Saturday, May 28, 2022

Last Stop: Denmark

Babette’s Feast

The remote western coast of Denmark is the final stop in our month-long European Vacation, and we're here for 1987's Academy Award-winning Best Foreign Film, Babette’s Feast. The film was based on a short story by Karen Blixen (better known by her pen name, Isak Dinesen). Her memoir of life on a coffee farm in Kenya was the basis of the film Out of Africa, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1985.

(I'm about to tell the whole story of the film. If you've never seen this marvelous movie, stop reading now and put Babette's Feast in whatever queues you have for priority viewing. Then you can come back to this post, or not. Seeing this film is paramount.)  

Babette’s Feast is set in 19th Century Jutland, where two elderly sisters, Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer), continue to care for their late reverend father’s congregation and the poor and elderly of their village. The sisters never married, and in their youth, their father discouraged local suitors. Martine had been pursued by a handsome cavalry officer, Lorens Löwenhielm (Jarl Kulle), and Philippa by her vocal trainer, the famed opera singer Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont) who had once vacationed in the village. Now, the sisters claim to be content with their simple life.

Unexpected help comes into the sisters’ life in the person of Babette (Stephane Audran). Babette has fled from wartorn France after her husband and son were killed and asks the sisters for work as a chef. They tell her they can’t afford to pay her, but Babette agrees to work for them for just room and board. She tells them she has nowhere else to turn, and they take her in.

Babette provides for the sisters in surprising ways. Not only does her work allow the sisters more free time for ministry, but the French woman also has a shrewd capacity for bargaining with the grocer and the fishmonger, saving the sisters a fortune over years of service. The sisters worry that Babette will someday return to France, but Babette assures her the only link to her home country is the lottery ticket a friend of her regularly purchases.

A less pleasant aspect of the sisters’ life is the progress of their congregation. The parishioners over the years have forgotten their pastor’s lessons of loving and caring for each other and are more often gossiping, quarreling, and backbiting.

One day, that French lottery actually comes through for Babette, awarding her 10,000 francs. Babette asks the sisters if she may prepare a meal for the congregation to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of their father’s birth. The sisters agree, assuming this is Babette's way of giving a gift before she uses her new fortune to return to France.

When the ingredients for Babette’s meal begin to arrive, (a tortoise, quail, fine wine), the sisters begin to worry Babette’s meal will be a sensual, pagan event, perhaps even with a touch of the occult. They warn the congregation not to talk about the food during the meal but instead to discuss spiritual things. Or, at least, the weather.

The sisters then learn they will have a special guest for the dinner: Martine’s lost love, Lorens, who is now a General who hobnobs with the royal court. It is fortunate he is there, for he is the only person at the dinner party who feels free to praise the wondrous meal that Babette serves, though everyone quite obviously enjoys the meal. And the contentious congregation becomes increasingly joyful and kind to each other.

After this wonderful meal, the sisters let Babette know they “know” she is returning to France. Babette tells them she wouldn’t even be able to return to France because she’s broke. The sisters ask about Babette’s lottery money, and she tells them she spent her fortune on the meal they just ate -- it cost the same amount as meals she made as the head chef in Paris’ most acclaimed restaurants. She also tells the sisters it was her great pleasure to fulfill her role as an artist.

It’s a wonderful story and a wonderful film. I’ve always considered it a retelling of the Gospel story of the woman who uses expensive perfume to wash Jesus's feet. The best -- perhaps even the only -- way to express love is through extravagance.

So what Movie Churches rating are we giving this film? The sisters’ father, the Pastor (Pouel Kern), was quite beloved by his congregation and he did seem to share a good message of compassion to his people. But he also had a selfish side -- discouraging his daughters’ suitors so they will continue to assist him in his work. The members of the congregation have a tendency to pettiness. But the sisters are very kind and do much to care for those in need, so we’re giving the church of Babette’s Feast a Three Steeple Rating.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Italy (via Moldova and Ukraine)

Black Sunday
Viy (1967)

On Twitter, someone recently posted, “I heard someone say once that you can't be a Christian and like horror movies.” 

We take anything said on social media quite seriously here at Movie Churches, so we find this concerning. After all, we have watched quite a number of horror films, and though some have been very bad indeed, we have to admit we’ve enjoyed watching many of them (including some of the bad ones.)

But even more concerning is not just that there are horror film viewers who are Christians, but there are even Christian horror filmmakers! Scott Derrickson, the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, argued that  Christians -- as believers in the supernatural -- were best equipped to make horror films. William Peter Blatty, who wrote the screenplay for The Exorcist and the novel on which it was based, considered his work an expression of his faith. And the director of one of today’s films, Mario Bava, was described in his life as a staunch Catholic. (A strange anecdote about the making of Bava’s one sex comedy, Four Times That Night, says that the director left the work to the assistant director when nudity was required on the set.)

