Tag Archives: Catholic

DVD Review: Silence

silence

Adan Driver (left) and Andrew Garfield are Portuguese missionaries in Japan whose mission is a huge test of faith in Silence.

Learning of Martin Scorsese doing Silence caught my intrigue: Scorsese doing a film about Catholic missionaries. The big question would be how would it turn out? Would it be pro-Catholic or anti-Catholic? Or something else entirely?

It it the 17th Century. Portuguese Jesuit priests Rodrigues and Garupe  are sent to Japan to spread the faith and to find Father Ferreira. Ferreira was sent as a missionary from Portugal, but has been forced to watch the brutal executions of people he helped convert to the faith and has since apostatized. In their first stop in Macau, they came across one of the converts who himself watch executions happen. He’s now a paranoid alcoholic.

Once they arrive in Japan, they arrive in the village of Tomogi. They learn that Catholics have resorted to an underground church. The people are relieved to see they have a full priest available but the priests learn of the samurai searching out Christians to execute: commonly called ‘The Inquisitor.’

Both priests go to different islands. Garupe goes to Hirado Island to avoid having the village threatened and Rodrigues goes to Goto Island in search of Ferreira. He comes across the man from Macau who betrays him in front of an old samurai. The samurai has Rodrigues and the Catholic converts arrested and taken to a prison in Nagasaki. The samurai warns Rodrigues to renounce his faith or else the other captured Christians will be tortured. The samurai give the Christians a chance to step on a rudely-carved crucifix to renounce their faith. One man refuses and he’s beheaded on the spot. Rodrigues has to witness this from his prison cell. Later, Rodrigues is taken to a shoreline where three Christians from Hirado and even father Garupe are to be executed by drowning. Even though Garupe refuses to apostatize, Rodrigues is horrified by what he witnesses.

Finally Rodrigues gets to meet up with the apostate Ferreira. Ferreira tells him after 15 years in Japan, Christianity is futile in Japan. It’s best that he apostatize. They day before Rodrigues goes on trial, he hears the torture of five Christians who had apostatized. Then the day comes. Rodrigues is brought to trial by the shogun and is presented the chance to step on the crude carved crucifix to apostatize. Rodrigues appears to hear permission from Christ and steps on it. He is distraught. Rodrigues spent his remaining years in Japan married and searching out goods from ships incoming from Europe. His job was to identify Christian items from non-Christian items. The ending will definitely lead to a lot of conversation.

We should keep in mind this is not exactly a true story. Instead this is a film adaptation of a book of the same name written in 1966 by Japanese author Shusaku Endo. Whatever the situation, this is a film that presents a huge challenge to one’s faith. Even one with the strongest of faith and convictions can find themselves questioning what they would do in a situation like this. We should remember this is not a case of Christian martyrdom where the priest is the first to be executed. The followers are executed first as a pressure to get the priest to apostatize. The methods of execution are also horrific such as slowly dousing prisoners in hot spring water slowly and painfully to burning them alive wrapped in grass. I’m sure some would ask what would they do in this situation? Is it a selfish thing to hang on to one’s faith while the others are tortured and killed?

I’m sure a lot of people would be suspicious of a film like this coming from Martin Scorsese. Scorsese has had a reputation of a lot of negative and even blasphemous depictions of Catholicism and the Catholic faith. The biggest controversy was in 1988 when The Last Temptation Of Christ hit the theatres and there were protests galore. This film does not give a negative depiction of the priests. Instead it presents the challenges of faith such as the pressure to apostatize or the treatment of sacred images. One thing about the film is that the ending of the film is sure to give a lot of discussion of the final fate of Rodrigues. They say endings should have you asking questions rather than give you answers. It sure worked here as a lot of debate of the ending has sure come about. Even the end scenes after Rodrigues apostatized prompted a discussion between me and another person. This film will have you talking.

One thing it goes to show about this film is that it shows just how difficult it is for a director to make a labor-of-love film. No matter how many hit movies a director may produce, they still have stories deep in their heart they can only dream of putting on film. Even a renowned director like Scorsese would face such challenges. It’s not just in the amount of time it would take to develop such an idea on film– this film is 25 years in the making– but also the willingness of executives to allow it. We forget that film making is a business first and foremost, and business is ruthless. Even after all is completed, it’s then up to how the general public will receive it. In the end, Silence became Scorsese’s lowest-grossing film since 1997’s Kundun. It is a shame because the film is wonderful to watch and showcases a lot of excellent aspects. The film did make the AFI’s annual Top 10 list of the best films as well as the Top 10 list of the National Board of Review.

Martin Scorsese does another good job of directing, even if it’s not his best. He works the film very well and presents it well without his usual trademark of over-the-top blood-and-guts. Sure, there were torturous scenes, but they were a far cry from what you’d normally see in Scorsese film. I feel the adaptation he wrote along with scriptwriter Jay Cocks included the right parts and right moments from the novel as none of the scenes seemed pointless. Also he did a good job of maintaining the dignity of the priests and of the Catholic faith. Maybe this is a change in Scorsese.

