Four Oscar Contenders:  THE POST, THE SHAPE OF WATER, LADY BIRD and CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

All four of these Best Picture Nominees are worthy of your time and investment.  Here’s Why:

THE POST directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks confirms the essential role of the press to insure a healthy democracy and honesty in government. It’s an important slice of history.  If you happened to see the recent Ken Burns/ Lynn Novik VIETNAM documentary on PBS this fall, you’ll appreciate THE POST even more. THE POST relays how the Washington Post struggled with the ethics of printing The Pentagon Papers –US classified reports documenting the futility of the Vietnam war. The papers revealed how a succession of American Presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon) sacrificed TRUTH to perpetuate an “American Myth” — INVINCIBILITY!  The TRUTH: Cold War fears prompted administrations to reject stalwart military advice to end the war and prevent the violent death of millions. The film centers on Kay Graham (Streep), the first ever female major newspaper publisher, and the plethora of ethical and legal considerations she must wade through as Ben Bradlee (Hanks) demands publication. Streep inhabits her role with the usual aplomb and, this time around, Tom Hanks cultivates outward quirks and idiosyncrasies that brings his performance closer to an outright impersonation. Not his usual style. It works.

There’s a high degree of cohesive interplay among the supporting cast that creates an aura of “in-the-moment” authenticity—all to Director Spielberg’s credit.  Standouts: Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara (whose friendship with Kay Graham causes her considerable angst), Matthew Rhys as Daniel Ellsberg and Bob Odenkirk as reporter Ben Bagdikian. The film’s pace is slow; the script is familiarly linear. The result is a more comfortable movie-going experience despite the high-pitch stress THE POST depicts.  The movie is almost contemplative–but not quite. Its message is irrefutably vital: The Courage to speak (and print) the Truth makes life worth living. The Truth will set you free.

THE SHAPE OF WATER is a grand, spectacular adult fairy-tale, a riff on Beauty and the Beast that insists on the audiences’ transformation rather than that of the characters who are perfect as they are. Well, almost.  Beauty’s arc includes a sexual awakening along with developments in courage.   In this venture, director and writer Guillermo del Toro (with co-writer Vanessa Tyler) melds fantasy with more traditional Hollywood suspense seamlessly with dream-like impressionism in sharp contrasts with metallic laboratories with the burgeoning technologies of the 1950’s.  His movie deserves a wide audience from high schoolers on up for the plot not only depicts Love’s triumph but exposes the many false ideals and vanities of American manhood that continue to confound and confuse every generation.   Actress Sally Hawkins is intrinsically believable and enchanting as the mute Beauty. The “Beast” is strikingly portrayed by Doug Jones with an assist from CGI and inspired costume designer Luis Sequera along with an army of terrific makeup artists.  Their collaborative Amphibian Man creation is more appealing and less freaky than del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH creature. I found it most engaging. Once again actor Michael Shannon is a standout as the villain while Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer offer sensitive portrayals of the milk of human kindness. Michael Stuhlbarg as a scientist and (spoiler alert) spy with an ethical backbone offers another informed, convincing performance.  The music by Alexandre Desplat richly enhances the proceedings with a fitting appropriation of “You’ll Never Know” (music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Mack Gordon, 1943) at significant plot points. Opera diva Renée Fleming uses her pop alto voice for a lovely version of that plaintive Oscar winning hit during the closing credits. A wonderful, all-around entertainment.

 

LADY BIRD might just be the most enjoyable coming-of-age, mother-teenage daughter, old school-new school conflict to hit the screen in quite some time. Captivating performances by the fast becoming Irish (and now American) Living Treasure Saoirse Ronan as the teen and Laurie Metcalf as the Mom and fine supporting cast make this “little picture” a major one. With a clever, funny script and adept direction by Greta Gerwig, the movie is a gem. Gerwig elicits first-rate performances from the entire cast, especially Lucas Hedges (a boyfriend), Lois Smith (Sister Principal) and Beanie Feldstein (the girlfriend). The “feel” of the film is impressive in the way each of the character’s respective flaws are as much humbling for the audience as they are dramatically engaging. And, in a surprising change from the usual Hollywood wisecracking, LADY BIRD offers an honest and overall positive depiction of a contemporary Catholic school.  Hurrah!  Best of all, LADY BIRD is more than just a story of growing older and wiser, but an incisive exposé of conflicted social mores and the perils these present to moral development, personal authenticity and integrity in relationships from family to the wider world.

 

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME offers another kind of coming-of-age story with a central emphasis on sexual awakening, in this case with same-sex attraction, albeit with bisexual undertones.  Tomothée Chalamet is excellent as Elio Perlman, a seventeen-year-old whose fascination with an exceedingly handsome thirty-something research assistant (solidly and sensitively played by Armie Hammer) is fraught with age appropriate confusion and elation, awkwardness and excitement. Director Luca Guadagnino offers a stylized romantic view of the relationship highlighted by stunning views of summers in the Italian countryside and earthly delights of teens and young adults swimming in lakes and rivers.

This love story occurs in the context of a highly educated Jewish Italian American family residing in Italy as Elio’s father (once again, a formidable presence and well-crafted performance by Michael Stuhlbarg) pursues and catalogs artifacts of ancient Roman Art. Mom is played by international actress Amira Casar with strength and grace.  The three that make up the Perlman family are true contemporary Renaissance figures, exceedingly well-read, fluent in multiple languages (Italian, French, German and English), dignified, warm, welcoming and hospitable to special friends ranging from foreign academics and local neighbors.

