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 moral 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 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, we witness to greater cooperation among the male and female members of our species.  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 traditions through which God is presented 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

 

 

 

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

Disney’s Moana: Know Your Story Movie Review and Theological Reflection by Rev. James M. DiLuzio C.S.P.

Water. The Disney Animation Studio has mastered the look and feel of the ocean—a most difficult animation art.  It’s keep-your-mouth-closed-before-your-jaw-drops brilliant.  And that is fitting, indeed, for water is the source of life and without it, there can no life and no stories. In this mash-up of Ancient Hawaiian Mythology’s Creation Tales, the earth and its fruits are dying.  Centuries ago, the demigod Maui stole the heart of Mother Earth and offered humanity its power.  Interestingly, the consequences of this subjugation have only begun to surface in the here and now—in the time frame of our story.  What happened?

Apparently, humanity abused its power and even the tribe that kept itself apart from “the others,” i.e. “the abusers,” have come to face what the rest of the world faces: reckoning day. Thankfully, for the children in the movie theaters, there are only small signs of nature’s imbalance at the film’s onset (contemporary allusions notwithstanding).  These Hawaiian folks, however, are intuitive enough to know that small signs are indications of larger event to come.  Who will find Maui and convince him to return the heart of the earth to Mother Nature?  What will happen when he or she does?  That is the crux of the drama and it’s a good one.  I don’t know how many people will read Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si (“Praise Be (to the Lord) for Creation) with its challenges for us to care for our earthly home and all who live within it, but I imagine far more will see this movie. I hope MOANA keeps the conversation going and inspires more civil action to care for the earth and everything in it.

Fittingly, the Ocean—the original conduit of life in all its forms at earth’s beginning–is a character all its own.  Its animated spirit inspires a young girl Moana (pronounced MWAH-nah) to go where her island people have feared to go.  Although she is heir to the island’s throne, Moana refuses to be “a princess” until she first becomes “a person” — a person concerned about other persons and the world beyond her.   She knows this because she has learned her peoples’ story and that of her family as well—stories that equip her to respond to the call of the waters—a call initiated in her toddlerhood, several years before Moana grew in consciousness, talent and will power.  (Thoughts of Baptism, Mikveh, Confirmation, Bar / Bat Mitzvah, Dedication anyone?)  Moana will journey to Maui and beyond, moving forward on a quest that the adults are unwilling to attempt. Children manifesting a wisdom eschewed by adults is an oft-encountered theme in Disney and innumerable other sources.  I’m sure you can think of a few.

Watching the film, I thought of the innumerable ways the great myths of so many societies overlap in points of intersection that reveal essential truths, no matter the peoples, the culture or setting.  Hopefully, in reading this article, Biblical references like the following already are flowing through your mind:

Genesis 1:28   God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Isaiah 3:14   The Lord enters judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.

Jeremiah 12:10  Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard, they have trampled down my portion, they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness.

 Jeremiah 31:5  Again, you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit. 

Isaiah 11:6  The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. [1]

In the Hawaiian Myth, Moana is the child who will lead. And lead she can, because as among the best of Biblical, Religious, Myth and Folk Tale heroes, Moana is not, “a self-made hero.”[2]   Her ancestors’ history and stories told to her by her grandmother play an essential role in her evolving self-understanding and mission. Because she is initiated into these deeper realities, Moana is ready to live her life, find her purpose and embark on her adventure.  (Do we only go to the movies for “adventure?”  Don’t our spirits long for worthwhile quests and accomplishments in our daily lives?  Don’t we depend on others–past, present and future–to find our way?)

The movies’ emphasis on knowledge of the past compelled me to ask “How many of us who follow Biblical Religions, who have a wealth of stories from Bible and history, the knowledge of our family trees and ancestors at our fingertips, utilize these gifts?  Well, don’t fret.  Most of Moana’s family and friends don’t know or understand their history either.  But Moana does.  Heroes do.  Prompted by her grandmother Moana sets out to fix, to heal, to restore—a universal challenge for each new generation.  You next?

