Thursday, April 23, 2020

I Fought the Law Month: The Godfather III

The Godfather III (1990) There are three Godfather films. The first two won Oscars for Best Picture, the third did not. The first two won Oscars for acting; the third did not. The first two had Robert Duvall as a family advisor; in the third, George Hamilton takes that role. Most infamously, the third film has director Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter, Sofia as a last-minute replacement for Winona Ryder (who became ill). As an actress, Sofia Coppola proved to be a very good future film director.

The first two films are among the best films ever made. The third film, though it has some good set pieces, as a whole just isn't very good. To put in in the terms of the Corleone sons, The Godfather III is the Fredo of the series. Still, though, this film has something we appreciate greatly here at Movie Churches: priests and the church in a prominent role. The first two Godfather films have some good church cameos (particularly the christening in the first film intercut with a gangland slaughter). In this film, the Roman Catholic Church carries the central plotline as Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) tries to become respectable by taking over the Vatican Bank.

I’m kind of torn about whether this film really fits the theme of “I Fought the Law,” because the law is not much of a presence in the Godfather trilogy. I think the police make brief appearances in the first two Godfather films, but not at all in the third. The Corleones are not held responsible by civil law, but only gang and church law.

This film moves quite quickly to a church service, a “papal order induction ceremony” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. (I had to go to Wikipedia to find out what the service was called. Basically, the service is just an excuse to butter up Michael Corleone, who gave a hundred million dollars through the Corleone Foundation to the poor of Sicily.) The film spends quite a bit of time at this service and especially at the reception that follows.

Obviously, there are a number of clergy at the reception. I was most pleased to see a clergyman of some kind named Dominic Abbandando played by Don Novelo. (Novelo also played a character on Saturday Night Live in the 1970’s, Father Guido Sarducci, the Vatican Gossip Reporter on Weekend Update.) Dominic notes that the Holy Father himself blessed Corleone, so who is anyone to question him?

One person who surely questions Michael Corleone is his ex-wife, Kay (Diane Keaton) who remembers the many crimes he committed during his rise in his criminal family. “I’m not here to see you disguised by your church. I thought that was a shameful ceremony,” she tells him.

Others disagree. The Archbishop tells Michael, “You’ve done a wonderful thing.”

Michael responds, “Let’s just be sure that this [$100 million] gets to the people who need it. 

Anthony, a young priest who is also one of Michael's godsons, is also in attendance. The Archbishop says of Anthony Vito Corleone (Franc D’Ambrosio), “There’s always a place in Rome for a fine young priest.” Sure enough, soon Anthony is serving in the Vatican.

But that gift for Sicily isn’t the end of the money the Vatican wants from Michael Corleone. Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donelly) comes to the Don saying, “I need your help. My gift was being able to persuade people to give to the Holy Church, and the Vatican put me in charge of the Vatican Bank. I was never a true banker.” It seems the church bank has a $700 million deficit -- and back in the ’70s (when this film takes place), that was real money.

Michael assures the Archbishop that none of the business he is involved in is illegitimate (never admitting he used to be in very illegitimate businesses). The archbishop says to Michael, “In today’s world, the power to absolve debt is greater than the power of forgiveness,” which doesn’t seem like a very theologically sound statement. 

Michael responds, “Don’t underestimate the power of forgiveness.” The Archbishop tells Michael he could be made the richest person in the world if he deposits $600 million in the Vatican Bank. Again Michael has a smooth response, “I have always believed that helping your fellow man is the greatest power.”

So Michael decides to pursue investing in the Church Bank and to REALLY get rid of his illegal businesses. But when he meets with the gangsters (that work for him) to divest himself of the dirty businesses, an attempted assassination via a machine gun equipped helicopter takes place. Bringing Michael to exclaim the most famous line from the film, “Just when I thought I was out… They pull me back in.”

Things don’t go much better for Michael when he tries to work his way through the church bureaucracy. Catholic business organizations in the United States don’t like the associations the Corleone name brings to the church. He finds more requests for favors and bribes within the church. He trusted the Archbishop but comes to see it as a swindle. He laments that his desire to become “legitimate” is met with more corruption in “decent” society, telling his sister, Connie (Talia Shire), “The higher I go, the crookeder it becomes.”

He seeks counsel from a trusted family advisor in Italy. He is told to see Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone), “a wise and good man, very influential, he will see you.” Turns out, he is rather a good man, at least compared to everyone else in the film. Michael does go to see him.

