Movies That Matter: Reading Film through the Lens of Faithby Richard Leonard
A lively, discerning guide to what’s good, beautiful, and true at the movies
“Richard Leonard, SJ, expertly guides readers through some of the most popular recent films and shows us how even the most unlikely movies can encourage us to pray and draw closer to the divine . . . fascinating, lively, and often witty.”
—James Martin, SJ,
A lively, discerning guide to what’s good, beautiful, and true at the movies
“Richard Leonard, SJ, expertly guides readers through some of the most popular recent films and shows us how even the most unlikely movies can encourage us to pray and draw closer to the divine . . . fascinating, lively, and often witty.”
—James Martin, SJ, author of My Life with the Saints
This thought-provoking and inspiring work by popular film critic and Jesuit Richard Leonard explains how movies are today’s parables and why people of faith need the skills to converse about them intelligently and productively. In Movies That Matter, Leonard views fifty important movies through “a lens of faith” and offers surprising insights on the spiritual dimension of each film. From Finding Nemo to Gandhi to The Godfather, Leonard’s informed, Christian point of view guides us to a new appreciation of both the films and our own spiritual beliefs. Leonard also lists teachable moments found in each movie and provides questions for personal reflection or group dialogue.
In addition, Leonard teaches today’s religious educators, parents, and film buffs how to “read” a film with the eyes of faith, and how to meaningfully engage with others through the media of film. He offers realistic advice on such topics as: valuing our story, sex and violence in films, ratings, and how to be a critical consumer. This entertaining and reliable guide will enrich your movie-watching experience.
“Movies That Matter is a book every person in pastoral ministry will want to use as he or she seeks to be relevant and faithful in a media world.”
—Rose Pacatte, FSP, coauthor Lights, Camera, . . . Faith!
- Loyola Press
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- First Edition
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Read an Excerpt
The first question to be answered in a book entitled Movies That Matter is, to whom do these films matter? The simple answer is—they matter to me! Each of these films has illuminated my faith, challenged, entertained, and consoled me. And I am not the only one. Many others find in cinema a rich repository of images that celebrate the human spirit and put us in touch with the divine. You will have your own list. Your favorite films may appear if we publish a sequel, in classic Hollywood style: Movies That Matter II: The Films That Got Away! For now, I would take it as a compliment if you argue the selections in this book. That means we are starting on the same page—taking film seriously. The multiplex is the modern market for ideas and values. It is shaping us, whether we like it or not.
In these essays you will find a method for analyzing and understanding films as they explore, reinterpret, or undermine Christian theology. Some movies will be familiar; I hope these reflections will help you see them afresh. For those titles you have not seen, may these essays encourage you to explore them. I hope this book functions as a discerning guide as well as a basis for stimulating discussions.
Why should Christians take movies seriously?
When the great missionary St. Francis Xavier left Rome for the Far East, St. Ignatius of Loyola advised him: wherever you go, learn the language. Learning a new language is hard, especially at an advanced age, but the cultural understanding it provides amply rewards the effort. The influence of media in creating and reflecting culture means there is a new language being spoken that is well worth learning.
Given the power of media, becoming conversant with its mixed messages is an essential tool for Christian life. This involves the process of inculturation—discovering where Christ is already active within a given culture. Inculturation has traditionally been about uncovering Christian resonances in faraway places and exotic rituals. Yet the risen Christ sends us out to our media-saturated culture as well, and in it we labor with Christ to expose the signs of God’s saving love already present there. We cannot speak to a culture we do not know or one we despise. And if we don’t evangelize it, who else will? In St. Ignatius’s terms, we have to learn its language and discover how Christ has already gone ahead of us, inculturated in some of media’s values, stories, and style.
Jesus is an outstanding example of media inculturation. In Matthew 13, Jesus would not speak to the crowd without a parable. Jesus understood that our most important lessons are learned through stories—while we are laughing or crying, being confronted or consoled.