MOANA’s screenplay is credited to Jared Bush (Zootopia) and he’s done a fine job.  But let us be sure to recognize that he was inspired by a small village of collaborators. The movie’s story evolved through the minds of its four directors Ron Clements (Little Mermaid; Aladdin), Don Hall (Big Hero 6) John Musker (Hercules; Princess and the Frog), Chris Williams (Bolt) PLUS three others: Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kandell and Jordan Kandell.  Who’s the “self-made” man here?  Together they have created an engaging and thought-provoking entertainment in which each major character evidences light and shadow in addressing the complexity in the choices before them.  The songs they sing also identify these inner struggles.  One song lyric states “You can find happiness right where you are” while another emphasizes the drive to go beyond the comfortable: “How Far I’ll Go.”  These drives are not in opposition but part of an essential balance.  We need to appreciate our life as it is AND go beyond what we have and know to grow into mature adults. Hopefully, we never stop growing. There’s a Buddhist saying: “We’re perfect as we are AND all life is change.”

Regarding the film’s music, the songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda are exactly what we could expect from the composer/ creator of HAMILTON, THE MUSICAL: rhythmic and joyful with playful lyrics.  Not coincidentally one of the questions MOANA asks its audience is the same question that HAMILTON does “Do you know your story?” http://www.linmanuel.com

And for cultural authenticity and local color, the film offers songs by Opetaia Foa’I (of the band Te Vaka, specialists in indie /South Pacific music).  Beautiful!   http://disneyexaminer.com/2016/11/04/moanas-music-will-highlight-the-culture-of-the-south-pacific-an-interview-with-composer-opetaia-foai-of-te-vaka/

The score by Mark Mancina is refined, well-tuned and effective.  His work conveys excitement and intimate sentiments equally well.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Mancina

As for the rest: the voice talent fits the characters felicitously and the host of animators have collaborated for a feast for the eyes. In brief, MOANA is well worth your family’s time and treasure spent in a trip to your local theater.

In conclusion, I am thankful that the creators of MOANA are engaging us in the big issues of personhood, climate change, manhood / womanhood among other concepts.  As you leave the multiplex, you may wish to entertain some of these questions the MOANA experience poses should you like to move beyond its entertainment value alone:

  • How well do you know your stories—Biblical, national, familial and personal? Are you willing engage them, learn from them, be humbled by them, gain wisdom through them?  Do you tend to focus more on current trends and fashions and neglect the insights of history?
  • Are you actively engaged in life’s adventures or content to be a consumer?  Have you negotiated a “proper balance?”  Typically, our leisure comprises watching movies (I love movies!) and TV (there are some great TV shows these days) — but how much, how many and to what end?  How may we utilize the gift of entertainment toward the realm of action for a greater good?
  • How may we better honor our seniors, gain from the insights of their experiences?
  • Are we willing to take the risk of blessing other peoples and their faiths, myths and stories and find and cultivate the points of commonality and so experience harmony in diversity?

For more information on MOANA:   http://movies.disney.com/moana

http://disneyexaminer.com/2016/11/04/moanas-music-will-highlight-the-culture-of-the-south-pacific-an-interview-with-composer-opetaia-foai-of-te-vaka/

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3521164/?ref_=nm_knf_i1

[1] All citations from the New Revised Standard Version of THE BIBLE (NRSV)

[2] God is always at work. And heroes are cultivated by others who hand on a belief system, ethics and a culture. For all our “American Independence” there is no such thing as a truly “self-made man” or “self-made woman.”  We are more “inter-dependent” than we like to admit.

Film Reviews: SPOTLIGHT and THE BIG SHORT

Film Reviews:  SPOTLIGHT and THE BIG SHORT

by Fr. James DiLuzio

It’s a no-brainer to review these two films together.  Each in its own way is a variation on the classic Hans Christian Anderson tale THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES.  Both waltz around an “elephant in the room:” something rotten is taking place and decisions have to be made.  Both films expose those who pretend it is “business-as-usual,” revealing the horror of the sound of silence and both reveal what happens when moral codes are abandoned to the detriment of millions directly and indirectly: disillusionment wreaks havoc with the heartland.

