Movie Reviews:  The Big Sick and War for the Planet of the Apes

by Paulist Father James DiLuzio www.lukelive.com

THE BIG STICK is a film about individuation: what it takes to define the true self as it wrestles with expectations of family, culture, religion and their associated guilts. It boasts a semi-autobiographical script and stars its author Kumail Nanjiani, a prolific and talented stand-up comedian / actor / writer best known for the HBO series SILICON VALLEY.  Here, we meet Kumail as an almost-no-longer young adult thrust into discernment about life and love. He still treads lightly, however, vying to honor his role as the younger son of a Pakistani Muslim family. They moved to Chicago as he’s been told “for your sake” during his childhood.

THE BIG STICK also addresses critical illness and how the reality of death / possibility of impending death forces us to face ourselves and, hopefully, if we let it, make life-giving choices.  The movie is a welcomed change to the current film offerings and a bit retro, offering the familiar but with some novel twists and perspectives. Ultimately, THE BIG STICK is a serious comedy, offering chuckles and giggles, appropriately lacking in hilarity to pursue its important, universal themes.

The film is poignant, touching and entertainingly aggravating as we witness the foibles and comedic dynamics of family, friendship and romance. Nearly everything about the characters and their responses to their predicaments rings true. Each one, in his or her own way, tackles to claim personal TRUTH.[1] That’s a topic any priest would applaud, and, as scripted by Kumail and his wife Emily Gordon, the film succeeds on, oh, so many levels.  THE BIG STICK offers honesty and tenderness that is truly refreshing in our cynical age.

And what a wonderful roster of actors has assembled for this enterprise: Nanjiani may be a bit too dead-pan-to-a-fault in this role, but he has a fine screen presence and holds his own with veterans Holly Hunter (captivating), Ray Morano (strong and appealing), Zenobia Shroff (wonderful!) and the charming Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan). Kazan plays Kumail’s love interest and her character’s complexities offer a wide range of emotions that she delivers with aplomb.  I recommend THE BIG SICK to you when you find yourself in one of those wonderful “down-to-earth moods,” ready to eschew the need for thrills, grand violence, murder and mayhem, and enjoy being a member of the human race. .

Now, you may expect that WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES will offer you plenty of the thrills and chills.  Surprise!  There is war and violence at the onset, but, all the same, a better title might be: ACCESSION TO THE PLANET OF THE APES. There’s a great battle at the end, but our title characters do not participate. For the thrust of the plot echoes the Biblical Vision of Isaiah 2: “He shall judge between the nations, and set terms for many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” A most honorable and inspiring theme, an essential Hope for this age as for any other.  And, humbling, too, to see it accomplished by what we consider the lesser of the species. To those familiar with the franchise, these apes embody a deeper humanity than many who claim the classification of human, and, in what may be the final chapter of the series, they supersede us completely. But this fable has, from its inception in 1968 and into its re-boot that began in 2011 warned of humanity’s capacity for self-destruction, and has always focused on our need for humility –to learn from nature and all of nature’s creatures, insisting that we attend to our essential common bond. Here, humanity loses its power of speech as the apes learn to use language to cultivate HOPE — the reason it was bestowed upon humankind in the first place. Along with the gift of free will and the capacity to love fully, language is the third aspect that made us in the biblical “image of God.”

In addition to plot, character and theme, you’ll find the special effects most rewarding and the digital motion-captured acting of Andy Serkis memorable. He’s assisted by many others but the most notable: Karin Konoval as the wise orangutan Maurice, and Steve Zahn, as a sad-clown sidekick named Bad Ape who ushers in some welcomed comic relief in the second act and beyond.  Director Matt Reeves keeps the plot moving at an enjoyable pace and some of the visuals—especially the winter scenes can take your breath away along with the natural look and feel of each and very ape. NYTIMES film critic A.O Scott noted in his review “There is a scene toward the end of “War for the Planet of the Apes” that is as vivid and haunting as anything I’ve seen in a Hollywood blockbuster in ages, a moment of rousing and dreadful cinematic clarity that I don’t expect to shake off any time soon.”[2]  I urge families with kids 12 and older to venture forth to your local Cineplex for this one. Your experience will give you some wonderful conversations in many-a-family-meal to come!