Whether we like it or not, the cinema is the place where an increasing number of people encounter a world of otherness, of ethical systems and personal and social mythologies that transcend the everyday. This encounter leads to a new consciousness of our surroundings, ideologies, and moral imperatives. As Margaret Miles rightly argues in her book Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies, “The development of popular film coincided historically and geographically with the emancipation of public life from church control and patronage. ‘Congregations’ became ‘audiences’ as film created a new public sphere in which, under the guise of ‘entertainment’ values are formulated, circulated, resisted, and negotiated” (Miles 1996, 25).
How do we “read” a film from a Christian point of view?
Sadly, some Christians believe that unless a movie is about Jesus or the saints, unless it speaks of religion or wears its spirituality on its sleeve, it cannot be counted in the cinematic Christian canon. Some believers dismiss film altogether: “Only sex and violence sells at the cinema,” or “There is nothing good at the movies anymore.” These uninformed comments deny the idea that a story might be consonant with the Christian message even though it never mentions Jesus, the Bible, or the church.
To respond, let’s take the top ten grossing box office films of all time.
1. Titanic (1997): $1.845 billion
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003): $1.118 billion
3. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001): $976.5 million
4. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002): $926 million
5. Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (1999): $924.5 million
6. Shrek 2 (2004): $918.7 million
7. Jurassic Park (1993): $914.7 million
8. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002): $867.7 million
9.The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001): $871.1 million
10. Finding Nemo (2003): $864.4 million
(Source: Box Office Mojo)
All of these films are family entertainment. They vary in quality and some have adult themes, but none are overly sexy or violent. With Forrest Gump, The Lion King, Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones, Star Wars: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi, Independence Day, The Sixth Sense, and Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back making up most of the top twenty, one of the things we might stop saying is that only sex and violence sell in the cinema. If filmmakers want to do well at the box office, they should make films the whole family can watch.
The second thing we should note is the dominance of science fantasy. Six of the top ten films are set in other worlds where metaphysics is of a high order, transcendence is a given, and belief in other beings is assumed. These worlds may not be Christian, but in regard to the idea of transcendent realities that are influenced by present choices they are of a similar mind. The top ten box office films indicate a genuine thirst for the spiritual, and evidence that the younger generation does not lack the ability to imagine big stories, other worlds, and sacrificial values.
With the preponderance of films from the period 2001–2003, the above table is unfair. If, however, we adjust for inflation, then the top ten grossing box office films of all time look like this:
1. Gone with the Wind (1939): $1.26 billon
2. Star Wars (1977): $1.1 billion
3. The Sound of Music (1965): $890 million
4. ET the Extra-Terrestrial (1982): $886 million
5. The Ten Commandments (1956): $818.7 million
6. Titanic (1997): $802 million
7. Jaws (1975): $800 million
8. Doctor Zhivago (1965): $691 million
9. The Exorcist (1973): $691 million
10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937): $681.2 million
(Source: Box Office Mojo)
With the exception of Jaws and The Exorcist, our observations about family entertainment hold firm. Across generations more publicly religious and churchgoing, science fantasy counts for less and religious-themed films such as The Sound of Music, The Ten Commandments, and The Exorcist all feature. What is consistent is the bigness of the stories, the other worlds they open up, and the sacrificial values they enshrine.
Reading a film in the light of faith starts with having the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the heart to receive what is good and enjoyable in media culture. This task is akin to Mark 16, where the young man robed in white instructs Peter and the women to meet the risen Lord in Galilee. This invitation makes them afraid. Jerusalem was the holy city, whereas Galilee was their everyday turf. And yet it is precisely there that the risen Christ wants to meet them. Galilee is now a state of mind, a belief that God can be found where we are. Given that the cinema now sells over one billion tickets a year, I am convinced this is one of the everyday patches of turf wherein Christ is revealed.
