Thursday, December 30, 2021

2021 Movie Churches in review

Movie Churches Wraps Up 2021

It feels like I always have to explain the Movie Churches rating system. People see a low rating for a church (or clergy member) and assume I didn’t like the movie or, vice versa, think I like a film because it got a high steeple rating.

For example, one of my favorite films this year, A Hidden Life, featured a man of great faith, but he was not a member of the clergy. The clergy and church in that film were corrupted by the Third Reich, so though the film was wonderfully made and featured people boldly imitating Christ, it received a lowly Two Steeple rating.

On the other hand, this year I watched the “Christmas Classic” Love Actually for the first time. Apologies to those who love this film, but I rather loathed it. So many people in the film made stupid, selfish choices that the film seemed to celebrate. The few fleeting glimpses of church and clergy were relatively innocuous, arguably positive, so the church and clergy in the film received a respectable Three Steeple rating.

With all this in mind, I decided to feature the films that received Four Steeple ratings this year -- which doesn’t mean, of course, that I loved the film or even that it's worth seeking out. But in a world where the popular media often presents the church and pastors negatively, it is worth pointing out that it isn’t always the case. Fourteen films received that coveted Four Steeple rating.

January began with a celebration of British film. 1947’s Odd Man Out, directed by master filmmaker Carol Reed (The Third Man). This film is worth pursuing, and the priest in it is a marvelous man who makes a difference in the lives of many, including thugs and gangsters.

We often celebrate Black History Month at Movie Churches, and the best clergy and church this year were found in a film added to the U.S. National Film Registry in 1991. The Blood of Jesus (1941) is an interesting film that uses alternate realities several years before It’s a Wonderful Life. It's a strange film, but the church and clergy in the film are very supportive of a hurting woman.

Okay, I admit I’m not a big fan of legendary director Douglas Sirk. I find his work too sentimental for my tastes, but I can’t fault the men in the Jesuit seminary in 1951’s The First Legion. During the month of April, Movie Churches looked at miracles in movies, and the first miracle in The First Legion is a kind of April Fool’s prank. The second is not.

If I offended any cinephiles by dissing Douglas Sirk, maybe I can get back in their good graces by praising the director of 1937’s You Only Live Once, Fritz Lang. No one could set up a creepy, foreboding atmosphere like Lang. May was Criminals month, and poor Henry Fonda led a life of sinister foreboding. His few bright spots in life came from his love interest, Sylvia Sidney, and his prison priest. Father Dolan is a source of unquestioning, unconditional love. As they say in the film, “Father Dolan is for everyone!” so we’re all for him.

During Criminals month, we also had a positive presentation of a nun in a film about Postal Inspectors. Really, apart 1951’s  Appointment with Danger, have you ever seen a film about postal inspectors?

Not surprisingly, June (Missionaries month) was a good time for High Steeple ratings. Though a good guy, Humphrey Bogart wasn’t a real priest or missionary in China in 1955’s The Left Hand of God, but he did encounter real missionaries worthy of a Four Steeple rating. Though 2016’s On Wings of Eagles is not nearly the film Chariots of Fire was, it gives an accurate enough presentation of Olympian/Missionary Eric Liddell who is as worthy of Four Steeples as he was of Olympic gold.

Christian film month, in July, presented other real people worthy of Four Steeples. Joni Eareckson even played herself in 1979’s Joni. I have very great respect for this paralytic woman who allowed God to use her injuries as a source of strength, building ministries to hurting people throughout the world. Though Pat Boone’s performance as real-life urban pastor David Wilkerson (in 1970’s The Cross and The Switchblade) isn’t what you could call, um, good, we do get the glimpse of a very good man who founded a very worthy ministry, Teen Challenge.

In August we looked at Hollywood Biblical spectacles about the start of the church: The Sign of the Cross, Quo Vadis, and The Robe. I didn’t really enjoy any of those films very much, but if you think I’m going to give Peter and Paul and the other apostles anything less than Four Steeples, you’ve got another think coming.

Looking at Christian schools in September, I was happy to watch a film I really love that also happens to have a positive presentation of clergy: 1993’s Rudy. It is often listed among the films that can make a man cry. Not me, of course. I was, um, just chopping onions.

Our last Four Steeple films were found in November with a triple feature of films about the founder of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther. Though he had his faults as a man of his time, and all people have, he still earned his Four Steeples in 1953’s Martin Luther, 1974’s Luther, and 2003’s Luther.

So this is the last Movie Churches post of 2021. Next week we'll start a month of Comedy Churches to kick off 2022.

