerhouse cast like Stephen Baldwin, Corbin Benson, and Lorenzo Lamos, you know you’re in for a filmmaking tour-de-force… Or more likely a whiney, craptastic Christian film.

Au Revoir, les Enfants - Frankly, we don’t often get to look at great films from great filmmakers in this blog, but we got to with this Louis Malle classic.

Saved and Boys’ Town - This double feature came early in the history of Movie Churches with two very different films. Saved is an occasionally vulgar spoof of contemporary Christian schools. Boys’ Town is a rather saccharine telling of the founding of a longstanding Catholic ministry in Nebraska.

Fortunately, you don't have to physically go back to school or the movie theater to get schooled on these Movie Churhes.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Return of Nun Month: Nunsploitation!

Nunsploitation Trailers

When some people think of films about nuns, they think of some of the sweetest and most wholesome films that have ever graced the silver screen, like The Sound of Music and The Bells of Saint Mary. But a different kind of nun films, nun films that are not so high-minded and proper. An entire genre of nun films -- Nunsploitation pictures -- features horror, sadomasochism, and explicit sexuality. (If you think I’m making this up, “Nunsploitation” does have its own Wikipedia entry, and we all know that if it’s on Wikipedia it must be true.)

We have had at least one example of Nunsploitation already here at Movie Churches. Back in 2018, with the theme of horror movie sequels, we featured The Nun, a movie from the Conjuring series (not to be confused with a different The Nun we looked at earlier this month). In a previous Nun Month, we looked at a film obsessed with Nun sexuality, The Little Hours. These were both fairly respectable films from major studios. Nunsploitation films are often the product of independent filmmakers trying to make a quick buck with tawdry and sensational material.

We won’t dive too deep into why these films are made and why people watch them. Some think it comes from former Catholic school students who viewed their former teachers as objects of terror and desire. Now those fantasies of fright and lust have reached more broadly to the culture as a whole, even the world culture.

There are a whole lot of these films, and frankly, I didn’t want to spend a great deal of time watching even a few prime examples of the genre. (I also didn’t want to pay the utility bill that would come from all the long showers I need after watching many of these films.) Instead, I decided if Movie Churches needed to look at the world of Nunsploitation, we would do it through looking at two secondary sources: movie trailers and Wikipedia summaries. Here are some of the most notorious examples of Nunsploitation through the years.

Haxan (1922) - Nunsploitation is not a new thing (though there have been a flurry of nun horror films in the last few years.) This Danish/Swedish “documentary” looked at witchcraft and Satanism during the Middle Ages. Along with witches riding brooms and child sacrifice, there are depictions of demon-possessed nuns and monks. This film was banned from the United State for years because of its use of nudity and torture. After sensational portraits of the devil and magic, the film ends with a disclaimer that mental illness is the most likely explanation of this phenomenon from history.

The Devils
(1971) This big-budget film from a major studio (Warner Brothers) had a major director (Ken Russell) and stars (Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave) who all were comfortable making a film that received an X rating (though some scenes considered too blasphemous and sexually explicit were cut for the U.S. release). It was a financial success in Britain and the U.S. but was banned in Finland. A full version of the film has never had an unedited release, but the U.S. edit has been released on the Shudder Channel.

The Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentine (1974) This Italian film takes a bit of its plot from Romeo and Juliet with young lovers from feuding families kept apart by sending the young woman to a convent. The convent is a madhouse of torture with multiple nuns accosting each other. There are also swordfights when the young man comes to rescue his beloved.

School of the Holy Beast (1974) Japan has a very small Christian population, but that hasn’t stopped a number of rather perverse films about convents from being made there. This was the first, based on a manga. It featured an innocent young woman subjected to hypocritical, perverse Sisters. The trailer's credits promise, “Sex! Passion! Lust! Incest! Vengeance! God!”

Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun
(1977) This is actually a German film, but it was filmed in Portugal. Sixteen-year-old Maria is sent to a convent that is secretly run by Satanists. Maria is tortured and forced to have sex with men, women, and the Devil himself (played by an actor by the name of Hebert Fux.)