[1] John 8: 32: and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+8%3A32&version=NABRE Also Psalm 15: “Who may dwell on your holy mountain? Whoever walks without blame, doing what is right, speaking truth from the heart;” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+15&version=NABRE/  And from the Islam quotes website I found this: ‘“Always Speak the Truth, even if there is fear in speaking the Truth. Remember there is Freedom in speaking the Truth” – Prophet Muhammad (saw) https://islamiquotes.wordpress.com/category/truth/

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/12/movies/war-for-the-planet-of-the-apes-review.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fmovies&action=click&contentCollection=movies&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=8&pgtype=sectionfront

 

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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

 

 

 

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

 

MOONLIGHT, a reflection and review

MOONLIGHT directed by Barry Jenkins; written by Jenkins from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney

A Review by Fr. James DiLuzio CSP

 

Human nature and human sexuality are filled with mystery.

All cultures, all peoples, each society and every religion continue to mine the depths of what it means to be a person, a human being, a child of God.

The best of these entities strive fearlessly beyond the known and comfortable regions of the psyche and soul toward encounters with “The Other” -i.e., God Himself / Herself, but also with “others” whose lives, faiths and cultures are different from their own.  Think of Abram’s encounter with Melchizedek (Genesis 14: 17-24)  Jesus and the Canaanite Woman (Matthew 15:21-27-8). 

When we encounter those who are different, those who are unique –yet always equally human, equally children of God–thoughts and feelings that may have been brewing inside our bowels seem to come out of nowhere and may make us feel uncomfortable. These feelings can generate fear, and because of fear, we may project hatred towards those whom we do not know or do not understand. We may feel compelled to mistreat them because we see in them manifestation of shadows within us: feelings we would navigate differently, choices we could but would not make; thoughts that otherwise would never have entered our minds.

It takes great maturity, confidence and humility to address those feelings without resorting to hate and prejudice, or worse, violence. It takes compassion and deep faith in God to scale the heights of knowledge that lead to understanding, to empathy and compassion. These are the challenges of our times and it is good to take every opportunity to address them.

“Moonlight” offers us this kind of opportunity.

It is an art film filled with pregnant pauses, lingering moments of silence, minimal dialogue and strong visuals that invite contemplation and soul-searching regarding our aesthetics and attitudes, prejudices and fears.

It is a character study that moves from the particularities of sexual identity (the film’s surface topic) into something universal – everyman’s need for acceptance and affection.

It is a coming-of-age story in which the actor playing the boy (nine-year-old Alex Hibbert) is reflected in the actor playing the adolescent (Ashton Sanders) and both are ever-present in the one who becomes the man (Trevante Rhodes) even though the younger actors have long left the screen.

This is not trick photography but the workings of the script, the director and the three major actors whose ghost-like presences permeate everything we see and hear — and each actor is phenomenal. Trevante Rhodes’ penetrating eyes and body language are particularly impressive in the ways they express the spirits of his younger selves. Watching him impresses upon us the knowledge that no matter our age or life’s circumstances, the child within remains with us always. “Moonlight” reminds us how the conscious and subconscious wounds of a child may only be reconciled to adulthood when the milk of human kindness is applied, i.e., when forgiveness reigns and self-acceptance and love abound.

It’s a beautiful message. A beautiful film.

For those who have not yet seen “Moonlight,” some more plot details:

This film looks at the life of a Black American coming into a gradual awareness of his sexual identity amidst poverty and its corresponding fears and despondencies. We meet Chrion (aka “Little”) at home and school where he is surrounded by fellow students who are equally unsure of who they are and what they truly feel, but who possess greater bravado and who seem to know (How do children know these things?) that one of their own is somehow “different.”

Yes, he is reticent to a fault, shy and self-conscious and likely to be scapegoated on those counts alone. And yet they sense something more about him — that this boy’s sensitivity has a sexual component he does not know he has and that this includes an attraction to students of the same sex. The film lets us sit with that — the confusion, the sadness, the violence and cruelty before it moves us into the next phase of important relationships.

