Thursday, July 28, 2022

Crime Month isn't Magical: Sorcery


You could argue that a church only makes a cameo appearance in this brooding adventure film. Still, it has such a variety of illegal activities presented during that cameo that I couldn’t resist including it in Crime Month.

Sorcerer was a commercial flop. There was some puzzlement about why this well-made, tense action film didn’t find an audience. Though it's very dark, and the characters aren't particularly likable, the same could be said of director William Friedkin’s two previous films, huge hits The French Connection and The Exorcist

Probably a big factor was the attention paid to another film that came out at the same time… Star Wars.

Sorcerer is a kind of remake of the French classic The Wages of Fear about a small group of men who must carry a truckload of nitroglycerin to put out a massive oil fire. In Friedkin’s film, however, the four men on the mission each have a backstory presented in four different prologues. In Veracruz, Mexico, we see Nilo (Francisco Rabal), an assassin, commit a political murder that sets law enforcement on his trail. In Jerusalem, a Palestinian terrorist, Kassem (Amidou), sets off a bomb and soon the Israel Defense Forces are after him. In Paris, a businessman, Victor (Bruno Cremer), is about to be convicted of fraud and flees.

These three men escape to Porvenir, a remote village in Columbia. And a fourth man, Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider), comes their way. His backstory features the church.

It's bingo night at The Lady of the Snow Catholic Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey. We see a back room where large amounts of cash are being counted -- not just from this church, but from other Catholic Churches as well.

There is also a wedding taking place in the church while the money is being counted. The camera takes a few moments to observe it, though it has nothing to do with the film's story. The bride appears to have a black eye and a broken nose. Knowing nothing about her story, one can’t help but wonder whether this woman is in an abusive relationship that is being blessed by, affirmed, and cemented by a priest.

But back to the counting room. Priests are counting the money, but other men in the room are wearing suits, and they certainly look like (and later prove to be) Italian Mafiosi. Three armed men break into the room and tell everyone to raise their hands and turn over the money. A shootout ensues, and one of the priests is shot.

The men rush outside, where Scanlon waits behind the steering wheel of the getaway car.  As they drive away, chased by cops and the Italians, the crooks in the car get into a heated argument (“We shot a priest for $67,000. Was it worth our lives?”). The argument distracts Scanlon, who crashes into a truck. Scanlon is the only one of the four robbers to survive the crash. 

Scanlon's friends hide him when he learns that the priest who was shot was the brother of Carlo Ricci (Cosmo Allegretti), a Mafia kingpin. Scanlon's friend tells him he should leave the country because Ricci has pledged vengeance.

One of the members of his mob asks Ricci about his brother the priest. The Don replies, “He’s going to be all right. They robbed my church and shot my brother. I don’t care what it’s going to cost, track him down.”

And (spoiler) when the film ends we can see how far Ricci was willing to go to find Scanlon… Even to the secluded jungles of Columbia.

Here's what really bothers me about the church in this film. I’m not a big fan of churches using bingo as a fundraiser, though (as we mentioned earlier in the month) there are no explicit commands against gambling in the Bible, there is little doubt that it is a tax on the ignorant poor. I can set aside my concern about the wedding early in the film, but when this thug gangster can talk about a church as if it were his private property --it’s quite worrisome.

That’s why Movie Churches gives Our Lady of the Snow along with its priest our lowest rating of One Steeple.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Crime Month Continues: The Eyes of Tammy Faye

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

The single funniest thing I ever read was in a decades-old issue of The Wittenburg Door, a Christian satire magazine. Every year they honored theological luminaries such as Woody Allen and Steve Martin. In this issue, Tammy Faye Bakker was named “Theologian of the Year.” What made me laugh very, very hard was an excerpt from TFB’s bestselling book, Running to the Roar. You’ll have to trust me that her writing about the death of her dog was hysterical. Surprisingly, this passage made me laugh much more than anything from the writers of The Wittenburg Door.

When the article came out (1980), I couldn't have imagined an Oscar-winning movie made about this woman. I never thought Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker would be at the forefront of a series of sex scandals involving prominent TV evangelists. (Envisioning this sort of thing would have been even less possible because I pictured the couple more like cartoon characters than real people with real sexual desires and impulses.)