Alucarda (1977) One of Mexico’s entries in the genre is a vampire film (note what you get when you spell the title backwards, a bit of a nod to or theft from Son of Dracula.) But you don't only get vampires, but also what looks like mummies and some exorcisms to boot. And bloody, naked nuns.

The Killer Nun (1979) All the previous films were period films, usually set in the Middle Ages, but  this Italian film starring Anita Ekberg has a contemporary setting. It's about a nun whose brain tumor makes her both homicidal and sexually adventurous. Oh, and a drug addict as well. A bit of a noir mystery, but still plenty of titillation and sensationalism.

After a boom of Nunsploitation in the seventies, there was a bit of a break for the genre for a couple of decades (with some exceptions such as 1986’s Convent of Sinners and 1993’s Dark Waters  -- A No Shame Presentation). The genre has made a comeback in this century, with a bit more of an emphasis on the horror and violence over the sex.

The Nun (2006) There are a whole lot of films called The Nun (we’ve featured two of them here at Movie Churches). This film owes a whole lot to the teen slasher horror films of the previous two decades (such as the Friday the 13th and Scream films). A horrible nun teacher was killed, perhaps by her students, and the teenage children of those students are dying off in horrible ways. One of the students even says in the trailer, “So you’re trying to tell me this whole thing is an I Know What You Did 18 Summers Ago thing?”

Nun of That
(2009) This is a low budget camp fest about “the Order of the Black Habit” that had been “for over 1500 years fighting crime and keeping the world safe from evil.” For some reason all of the nuns in the order are named after the Seven Deadly Sins and quip in 1970’s jive as they dispatch lowlife thugs. The trailer promises “A blast for you and blasphemy for Good Friday 2009!”

Nude Nuns with Big Guns (2010) Well, the title says it all, doesn’t it? The trailer promises, “Freak Show Entertainment is proud to present the most unholy film you will see this year!” A young nun is raped, beaten, and abused by priests and a motorcycle gang, and then claims that God has called her to revenge.

Bad Sister (2015) This Nunsploitation film owes much to another kind of Hollywood favorite brand of sexual thriller. The Fatal Attraction influence is strong in this one about a teaching nun who seduces one of her male high school students and doesn’t like to think of him being with anyone else.

Nun Smack
(2016) This extremely low budget comedy is about drug dealers who hide out in a church (which doesn’t look Catholic) with three nuns who are not what they seem to be (think Dusk to Dawn, if that helps.)

The Nunsploitation trend continues, though originality isn’t always at the forefront. 2018 brought us The Curse of the Nun and 2020 brought A Nun’s Curse, both extremely low budget affairs ripping off 2018’s The Nun with ghost/demon nuns terrorizing young couples. Neither is a film I will be seeking out.

Okay, I did watch one Nunsploitation film while researching this post. I watched Come to Me Sister Mary because it was a short film, only 18 minutes long. It tells the story of a nun who gives in to temptation, dressing in civilian clothes and picking up a man in a bar. Things get rather grim, and the nun pays for her sins. Though she prays for forgiveness, there is no grace to be found in this film. Like many Nunsploitation films of this last decade, horror takes precedence.

So I ask again, why has this genre continued to have such apparent success? Maybe we sinners hate to think of other people being so very good when we know our hearts are so very wicked. That's really quite sad.

Without exception the above nuns, priests, convents, and churches earn our lowest Movie Church rating of One Steeple.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Return of of Nun Month: Viridiana


Prior to this blog, I had a general interest blog (okay, my interests blog) in which I -- more often than not --wrote about movies. For the Return of Nun Month, I thought I ought to dig up a post I wrote for that blog back in December of 2009. It's about one of the great nun (anti-nun?) films of all time. You can decide if my writing has improved or degraded.