In the case of SPOTLIGHT, Boston Globe reporters (uniformly portrayed with excellence by a fine roster of actors, especially Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams) play the child crying out: “the emperor is wearing no clothes!” Here, we see the drama of investigative reporting as it prepares to expose the horrendous deceit of the Catholic Church hierarchy protecting pedophile / ephebe-ophile priests. They do so with a strong moral righteousness on behalf of the children and teenagers who were abused and those who could or would be.  The irony in a very brief scene as Mark Ruffalo’s reporter sees children singing SILENT NIGHT in a church’s Christmas pageant is heartbreaking. Moreover, SPOTLIGHT reflects the important role journalists play in free societies exposing abuses of power in institutions from Church to State. In that, I think it is superior to the other fine journalist-centered film ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976 directed by Alan J. Pakula).

Director Tom McCarthy keeps the pacing at an exciting pulse and he and his co-screenwriter Josh Singer keep the dialogue clear and illuminating.  Furthermore, the tone and style of the movie is not one of grand standing but of insight, sobriety and even humility as it exposes the failures of people in power. Not only is the Church guilty (beyond the hierarchy so were so many parents and clueless parishioners) but Boston’s civic leaders, lawyers and even the reporters’ own paper, the Boston Globe.  There are many meanings to Jesus’ statement “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32) and here is an excellent example of the power of truth when it is, at last, set free, however horribly delayed.  I suggest Bishops involved in the cover- up see this movie annually as part of their Lenten Penance.  But not only our bishops, but all clergy and leaders in every field of church, state, education, medicine –wherever fears of liabilities and the temptation to protect reputations could prevail at the expense of victims and the public good.  Admitting wrongs may be considered shame in social circles but in truth, and in true religion, it is deliverance toward the greater good insuring the cessation of evil and preventing future harm.  SPOTLIGHT makes it very clear how admitting one or two scandals early on (and implementing clear preventative guidelines now in place but only after the Boston Globe’s exposé) would have spared hundreds of victims and put the bishops on the humble path all people of faith should walk.

 

THE BIG SHORT takes a different point of view exposing (and explaining) the debacle of Wall Street and USA Banks.  The protagonists here also see the truth of what is going on but unlike the whistle-blowers of SPOTLIGHT, they prefer to keep the story to themselves in order to benefit by it.  What seems like a gamble to most is a matter of certainty to them: the financial real estate bubble is ready to pop.  Our heroes (irony intended) position themselves to become millionaires / billionaires by investing in what is a kind of insurance policy: when the mortgages and real estate investments fail, they’ll collect big time!  And there isn’t one character concerned for “the greater good.”  Should any one expose the oncoming avalanche none of our brilliant geek insiders would benefit.  A shred of moral thinking enters into the investors mindset:  some believe they are teaching Wall Street a lesson by using its greed against them, but this amounts to nothing more than a self-serving rationalization.  Many will suffer; a few will strike it rich.

THE BIG SHORT makes for good drama revealing subterfuge at its most manic but because it explores the complexities of the financial world, it also is a contemplative film. Director Adam McKay and his co-screenwriter Charles Randolph inspired fine-tuned performances from another great ensemble cast (Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling were stand-outs for me) and offer seasoned insights into human nature, particularly the fallibilities of materialism and greed.  Ironies abound in this film, too. For one thing, all the focus and concentration required to attend to the script only makes it clear how so much of Wall Street’s shenanigans went undisclosed.  With sadness and cynicism, the film conveys how industry insiders” bypassed moral deliverance and opted for greed.  The rest of us were unaware and/ or didn’t care. And how was it that the government and the media turned a blind eye?  Answers to that question may inspire some scrutiny regarding presidential and congressional candidates this November.

 

Movie Review: BROOKLYN

Movie Review:  BROOKLYN

An Age of Innocence Tested

It’s the 1950’s and a young Irish Lass, Eilis, played with luminosity by Saoirse Ronan leaves her mother and sister in Ireland to pursue life in the Irish section of Brooklyn.  Fighting back homesickness and fear of the unknown, Eilis navigates seasickness, Mrs. Keogh’s women’s boarding house with assorted residents (Julie Walters in top form as Mrs. Keogh) and a salesgirls job arranged by a benevolent Irish Catholic priest (a jolly and deeply humane Jim Broadbent) and overseen by a caring and classy Jessica Paré (of Mad Men fame).