I also didn’t imagine Jim Bakker being convicted of 24 counts of wire fraud and being sent to prison, but that would have certainly have seemed more feasible. Also, that is what makes it possible for us to feature this film in Movie Churches' Crime Month.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is based on an independent documentary by Randy Barbato and narrated by RuPaul Charles. Writer Abe Sylvia and director Michael Showalter made this feature film that seeks to portray the founders of the PTL (Praise the Lord) network as real people rather than caricatures (not always successfully). Jessica Chastain won an Oscar for her portrayal of Tammy Faye and Andrew Garfield played Jim.

The film begins with Tammy as a child. She doesn't enter the local Pentecostal Church but instead watches services through a window from the outside. Tammy's mother won't allow Tammy to go to the church services because the girl will remind the congregation that Tammy's mother was divorced from her father and that the mother wasn't allowed back to the church until the congregation realized that she was the only person who could play the piano. Eventually, Tammy disobeys her mother, enters the church, prays to receive salvation through Christ, and demonstrates the presence of the Holy Spirit with ecstatic utterances.  

Tammy and Jim meet at North Central Bible College. Jim tells Tammy about his previous dream of being a DJ and his love for rock and roll. Soon they go for a roll in the hay, get married, and are forced to drop out of school. The two go on the road as itinerant ministers, with Jim preaching and Tammy singing and working puppets. They eventually catch the attention of Pat Robertson, who puts them on CBN (the Christian Broadcasting Network) where Jim became the first host of The 700 Club. When Jim sees that Pat is financially much better off than he and Tammy, he decides to start his own network, the PTL Sattellite Network -- featuring himself and Tammy.

Over the years, things did not go well. Though they requested donations for specific needs, the funds were siphoned off for their homes (mansions) and the creation of a Christian amusement park that was never actually built. Tammy Faye developed an addiction to prescription drugs. Rumors continued about Jim having homosexual affairs and to quiet that rumor, he had an affair with (or possibly raped) Jessica Hahn, an employee. Tammy Faye had at least one, and possibly a series of affairs.

One of the few ways that the film seems to try to portray Tammy Faye in a positive light is in her outreach to AIDS patients and her expressions of love for those in the gay community. This is in stark contrast to its portrayal of Jerry Falwell who is portrayed as a harsh, vindictive opponent to the “Gay Agenda” and those with the “Gay Cancer.” What is sadly lacking in the portrayal of either side of this debate is any effort to wrestle with the Scriptural elements in this debate.

In the end, Jim goes to prison, and Tammy Faye struggles to carry on after becoming a joke and pariah in much of the Christian and secular worlds. She and Jim divorce; both remarry (although this isn’t clearly shown in the film). Tammy Faye continues to trust Jesus and finds a way back into ministry along with becoming a bit of a gay icon. The film concludes with Tammy Faye singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and crying out, “God bless the United States of America!”

For good and ill, the Bakkers lived a uniquely American story. Tammy Faye died in 2007 and Jim continues to minister in spite of great health challenges. He has expressed sorrow for many of his actions, including preaching the “health and wealth gospel.”

The best we can give the Bakkers, as portrayed in the film, is a Movie Churches rating of Two Steeples. But the real Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker we leave to the judgment of a kind, just, and loving God.

The real Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker with the actors

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Don't Nod Off Before the End of Crime Month: Sleepers


Throughout my life -- and probably through the centuries -- an ethical argument has moved around Christian circles: is it ever morally excusable to lie? Jesus said, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no,’” but aren’t there times when the right thing to do is tell a fib? 

In these discussions, the name Rahab usually comes up. She was the prostitute who hid the Israelite spies in Jericho and lied when she was asked if she knew about their whereabouts. 

Someone else brings up the Holocaust and says undoubtedly it would be fine to lie to Nazis about hiding Jews. And then someone will tell a story from The Hiding Place about Corrie ten Boom's family, who believed God had called them to hide Jews from the Nazis. With people hidden beneath a trapdoor under the kitchen table, one member of the family, when asked, said that yes, people were hidden under the table. Feeling foolish because they'd lifted the tablecloth to look under the table, the Nazis left without noticing the trapdoor under the rug. Whoever tells that story will remind the listeners that God will protect His people as they tell the truth. 

Note: insert a smooth transition to this week’s Crime Movie, Sleepers here.