Michael tells the Cardinal of his frustration with the corruption in modern life, even in the church. The Cardinal agrees, “Men in Europe are surrounded by Christianity, but Christ is not in them.” For a time, the Cardinal discusses church politics with Michael but then asks him if he’d like to give his confession.

Michael tells the Cardinal that it has been thirty years since his last confession, and surely the Cardinal doesn’t have time for him. “I always have time to save souls,” the Cardinal tells him.

“I’m beyond redemption,” Michael says. 

“Sometimes the desire for confession is overwhelming,” the Cardinal answers. 

Michael says, “What is the point in confessing if I don’t repent?” 

The Cardinal answers, “I hear you are a practical man, what have you got to lose?”

Michael confesses beginning with “I betrayed my wife, I betrayed myself, I killed men and ordered men to be killed.” 

“Go on, my son.” 

“I ordered the death of my brother.”

“What you have done is terrible, and it is right that you suffer,” the Cardinal tells him, “Your life can be redeemed, but I know you don’t believe that.” The priest absolves Micahel and the church bells ring.

But true to his word, in a way, Michael doesn’t repent, continuing to seek power above all else. And most of the clergy continue to do the same in the film. Most pay a heavy price for their corruption. Many clergymen suffer brutal slayings. And Michael pays a higher price.

So what is our Movie Churches rating for the Roman Catholic Church and its clergy in The Godfather III? It would be our lowest rating of One Steeple, but Cardinal Lamberto single-handedly brought the average up, so we're giving this movie Two Steeples.

Friday, April 17, 2020

I Fought the Law Month: Inside the Law

Inside the Law (1942) aka Rogues in Clover

What? You’ve never heard of this film before? Really? 

Okay, I hadn’t either, until I Googled for this month’s theme using “movie,” “law,” and “church” -- and there it was, Inside the Law. I had never heard of it either, so I looked it up on IMDb and found two interesting trivia items about the film.

Item 1: Though the film was made in 1942, it had its television debut Monday, January 14th, 1946 on a pioneer New York City station WNBT (Channel 1). Before I saw this, I had no idea movies had been shown on television in the 1940s. I also had no idea there used to be “Channel 1” on TVs. I’d only seen dials that start with 2 (with the “1” slot used for UHF stations.)

Item 2: This sentence from the plot summary caught my eye: “To complete the pose, they attend Sunday church services and decide to go straight.” Obviously, here at Movie Churches, we couldn’t resist a film with a plot point like that.

Inside the Law is a low (no) budget crime comedy from PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation, a “Poverty Row” studio that lasted from 1939 to 1946.) It was directed by Hamilton McFadden, who directed 29 films that are largely forgotten (except perhaps the three Charlie Chan films he directed which deservedly turn up in term papers on racism in 1930s Hollywood).

This film, though, stars Wallace Ford (an actor who had bit roles in much more famous films) as Billy, leader of a group of confidence artists who rip off rich folks in one city and move to another. In the opening scene, the crew attending an auction, starting a phony fight and picking the pockets of all the attendees. (At this “rare imports” auction, the attendees strangely seem to get to pick the order of items auctioned.) The gang is an interesting assortment. Along with Billy, there is Dora (Luana Walters, the requisite tough dame with a gold heart; Mom and Pop Cobb, an elderly couple with two sons in the gang; and then there’s Jim, the roughest of the crooks.

The thieves hit the road, heading west from New York to California (though the montage of the trip seems to be pretty much filmed just in Nevada and the Sierra Nevadas). They eventually come to a “Los Angeles City Limits” sign that seems to be in the middle of nowhere (the surest indication that this was filmed a long time ago).

As they stand around by the car before finishing their trip, a cop pulls a man over for drunk driving (the presence of a police officer makes the gang quite nervous). While pretending to help the drunk, Billy steals his wallet. (The wallet is really huge. Did people used to have wallets the size of trade paperback novels?) Billy finds something of great interest, along with some cash. A letter of introduction to the Walnut Valley Bank. Billy decides Walnut Valley is their destination.

When the gang enters the bank, the president of the bank, Judge Mortimer Gibbs, is being held at gunpoint by a farmer who can’t pay his mortgage. Jim knocks the would-be robber out, allowing a felicitous introduction to the institution.

Billy introduces himself as Richard Black, the new Chief Teller, and the grateful judge welcomes him. Billy says he will need a staff he can trust, so he fires all the current tellers and hires his crew in their places, saying “I don’t trust strangers”. (Billy does make his gang cough up money to pay the old staff severance. They’re paid “a yard a piece” or $100 a person.)

