Sunday, December 27, 2020

No Top Ten for 2020, but a Different Top Five

I'm not making a Top Ten Film list this year. Usually, by this time of year, I've seen 50 - 70 films, half of them in a movie theater. From those films, I easily found more than ten films I liked and respected enough to put in a top ten list. The challenge was to narrow down the list to just ten films I thought were important, fun, and rewatchable. 

2020 was 2020, and fewer films were released. Many films that looked good were scheduled to be released this year, but most of them have been postponed until 2021 since theaters weren't open this year (in most places most of the time). Some of those will end up streaming next year, but they were held back in the hope they’d get a theatrical release in 2021.

So, frankly, the films I’ve seen this year haven’t been that great. The only film I’m sure would make my top ten list in a usual year was Pixar’s Soul, which debuted on Disney Plus on Christmas Day. It was unique, funny, imaginative, and thoughtful. I wish it had a church because I’d love to write a post about it and what it has to say about life’s purpose.

But there was still joy to be found in film this year -- even in going to the movies. So instead of my favorite films, I’m writing about my five favorite movie outings this year.

People were less grouchy than they look here
People were less grouchy than they look here

In the Before Time
: Weathering With You (January 15 - AMC Pacific Place, Seattle, WA)

Before we knew the virus would be stealing much of our freedom, I went to the movies without thinking it was anything special, and I saw some holdovers from 2019 (such as 1917 and Just Mercy)

I managed to see one newly-released film before things started shutting down: Weathering with You. It’s a Japanese film that came out overseas last year and debuted in the US in 2020. My wife and I went with our son, one of our daughters, and our son-in-law. All of them are much bigger anime fans than we are, but I liked it too. Maybe it would have had a shot at my top ten list. But I look back on it now for the joy of watching a movie inside -- without masks -- with my family.

Before Washington's Hard Lockdown
: Onward (March 22 - Rodeo Drive-in, Bremerton, WA)

Indoor theaters were shut down already, but the drive-ins had just opened for the season. Disney/Pixar released their new animated film, Onward, not knowing where it would ultimately show in America (turns out the gross was not high). We drove an hour to the closest drive-in to see this enjoyable story of a world where fantasy figures live in suburbia. Washington state shut down drive-ins as well the next day, so we were glad we made it. (We’ve gone to this drive-in a few times again since it re-opened in the summer when we wore masks outside the car, but this was certainly the best film we saw there this year.)

Out of State: Tenet (September 8, Century Park Lane 16, Reno, NV)

I am a big fan of the filmmaker Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception, Dunkirk), and he rather boldly pushed for his newest blockbuster, Tenet, to be released in theaters in September. It was a gamble, and one I wanted to support. But unfortunately, Washington theaters were still closed, and Nolan’s type of epic is best seen on a big screen in a movie theater. Fortunately, my son and I were already planning a trip from Seattle to visit family in Santa Rosa, CA. If you’ll look at your maps, you’ll see that Reno is right on the way. (Well, maybe just a dozen hours of driving out of the way.) So that's the route we took. We wore our masks in the theater and were socially distanced. The film, best described as a Bond spy film with time travel, was definitely lesser Nolan. But I was glad to see for myself. 

Almost Normal:
Honest Thief (October 17, Admiral Theater, Seattle, WA)

For a brief time, Washington State allowed theaters to open again. My wife, son, and I were happy to don our masks to see a Liam Neeson film wherein Neeson played a man with a “special set of skills” that he uses against ner-do-wells. Fortunately, it was as formula-bound and comforting as we hoped. We were happy to see yet another version of Taken.

One Last Gasp
: Freaky (November 15, AMC Southcenter, Tukwilla, WA)

That brief opening didn’t last for long, so when Governor Inslee announced theaters were closing again at midnight Monday, I went twice by myself, Saturday and Sunday. First I saw Let Him Go, a brooding, violent film with Kevin Costner playing the Liam Neeson role, and the next day I saw Freaky, which was like a remake of Freaky Friday but with a serial killer. Both films were justly rated R, and would not have made my top ten list in an ordinary year, but me and my free popcorn (from theater chain promotions) had a good time.

I do hope that in 2021, a proper list of top ten films will be a possibility, and I also hope that I'll have seen most of them in a movie theater instead of my living room. 

More pictures from the Rodeo Drive-in:

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Christmas Cameo Month: Noëlle

Noëlle (
or Mrs. Worthington’s Party) 2007

I realize that most of this month's films haven't been what people think of as Christmas movies, but this week’s film...Well, just look at that title! (The first, not the second title.) This is certainly a Christmas film with the Christian meaning of Christmas coming right through in its presentation of priests and the Church. 

Unfortunately, it's not very well made -- but that isn’t really our concern here at Movie Churches. It did win not one, but two awards at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival (Best Director and Best American Indie Runner Up) but this film doesn’t make me want to seek out other Fort Lauderdale winners.

This film was written, directed, and produced by David Wall -- who also stars as Father Jonathan Keene, a priest who specializes in euthanizing churches that are struggling financially. He is sent to a small fishing village, Swan River, in Cape Cod.

Father Keene goes to the Sacred Heart Chapel. We can see from the church sign that the church used to have many services, but all have been scratched off the sign except for one service at 10:00 am on Sunday mornings. Keene goes in to see the pastor of the church, Father Simeon Joyce (Sean Patrick Brennan), but can’t find him on the property. He searches through the small town to find him and eventually discovers him at the Old Inn.