An only child, Elio is in some ways more mature than others his age and it is easy to see how his emergence into manhood would include an attraction to an older man even if that man weren’t as Adonis-like as Mr. Hammer is in appearance.  Still, one would think a sexual attraction on the part of a mature teen would emerge from mentor/ mentee relationship, with mutual likes and dislikes established, common visions and life goals. But the characters, at least initially, have little in common except their masculinity and their connection to Elio’s parents. Still, Elio’s youth accounts for a great deal here. What is not clear, however, is what makes Elio attractive to the older Oliver? Was it Elio’s infatuation with Oliver that elicits comparable sexual response in Oliver?  Perhaps, but the script does not clarify the relationship enough beyond the sensual dimensions, nor does it explore in any detail the realities of a grown man initiating a minor into gay sex, although Oliver does express some misgivings at the onset. Overall, the story presents Elio as ready and willing, and primarily the initiator –more the cat than the mouse, but the ethical question remains.  I left the film asking, “is this a story of a genuine first love or more a sentimental episode of sexual attraction and exploration?” Professor Perlman’s words to his son, Elio, near the conclusion of the film offer some insights as to the importance of self-acceptance and the value and beauty of intimacies in friendships, but the moral dimensions of each character’s actions are left for the audience to decide.  These questions, by the way, apply to Elio’s heterosexual encounters with an adventurous neighbor and would ask the same serious questions if the story concerned an adult woman with a not-yet-eighteen teenage boy.

 

Adults introducing teens into sex, no matter the sexual orientation, no matter who initiates the invitation, who evokes the desire or the foreplay, is rife with psychological, emotional and spiritual consequences. Considering contemporary issues Kevin Spacey’s scandal, for example, or the tragically long-standing cases of priests’ abuse of teenagers, I hope my reflections here offer some food for thought and that the film engenders wide-ranging public discussion.

 

Read my review of another Oscar contender:  GET OUT!

https://frjamesdiluzio.com/2017/03/

 

Advertisements

Compassion and Strength – The Wonder of Wonder Woman

I never watched the Wonder Woman TV series with Linda Carter (1975-79), but as a moviegoer, I found Warner Brothers’ WONDER WOMAN a Larger-than-Life Female protagonist worthy of our daughters, granddaughters, nieces (and their male counterparts’) attention without reservation.  This Wonder Woman is the kind of Princess / Hero combination that will not only confirm little girls as royal members of humanity, precious and important, it will affirm them as strong, smart, gifted and capable of contributing to the world—sometimes, perhaps (dare we hope?) surpassing that of mere mortal men (sic).

 

As a source of inspiration, this Wonder Woman is to girls what Superman is to boys.  Yes, she’s from another world.  Yes, she has attributes beyond mere mortals but –YES! –she is determined to utilize her talents for the greatest good: a love for humankind.  Good News Boys and Girls: Love for humankind is proper motivation for life beyond gender, culture and creed.

 

As scripted by Allen Heinberg from a story he created with Zack Snyder, Jason Fuchs http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0451279/?ref_=nv_sr_1 WONDER WOMAN is artfully directed with panache and vision by Patty Jenkins.  http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0420941/?ref_=nv_sr_1

If you are not familiar with this protagonist, Wonder Woman is a demigoddess–a creative composite from the pantheon of Roman, Greek Myths and the imaginations of DC Comic authors since 1941/42. Thus, she’s a little bit Diana (Roman goddess of the hunt, the moon and nature), the Greek Artemis (the daughter of Zeus and the mortal Leto), and the invention of Warner Brothers’ and DC Comics’ Screenwriters and Marketing departments. With so many chefs adding ingredients to ancient myths, it’s amazing that Wonder Woman (also named Diana) has turned out as appealing and outright inspiring as she is. The credit belongs to the creators, for sure, but equally to Gal Gadot, a captivating actress who incarnates Wonder Woman with a perfect balance of courage and compassion, sensitivity and strength.

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2933757/?ref_=tt_cl_t1

And, depending on your point of view (and your expectations for an ideal feminine role model) Ms. Gadot offers us an additional bonus of being truly beautiful in the old Hollywood tradition of Beautiful Girls –think Vivian Leigh:

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000046/mediaviewer/rm1343240704

think Paulette Goddard: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0002104/mediaviewer/rm3071685376

Some feminists may object, but, hey, she is who she is!

There’s no need for me to reiterate the plot as it is rather typical of super hero origin stories. There are parallels galore throughout the DC and Marvel comics universe.  In that regard, if you are up for a ride in the realm of the familiar, you’ll have a grand time:  All things begin with our hero/heroine nurturing skills and talents, discovering some surprise attributes, and completing his/her formation for a battle of good versus evil.  As for the villains: their goals and objectives can be seen in many action movies these days– –if you saw Guardians of the Galaxy Part 2, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Exploring the full identities of the villains in WONDER WOMAN is an important mystery imbedded in the plot so I will not identify who plays what here. Just know that all the cast members are first-rate, even when the plot wears a bit thin.  You’ll enjoy watching Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Connie Nelson, Danny Huston, Said Taghmaoui, David Thewlis and Ewen Bremner incarnate their characters.

 

Happily, this presentation of a DC Comics character maintains some of the joy and comic touches of the original Superman movies: moments of charm, innocence and fun. The last several Superman / Batman movies were disappointingly dark and cynical with very little light in our heroes’ attempts at saving the world. True to formula, however, our new Wonder Woman movie does culminate in a great cosmic battle (overblown as it has been in movies of this kind for far too long), but, I guess, in the march for equality in movies, women must be given their due.  If men do it, woman must do it, too.  Seriously, though, must these heroes / heroines always save the world?  Is there no merit in saving one person at a time?  One organization at a time?  Wonder Woman does offer hope, however, on another scale.  Here, greater cooperation among the male and female members of our species is on full display.  In this version Diana/ Wonder Woman not only has several strong female mentors, she has, well, one (but a significant one) male mentor, too.  That character is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), ethically flawed but in the Great American Tradition, he reveals a heart of gold.   If you enjoy films based on comic book characters, written with broad, bold strokes, and exploring what a women protagonist can add to the national psyche, WONDER WOMAN is for you!

