Friday, May 14, 2021

Crime Month Reminds us: YOLO

You Only Live Once

“Father Dolan is for everybody!” 

It’s hard to find a more ringing clergy endorsement than the words of Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) in praise of the prison priest in 1937’s You Only Live Once. The film is the second American film made by the great Austrian/German director Fritz Lang, who had already made great films in Germany like Metropolis and M

Though baptized a Catholic as a baby, Lang had Jewish heritage and he worried about the rise of the Nazis. This fear intensified when the regime began to censor his films, so he left Germany for the United States in 1933. It is interesting that Lang’s first two American films are quite critical of the American justice system, almost as if he was testing whether he would be able to practice the freedom of expression that was becoming impossible in his homeland. After making Fury, he made this film, the story of an ex-con who falls in love and marries his public defender’s secretary (echoed in the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona where an ex-con marries a prison guard.)

But that ex-con, Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda), can’t keep a job. The man that hires him out of prison uses the first possible excuse to fire the “jailbird;” Eddie is frustrated that he must rely on the income of his wife, Joan (Sylvia Sidney). He is tempted to return to a life of crime, and his former gang offers him a job. He resists the temptation, but when his former gang's heist goes wrong and six men are murdered, the gang frames Eddie for the killings.

Eddie is convicted of the murders and sentenced to death by electrocution, bringing him back to Father Dolan (William Gargan), the chaplain at the prison. At the start of the film, Father Dolan urged the parole board to give Eddie a chance and helped him gain his freedom.

Now that Eddie's back in prison, Father Dolan encourages him not to give up. He urges him to hope in his wife and hope in God, but Eddie becomes increasingly bitter. Father Dolan assures Eddie that he will be going to Heaven (with a Universalist theology which is quite different from my theology and is rejected by Eddie -- for very different reasons from mine).

The night before his execution, Eddie receives a gun that's been smuggled in, and Eddie takes hostages. As he tries to escape, investigators on the outside discover evidence that clears Eddie of the murders. Eddie is granted a pardon, and the warden tells Father Dolan. The priest tries to convince Eddie that he's been granted his freedom, but Eddie thinks it’s all a trick to make give up his gun.

With Father Dolan as his hostage, Eddie makes his way to the prison gate. When gunfire breaks out, Eddie inadvertently shoots the priest. If Father Dolan should cry out that he's been shot, the guards will come down on Eddie. Instead, the priest decides to remain quiet and give Eddie a chance to escape and live his life. Father Dolan acts out the words of Jesus in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this; to lay down one’s life for a friend.”

Early in the film, when Eddie’s criminal friends argue that Father Dolan was just another cog in the prison system, Eddie said that the priest was concerned about everyone, including the cons: “Father is for everybody!” And that is why the priest earns our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Crime Month has an Appointment with Danger

Appointment with Danger

This blog is supposed to focus on clergy and churches, but sometimes we get distracted. 

1951’s Appointment with Danger, part procedural and part salute to the Postal Service, presents an amazing piece of casting. The inciting incident of the film is the murder of a postal inspector, Harry Gruber, by two seedy criminals, Joe Regas and George Soderquist. Joe is played by Jack Webb and George is played by Harry Morgan. TV Land fans will recognize the stars of the 1967 revival of Dragnet, a show that followed two straight-laced Los Angeles police detectives. To see “Friday” and “Gannon” as thugs is rather jarring.

This bit of casting is even more interesting because Appointment with Danger's format is quite similar to the films and TV shows that Jack Webb made as a producer, writer, and director. (In addition, Dragnet's first incarnation -- as a radio drama -- also first appeared in 1951.) This film, like much of Webb’s work, provides a rather hagiographic presentation of law enforcement -- in this case, the United States Postal Inspection Service.

The film opens with a narrator lauding the glories of the United State Postal Service (“the biggest business in the world”). It is noted that Americans use the mail “for business, for pleasure, and sometimes to address that busy man at the North Pole” (Yup, it's a nod to Miracle on 34th Street, a film with a similar reverence for mail carriers) and then salutes “your mailman who visits you a dozen times a week.” And then the announcer introduces the real heroes of the film: “behind this army[of postal carriers] is a special army of trained men, the oldest police force, Postal Inspectors.”

The narrator then gets to the action. “Our story begins in Gary, Indiana.” It is there that we meet Joe and George, who -- after murdering Gruber -- together drag the body outside to their car. George notices a nun standing in an alley. She's having trouble opening her umbrella, and George (demonstrating exemplary manners for a murderer) goes to help her. He explains that he and Joe are carrying a friend who has “had too much to drink.”

Unfortunately for Joe and George, that nun, on a short layover on a train trip, lets a street cop know about the odd incident. That report eventually finds its way to the postal inspectors investigating Gruber’s murder.

The lead inspector on the case, Al Goddard (Alan Ladd), is assigned the task of finding the nun (His boss asks him, “What about the nun? How many nuns are there anyway?” Goddard  responds, "I don’t know, I’ve never counted them.”) 

Al's partner says he's a cynical guy. "You’ve been chasing hoodlums for so long you don’t like anyone.” 

Al responds, “We’re all working for ourselves, everyone’s a pitch artist.” 

His partner tells him, “You’re a good cop, Al, that’s about all you are.”

If you know movies, you know Al’s cynical view of life will be challenged by his witness, Sister Augustine (Phyllis Calvert). Al tracks her down and interrogates her about what she saw. She tells him,“I got off the train to get Sister Gertrude some medicine.” It was then she saw Joe and George with Gruber’s body.

Al tells her she might have to go to court to testify, but the nun balks at leaving the convent, “I don’t think so, I have classes to teach.”

Al responds, “It’s the devil’s work to let someone else do your job.” Sister Augustine acknowledges the wisdom of that statement and asks who said it first. 

Al tells her it’s from the writings of Martin Luther

“His early writings, I imagine,” the sister responds.

She goes to the police station and identifies George in a book of mug shots. Al tells her she will need to go to Gary, Indiana, to testify in court. 

Sister Augustine expresses sympathy for the man and asks about his likely fate. 

“He’ll get a trial and everything the law allows,” Al tells her. 

“But not a drop of charity.” 

When Al doubts George deserves charity, the sister tells him, “I don’t think you have a heart.” 

