Academy Awards are this Sunday. I've seen all the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and I must say, there's very little church or clergy in any of the films. It's quite thoughtless of the Academy to give so little attention to the needs of this blog. If a film like Just Mercy or A Hidden Life had been nominated, I’d have a little more to work with, but no…
A majority of the nine films nominated (Ford Vs. Ferrari, Joker, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, Jojo Rabbit, and Marriage Story) have no direct reference to churches or clergy, but the remaining four have minor ecclesiastical references.
Parasite (my favorite film from last year), had a passing church reference. The poor family in the movie makes money folding boxes for a local pizza parlor, and that pizza parlor gets a major order from The Love of God Church. And that’s it. (FWIW, I tend to be more favorable to churches that serve pizza.)
Little Women has a prominent clergy character, but they try to keep that on the down-low. The film is based on Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel (released in two parts in 1868 and 1869). The story tells of a mother and her daughters, the Marches, struggling to get by while Father March serves in the Civil War. In the book, it states quite plainly that the father serves as a chaplain with the Union Army. In Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the novel, the word “chaplain” is never used. One of the daughters, Jo (Saoirse Ronan) talks about her father (Bob Odenkirk) going off to serve the Union Army and wishing she could join him, certainly giving the impression that he is serving as a soldier. The only clues we have of Father March’s profession is when he officiates over the wedding of one daughter and the funeral of another. We really get no indication of the quality of Father March’s ministry. A church in the family’s town is prominent in a number of shots, but we never see the Marches (or anyone else) step inside it.
The Irishman is the only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees that makes prominent references to the church and clergy. This isn’t too surprising, considering it was directed by Martin Scorsese -- who often works with religious themes (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun) and more specifically Catholicism (The Silence). The Irishman is the story of mobsters, particularly Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) and Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and their involvement in the killing of labor leader Jimmy Hoffa; these vicious, cold-blooded men are active in the Catholic Church. In the film, we see several baptisms and a wedding in Catholic Churches (Christian statuary and iconography are featured throughout the film).
Through the camera's eye, we follow these mobsters as they age, and near the end of Russell’s life, he begins to attend church regularly. Frank teases him for this, but Russell says, “Don’t laugh, you’ll see.” And Frank does eventually find himself in a Catholic nursing home being visited by priests. Frank doesn’t seem to feel much guilt for his past, even for the people he killed, but a priest encourages him, “I think we can be sorry even when we don’t feel sorry. It’s a decision of the will.”
1917 doesn’t have a formal church or clergyperson, but it does have the most moving worship service I saw in a film from last year. The film tells the story of two soldiers given the assignment of taking a message to the front lines. One soldier reaches a troop about to go to battle. It is quite evident that the men are scared. One of the men stands before them and sings a folk/gospel song, “The Wayfaring Stranger.” The song tells of a journey of God’s redeemed across the Jordan to see their loved ones, “I’m only going over home.” We see war-torn churches and hear church bells in the film, but this moment of worship is truly "church." If I was giving steeple this week, that service would get four steeples out of four.
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