But the gang is in for a surprise when they look in the bank’s vault. There’s nothing there, which would be real trouble if a bank examiner came along. The bank robbers are saddened that there is no money to rob. “You’ve hooked us all into a surefire gilt-edged flop,” Pop complains.

The judge acknowledges the problem to Billy, who tells him he’s got twelve schemes to get people to deposit money in the bank. His first proves a winner. 

He challenges people to bring their safes or lockboxes to the bank. If Billy can crack them, people agree to put their money in the bank. If Billy can’t break into one of the safes, the owner gets a cash prize. Fortunately, Billy is very good at cracking safes, and the bank soon has a lot more customers.

Soon, so much money flows into the bank that the vault holds over $70,000. The gang thinks about fleeing with that cash, but then considers, “If we got that much cash in a week, how much can we get in two?” They agree to stick around for a bit. When that same farmer who tries to rob the bank comes in again, Billy agrees to loan him $5000, to the chagrin of his partners.

Sunday morning the gang is together, playing cards. But Billy comes in the room as they hear church bells ring. “Don’t you know those bells are ringing for you?” Billy asks. He asks Dora to confirm, “You’re a small-town kid, don’t you know if we’re not in church it will be the biggest run on a bank you’ve ever seen?” 

Dora confirms the people of the town will expect them to be in church on Sunday morning.

The gang all dresses in their Sunday best. Dora says to Billy, “You’re marvelous, you’re the finest, grandest crook I’ve ever met.” She notices that “Pa actually shaved!” 

But Billy still thinks there’s a problem with how everyone looks, “You look like a bunch of mugs going to have your teeth pulled. Smile!” 

Dora tells them, “Don’t worry about how you look, when you get in the church, relax and let the spirit of the service come in.” 

Jim complains, “If I have to go to church and like it too, count me out. Besides, I haven’t shaved. I’m not fit to go in.” 

“Aw, come in anyway,” the rest of the gang encourages him.

We join the congregation with the service in progress, with a unison reading of the 23rd Psalm. Then we hear a sample of the pastor’s sermon, “Changing the world in which we live will be impossible unless we change ourselves within... As good Christians remind your neighbors about the truth of the Gospel and the love of the Savior who died so you might live forever.” 

We don’t get much of the preaching, but it does sound solid and orthodox. The service concludes with the hymn "Rock of Ages" (with a sound “Amen” concluding).

The gang seems genuinely enthused as they leave the service. Dora says, “I’m glad we went to church, Billy.” 

Ma says, “Yeah, this is a nice little town. I feel like a heel taking their dough.” All seem to agree with the sentiment.

And those feelings are put into action. Ma quits the gang and joins the Ladies Aid Society. As Pa says, “Why not settle down and have everything we want, but on the level.” 

Ma says of her sons, “The boys are tired of raising Cain. They want to settle down and raise rabbits.”

Of course, plot complications ensue. The real Richard Black, bank teller (still drunk), gets to town. And Jim doesn’t want to settle down and wants to take all the bank’s money to Mexico. The rest of the gang seem changed by this one church service, in heart and behavior. That rarely happens in real life, let alone in the movies.

And that's why we're giving the church in Walnut Valley, a church of unknown denominations, our highest rating of four steeples.

(Now available on Amazon Prime.)

Friday, April 10, 2020

I Fought the Law Month: The Prisoner

The Prisoner (1955)

It's the second week of “I Fought the Law Month,” and this week makes it clear that "the Law" is not always the good guy. Sure, last week we had a homicidal preacher -- and there are plenty of movies with homicidal pastors -- and in those films, we here at Movie Churches root for the law. Not in this film. In The Prisoner, we're rooting for the fighter against the law.

This film takes place in an unnamed Eastern European Communist nation in the 1950’s. Directed by
Peter Glenville with a screenplay by Bridget Boland (based on her own play), it tells the story of a Catholic Cardinal arrested for… well, for being a Catholic Cardinal. Or more precisely, for being a widely admired Cardinal in a nation where the government requires all admiration to go to the state.

Alec Guinness plays the Cardinal (he has no other name in the film) and we see him leading worship. But during the mass, he is shown a message, “Police here to arrest you.” The Cardinal doesn’t seem surprised by this at all. As the Mass ends, he is arrested. As he leaves the building, he tells one of the priests, “Any confession I am said to make in prison is a lie, or the result of human weakness.” He is then put in a car and taken away.