To summarize the first paragraph of the original post, I wrote that though I usually wrote about Christmas films at that time of year, I'd decided to do something rather different. Here's the rest of the post:

Instead, I’m going to write about an anti-Christmas film (really an anti-Christian film, but we’ll see that in this context it’s the same thing). Most films that attack the Christian faith take a safer route than the film I’m going to discuss. Many films, Elmer Gantry for example, attack the clergy. Well, most Christians are willing to admit that all have sinned, and there are more than a few scoundrels that have abused their roles as evangelists, pastors, and priests. Some filmmakers (such as the Pythons when they publicized The Life of Brian) claim that they have no problem with faith itself, just with “organized religion. I see very little virtue to the apparent alternative of “chaotic religion.”

Viridiana, filmed in Spain in 1961 by the acclaimed writer/director Luis Bunuel, takes a much bolder stand. It attacks Christianity on the grounds that acts of charity and compassion are futile and without worth.

The film tells the story of a young novice (Silvia Pinal), instructed by her Mother Superior to visit her uncle before she takes her vows. She has up until then had little contact with the uncle who financially supported her.

She obeys and visits her uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), at his vast but decaying estate and finds him to be a man of rather depraved tastes. He tells Viridiana that she reminds him of his late wife and asks the much younger woman to marry him. When she refuses him, he drugs her coffee and takes advantage of her (to an unclear degree). After this incident, the uncle kills himself, presumably due to his feelings of guilt.

Viridiana learns she has inherited her uncle’s estate, but it is to be shared with her uncle’s illegitimate son, Jorge (Francisco Rabal). Like his father, Jorge is a man who pursues pleasure above all else.

Viridiana decides to open the estate to the poor in the village, inviting the blind, the crippled, and the destitute, but they take advantage of her hospitality, staging a party in the house that becomes not just an orgy, but a mockery of the Last Supper.

In one of the film’s famed sequences, we see Jorge attempting to perform an act of kindness. He sees a man dragging a dog chained to a wagon. Jorge buys the dog from the man so he will no longer be abused. But we then see another man, another wagon, and another dog even more greatly abused. The implication is that any act of charity can only change a minute fraction of the evil in the world. The film implies that those who are charitable will be betrayed and abused, while no lasting good will come of any of it. Better to "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we will die."

These charges come as no surprise to anyone who knows Scripture. Jesus acknowledged there would never be an end to need when He said, "The poor you will always have with you" (Mark 14:7). His entire ministry is an example of generosity received with ingratitude, betrayal, and violence, but he came to save His enemies (Romans 5: 7 - 8). He came in the flesh that first Christmas, knowing that He had come to die. His viewpoint was bigger than ours. He knew that after the cross would come the resurrection. We can know that acts of compassion are not futile because every gift we give in His name, He receives (Matthew 25:40).

One bit of business before we close up here. At the time I wrote this, over a decade ago, I was not rating clergy and churches with our Steeple system. I recently rewatched the film and found out the church and clergy really come out rather well. The Mother Superior has genuine compassion not only for Viridiana but also for the girl’s uncle. When she hears about the uncle’s suicide from a local parish priest, she hurries with other nuns to be at Viridaina’s side.

Viridiana never takes her vows, so never officially becomes “clergy,” but she is a woman of compassion trying to care for the needs of the poor. Unfortunately, she works outside of the policies and strictures of the church which might have allowed her to act more prudently. Still, she is our primary near-clergy figure in the film, and her foolishness keeps her from our highest rating, giving her a Three Steeple rating.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Nuns Have a Weird Place in our Culture

 This is "Return to Nun Month" here at Movie Churches and a visit to Archie McPhee's, the novelty gift shop here in Seattle, reminded me of how strangely nuns are viewed in our culture. I'll explain with pictures.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Return of Nun Month: The Nun (La Religieuse)

The Nun

The opening title card (translated from French) reads that the film is “loosely based on a controversial book.” That book was an 18th century novel by Denis Diderot, La Religieuse. But “controversial” in 1780 wasn’t so much so in 1966 when this film came out, let alone today.

What was the controversial issue? Should someone be held to their religious vows when those vows were made under duress or after a person no longer believes in those vows? I don’t think anyone in any position of authority in the Roman Catholic church would try to hold someone to their vows in either situation.