Enter Tony, an Italian American plumber from the neighboring Italian quarter whose sweet and tender disposition and attentiveness to Eilis is remarkably portrayed by Emory Cohen.  The chemistry between these two is utterly captivating.  Watching so honest, so genuine an interplay between the two almost-soon-to-be-maybe lovers is heartbreakingly beautiful.  Anyone with any dating history is bound to recollect the joys and vulnerabilities of his or her own early romance.  If you have experienced them, you may find yourself shedding a tear of gratitude for those blessed early encounters.  If not, you might sigh deeply over what might have been. Romanticized as they are, these two young people are not perfect, but I’ll let you enjoy witnessing their imperfections for yourselves.  That’s part of the fun.

The film’s third act teeters nervously on a potential fall from grace both before and during Eilis returns to Ireland.  Once back in her homeland, she finds herself torn between Tony (who represents, among other things, the life she’s begun in Brooklyn) and the familiarity of her home turf.   Family and friends attend to her homecoming with considerable fanfare and Eilis finds herself a sudden celebrity on account of her new, confident persona and Americanized sensibilities.  See how beautifully Ms. Ronan conveys her enjoyment of her new-found acceptance from people who hadn’t paid much attention to her before.  Enjoy and empathize as you watch Eilis basking in the esteem of others, toying with the advances of a never-would-have-been—otherwise potential flame (Domhnall Gleeson, absolutely right!) as she negotiates allures and temptations she may never have imagined.  Ms. Ronan’s performance takes your breath away.

But, in truth,  all the actors offer outstanding performances.  There is not a fake or phony word or expression to be found. You’ll also enjoy Eilis’s relationships with her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott also perfect!) and their mother (Jane Brennan, excellent) that not only justify Eilis’s homesickness but add layers of meaning about family and the importance of intimate relationships in every aspect of life.  To all this, I must add that John Crowley’s direction is, well, impeccable and cinematographer Yves Bélanger creates just the right atmosphere in both Brooklyn and Irish locales.  I urge you all to take a trip to Brooklyn.    

Moments in the Woods : A Movie Review and Personal Reflection on INTO THE WOODS

Summary: There are some fine “moments” in the film INTO THE WOODS
Still, the Script suffers because of omissions from the original stage play (Warning: Spoilers!)

I love fairy tales. I savor the stories, ponder the primordial appeal of their situations and conflicts and delight in the ways good often conquers evil. Since childhood I discovered I had a penchant to enter readily into the characters’ emotional dynamics, explore their desires, motivations and consider the results of their actions. Indeed, I eagerly applied their often hard-earned lessons to my life. So you may imagine how delighted I was to encounter in my adulthood Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical INTO THE WOODS, a musical parable presenting a variety of fairy tale characters with intersecting stories and dilemma. I attended the original Broadway production shortly after it opened in 1987 which turned out to be the same year I was experiencing a kind of spiritual renewal that deepened my Catholic faith to the point of considering a vocation as a Catholic priest. In fact I had just entered the Paulist Fathers Novitiate. I was instantly drawn to the questions the musical posed — vital, foundational life questions. I realized how I and others respond to these questions prove to be either life-making or life-breaking (and heart-breaking) for ourselves and others. For me, Christianity, Judaism and other world religions ask similar questions while inviting people to develop integral answers. How will we go about seeking our hearts’ desires? Do we see our individual lives as ours alone or are we part of a bigger story? When we encounter conflicts, tragedies and suffering, will we spend our lives condemning and blaming? Do we run from mistakes and their consequences—our mistakes or others’–or shall we work together to find solutions to the damages of collective histories? I was asking myself questions like these as I discerned whether my enthusiasm for stories and reflecting upon them (with others) could extend to the Gospels as a life-time commitment.