Father Joyce is with a group of other men at a table in the bar, quite drunk. Father Keene sees him, confronts him, and Father Joyce responds with a twisting of Scripture, saying he is practicing “being filled with the spirits.”

We find out that the priests went to seminary together. Joyce knows Keene’s current job and isn’t happy to see him. He rightly discerns Keene is there to decide whether Sacred Heart should be closed. He refers to Judas as he asks Keene, “Shouldn’t you greet me with a kiss?” Joyce calls Keene the “hitman” of the Archdiocese.

Keene attends a Sunday morning worship service with meager attendance and anemic worship. He confronts Joyce with attendance figures. Previously 150 people attended but attendance had fallen to twenty people. Joyce tells Keene that he may be right, “Maybe we are dead.” They have this discussion with the congregation listening (one woman sticks her tongue out at Keene).

Keene tells Father Joyce he might have a solution to the church’s problems. Christmas is coming and the church could do a live Nativity scene, with a real Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and wise men. Why he thinks this one-time gimmick will make a difference in the health of the church baffles me, but all agree.

The biggest challenge in doing this outdoor nativity scene is that almost everyone who attends the church is AARP eligible. All the men are really too old to play Joseph, but the real problem Father Keene recognizes is that any of the women available to play Mary have grey hair  -- which doesn’t work with the audition call sheet. So naturally, Father Keene thinks of recruiting the woman he met at the train station when he came to town, Marjorie Worthington. Majorie is played by Kerry Wall (yes, the wife of the producer, director, and star of the film. Kerry’s audition for the film must have been a real nail-biter.) 

The Walls had been married for twenty years when they made this film (and had three children), so Kerry wasn’t exactly ideal casting to play the teenage mother of the Son of God either, but…

Majorie doesn’t attend Sacred Heart Chapel, but her mother does. Her mother also throws a big Christmas Eve party every year, big enough to be one of the alternate titles of this film. Father Keene, however, wants to do his outdoor nativity scene in very cold weather with very old people at exactly the same time as the party. I don’t believe Father Keene went to any church growth seminars.

Keene makes a great effort to convince Majorie to play Mary. He finally convinces her, but soon everyone learns that Majorie, an unmarried woman, is pregnant. 

Father Keene tells her she can’t possibly play Mary in the church's nativity scene. After all, how can an unmarried pregnant woman possibly play Mary?

Even worse, the father of Majorie’s child is already married and isn’t interested in leaving his wife for Majorie. Having compassion for Majorie and her situation, Father Joyce offers to leave the priesthood and marry her. I guess he figures his church hasn’t been going that great anyway. But here is the big spoiler -instead Father Keene ends up leaving the priesthood and marries Majorie. You see, the only reason Keene entered the priesthood in the first place is that he got his girlfriend pregnant in college and forced her to have an abortion. He became a priest out of guilt, which is not exactly a calling.

But Father Keene’s last act as a priest is allowing Father Joyce’s church to stay open. And for unexplained reasons, we learn in an epilogue that the church grows in the next three years. Maybe a priest threatening to marry a parishioner spurs church growth? God does work in mysterious ways.

Anyway, two priests so anxious to abandon their vows leads us to give to the priests and church in this Christmas film two out of four steeples.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Christmas Cameos Show Up Again: My Night at Maud's

My Night at Maud’s

In the 1975 noir film, Night Moves, detective Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) gives this bit of cinematic criticism, “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.” 

This week’s film, My Night at Maud’s, is written and directed by Eric Rohmer. I’ll admit nobody would confuse it with Die Hard for excitement, but it does share the same seasonal setting: Christmas.

The film opens with a man going to Mass. He notices a pretty woman and tries to follow her when the service ends. He quickly loses her in on the Christmas decorated streets. That man, Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), says in a voice-over, “On December 21st I knew without a doubt that Francis would be my wife.”

The film takes a while to introduce Jean to Francis (Marie-Christine Barrault). In the meantime, we learn he is an engineer who has taken an assignment in Clermont-Ferrand, a city where he believes he is a complete stranger. But when he visits a bookstore, he encounters Vidal (Antoine Vitez), a friend from college. Vidal invites Jean to a concert and then they go to dinner. In their conversation, we learn Vidal is a Marxist, and the two venture into a prolonged conversation of the philosophy of Blaise Pascal, particularly “Pascal’s Wager.” (In the bookstore, both men had examined Pascal’s classic work, Penses.)

Here’s where Moseby’s criticism comes into play. Can you imagine a Hollywood blockbuster taking a ten-minute break to discuss the views of a mathematician, philosopher, and theologian who'd been dead for three hundred years? (Admittedly, Woody Allen used to give time for discussions of Kierkegaard, but he spent two minutes, tops.) But I found the discussion intriguing. If you don’t know Pascal’s proposition, it’s basically this: A rational person will choose faith in God and live for Him. If God does exist, that person will reap infinite gains for the “wager” and lose out on only a few earthly pleasures. If the person is wrong and death is the end, little has been lost by “betting on God.” But if the person instead bets that God doesn’t exist, there is only the chance of gaining a few earthly pleasures, along with the risk of eternity in hell.  Betting that God doesn't exist is a foolish wager.