Virtues and Values
St. Paul tells us the greatest virtues are faith, hope, and love. These are known as the theological virtues, which make us discernibly Christian. St. Thomas Aquinas added to these justice, fidelity, self-esteem, and prudence, now termed the cardinal virtues. Added to the virtues are their applications—mercy and hospitality, the Christian values. St. Thomas argued that wherever faith, hope, love, justice, fidelity, self-esteem, prudence, mercy, and hospitality are present, then named or not, Christ is present. The best of missionary dialogue has been conducted on this basis, recognizing and affirming the goodness in culture. What applies to non-Christian cultures equally applies to non-Christian elements in our own culture—at the multiplex.
We approach the task of inculturation by not being against everything. If a film presents virtues and values, and many do, then named or not, Christ is present in and through them. We should say yes to these movies and promote them. Yet we often insist that the world talk our talk and walk our walk. Jesus’ great commission to go out to the world does not lead to that conclusion. Rather, Christ sends us to meet our sisters and brothers where they are, as they are. Again, Jesus is our model. The parables do not mention God. They rarely have a religious setting. Jesus takes ordinary events of daily life and draws out lessons about faith, hope, love, justice, fidelity, self-esteem, prudence, mercy, and hospitality. The cinema’s parables can provide us with a venue in which to fulfill the great commission.
The Seven Deadly Sins
Our second task is not to be immediately frightened of the dark world movies often explore. We hold to faith in a world that is broken and sinful. So did Jesus, and into this same world he sends us. The Christian tradition has summed up the worst human excesses in the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, and sloth. Christians used to hear about these sins too much; these days we hardly mention them at all. But that doesn’t mean they have gone away. Most personal, national, or international problems can usually be brought home to one or more of the seven deadly sins.
Our concern is not whether a story explores sin, but whether it is glamorized and seen as normal. By glamorized I mean made to seem not deadly at all, but life giving. Movies may seem to deny the destruction and alienation of sin and suggest it brings happiness, popularity, and success. This is a lie, and we need to say so. The second thing some films do is promote the idea that destructive behavior is normal, a reality of the human condition. Christianity holds that pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, and sloth are not humanity’s normal destiny. We are better than our worst behavior, and we can make amends, new choices, and start again. Films that present dark behavior as normal should be challenged.
Some films explore human darkness and suggest that it is glamorous and normal. In the preaching traditions of the church, people were often invited to imagine what the world would be like if God’s love was absent. This tradition is immortalized in the media of past generations—stained glass, paintings, sculpture, and illuminated manuscripts. Our forebears knew that sometimes it is necessary to contemplate consequences in order to make the best choices. Parables of sinful behavior on the silver screen can be put at the service of the gospel as long as it is clear that the wages of sin is death, in one form or another.
Community and Belonging
A third signpost on the road to inculturating the multiplex is to consider trends emerging in the movies. Five trends stand out for me. The first is a longing for community, for being connected to each other. Finding Nemo, Cast Away, Gladiator, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, American Beauty, Erin Brockovich, and Notting Hill are movies in which community is central, even in its absence.
The church seeks to embody and promote the ideal of community. A worrying trend in film is how the blood family is denigrated or dismissed, faithful marriage cheapened, and the peer group established as the primary source of care in a person’s life. The building of community should not normatively come at the cost of undermining the old-fashioned family unit.
The presentation of sexuality in movies is the second trend of which we need to be aware. Pushing the sexual envelope is not a recent phenomenon. Films that broke various sexual boundaries include Midnight Cowboy (1969), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Last Tango in Paris (1972), Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1976), La Cage aux folles (1978), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989), The Crying Game (1992), Philadelphia (1993), Lolita (1997), The Idiots (1998), Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Intimacy (2001), Baise-Moi (2000), and Nine Songs (2004).
Christians approach sexuality as a gift to be enjoyed, nurtured, and developed. Our sexuality is not meant to bring shame and guilt. The context within which sexuality reaches fulfillment is the one in which we are assured of trust, fidelity, and care: lifelong, monogamous marriage. The worrying trend in film is that sex is treated as one of many recreational options. Casual sex reduces our bodies to a commodity traded for fun or favors, rather than as part of the celebration we share to express the sacrificial love between spouses.