So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that in Black Sunday, considered the first Italian horror film and a seminal work in the genre, a priest is one of the heroes in the film.

It should be noted that this film provides several stops for our European vacation. Though the film was made in Italy, it is set in Moldavia, a European principality that is no more. It's based on a short story, “The Viy” by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol (who was born and raised in Ukraine).

Actually, the tale Bava tells is not even close to the story by Gogol.

The story of Black Sunday begins in the 1630s as a woman in Moldavia is about to be burned for witchcraft. But first, a bronze devil mask is attached to her face with spikes. A storm breaks out and keeps the woman, Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) from being burned at the stake; instead, she’s just buried alive. Two hundred years later she’s found in a grave by Dr. Choma Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant, Dr. Andrej Gorobec (John Richardson). Kruvajan accidentally brings Asa back to life and things, needless to say, start to go bad. Asa brings back her brother and lover, Igor Javutich (Arturo Dominici), to help with the mayhem.

Meanwhile, Gorobec meets a young woman, Katia Vajda, who looks just like her ancestor, Asa. The two fall in love, but Asa plans to take Katia’s young body as her own to continue her plans for death and destruction. Gorobec goes to a priest (Antonio Pierfederici) for help. The priest knows that Asa killed Kruvajan and brought him back as one of the undead. The priest also knows the way to kill the undead: a nail through the eye. (I don’t remember any classes on killing the undead in my seminary, but apparently Orthodox priests have a very different curriculum.)

The priest also leads the angry crowd of townsfolk with torches that finally get around to burning Asa to death. Understandably, with the good Catholic Bava telling the story, the priests (even the Orthodox priests) are the heroes.

Priests don’t come off nearly so well in 1967’s Viy, a much more faithful telling of Gogol’s short story. Co-writers/co-directors Konstantin Ershov and Gerogiy Kropachyov needed to answer to Soviet authorities when they made this film, and the government at that time was not fond of religion.

Viy tells pretty much the same story as Gogol told. Gogol claimed it was a folk tale, but there is no record of it existing before he told it.

Three seminarians are lost while on vacation and come to what they believe is a farmhouse, but actually, it is the home of an old witch (Kinolay Kutuzov), who tries to seduce one of the men, Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov). Instead, she ends up taking him on a wild flight in the air. The man’s prayers, perhaps, bring them down to the ground where Khoma beats the witch with a club.

When Khoma returns to his seminary, the Rector (Pyotr Vesklyarov) tells him he must go to the home of a rich landowner and pray for the man’s dying daughter. But when he arrives, he finds that the daughter is already dead. The father tells Khoma that his daughter asked for the seminarian by name before she died. She requested that Khoma would stay three nights with her corpse, praying for her soul. He calls Khoma a saint, but the young man insists he isn’t (in fact, last Lent, he claims to have snuck off to be with the butcher’s wife).

After promises of gold and threats of lashing, Khoma goes to the church, where he is locked in with the corpse for three nights. On the first night, the young woman (Natalya Varley) comes back to life and taunts Khoma, but he protects himself by drawing a chalk circle on the floor around himself and prays. The second night, Khoma fortifies himself by getting drunk. The corpse comes after him in a flying coffin, but he again survives the night. On the third night, the woman transforms into the witch and summons all sorts of demons, including Viy, a demon who can see all things. Khoma doesn’t survive the night. His friends mourn him but wonder if he might have survived if only he had a little more courage.

The clergy in this film are not heroes. The Rector sends Khoma because he is given a bribe. When the seminarians are on vacation, they get drunk, steal food, and assault women. These characters aren’t too wonderful in the original short story but are worse in the film.

It's an interesting piece of trivia that Black Sunday is considered the first Italian horror film and Viy is considered the first horror film. I believe Christians can learn from both films: to be like the priest in Black Sunday who earns our Four Steeple rating, and to not be like the seminarians of Viy who earn a One Steeple Rating.

Friday, May 13, 2022

A Stop in France: The Last Duel

The Last Duel

In 1950, Akira Kurosawa made a groundbreaking film, Rashomonabout a horrible crime. The story was presented from a variety of perspectives. 

Since, unfortunately, Movie Churches is spending this month in Europe, there isn’t time for a side trip to Japan. More importantly, since we focus on Christian churches and clergy, the priest in that film is Buddhist. 

In 2021, director Ridley Scott made Kurosawa's gimmick his own by telling the story of a sexual assault from three different perspectives. His tale takes place in medieval France, so it works for this month's theme, and the priest in the film is Roman Catholic -- so that works too. Of course, Kurosawa’s priest was a kind, thoughtful man and Ridley’s priest is a cynical, corrupt politician. But we work with what we have.