Al answers, “When a cop dies, he doesn’t die of heart failure. It’s a charlie horse to the chest.”

Eventually, Joe learns that the nun has identified George, so he kills George and makes an attempt on Sister Augustine’s life (he pushes bricks off a scaffolding down on her, but misses). Joe's boss, Earl (Paul Stewart), asks Joe how the nun survived, and Joe tells him, “She got lucky.” 

Earl tells him, “I’m glad. This murder is bad business.” He tells Joe to forget about the nun. Joe can’t.

When Al learns about the attempt on Sister Augustine’s life, he tries to get her to take a gun for protection. She tells him, “You don’t need to worry about anything happening to me. I’ve a guardian angel.” When Al tries to persuade her that a gun can be a guardian angel, she tells him, “My angel doesn’t jam.”

Al does get Sister Augustine to agree to go to a different convent where he can provide better protection. Al finds her at the new school teaching the kids baseball. He asks how she likes working with the new group of children, and she replies, “They’re lovely children, but the little boys are very badly trained in baseball. We’ve sent three boys to the major leagues, but they’ve only sent one. And it was to the Cleveland Browns.”

Al decides on a new strategy to catch the crooks which he believes will keep Sister Augustine safer. He pretends to be a crooked cop willing to help the thieves rob a postal truck carrying a million-dollar shipment.

He says goodbye to the nun. She says she’ll keep him in her prayers.

But the robbery doesn’t go smoothly, and Joe abducts Sister Augustine for protection. When the gang gathers, the sister acknowledges Al -- so the crooks know that Al isn’t crooked. 

Al pleads for the nun’s life. “Earl, I know you don’t believe in hell. It’s a bad time to bet against it.” 

Earl tells Sister Augustine that he’ll let her go if she gives her word that she won’t rat them out. She responds, “I can’t give my word about that.” She wouldn’t lie to the authorities any more than she’d lie to Earl.

To protect her, Al begins a fight with Joe, just as the police arrive at the scene. In a shootout, all the members of the gang are killed, but the cop and the nun survive.

Al asks someone to take Sister Augustine to her train so she can return to her home convent. Noticing his affection for the nun, Al’s partner says to him, “You know Al, if you work real hard, someday you may qualify for the human race.” 

And Al tells him, “I may join it at that.”

Though all the Jack Webb lore is interesting, we really need to get down to the business of giving Sister Augustine a Steeple Rating. Though there are times in the film when the good nun seems a little dim, her faith, integrity, and compassion overcome that to earn her our highest rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Miracle Month Concludes: The Virgin of Juarez

The Virgin of Juarez
Stigmata, the miracle showcased in this week's film, isn't a favorite here at Movie Churches. (Stigmata is the appearance of bodily wounds, scars, and pain in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ, such as the hands, wrists, and feet. As mentioned when we looked at The Unholy earlier this month and Final Prayer back in January, stigmata is one of the easier miracles to fake.)

And really, what good does stigmata do for anyone? Healings are obviously very healthy miracles. Exorcisms have unquestionable spiritual benefits. Resurrection? Definitely adds something to life (such as -- literally -- life). Even levitation provides some amusement to the world. But if you believe that Jesus's crucifixion redeemed humanity in one act, there is no need for a repeat performance.

From Francis of Assisi on, the miracle has been recognized, but fraudulent claims have been around for centuries as well. In the 14th century, for example, a Franciscan nun called Magdalena de la Cruz was considered a living saint until shortly before her death, when she confessed that she'd faked her stigmata. 

The stigmata in The Virgin of Juarez is presented as truly supernatural and a hopeful sign in a truly horrific time and place. The film is set in the Mexican border town of Juarez (near El Paso, Texas) at a time when women were being murdered at an alarming rate. (This tragic aspect of the film is based in fact. Between 1993 and 2005, more than 370 women died violently in or around that Juarez. The killings drew international attention because of the perceived lack of government attention to ending the murders or bringing the perpetrators to justice. It seems the film was made in part to draw attention to this injustice.)

Written by Michael Fallon and directed by Keven James Dobson, the film tells the story of an investigative reporter, Karina Danes (Minnie Driver), who goes to Juarez to investigate the murders. While there, she meets Mariela (Ana Claudia Talancon), who survives being raped and buried alive (she was thought to be dead when she was buried). In her hospital bed, Mariela exhibits the signs of stigmata, but Father Herrera (Esai Morales), who also believes that stigmata are a miraculous sign, asserts that the real miracle is her survival. 

Mariela was found in the desert, and she claims to have no memory of being attacked. She only remembers a visitation from the Virgin Mary in the desert. 

Before the police have an opportunity to interview her, Father Herrera takes her from the hospital and hides her in an abandoned church where nuns care for her. As news of the miracle of her survival and the stigmata spreads among the faithful of the community, many come to see her. The police are somehow kept ignorant of the woman’s whereabouts.

Danes learns where Mariela is hidden and goes to visit her, taking along mugshots of suspects from the investigation of the murders (she stole the photos during a visit to the police station). Mariela is quite obviously disturbed by some of the faces she sees but doesn’t admit she recognizes any of the men. However, she has copies of the photos made and distributes them to the faithful pilgrims who come to visit her, many of them families of victims of the murders.

Fearing that the killers will find Mariela, Father Herrera takes her to live with his brother, a member of a gang in Los Angeles. In California, pilgrims continue to visit Mariela. She has such a following that she begins pirate radio broadcasts.

Danes returns to her hometown of Los Angeles and sees a billboard dedicated to the Virgin. She is puzzled by the number “1478” on the poster. Father Herrera has also returned to the City of Angels, and the reporter asks the priest what that mysterious number might represent. The priest feigns puzzlement, saying, “An address? A bank card? The start of the Spanish Inquisition authorized by Pope Sixtus IV in the year of our Lord 1478.” Eventually, he admits it is the frequency of Mariela’s radio transmissions.

Mariela continues to distribute the mugshots of suspects. Back in Juarez, many of these suspects are murdered, with the killers crying out, “In the name of the Virgin!" Some of these murdered suspects had been employed in a large factory in Juarez, and the police and local government take these deaths much more seriously than they had the murders of hundreds of women, to the point that Mariela and the street gang who provide her protection are pursued. 