Monday, December 27, 2021

List of 2021 Films with and without clergy or churches

2021 was a better year for going to the movie theater than 2020 -- but not significantly better. 

Theaters were still shut down at the beginning of the year here in Washington state. Studios were still hesitant about releasing big-budget productions amidst Covid-19 fears, so I would be at a loss to produce a top ten list of films (which was a regular practice of mine until last year). I’m just listing the 2021 films I saw in the theater first, followed by those I watched at home. Check out the link on films that are the subject of a Movie Churches post. A few films didn't get a Movie Churches post, but I'll add church and clergy notes when the movie offered that opportunity.

In Theaters:

Church People Yup, posted on this one.


Raya and the Last Dragon

The Unholy One of two films I posted on this year with the same title.

Wrath of Man

A Quiet Place Part II No prizes for whoever came up with the title, but a decent sequel.

Tennessee Gothic One of the two new features we saw at Joe Bob’s Drive-In Jamboree in Pennsylvania this summer and I did a post on it.

Loss Prevention The other new feature we saw at the Jamboree.

Jungle Cruise

The Suicide Squad

Free Guy

The Protégé 

God’s Not Dead 4: We the People A pastor is the protagonist of this Christian film, and I plan to write about it -- but it hasn't fit into the schedule yet.

The Many Saints of Newark I did a post on this prequel to The Sopranos TV series.

Last Night in Soho

The French Dispatch Not a lot of church or clergy, but the gang of roving, rioting altar boys, drunk on communion wine, would receive one steeple at best.


Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Nightmare Alley There isn’t any formal church or clergy in the film, but the protagonist bemoans his abusive, Scripture-spouting father. Perhaps that’s why he never goes to a church or rescue mission when he needs help, though we see him drag a dying man to the doorstep of a Salvation Army shelter. 

An interesting bit of trivia: the novel this film is based on was written by William Lindsay Gresham, who was married to Joy Davidman. Some years after Gresham divorced Davidman, she married C. S. Lewis.

Streaming or DVD

Boss Level 

The Mitchells vs. the Machines

The Courier  

Jakob’s Wife Halloween post.

The Sparks Brothers


The Harder They Fall The opening shoot-out takes place in a church, and we learn that the pastor of the church has a dark past -- as did the preacher father of Nat Love, the film’s hero. Nat tries to avenge his father.

The Power of the Dog

Willy’s Wonderland On the TV show Community, the character Abed asked the question, Nicolas Cage: Good or Bad? This film and the next answer the Cage question in two different ways.


The Marksman Liam Neeson often plays a man with a “special set of skills” who takes on great evils. In this film, he takes on a Mexican drug cartel. When the cartel kills a boy's mother, Neeson promises the dying woman he will take the boy to his aunt in Chicago. There was no time for burying the mother (gunfire, you know). But while on the road, Neeson and the boy stop at a church where the clergyman agrees to hold a memorial service for the boy’s mother. This church and its kind pastor would probably earn Four Steeples.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Is it Christmas, though?

Come to the Stable (

To be honest, even with the title “Come to the Stable” and the setting in Bethlehem and a nativity scene, I’m not sure this is really a Christmas film. The Bethlehem in the film is Bethlehem, Connecticut. The nativity scene has been arranged by a woman who paints religious art using locals as her models. And the title isn’t about coming to the place of Jesus’ birth but rather a barn some folks use while they're working to build a children's hospital.

Perhaps I’m not being altogether clear. Let me start with the theme of the month and then get to the film.

This is Christmas month here at Movie Churches. We're always on the lookout for Christmas films featuring churches and clergy because most don’t. Elf and White Christmas and The Grinch and A Christmas Story and Die Hard are completely clergy-free. We’ve already featured most of the Christmas films that include a church (or clergy) -- such as The Bishop’s Wife (and The Preacher's Wife), The Bells of Saint Mary's, The Holly and the Ivy, Home Alone, and Prancer.

So, when I learned about this film titled Come to the Stable and saw that it featured nuns -- well, I assumed it would work well in a December slot.  It tells the story of two nuns from a French order who come to New England to build the above-mentioned children’s hospital. (The screenplay by Oscar Millard and Sally Benson was based on a story by Clare Boothe Luce for which Luce earned an Academy Award nomination.) The director, Henry Koster, was the director in 1949 (Koster secured his place in film history by being the man who brought Abbott and Costello to the screen.)

