When I began to reflect on the movies I’ve seen over the past year, I was surprised to discover that nearly all of them dealt with themes of Passion, the mystery of Vocation and Calling, Devotion and Duty—subjects that come up nearly every day in the conversations about discernment that I have as a spiritual director with my directees.
SELMA: Black Lives Matter
If you see only one film this year, make it Selma – a magnificent, conscience-challenging work, a worthy companion to last year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave. Ignatian prayer and contemplative practice, developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, instructs meditators to place themselves in the scriptural passage with Jesus, just as if we were actually present at the event. Selma accomplishes just this placing viewers in the events rather than allowing us to be observers. The buffer of history that gave viewers some distance in 12 Years a Slave is not available here. Television coverage from Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY, as well as ongoing coverage of efforts to deny voter registration to minorities in many states, make the historic march from Selma to Montgomery seem like it happened yesterday rather than 50 years ago. Anchored by David Oyelowo’s galvanizing portrayal of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King and directed by Ava DuVernay, it is a searing call to take action and an indictment against the injustices that continue to shame our nation. My African-American friends have repeatedly and patiently reminded me I can’t understand what it is like to live in a Black or Brown skin. Bearing helpless witness and burning with rage as Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey in a wonderful cameo) maintains her dignity and resolve despite as she is repeatedly denied the right to register to vote may be as close as I ever come to understanding.
Check this link to read an excellent interview with the actor David Oyelowo about the impact that playing Dr. King on his own faith.
Charlie Rose’s interview with director Ava DuVernay is equally interesting.
IDA: In the Shadow of the Holocaust
The most profound and haunting film I saw this year was Ida by Polish director, Pawel Pawlikowski. Photographed in black and white, the images are austere and beautiful. The editing is designed to make us linger contemplatively over each scene, digesting it from the points of view of each of the main characters. Ida, a young postulate nun on the threshold of taking vows discovers she is, in fact, Jewish and one of only two members of her family to survive the Holocaust. Ida takes a leave from the convent to join her embittered aunt in a search for the truth about the death of their other family members. The sheltered Ida is introduced to a world of which she has no experience—a world that includes romance and sex, cowardice, heroism, disillusionment, despair and death. The camera stays on her mostly silent response to these events and as Ida discerns whether to return to the convent or stay in the world, the film superbly illustrates the grace and mystery of vocation.
CALVARY: The Sins of the Fathers
The great Irish actor Brendan Gleeson (probably best-known to American audiences for his portrayal of Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter movies) gives one of the best performances of the year as Father James, a priest in a seaside Irish village. The film opens in a confessional where Father James (a widower with an adult daughter who came late to the priesthood) is told under the seal of confession that, although he is personally innocent, that he will be murdered in seven days, as retribution for the unprosecuted sexual crimes committed against children by pedophile priests and covered up by church hierarchy.
The film follows Father James through each of the seven days as he encounters several of the villagers he ministers to and wonders along with the audience which of them passed sentence on him in the confessional. He wonders if he is actually of any use to them, wrestles with the temptation to flee and questions the responsibilities of his vocation—particularly compassion, forgiveness and faith in God, as the seventh day grows closer. The film skilfully balances suspense with characteristic Irish black humor and is populated by a wonderful supporting cast led by Chris O’Dowd (St. Vincent and Bridesmaids) and others recognizable from Masterpiece Theatre, Game of Thrones, etc.
Calvary is now available on demand through many cable companies and is also available on Amazon Prime.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: The Virtue and Vocation of Civility
I enjoyed this movie when I saw it last summer but it didn’t stay with me like some of director Wes Anderson’s other films, particularly The Darjeeling Limited. Then, about a week ago I happened to catch the last 10 minutes of it while waiting for another program to begin on HBO.
In one of the final scenes a journalist asks the narrator, Mr. Moustafa about his relationship with the film’s hero, M. Gustave. Moustafa replies, “There are still faint glimpses of civilization in this barbaric slaughter house that was once known as humanity. He was one of them. . . You see, we shared a vocation. He certainly sustained the illusion with marvelous grace.” I had not caught the reference to vocation when I saw the film in the theatre. It intrigued me enough to watch the movie again on HBO. Seeing the film through the lens of shared vocation completely re-framed it for me.
M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes (another Harry Potter alumnus Voldemort) is the manager of an elegant hotel in pre-war Eastern Europe whose life is dedicated to service, hospitality, good manners and civility.
Hospitality is thought to be the core virtue of all of the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Genesis 18 begins with a description of Abraham and Sarah’s warm hospitality, their welcoming of strangers.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, gorgeously designed and photographed, is both an elegy for the lost virtues of hospitality and civility and a moving plea for their return. This film, like Birdman which I’ll discuss in a later blog, is a fable and is photographed more like a fairy-tale than Into the Woods.
In upcoming blogs, I plan to write next about Birdman, Mr, Turner, Whiplash and Chef; Boyhood, Saint Vincent and Force Majeure (Turist), The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything: The Lunchbox and Words and Pictures; Foxcatcher and Nightcrawler; Pride and Into the Woods.