 

Want More?  Here’s my Theological Reflection:

 

I am pleased to report that WONDER WOMAN ‘s screenplay imbues spiritual dynamics into its storytelling.  True to form, DC (and Marvel) Comics continually borrow themes and ideas from Greek, Roman, Native American Traditions and Eastern Religions but it’s important to recognize these inspirations have genuine Biblical counterparts.  The most important insight this script offers may be found in the words spoken by our heroine and her male mentor in one of the film’s penultimate scenes: “We do good not because people deserve it, but because of what we believe.”  I.e., our humanity is fallible, both faulty and foolish, but because we are capable of great good, too, it’s the goodness we hold onto. This makes our heroine reflect an essential element of our Judaic-Christian tradition: God as the ultimate ever-patient ONE, offering humanity millenniums of opportunities to learn from its mistakes. Ours is the God who abides our faults, forgives us while motivating us to better, wiser, kinder, compassionate.

 

Yes, there are biblical accounts in which God gets fed up with humanity (Sodom and Gomorrah, the Flood, Jesus’ many rebukes to the disciples, the Book of Revelation / Apocalypse and so much more!).   But note that many Jewish and Christian theologians now see these biblical passages as human projections on God—evidencing the ways the Bible’s writers vented their very human responses to sin and suffering. As they strove to move forward in formulating their impressions of God, they often took one step back in every two steps forward. In many ways, we still do! Taken in its entirety, however, the Bible ultimately offers a more complete, more honest picture of God as nothing short of Love and Mercy.  This is evidenced in both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, taken together or within their respective individual canons.

 

For those who would like to spend some time meditating on this theme, here are some Biblical excerpts for you:

 

Psalm 8: 5: 5 [d]What is man that you are mindful of him,     and a son of man that you care for him?

 

Psalm 51:  3 “Our offenses truly you know them,

Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love;     in your abundant compassion blot out my transgressions. Thoroughly wash away my guilt;     and from my sin cleanse me. For I know my transgressions;     my sin is always before me. Against you, you alone have I sinned;     I have done what is evil in your eyes

 

Psalm 103: 10He has not dealt with us as our sins merit,     nor requited us as our wrongs deserve. . .

17 But the Lord’s mercy is from age to age,     toward those who fear him. His salvation is for the children’s children 18     of those who keep his covenant,     and remember to carry out his precepts.

 

Proverbs 10:  12

12 Hatred stirs up disputes,      but love covers all offenses.[h]

 

Isaiah 43:25  It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more.

 

Isaiah 44:22 I have brushed away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like a mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.

 

Jeremiah 33:8 I will purify them of all the guilt they incurred by sinning against me; I will forgive all their offenses by which they sinned and rebelled against me.

 

 

Luke 6: (from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain)

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

 

Luke 23: The Crucifixion: 33When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him and the criminals there, one on his right, the other on his left. 34 [Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”][e

 

Luke 24: The Resurrection Instruction: 46 And he (Jesus) said to them, “Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day 47 and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

 

Matthew 12: 31 ff

31 Therefore, I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit[v] will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

NOTE: The CHRISTIAN TRADITION interprets this passage to mean that “to speak against the holy Spirit” is to deny God’s Spirit, which is to deny God’s forgiveness.  I.e. to not believe in God’s forgiveness is not to accept it or participate in it. It also makes clear that one does not have to believe in Jesus as the “Son of Man” aka “Son of God” to receive God’s forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness is offered to all.

 

 

Biblical Quotations Taken From: New American Bible Revised Edition from

https://www.biblegateway.com

 

 

 

GET OUT – a film by Jordan Peele Movie Review by Fr. James DiLuzio C. S. P.

 

Imagine a thriller-comedy combo that is clever, engaging and well-acted that offers intellectual stimulation while it entertains. This is GET OUT by the inspired and multi-talented director, screenwriter and producer Jordan Peele (of the comedy duo Key and Peele).  With wit and irony, Mr. Peele engages us in a conversation as old civilization itself: how Myths and Mindsets are created and how they can negatively impact individuals and culture (PLATO, 5th century B.C.E.) and denigrate others beyond the power circle (Fascism, Nazism, American Slavery). Peele juxtaposes these ideas with the more empowering concept of Xenophanes (6th century B.C.E.) that individuals and communities are the creators of their own myths and that their imaginations create the gods (and by extension, the culture)  they / it desire or deserve, and often at others’ expense.

 

In tandem with this grand dialogue, the movie explores the many dynamics of violence–physical, psychological, emotional– along with their sexual contingents in funny and ultimately horrifying ways. Wisely presenting all this in the context of what is becoming a more and more everyday situation, Director Peele imbues his narrative involving an inter-ethnic couple* with the natural emotional and psychological dynamics of our age heightened by the devices of psychological sci-fi.  Ingenious!  Sometimes he presents the conflicts with a wink and a smile, other times with outright indignation.  Bravo Mr. Peele for a very fine film! I came away with insights such as the many ways HATRED and PREJUDICE are not only rooted in FEAR but in uncanny levels of ENVY.  Sadly, much of these remain present among the relationships among African Americans and Americans of European and Latin American (and other) descent.

 

As for the particulars: the very fine cast led by Daniel Kaluuya in an affecting performance is well supported by Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitfords, Caleb Landrey Jones, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel and many others.  Kudos to the Casting Director Terri Taylor!  All the other elements of film-making are in fine form including the Music by Michael Abels whose work imbues thrills and humor sometimes simultaneously. The highest honors go to Mr. Jordan Peele, who proves to be a most excellent auteur! He’s made a better film than THE STEPFORD WIVES and THE SKELETON KEY with which GET OUT shares some common genre dynamics.   Moreover, it is a more important film because of its multi-layered themes.