The Last Duel
is based on a true story. Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver) are squires serving under Count Pierre de Alencon (Ben Affleck) after the Caroline War. Jacques becomes the Count’s tax collector and takes the prize property of Jean’s wife’s dowry. But worse is to come. 

Jacques rapes Jean’s wife, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) so Jean challenges Jacques to a duel, trusting the outcome will be directed by God and prove to all what is right.

But as I mentioned, this story is told from different perspectives. Jacques doesn’t believe he raped Marguerite. He believes he loves her and she loves him. The only real problem from his perspective is the awkward marriage vows between Jean and Margueritte (after the act he tells her, “We could not help ourselves.”)

Jacques goes to his priest, Le Coq (Zeljko Ivanek), but not regarding the sin of rape.

Jacques: “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.”

Priest: “ Speak my son.”

J: “I carry a sin that weighs heavy upon my heart.”

P: “What is it, my son?”

J: “I have committed the sin of adultery against a man I once considered a friend.”

P: “You know your commandments?”

J: “Yes, Father. I ask forgiveness.”

P: “My son, Matthew tells us, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

J: “But is love a sin, Father? How can I seek absolution for love?”

P: “This is the work of the devil. This temptress leads you astray. Just as Eve lured Adam from the divine path. That is not love.”

J: “Then what?”

P: “God is faithful. He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.”

Note that the priest puts the blame on the woman. He doesn’t really listen to Jacques about what he has done. He doesn’t consider that perhaps Jacques does have a really significant sin problem here. Not just “lusting in his heart”, but literal adultery -- if he would take take Jacques at his word. Also coveting -- literally -- his neighbor's wife. And, well, rape. But the priest doesn’t really seem to want to have to deal with real sin.

Even worst is to come from this priest.

When Jean accuses Jacques of raping Marguerite, the priest looks for legal loopholes to help Jacques escape responsibility.

Jacques is still under the delusion that his violent act was a consential transaction. He tells the priest, “It’s taken all my strength not to return to her. We knew it was wrong. I confessed my adultery and performed my penance. This charge of rape is false.”

The priest counters, “The common mind is not capable of such nuance.” He argues that instead of going to civil court, he should use his ordination to be tried in the Ecclesiatic Court. “Use the benefit of clergy. There really is no decision to make. You’re a cleric in minor orders. So, you can escape the jurisdiction of the secular courts and be tried by the Church where conditions are more favorable. Men holding church office number disproportionately among those accused of rape. They escape serious punishment by claiming the benefit of clergy, so… We’ll have the church try your case and be done with the matter.”

That a priest is making this argument is quite worrisome, but Jacques wants to make a public display of his “innocence.”

The priest, however, is worried about how Jacques will look when people consider the accusation made by Jean’s wife. He wonders why she was bold enough to make the accusation. "Yet under extraordinary pressure and at great risk to her name and reputation, Lady Marquritte has said that [the rape] did happen. Formally this is not about her. Rape is not a crime against a woman. It is a property crime against a male guardian, in this case Jean… This is not a matter over which a duel should be fought to the death. It should be settled quietly. Take the benefit of clergy.”

Though considering rape as a property crime was the law of the time, a priest's blithe agreement with this position is quite unsettling. 

We see no need for generousity in judging this priest for our Movie Churches rating -- after all the man has been dead for centuries. We give him our lowest rating of One Steeple.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Movie Churches European Tour: First Stop Ireland

Darby O'Gill and the Little People
Directed by Robert Stevenson

Our first stop on this month’s European Vacation is the Emerald Isle which is appropriate, as I am writing from the Emerald City, Seattle.

There's an acknowledgment in the credits of today's movie: "My thanks to King Brian of Knocknasheega and his Leprechauns, whose gracious co-operation made this picture possible. -- Walt Disney." Because this is Movie Churches, we wonder, why no thanks to the priests in the film?

Of course, many people who viewed this Disney live-action classic in their childhood might not ever remember there was a priest in the film. I know I didn’t.

I do have a distinct memory of watching this as a kid. It was made before I was born, but Disney regularly re-released their favorites, and this played at the Park Cinema in Santa Rosa, CA. I went on a Saturday afternoon, and there was a big crowd of kids, and it was raining hard. There was an announcement that the show was sold out followed immediately by an announcement that they would be showing the movie in the second theater. Apparently, they opened the second theater just for Darby, and they moved the reels from one projector to the other. This stuck with me.

What also stuck with me? The banshee, the angel of death, scared the heck out of little me. But the priest? I completely forgot about him.)

Darby O’Gill and the Little People tells of Darby O'Gill (Albert Sharpe), the elderly caretaker of a lord’s estate in a small Irish town. He is a great storyteller whose favorite topic is his adventures with the leprechauns. Darby has a grown daughter pursued by two suitors; Pony (Kieron Moore), a local bully, and Michael McBride (Sean Connery), the man sent to replace Darby as the caretaker. (It is said Connery's role in this film helped him be cast as James Bond.)