We see an ominous meeting of law enforcement, businessmen, and government officials with a bishop and other Roman Catholic authorities to discuss how to put a stop to the work of the Virgin of Juarez. There is a coordinated attack on the abandoned church where Mariela is hidden and many of the gang members are killed. Nonetheless, Mariela survives. Danes sees her and assumes that her message will continue. 

The film ends with a title card reading, “Women continue to be abducted and murdered in Juarez.” 

That wasn’t quite true. By the time of the film’s release, the murders had largely ceased. The killings seem to have been a result of a combination of organized crime, drug cartels, sex trafficking, and practices of exploitative labor practices (maquiladoras -- companies that were duty-free and tariff-free but took advantage of cheap labor). International attention seemed to bring an end to the killings, though there was little effective investigation or prosecution of the killers.

So how do the clergy and the church rate in The Virgin of Juarez? Well, we do see church bureaucrats who seem more interested in power than the poor, but we also see clergy like Father Herrera who are concerned about the plight of the exploited and mistreated women of Juarez before many others took any interest. For his sake, we’re giving the priests and nuns of this film Three Steeple rating.

(This is the last of this month’s Miracle Churches, but The Virgin of Juarez provides a nice transition to next month’s theme: Crime Churches.)

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Miracle Month: Resurrection (not THE Resurrection)


An ongoing challenge here at Movie Churches is the definition of "clergy," and this week's film is especially problematic. At an outdoor barbeque, a friend is pointing people out to our heroine, Edna May (Ellen Burstyn), who has just returned to her hometown in Kansas (filmed in Texas).

As Edna May's friend looks at an elderly couple at a table at the edge of the crowd, she says, “Ava and Earl Carpenter. They bought the Foley place about 10 years ago. They’re from West Virginia, Holy-Ghosters. She’s nice enough, but he’s kind of a self-styled parson. Fire and brimstone, hell and damnation. All that kind of stuff. Doesn’t seem to affect their son Cal though, he’s a piece of work.”

Now, what are we at Movie Churches to do with a “self-styled parson?” If he calls himself a parson, is he a parson? Denominations and religious institutions generally have a process to certify someone as an official member of the clergy, but if people in a movie call themselves ministers or pastors (or parsons or priests), should we take their word for it? Should it be necessary for such a person to present ordination papers? This would have quite a negative effect on a film’s pacing.

In this film, 1980's Resurrection, we're stuck with Parson Earl Carpenter as the most official clergy member, which is quite odd. Considering the story the film tells, it seems we should have more in the way of clergy and churches.

The film begins with Edna May happily married to Joe (Jeffrey DeMunn), living somewhere near a beach. For his birthday, Edna May, through creative financing, gives her husband a sportscar. They go for a wild ride, without safety belts (take note, kids), and the ride ends in a deadly crash. Joe is killed and Edna May is as well -- for a bit. 

Eight minutes after she's declared dead, Edna May comes back to life. While "dead," Edna May found herself heading toward a great light. Along the way she saw people she knew who had died, including her mother. Before she reaches the light, her doctors bring her back, and she is told her legs are paralyzed and she will never walk again.

She decides to return to her hometown in Kansas. Her father drives her back, and along the way, they stop at an odd service station run by Esco Brown (Richard Farnsworth). A sign at the station reads, “God is love, and versa visa.” Esco offers to show Edna a two-headed snake and she eagerly agrees. She pets it, and he says its name is Gemini and it’s a miracle. He informs her that to the Hopi, snakes are a symbol of Mother Earth. Her father wants to hurry along, but before they leave, Esco tells Edna, “If life don’t hand you nothing but lemons, make lemonade, Esco Brown, chapter 1, verse 1.”

Back at her father's home in Kansas, Edna May spends a great deal of time with her Grandma Pearl (Eva Le Gallienne, who was Oscar-nominated for this film, as was Burstyn). While looking through an old photo album for the first time, Edna May recognizes people who died before she was born. Grandma Pearl tells her about another woman she knew, a friend, who also was declared dead and came back. That woman then had the power of healing.

At a family picnic, Edna May’s touch heals the nosebleed of a niece who is a hemophiliac. Edna May decides she must heal herself, and after much effort, she rises from her wheelchair and walks. She begins to heal other people. When “Parson” Earl’s grown son, Cal (Sam Shepard) is shot in the stomach in a barfight, Edna May stops the bleeding with her touch.

Edna May begins to have worship services of a kind, meetings where people bring their sick for Edna May to heal. At such a meeting, “Parson” Earl confronts her, “I’ve been watching these healings of yours, and I haven’t seen you mention Scripture or the Holy Ghost once. What is the source of this power of yours?”

“I don’t know,” she tells him.

He tells her that her power comes from “Hell itself.” Then he says, “Because if this was the work of the Holy Spirit, you would speak His name. You couldn’t hold back because He’d be speakin’ His own name through you! I tell you this woman, even if you heal 100, 1,000, 10,000, these works are damned. Isaiah! Isaiah speaks it plain! Your hands are defiled with blood!... And Matthew says, ‘False prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead people astray.”

It is strange that this “Parson” keeps talking about how “the Holy Spirit” should be exalted but never mentions “Jesus”, which you would expect a Christian pastor to do. His reference to Isaiah seems completely out of context. But he does have a point with Matthew. There have been many charlatans through the years that Jesus rightly warned against. But Earl is so mean about the whole thing, and Edna May just walks away.

Earl’s son, Cal, goes to see Edna May and asks if he can buy her a drink. At a busy local bar, Cal tells her about how his father forced him to learn Scripture, “Yeah, when I was a 13, I had to learn Matthew, Luke, and John to the tune of a razor strap.” (Why Mark is excluded is not explained.)

Eventually, Cal and Edna May have an affair. But Cal begins to return to the Bible (such as the retelling of Jesus’ birth in Revelation 12) and becomes convinced that God is working through Edna May. He tells her he feels her healing is “something holy.” 

She tells him, “I’m not the Virgin Mary, and you should know that as well as anyone.” 

He says, “You shouldn’t talk like that.” 

She responds, “I will talk any way I damn well please. If anything is holy, it is Love.”