I found their conversation intriguing, partly because it is the atheist, Vidal, who takes the side of Pascal while Catholic Jean-Louis argues against it. Jean-Louis thinks an argument for faith on purely rational grounds is somehow objectionable. 

Jean-Louis says, “I’m a Catholic, at least I try to be, but he doesn’t fit my notion of Catholicism. It’s because I’m a Christian he offends me. If that’s what being a Christian is, I’m an atheist. What I don’t like about Pascal’s wager is the calculated exchange, like buying a lottery ticket.”

Vidal adopts the argument to his Marxism, saying, “I’m a Marxist, so Pascal’s wager is important to me. I must choose to believe life has meaning to have a chance at meaning.” He must act as if the Worker’s Paradise will be an actuality, even if he doesn’t see proof of it, because his work might make such a thing possible. If it isn’t possible, he will never know his work was in vain anyway.

The next night is Christmas Eve, and the men agree to meet for the Midnight Mass. In his homily, the priest proclaims, ““Christmas is a living joy. It’s not just the birth of Jesus Christ, it’s our birth. Believe in a new fervent joy. This is the core of our hope.” After the service, Jean-Louis agrees to go with Vidal to the home of his friend, Maud (Francoise Fabian).

Maud’s home is decorated with lights and a Christmas tree. Maud’s young daughter comes out for another look at the decorations before going back to bed. The conversation goes back to religion. Maud tells of her background, “I was never baptized. I was from a family of free thinkers.” She still isn’t a Christian because “one thing I dislike about the church is the bookkeeping aspect of good deeds vs. sins.”

It is interesting that the priest, when Jean-Louis next visits the church, seems to answer this objection. Unfortunately, neither Maud nor Vidal is with Jean-Louis. The priest preaches, “Christianity is not a moral code, it’s a way of life, an adventure. The most splendid adventure of all. Many are afraid of the progression to holiness, but one must have faith in Jesus Christ our Lord, a faith that reminds us that God loves us.”

Someone else is at that service: Francis (Francoise in French). Jean-Louis is finally able to introduce himself to her, and the two are able to pursue the adventure of following God together.

I don’t believe Alan Sharp, the screenwriter for Night Moves, really thought Rohmer’s films were dull. There is enough similarity between their work to think he may well have been a fan (even more in common than the use of “Night” in their titles.) And there is much more to My Night at Maud’s than I'm writing about here. There is much more to the relationships between the characters and unexpected connections. If you haven’t seen the film, I encourage you to seek it out. If watching this film is like watching paint dry, I really must give watching paint dry a chance.

As for our Movie Church ratings, I give the priests and churches of My Night at Maud’s our highest rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Christmas Cameos Continue: Black Narcissus

Black Narcissus (1947)

First things first: Black Narcissus is one of the most beautiful films ever made. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the team of directors, made this and a number of other films noted for vibrant colors, striking imagery, and creative framing. This film won Oscars for cinematography and art direction. Though filmed in a studio, the matte paintings of the Himilayas used in the film are magnificent.

But since the beauty of a film is not our concern here at Movie Churches, we think the important thing is that Black Narcissus is about nuns. Anglican missionaries from the Convent of the Order of Sisters of Mary in Calcutta go to the mountains to establish a school, hospital, and church in a palace formerly used by a local ruler to house his harem. The nuns were invited by General Toda Rai (Esmond Knight), partially for the education of his son (Sabu) who will eventually take his place as leader.

Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is appointed Sister Superior to direct four other nuns: Sister Phillipa (Flora Robson) the gardener, Sister Briony (Judith Furse) to run the infirmary, the popular Sister Honey (Jenny Laird) to teach, and the unwell Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) to teach as well. If I were just writing about the nuns' interaction with each other, there would be plenty of material. There would also be plenty to say about the nuns' interaction with the locals. 

The General’s agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), tells Sister Clodagh that the people living in the area are like children. Sister Clodagh readily agrees, “They’re like unreasonable children.” 

If I wanted to write about the ugly way the nuns infantilize the natives and the racism that leads to it, there might be fertile ground. But it’s December and I really need to write about Christmas. Thankfully, for my purposes, a crucial scene in the middle of the film takes place on Christmas Eve.

The sisters are celebrating with a worship service. After we hear them singing "The First Noel," they sing "Lullay My Liking" -- a rather strange carol based on a Middle English lyric. In the song, Mary is singing to her infant, “Lullay my liking, my dear Son, my Sweeting; Lullay my dear Heart, mine own dear Darling, I saw a fair maiden sitten and sing; She lulled a little child, A sweete Lording, Lullay my liking.” The song reminds Sister Clodagh of her days as a young woman in Britain, and the spoiled affair with a young man that led her to become a nun.

Then Mr. Dean and the young general stop by to pay their respects.

The young General says to Sister Clodagh, “Sister, may I congratulate you on the birth of Christ?”

“Thank you, General.”

“I am very interested in Jesus Christ,” the General says, but he sees that he somehow offended the nun, “Did I say something wrong?”

Sister Superior tells him, “No, but we usually don’t speak of Him so casually.”

It’s Mr. Dean, the General’s agent, who responds to the nun's absurd statement appropriately, “But you should! You should speak of Him casually, and He should be as much a part of your life as daily bread.” 

Unfortunately, Mr. Dean has obviously been drinking more than a little.