I really didn’t care too much about the love triangle as a kid. What I enjoyed back in the day was Darby’s battle of wits with Brian (Jimmy O’Dea), the legendary king of the leprechauns, for three wishes. While telling stories in the local bar, Darby recalls a time when he captured King Brian. When the king tried to wriggle out of granting Darby's wish, Darby warned him, “You give [my wishes] to me or you’ll answer to the church, I’ll have Father Murphy curse you with a blessing that will shrivel you up.” But still, Darby admits that King Brian escaped and didn’t grant his wishes.

While Darby is telling one of his stories in the local pub, Father Murphy enters. The priest apologizes for his arrival, “I didn’t want to interrupt, I just dropped in to tell you the news. My friend Father O’Leary in the town of Glencove has a new bell that was given to him by a lord. They will give the old bell to us. There will be a chapel bell in our town at last. All we have to do is go after it. Now, if I had a horse, which I haven’t, I’d go for it meself, which I won’t, but I thought that perhaps there might be someone here with a horse and cart who’d like to go for the bell.”

Pony first volunteers to get the bell, for a price. “Two pounds, ten bob,” he says. 

The priest agrees it's a fair price, just more money than he has. The priest makes a counteroffer for carrying the bell, “A chore like that might even be enough to absolve a man for using the priest and a church against the powers of darkness for his own selfish ends.”

This offer captures Darby’s attention. “I’ll do it, Father, I’ll do it for nothing." 

But Father Murphy tells him, “No, Darby, it won’t be for nothing. As a reward, you may have the music of the bell… For your seed, breed, and generation till the end of time.”

Darby does indeed find great joy in listening to the bell. When Darby captures King Brian again, on a Sunday, the king urges him to hastily make his wishes. Darby resists because of the chiming, “The bell, listen to the music of it. Father Murphy gave it to me. Would I make the wish on a Sunday with Father Murphy pulling the bell? Listen to the music.” It turns out for the best that Darby waits.

It turns out that he needs his wish when his daughter Katie is at death’s door; Father Murphy comes to read her the last rites, but because of Darby’s wish, those rites aren’t necessary.

Throughout the film, there seems to be a silent struggle between supernatural forces: the underworld of the leprechauns versus Father Murphy’s Heaven. There’s nothing really wrong with the powers the priest represents, they just aren’t as interesting (in the film, anyway) as the powers King Brian represents.

But we’ll still give Father Murphy a Three Steeple rating if just for the music of the bell.

Monday, May 2, 2022

A Whirlwind European Vacation

Top Ten from Europe

With travel bans finally lifted, this month Movie Churches will be taking some European Vacations. On Friday, we'll begin our tour with a stop in Ireland, but before we do that, it seemed like a good time to look back at ten favorite posts about films set in Europe that also had decent Movie Churches clergy ratings. (This excluded some great films such as A Hidden Life and Winter Light that feature less than exemplary ministers and ministries.)

First stop is England for the film #10, The Wolf Man (1941). You might not even remember the church from this classic Universal Studios monster movie, but it was there, as was a minister. They're a worthy contrast to the dark forces at work in the British countryside.

For #9 we head to Spain for a strange little myth about a boy bequeathed to a monastery. From a certain perspective, The Miracle of Marcelino (1955), which seems quite cheerful on the surface, is rather dark. But there are some very fine monks to be found.

Back to England again for #8. I guess we just like not having to deal with translation issues or paying attention to subtitles. This film is certainly a contender for one of the most fun films of all time, what with  adventure right there in the title. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) has a fine representative of the church in the person of Friar Tuck.

On to Denmark for #7, Ordet from the great director, Carl Theodor Dreyer. One could argue that there is a Jesus cameo in this classic -- you can't beat our Great High Priest as good clergy.  

Germany is the spot for #6 with one of the most important historical figures -- though not everyone is a fan. But we at Movie Churches are great admirers of Martin Luther and the best film about him is called, simply, Luther (2003).

You didn’t think we’d skip Italy, did you? We wouldn't dream of it, any more than we’d pass by Saint Francis of Assisi. There have been many films about this fascinating man, but today we choose Franco Zeffirelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972) for our #5 film.

Of course, for film #4, we need to spend some time in France in one of the world’s great cities -- Paris -- for The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988), starring the great Rutger Hauer.

Our final stop in England is for film #3 for The Detective (1954), a film starring the great Sir Alec Guinness. The film is based on stories by one of my favorite writers, G. K. Chesterton.

We return to Italy, at the time of the Second World War, for Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan (1946) for film #2.

Finally, we go back to France again for our #1 Movie Church set in Europe, Leon Morin, Priest.