But I guess things were different in Paris in 1757, the setting of Jacques Rivette’s 1966 film, The Nun, based on Denis Diderot’s 1780 novel, La Religieuse. The film opens with a young woman in a wedding dress in a church. There are metal bars that separate the audience from the woman with the clergy; nuns and priests. The woman in the bridal gown is asked if she is there of her own free well and she responds, “Yes,” but she is obviously agitated. When asked if she wants to take the vows of obedience, poverty, and celibacy, she responds, “No.” This causes quite the scandal.

Suzanne (Anna Karina), the seventeen-year-old in the wedding dress, was committed by her parents to the convent. Her parents had found husbands for Suzanne’s sisters but said they couldn’t find a husband for Suzanne and they couldn’t afford a proper dowry for her. (It's a little baffling; she's beautiful, and they  managed to come up with a dowry for the convent.) In time we learn, as Suzanne learns (though the man who thinks he is Suzanne’s father does not learn) that Suzanne is illegitimate. That's one reason Suzanne’s mother doesn’t believe they can find her daughter a husband. Finding a husband was even more difficult after Suzanne refused to take her vows as a nun. 

Suzanne retreats to a bedroom at her parents’ house and refuses to come out for months. Her parents call in the priest, who’s heard the family's confessions for twenty years, to talk with Suzanne and convince her to go to the convent. The priest needs some convincing to do the convincing, saying, “God is the One who calls to His vocation, and it is dangerous to add our voices to His.” When he talks to Suzanne he asks her to talk freely because, “I took my orders late in life, perhaps I will understand.” He tells her she may regret rejecting the convent because she doesn’t have many options in her life.

So Suzanne goes to the convent where she finds a friend in the Reverend Mother, Mme de Moni (Micheline Presle). She proves a much more healthy maternal figure than Suzanne's own mother, and she is quite understanding about Suzanne’s reluctance to take vows. Suzanne enchants the convent with her singing and harpsichord talents. And Suzanne is given what I thought was a very large room of her own.

Mme de Moni tells Suzanne that some in convents and monasteries weren’t called but manage to live fulfilling lives. She asks Suzanne if she loves God and Suzanne responds, “With all my soul.” Suzanne asks, “What if I am not made to be a nun?” 

“Let grace do its work,” the Reverend Mother responds. Together, the women pray the Lord's Prayer

When it comes time for her to take vows, Suzanne does, but claims to remember nothing about the ceremony. She seems to settle into life as a nun. But then tragedy strikes. Both Suzanne’s physical and spiritual mothers die within months of each other.

The new Reverend Mother, Sainte-Christine (Francine Berge), is a cruel woman. She makes Suzanne a special object of persecution when Suzanne expresses her desire to leave the convent and forsake her vows. Suzanne is forbidden from singing and playing the harpsichord. The Reverend Mother encourages the other sisters to shun Suzanne and screams at Suzanne, “There is no God for you! Die and be damned!”

Suzanne decides to take legal action in the secular courts to be freed of her vows. Saint-Christine becomes increasingly harsh, taking away Suzanne’s crucifix and Bible. She refuses to allow her to share in the convent meals, and Suzanne must beg for food at the kitchen.

Suzanne loses her case in court, but the court does recognize the abusive treatment Suzanne has received and orders that she must be fed and be allowed to worship. Her lawyer secures her transfer to another convent.  

The Mother Superior at the new convent, Mme de Chelles (Liselotte Pulver) seems delighted with Suzanne and encourages her to sing and play the harpsichord. But when Suzanne plays a hymn she is told, “Very pretty, but we have all the saintliness we need at church.” 

Mme de Chelles is far from saintly. She forces the woman under her authority to grant her sexual favors and pressures Suzanne to let her into her room at night and let her sleep in her bed. Suzanne seems unclear about what she is being asked to do but refuses none the less.

Suzanne decides she must leave this convent as well, and a priest offers to help her escape. After her escape, the priest makes sexual advances. Suzanne flees him as well. She finds work as a servant but is fired. She turns to life as a beggar but when a woman offers her a job, Suzanne takes the opportunity. When she realizes she is being turned into a prostitute, Suzanne commits suicide by jumping from a high window.