Written and directed by Barry Levinson, Sleepers is a very handy film for playing "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon." The film stars not only Bacon as an abusive guard in a boys' reform school, but also features quite a number of other stars: Dustin Hoffman, Brad Pitt, Jason Patric, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, Bruno Kirby, Ron Eldard, and others. Most important (especially for our purposes here), Robert De Niro plays a priest, Robert “Bobby” Carrillo.

The film tells the story of four childhood friends living in Hell’s Kitchen in the 1960s: Shakes (Joe Perrino), Michael (Brad Renfro), John (Geoffrey Wigdor), and Tommy (Jonathan Tucker). All four are altar boys and also trouble makers. They have families that care for them -- with various levels of care. All four are cared for by their parish priest, Father Bobby. Shakes describes the priest in this way:

“Father Robert Carrillo was a longshoreman's son who was as comfortable sitting on a bar stool in a back alley saloon as he was standing at the altar during High Mass. He had toyed with a life of petty crime before finding his calling. He was a friend. A friend who just happened to be a priest.” Father Bobby plays basketball with the boys, but also calls them out when they start hanging out with neighborhood thugs.

One of the boys is beaten up by his mother’s boyfriend. After visiting the boy in the hospital, Father Bobby goes to see the boyfriend. He says to him, “You’re a big guy; how much do you weigh? How much do you think John weighs? Next time you will be fighting me. You won’t need a doctor, you’ll need a priest. See you in church.” 

Not exactly a meek and mild approach, but rather like a shepherd protecting a lamb from a wolf.

But one day the boys play a practical joke that goes awry, accidentally injuring an innocent bystander. They are sent to reform school. Before they leave, Father Bobby promises Shakes he’ll stay in touch. Shakes asks the priest to only send good news, even if bad things happen. “You asking me to lie?” the priest asks. Shakes tells him, sure. And the priest tells him he can’t do that.

At the reform school, the boys are verbally, physically, and sexually abused by the guards, particularly a guard named Nokes (Bacon).

Father Bobby visits Shakes at the reform school. Shakes, in a voiceover, says, “I loved Father Bobby, but I hated looking at him.” At this point, we've already seen Nokes sexually assault Shakes and mock him for his Mother Mary medallion. When Nokes rapes Shakes, he forces the boy to cry out to God, getting a perverse amusement out of mocking the boy’s faith.

Shakes says to Father Bobby, “You shouldn’t come here, I appreciate it and all, but it’s not the right thing to do.”

Father Bobby explains it was on his way, “I stopped off in Attica to see an old friend of mine.”

“You have friends in Attica?” Shakes asks.

“Not as many as I’d like,” Father Bobby tells him, “He’s a murderer. Best friend. We hung out together, like you and the guys. We were both sent up here. This place killed him. Made him. Made him not care anymore. Don’t let this place do that to you, Shakes.” The priest hugs the boy before he leaves, and Shakes says he never felt closer to another human being.

Shakes is released after a year, but the other boys serve another year after him. They grow apart over the years. Shakes (Patric) becomes a newspaper reporter and Michael (Pitt) becomes a lawyer working for the district attorney’s office. But Tommy (Crudup) and John (Eldard) become career criminals.

Years later, Tommy and John happen to meet their old guard, Nokes in a bar. They talk to him until Nokes realizes who they are. They then shoot him dead in the dark back room of the bar.

Tommy and John are arrested, and Michael insists on taking the case. Michael discloses to Shakes he took the case just to get his friends acquitted. He has a plan to make this happen, but a key part of his plan is bringing in Father Bobby to commit perjury and say he was with Tommy and John when the murder was committed.

This brings us back to the beginning of this post and the question, “Is it ever right to lie?” I won’t do any spoilers here about what Father Bobby does in the courtroom. I’ll just say that through most of the film, I thought I’d give the priest a Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples, but in the end, I’m just giving him Three Steeples.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

A Crime of Conscience, Perhaps?

One Foot in Heaven

I’ll admit few would consider this film as an entry for Crime Month, but in it, I believe a pastor very clearly commits a crime. I promise to get to that crime…eventually.

One Foot in Heaven opens in Stratford, Ontario, in 1904. Fredric March plays William Spence, a man anticipating becoming a medical doctor who is, unexpectedly, called to the ministry, “I was walking past a church," he says. "There was a revival service in a Methodist church, and I had, what you might say, I got the call.” This comes as quite a shock to his prospective in-laws, who had anticipated that their daughter's husband would bear the title Doctor rather than Reverend. 

