Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Religious films (some personal favorites)

Bill Cork directs me to Amy Welborn's blog, where she sparked a debate on the merits of the Franciscan musical Brother Sun, Sister Moon, newly released on DVD.

My dad tried to make us watch it when we were little and I could barely sit through the first twenty minutes -- I admit I was an impatient little brat at the time, musicals just not being my thing, and so upon reading this review in Christianity Today I'm tempted to give it another try.

* * *

In any case, I would like to mention five religious films among my "top favorite of all time":

  • Man For All Seasons 1966. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, and starring Paul Scofield. My dad introduced this movie to my brothers and I when we were teens. I've seen it several times since, and read the play by Robert Bolt as well -- and find the experience that richer with every viewing.

    Parents wishing to demonstrate to their kids Christian convinction in the face of secular oppression, being true to one's word and the duty of one's office, look no further than St. Thomas More. SEE ALSO: DecentFilms.Com Review by Steven D. Greydanus.

  • The Mission [1986], directed by Roland Joff?. From the producer of Chariots of Fire, the director of The Killing Fields, the screenwriter of A Man For All Seasons and Dr. Zhivago, featuring masterful performances by Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons and even a cameo appearance by Fr. Daniel Barrigan himself -- it's rare that you see a distinctly Christian film with this much Hollywood talent.

    Set in 1750's South America, The Mission tells the story of Rodrigo Mendoza (De Niro), a violent mercenary and slave-trader who abandons his profession and joins a priest, Gabriel (Irons) and his fellow Jesuits in building a Mission to the indigeneous natives he once enslaved. Whe the mission is threatened by the armies of Spain and Portugal Mendoza faces the challenge of responding with Christlike nonviolence or once again taking up the sword and musket.

    The movie is quite forceful about where Christians should stand on the matter of nonviolence and armed response to oppression (a pertinent debate for our times?) -- but the powerful themes of love, redemption, penance, forgiveness and atonement will appeal to all. SEE ALSO: DecentFilms.Com Review by Steven D. Greydanus.

  • Francesco [1989], directed by Liliana Cavani; starring Mickey Rourke and Helena Bonham Carter.

    Returning briefly to the debate over the merits of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Ron Reed says in his review of the DVD for Christianity Today:

    The most serious problem with this film is its softness, that sentimentality Zeffirelli is often accused of. Where are the stigmata? Where are the exhaustion, disease, despair that poverty, even intentional poverty, brings, even to saints? Where is the aging St. Francis, betrayed by his successors?

    This, I think, is precisely why I love Francesco: its' raw, gritty and above all realistic presentation of a man who takes literally the demands of the gospel. Francis' life as depicted in this movie is not all "sweetness and light"; he struggles with doubts, wrestles with temptations, clings to his vision in spite of overwhelming odds. When, in the movie's finale, blind, broken and near-death, he receives the stigmata, it becomes for him (and for the audience) a tangible sign of God's affirmation that hope is not lost, the race is not in vain.

    Some have criticized the casting of Mickey Rourke, but I found him well suited for the role: his off-screen debauchery and previous cinematic history (Nine 1/2 Weeks, Angel Heart, and Charles Bukowski's Barfly) contributed to the impact -- for me, at least -- of his on-screen spiritual transformation as a repentant sinner seeking to make amends for his past. Rourke's subsequent career and self-destruction might lead one to question whether he truly grasped the part . . . call me naive, but I like to think he knew something of, and could relate to, the struggles of his character.

  • The Apostle [1998], directed by Robert Duvall. Starring Robert Duvall, Farrah Fawcett, Billy Bob Thornton. I blogged about this last year, but to reiterate: The Apostle a story of a Southern Pentacostal pastor named Sonny who, after committing grave sin and fleeing the law, ultimately redeems himself (and others) through moral accountability. Duvall says:
    Some religious people might ask why I would make such a movie and emphasize that this evangelical preacher has weaknesses. And my answer is that we either accept weaknesses in good people or we have to tear pages out of the bible. I would have to rip the Psalms out of the bible and never read them again. Because no one less than the greatest king of Israel, King David, the author of the Psalms, sent a man out to die in battle so that he could sleep with his wife. And that was a far more evil thing than anything Sonny would ever, ever do.

    Duvall's interest in portraying this distinctly American brand of Christianity was born from an encounter with a Pentacostal preacher in Arkansas more than thirty years ago. Regarding other attempts at depicting the Pentacostal tradition, Duvall comments "They patronize . . . They put quotation marks around the preacher. They don?t give the minister or his congregation their due." The Apostle, however, can be commended for a realistic depiction of religious faith refreshingly free of such condescension.

    I was initially drawn to the film upon learning that Duvall not only wrote the script, directed the film, and starred in it, but put up 5 million of his own money to produce it himself. Here's an interview with Robert Duvall from the University of Nebraska's Journal of Religion and Film on his inspiration for making "The Apostle".

There are plenty of other religious films worth seeing -- but the above have stuck with me throughout the years as worthy of repeated viewing.

No comments:

Post a Comment