Sister Superior scolds him, “How dare you come here like this tonight? You’re unforgivable! You’re objectionable when sober, and abominable when drunk. If you have a spark of decency, you won’t come here to us again.”

I know, I know. Who has ever heard of anyone drinking during the holidays? The Sister seems to be quite taken aback at the concept.

I am much more appalled by Sister Clodagh's theology and her failure at evangelism. A man -- a leader in the community she and her Sisters have come to serve -- comes to her and expresses an interest to hear more about Jesus. Instead of taking advantage of this opportunity to share the Gospel, theoretically the reason she traveled thousands of miles to be in this place, she scolds the man for his manners.

And Mr. Dean is right. Of course, Jesus should be a daily part of her conversation. But she seems to think the name of Jesus should be reserved for homilies or some such nonsense. Her self righteous attitude about Dean’s drinking is also something that the Man who turned water into wine would not appreciate.

Just from that Christmas Eve Service and the Sister Superior's treatment of a member of the community (and Mr. Dean, the Englishman), it is quite evident that her ministry will fail. If you can’t show love and grace at Christmas, what will you do the rest of the year?

Critics through the years have given Black Narcissus the highest of ratings. But the best rating we can give Sister Clodagh and her Sisters, even with generous Christmas Spirit, is a Movie Church rating of Two (of a possible four) Steeples.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Christmas Cameo Month: I Still Believe

I Still Believe

This film is an anomaly for 2020 -- it's a new film that debuted in movie theaters (admittedly, I watched it via streaming on Hulu). I Still Believe seems to join I Can Only Imagine in a new genre: Contemporary Christian Music hits made into biopics. ICOI was about the founder of MercyMe and his troubled relationship with his father. I Still Believe is the story of Jeremy Camp’s first romantic love.

There is very little Christmas in the film (we take what we can get), and there isn’t much church in the film, but there is an interesting observation about clergy.

The film opens in Lafayette, Indiana in the fall of 1999 (shout out to my brother- and sister-in-law and family in said city). Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa) is preparing to go off to school at Calvary Chapel College in Murrieta, California. Even if IMDb didn’t tell me, I would know this wasn’t filmed on location but instead in Mobile, Alabama. The school seems to be right by the beach instead of the 45 miles across southern California freeways. And Pacific Ocean beaches look different from Gulf Coast beaches. For instance, I can't think of anyplace on the California Pacific coast where the sun rises over the ocean as it does in the film when Jeremy’s love interest, Melissa (Britt Robertson), goes for a morning jog.

At his new school, Jeremy makes friends with Jean-Luc LaJoie (Nathan Parsons), the front-man for a Christian music group, The Kry. Jean-Luc and Jeremy bond over their love of music, but unfortunately, both have feelings for Melissa. If you ever had to deal with a tedious love triangle like this when you were in school, do you really want to relive it in a film?

It is here Christmas makes its cameo appearance. Jeremy goes home to Indiana for Christmas to be with his parents, Tom and Teri (Gary Sinise and Shania Twain), and his brothers, Jared and Josh (Josh is disabled). That house is well decorated for Christmas, tree, lights and all. At home, Jeremy receives a call from Jean-Luc who tells him that Melissa is very sick. Jeremy drives back to school in his father’s Pizza King delivery car. (Won’t this impact family finances during the holiday season?)

Jeremy drives straight to the hospital back in California and learns that Melissa has stage 3 liver cancer. It is at this time that Melissa and Jeremy admit their love for each other. Jeremy goes to the hospital chapel to pray (a bit of church). I found it a little strange that although Melissa and her family are all devout Christians, we never see clergy -- or anyone else -- from their church visit Melissa. 

Miraculously, Melissa seems to recover, and six months later, Jeremy and Melissa marry.

I was hoping for a church wedding, for the sake of the blog, but the happy couple marries on the beach. I was looking for a clergyman at the wedding, but I didn’t think I saw one. Then I realized that Jeremy’s father, Tom, performed the ceremony. Because the wedding is -- supposedly -- in California, and Melissa’s family pastor doesn’t perform the service, I realized that Tom is probably a clergyman of some kind. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would get his ordination from the back of Rolling Stone Magazine or online (especially at the turn of the century).

But when Jeremy and Melissa return from their honeymoon, she becomes ill again. As Melissa returns to the hospital, Jeremy begins to question his faith. He sings Melissa a song he wrote on their honeymoon, “Walk By Faith”, and then Melissa dies. We don’t see a church for the funeral, but rather a graveside service, again officiated by Jeremy’s father, Tom.

Jeremy talks to his father about his disappointment with God and the seeming futility of his prayers. He asks his father about his disappointments in life, about the prayers God didn’t answer. “I remember I prayed and prayed in this room for Josh to be born healthy. And you prayed for your ministry and nothing. And I prayed for Melissa. What am I supposed to do with that?”

So apparently, Tom had hoped to be in full-time ministry but was unable to make his living in ministry. One of the great disappointments in life is not being able to pursue what you believe you're called to. Think of those who want to be in show business or professional sports when those dreams die. I know the pain of those who feel called to ministry (for myself and friends) when things don’t work out. You can feel like you've disappointed God as well as yourself.

But Tom’s answer is interesting. He says, “Josh’s disabilities were disappointing, sure. Did I have big dreams that didn’t come true? Yes. Do I know why Melissa isn’t here? No, I don’t. But I have had a full life. I don’t know how to answer your questions. But my life isn’t full in spite of my disappointments....It’s full because of them.”