During World War II, Sister Margaret (Loretta Young) ran a children’s hospital in Normandy. The Americans were going to invade the region and the nun pleaded with an American general to spare the place. He did spare the hospital, at the cost of his soldiers' lives. Which led Sister Magaret to vow to construct a children’s hospital in America.

Sister Margaret, American-born, is joined on her quest by French-born Sister Scholastica (Celeste Holm), another member of the Order of the Holy Endeavor. They choose the location for their hospital in Bethlehem because a painter of religious works, Amelia Potts (Elsa Lancaster) lives there. One of her paintings was called “Come to the Stable,” so come they do -- to the stable where the artist works. They burst in upon the artist, unannounced, as she is working on a representation of the nativity. Local children and a couple of adults and sheep and a cow recreate the scene. (Though there is snow outside, there is no indication the nuns have arrived at Christmas time. Could be February for all we know.)

The barn where Amelia works is owned by Bob Masen (Hugh Marlowe), a well-to-do composer. The nuns convince Masen to let them stay in the barn. They also ask him for money to support their hospital project, which he gives. They borrow his jeep and drive it recklessly and get parking tickets that Masen must pay. They know he sleeps late in the morning, but they wake him up again and again as he tries to sleep. Sister Margaret particularly is so focused on her hospital dream, she treats Masen in a demanding and thoughtless fashion. Really, Sister, manners are important in ministry.

The sisters go to the local Bishop (Bael Ruysdael) to share their plans with great enthusiasm. After meeting with the nuns, he talks with a Monsignor (Regis Toomey.) The Bishop says, “Sometimes the simple blind faith of such sisters is…” 

“Disturbing,” says the Monsignor, trying to fill in the blank.” 

“No,” the Bishop says, “Sublime.”

Sister Margaret wants to build her hospital on a hill she saw in another painting by Potts, but she learns the property is owned by Luigi Rossi (Thomas Gomez). When she asks where to find the man, she is told to ask any police officer and they’ll know. Sister Magaret doesn’t seem to catch the hint that Rossi is a crook. When she meets him, she also doesn’t follow the bookie’s references to race tracks. (She assumes Santa Anita is a saint she doesn’t know.)

The nun pesters the crook until he does agree to donate the land for the hospital on the condition that she installs a stained glass window in honor of his son that died in the European theater of WWII.

That hillside, though, is across the way from Masen’s property. He won’t admit it to the nuns, but he doesn’t want a hospital for a neighbor. So behind the scenes, he works against the hospital being built.

Sister Margaret sends a message to the rest of her order (eleven nuns and a priest) to come from France to America to stay in the barn. She does this without consulting the owner of the property. Or Amelia Potts, who finds herself without a studio and sharing her very small home with all the nuns.

The nuns eventually get the children’s hospital built and for that, they earn Three Steeples. If they'd had more consideration for those who help them, they would have earned four. 

Thursday, December 16, 2021

It's Christmas (but what does that really mean?)

Love Actually

Movie Churches has a fundamental disagreement with this film about Christmas practices. Love Actually, an anthology of romantic tales with Yuletide themes is based on the idea that Christmas is the time of year when people must tell their deepest love (or at least their current infatuation) to that special someone. A young boy must tell a classmate he likes her before she leaves for America, the Prime Minister of England must tell a young member of his staff he likes her, a man must tell the recently wed bride of his best friend he loves her…

This is all very confusing to us at Movie Churches. We thought the holiday where one honestly shared feelings of affection was Valentine’s Day, or perhaps New Year’s Eve in a pinch. Christmas is the time to HIDE how we feel. Even if we find Uncle Eustace’s politics abhorrent, we gloss over it at Christmas dinner. We pretend the hideous sweater from Mom is just what we always wanted (and we even wear it, if only for the day). Someone will even say, “I just adore fruit cake!” 

And this "absolute honesty at Christmas policy" seems to have its limits. Early in the film, a rather delightful scene takes place at the church when Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Juliet (Keira Knightley) are getting married. After the minister declares, “In the presence of God, Peter and Juliet have given their consent and made their marriage vows to each other. They have declared their marriage by the giving and receiving of rings. I, therefore, proclaim that they are husband and wife,” Mark (Andrew Lincoln), the best man and Peter's best friend, enlivens the event.

He's arranged for a flash mob to play the Beatles' “All You Need is Love.” There's a choir in the balcony, with the lead singer, horns, and a string section in the congregation. Everyone, including the minister, is delighted, as are the bride and groom. No one seems happier than Mark who arranged it all. Good for the church for allowing, perhaps encouraging, such a happening.