Edna May continues to hold healing meetings, in tents or in open fields. They certainly have a feeling of worship services, but Edna May just talks of generalized “love” and tells Mom Jokes (“Did you hear about the hypochondriac with the tombstone that read, ‘I told you I was sick’?”) She seems to want to avoid talking theology, but says, "I don’t want any of you to think I deny Jesus in any way, because I don’t. But if you ask me where my power comes from, I don’t know, I just know what it does. And I offer it to you in the name of love.”

At one of these meetings, Cal, apparently driven mad by his Scripture reading, shoots Edna May with a rifle, wounding her shoulder but not killing her.

Edna May is understandably shaken by this. She leaves her hometown. We see her, years later, running Esco Brown’s service station. A family in an RV stops by, with a child stricken with cancer. It seems Edna May will heal the child, but the film ends before this takes place.

This all leaves us here at Movie Churches with a dilemma. Were there really any clergy in the film? Earl claimed to be clergy and Edna May acted like clergy, but do either of them count?

Another strange thing in the film is that in this small town in Kansas, with a thriving bar, there seemed to be no church. In 2016, we set out on an adventure to visit a bar and church in each of the fifty states. There were rare small towns that had no bar (usually because of local ordinances and laws), but we never found a town of any size that didn’t have a church.

One gets the feeling that the film didn’t want Edna May to confront any “real” clergy or churches to avoid offending any religious sensibilities in the filmgoing audiences. But here at Movie Churches, we have to make do with what we have, so we'll give Earl for his lack of love and Edna May for her lack of theological depth a Two Steeple rating.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Miracle Movies in Theaters Now: The Unholy

The Unholy
While reading the Easter story a week or so ago, I was struck again about how many Marys there are in the Gospels. Obviously, it's easy to think of Mary, Jesus' mother. There's Mary Magdalene (who was possessed by seven demons, was healed, and followed Jesus). Then there's Mary of Bethany, Lazarus and Martha's sister. She might be the same as Mary of Galilee, but we’re really not sure. There’s also Mary the wife of Clopas. And Mary the mother of James and Joseph. Some combination of these Marys was at the cross and the tomb, but it's really confusing which is which.

Mary confusion is at the heart of The Unholy, a new horror film written and directed by Evan Spilotopoulos and based on the novel Shrine by James Herbert. It tells the story of a deaf and mute orphaned teen named Alice (Cricket Brown) who lives with her uncle, a priest, Father William Hagan (William Sadler). After a supernatural visitation from “Mary,” Alice is able to hear, speak, even sing. The healing is witnessed by a disgraced reporter, Gerry Finn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who sees an opportunity to revive his career with the story of a “divine” miracle. The problem is that everyone assumes the Mary that Alice saw was the Mother of God. 

It’s just an old-fashioned case of mistaken identity. Alice was actually healed by Mary Elnor, a woman executed as a witch back in 1845. As one would expect, complications from this mistake ensue.

We first see Father Hagan chasing a cow off the property, “It’s crapping all over.” He and Alice live in the small town of Banfield (the town sign reads, “A Little Bit of God’s Country”). The priest seems to be well known and liked in the town. Finn comes to that small town to investigate a false story about cattle mutilation by aliens (actually a local teen painting graffiti on a cow). Buried under a tree in the field, Finn finds a corn doll possessed the soul of Mary Elnor, and he sets it free. (Just trust me on this one, okay.)

That night, Finn is driving after drinking a bit, and he almost hits a sleepwalking Alice on a country road. Swerving, Finn runs his car into a tree. He gets out of the car and follows Alice to the tree where he found the doll. Alice begins to speak to Mary and then collapses. Finn takes her to her uncle’s, and Father Hagan calls the town doctor, Natalie Gates (Katie Aselton), who thinks Finn is imagining Alice’s healing.

But the next day at Mass, when Alice is in front of a statue of Mary (the one who was Jesus' mother), she stands up, seeming to be in a trance, and walks out of the church. A number of young women follow her, and soon the whole congregation (including Finn, Dr. Gates, and Father Hagan) follows. 

Mary walks to the tree she went to the night before, then turns to the crowd and speaks, “The Lady has an urgent message. She wants all of you to come back tomorrow. Her name is Mary.” All are in awe as the formally mute girl speaks. But Finn films it all and posts the story. Soon crowds come to the church because of this miracle.

Alice is thrilled to be able to hear and speak (part of the miracle, of course, is that she can speak English clearly, in spite of not having heard it her whole life). Finn is excited to have a story. Dr. Gates is thrilled with Alice’s healing, which she believes is a sign from God. Only Father Hagan seems leary. He is concerned about people exploiting Alice. The priest points out to Finn all the times in church history that people have been taken advantage of with signs and wonders. 

The priest says, “For where God built a church, there the devil would also build a chapel.” 

Finn replies, “I never thought I’d hear a priest quote Martin Luther.” (That attribution is correct.)

Alice overrides her uncle's wish that she stay out of the spotlight and instead has a gathering at the tree the next day. A boy with muscular dystrophy rises from his wheelchair and walks, which is live-streamed. More people flock to the small town, including reporters. Alice agrees to a press conference, but only answers questions from Finn.

The Vatican sends a bishop and an inquisitor to Banfield. Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes) is quite obviously thrilled by the attention the church is receiving from the spectacle. Monsignor Delgrade (Diogo Morgado) has the duty of doing his best to disprove the miracles. The inquisitor has three criteria for testing the miracle: the affliction must be incurable, the healing instantaneous, and it must be complete. Those criteria seem to be met in Alice’s healing as well as the boy in the wheelchair. Another miracle soon follows, when Father Hagan is cured of his emphysema, which Dr. Gates had deemed terminal.

Alice claims Mary has called her to have a great service where, through the internet, the whole world will be called to place their faith in Mary. But as Bishop Gyles helps prepare for that service, Father Hagan, Monsignor Delgrade, and Gerry Finn begin to investigate the sinister truth about “Mary”.

Father Hagan discovers a book in the church that tells of Mary Elnor’s trial as not only a witch, but a bride of Satan who performed miracles in Banfield, similar to the miracles of Alice. Before he can tell anyone about his discovery, someone comes to the church for confession. 

During the confession, Father Hagan realizes he is talking to Mary Elnor. Soon afterward, Finn comes to the church to find the priest hanging from a rope, tied to the rafters. Suicide is presumed.