GET OUT reminded me of the recently released I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO documentary by James Baldwin.  In this cinematic essay, Baldwin exposed the many ways America’s achievements, myths and legends degrade ethnic minorities, particularly but not exclusively African Americans, and revealed with both honesty and humility how even the American Dream oppresses us when not confronted with the terrifying, violent realities of our collective history. GET OUT engages us in the same realities albeit in a very different way. It deserves to be seen and hopefully will–especially by the Young Adult demographic that tends to relish the sci-fi and thriller genres. But I would urge other adults attend as well to help keep these themes and ideas in conversation in both public and private spheres. We’ll all be the better for it.

 

*Note: As I am becoming more and more sensitive to the power of words and images, I would like to invite us to move away from using the word “RACE” when referring to different ethnic groups. For in truth, we are one race – THE HUMAN RACE – and our differences are best qualified in terms of Ethnicity, Nationality and Culture. To be explicit: “RACE” is a technical term historically used to distinguish three types of peoples (Caucasoid, Negroid and Mongoloid) but no longer helpful. African-Americans and Asians are as equally and fully representative of humanity in its fullness, grandeur and fallibility as any Caucasian/Anglo/Western/Eastern European.  It’s time to advance our vocabulary.

 

The Shack – a short movie review by Paulist Father James DiLuzio

THE SHACK , movie directed by Stuart Hazeldine

THE SHACK movie effectively brings the best-selling book to the screen.  Its power lies in its presentation of the ways we approach evil through our concepts of God, justice, mercy, hope and everyday living.  In essence, it’s a dramatized dialogue more than a traditional film.  Yet the screenplay offers a traditional narrative arc concerning the novel’s heartbreaking story of a young girl’s abduction and murder and the ways her father wrestles with the spiritual and emotional aftermath. The acting is fine if not always outstanding. Sam Worthington is appealing and relatable as the father and, as always, so is Octavia Spencer in an ingenious stroke of casting in a significant role. I recommend THE SHACK as an engaging experience for Christians and anyone who would like to understand the best of contemporary Christian thought on God and human suffering. Worth your time and your consideration.

SILENCE a Martin Scorsese Film Review by Fr. James DiLuzio C.S.P.

There are images and ideas in Martin Scorsese’s SILENCE that are likely to resound in many viewers’ hearts and minds long after they leave the movie theater.  A cinematic rendering of Shusaku Endo’s novel (same title), it is powerful and heartbreaking.  Exposing the atrocity of religious persecution SILENCE’S theatrical release couldn’t be more timely.  In that context, it poses important ethical and spiritual questions that warrant ongoing discussion among religious and secularists alike.  It deserves to find a wide audience.  But viewers be warned: there are benefits and burdens in watching the film.  Scorsese’s devotion to Endo’s book has compelled this director and co-screenwriter to give practically every page of the novel its cinematic equivalent. This may be too much for the average filmgoer in terms of length but more so because of the graphic violence in its depiction of persecuted Christians.

The context of SILENCE is historical: In 17th century Japan, the ruling class decided it best for its national interest to eradicate Christianity from their country. The faith was closely associated with (and at times in complete cooperation with) Western Imperialism, Colonialism, Slavery and various manipulations of international trade.  Worse, the infighting among Christians, between denominations scandalized the Japanese and caused them grave concern.

Prior to the film’s time frame, the Japanese government sanctioned the arrest, torture and execution of Catholic priests to intimidate the Christian faithful.  But the priests’ refusal to recant their faith and subsequent martyrdom strengthened the Japanese Christians and inspired growing number of converts.  In retaliation, officials evolved alternative measures:  mercilessly torturing Christian hostages in front of priests who could only stop the assault by publicly denying Christ. Should the priest refuse to deny his faith, the Japanese continued to subject Christians to excruciating torment, to slow and painful deaths with pastors forced to watch the proceedings.  This is the historical and ethically abhorrent situation SILENCE explores and the implications are mind boggling.

How can a religious leader in conscience dictate martyrdom to his flock?  To do so would be an offence against free will, against personal integrity.  Catholic priests of the 17th and any century would be fully cognizant of the centrality of free will as the divine spark that makes each person in the image of God.   And yet for a priest to apostatize is to betray his life, his vocation and the faith that those poor tortured souls embraced.

Most viewers would know, a steadfast confession of faith under threat of torture and death is a solemn and courageous act. For Christians, martyrdom witnesses to the promises of Christ–the reality of heaven, of resurrection and life in the world to come.  It exemplifies the value of suffering for a greater truth beyond worldly comfort at the same time it personifies personal integrity—confirming integrity as a value to believer and nonbeliever alike.  Delving deeper into this issue SILENCE not only explores the motivations and choices the priests make but asks “What would each viewer do?” If the characters make decisions that do not correspond to the viewer’s own, what then? This is the magnetic power of SILENCE. It is intent in engaging an audience into this segment of world history to ask that very question.   What’s more, the film repeats the insistence of the novel that viewers refrain from judging the priests as much as humanly possible.   The heart of Endo’s novel and Scorsese’s film is a cry toward compassion, not judgment.  In that it is a very contemporary approach to a 17th Century phenomenon, flavoring it with the seasons of this age: tolerance and a strong sensibility of “to each his own.”