It’s all a very sad story but I don’t see how it’s controversial. I believe all agree, even clergy back in the day, that people shouldn’t be forced into religious vows they don’t believe or be held to those vows if they cease to believe. Because there are clergy that try to help and encourage Suzanne, along with those who torment her, the priests and nuns and Mother Superiors in The Nun average each other out to a rating of Two Church Steeples.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Nun Month Returns: Vision

Vision - From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen

An unfortunate feature of writing this blog is that  -- not infrequently -- I have to admit my ignorance. Yes, literally dozens of people are exposed to my lack of knowledge in many areas, particularly in church history. This another of those times.

While researching films for Nun Month, (my “research” consists of typing “nun” in the search bar at Amazon Prime and seeing what I find) I came across Vision. Its full title includes the name “Hildegard von Bingen,” who I had never heard of before. 

I looked her up and thought, “Why haven’t I heard of her before?” She was a Benedictine abbess who lived in Germany from 1098 through 1179, who was also a true polymath. To list some of her accomplishments:

  • Writer and composer: There are more surviving chants by Hildegard than by any other composer from the Middle Ages. She was one of the few composers from the time that wrote the words and music. She wrote Ordo Virtutum (“Book of the Rewards of Life”) which is perhaps the first musical morality and certainly the oldest surviving morality play. (In the film, an older nun worries about nuns acting in the play in costumes rather than their usual robes and habits. She is also concerned that the devil is given a chance in the play to make arguments for sin, though virtue eventually triumphs.)
  • Scientist: She is considered by many to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. Her work in this area seems to have been sparked by the herb garden and infirmary in her monastery. She studied how the herbs helped the sick and branched out into a broader study of botany. She also examined whether stones could be of use, so she wrote works on mineralogy. (The film portrays her convent’s work caring for the sick. Though medical knowledge at the time was, of course, limited, simply providing adequate rest and nutrition at that time made a great difference in the care of the ill.)
  • Sociologist: She also studied human nature, investigating sexuality, psychology, and physiology. Of course, Hildegard used Scripture to study human nature, but she also studied all available literature of the time, which included Greek and Roman examinations of the nature of man. Still, much of her understanding of human nature came from her work in ministry. (The film explores Hildegard’s interest in sexuality by telling a sad tale of interaction between one of her nuns and an unknown monk. As an abbess, she learns that one of her nuns is pregnant. She brings this news to the abbot who runs the monastery on the same grounds as the convent, and he rants about the seductive nature of the nuns. Of course, the monk responsible for the pregnancy is able to conceal his identity which is not a biological option for the nun. That nun commits suicide. This leads Hildegard to build a new convent far from the monastery so that her nuns can have a property of their own.)
  • Theologian: If Hildegard is remembered these days, it is most likely to be for her visions. At an early age, she experienced visions, what she wrote of as “the reflection of the living light.” She wrote three major works of theology. She received permission from Abbot Kuno to transcribe her visions. She wrote about 26 visionary experiences and her writing was approved by the pope during her lifetime. Prominent themes of her writings included creation, the relationship of the soul and the body, redemption, and heaven. And she illustrated her writing with her own art. (Much of the film portrays her battles to have her visions accepted by the male hierarchy.)
Again, how did I not know about this remarkable woman?

The 2009 film was written and directed by another remarkable woman, Margarethe von Trotta. She began her career as an actress, starring in films made by some of Germany’s greatest filmmakers such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlondorff (she was also for a time married to Schlondorff and wrote screenplays for some of his films). Von Trotta began directing in 1975, working in feature films, television, and documentaries as well (including the acclaimed Searching for Ingmar Bergman.)

The film portrays the whole of Hildegard’s life, from when she entered a convent as a young girl (played by Stella Holzapfel) through decades of service first as a nun and then as an abbess (played by Barbara Sukowa), founding two convents, until her death the relatively old age (especially for the age) of 81.