Although the adults who teach in his school are mostly clueless, and the boy’s mother (an excellent Naomie Harris) is a drug addict, a compassionate drug dealer and his caring girlfriend take the boy under their wing. Played compellingly by Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae, these two characters prove welcomed Good Samaritans whose empathy toward the boy evokes our own. And what a powerful statement is made as we watch a somewhat disgraced and compromised grown man claim his irrepressible dignity by fathering a boy so desperate for true fathering. These scenes alone are worth the price of admission.

From here on in, the film eases us through levels of understanding that lead to compassion and hope. And, in the final scenes, when the adult Black encounters the adult Kevin (another character played chronologically by three terrific actors (nine-year-old Jaden Piner, 16-year-old Jharrell Jerome, adult André Holland) we realize we have been greatly privileged to have entered into this story. And, we just may be — if we are humble enough, honest enough, courageous enough — more fully human.


Paulist Fr. James DiLuzio is a member of our preaching apostolate, leading parish missions and retreats across the United States. He is the creator of “Luke Live.” 

– See more at: http://www.paulist.org/the-conversation/brewing-inside-film-review-moonlight/#sthash.yLgNUNd1.dpuf

Movie Review & Reflection: LA LA LAND

Movie Review & Reflection:  LA LA LAND

Fr. James DiLuzio C.S.P.

Do you have to enjoy Hollywood musicals to enjoy LA LA LAND?  Yes and No.  YES, if you have ever had the urge to break into a song and dance in moment of comfort and joy.   YES, if you enjoy dancing and appreciate it as one of humanity’s greater pleasures.  YES, if you have a trace of nostalgia for that great AN AMERICAN IN PARIS ballet. (I956, MGM, Gene Keely, Leslie Caron; available on Blu Ray and Streaming.)  Director Damien Chazelle and Choreographer Mandy Moore’s (not the actress /singer) song and dance finale (almost finale) is a tribute to that ballet and it’s charming and magical.  But, oh, how I wish they had kept the company dancing in a flowing, ever-enlarging dance spectacle. So.  If you answered YES to all the above: GO!  If you answered “No” because you are the kind of person who interiorizes your moments of joy and/or never add a dance to your step or skip about for the fun of it, or find musicals silly, silly, silly, then stay home.  But before you settle in beside your Christmas / Hanukkah fire, be forewarned: there’s more to LA LA LAND than song and dance.

LA LA LAND focuses on the creative artistry, goals and objectives of two young lovers who, as they fall in love, exemplify the simple joys of love, music and art for their own sake.  These segments are the heart of the film and offer its greatest pleasures (the “almost-finale” notwithstanding). Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, the consummate jazz pianist seeking ART not popularity, and he plays the role well. As always, he’ a photogenic, attractive leading man and, in this film, he even has a dancer’s physique so when he glides aspiring actress Mia (the charming Emma Stone) into the gentle choreography of a starlit summer night, it all seems (almost) natural.  Now don’t expect Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers because Gosling and Stone are not polished professional dancers or singers. But that reality is precisely one of the points this movie makes:  Don’t leave everything to the professionals!    Sing a little, dance a little.  Walk on the “Sunny Side of the Street.”  (Or live in Los Angeles along with everyone else who wants to be Fred and Ginger who never get to sing or dance or act for pay and just keep basking in the sunshine year-round.)

The First Act of LA LA LAND could be tighter.   Gosling and Stone have chemistry, so we would have a lot more fun if the sparks of antagonism, approach/avoidance were ignited more fully at the onset.  (There’s a moment after the opening number where you think the sparks will fly but the script postpones the joy.)  Instead we get a good deal of the clichés of “the struggling artist.”  (The limited National Endowment for the Arts notwithstanding – will Americans ever truly support the ARTS in Education and local communities beyond buying high-priced concert tickets?)  But once Sebastian and Mia’s romance is in bloom, the film enchants and gives us a bit of punch, too, in some very well acted dramatic scenes.  Odd for a musical but it’s these dramatic scenes that help us care about the couple and give us reason to want to care more.  The songs they and others sing are better than serviceable but I found only a couple memorable.  I liked the ballads CITY OF STARS, the emotional and dramatic context of FOOLS WHO DREAM (engaging lyrics) and the rhythmic START A FIRE, the latter enhanced by the performance of John Legend, a most welcomed guest star. The jazz arrangements and orchestrations for all the numbers are excellent.  (Music by Justin Herwitz, Songs by Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul.)