In 1992 Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles outlined seven questions for Christians to consider about the portrayal of sex in media: Does the story demand it? When the characters are portrayed as engaging in sexual relations, what are they saying to each other? Is the sexual relationship being promoted as one of human dignity and trust? Is the sex primarily about pleasure, devoid of lifelong commitment? What messages is it conveying about body image and self-esteem? Does it involve coercion? How is it depicting the nature of women and men and the relationship between the two? These questions enable us to judge how film culture forms our attitudes toward our sexuality (see archdiocese.la/archbishop/letters/film/index.html).
The counterweight trend to sex is movie violence. Surveys in the last twenty years show that parents worry more about the effects of violence in movies than they do about sex. Again, the mid-1960s saw a turning point in regard to what audiences paid to see: Dr Strangelove (1964), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Godfather (1972), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Blue Velvet (1986), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Hannibal (2000), Baise-Moi (2000). Christians blame media violence for much that besets us, but it can be a convenient scapegoat. Many people watch violent material and never act out. Violent people may not view such material. A simple causal link has not been established. Human psychology is more complex than that.
However, authoritative studies do clearly establish the link between watching violent material and the desensitization to violence on and off the screen. In 2000, a report on media violence cited more than one thousand studies clinically showing how children exposed to media violence are significantly more likely to demonstrate aggressive attitudes and behavior. By the time a U.S. child reaches the age of eighteen it is estimated he or she will have witnessed two hundred thousand acts of violence on television, including twenty thousand murders (Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children, Congressional Public Health Summit, July 26, 2000).
One may also wonder why we do not focus on violent realities that directly impact our children and are rarely paid media attention. Domestic abuse is the most frequent form of violence to which our children are exposed. It is no respecter of class, religion, or ethnicity. Why is there a conspiracy of silence on this issue? Would it change if we had an equal number of women making films and television programs?
Another violence we endure in the cinema today is language. Censors rate films according to the coarseness of the language in a nod to standards of “decency.” But swearing is not merely an offense against decency. It is a violent action that inflicts harm, a verbal assault as civil law now recognizes. This is further compounded by religiously violent language, as when we hear Jesus or Christ used. For us, Jesus and Christ are not simply two words in the vocabulary, but the focus of the most important relationship in our lives. Attending to the habits of our own speech is a real contribution to diminishing verbal violence as well.
Cardinal Mahony names four criteria to ponder regarding violence in film. “Is violence demanded by the story? Is it presented as a desirable way to solve problems and resolve conflict? Do we feel the pain and dehumanization it causes to the person on the receiving end, and to the person who engages in it? Do we see how it spawns more violence?”
Money and Celebrity
A fourth trend in film is the love of money and celebrity. The modern cinema adulates unbridled greed, rewards deceit, and promotes a dangerous insularity. For Christians, money is value neutral—what we do with it defines its morality. In Luke 12:48 Jesus proposes a guiding principle: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.” This is not a message espoused in many movies. They promote a lifestyle overly focused on body image, sexual prowess, and getting one’s way. Lifestyle in movies is more about rights than responsibilities and often sacrifices human dignity. The Christian lifestyle, St. Paul tells us in Galatians, is characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
How should we approach movies that matter, and the ones that don’t?
First, a story: One of the few people to get off the Titanic before it set sail was a priest. Irish Jesuit Frank Browne finished his studies in 1912, and for graduation his wealthy uncle sent him a first-class ticket for the Titanic’s maiden voyage as far as Cork. While on board an American family befriended him and offered to pay his fare to New York. He went to the now famous Marconi room and sent a telegram to his provincial in Dublin asking for permission to accept the offer. When the Titanic reached Cork, a telegram awaited Browne. It read: “get off that ship. provincial.” Browne was one of thirty-four passengers to go ashore in Ireland, and he took the last known photographs of the Titanic as it disappeared on the horizon. Browne carried that telegram with him until his death. He was fond of holding it aloft during lectures saying that it was “the only time when Holy Obedience saved a man’s life.”