Bishop Gyles asks Monsignor Delgrade to perform a funeral for the priest, insisting the means of death be covered up since it might spoil the upcoming big event to celebrate Mary. That big event becomes a confrontation between the forces of good and evil with much in the way of CGI effects and pyrotechnics as one has come to expect in even moderately budgeted horror films. (Spoiler… Good wins, but at a cost.)

So how do the little Catholic church of Banfield and the various clergy rate on our Movie Churches scale? The church seems to serve the community well, up until when it opens a Hellmouth and threatens to be the focal point of many descending into eternal damnation. Father Hagan and Monsignor Delgrade are men who pursue truth before fame, riches, or health, and they're quite aware of Jesus’ teaching of Matthew 7:15, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (This verse is posted as a title card at the film’s conclusion.)

On the other hand, Bishop Gyles is quite willing to put fame and riches before truth, and before, you know, God. But because of the sacrificial service of the priest and the monsignor, the bishop only knocks one steeple off the film’s rating, resulting in 3 Steeples.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Miracle Month goes to Spain: The Miracle of Marcelino

The Miracle of Marcelino

I’ve noticed that children have a clever strategy to keep the lights from going out and stay up a little later. They ask the tough questions during tuck-in time. 

“Why is the sky blue?” “Where do babies come from?” “Why is the ocean near the shore?” If the family is religious, kids learn that theological questions buy even more time. When he was a kid, my nephew Jordan once asked at bedtime, “Who is more powerful? Luke Skywalker or Jesus?”

Marcelino, the 5-year-old title character of The Miracle of Marcelino, knows how to play this game. When the orphan boy is put to bed by the Father Superior of the Franciscan monastery where he lives, he asks difficult questions. When told his mother is in heaven, he asks, “Are all mothers in Heaven?” 

The priest answers, “Well, that is where all mothers go.”

Marcelino says, “Brother Cookie said that even you had a mother.” 

“Yes,” the Father responded, “But she too is in Heaven.” 

“How did she get there?” Marcelino asks.

The priest responds, “By being very good.” 

Okay, I’ve got to call a theological foul here. It would be one thing if your average dad gave that answer trying to get his kid to shut up and get to sleep. But a priest shouldn’t just talk about “being good.” There is more to salvation in Catholic theology than “being good.” Nothing about the Sacraments?  Even more, what about the sacrificial death of Jesus? (These Franciscans don’t talk nearly enough about Jesus. We’ll talk more about this in a bit.)

Then Marcelino asks, “And am I good?” 

Father Superior responds, “Oh yes, you are very good.” 

Naturally, Marcelino asks, “Then when will I go there?” 

Classic kid bedtime strategy. Nothing like asking about death at bedtime to stall that light going off. 

The priest answers, “That depends, Marcelino. Whenever God wants you to.”

A big spoiler here. The “Miracle” of the title is the way in which Marcelino is taken into Heaven -- one of the many things that makes this a very odd film. Jose Maria Sanchez-Silva's screenplay was based on his novel, Marcelino Pan Y Vino (Marcelino Bread and Wine) which was inspired by a medieval legend. The Spanish film was directed by Ladislao Vajda and was a critical and commercial success.

The film opens with a narrator telling of a small village’s feast celebrating a miracle, but one priest can’t attend the feast because he is visiting a sick young girl. He asks the little girl if she knows the story of Marcelino. The father suggests it would be best not to tell the story, but the priest asks the little girl if she would like to hear the story. When she says, “Yes,” he begins.

Long ago, not long after the Franciscan monastery of the village was founded, a baby was found at the door. The brothers are unable to find the boy's parents. The Father Superior then sends the brothers out to find a family that will adopt the child. (Some of the brothers don’t do the best sales job. They tell prospective parents that the child cries through the night and never stops eating. It’s almost as if the brothers want to keep the child themselves.) Failing to find a family, the brothers pledge to be the child's fathers. He is named Marcelino because he was christened on the feast day of that saint.

The boy grows to the age of five and brings great joy and delight to the brothers. But like many small boys, he also causes trouble. He was told never to climb the stairs to the monastery attic, yet he climbed those stairs. Brother Cookie (named this by Marcelino) told him there was a big man upstairs. The first time Marcelino went to the attic, he saw a man and ran down the stairs to the outside.

In time, he returns to the attic and again sees the man. The man looks hungry, so Marcelino goes down to the kitchen and returns with bread for the man to eat.

The audience sees the man upstairs is nailed to a cross. It is a statue, a crucifix with Jesus on the cross. But when Marcelino returns, the man reaches down from the cross to take the bread.

Now this bothers me more than a bit. Even at the age of five, one would expect a boy raised by Franciscan monks would recognize Jesus on the cross. Though the brothers read stories about St. Francis at their meals, we never see the Brothers reading scripture, let alone from the Gospels.

Marcelino continues to visit the living statue of Jesus in the attic, bringing him bread and wine (thus the name was given to the boy “Bread and Wine”) and a blanket. In time, Jesus asks Marcelino what he would like to receive in return for his kindness. Marcelino tells him he wishes to go to Heaven. Jesus tells Marcelino he must sleep and then he will go to Heaven. Marcelino says he isn’t tired. Jesus says that Marcelino can sleep in His arms.

The brothers go up the stairs to look for Marcelino and see the statue of Jesus off the cross with Marcelino in His arms. The statue returns to the cross, and Marcelino is dead.

There aren’t many films that present the death of a child as a happy ending (Pan’s Labyrinth is the only other one that comes to mind). But if one believes the words of the Apostle Paul that “to be with Christ is far better” than life on earth, then this is a happy ending -- strange as it seems to modern audiences. But even accepting Heaven as Marcelino's fate, there would be much grief in the monastery and, one would think, in the town, over the death of a 5-year-old boy.

So what rating should we give to the Franciscan Brothers of The Miracle of Marcelino? They do lose a steeple for their faulty Christian education of their young charge. But they also deserve much credit goes for taking in the baby to raise as their own, earning them a Three Steeple rating.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Miracle Month: The First Legion

The First Legion

Atheists don't seem to be villains in movies these days, at least in big studio films. Sure, some Christian films, such as the God’s Not Dead series have bad guy atheists who are just shy of Snidley Whiplash (though they generally don't twist their mustaches while tying the heroine to the railroad track).