Jeremy returned to his music. His songs “Walk By Faith” and, of course, “I Still Believe” inspired by the events depicted in the film, became enormous hits. If Tom, in the eyes of the world, didn’t have much of a ministry, he raised a son who ministers to millions.

That said, how would the clergy and church -- such as they are -- in this film do with our steeple ratings? I give Tom Camp (and his ministry) a solid three steeples.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Christmas Cameo Month Intro

It’s December, so we here at Movie Churches really want to spend the month doing Christmas films, but we're afraid we're running short on films that feature Christmas and churches. We focussed on the big ones early on: The Bishop’s Wife, The Preacher’s Wife, The Bells of St. Mary, Home Alone, etc. (So many of the Christmas biggies, White Christmas, Bad Santa, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians have virtually no churches or clergy whatsoever.) We’ve found some interesting Christmas films with significant ecclesiastical details, but it’s been getting tougher as the years have gone on.

So this year will be a little different (surprise!). Most of our films this December will have something more like Christmas cameos. Christmas won’t be front and center in these films. Often, clergy and churches won’t be front and center either, but these are films are interesting -- and they do have both Christmas and clergy.

Sadly, a great film such as Better Off Dead doesn’t qualify, even though it does have a prolonged Christmas sequence with the protagonist, Lane Meyer (John Cusack), giving his girlfriend an inadequate Christmas present and his mother dressing as a reindeer -- and plenty of snow. Although Lane almost runs over some nuns while drag racing, the film is generally lacking in clergy. 

Ghostbusters II is set in New York City at Christmas time, so we can see decorations in many scenes. You would think a film that features demonic possession would throw in a priest with an exorcism, but the film deals with such things with “science.”

Shane Black’s action thrillers often have a Christmas element, but rarely a church element. Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon is dealing with suicidal tendencies brought on by the loss of his wife, but does he seek spiritual aid from his local diocese? He does not. Christmas is an element, though -- the first bloody fight of the film is on a seasonal tree lot.

But “Do not be afraid,” as the angels say in the true Christmas story. Films do keep turning up that have Christmas and churches and clergy. Some of this month’s films have just Christmas cameos or church cameos, but some have Christmas and clergy in starring roles.

We can't wait to get this Christmas season started.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Roberto Rossellini Month: The Flowers of St Francis

The Flowers of St. Francis
I think the best way to describe Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis is as a frat comedy, where instead of pursuing women and beer, the bros are pursuing God.

It’s an episodic film that Rossellini co-wrote with Federico Fellini based on works from the 14th century (Little Flowers of St. Francis and The Life of St. Juniper.) Their “frat house” is a church, St. Mary of the Angels, where Francis lives with his brothers, his disciples -- many of them not very bright.

Rossellini used many of his techniques of neorealism to make this historical comedy/drama. As in previous films, he chiefly used non-professional actors.  The Brothers are played by monks from the Nocere Inferiore Monastery. The role of St. Francis is not credited in the film but was played by Brother Nazario Gerardi.

But, you ask, how is this film like a frat comedy? Well, let’s compare it to the TBS perennial, Old School, with the comic highlight of a streaking Will Ferrell. The Flowers of St Francis also finds comedy in a naked brother: Ginepro, who gives away his habit to a poor beggar and then hides in the bushes. He is gently admonished by St. Francis, who never mentions that he began his ministry giving away all he had, including his clothes. (If you doubt, watch a previous entry in Movie Churches, Brother Sun, Sister Moon.)

National Lampoon’s Animal House has that unsettling episode of animal cruelty when a horse is accidentally killed in the Dean’s Office and must be removed using a chain saw. In this film, Brothers Ginepro and Giovanni are caring for Brother Amarsebello who has been fasting too long. Amarsebello has lost his taste for the food offered to him but says he could go for a pig’s foot stew. Ginepro goes to find a farmer’s swine and cuts the foot off one of the pigs, leaving the pig alive. The upset farmer kills the pig, gives the meat to the brothers, and tells them not to get near his pigs again.

Though frat comedies are about the guys, campus films usually have a place for love interests, often with scenes of the frats and sororities getting together. Van Wilder, with Ryan Reynolds as a seventh-year senior, finds love with fellow student Gwen Pearson (played by Tara Reid). Francis and his brothers have a party, a dinner party, with St. Clare and the sisters of her order. They all have a common love interest, who happens to be Jesus.

Frat comedies often exult in a celebration of the underdog, perhaps most notably in Revenge of the Nerds in which all of the outcasts of the college become the heroes. Is there a more iconic outcast than the leper? In one scene of Flowers, Francis is alone in the woods at night in prayer. He hears the bells of a leper and pursues the man, seeking to kiss and embrace the diseased man as the leper attempts to keep his distance. Francis thanks God for this chance to be with such a man.

In Neighbors, Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne play a married couple with a new baby who find their lives unsettled when a barbarous fraternity moves in next door, and they go to war with its residents. Brother Ginepro is forced to deal with real barbarians when the tyrant Nicolacio takes over a neighboring town. Ginepro goes to preach to the men and is beaten and threatened with the gallows. But Nicolacio becomes flustered by Ginepro’s humility and calls off the hanging and his siege.