We should not count it a retrospective blessing if we were granted leave to abandon our cultural ship, no matter how treacherous the way ahead. Easter people have the Spirit’s wisdom to guide us and the lifeboat of hope, just in case.
Canadian Jesuit John Pugente in the Media Literacy Resource Guide offers a simple tool to help us become smarter media consumers. Pugente outlines the EABV model: event, attitude, behavior, and values.
Event. We may be sure about what media offers, but what do we take to the media? If we take boredom, we will “surf,” watching anything to kill time. If we take loneliness, then we will go to the very next film rather than consider options thoughtfully. If we take arousal to the Internet, then guess which Web sites we end up in? What we take away from media is defined in part by what we bring to it.
Attitude. There is no such thing as a value-neutral program. What is left in or taken out, what is covered or not explored, also interprets the material. Good consumers try to understand what the media makers are communicating by being alert to the side of the story that is not told.
Behavior. Increasingly, producers of media seek to elicit behavior through entertainment. Large-scale advertising campaigns, product placement, merchandise tie-ins, goods, and services are all commodities up for grabs. Critical consumers are also aware of the intellectual property being sold in the media marketplace. These days a product or an idea rarely makes an appearance without paying to be there.
Values. Applying the values test to media means asking if the story, theme, and atmosphere of the film is consistent with faith, hope, and love. Does the film espouse joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control? It may emphasize one of these values over the others, but if it does not include any of them, then chances are the film cannot be reconciled with Christian values.
Modern Christians have been seduced into believing that we should not criticize or judge. We hear expressions like, “We are in no position to judge,” “You can’t judge them,” and “They can’t judge us.” On this point we are quite confused. One of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit is right judgment. It would seem odd if God gave us a gift not intended to be exercised. When we say “don’t judge,” what we mean is “don’t condemn.” There is a world of difference between these two. There is not a page in the Gospels where Jesus did not judge those around him. But we are explicitly told in John 8 that Jesus never condemned anyone. Condemnation belongs to God alone, but we need to be good judges, especially in regard to media. We need to cultivate discernment between wheat and chaff, resist pressure to conform and hype to buy. We want to develop what Jesus exercised—compassionate judgment to imagine the world from another’s point of view. Armed with critical consumption and compassionate judgment we are less likely to be seduced by what is not life affirming and life sustaining.
Valuing Our Story
This final signpost may appear to have nothing to do with movies, but is in fact critical to viewing them. The best consumers of stories value their own. If we do not think our personal story is of worth or importance, then we may use movies to fill the void. If our experiences are not considered worth sharing, then we may surrender to the seemingly more glamorous, exciting, and action-packed life of the cinema. Most stories represented on the silver screen are unreal, whereas our lives are very real. The stars we grow fond of don’t know us and probably don’t want to. Movies matter because they entertain us, cast light on our lives, challenge and provoke us, help us grieve, reduce us to peals of laughter, open up other worlds, and expose some dark realities. But we know that the world of the cinema, and the stars and stories within it, is not our world. Our everyday story is of greater value than the tales in the movies because we are living it. Our lives matter more than anything else.
So here are films that have, in one way or another, prompted me to reflect on Christ and the Christian life. I went to Galilee and met Christ there—just as he promised.
Starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. Directed by Harold Ramis.
Rated PG. 101 minutes. 1993.
Teachable moments: creation, conversion, Lent.
Phil Connors hates his life. As a madcap weatherman of a regional television station, he longs to have a job where he is taken more seriously. His anger is manifested by a deep cynicism. Annually, Phil is sent to Punxsutawney, PA, to cover Groundhog Day where “a rat,” as he calls it, predicts whether winter will be long or short. This Groundhog Day, however, the news crew is snowed in after the festivities and forced to stay another night. Phil wakes up the next morning to discover that it is February 2—again. And his calendar stays put for thirty-four days, until he learns to like himself, love someone else, and look at life in a very different way.