But in mainstream films, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking are heroes. Even fictional characters such as Jodie Foster’s scientist in Contact and Nick Angel in Hot Fuzz are heroes -- and often the most rational, compassionate people in their fictional worlds. Ricky Gervais' 2009 film, The Invention of Lyingis a full-throated advocation of atheism. TV features even more fictional atheists as heroes: Greg House (House), Temperance “Bones” Brennen (Bones), and Mal Reynolds (Firefly). Atheists are often portrayed as the only people who see things clearly and are free of hypocrisy. 

This is not the atheist physician in Douglas Sirk’s 1951 film, The First Legion.

Douglas Sirk had a unique career in Hollywood. In 1937 he fled his German homeland with his Jewish wife to begin a career in Hollywood. His commercial hits of the 1950s (Imitation of Life, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, Magnificent Obsession) were dismissed by critics of the time as “women’s weepies” and sentimental melodrama. Today his films are highly regarded by critics and filmmakers for technique, use of Technicolor, and Sirk's compassionate treatment of society’s outsiders. His focus on domestic situations and the problems of women is now celebrated rather than dismissed as unworthy content.

The First Legion was made before those well-regarded classics and very different in form and content. First of all, it was filmed in black and white, and rather than being set in a suburban home, it is set in a Jesuit seminary. (A title card at the beginning of the film gives a history lesson, “Four centuries ago St. Ignatius of Loyola, a former soldier founded a company of priests called the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. This a group of them in the modern world.”)

We meet Father John Fuller (Wesley Addy), a priest considering quitting the ministry. He says, “I’d like to go home. I’d like to be part of a real family again. It’s pretty lonely being a man of God all the time.” He prepares to leave the seminary, but the night before his departure, Friar Jose Sierra (H.B. Warner), who has been bedridden for years, rises from his bed and walks to Fuller’s room and tells him he had a vision which told him that Fuller must not leave the order.

Friar Sierra's healing is considered a miracle by most at the seminary. Headlines across the country proclaim the healing. The Rector of the seminary, Father Paul Duquesne (Leo G. Carroll), is excited by the attention the “miracle” is attracting not just to the seminary, but also to the patron saint of the seminary, Joseph. Crowds surround the seminary, and concession stands spring up (including one selling St. Joseph dolls for a dollar.)

But one priest, Father Marc Arnoux (Charles Boyer) does not share the excitement. He is concerned about those who are making a trek to the seminary seeking healing, fearing the travel will harm people’s health and finances. Arnoux, a former lawyer, is dubious about the healing. He investigates, interrogating Sierra’s physician, Dr. Peter Morrell (Lyle Bettger). The doctor asks Father Arnoux if he can make a confession, and confesses that he gave Friar Sierra a drug that brought about the healing. 

As an atheist, he found it amusing to see the believers celebrating a “miracle” of God when he knew that it was no such thing. Arnoux urges Morrell to publicly disavow the “miracle,” but he refuses and reminds the priest that making the confession public would break his vow of silence. The doctor even burns his records of the Sierra case. He considers it all a fine joke.

The doctor only comes to question his decision when one of his patients, Terry Gilmartin (Barbara Rush), beautiful but wheelchair-bound, seeks healing from Saint Joseph. She wants to go on the seminary grounds, which is forbidden. (Forbidding the public from being on the seminary grounds, particularly the seminary chapel, is a rule I found quite strange.) The doctor confesses what he did to Terry, looking to quash her false hope.

But Terry still believes. She finds a way to the seminary chapel and there prays for the soul of Dr. Morrell. She then finds she can rise from her chair and walk. A true miracle.

Most of the priests of the seminary are good men (there is one priest who is a self-righteous ass, but he’s an exception.) There is also a non-Jesuit priest, Monsignor Michael Carey (William Demarest), who enjoys  teasing “God’s Marines” but seems to be a good man. He delights in dogs and says at one point, “Today I saw a man die and a baby born. It was a good day. Everyone should see a baby born.”

So the priests of this film earn our highest Movie Church Rating of Four Steeples and Dr. Morrell should be glad we aren’t rating atheists.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Carl Theodore Dreyer month concludes: Ordet


It's a surprise, considering its subject matter, that Ordet  (The Word) is the only one of Carl Theodore Dreyer's films that was both a financial and critical success. In Sight and Sound's 2012 poll of the greatest films of all time, this film was ranked 19th by film directors, and it's a film about the conflict between evangelical and mainline churches.

The film is based on a 1925 play written by Kaj Munk, a Danish Lutheran pastor who was martyred during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. It tells the story of Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg), a rich farmer and patron of the local Lutheran church, and his three grown sons. (The set-up of a patriarch with three grown sons is classic, used in The Brothers Karamazov, Bonanza, and, of course, My Three Sons.)

Morton’s eldest son, Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) has abandoned the faith of his father but his believing wife, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), is convinced her husband will eventually find God. The second son, Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), believes he is Jesus Christ. He often wanders from the family farmhouse to preach to the animals in the fields. He is said to have gone mad from excessive amounts of Soren Kierkegaard (“It’s all that studying that turned his head,” says one member of the family.) The third son, Anders (Cay Kristiansen), is in love with Anne (Gerda Nielsen) whose father, Peter (Ejner Federspiel), is the pastor of the local free church. Neither father approves of the union because of the theological differences between the two families.

Morten goes to Peter to discuss the future of their children. When they enter, Peter’s house church (called "The Poor House") is meeting, and people are sharing stories of how their lives changed when they trusted Jesus as their Lord. When the service ends, Morten approaches Peter about getting down to business.

They send Anders and Anne (with Anne’s mother) to the kitchen for coffee while the men talk. (Sidenote - there is a lot of coffee drinking in the film. At one point, Morten says, “We must have coffee, coffee, from real coffee beans.” There is also a big focus on pipe smoking. Early in the film, Inger readies Morten’s pipe. He’s surprised at how well she performs the task, and Inger tells him, “There’s nothing I can’t do.” Morten then tactlessly responds, “Except have sons.”)