Six years after my ordination as a Catholic priest, I was asked to join the Catholic Campus Ministry for the University of Minnesota at the Saint Lawrence Parish Church and Newman Center. One of the Newman Center’s pastoral goals was to create a more integrated community among parish families, seniors and the students. I seized on the opportunity to produce, direct INTO THE WOODS as one of my projects. I focused on the ways INTO THE WOODS’ plot and themes contributed significantly to conversation about “community,” its challenges, rewards and essential values. The play became a collaborative community effort. The end result of our two months of rehearsals and short run of three performances proved a spirit-filled, poignant and highly meaningful experience for all who participated in it and for all came to see it. Since then, memories of our production and many aspects of the musical itself, continue to engage my mind and imagination. Naturally, I anticipated the film version of INTO THE WOODS with considerable excitement.

I am happy to report there are many moments in the INTO THE WOODS, the Movie, that make it a worthy investment of time and reflection. There are moments that are magical, insightful and engaging. At the same time, I am sorry to relate, the beauty found in many of the film’s individual parts does not coalesce into one, great excellent film. Although good, the movie version of INTO THE WOODS is not a great film in the way THE WIZARD OF OZ or SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS are classic movies.

First, the good news: The performances are practically perfect. Meryl Steep achieves true “perfection” in her portrayal of The Witch. Her expressions, nuanced delivery and insights into a complex character ring true to many of the light and shadow dimensions in all of us. She sings wonderfully, too, especially in the dramatic penultimate number LAST MIDNIGHT! Brava! The Princes played by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are first rate in a very polished performance of the AGONY duet; Anna Kendrick’s is more than captivating as Cinderella, Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood fitfully fun and Daniel Huttlestone’s Jack filled with charm. Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife and James Corden as the Baker –the central characters in the drama–are fine and appealing individually but there are not enough scenes in the screenplay to allow them to develop the chemistry needed to convey a deep, marital bond and evoke deeper empathy for them in the final scenes. In other aspects, the film’s orchestrations are lush and beautiful and the art direction is compelling, although I found it too dark at the onset—an example of what I think is one of the film’s most significant shortcomings.

And now, my personal qualms: What happened to all of the lighthearted comedy in the original script? Was it director Rob Marshall’s or screenwriter James Lapine’s decision to delete moments that brought a sense of balance and more nuanced character portrayals to the story? INTO THE WOODS is dark, and far more serious in the second act than the first, but the film moves into the darker elements too quickly and we don’t get to enjoy the characters enough before we see them grappling with what represents some of life’s greatest issues. Indeed, the fact that key songs and scenes of the original first act were deleted truly inhibit the audience from experiencing an appropriate catharsis in the film’s climax. Without the comedy (and, for example, the comedic song OUR LITTLE WORLD for The Witch and Rapunzel as featured in the 2002 Broadway revival) audiences are deprived of experiencing the more positive aspects of the characters, making it more difficult for us to relate to their inner shadows and failings. INTO THE WOODS is most effective when it story highlights its innate contrasts from light to dark in its characters and plot.

Secondly, director Rob Marshall and screenwriter James Lapine (basing the script on his play), erred in not focusing sufficiently on the Baker and His Wife as central characters from the onset. The loss of the stage play’s song MAYBE THEY’RE MAGIC, its reprise and some of its dialogue in the first act needed to have been carried over to the screen to enhance audience identification, and care for, this all too human couple. This segment is so important in my view that I invite you to explore it with me.