Of course, a standard trope in frat comedies is when brothers take the Oath to show their allegiance to the fraternity. In Animal House, the pledges are instructed to repeat after the leader, so when the leader reads, “I, state your name,” they repeat, “I, state your name,” followed by, “Do hereby pledge allegiance to the frat,” which they repeat, “Do hereby pledge allegiance to the frat,” and then the leader says, “With liberty and fraternity for all,” and the pledges respond, “Amen.” The brothers in Flowers can join in on a much more inspirational and profound pledge/prayer together, the familiar, “Lord, make me be an instrument of your peace.”

Eventually, the time comes to move on, as Benjamin Braddock discovered in The Graduate. So Francis and his Brothers decide it is time to part and spread their message of peace in the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole world. They sing together as they say their goodbyes. It really makes you want to Shout!.

So we give Francis and his order of zany brothers our highest Movie Churches Rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Roberto Rossellini Month: The Machine to Kill Bad People

The Machine to Kill Bad People (La Macchina Ammazzacattivi)

The Machine to Kill Bad People is a profoundly weird film. Directed by Roberto Rossellini in 1952, it was a great departure from his acclaimed neorealistic style. (To be fair, he directed most of the film. It was a troubled production; Rossellini quit before the film was finished. The producers let an assistant director complete the film, and it was released without Rossellini’s consent.)

Unlike Rossellini's neorealistic films, which were often nearly docudramas, this film is a fantasy and a comedy. The opening makes this clear: the setting is presented as a model, with human hands arranging an island, the buildings, the clouds.

A small town located on the island is celebrating the Feast of St. Andrew (Andrea), an Italian saint who saved the nation from Turkish invasion. The whole village celebrates with a procession that begins and ends in the local Catholic Church.

We are then introduced to our protagonist, Celestino Esposito (Gennaro Pisano), a small-town photographer who is concerned about the financial future and moral climate of his village. Fishing has been the primary local industry, but an American businessman has come to town, looking to build a hotel and bring tourism dollars. He also brought along his niece who, um, has less restrictive sexual mores than is the local custom. The American is working with a town council member who collaborated with the Fascists during the war.

Esposito is greeted by an old man who claims to be Saint Andrew himself. He gives the photographer a special gift, a camera that will kill whoever it photographs. (In fact, it will even kill the person if a photograph is taken of another photograph of that person.) Esposito discovers the camera’s powers accidentally, killing the Fascist on the town council.

Esposito desires to use his new power only for good, and so consults with the local priest about the town’s problems. But the priest seems more concerned about getting money for rebuilding his church structure than anything else. The priest remarks, “This is a godsend for us. We can finally demolish this old church. I can’t stand this fake baroque anymore. We’ll bring back the ancient Byzantine Basilica. I’ll have porphyry columns and real mosaics on the walls.”

In fact, most people in the town seem to be motivated by greed or lust, so Esposito finds many people that he believes are worth killing with his camera.

If this film had been made today, most everyone writing about the film would say it was a commentary on current cancel culture. Like the photographer in the film, many people consider themselves to be such pristine moral creatures that they are capable of deciding who in history is worth remembrance and who should be erased, along with who in contemporary culture deserves to be heard and who doesn’t. In the film, Esposito starts by judging a man who was clearly a Nazi, but goes on to judge the most minor of hypocrisies as capital crimes. Esposito clearly seems to have forgotten Jesus’ words from Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”

In the end, we learn that it wasn’t St. Andrew that came to the photographer but the Devil himself. Because this is a comedy, all of the dead are brought back to life, and lessons are learned.

As for the Movie Churches Steeple rating, if we were judging this film by the greedy priest mentioned earlier, things would be truly dark. But a kindly old priest raises the rating. He is there to comfort the grieving in the town and encourages the family of one of the deceased saying, “He’s a simple soul, it will be easier for him to enter the kingdom of Heaven.” We give the church and clergy of The Machine to Kill Bad People a Two Steeple rating.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

In Theaters Now (if your theater happens to be open): Let Him Go

If you’ve ever been on a long car trip, you know the frustration of trying to find something decent to listen to on the radio. With all due respect to the music on Spanish language stations, it is not my jam -- but sometimes it's all I can find. Also not a fan of Country/Western music ( aka “both kinds of music” #BluesBrothers), which can also be omnipresent. At times while driving, I could only find one radio station, and it was broadcasting “Coast to Coast with George Noory” with discussions of the oddest of conspiracy theories (but maybe it’s true we don’t see Sasquatch much because they're being hunted by alien invaders).

At least we have the satellite option if we're willing to pay for it. This wasn't the case back in the day. 

In the 1960s setting of Let Him Go, a long-married couple, George and Margaret Blackledge (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) are on a road trip to see their grandson. AM was the only option in those days. The only thing they can find on the radio is a preacher who says, “You may think you’re a believer but you will find yourself in the Lake of Fire!” 

Margaret shuts off the radio saying, “That Bible thumper sounds like your father!” 

George responds, “He didn’t just thump Bibles.” 

This drama doesn't have much church, except the radio preacher, who only gets a few moments in the film. Talking about Hell has its place -- Jesus certainly talked about it -- and there's even a place for discussing brimstone and lakes of fire. But radio preachers need to remind themselves that people tend to remember only a small portion of their sermons, and context is everything.

There is another mention of faith in the film. George says to Margaret, “You only believe in this world, yet you believe that horses have souls.” One of the things that seem to bind them is a lack of traditional faith. And with George, that lack comes as a reaction to his father, whether that father was a clergyman or a layman (which isn't clear).