We learn that Juliet, Peter’s wife, assumes that Mark hates her. He's been rather cold to her and avoided her. But since Christmas is that magical time when everyone must be honest about their romantic feelings,  Mark must share his infatuation with Juliet. He does so with another dramatic show, proclaiming his love for Juliet with cue cards at her door (Prime Minister Boris Johnson mimicked in a famous campaign ad). In order to pull off this great display of “honesty,” both Juliet and Mark must deceive husband/best friend Peter. (The strains of “Silent Night” accompany Peter’s friend and wife kissing.) This perhaps bodes bad things for all their relationships in the future.

The film also presents another important life event in a church, a funeral. Daniel (Liam Neeson) gives the eulogy for his late wife, Joanna. The speech is full of wit and humor as he talks about how his late beloved expected he would bring Claudia Schiffer to the funeral. He says there were also “other things [in the funeral service] she was pretty damn clear… I said over my dead body, and she said, ‘No, Daniel, over mine.’” Then, as Joanna wished, the sound system blares with the Bay City Rollers song “Bye, Bye Baby.”

As the service ends and the coffin is carried out of the church, we see a woman (who I assume was the officiating clergy). I’m less than impressed with her -- it's rarely wise to entrust the conclusion of a funeral to the bereaved spouse. Few are able to restrain their understandable emotions. And though the Beatles might certainly provide a suitable finale to a wedding, the Bay City Rollers can’t provide a suitable conclusion to… um...anything I can think of.

I found it quite interesting that these are the only two occasions people go to churches in this film, even though the film’s climax is on Christmas Eve. For some reason, everyone goes to an elementary school's nativity play on Christmas Eve. I’ve never been to Great Britain, but I've seen numerous film and stage productions of A Christmas Carol. And I haven't seen a single one where I saw the Cratchitts gather for Tiny Tim’s school play.

Love Actually’s nativity play is a little bizarre, with an octopus and a lobster gathering at the manger with shepherds and angels while “Catch a Falling Star” plays. And then the show concludes with that time-honored carol, “All I Want for Christmas is You.” What would have happened if a student told their teacher, ``I can't do the play because our family always goes to our church’s Christmas Eve Service” or “We always have Christmas Eve dinner at Aunt Bertha’s” or “I’m Jewish.?”

There are no Christmas Eve Church Services for our Movie Churches Steeple Rating, but for the wedding church and the funeral church we, in the spirit of Yuletide generosity, grant them a three steeple rating.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

A Very Tubi Christmas

As streaming services continue to raise their fees, it’s good to know that a few streaming services offer free entertainment. Not always quality entertainment, but free. 

If you're looking for faith-based films, you could pay $5 a month for the Dove Channel (a mix of Christian films and family-friendly public domain products) -- but you can find a number of faith-based films for free on Tubi (along with Columbo reruns and really bad horror films). Sure, you’ll have to watch commercials, but the commercials are usually a technical upgrade from much of the programming.

When you're looking for new Christmas films and quality isn't a priority -- looking at you, Hallmark Channel fans -- you might want to consider these two films which feature faith-based organizations. Unfortunately, the backstories for both films are more interesting than the films themselves.

Let's consider them, shall we? 

I’ll Be Homeless for Christmas (2012)

First, let me acknowledge the very best thing about this film: it was used to raise money for Habitat for Humanity in Georgia. HfH is a great organization that helps families obtain housing, through gifts, volunteer labor, and the family’s own “sweat equity.” This film was made through crowdsourcing service Indiegogo, and then the film’s profits went to Habitat. Kudos to writer/director Bren Allison for raising money for this worthy organization.

But though I have great respect for Habitat for Humanity, I’m not impressed at all with how the ministry in I'll be Homeless for Christmas, The R. Norton Service Center and Mission, is run. Shall we start with a look at their meal hours? 

According to their signage, breakfast is served from 7 - 10 am, lunch is served from 12 - 2 pm, and dinner is served from 5 - 8 pm. We know of just two people who work on staff for the Mission: a director named Eve (Mandi Christine Kerr) and a pastor named Donovan (Ryan Norton). Both members of the staff seem to take serve the meals (which would, according to these hours, take eight hours every day, not including set-up and clean-up). Nothing in the sign on the Mission's door indicates that the Mission is closed on weekends or holidays, so that's quite a workload.