The film offers a positive portrayal of convent life, but not through rose-covered glasses. Throughout the film, the Church is portrayed as being influenced and -- at times tainted by the politics of the era. The decisions of the church, and at times even Hildegard’s decisions, are influenced by considerations of power and finance.

But we still see the Church, and particularly an abbess, working to honor God and care for people. For this reason, we give to Hildegard of Bingen, Sibyl of the Rhine, our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Return of Nun Month

Nun Month Returns!

I spent a number of years as a youth pastor, and let me tell you: there are not a lot of films about youth pastors. I’m now a chaplain in a rescue mission, and there aren't many films about people in my current position. I’ve held other positions in churches, but no one has yet made Interim Pastor IV: This Time It’s Personal. (Surely if they make films about substitute teachers they could… Nevermind.)

Do you know who loves Hollywood loves to make movies about? Nuns. There are plenty of good reasons for this -- films based on true life nuns (Maria von Trapp, Helen Prejean) with amazing stories. I think sometimes filmmakers feel safer introducing religion through nuns that are cute and kind (think Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary). Sometimes comedy can be found in the very unique dress and lifestyle of nuns (whether that’s Whoopi disguised as a nun or men dressed as nuns). This month we’ll also be looking at some very bad and unwholesome reasons filmmakers have been interested in nuns (think of how often Nun = Frightening).

So this month, we will again be looking at films featuring nuns, If you missed Nun Month back in June 2018, you can catch up now! The films featured back then were:

Change of Habit - You would think Mary Tyler Moore as a nun would be enough, but they threw Elvis in the mix.

Hudson Hawk - Sometimes found on lists of all-time Hollywood bombs, people tend to remember this for Bruce Willis rather than Andie MacDowell as a nun.

The Little Hours - You know how I mentioned nuns aren’t always wholesome in films? A prime example here.

The Innocents - Powerful story about Polish nuns in World War II (fictional, but based on real events.)

The Letters - True story of everyone’s (except the late Christopher Hitchens) favorite nun.

Even after all of those, throughout August, there will be plenty more nuns to come.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Kanopy Month: The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments
People occasionally ask whether we’ve written about particular Biblical films here at Movie Churches, movie classics like Ben Hur or The Greatest Story Ever Told or Jonah: A Veggies Tale Movie. Usually, the answer is “no” because we write in this blog about Christian churches and Christian clergy. Most biblical epics don’t depict such things because most of the Bible was written before there was a Christian church. 

There are Old Testament films like Noah, David and Bathsheba, and The Bible (the 1966 film which only covers Adam to Abraham) that obviously can't have a Christian church. But even films about the life of Christ (The Nativity Story, The Passion of the Christ, Jesus Christ: Superstar) usually don’t get to the Church. We have covered Paul the Apostle. If we ever manage to stay awake all the way through The Robe, we may write about that.

The Ten Commandments turns out to be a different story. We won’t be writing about the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille epic because it has no church -- it covers the birth of Moses through the Exodus but there's no priest, pastor, or nun to be found. But the 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments, also directed by Cecil B. DeMille, is a different story.

In DeMille’s first version of The Ten Commandments, the story of Moses is only the prologue, and it only covers Moses’ story from the Tenth Plague through when he receives the Ten Commandments. The real story of the film is about a mother with two sons: one who follows the Ten Commandments and one who rebels against the Commandments his mother taught him.

A title card at the opening of the film reads, “Our modern world defined God as a ‘religious complex’ and laughed at the Ten Commandments as OLD FASHIONED. Then, through the laughter, came the shattering thunder of the World War. And now a blood-drenched, bitter world -- no longer laughing -- cries for a way out. There is but one way out. It existed before it was engraven [sic] on Tablets of Stone. It will exist when stone has crumbled. The Ten Commandments are not rules to obey as a personal favor to God. They are fundamental principles without which mankind cannot live. They are not laws -- they are the LAW.”