Andrew Garfield did a very good job in his portrayal of Rodrigues. This was one year where Garfield played roles of people with strong faith. First was Hacksaw Ridge and now this. He did a very good job in presenting a man with a huge spiritual struggle. Adam Driver was given less screen time and it didn’t allow well for his part to develop. He did do well with what he had. Lia Neeson was also good in his part despite how brief and how limited it was. If there was one supporting actor who could steal the film from Garfield, it’s Issey Ogata as Inquisitor Inoue. He came off as cartoonish at the odd time but he succeeded in making you hate him. Other great works in the film include the cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto. He did a lot of good shots in creating the drama and even capturing the beauty of the scenery. Also worth noting is the excellent production design from Dante Ferreti in both the natural and man-made settings and the costuming also by Ferreti which were top notch.

Silence will most likely go down as Scorsese’s most overlooked masterpiece. It was a labor of love of his that didn’t pan out at the box office. Nevertheless, it’s a good think he made this film as it features a lot of cinematic qualities and gives a lot to marvel at.

Advertisements

Oscars 2015 Best Picture Review: Spotlight

Spotlight stars Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and MArk Ruffalo as journalists ready to settle the score.

Spotlight stars Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo as journalists ready to settle the score.

I’ll admit I saw Spotlight two months ago and I’ve been procrastinating at writing my review. Now that the Oscar nominations are out–actually only an hour ago– this is a better time than ever.

The film begins in the 1970’s of a priest being fired from his job as a teacher at a Catholic elementary school in Boston. Fast forward to 2001. The Boston Globe has a new editor, Marty Baron. He first learns of the investigative Spotlight team of the paper headed by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson.

Baron gives the Spotlight team a story to chase: a story of a priest sexual abusing children and Cardinal Bernard Law knowing about it and doing nothing about it. It first starts as a pursuit on a single priest who was continuously moved around from school to school. Over time it they would uncover that there were many priests who also committed acts of sexual abuse on school children and they were all covered up by the Archdiocese.

This is one story they had to get to the bottom of. However they’re limited in terms of resources. Plus they need permission to access sealed documents and have a trial or even an inquiry happen and they doubt they can get it from a Catholic judge. They talk with a head of a victims rights group who himself was abused, they talk to other abuse victims, they talk to a lawyer who’s handling the cases of some of the victims and they even find through an ex-priest who tried to rehabilitate pedophile priests that there could be as 90 sex offenders in the clergy. Further research uncovers additional priests moved about upon their actions being revealed and being listed as ‘relocated’ or ‘resigned.’

In September 2001 it appears the Spotlight team is finally ready to release the story. Then 9/11 happens which makes every other news story in the world take a backseat and cause even a further delay of the story being printed. However the wait works for the better as one of the Spotlight reporters, Michael Rezendes, uncovers proof through publicly available documents that Law knew all about the abuse going on and ignored it. Then a major victory. The judge grants them the right to look into sealed documents. Just as they are about to print the story, Robinson confesses he published a list of pedophile priests in 1993 but he never followed up on it. As the story is published, it creates history.

I’m sure that some people would be nervous about this film and declare it ‘anti-Catholic.’ In fact if I were a conservative conspiracy theorist, I would say Spotlight is a film released by an anti-Catholic director who wonders where all the Catholic hate from liberals went once Pope Francis came to power and wants Spotlight to bring it back. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist nor am I a conservative pundit. In fact the film has received positive feedback from Vatican Radio and even the current Cardinal of Boston praised it in showing how the Archdiocese had to confront its wrong.

I will say that I’ve seen bigger even more savage attacks on the Catholic Church in films in the past, especially from Martin Scorsese. In fact I remember watching 2002’s The Magdalene Sisters where the nuns were depicted as total monsters. I feel films nowadays are less anti-Catholic than that of 20 years ago or even 40 years ago. In fact one thing I give the film credit for is that it looks at all sides. It may portray Cardinal Law as a conniver but it wasn’t hard on depiction of the priests. In fact one scene that stuck out to me was when one of the alleged priests was interviewed. He not only appeared confused in how he didn’t know what sexual abuse was but admitted that he was raped as a boy. That not only shocked me but left me wondering how many of the abusive priests were themselves sexually abused as a boy?

On a personal note, I will admit that when I first saw the film, I left the theatre asking myself “Jon, why did you return to the Catholic Church?” It was a dilemma for days but it did solve itself over time. In fact shortly after, I wrote on my Facebook page: “I gave the Catholic Church a second chance in 2003 and it better not blow it this time.” I will never excuse a priest for sexually abusing any child. I believe they should be brought to justice. In fact, Pope Benedict clarified the issue when he said: “Forgiveness is not a replacement for justice.” I know you can’t take back the past however you can improve the future. The Catholic Church has not become blind to the issue of sexual abuse. In fact I learned from one man who tried to enter into education for the priesthood he had to get a criminal record check, an HIV test and a psychiatric assessment. I’m happy that the Catholic Church is taking the best preventative measures to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

In fact off topic from the film, I will admit that sexual abuse and the various Diocese’s and Archdiocese’s bad handling of it is a problem but I will also say that it’s a problem that goes far beyond the Catholic Church. It’s a problem that exists in other churches as well, it exists within certain families, it exists within school and it even exists within children’s sports programs. In fact this decade’s biggest sexual-abuse-and-cover-up story came not from a Catholic institution but from coach Jerry Sandusky and the cover up from Penn State university. Makes you wonder why the priesthood gets a lot of defamation from the sexual abuse of those while children’s sports coaches don’t get the same defamation. A sex offender is a sex offender no matter what their profession or even if it’s not to do with a profession at all.  Same thing with Universities, especially since it’s only come to light that colleges have a known rape problem but they’re doing next to nothing about it.