Though Eve has been working at the Mission for at least a year, she doesn’t seem very seasoned. She comes across a storekeeper, Gus (Walter Robert Duckworth), berating a bedraggled man, Conrad (Travis Breedlove), for stealing fruit from his store, even spitting upon him. Eve is irate and comes to the man’s aid. “You spit on him! That’s a human being!” (“That’s” is a rather strange word to use regarding a person.) She goes to comfort Conrad and gives him an envelope with cash. (As Conrad steals her wallet.)

There's a lot of controversy about giving cash to homeless people, with the particular concern that the money will be used for alcohol or drugs. In addition, it may well be detrimental for a person’s psychological and spiritual health to depend on handouts rather than having an opportunity to earn their support. (The Apostle Paul is firm in his statement, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”) Why doesn’t Eve first tell this man about the meals available at the mission? And if the money in the envelope is the Mission's money, she has a responsibility to see that it is used wisely.

I question other things about the giving policy of the Mission. Among the items donated is an expensive designer winter coat. Eve takes the coat to give to a young pregnant (and homeless) woman, Hannah (Kristin Melin Link), who has become her friend. Hannah tells Eve she plans to sell the coat to a fence (who turns out to be Conrad). Eve is greatly bothered by this, but Hannah would, of course, be making a wise choice. Rent and food money > than a designer jacket.

It turns out that the conflict between “shopkeeper” (Gus actually just stole a store apron and pretended to be a shopkeeper) and the “homeless man” (Conrad was just pretending to be homeless, posing with a fake beard and mustache) was all fake. Gus and Conrad were working a long con to pose as volunteers at the Mission and steal donations.

Set aside that the Mission doesn’t seem to have much in the way of security and a simple burglary would make much more sense for stealing from the Mission than a long con -- most disappointing is the volunteer hiring process at this mission. I work at a mission, and any volunteer given a position of real responsibility (as opposed to just, say, working the food line) must be interviewed, fill out paperwork, and give references. Eve’s supervision of volunteers is greatly lacking.

Another thing. The great emphasis of the Christmas season seems to be providing toys for kids. This is fine, and I’m glad organizations such as the Marine’s Toys for Tots and Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree are providing kids with toys at Christmas. But the Mission doesn’t seem to be putting much effort into sharing the Christmas message of the Gospel in the season or providing more basic needs such as food and money for energy bills.

I appreciate the intentions of Eve and Donovan, but they don’t seem very competent in their work.

One Stop Away (2017)

If director Steven LaMorte was trying to follow the injunction of the Beach Boys to “Be True to Your School,” he did well when he made the film One Stop Away. LaMorte, A Monsignor Farrell High School Class of 2007 alum, not only made a film about his high school but also brought in other alumni as the majority of the cast and crew.

Quite obviously this is a Catholic high school. There is a chapel on the campus and a number of scenes take place there. My favorite was when a high school wrestler, a bit of a bully, prayed, “Thank you God for helping me win four straight matches. If you let me win this one, I promise to try to do better on my midterms.”

The bulk of the plot is about a Monsignor Farrell alum who becomes an English teacher at the school. One of his students is a nephew of one of the teacher’s buddies from high school days. That old friend is dying of cancer. This raises questions of faith for the teacher and the nephew. They discuss these issues are discussed in the chapel as well. The friend/uncle dies leading to even more questions of God’s design. Spoilers - they make some peace with these profound questions of grief… At Christmas time.

I think past and present students of Monsignor Farrell High School in Staten Island, New York, probably greatly value this film  There is another appreciative audience: the residents of that particular borough. Director LaMorte says his film “captures the beauty of Staten Island.” That in itself may be a Christmas Miracle.

In the spirit of the season, we will give the Mission of I’ll Be Homeless for Christmas and the Catholic High School of Last Stop Away a generous Three Steeples.

Friday, December 3, 2021

Christmas in the Mountains

The Lodge

The Lodge. Sure it’s a Christmas film. Father takes his kids and his bride-to-be up to a snowy cabin to spend Christmas in the mountains. Heartwarming, right? 

Well, there are some elements some might consider a little less Yuletidish… Such as a dog that freezes to death (but that kind of thing happens in those Christmas Vacation films). Or the loaded revolver (it is an heirloom, so, family?) And then there's the backstory of a religious suicide cult. 

I guess The Lodge isn’t at all like a Hallmark Christmas film, but then neither is Die Hard (which scientific studies have conclusively demonstrated is a Christmas film. You disagree? Science denier).