Morten and Peter argue theology. Peter asks Morten what bothers him about his church, and Morten says it’s the call for conversion. He also finds Peter’s church too grim, “Do you know what the difference is between your faith and mine? You think Christianity is sullenness and self-torment. I think Christianity is the fullness of life. My faith is for all day long and joy in life. Yours is the longing of death. My faith is the warmth of life. Yours is the coldness of death.” 

I found this little speech quite puzzling because I found Morten to be a joyless, petty man.

While he's at Peter’s house, the phone rings. The call is for Morten. He learns that the pregnant Inger has become very ill. Peter tells Morten he hopes Inger’s illness will lead Morten to trust Christ. 

Morten says, “Do you want Inger to die?” 

Peter says, “If that’s what it takes, yes.” 

Morton goes home to find that their doctor (Henry Skjaer) and the local pastor are already there.

The Lutheran pastor (Ove Rud) is new to the church. Inger had told Morton, “His sermons are good.” 

Morton had responded, “As long as it doesn’t take him too much time to get to Amen.” 

This pastor had a rather awkward encounter with Johannes. When Johannes told the Pastor he was Jesus, the pastor asked him to “prove it.” 

Johannes tells the pastor, “People believe in the dead Christ, not the living one.” 

The pastor tells Johannes, “Miracles no longer happen.”

As Inger struggles with illness with her husband, Mikkel at her side, their daughter waits with Johannes. Johannes tells the girl that her mother will die, but he will bring her back from the dead. The girl seems to take comfort from these words.

Inger loses the baby (a son), but the doctor thinks Inger will be okay. So Morten, the doctor, and the pastor relax at the dining table (with coffee and pipes, of course), and the doctor kids Morten, “Since Inger is out of the woods, I can tease you. What do you think did her more good; your prayers or my care?” 

The doctor worries he may have offended the pastor, but the pastor assures the doctor he doesn’t believe in miracles, “God won’t break the physical laws He established.” (In his book, Miracles, the apologist C.S. Lewis has a wonderful response to this argument: natural laws are His laws and He is free to amend them as He wishes.)

Just after the pastor and the doctor leave, Mikkel comes from her room to tell his father that Inger is not out of the woods. She has died. The doctor is humbled. Morten and Mikkel are crushed.

And then, three miracles take place. (Inger had once said, “I believe a lot of little miracles happen secretly.” But these are not little miracles.)

First, Peter comes to the Borgen farm and asks for Morten’s forgiveness. “We should have not have let our theological differences come in the way of happiness for our children.” He offers Anders Anne’s hand, so she can take Inger’s place in the household.

Second, Johannes, who had been missing since Inger's death, returns. When Morten looks at him, he rejoices and says he can see that sanity has returned to his son’s eyes.

Third, Mikkel and Inger’s daughter comes to Johannes and asks if he will raise her mother from the dead (as he had previously said he would). After the funeral service led by the pastor, Johannes tells Inger to rise up. This greatly upsets the pastor who considers the call blasphemous. Morten and Mikkel are, in their grief, very upset. But the look on the young girl’s face conveys she just considers it right. And Inger comes to life again.

There are real problems with the moribund faith of Morten’s church and its pastor, as there are real problems with the judgmental nature of Peter’s house church. But the way they come together at the film’s conclusion earns them a collective Movie Churches 3 Steeple Rating.

NOTE: This film provides a nice transition to the topic of Movie Churches in April: Miracles.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Carl Theo. Dreyer Month Continues: Day of Wrath

Day of Wrath (Vredens Dag)

I find it interesting that so many popular depictions of the witch trials of centuries ago portray witches with supernatural powers. Quite recently the Marvel/Disney show Wandavision had a flashback to the Salem witch trials, but instead of innocent citizens dealing with charges of black magic, we saw a supernatural battle between powerful witches. Television shows like Bewitched, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch and movies such as I Married a Witch, Bell, Book and Candle, Hocus Pocus, and The Lords of Salem all featured the Salem witch trials along with “real” witches.

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a surprisingly rare story where accusations of witchcraft are completely unfounded. For the most part, the same can be said of Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1943 film, Day of Wrath. Rather than taking place in New England, this film is based on witch trials in 16th century Norway. Though the charges of witchcraft are assumed to be without basis, witches' curses in the film to tend to be carried out. 

Day of Wrath
was produced in very difficult, even dire, circumstances. After the completion of Vampyr in 1932, Dreyer was unsuccessful in raising funds for a film adaptation of Madame Butterfly, a work about Mary Stuart, or a documentary about Africa. Dreyer worked as a journalist and was unable to work as a filmmaker for over a decade. Day of Wrath was filmed in Denmark while the nation was under Nazi occupation, and some were concerned that the witchcraft theme in the film would be perceived as a critique of the Reich’s treatment of the Jews, but the film was completed and released. Dreyer took the opportunity of the film’s foreign distribution to travel to neutral Sweden, where he lived for the remainder of World War II.

The film is set in a small Danish village in 1623 where Rev. Absalon Pedersson (Thorkild Roose) lives with his young wife and his mother. The Reverend is old enough to be his wife’s father -- which becomes all the more apparent when his son returns to the village. His wife, Anne (Lisbeth Movin, who bears quite a resemblance to Elizabeth Montgomery of Bewitched fame) and his son, Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), are the same age and the attraction between the two is immediate. The attraction is noticed by the pastor’s mother, Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam), who already dislikes her daughter-in-law.

One night an old woman, Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier), comes to the parsonage, and Anne answers the door. The woman asks Anne to hide her, saying she is being pursued by some who wish to kill her. Anne hides her, and others from the village come to the door saying they are looking for a witch. They break in and find Herlofs and take her to the local church where she is imprisoned as a witch.

Rev. Pedersson is sent to talk to Herlofs Marte and seek her confession. Herlogs Marte is naked from the waist up, due to her recent torture by other church authorities. Pedersson asks Marte whether she has been dealing with the devil, “Did you sell your soul for eternity?”

The pastor tells her she must confess to the Lord to be saved. Marte looks with disdain at the pastor, “Stop your prattle! I fear neither heaven or hell! I fear only death. If I burn at the stake, so will Anne!” Marte says that Anne’s mother was accused of being a witch, and she knows that the pastor intervened so that he could marry Anne. She begs the pastor to save her as well.