So we can only give that radio preacher a Two Steeple Movie Churches rating, and we're being generous.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Roberto Rossellini Month: Paisan


Roberto Rossellini’s second film, Paisan, was (like Rome, Open City) set in World War II Italy and filmed shortly after the war ended. By necessity, the director used the same neorealistic technique as in the first film, but used it quite effectively. The battered landscape and ruins of buildings are the genuine article, not a set created on a soundstage. 

Paisan is an anthology film about the campaign of the Allied forces through Italy. As in the previous film, most of the actors aren't professionals, but people rather like the characters they play in the movie, including some American soldiers.

The story unfolds in six sections, with documentary footage between each section, and fully a third of the stories suit our purposes here at Movie Churches. 

The first episode takes place during the Allied invasion of Sicily. The Germans had been in control of the island, but as they battle the Allies, a large group of civilians -- primarily women, children, and the elderly -- gather in a Roman Catholic Church for safety. A group of soldiers approaches the church, but those inside are unsure which side the soldiers are on. 

A man from the church calls out in German, but the soldiers are Allied soldiers, English speakers, Americans. The citizens don’t trust the soldiers, the soldiers don’t trust the citizens, but they find common ground in the church.

Admittedly there wasn’t a lot to write about in regard to the church in that portion of the film, except that it was the place where people in the town met, which is slightly interesting. There is much more to write about in the fifth episode of the film.

Episode 5 is set in a 500-year-old monastery, where monks have endured as battle has raged outside their walls. And they are not alone; they have chickens. (My wife is much more inclined to like a film if the film has chickens.) They actually have a variety of animals -- sheep and goats, and a cow that villagers entrusted to the monks so the creatures would stay out of the hands of the Nazis while the war continued. 

As the war has moved beyond the community, the people return to collect their animals, and the monks give them gladly. Together they kneel and pray, “Brothers, let us thank our Lord who delivered us from danger.”

Soon, three men in army uniforms arrive at the monastery. Captain Bill Martin (William Tubbs) introduces himself and the two other captains, "We are American chaplains." The other two, Jones (Newell Jones) and Feldman (Elmer Feldman) new visitors arrive at the monastery, three men in army uniforms. “We are American chaplains,” said Captain Bill Martin (William Tubbs), introducing the two other captains, Jones (Newell Jones) and Feldman (Elmer Feldman). (Captains Martin and Jones have crosses on their helmets, Captain Feldman does not.) 

The monks greet them and say, “Our doors are open to all!”

The monks refuse the cigarettes the chaplains offer, but accept some Hershey bars. In return, the monks offer the chaplains liqueur made from their homegrown apples, accepted by Captains Martin and Feldman, but refused by Captain Jones (“I never touch the stuff.”)

The monks invite the chaplains to dinner, realizing they have only meager supplies left for the meal, but the chaplains chip in with some canned foods. The monks marvel at the canned milk. The villagers again offer the monks their animals for use (chicken dinner.)

The monks soon learn distressing news: Captain Martin is the only Catholic among the chaplains. Jones is Lutheran and Feldman is Jewish. This worries them greatly. “Merciful Saint Francis!” one of the monks exclaims. 

When one of the monks learns the denomination of Jones he frets, “The heresy of Luther is the worst of all Protestants!”

The Father Superior is quite concerned about these “two lost souls” but also says, “No soul is lost while it still has life and a will to be saved. There are always opportunities for redemption. We can do something for these brothers.” He finds a time to talk with Chaplain Martin alone.

“May I ask you a question, Father?” The monk says to the chaplain, “Have you lived long with these two other priests (sic)?”

“We’ve been together the entire Italian campaign, twenty, no twenty-one months,” Martin responds, “They’re good and dear friends, I admire them very much.”

“Have you ever tried to lead them to the true religion?”

“But Father, the Protestant and the Jew are just as convinced they are on the true path.”

“But we know they are in error. We must try by every means possible to save those two souls that could be lost.”

“I am a Catholic, Father, and a priest and I humbly believe I am a good Catholic,” Martin says.

“Forgive me, Father, I didn’t mean to remind you of your duties,” the Father Superior replies. “I just meant you are military chaplains. Your duties expose yourselves to the same risks and dangers as soldiers. Have you thought your two companions might perish any day?”

“I never felt I could judge them,” Martin says. “I know them well, they are good friends. I don’t feel guilty, my conscience is clear.”

The monk does not seem persuaded.

When the chaplains arrive for dinner, they are told to keep silent through the meal without exception.

But one of the monks speaks during the dinner, first reciting the names of their fellow monks who have gone on to “a better life,” including those that died during the war.

The chaplains are shocked that they are served the meal, but the monks are not. The Father Superior explains, “We’re fasting because providence has sent two brothers on which the light of the Gospel’s light must descend. Our hope is that with this humble sacrifice we might receive a heavenly reward.”

Chaplain Martin can’t keep quiet, “Forgive me if I don’t follow your rule but I wish to speak. I must tell you you have given me such a great gift that I feel forever in your debt. Here I’ve found that peace of mind that I’d lost amid the horrors and misfortunes of war. A beautiful and moving witness in humility, simplicity, and pure faith.”