The idea of life being rerun in some way or another has become a popular theme in recent years. Sliding Doors and Run Lola Run are excellent films in this genre, but Groundhog Day places the idea in a theological context. Everywhere in the film are references to the connection between this life and the next, and the nature of eternity. “Is this what you do in eternity?.?.?. keep reliving your worst day?” Phil asks. That sounds more like purgatory to me.
The number thirty-four is a biblically significant sum. Three and four added together make seven, which scripturally indicates the work of creation, accomplished in seven days. This is a key to understanding Groundhog Day. In the story of creation the work of each day is an essential building block for the next, highlighting our interdependence on the created order. Likewise each day of Phil’s re-creation holds another vital facet to claiming the self-esteem necessary to look at himself and say that this creation “is very good.” Phil considers this connection when he muses, “I’m a god. I’m not the God—at least I don’t think I am.” His producer Rita assures him, “You’re not a god, Phil. Take my word for it. This is twelve years of Catholic school talking.”
Often we have days when we regret our behavior and wish we could do it all over again. This response is good if we learn from these feelings and change our behavior. Each day is for us a new creation. Groundhog Day teaches an important lesson: if we are unhappy, we should look at what we’re doing and giving out, as much as what we are receiving or taking in. Both efforts create and re-create us. And we are the lump sum of the choices we are making.
Phil finds that the way to conversion is to answer hatred with love, lies with the truth, injury with pardon, sadness with joy,
and to give to those who want to take from him. In the process he learns to be generous, loving, and lovable. Transformed, he can get on with the life he’s always dreamed of living.
It’s no accident that this re-creation parable occurs as winter turns toward spring. Lent means “spring,” a time when we emerge from the routines of our worst habits and embrace the conversion each day can hold. Phil finds a new way to sum up his experience on Groundhog Day: “When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life.” The challenge for Christians is to prepare for tomorrow while living each day as if it were our last.
• What would you do differently today if it were your last day in this world?
• How did the choices you made yesterday influence your life today? How might they influence your life tomorrow?
• How would your life change if you saw each new day as a genuinely new opportunity?
Starring Jeremy Irons, Robert De Niro, and Ray McAnally. Directed by Roland Joffé. Rated PG. 126 minutes. 1986.
Teachable moments: church and politics, discernment, discipleship.
When going to war, it helps to know who the enemy is, what we are fighting for, and what outcome is possible. This is clearer when the opponent is “out there.” It is much more difficult when the opponent is in the head or the heart. The Mission is a war film, but its brilliance lies in that many of the important battles happen interiorly.
In eighteenth-century Paraguay, Spanish Jesuits left the settled towns for the “land above the falls.” These journeys were unsuccessful because the people of that land were wary of the colonizers, who sought to sell them as slaves. At the end of the treacherous journey beyond the waterfall, Jesuit missionaries were martyred for their trouble. Yet armed only with his Bible and oboe, Fr. Gabriel decides to make the journey himself. Captured by the Guarani people, he plays music for them, and they are entranced. The mission above the falls begins.
Some time later, Gabriel witnesses the handiwork of slave traders led by Captain Rodrigo Mendoza. Gabriel visits him and suggests that he should repent of his sins. Mendoza insists no penance is great enough to cover them all. Gabriel assures him there is: “Do you dare try it?” And so Mendoza is drafted into the service of the mission.
The Jesuits find themselves caught between the papal envoy and the colonizers in a fight for the rights of the native people. The envoy brings orders to close the mission. Gabriel resists the idea that the church must bow to political realities. He adds, “If might is right, then love has no place in the world.”