You will recall the Baker and his Wife have to undo a curse of childlessness by providing the Witch with various articles, including a cow as white as milk. The couple offers the impoverished Jack and the Beanstalk five beans in exchange for his cow MILKY WHITE. Jack accepts the deal once he is told the beans are magic and that he eventually may be able to buy the cow back. The couple, however, have no certainty that the beans are magic at all or that the cow’s fate will be such as to allow Jack to be reunited with it. For those who only know the film, consider now your responses to the Baker and His Wife, and the film in its totality, if the following were included:
(Note the dialogue prior to the song was kept in the screenplay. (SONG LYRICS IN ITALICS)
BAKER: Magic beans! We’ve no reason to believe they’re magic! Are we to dispel this curse through deceit?
WIFE: No one would have given him more for that creature. We did him a favor. At least they’ll have some food.
BAKER: Five beans!
WIFE: IF YOU KNOW WHAT YOU WANT, THEN YOU GO AND FIND IT AND YOU GET IT—Do you want a child or not? –AND YOU GIVE AND YOU TAKE AND YOU BID AND YOU BARGAIN OR YOU LIVE TO REGRET IT. THERE ARE RIGHTS AND WRONGS AND INBETWEENS NO ONE WAITS WHEN FORTUNE INTERVENES. AND MAYBE THEY’RE REALLY MAGIG. WHO KNOWS? WHAT YOU DO WHAT YOU DO, THAT’S THE POINT, ALL THE REST IS CHATTER. IF THE THING YOU DO IS PURE IN INTENT, IF IT’S MEANT, AND IT’S JUST A LITTLE BENT, DOES IT MATTER?
BAKER: Yes.
WIFE: No, WHAT MATTERS IS THAT EVERYONE TELLS TINY LIES-WHAT’S IMPORTANT, REALLY, IS THE SIZE. ONLY THREE MORE TRIES AND WE’LL HAVE OUR PRIZE. WHEN THE END’S IN SIGHT, YOU’LL REALIZE, IF THE END IS RIGHT, IT JUSTIFIES THE BEANS!
Later, when the Baker prepares to procure Little Red Riding Hood’s red cape (another ingredient the Witch requires to make a potion to undo the curse of childlessness), he determines whether or not he can justify stealing it in this reprise of MAYBE THEY’RE MAGIC:
BAKER: IF YOU KNOW WHAT YOU NEED, THEN YOU GO AND YOU FIND IT AND YOU TAKE IT—Do I want a child or not? IT’S A CLOAK, WHAT’S A CLOAK? IT’S A JOKE, IT’S A STUPID LITTLE CLOAK. AND A CLOAK IS WHAT YOU MAKE IT. SO YOU TAKE IT. THINGS ARE ONLY WHAT YOU NEED THEM FOR, WHAT’S IMPORTANT IS WHO NEEDS THEM MORE –
The impact of the song and its reprise reveal insights to the characters the film doesn’t provide elsewhere. A tragic omission! The fact the WIFE follows through on her rationalizations in this and subsequent scenes while the Baker does not (he returns the cloak after stealing it), prepares us more fittingly for their ultimate fates at the film’s climax. The movie needed to retain scenes such as these.
Other problems with the film concern additional cuts made to the original script and /or the creators decision not to expand upon it. Were these limitations imposed on director and screenwriter by Disney limiting the film’s budget? Had INTO THE WOODS been financed as fully as Angelina Jolie’s MALEFICENT (enjoyable, overdone, but with a more cathartic climax) might we have discovered a classic film worth returning to again and again? (That was my hope.)
I invite you to join me in speculating about how a fine film might have become a great one. In addition to the Baker and His Wife dimensions already noted:
1. (What if) the Baker and his FATHER’s relationship was highlighted as in the stage play. Father and son relationships are essential in life. Had the film shown more interaction (be father “real” or “ghost,”) the Baker’s character (and James Cordon’s portrayal) would have evoked deeper feelings from the viewer. And we wouldn’t have been deprived of hearing the Baker sing his discernment of his fate in the poignant NO MORE — a sure-fire moment of audience identification with the character as presented on stage.

2. (What if) we could have seen Cinderella at the Ball! Her sung monologue HE’s A VERY NICE PRINCE (effectively delivered by Anna Kendrick) could easily have been modified to make it an “in the moment” reflection as she meets, dances with the Prince and flees.

3. (What if) Little Red Riding Hood’s and Jack and the Beanstalk’s sung soliloquies also were adapted as “in-the-moment” events. Their songs are fine “as is” on the stage where theatrical form and context are more welcoming to asides and soliloquies. Film, however, benefits more from “in the moment” storytelling.

4. (What if) we were able enjoy the Witch in the more light hearted moments afforded her on the stage, especially through the her duet with Rapunzel entitled OUR LITTLE WORLD — a comic and revelatory song conveying of the brighter sides of the Witch and Rapunzel’s relationship. (Exemplifying another one of the story’s points: few, if any, people are all evil and malice.)