The Lodge was written and directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz; it premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2019 and went into theatrical release in February of 2020 -- just before theaters shut down for the pandemic. The most famous person in the cast, Alicia Silverstone (of Clueless fame), plays the wife of Richard Hall (Richard Armitage) and mother of their children, Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh). Alicia doesn’t stick around for long, but this is not a Silverstone film because that character, Laura, puts a gun in her mouth and pulls the trigger very early in the film. She was devastated that Richard was divorcing her to marry a much younger woman, Grace (Riley Keough).

It's a horrible thing for those kids, especially at Christmas time. But fortunately for this blog, they have a church funeral for Laura. It seems a bit like a Catholic Church, but it can’t be, because the service isn't a mass, and (usually) Catholic Churches won't hold services for suicides. So is it some kind of Protestant service? The minister (priest?) conducting the ceremony says some odd things.

“Death is a new beginning...Let us pray for her soul as she crosses that she will get to where she needs to go.” That sounds like he might be talking about purgatory, which is a Catholic thing, but then again, she committed suicide.

Then after the indoor portion of the ceremony, Laura's family and friends gather outside and release a plethora of black balloons. 

Which was odd. (I'm planning to write out plans for my memorial service in the next month or so. If I die before then, remember that I don't want black balloons. Really, I don't want balloons of any kind at the service.)

That's really the only church we see in the film, except for an excerpt from a service in the church Grace attended as a child. Aiden and Mia search the web to find information about this church and find it was the suicide cult I referred to earlier. A couple dozen of members of the church committed suicide, and the only survivor was twelve-year-old Grace. In that service, we hear the hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee.”

Grace seems to have become understandably adverse to religion and its symbols. When Richard takes Grace to the cabin in the woods, she seems uncomfortable with the cross in their bedroom. And the picture of Mother Mary in the dining room. (Laura seems to have done the decorating.)

Unfortunately, Richard leaves Grace alone with the children at the cabin and goes back to work, planning to return on Christmas Eve. The children are not happy to be with the woman they blame for their mother’s death. Grace tries to make things homey for the kids by decorating for Christmas.

But during the night, all the decorations, along with all of Grace’s belongings, vanish. And the power goes out. And their phones run out of power. And the heating system shuts off. And did I mention that Richard had left them in this cabin deep in the woods without any form of transportation? You know how in “The Christmas Song” when Andy Williams sang about “scary ghost stories?” This film's kind of like that -- if you're looking for that kind of Christmas story.

So what's the steeple rating for the churches in the film? That church where the funeral was held wouldn't have done well the ratings, but suicide cults lead to our lowest possible rating of One Steeple.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Desert Heritage

Simon of the Desert

I have never been a fan of monks claiming God has called them to live the life of an ascetic hermit.

Jesus told his disciples, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” and “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” To me, this sounds very different from “Go hang out in a cave.” Or “Go sit on a tall platform.”

Sitting on a platform is what Simeon Stylites the Elder did for over three decades in the third century in the country now known as Syria. As a teenager, Simeon joined a monastery, but he was booted out for his extreme practices of austerity. He shut himself up in a hut for a year and a half, it was said without food or water, and his survival was hailed as a miracle. He then went to live on a rocky mountain slope, but too many people sought him out, which is when he came up with the idea of living on a platform.

He found a platform ten feet off the ground in Taladah, where he allowed local boys to use a ladder to bring him food. As the years went on, he moved to taller platforms, eventually settling on one 50 feet off the ground. He allowed letters to be passed to him and would occasionally teach the crowd below, but he strove to stay away from people as much as possible.

Nothing about this sounds appealing to me. The Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel made the saint's life a mockery in the 1965 film, Simon of the Desert. Buñuel believed everything about the Church and the Christian faith to be subjects for mockery, but in this case, he may have a point.

The film begins with a middle-aged Simon being presented with a new, taller column from a benefactor who was healed by Simon’s prayers. Simon’s mother comes to see him while he is momentarily on the ground, but he refuses to hug her, saying, “My love for you must not come between my love for my Savior and His servant.”

Simon is also offered holy orders by a bishop of the church, but he refuses that as well, saying, “I am not worthy of holy orders. I am an unworthy sinner.”

After ascending the new platform, Simon asks people to leave him alone to pray, but they continue to gather below the platform. Some say they are hoping to see one of Simon’s miracles, which does come about. A man whose hands were cut off for stealing comes to Simon with his wife and two children. He asks Simon to heal him so he can provide for his family. Simon prays and the man’s hands appear. The man uses one of those hands to cuff his daughter’s ears as they walk home.