LA LA LAND is a Hollywood Musical more about the ordinary than the glamorous, more about the reality than fantasy of show business. Meanwhile, it kind of insists that we keep romance and music in the picture.  As it is in this picture, may it be in YOUR picture, too.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Now most people would agree that “popular’ isn’t necessarily better (although it can be). BUT how can creative people earn their living when their work does not prove popular, remunerative or classifiable as genius?
  2. Is it a waste of time to attend to things you enjoy (especially singing, dancing, acting/ play-acting) if you are merely good but not spectacular at them?
  3. Can people follow their bliss, carve out a generative, joyful life without having to be on the big screen, the great white way or go viral streaming on the internet? Must there always be an audience for every act of creativity? (Can “ART” be its own reward?)
  4. Our competitive culture practically demands SUCCESS. How do you identify it?  Is it all relative? How important is it to you? Is it the same as recognition (an important human dynamic) or is it recognition-run-amuck?
  5. No one wants to be “left behind.” No one wants to be taken for granted yet society offers a living template of “winners” and “losers.”  Who “wins” and who “loses” in LA LA LAND?  Sebastian or Mia?  Director / Writer Damien Chazelle or YOU as a moviegoer?

 

 

 

Fr. DiLuzio’s Short Movie Reviews: FANTASTIC BEASTS and BIRTH OF A NATION

 

The best of FANTASTIC BEASTS and WHERE TO FIND THEM occurs in ACT THREE—the last 1/3 of the movie. It’s engaging, exciting and a fine example of the kind of storytelling one would expect from author J.K. Rowling and team.  Unfortunately, the first two acts don’t build the appropriate suspense primarily because the characters and elements that should contribute to the climatic conflict have not been presented well.  They are ambiguous and hint at possibilities rather than clearly foreshadow them.  For my part, one important clue was particularly obscure.  Too bad because the characters are interesting and they are wonderfully portrayed by a fine cast and the movie embraces important themes.  And, yes, there is one more problem:  the supporting characters are more intriguing than the leading character, Newt, played coyly and with charm by Eddie Redmayne but poorly written.  And some of the “Fantastic Beasts” he tries to preserve and protect take a bit getting used to.  Too many look like they stepped out of STAR WARS CANTINA BAND.  I found them off-putting even though they embody an essential moral: we must not judge by appearances.  Furthermore, we spend a lot of time in Act One with one of the cuter critters named Greedy who does provide humor and exasperation but who doesn’t factor much into the balance of the script.  In the end, I enjoyed the film. But, oh, it could have been so much better.

 

THE BIRTH OF A NATION lost a lot of momentum since its debut in theaters and you may be hard pressed to find it – although it may get a re-release if OSCAR dubs it worthy.  I DO dub it worth your time and consideration.  It’s a well-made in the very best old-fashioned sense of movie-making as it tells the story of Nat Turner, the infamous anti-hero who staged a revolt against the horrors of slavery.  The movie takes a romanticized view of his heroics very much akin to BRAVEHEART.  Because we see slavery’s cruelty first hand, one feels compelled to root for Nat and companions with all the emotional empathy of an unquestioning adolescent:  YES!  Kill all those cruel slave owners AND THEIR wives and children. The music swells triumphantly and “Why Not?”  American and European characters who dealt similarly with their adversaries have been hailed and honored for centuries.  GET those Indians!  Wipe out the evil doers!  Who cares about collateral damage? AND MAN, can my “INNER CHILD” HATE all those people who still have the audacity to want to raise the Confederate Flag!  (How easy it is watching movies like this to indulge my emotions and put my priestly identity aside!)  At the film’s conclusion, there is genuine catharsis and sadness.  For no matter the situation, violence breeds violence and more violence and prefigures more violence to come.  WHY MUST THE WORLD BE THIS WAY?  Is violence the only way to address injustice, cruelty, racism, sadism? The fact that BIRTH OF A NATION leaves you with that question makes it a valuable piece of film-making, wondering what kind of true nobility Nat Turner could have nurtured if he were born into a different era, a different economy (and YES, our current economy still embraces forms of slavery), a different United States?