His disappointed mother-in-law-to-be says, “I would have preferred you became an Episcopalian” 

His fiancee, Hope (Martha Scott) on the other hand, happily goes through with the marriage in spite of the change in career.

There are no parishes available in Will’s native Canada, so the Methodist Church sends the newly ordained minister and his wife to a church in a small town in Iowa. Hope is obviously quite disappointed with the parsonage, especially with the shabby furnishing provided by the local ladies' auxiliary. She's particularly dismayed by the mounted hog’s head decorating the wall. She doesn’t complain out loud, but Will clearly understands her disappointment, and this is a running theme throughout the film as the couple goes from one parish to another. Hope is always disappointed with the home the church provides.

Movie Churches doesn’t have a great deal of sympathy for Hope in this. I’ve had missionary friends who served in Mexico and Papua New Guinea in remote settings. Jesus said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

Hope makes another sacrifice as Will tells her not to wear her new, stylish clothes for a while, so as not to show up the women in the church. This does seem like a sensible move -- in any workplace, one needs to adapt to the surroundings, and the clothes that are appropriate in rural Iowa are different than those worn by well-to-do women outside Toronto.

Will and Hope eventually have children, and they raise them to follow the legalisms they follow: no smoking, card-playing, or moviegoing. When their son, Frazer (Casey Johnson), objects to these rules, Will explains to them they have to act like they have “one foot in heaven” (title drop), but Frazer eventually persuades his father to accompany him to see a Western, The Silent Man starring William Hart. The minister is won over by the stark presentation of good vs. evil and even admits in a sermon that movies aren’t so bad and maybe the older generation can learn from their kids.

Like the preaching of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale (who is credited as an advisor for the film),  Reverend Spence's sermons seem to be rather simple, along the lines of “Be Nice.” A congregant tells the pastor his sermons should include more about sin, advice the pastor ignores.

A major conflict in the film occurs later in Rev. Spence’s ministry when he wants to build a large sanctuary. His board thinks he should be happy with the current structure, so they get into an escalating political game over the building funds.

A rich member of his congregation, Mrs. Sandow (Beulah Bondi), is deeply offended when she learns that the pastor has spent considerable time visiting with her chauffeur (Harry Davenport), so she goes off to the Baptist church. One would think Rev. Spence would preach a sermon or two from James 2 about not showing favoritism to the rich, but no Scripture seems to come to his mind.

Another conflict comes with the banker on the board, Preston Thurston (Gene Lockhart). His wife (Laura Hope Crews) directs the choir, badly. When the Reverend announces that the choir will be replaced by a children’s choir for the summer, the Thurstons are quite upset. Not coincidentally, a gossip campaign begins, accusing the Spences' son, Hartzell (Frankie Thomas) of making a girl pregnant.

Rev. Spence investigates the rumors and confirms they are false. He confronts the gossips of the church by saying, “A preacher stops being a preacher and becomes a father when his son is dragged in.” (Actually, he should be a follower of Christ before he is either of those things, but that doesn't seem to occur to anybody.) He tells them, “You don’t deserve to live. The only reason you won’t die is because the Lord wouldn’t know what to do with you.” 

The Reverend isn’t exactly encouraging them from the Word of God there.

Spence then threatens to expose the slander in future sermons if they don’t give heavily to the building fund for his dream sanctuary. They comply, and the Reverend keeps their gossip campaign secret. So he gets his dream church.

What would you call the method the Reverend Spence used for fundraising? I believe his actions could be classified as blackmail and extortion, which are, in fact, criminal acts. But what does he care? He gets pretty stained-glass windows out of the deal.

Apparently, it never occurred to the filmmakers that the Reverend committed a criminal act. They seemed to view this as a harmless prank. Apparently, it didn’t bother the Motion Picture Academy either -- they nominated the film for Best Picture. It didn’t even bother all the ministers and pastors and bishops who formed an Advisory Committee of Clergymen organized by the Christian Herald (the long list of advising clergymen are seen in the open credits),

But it bothers us here at Movie Churches, so we’re giving the Reverend Spence our lowest rating of One Steeple.