Some monks approach him as well. One young monk asks Simon to mentor him, but Simon tells the monk to leave and that the monastery is not a good place for him. He tells the man that he is very clean. He thanks Simon, but Simon isn’t complimenting him. “You look very clean. But remember that cleanliness in body and clothing, innocent enough in ordinary men, is a sin to those dedicated to God.” (Reminds me of one of my favorite sayings, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Why settle for second best?”)

A woman comes among the monks, and Simon asks the monks to drive the woman away. They refuse. Simon says the woman has an evil eye and tells them to remember the commandments, “Lay not your eyes on a woman” and “Be thou not seduced by a woman’s gaze.” (I’m not familiar with these commandments.)

Turns out, Simon's right: the woman is trouble. She's the devil in human form, and throughout the rest of the film, the devil tempts Simon to deny God. In a surrealistic conclusion, she takes Simon to a discotheque in 1960’s Mexico. She shows him the latest dance craze, “The Radioactive Flesh,” hoping to make him despair in the state of the world. Which he pretty much does. The End.

Simon as depicted in this film is a surly misanthrope. He seems to hate people. He says he cares about God, but Jesus said that people would know His disciples by their love for one another. Simon doesn’t demonstrate that love, but because of the healings, I’m not going to give him our lowest Movie Church rating. I hope the real Simeon Stylites was more gracious and loving, but Buñuel’s Simon receives a Two Steeple rating.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

European Heritage

A Hidden Life

Franz Jägerstätter” is a name officials of the Third Riech hoped would be forgotten. He was an Austrian peasant farmer who lived in the small town of St. Radegund, and there was no obvious earthly reason why he should be remembered. 

Until Nazi officers did the very thing that would make his name remembered: they killed him.

One way Jägerstätter has been remembered is by Terrence Malick’s 2019 film, A Hidden Life. The film opens in 1939, and Jägerstätter (August Diehl) is working his farm along with his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner). We also see Franz sweeping the floors of a church and ringing the church bells. We see him playing with his children. (We also see many shots of the lovely valley in which they live and the pretty blue sky and lovely white clouds. This is a Terrence Malick film -- which means many long, lovely views of pretty scenery.) Franz says in a voiceover, “I thought we could build our nest high up, in the tree. Fly away, like birds - to the mountains. It seemed no trouble could reach our valley. We lived in the clouds.”

But trouble does come. Franz is drafted to military training in the Austrian army (which is serving alongside the German military). When he comes back to his village after training and is greeted joyfully by his family, he knows he cannot go back to serve in the army. He tells his priest, Father Ferdinand Fürthauer (Tobias Moretti) about his mistrust in the Austrian government, “Father, if they call me up, I can’t serve. We’re killing innocent people, raiding other countries.”

The priest is not happy to hear this. He says, “Have you spoken to anyone else? Your wife, family? Don’t you think you should consider the consequences of your actions, for them? You will almost surely be shot. Your sacrifice will benefit no one. I will speak to the Bishop about your case. He is a wiser man than I.”

The Bishop (Michael Nyqvist in his final role) tells Franz, “You have a duty to the Fatherland. The church tells us so.” 

So Franz learns he will have no support from the church in his decision not to serve. So he continues to work his farm. Someone comes to his farm and says, ”We are collecting for the war effort.” 

He responds, “I don’t have anything to give.” 

His family refuses to accept Austria’s “family allowance,” and when someone passes him on a trail and says, “Heil Hitler!” Franz responds… Well, let’s keep this as a family blog and just say he has another suggestion for Hitler.

Franz is arrested and held by the German authorities.

And Franz’s wife and daughter are left to work the farm in St. Radegund, and Fani must also care for Franz’s mother, who blames Fani for “changing her son.” The people of the village look at the Jägerstätter family as traitors and refuse to support them.

Perhaps worst of all, the local Catholic church treats Fani and her daughters as pariahs. On Corpus Christi Sunday, as is the tradition of this village, a parade of children walk past; Franz and Fani’s children are not allowed to participate. Father Ferdinand apologizes but tells her it would just cause too many problems if they joined in.

Many other political prisoners are in prison with Franz. He cares for the other prisoners, sharing his food with them and sharing the love of Jesus. For many months visitors are forbidden, but eventually, Fani and Father Ferdinand are allowed to visit.

Franz’s lawyer has what he thinks is good news for his client. He says Franz doesn’t have to serve as a soldier, he could serve in the medical services. Surely that wouldn’t be against his conscience, the lawyer argues, but Franz asks if he will have to pledge his allegiance to the Fuhrer. The lawyer tells him that yes, he would.