I have spent hours wrestling with these questions about martyrdom, apostasy, courage and human weakness and the mystery of suffering and have written a short essay about it.  If you would like to wrestle with me, I invite you to read that piece featured on a separate page of my blog. (It follows immediately below.)   If you prefer to grapple on the issue on your own, here is the balance of my assessment of SILENCE as a film:

In addition to the power of its story and the ways it evokes important issues of our day, SILENCE offers stunning visuals indicative of the masterful eyes of director Martin Scorsese.  His vision is achieved in collaboration with the excellent cinematography by Rodrigo Presto, Production Design by Dante Ferretti and Art Direction supervised by Wen-Ying Huang.  All the other disciplines Set Decoration, Costume design, Makeup and Special Effects are equally first rate.  The performances by the mostly Asian cast are stunning. Issei Ogata as the Japanese Inquisitor is repulsively chilling, a master of understatement, irony and cunning. Tadanobu Asano as the Interpreter evidences contempt for the Christians without going “over the top” and even offers subtle suggestions of empathy or is it mockery?  His nuanced impersonation makes it hard to say and makes his performance captivating.  Best of all, Yosuka Kubozuka is excellent as the conflicted coward Kichijrio, the tortured soul who alternately betrays and seeks reconciliation with the Church with astounding regularity.

The priests are portrayed by Liam Neeson (Ferreira), Andrew Garfield (Rodrigues) and Adam Driver (Garupe).  Each man approaches his respective role with honesty and conviction but unfortunately, not consistently.  Only in certain scenes do they project the full force of the war between faith and doubt within their characters.  Andrew Garfield has the hardest job in the central role and thus his strengths and weaknesses as an actor stand out above the rest. Adam Driver, in a less expansive role, comes across best.  It may be that the opening scenes don’t give either Garfield or Driver sufficient opportunity to express the kind of deep faith that would motivate them to go to a country where their people are tortured.  As is, the important expository scenes are handled without much emotion and both actors appear noncommittal, or just plain passive.  This makes their inner turmoil harder to express in subsequent scenes, although, ultimately, I think both succeed in satisfactory if not always inspiring ways.  Taking the film in its totality, these early scenes prevent the movie from becoming a great artistic achievement. Perhaps the weight and gravity of this undertaking (or financial or time constraints) brought director Martin Scorsese to neglect the importance of these moments, or perhaps the script (credited to Scorsese and Jay Cocks) failed in this regard.  One thing’s for sure, SILENCE needed stronger scenes expressing the young priests’ devotion at the onset.  Perhaps evidencing their early encounters with Father Ferreira in seminary and /or their decisions to be ordained could have moved this movie into the realm of perfection.  Still, it is a very fine film and the rest of the script and most of the direction is excellent.  Unquestionably, SILENCE deserves to be seen.

A Spiritual Reflection on SILENCE a Martin Scorsese Film by Fr. James DiLuzio C.S.P.

There are images and ideas in Martin Scorsese’s SILENCE that are likely to resound in many viewers’ hearts and minds long after they leave the movie theater.  A cinematic rendering of Shusaku Endo’s novel (same title), it is powerful and heartbreaking.  Exposing the atrocity of religious persecution SILENCE’S theatrical release couldn’t be more timely.  In that context, it poses important ethical and spiritual questions that warrant ongoing discussion among religious and secularists alike.  It deserves to find a wide audience.  But viewers be warned: there are benefits and burdens in watching the film.  Scorsese’s devotion to Endo’s book has compelled this director and co-screenwriter to give practically every page of the novel its cinematic equivalent. This may be too much for the average filmgoer in terms of length but more so because of the graphic violence in its depiction of persecuted Christians.

The context of SILENCE is historical: In 17th century Japan, the ruling class decided it best for its national interest to eradicate Christianity from their country. The faith was closely associated with (and at times in complete cooperation with) Western Imperialism, Colonialism, Slavery and various manipulations of international trade.  Worse, the infighting among Christians, between denominations and nationalities scandalized the Japanese and caused them grave concern.

Prior to the film’s time frame, the Japanese government sanctioned the arrest, torture and execution of Catholic priests to intimidate the Christian faithful.  But the priests’ refusal to recant their faith and subsequent martyrdom strengthened the Japanese Christians’ faith and inspired growing number of converts.  In retaliation, officials evolved alternative measures:  mercilessly torturing Christian hostages in front of priests who could only stop the assault by publicly denying Christ. Should the priest refuse to deny his faith, the Japanese continued to subject Christians to excruciating torment, to slow and painful deaths with pastors forced to watch the proceedings.  This is the historical and ethically abhorrent situation SILENCE explores and the implications are mind boggling.

How can a religious leader in conscience dictate martyrdom to his flock?  To do so would be an offence against free will, against personal integrity.  Catholic priests of the 17th and any century would be fully cognizant of the centrality of free will as the divine spark that makes each person in the image of God.   And yet for a priest to apostatize is to betray his life, his vocation and the faith that those poor tortured souls embraced.

Most viewers would know, a steadfast confession of faith under threat of torture and death is a solemn and courageous act. For Christians, martyrdom witnesses to the promises of Christ–the reality of heaven, of resurrection and life in the world to come.  It exemplifies the value of suffering for a greater truth beyond worldly comfort at the same time it personifies personal integrity—confirming integrity as a value to believer and nonbeliever alike.  Delving deeper into this issue SILENCE not only explores the motivations and choices the priests make but asks “What would each viewer do?” If the characters make decisions that do not correspond to the viewer’s own, what then? This is the magnetic power of SILENCE. It is intent in engaging an audience into this segment of world history to ask that very question.   What’s more, the film repeats the insistence of the novel that viewers refrain from judging the priests as much as humanly possible.  The heart of Endo’s novel and Scorsese’s film is a cry toward compassion, not judgment.  In that it is a very contemporary approach to a 17th Century phenomenon, flavoring it with the seasons of this age: tolerance and a strong sensibility of “to each his own.”