The story of the mission is based in history. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI divided the world between the two great superpowers of the day: Portugal and Spain. This arrangement worked well enough until the riches of South America were discovered and claimed by both countries. Rome was called on to settle disputes between the two. Through the Treaty of Madrid in 1750 an exchange of land took place. The transition of authority was bloody. The Guarani were defeated in 1758. The pope suppressed the Jesuits in 1773.
In another historical intersection of church and politics, this film came out in 1986, the year after the Vatican issued directives against liberation theology. The most extreme liberation theologians were so concerned about the discrepancy between rich and poor they were starting to advocate armed struggle. Archbishop Hélder Câmara did not advocate violence, but he famously said, “If I give food to the poor they call me a saint. If I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola offers a meditation on choosing whom to follow: Christ or a worldly leader. The worldly path leads to riches and honor, while Christ’s way of simplicity and service leads to happiness in this life and eternal life. Choosing is not just a onetime decision, but a daily discernment. Each day we battle to know what to do, who to be, and to work out what, for better or worse, the world might become as a result of our decisions.
The real Christian mission is to make decisions, simple and complex, first by freeing ourselves and then by staying that way. Those who remain enmeshed in the world will lament, like Señor Hontar in The Mission: “The world is thus.” To which Cardinal Altamirano rightly observes: “Thus have we made the world.”
• What in your immediate world most needs the love of Jesus?
• Do you believe in personal and social conversion?
• What are some important life choices you’ve made that need to be reaffirmed each day?
A Man for All Seasons
Starring Paul Scofield, Orson Wells, Wendy Hiller, John Hurt, Robert Shaw, and Vanessa Redgrave. Directed by Fred Zinnemann. Rated G. 120 minutes. 1966.
Teachable moments: conscience, steadfastness.
The cinema has produced great films about matters of conscience. A Man for All Seasons is among the best because the screenplay is surgical in its dissection of the anatomy of an informed conscience. When the hero, Sir Thomas More, refuses to sign the fateful papers, the Duke of Norfolk cries: “Thomas, look at these names! Why can’t you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship!” More replies, “And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”
The history is familiar. King Henry VIII of England wants to divorce his wife, the devoutly Catholic Catherine of Aragon. The pope will not dissolve the bond, so Henry works to end the pope’s authority over the church in England, which eventually becomes the Church of England. To do this, Henry needs the approval of the peers and parliament. The king regards his chancellor, Sir Thomas More, as a loyal friend.
But by 1530, Henry requires the English clergy take oaths of allegiance to him as “Supreme Head of the Church in England.” Not long after, Thomas More resigns his post. When Henry insists that all peers sign the Act of Succession—recognizing his powers over church and state, as well as his new marriage—More refuses. In 1535 More is tried, found guilty of treason, and beheaded.
It is almost impossible to withstand the assault of people lying about us; worse still when they have the ear of people with influence or those close to us. More is betrayed by friends who gain favor by lying about what he has said. When one man perjures himself to become sheriff of Wales, More is incredulous: “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world?.?.?. but for Wales?” Thomas More embodies the noblest of responses before such behavior: “Forgive your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” For More, any other option was not possible. His conscience defined him—just as ours defines us.
The lies count against him, but it is silence that seals Sir Thomas More’s fate. Although he refused to sign the Act, he said nothing publicly that was treasonous. Yet like Jesus before Pilate, More’s silence regarding the king’s right to declare himself the Supreme Head of the Church was used against him. Thomas Cromwell summarizes the case against More: “Let us consider now the circumstances of the prisoner’s silence.?.?.?. He calls this silence. Yet is there a man in this court—is there a man in this country!—who does not know Sir Thomas More’s opinion of this title?” Sometimes the most eloquent testimony we can give to the truth is to say absolutely nothing. Who we are expresses everything that needs to be said.
Thomas More did not go looking for a martyr’s death. There are moments, however, when to betray our principles and values would cause a dying with which we could not live. Death is not willingly sought, but is paid as the price for being born for higher things. Sir Thomas More ends his life with a simple eloquence: “I am commanded by the king to be brief, and since I am the king’s obedient subject, brief I will be. I die His Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.”
