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.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Roberto Rossellini Month is finally here! (You know you've been waiting)

I have to admit something before we get started. For a long time, all I knew about Roberto Rossellini was that he had an affair with Ingrid Bergman

When you read about old-time Hollywood, this was a big deal. Not that Hollywood stars weren’t having affairs left and right back in the day, but the studios' PR people were usually pretty good about covering things up. When the actress who played Sister Mary in The Bells of St. Mary's was found to be with child while married to someone who wasn't the baby's father, it got some notice. 

For a while, groups in the Roman Catholic Church tried to organize boycotts of Bergman's work, and she needed to go to Europe to make films. The scandal was all the more serious because Rossellini was also married to someone else when he fathered Bergman’s child. Rossellini divorced his wife to marry Bergman (and Bergman divorced her husband to marry Rossellini) as you might have guessed if you’ve ever seen a film with Isabella Rossellini. Rossellini did eventually cheat on Bergman, the marriage was annulled, and both married others.

Until recently I hadn’t watched any of Rossellini’s films. I knew he was the father of “Neo-Realism” and that sounded awfully dull. When I was given a gift subscription to the Criterion Channel for Fathers' Day, I finally got around to watching my first Rossellini film, Rome, Open City

It was really good. 

More importantly (for this blog, anyway) a priest played a big role in the film. I started to research more about Rossellini and found he made a lot of films that prominently feature the Catholic faith. Though he wasn’t religious himself, he was very interested in Christian values and considered it a loss that Catholic ethics were neglected in an increasingly materialistic world.

I had three months of the Criterion Channel, so I did a little research. Were there enough Rossellini films featuring churches or clergy? It turns out there were more than enough. I couldn't cover all the films I wanted to, so I hope I can fit them in with the themes of upcoming months. 

So if you suffer, as I did, from Rossellini ignorance, this is a good month for you to turn that around, starting this Friday with Rome, Open City.