Our age of Enlightenment notwithstanding, Christianity continues to uphold the martyrs as among our greatest heroes.  In imitation of Christ on the Cross, each martyr exhibits a willful surrender to God, to faith and personal integrity, refusing to get co-opted into the violence of the world.   In contrast, the world honors secular heroes for their physical prowess, a Spartan grace that outwits and overpowers their enemies by fighting fire with fire, sword with sword, blade with blade to the point that, in modern cinema, whoever has the better machine gun wins.  The context of the martyrs, of course, is quite different.  They are held hostage by their captors with no recourse to anything but their faith.  Yes, God is silent, but that is because God will not manipulate human beings, deferring (as God has from the beginning) to each person’s free will, allowing the consequences of each choice fall where they may. In honoring her martyrs, Christianity redefines “hero” and overturns Western Civilization relentless recourse to violence.  No wonder the Japanese feared a Christian influence.  Yet even Western Civilization questions the principle that “might makes right,” and for centuries its poets and philosophers have asked “What Price Glory?”  Homer’s ILLIAD, in fact, after highlighting both bravery and bravado of the Trojan War heroes, ultimately asked: “What are we fighting for? For riches, for power, for control of land and resources? Yet all men die.”  The modern, existential response is “we live and die for nothing, so live your life as you see fit.”   The Christian response is “we live for God. We are not afraid of death.  This life is but a stepping stone unto eternity as per the promises of Christ.”

The many martyrs in SILENCE are presented as truly heroic figures.  But the central narrative focuses instead on three individuals who compromise their faith—one out of weakness and fear, the others out of compassion for the tortured souls crying out in painful delirium before them.  Moreover, Endo and Scorsese suggest these priests may have apostatized because they believed Jesus Himself would have had them save lives rather destroy them. After all, Jesus did not insist his apostles be martyred alongside him.  That comparison, however, would not be a fair one for it would mitigate the primacy of Christ in the story of salvation. Instead, there is irony in the fact that because the Apostles and other disciples fled in fear, Christianity survived because only the Apostles and other faithful disciples would witness the Resurrection—the crowning glory of the Christian faith. Likewise, there’s irony in the fact that the small but significant Catholic faith in Japan exists today, in part (and only “in part,”) because its ancestors denied their faith, stepped on the fumie (an icon used to reduce Christianity to “vapor”) renouncing Christianity to survive. But these apostates, too, would have experienced a dimension of Resurrection through the forgiveness of sin and eventual return to the Christian community as the character Kichijiro (expertly portrayed by actor Yôsuke Kubozuka) repeatedly makes clear.  Indeed, many of the Japanese apostates would be forgiven because although they renounced their faith publicly, they became “secret Christians” until that time Japan allowed freedom of religion. Of course, eventually new missionaries would be allowed into the country, and fresh converts of new generations emerged with no connection to their Catholic ancestors other than spiritual ones.  Complicated, isn’t it?  Add to this, the film does not arouse any feeling of anger or hatred toward the Japanese persecutors.  Beyond their ethnicity and culture is a sense that these men simply represent the world and the abuse of power evident in every time, in every place. The officials justify their actions with worldly logic that sounds rather rationale in alarming, matter of fact ways. Consider the ways violence and killing are reported and discussed in the public arena today.

Let’s look again at the “fallen,” characters in SILENCE more closely.  Kichijiro is a central figure identified as a coward and apostate early on. He not only represents apostasy but prefigures choices two priests will make, choices the film scrutinizes in depth. But, as noted, the film is equally interested in the reactions of its viewers. SILENCE asks all: “How do you respond to those who regard life itself as the ultimate value–one that supersedes faith?”  The story questions the human penchant for judgment and condemnation of those weak in faith, those who doubt and refuse to be martyred. It’s as if Endo and Scorsese were asking every Christian:  How literally do you take Jesus’ words in his Sermon on the plain: “Stop judging, and you will not be judged. Stop condemning, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven?”  (Luke 6:37) And consider these words of Jesus: “Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven. (Luke 12:10)

Biblical scholars and Church tradition concur on this latter passage’s meaning: to blaspheme the Holy Spirit is not to “curse God and die” but rather to insist that God’s forgiveness toward humanity – the work, the dynamism attributed to the Holy Spirit –is limited or does not exist.  To blaspheme the Holy Spirit is to assert that God’s forgiveness is somehow not available or not true.  In short, to refuse forgiveness, to deny its application and its benefits to all, in all circumstances, puts a person in the position of not receiving it or benefitting from it.  In the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation, the words of absolution spoken by the priest to the penitent are: ‘God, the Father of Mercy, through the death and resurrection of His Son, sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.”  The plot presses further into this tenet of faith:  To what extent do Christians (and all viewers) believe in a merciful God?

Religious sensibilities often hold apostasy (denying one’s faith in public) as among the greatest of sins.  Most religions acknowledge and revere the courageous acts of the martyrs at the same time they acknowledge the choice for martyrdom rests in free will–each person’s capacity to achieve a perfect integrity, synthesis of faith fully integrated and manifested in body as well as in spirit.  To this must be added a capacity for suffering and infusion of God’s grace that alone empowers the glorious impossible.  Moreover, both the reality of human frailty, fear and weakness and the mystery of grace as that which is not bestowed on a recipient because of his or her virtue or “strength of will” maintain Christianity’s recourse to reconciliation and forgiveness which are foundational.[1]  Similarly, SILENCE invites us to expand our notions of a merciful God, insisting that God offers redemption to all.