5. (What if) All of the verses of NO ONE IS ALONE could have been retained. This is the most beautifully moving song in the show and audiences would have benefitted from hearing it in its entirety. Here’s the missing lyric:

“YOU MOVE JUST A FINGER, SAY THE SLIGHTEST WORD, SOMETHING’S BOUND
TO LINGER, BE HEARD.”

To conclude, I would like to offer ideas I have always had about possible enhancements and outright changes to the original script had the creators pursued other options. Leaving all criticism of the play and film aside, I invite us to INDULGE OUR IMAGINATIONs and explore some beyond “THE WOODS” WHAT IFS?”

a. One reason the Witch is the Witch (mean, ugly, manipulative) is because she lives UNFORGIVEN by her mother over the loss of the beans. WHAT IF, after singing LAST MIDNIGHT, we find the WITCH in the underworld? Two possibilities here: Her mother could have gained some wisdom in the world of the dead and forgiven her daughter. Or, instead, the Mother remains unremitting but the Witch learns that she can forgive herself. Then when the Witch’s ghost (or the Witch-in-the-flesh) returns to sing CHILDREN WILL LISTEN, the audience would have seen her transformation. That experience could contribute significantly to the song’s beauty and wisdom.

b. What if the Little Red Riding Hood’s dialogue with Cinderella prior to the song NO ONE IS ALONE shaped the play’s climax? I quote the original dialogue from the play and used in the film:
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD: I think my granny and my mother would be upset with me.
CINDERELLA: Why?
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD: They said to always make them proud. And here I am about to kill somebody.
CINDERELLA: Not somebody. A giant who has been doing harm.
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD: But the giant’s a person. Aren’t we to show forgiveness? Mother would be very unhappy with these circumstances.
The song NO ONE IS ALONE invites us to evolve our own responses to Little Red Riding Hood’s question “Aren’t we to show forgiveness?” WHAT IF the collective decision of the characters was not to kill the GIANT’s WIFE but assuage her wrath and make amends for her husband’s death, even though, their experience proved (as the Witch insisted) “you can’t reason with a Giant.”
As is, the original script conveys that, at least at times, violence inevitably must be used to overcome violence – a feature evident in many fairy tales and in almost all action adventures and human history. What would we do without the great battle scenes in films and in our collective national identities? In many ways “the strong warrior archetype” has to win out. But many great works of literature, art and the Bible itself probe alternative responses to violence —-alternatives that offer greater benefits toward human advancement. Yes, the Bible is filled with examples and teachings that justify violence, war and encourage condemnation and shunning others in both Old and New Testaments. Yet much modern scholarship invites us to see these as opportunities to explore the consequences and results of these orientations and actions rather than follow them as directives. Furthermore, in its totality, Scripture does evidence a gradual, in-depth understanding of God that is far more benevolent in its totality than in its individual parts. We are invited to see that any particular biblical passage represents but a stage in the people’s faith development, each stage evidencing very human realities in our wrestling with God, morality and free will.* What appeal would INTO THE WOODS have if it had not defaulted on the more traditional “kill the Giant” fairy tale ending? You decide!
c. If we would find the WITCH forgiven or having forgiven herself, she could have returned to shrink the Giant down to human proportions. What then? The characters might be forced to reconcile and collaborate on the future rather than grieve the past. Like Shakespeare’s AS YOU LIKE IT, TWELFTH NIGHT and MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT’s DREAM, the story would conclude with music and dancing as those plays are often staged with our fairy tale characters celebrating a more universal, common humanity. As it is, the remaining character of INTO THE WOODS achieve that, too, but with the weight of having killed the GIANT’S WIFE. Of course, if we altered the script to offer that kind of “happy ending” in which violence is averted, would the result prevent audiences from entering into the quandary of violence, self-defense and benevolence on their own? Is that a greater value? And, of course, there is the reality there will always be evil in the world. Giants and witches and terrorists and hate and revenge in human hearts will forever plague our planet. In the end, for all my musings, perhaps it is good that we leave INTO THE WOODS as it was on stage and as it is on film. We all have to write our own stories anyway.

*See my summary of STAGES OF FAITH DEVELOPMENT in the Bible and Our lives at http://www.lukelive.com/gallerymedia/approaches-to-scripture/