• How did Thomas More’s Christian faith inform his thoughts, conscience, and behavior?
• Have you ever had to let something die in order to be true to your conscience?
• What kinds of pressure does society try to exert on us to conform to norms which are incompatible with our Christian faith?
Starring Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Judd Hirsch, and Timothy Hutton. Directed by Robert Redford. Rated R. 124 minutes. 1980.
Teachable moments: grief, acceptance, self-care.
The Jarrett family is in crisis. Last year Beth and Calvin lost their son Buck in a boating accident. Their second child, Conrad, survived the accident. Discharged from a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt, Conrad is not at ease. He believes his mother blames him for surviving. Conrad starts therapy, and as he inches toward recovery, his parents’ marriage falls apart.
Ordinary People is dark and intense, but that’s what gives the drama its power. It opens with Conrad’s school choir singing, “O Lord we contemplate your peace.” The words are instructive: this story is about the search for peace. Conrad externalizes the family’s trauma, but all three are emotionally brittle.
The title is ironic: the Jarretts are not ordinary people. They are wealthy, educated, and socially connected. Beth Jarrett, especially, is conscious of appearances and of pretending that all problems can be dealt with discreetly. A tagline for the film runs, “Everything is in its proper place.?.?.?. Except the past.”
But grief is no respecter of class. The Jarretts are ordinary in their vulnerability to tragedy. Conrad wants to opt out, in suicide or by retreating into his own painful world. His father, Calvin, is practiced in negotiating the icy truce between his wife and son. And then there is Beth, who fusses over what tie Calvin should wear to Buck’s funeral. She immediately scrubs the bathroom floor to get the blood off the tiles after Conrad’s suicide attempt. When Conrad breaks a plate, Beth holds the pieces together and declares, “Oh, I think it can be saved.” Cold and aloof, Beth might have been the villain, but Tyler Moore’s performance is of such depth that we come to empathize even with her. Beth’s contained anguish is glimpsed in an outburst after a friend awkwardly urges her to be happy: “Happy! Ward, you tell me the meaning of happy. But first you better make sure your kids are good and safe, that they haven’t fallen off a horse, been hit by a car, or drowned in that swimming pool you’re so proud of!?.?.?. Then, you come and tell me how to be happy!”
The truth teller in Ordinary People is Dr. Berger, the therapist who warns us all, “A little advice about feelings, kiddo: don’t expect it always to tickle.” Not so long ago, expressing feelings was considered indulgent or impolite. Modern psychology has revealed the downside of repression. Feelings don’t go away just because we will them to, but often reemerge in destructive ways. Repressed feelings lead to role-playing and using work, social success, recreation, drugs, and other “narcotic” behaviors to ward off pain.
This film was part of a turning point in recognizing the importance of owning darker feelings like grief, anger, and resentment. Dr. Berger asks Conrad, “What was the one wrong thing you did?” The boy answers poignantly, “I hung on. I stayed with the boat. I lived.”
Self-care is a virtue in Christian tradition. A healthy exploration of feelings is an essential ingredient in that care. Christians need to be alert that self-care does not trip over into self-absorption—where the world revolves around my feelings, my needs, my wants—becoming part of the problem, not the solution.
And what’s the antidote to that happening? Claiming an ordinary life, full of ordinary hopes, joys, and anxieties. Our feelings and issues are more manageable from this perspective, especially when other ordinary people share the burden.
• Do you see the problems of Conrad and the Jarrett family as problems that are common among many families today?
• How do you care for your emotional needs? What helps you make healthy emotional choices?
• What would you describe as the moments of grace in this movie?
Meet the Author
Richard Leonard, SJ, is a writer and film critic who has written and spoken about cinema, culture, and faith on four continents. An Australian Jesuit with advanced degrees in theology and film, Leonard is the director of the Australian Catholic Film Office.
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