As a Protestant, I don’t agree with the Father Superior that it means I'm lost. But I agree with the Catholic chaplain that the monks acting on their beliefs is admirable. What he said reminded me of something the magician and atheist Penn Jillette said once about a man who shared his Christian faith with him, “He was kind, and nice, and sane, and looked me in the eyes, and talked to me, and then gave me a Bible. I’ve always said I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe there is a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think it’s not really worth telling them because it would make it socially awkward.”

I agree with Penn about the admirable concern about the souls of others, and that is why we’re awarding the monks of the monastery in Paisan our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Roberto Rossellini Month Opens

Rome, Open City

The story behind Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City could make an excellent film itself. In 1944, because of World War II, there was no longer a viable Italian film industry. Rossellini had no resources to make a film, but a wealthy elderly woman in Rome offered Rossellini money to make a film about Don Peito Morosini, a Catholic priest who aided the anti-German partisan movement in Italy and was killed by the Nazis. Just a few months after the Allied forces drove the Nazis out of Rome, Rossellini began filming.

Shooting on the film began in January of 1945 (the European war part of the war didn’t end until May of that year). Because of the scarcity of funds and resources, Rossellini adopted what became known as the “Neo-Realistic style." The term was coined to describe a crude, documentary method of film making. A few actors (even stars) were hired, but mainly a non-professional cast was used. The war-devastated city provided an incredible setting. 

Rossellini’s funds ran short, and he ran out of film, but the U.S. Army came to the rescue. To be more precise, a U.S. soldier came to the rescue. Rod Geiger of the Signal Corps had access to his unit’s film supplies, and he provided Rossellini with film scraps and whole reels that had scratches or other flaws that made them unfit for official U.S. Army use, but Rossellini found ways to make use of them. 

His film was completed and went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. It also won the first post-war Grand Prize of the Cannes Film Festival.

Don Peito Morosini, the real-life resistance fighter, becomes Father Pietro Pelligrini (Aldo Fabrizia) in the reel version. The movie priest has some endearing quirks. We first see the priest reffing a boys’ football (American soccer) game. We see him do a head-shot and instruct the boys, “I’ve told you before, no rough stuff.” When he is called away from the game to help a member of the resistance, he gives his whistle to a young boy take over as referee. 

Later in the film, we see the priest enter a statuary store, pretending to shop, but actually, he's about to meet a Resistance contact. Father Pietro asks the proprietor, “Have you a statue of St. Antony the Abbott?” While waiting in the store, the priest turns the statue of a (male) saint away from the statue of a naked woman. (O/T, why aren’t there more statuary stores around these days?)

The priest agrees to marry a couple.but first he urges them to get right with God. The bride-to-be says to him, “My last confession was so long ago, you won’t understand.” 

He responds, “Doesn’t Christ see us?” and he still performs the ceremony.

The chief work we see Father Pietro do is in support of the Resistance against the Nazi occupiers. While delivering funds for a Resistance fighter hiding in a monastery, he is asked why he is helping. He says simply, “It is my duty to help those in need.” (He hides the funds in a book with the insides cut out. A man who sees him criticizes the priest for spending money on books while people are starving). 

When the Nazis obtain information that the Resistance is hiding explosives in an apartment building, the priest comes to help. All the residents of the building have been asked to leave the building. But the priest tells the Nazis he must enter the building to “comfort the sick." A paralyzed man on one of the upper floors is still in his bed. Along with one of his altar boys, the priest gets the explosives and hides them under the sick man's bed. The man won’t stay quiet about this, so the priest knocks him unconscious so the man won’t alert the soldiers. (Not something I remember coming up in my pastoral duties classes.)

The priest leads a mass for Resistance fighters in rooms in the back of his church where he also prepares false papers, such as baptismal certificates. (When he gives a false certificate to one man, the man says, “You made me two years younger. Thank you, Father.”)

When Father Pietro is betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo, he is held prisoner along with a Communist and a German soldier who aided the Resistance. The Nazis interrogate the priest, but he only tells them, “I know nothing. What little I know I heard in confession, and those secrets must die with me. It’s our vow. But someone else is higher than you and me. I only know a man of modest needs who was in need of my help.”

He is asked by the Nazis why he is willing to work with a Communist, Giorgio (Marcello Pagliero), a man opposed to his faith. The priest answers, “I am a Catholic priest. I believe that anyone fighting for justice and liberty walks in the ways of the Lord and the ways of the Lord are infinite.”

Though the soldiers will not torture the priest, they tell him they will torture Giorgio if Father Pietro won't talk. They use whips and blowtorches to torture Giorgio, killing him. The priest gives last rites to his dead friend.

The German commandant, Major Bergmann (Harry Feist), says to the priest “This is your Christian charity!” pointing to the body.

The priest explodes, “Curse you all! You’ll be trampled in the dust like a worm!” But he quickly repents of his words saying, “My God, what have I said? Forgive me, Lord.”

But the Nazis do not forgive the priest. Instead, they order his execution. As Father Pietro is taken to a field to meet a firing squad, he is accompanied by another priest who tells him, “Be brave!” 

Pietro responds, “Oh, it’s not hard to die a good death. What’s hard is to live a good life.”

“Father, forgive them…” the priest says as the bullets pierce his body.

Rome, Open City
was the beginning of Rossellini’s career. Rossellini month at Movie Churches opens auspiciously with a Four Steeple Rating for this movie's priest, Don Pietro Pellegrini.