Mrs. Martha McTavish (Edythe Chapman) has raised her sons, John (Richard Dix) and Dan (Rod La Rocque), to be God-fearing gentlemen. Their home is decorated with framed prints of the Ten Commandments such as “Thou Shalt Not Steal.” 

But Dan grows up to be a mocker of God and the Ten Commandments. “The Ten Commandments are bunk and should have been buried with Queen Victoria. I’d like the Ten Commandments better if they could mend this sole!” Dan says, staring at his worn shoe. He tells his mother that he is going to go out into the world and break all of the commandments; by doing so he'll be rich and successful (one can see there might be flaws in this plan). He falls in love with a beautiful homeless woman, Mary (Leatrice Joy), and marries her. (I wondered why Mary married Dan knowing he planned to break all of the Ten Commandments -- which would include the one about adultery.) Dan becomes a successful contractor, apparently becoming quite successful. But his mother will not take any help from him since she considers his riches ill-gotten.

John doesn’t seem to be nearly as successful. He doesn’t marry, and he doesn’t seem to be making a great living as a “humble carpenter.” He's in love with Mary as well (his brother realizes this and mocks him for breaking the commandment about coveting).

There is a rather strange scene in the film about how the family spends a Sunday afternoon. All the characters are at Mrs. McTavish’s house, and Mary puts a record ( “I’ve Got Those Sunday Blues”) on the player. Mary and Dan dance to the music. Mother reprimands the two for “Not Keeping the Sabbath Holy” whereas the good son, John, sees nothing wrong with “wholesome fun” on the Sabbath. The thing I found strange about the scene is that there is no indication that either Mother McTavish or John have gone to church that day or plan to. This was, of course, deeply disappointing for the purposes of this blog and I was a little concerned.

But a church does become a central part of the story -- Dan accepts a contract to build a church. And this isn’t some simple country chapel. From the model, it looks like a great, Gothic cathedral built in the downtown of a major city. It seems like quite the lucrative deal, but Dan wants to make it even more lucrative.

Dan tells his workers to use double the sand in the concrete mix to save money. He apparently has a long history of cutting corners in his work, which makes one wonder why he was contracted for building this church. (It never is clear who hired him or what denomination of church is being built. Whoever did the hiring, why would they hire this shyster?)

Dan hires John to be the boss-carpenter of the church project. When John and Mary are on a high floor of the church project, the concrete crumbles under her feet and she almost falls to her death. John confronts Dan about the shoddy materials in the building. Dan claims John’s just trying to bring him down so he can have Mary.

John closes the church site for safety’s sake, but Mrs. McTavish talks her way into the construction site, noting she is the mother of Dan and John. As she is looking at a replica of the tablets of the Ten Commandments on the south wall of the church, she begins to notice cracks in the walls. Then the south wall of the church falls on Mrs. McTavish, killing her.

Dan sees he will be held accountable for his dastardly deeds, and he tries to flee the country in his yacht (The Defiant). But his yacht sinks, and Dan dies. John is free to marry Mary.

As we have said before, the Church is more than a building. But in this film, all we have is a church building. And a deadly, poorly constructed (to put it lightly) building at that. So the church of The Ten Commandments receives our lowest rating of 1 Steeple (and that steeple is probably going to fall to the ground).

Friday, July 24, 2020

Kanopy Month: Goya's Ghosts

Goya's Ghosts
Goya’s Ghosts opens with priests and monks around a table passing around and studying prints of some rather grotesque works of Francisco Goya. On the positive side, I’ve long believed that the Church these days needs to take art more seriously. On the other hand, they are looking at the art with the eye of a censor.

The year is 1792, and in Spain’s Holy Office of the Inquisition, the clergy are particularly upset about the prints that mock clergy as hideous bloodsuckers. They are appalled to hear that these prints are available for sale on bookstores and the streets. But one man comes to the defense of Goya and others ask why. “Because he is the greatest artist in all of Spain,” Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) says. “The ugliness he portrays is the ugliness in the world.” We soon learn that Lorenzo has a connection with Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) -- the artist is painting his portrait.