Throughout SILENCE the narrative evokes the character of Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles. Judas, who, within a different context, and with implied but no clearly stated motives, handed Jesus over to religious authorities who in turn, handed him over to government officials who exercised their power to crucify him.  In despair, Judas hangs himself—a decision that indicates that Jesus’ death was not Judas’ intent.  Still, for centuries Christians have highlighted Judas as the one unforgiven soul, patron of betrayal (13th Century poet Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy places those guilty of betrayals in the lowest strata of hell–furthest from the realm of God).  Yet in an almost contradictory way, Judas is also the representative of all who despair and /or commit suicide.

Even though the biblical and traditional treatment of Judas over the centuries belies it, Christian doctrine in many ways affirmed God’s all-encompassing love, asserting God as a God of mercy, bountiful in forgiveness—perpetuating our Jewish roots. Sometimes, however, Christian practice deferred more to tradition and culture than to doctrine when the “sins of Judas” were committed by others.  For centuries, suicides were refused the rites of sacramental funerals and burials; betrayers and apostates were condemned to hell along with heretics.  Vatican II, however, institutionalized a move toward compassion that had taken hold of the faithful much earlier, surrendering the judgment of the inner workings of a person’s heart and mind to God alone. Offering great comfort to the bereaved relatives and friends, the Church officially welcomed suicide’s victims to Christian funerals and burials in Catholic cemeteries, and excommunications have become extremely rare.  Furthermore, theologians have debated the fate of Judas with an emphasis on compassion citing sporadic discourse on Judas’ betrayal and death from Christian writers through the centuries. SILENCE urges its audience to place the story’s protagonists-and Judas himself—in the light of that truth, exposing centuries of prejudice and condemnations justified by what can only be appreciated in hindsight as misguided righteousness.

SILENCE, of course, focuses on Judas’ betrayal (not his suicide) and keeps our responses to its characters’ betrayals front and center.  Whatever the distinction between faith in the heart and faith on the lips, does Jesus’ acceptance of suffering on the Cross insist we accept suffering, too?  Or does his cross and resurrection which offer the blessed assurance that love and forgiveness are inseparable entities within God’s essence assure salvation even to those who choose a form of humanism over faith?  In that sense, God never demands or commands suffering. Only this world does. And suffering is often the consequence of insisting on truth, remaining faithful to one’s faith and convictions.  But, the film asserts, so do the betrayers suffer, so do the weak, the fallible and the fearful. As God silently allows the consequences of every human action to play themselves out, SILENCE puts the responsibility on us to conform our wills to the compassionate Jesus who forgives the repentant thief crucified alongside him on Calvary.

In an interview at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, University, Scorsese said he continually asks himself: How does one express and live true Christian life in a hostile world?  He believes that the truth of Christianity is in our behavior. . . The tribal medieval thinking (i.e. “be faithful or die”) is mitigated by people living their faith in fallible human terms.  The result is that no one is damned for life, there’s always hope[2] – implying that people of faith must be ever patient with each other as the God of the Bible evidences relentless patience with God’s people.

Also at Fuller Theological Seminary, CA, a round table discussion by professors highlighted the insights of Makoto Fujimura, a Japanese convert to Christianity, director of Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts.  As author of the book SILENCE & BEAUTY (a commentary on Shusaku Endo’s novel), Makoto is convinced that a listening stance and compassion toward the sinner are the central ways Christianity must manifest itself in the present age.[3]

There is great truth in those statements, but also an invitation to expound on related topics such as limits on human freedom, personal accountability and responsibility toward others.

Without those, emphasis on compassion alone presents quite a dilemma.  It seems to diffuse the integrity of a staunch, uncompromising faith, the sacrifice of the martyrs and excuse us from enthusiasm and courage in living out our faith.

For that reason, Bishop Robert Barron of WORD ON FIRE fame, takes umbrage with the film.  He sees it yet another example of Hollywood’s preference for ambiguity regarding faith and religion. The Bishop bemoans the fact that many producers and directors often cast faith more as problem than source of inspiration in their work. His YouTube includes scenes from the film and spoilers but you may wish to check it out to keep that part of the conversation alive:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Th7Tiz1cEk&t=1s

Bishop Barron’s sensibility of “weakened Christianity in films” addresses other aspects of what it means to be Christian.  Some say Vatican II has whitewashed evangelization–the directive to share our faith in Jesus Christ with those of other religions and those who have none.  The film’s emphasis on God’s Mercy could be interpreted that no one need risk his or her life to share the Gospel. Vatican II rightfully asserted that God loves all, forgives all; all religions have validity and share in God’s goodness.  Moreover, diversity among peoples must be honored as it mirrors God’s grandeur in Nature, and respects the God-given gift of Free Will. In that sense, there is no need for all to be one in one universal Church, one faith in Christ. True faith, whatever the faith, must be satisfied to cultivate humility and reverence for Religious Pluralism.

For all that, the Gospel compulsion to share “Good News of Jesus Christ” remains. We need to address the cultural compulsion to make people of faith “Anonymous,” exposing the myth that insists for the sake of peace we need a world of “Anonymous Christians, Anonymous Jews, Anonymous Buddhists, Anonymous Muslims, Anonymous Hindus,” etc. The myth does not acknowledge the loss of hope, of vision, inspiration, of morals and ethics in such a world.

Respecting diversity, perhaps the Christian obligation to evangelize means promoting religious discourse in the public square.  For starters, that would give Christianity greater acceptance if not credence in today’s secular culture: No proselytizing, no arguing who or which is “more right,” no encouraging much less insisting on conversions. As Christians engage in religious dialogue, we witness to Christ through loving service, cultivating commonality on essential truths found in all religions thus building trust and solidarity in which God’s spirit thrives.  What better way to exemplify our trust in Providence and God’s gift of free will –the Divine Spark in every human being.