At the prison, a heckling jailer (Wilfrid Lawson) takes the Cardinal’s belongings: a watch, a bracelet, a cigarette tin, rosary beads, a ring, a jeweled cross. The jailer says, “That’s where the money goes, eh?” before taking the Cardinal's fingerprints. Then the Cardinal is allowed to wash his hands.

He next meets his inquisitor, known just as the Interrogator (Jack Hawkins). He gives the Cardinal some respect, “You are a prince of the Church. You fought in the Resistance.”

The Cardinal responds, “At least one was on the same side as all of one’s fellow countrymen.” We learn over the course of the film that the Cardinal was a great hero for fighting against the Nazis in World War II. He became beloved by the nation when they learned of his heroic deeds.

The Cardinal asks the Interrogator if there is “any particular plot” he is accused of being involved in, any plot “you hope to uncover?”

The Interrogator is honest in saying his problem with the Cardinal comes from the jealousy of the State, “You represent a religion that provides an organization outside the state. In your pulpit, you are more dangerous than a politician.”

The Cardinal asks if the goal is his destruction, and the Interrogator responds that the goal is for the Cardinal to be “defaced” because the Cardinal is an obstacle to complete domination by the state. He brings in a completed confession for the Cardinal to sign, “It will give us a starting point.”

The Cardinal responds, “Your masters are in a hurry...Those trying to make heaven on earth usually are.” The Cardinal refuses to sign, and he is sent to his cell, where he crosses himself and prays quietly. The jailer asks if the Cardinal is being difficult, and the Cardinal responds, “I hope so.”

The Cardinal asks the Interrogator if he plans to use “racks and thumbscrews,” but the Interrogator, a psychiatrist, tells the Cardinal torture is “outdated.” He is told that drugs won't be used, either. 

This perplexes the Cardinal, “No drugs, no torture, what do you hope for?” 

“A conversion," the Interrogator replies.
The Interrogator tells the Cardinal, “You are dangerous because you mislead the poor, the uneducated and the silly. But only because you are wrongheaded, and you can be cured… Stop thinking of me at the Inquisitor… Think of me as your doctor.”

The Cardinal responds, “God give me cunning against your skill. God keep my watch.”

The Interrogator asks, “If the church isn’t deliberately obstructing the state, are you willing to say it supports it?” 

The Cardinal answers, “It renders to the state the things that are the states and renders to God, the things that are God’s.”

God seems to answer that prayer, Three months go on without any progress in breaking the priest. He wonders if the task is hopeless because -- during the war -- the Gestapo tried to break him and were unable to do so. Then the Interrogator realizes that the Cardinal is genuinely a good man, so he must use that goodness against him.

He tells the Cardinal his pride is what is keeping him from confessing. He asks the Cardinal if he is proud. He does so realizing that a proud man might claim to be humble, but that a truly humble man will confess to pride. With this, and the discovery that the Cardinal had a difficult relationship with his mother, the Interrogator knows how to break him.

The Cardinal is broken, and he confesses in court to terrible things (which are not true). The Cardinal says he stole money from the church, that he told others secrets he heard in confession and that during the war he betrayed the Resistance to the Nazis. The people turn against the Cardinal.

The Cardinal believes he will then be executed. But the government commutes the death sentence. The Interrogator admits to the Cardinal it is because they don’t want him to be a martyr. But if kept in prison, he will be an enigma to the world. So the Cardinal is set free, which seems to be the worst outcome of all.

But the Interrogator resigns from his position because he realizes he really didn’t win. The Cardinal came in as a good man. He leaves broken, but still good.

This film reminded me of another film reviewed here at Movie Churches, Martin Scorsese’s Silence, based on historical events in 17th century Japan. Many Christians were tortured to the point where they denied their faith. But that doesn’t mean God is not faithful. As Paul wrote in II Timothy 2:13, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot disown Himself.”

As the Cardinal said early the film, his confession might be due to “human weakness.” But that weakness doesn’t disprove God’s strength. As the Cardinal says, “Try not to judge the priesthood by the priest.”

But judging things is what we do here, and we will judge this priest, this Cardinal. Though he breaks, it is long after many of us would have broken. For those three steadfast months of opposition to the state, we give the Cardinal our highest rating of 4 Steeples.

Friday, April 3, 2020

I Fought the Law Month: Salvation Boulevard

Salvation Boulevard (2011)

I’ve mentioned this before here at Movie Churches, but I think it is probably worth mentioning again: we are not in favor of pastors, or anyone in church leadership, committing murder.