At the artist’s studio, they discuss the price of the portrait. There is an extra charge per hand painted, so the priest decides to keep his hidden in his robe. The priest notices a portrait of a woman and asks about it. Goya tells him it is a portrait of Ines Bilbatua (Natalie Portman), the daughter of a prosperous merchant who has also served as a model for angels in his work (this runs counter the clergymen's theory that Goya uses prostitutes for his models of angels.)

Lorenzo has been given the responsibility of reinvigorating the work of the Inquisition, training spies. “If someone is talking of Voltaire rather than the church, that man is probably a Judiaizer, or worse, a Protestant. If he is hiding his penis while urinating, he is probably circumcised. Bring their names to the Holy Office.” One of the names brought to the Holy Office is Ines Bibatua. She was at an inn and refused to eat a suckling pig offered, preferring chicken. Because of this, she was accused of being a Judaizer.

In the Holy Office, Ines is questioned and then brought to The Question (torture). Under torture, Ines confesses to being a Judaizer. She is then left naked in a dungeon, chained with other prisoners. Upon the urging of Goya, Lorenzo goes to see her. He gives her a robe and tells her he will pass along greetings to her family. But he tells her he doesn’t have the power to free her. He asks if he can pray for her and in her desperation she agrees happily. He holds her as they pray, leading to… greater intimacy.

Ines’ father, Tomas (Jose Luis Gomez), does all he can to free his daughter. He offers a large sum of gold to the church to rebuild the Convent of St. Thomas (for whom he was named). And he invites Goya and Brother Lorenzo to dinner in his home. During dinner, they discuss whether answers obtained during torture can be trusted. Lorenzo assures Tomas The Question is reliable and adds that he is sure God would preserve him through torture. Tomas orders Goya to leave, and his sons escort him out of the house. Then Tomas tortures Lorenzo until he confesses in writing to being a monkey, son of a chimpanzee and an orangutan, who is trying to undermine the Church. All of this fails to lead to Ines’ release.

Because of Lorenzo’s “confession,” he is forced to flee Spain for France. Fifteen years later, he returns to Spain along with Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquering army. Lorenzo finds Goya and tells him that in France he read the works of Voltaire and Rousseau. He has left the Catholic faith and is now an evangelist for the principles of the French Revolution.

The French free all the prisoners of the Spanish Inquisition, including Ines. After fifteen years in prison, she is a broken woman. She wanders the streets in search of her family, finding them all dead in her house, killed by the French. She goes to Goya. With her parents and brothers dead, all she wants is to find her daughter. In her cell, she had given birth to Lorenzo’s child, who was immediately taken from her and sent to a convent.

The French in Spain deposes the Spanish King (Randy Quaid) and Queen (Blanca Portillo), putting Napoleon’s brother in charge. All churches are closed. French soldiers ride horses into a church service. , and when the cantor will not stop singing the Mass, he is shot. All clergy who will not deny their faith and take on the principles of the Revolution are imprisoned.

But true to history, the British eventually come, and, with the help of the Spanish people, drive the French from Spain. Lorenzo finds himself again on the wrong side. Under the threat of death, he is asked to deny the principles of the Revolution and turn again to the Church. This time, Lorenzo holds true to his principles of the moment.

Goya’s Ghosts is a well-made film, as one would expect from Milos Forman, a truly great director. But (as you already know) we aren’t here to evaluate films, but how the church and clergy are presented in a film. 

Since a chief focus in the film is the Spanish Inquisition, the Church doesn’t come off well. Still, this film, with its presentation of the French Revolution, reminded me of current events. Generations and institutions are evaluated by cancel culture solely by their worst features and then deemed no longer worthy of existence. The French try to rid the world of the Church because of its excesses -- such as the Inquisition, but the Spanish believe there is more to the Church than its faults, and restore it to its venerated place in society.

So what is our Steeple Rating for the clergy and church in Goya’s Ghosts? The treatment of Ines by the Church and Lorenzo particularly would tempt us to use our lowest rating, but the priests and nuns who were willing to stand for their faith in the face of the Revolutionaries deserve some respect, leading to a Two Steeples score.