The pastor claims to be only interested in saving Marte’s soul, “Have no fear, God is merciful! He will forgive you for your sin!”

But Marte, denounced by three worthy citizens who claim she cursed people who died, is sent to the stake to be burned to death. As she burns, Marte cries out that Anne is a witch. But the roar of the flames drowns out her accusation.

But the curses Marte made in life seem to continue to have power after her death. She cursed the Bishop who sentenced her to death. That bishop becomes ill, and Reverend Pedersson is at the man’s bedside as he dies.

Things grow worse for the Reverend. The attraction between his son and wife grows into an affair. He confronts his wife who admits to the affair, and she verbally attacks her husband, accusing him of stealing her life, even failing to provide her with a child. She tells him she had long wished him dead. And following her words, Absalon seems struck by a heart attack or stroke and dies on the spot.

Absalon’s mother accuses Anne of being a witch, so she too must go to trial. One assumes her fate is the same as Marte’s: torture and death at the stake. Anne won’t even deny that her curse caused her husband’s death.

The church in this film tortures women and burns them at the stake. That alone would likely lead to a poor Movie Churches Steeple rating for the clergy and church of Day of Wrath, but one other detail insures the lowest rating of One Steeple for the church. When Herlofs Marte is burned at the stake, a choir of young boys is brought to stand near the fire to sing a hymn (“Day of Wrath”) as the flames engulf the old woman. That has to be the worst Christian Education program we at Movie Churches have ever seen.

Monday, March 15, 2021

In Theaters Now! Church People

Church Peopl
e (2021)

Mike Lindell, the man who founded the MyPillow company, is a lightning rod of controversy. In recent months, he was honored by then-President Trump. After the election, Lindell made statements about Democrats stealing the election. Lindell was, and probably will be forever linked with the January 6th rioters. This is all rather sad because Lindell founded MyPillow with some worthy goals, such as providing employment for ex-convicts and people looking to overcome addictions, but now Lindell is a villain to the political left and a hero to the political right. In an introduction to the new film, Church People, Lindell talks about the importance of bringing people in the church together, but it seems quite unlikely that at this time he's someone who could bring people together.

Also, considering the number of people that were in the theater the night we attended Saturday night, it's unlikely that Lindell will be widely known as a movie producer anytime soon, though he was executive producer for the new Christian comedy. (Lindell also plays a bit part in the film. Sharp eyes may spot the Mike Lindell bobblehead on the senior pastor's desk, but no one will be able to miss the MyPillow product placement.) Though we saw the film in a movie theater, it hasn’t been widely released but has had limited showings through Fathom events

Church People wants to be a satire of the gimmicks and stunts found in seeker-friendly and mega-churches. Since I served many years in youth ministry, I'm pleased to report that the hero is a youth pastor. Thor Ramsey plays youth pastor Guy Sides (it’s difficult to decide whether the actor's name or the character’s name is more unlikely). Ramsey's in his 50’s, and his character is asked if he isn't too old for his job. Guy responds, “Youth pastor means I minister to youth, not that I’m young!” The fact is that most (though not all) successful youth pastors are in their 20’s or 30’s. The people who stay in youth ministry longer than that tend to do a good job of recruiting and training other staff and or volunteers. In this film Guy seems to be running the youth group practically solo, in spite of taking a lengthy book tour as “America’s Youth Pastor.” (this title seems peculiar -- he seems to have only a couple dozen members in his youth group in a megachurch of thousands. I don’t see why he would be so acclaimed. 

Pastor Sides seems quite awkward with people, especially women. A woman who seems to recognize him comes into his office while he's talking with a student, and he tries to figure out why she's there -- is she the parent of a student? Does she want to be a volunteer? He scrambles to find a volunteer form in his desk as the woman is obviously amused that he doesn't recognize her.  (The film’s initial title was Youth Group. In spite of this, the youth are mostly anonymous and minimally involved in the story.)

Turns out she's Carla Finney (Erin Cahill), the daughter of the senior pastor. For the past ten years, she's been a missionary in Molvania (not a real country) and she's just returned home after a broken engagement. 

I would assume the church would have supported Carla, so I was baffled Guy wouldn’t recognize her -- even after an unlikely absence of ten years. Before long, he and Carla are dating and having quite intimate conversations with her in front of the students in the youth group (which is -- obviously -- quite unprofessional) The students are surprisingly invested in the relationship between Guy and Carla (they are quite disappointed when they don’t kiss in front of them). 

Carla’s father, Pastor Skip Finney (Michael Monks), is also overly involved with his daughter’s love life. He tries to set her up with Tino (Joey Fatone) who seems to have the singular profession of church soloist. He is a simple (dim) man, which is why Skip thinks he’ll be “safe” for his daughter. No one in the film seems to think it might be okay for Carla to be, um, maybe, single. Everyone seems very concerned that she should be in a relationship and not waste time going back to the mission field. 

Pastor Skip has what he believes are big plans for his church. He tries to bolster attendance by using BMX riders on the stage behind him while he preaches. He challenges the congregation to raise attendance by saying if a bar is reached, he will have the church logo tattooed on his bicep at the end of a service. But his biggest stunt is planned for Good Friday. He decides to crucify someone on stage in the Good Friday worship service. Since none of the staff agree to be crucified (even though they -- probably -- won't be killed), he recruits a high school student, Blaise, a new believer. (Fortunately, the ‘G’ rating assures audiences they won’t really witness a crucifixion in the film.)

Pastor Guy is outraged that Skip is taking advantage of one of his students, and the majority of the film is Guy’s attempt to prevent Blaise (Clancy McCartney) from having nails hammered into his hands and feet.

The only really competent person who works at Sand Hills Neighborhood Church is head greeter Chad Chase (played by Stephen Baldwin. It’s a double Baldwin film with Billy Baldwin playing Blaise’s father.) Chase knows the names of most of the members of the congregation and is aware of their needs. He genuinely seems to care about other people, which seems out of the wheelhouse of the pastoral staff, which is focused on numbers and influence. (Guy does give lip service to concern for the Gospel and his students, but he doesn’t really seem to be very good at his job.)

This is why we are giving Sand Hills Neighborhood Church and its staff a mere two steeples for its Movie Churches rating.

We weren't crowded in the theater. 
Mindy channels her inner inaugural Bernie.