Not that murderers can't be pastors. After all, the Apostle Paul was an accessory to the murder of Stephen. God is capable of redeeming people from all kinds of sins. But once someone is in a leadership role in a church, they really shouldn’t be doing any murdering. We’re pretty hardline about that here at Movie Churches.

Salvation Boulevard (2011, directed by George Ratliff) is a dark comedy about a Southern California megachurch with a pastor who loves power and adoration and inconveniently shoots a debating rival. Pierce Brosnan plays the Reverend Dan Day who resembles Joel Osteen as much as anyone on the current televangelist circuit.

Early in the film, we see Day debating an atheist, Peter Blaylock (Ed Harris) at a college campus. It's a public debate about the existence of God. Blaylock brings up the usual arguments about the Plague and the Spanish Inquisition and 9/11 and asks “Where was God during thousands of years of human suffering?” 

These are the most basic arguments anyone preparing for such a debate should expect (and be ready with a direct answer). Day doesn’t answer the question(s) directly but points to “evidence everywhere you look for God’s existence, in law, nature, culture” and in “the faces I know here.”

Day points out a man in the crowd, Carl Vandermeer (Sam Rockwell), a former Deadhead who joined his church. For years, Carl had followed the Grateful Dead, taking “lots and lots and lots of drugs.” Day says that Carl has now found that “true happiness comes from submitting to God’s perfect plan for us.” Carl has “the fingerprints of God all over.”

After the debate, Blaylock asks Day to join him for a drink in his faculty office. He asks if Carl can come along as well. (It is interesting that the issue of the propriety of alcohol on campus -- or being consumed by clergy -- is not raised by Day or Blaylock.) In the office, Blaylock shows Day an antique gun and offers to let Day examine it. As Blaylock proposes that he and Day work on a book together, Day, playing with the gun, accidentally shoots Blaylock in the head.

Carl says they must call 911 immediately, but Reverend Day says, “No,” there are things too important to risk. Such as the groundbreaking of City on a Hill, a project that includes a cathedral, a law school, and medical school. Day puts the gun in Blaylock’s hand so his death will look like a suicide, then tells Carl to call 911 from a payphone (I guess you could still easily find those ten years ago) and claim to have heard a gunshot from a campus office and hang up. Carl does what Day tells him.

We soon learn that Blaylock is not dead but in a coma. The Reverend Day tries to continue with life as usual. We see him lead a worship service at The Third Millenium Church. As one would expect in a contemporary megachurch, there is a large camera crew, talented but banal worship band, and gaudy stage decorations. The most disappointing thing about the service is Reverend Day's preaching. It is pure affirmation, and though the name of Jesus is mentioned, no Scripture is read or even referenced. I don’t recall the Reverend quoting Scripture in any way throughout the film.

After the service, Carl's wife Gwen (Jennifer Connelly) approaches the Reverend with a project she and a friend would like the church to support: a movie theater that shows only Christian films. (I have grave doubts about the profitability of such a project, but if anyone wants to give it a go, would be the ideal place to use your advertising dollars.)

The Reverend Day needs a fall guy for Blaylock's shooting, so he accuses Carl. He also asks his chief video assistant and right-hand man, Jerry (Jim Gaffigan), to kill Carl. 

As Jerry leads Carl into the wilderness, he talks about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac. Carl sees where this is going, and knocks Jerry out before he can kill him.

Carl is now on the run, so he can't escort his stepdaughter, Angie (Isabelle Fuhrman), to the church’s “Purity Ball.” Fathers take their daughters to this rather odd event, a dance where the daughters make a commitment to remain “pure” until marriage. Because Carl is on the run, being accused of attempted murder and all, the Reverend Day, in a quite creepy maneuver, takes Angie to the dance.

The Reverend goes to visit Peter Blaylock at the hospital. He's obviously considering finishing Peter off, but can’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he confesses to the comatose professor, claiming the devil made him do it.

Spoilers - the truth does eventually come out and justice is done. Professor Blaylock comes out of his coma and fully recovers. The Reverend Day is sent to prison where he begins a ministry. 

After he gets out, he goes into real estate. In the end, he isn’t actually a murderer. About the worst he could be charged with is attempted manslaughter, but that still goes against Paul’s instruction in I Timothy 3 that an overseer should be “not violent but gentle.” 

I rather hope The Third Millennium Church disbands. It seems like (at best) a Two Steeple Church on the Movie Churches scale, and the Reverend Day brings it down to One Steeple. This is not the place I’d send people to seek salvation, I would suggest a different boulevard.