Franz refuses to say those words.

The priest tells him, “The charges will be dropped, I’m sure, if you just change your stand. I beg you. The war will soon be over. We might never again have to face the situation of doing the opposite of what you’re called to do. You have time to change. God doesn’t care what you say with your mouth, only what is in your heart. Say the oath and think what you like.”

But Franz believes that the words he says matter.

Jesus seemed to be of the same opinion that words matter. He said, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in Heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in Heaven.

The priest urges Fani to speak sense to her husband, and she says, “I love you. Whatever you do. Whatever comes, I'm with you. Always. Do what is right.”

Franz wouldn’t relent. He was tried, sentenced (by a judge played by Bruno Ganz in what was also his last role), and executed. The German and Austrian authorities assumed he would be forgotten.

But Franz Jägerstätter was not forgotten. He was declared a martyr and beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. And, of course, Terrence Malick made this magnificent three-hour film about his life that screened at the Cannes Film Festival. His life did make a difference

As for our Movie Churches rating for the clergy and church in this film, I am tempted to give the lowest Steeple Rating. After all, Franz’s priest and the Catholic Church in Austria didn’t just stay silent about the evils of the Nazis, they supported them. But Franz’s priest was at his parishioner’s side until his death, and the Catholic Church did eventually recognize and honor this hidden life. Two steeples. 

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Southwest Heritage

The Father Kino Story (Mission to Glory: A True Story
) 1977

Let me admit something right up front. Through most of this film, I was distracted trying to remember which roles various actors in the film played in the original Star Trek series. 

There are plenty of actors in The Father Kino Story (aka Mission to Glory: A True Story) who are familiar faces in films. Richard Egan (who plays Kino) starred in many films according to IMDb, just not things I’ve seen. But other faces caught my attention. Keenan Wynn, a priest in the film, is recognizable for his many Disney comedy villains and as Col. ‘Bat’ Guano in Dr. Strangelove. Cesar Romero, an admiral in this film, appeared in many movies I’ve seen, but I think of him as the Joker on the Batman TV show. John Ireland, another priest, and Aldo Ray, a mine owner, were legitimate movie stars.

But as I said, I was distracted by the guys playing Native Americans who’d been on Star Trek, though neither was a Native American. Anthony Caruso played the chief of a “friendly” tribe in this film, but I knew him first as gangster boss Bela Oxmyx in the “A Piece of the Action” episode of Star Trek. Michael Ansara played the chief of an “unfriendly” tribe, but I knew him first as the Klingon officer in the “Day of the Dove” episode of Star Trek. But best of all is Ricardo Montalban, who plays a general here, but you may well know him as KHAN from the “Space Seed” episode of Star Trek and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Michael Ansara

Anthony Caruso

Richardo Montalban

I should have been thinking about the topic of this blog, how the church and clergy are portrayed in this film, but as I said, I was distracted.

This is a film based on the life of a historical figure, Eusebio Francisco Kino (1645 - 1711) “the Padre on Horseback,” a Jesuit priest and missionary to the natives in what would be Mexico and the southwest of what would be the United States. The film looks at his ministry as he tried to bring peace among the native tribes and between the native people and the Spanish government.

Kino is shown in the film as a defender of the native people. He confronts the manager of a mine who is treating the natives as slaves (and dealing with them very harshly). The man tells him that the church accepts money from the mines. When Kino finds the man is telling the truth, he rallies against the church working with the mines if they continue to abuse the natives.

He also confronts the Spanish army when they attack the natives (leading to attacks on the soldiers, which lead to further attacks on the native people). The escalation continues until Father Kino negotiates a truce.

Kino is also remembered as an explorer and cartographer. It was believed in his time that “Baja California” was an island, and at one time, Kino began to build a boat to travel from “Mexico” to “California.” He wasn't able to make that voyage, but his travels led to the discovery that Baja California was a peninsula.

Primarily though, Kino was a priest who founded at least twenty-four churches in Mexico and the Southwest, and it's fascinating to see him performing the sacraments of baptism and confession without buildings. According to the film, he was greatly beloved by the native people because he loved them. So Father Kino would receive our highest Movie Churches rating, but -- since the Roman Catholic Church is portrayed as an oppressive institution in the film -- the steeple count goes down to just three. 

(Oh, one more casting note. Joseph Campanella, who plays a priest at the San Bruno Mission, played a Federation Arbitrator in Star Trek: Voyager. But I never watched that show, so that didn’t distract me.)