JESUS: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give hislife as a ransom for many.”  Mark 10:45

“I am among you as the one who serves.  Luke 22:27

Thus, in imitation of Christ, we can serve others by confirming their goodness and affirming our shared values.  We serve others inviting heartfelt conversation on ethics—the ways to respond to one another when we might harm ourselves and others, addressing problems together without focusing on blame.  We serve others by listening to the importance of their faiths or philosophies or the reasons why they rejected faith or organized religions.  The more we invite others to highlight commonalities among all faiths, the more we let Providence open proper paths for us to share our Christianity. In this way, more people would welcome us to share our faith because we cultivated a comfortability in listening to them share theirs.   Essentially, we will have become more conscious of the fact that evangelization is God’s work, not ours—as it was from the very beginning.

Even with this more humble, patient approach to faith sharing, there are no guarantees that this “new evangelizers” will avoid arousing conflict in the public square or be free from persecution.  Western Humanism prefers the privatization of religion because of the violence shrouded in religious discord in the past.  Christian overtures toward humble faith-sharing could alleviate these fears and reveal faith’s ability to inspire hope and reconciliation.  Discussing SILENCE in churches, homes, at work, schools, universities and other venues is but one accessible entrée into just that kind of witness.

The film SILENCE offers a topic to which many can relate and all religions address in some shape or form: the ways we treat the fallen, the broken–from the good person who makes a terrible mistake, to the hardened criminal, the coward, the bitter and disillusioned, the ignorant, misguided and the scorned. SILENCE inspires a compassionate stance toward all. But it also invites us to explore topics such as the evils of religious persecution and the importance of personal integrity and courage and the principle of non-violence.

I trust your response, and mine, will not be one of silence.

 

[1] The early 4th Century Donatist controversy brought the Church to insist that the sacrament of Christ’s forgiveness must be available to all, including those who have denied their faith. The Donatists who maintained that there were unforgivable sins, were condemned as heretics.   See http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Donatism

[2]  https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/conversation-martin-scorsese/?utm_campaign=scorsese-silence-qa&utm_medium=homepage-tile&utm_source=fuller-dot-edu&utm_content=scorsese-and-callaway

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64tkI0PI2Do&t=1s

 

Fences – Movie Review by Fr. James DiLuzio C.S.P.

by August Wilson, Directed by Denzel Washington

When you go to see FENCES (and I urge you to go), don’t expect to see a movie.  Expect a play on the big screen.  Like those FATHOM EVENTS or the MET OPERA HD LIVE BROADCASTS in movie theaters.  August Wilson’s play is profound and when his writing is coupled with the actors’ close-ups, depths of character are on display. Still, it takes a bit getting used to.  The dialogue is poetic–musical and rhythmic with ideas and images that crackle and pop–but we’re just not accustomed to this much dialogue in movies these days. It’s a true “talkie.”  For all that, director / actor Denzel Washington wisely kept FENCES a play-on-film.  How else could he be true to the character he plays with such bravado: the extroverted, extremely chatty TROY?  Denzel insists we experience Troy as Wilson conceived him—larger-than-life, a grand stander who dances around his angst, hurt and despair to the tune of ATTENTION MUST BE PAID!  Yes, writer and director could have made this a more cinematic experience, and that would have been wonderful, too, but why deprive us of this language and the reality of characters who speak their way through life the way most of us do?

In more than a few ways, FENCES is an African American DEATH OF A SALESMAN although it’s not quite as tragic.  Its pathos is not as draining but it is deeply moving.  I think it’s because Troy is more likeable than Willy Loman (SALESMAN’S central character), and, as an African American in 1950’s and 1960’s USA, he is more complicated.  Troy has more phantoms, more layers of social oppression to navigate than Loman and August Wilson surrounds him with a set of less deflated, more earth-centered family and friends.   Troy’s devoted wife, Rose, has fire in her belly (Viola Davis –WOW!) and her decision to love (yes, friends, love is ultimately a “Decision”) brings rays of light into the proceedings.  Also: Troy’s son, Cory (played by Jovan Adepo, a natural) has more going for him than Willy Loman’s sons.  The primary reason for that is Loman and sons lived in a fantasy world of Willie’s own making–his version of “The American Dream;” his misguided definition of “success.” In contrast, Troy, the patriarch of Wilson’s drama, has taken a very hard look at America and all the prejudices and limitations it imposes on African American life.  It is his blessing and his curse, his wisdom and his folly.  His tragedy is that he transmits his pain, intentionally and unintentionally, on his wife and son without ever transcending it.  Is it because he cannot or will not aspire to reclaim a different, richer dignity? The answer is “YES: to both.  Which is why Rose reaches a nobility her husband can only covet.  And that is sad, indeed, for unlike so many fathers who abandon their wives, girlfriends and children in search of some other kind of manhood, Troy takes responsibility for his family, extended family and friends.  His tragedy is that he is not fully present to the life he leads. Instead he indulges an undercurrent of resentment, chasing phantoms of release rather than being at ease in the stillness of sacred silence.  But we cannot judge him. He had had a moment of being on the cusp of greatness- a major league baseball career, for if not for social bias toward race, age and its obsession with youth (yes, even THEN), he could have been a contender.  And he, and we, live in a culture that values little else. God help us.

The power of FENCES—its situation and ideas, the faces of its characters—lingers profoundly long after watching it.  I guarantee your appreciation for the film will grow in the days and weeks ahead just as it has in the world’s response to Arthur Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN and Lorraine Hansberry’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN with which this photographed film has a strong affinity.  The play is alive with exciting performances of flawed but fascinating people who convey many truths about the nature of marriage, parenting, family and friendship.  I hope you will treat yourself to experience some of the depth of drive and feeling FENCES evokes—feelings we too often sublimate or eschew.    Of this much you can be sure: as you gather for celebrations of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and a Brand-New-Year, your investment in FENCES will offer you and your loved ones a great deal to talk about.