Back to the film, I think the biggest thing the film was focusing on was the bad marriage of church and state. Separation of church and state is enforced in the American constitution but it’s not to say it does find its way mixed into politics one way or the other. In fact I don’t think Spotlight attacks the Catholic Church as a whole but actually attack the Archdiocese of Boston. The film presents how the Archdiocese of Boston has such a huge influence over the city. We’re talking about a city with a huge percentage of Catholics and with a history of the Catholic Church giving, providing and influencing the city. No wonder a city like Boston would have such high regard for the Archdiocese. No wonder most Bostonians would look at priests as father figures. No wonder also would that present the biggest difficulty in terms of getting the ugly truth out, especially with people having a high regard for the Church in power and with a Cardinal sweet-talking those determined to get the truth.

The theme of sexual abuse may be very prevalent in the film but I think the biggest focal point of the film was to show a group of reporters uncovering a scandalous story and bringing it to print. One thing is the film doesn’t make like the Spotlight team are the blemish-free good guys of the film. It’s made known near the beginning of the film that this information was given to them five years earlier. They themselves made a big mistake of their own by delaying the story. Sure, they did a whole whack of effort to finally bring it to press in 2002 but they could have done it sooner. I think that was the whole thing of Spotlight is that it was a movie disinterested in making the image of a hero out of anybody. Besides we already hear of the mistakes of having an image of somebody is a bad thing as one abuse victim admitted he looked at priests to be like God. I’m sure millions more have had that deluded image of the priest being like God in their head. However it also shows how easily people can be feel a sense of betrayal by a Church when such atrocities occur. You can’t really blame them for being that disheartened.

I give top credit to director/writer Tom McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer for directing a complex film that’s like a bunch of pieces of a puzzle that had to be put together. This is a story that’s set in the Spotlight room of the Boston Globe and set in various other places throughout and they had to both show all the different parts of the story and make them come together from time to time. They did a good job of making this complex story come together without straying off into unimportant territory. Also they did a very good job of writing a story of sexual abuse that was watchable. I’ve seen other films of sexual abuse that were more explicit like 1992’s The Boys Of St. Vincent. Mind you it was a 90’s thing to do explicit entertainment because envelope-pushing was all the rage back then because 1; you could never put enough nails in the coffin of the Hays Code and 2; because back then softening of scenes or leaving such things out was considered a form of ‘denial’ in art. Anyways these are not the 90’s anymore and watchability is values more. I’m sure if they showed scenes of abuse in the film, it would make it somewhat unwatchable for many. I feel they made a good choice of limiting the topic of abuse to conversations of victims with the journalists. Especially since the top point of the film is how they brought the story to press. Besides I don’t consider compromising elements in a film for the sake of making it more watchable to be a filmmaking weakness. It’s not the 90’s anymore and Tom McCarthy’s not among the likes of Lars Von Trier.

As for acting, there were a lot of great individual performances most notably from Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams but none of them owned the film. In fact another top quality of the film is that it’s a combined effort from all the actors to play parts that don’t steal the show and add to the story telling by making it look like a unified effort. Even acting of the smaller roles that that of the abuse victims were excellent and added to the story. Overall this not simply a film that’s well-crafted. This is a film that does capture your intrigue. It’s a combined accomplishment from McCarthy, Singer and the actors.

Spotlight isn’t strictly about the incident. It’s about getting the story to the presses and the battles the Boston Globe had to go through to break the silence and finally get the word out. Keeps you interested from start to finish.

VIFF 2013 Review: The Priest’s Children (Svećenikova Djeca)

Kresimir Mikic (right) plays a priest with a plan in The Priest's Children.

Kresimir Mikic (right) plays a priest with a plan for his island in The Priest’s Children.

The Priest’s Children is the first film from Croatia in four years to play at the VIFF. The question is does it have what it takes to entertain? And also how would it fare for a film coming from Croatia?

The story is about Don Fabijan: a weary village priest. But he’s not just any weary priest. Don Fabijan was to be the next priest in line at the church on a Dalmatian island. However it’s not just about filling the shoes of a veteran priest who has become like a father figure to the islanders. It’s also dealing with the village’s declining population. The past year there were no births and eight deaths. There was even fear from the villagers that the island might be taken over by immigrants from Africa and China.

So Don Fabijan decides to do something in cooperation with Petar the news agent. He decides to pierce the condoms He sells. Every one. The scheme works well but limited. Yes, sex is more delightful but not as many babies have come. It’s then he decides to take it one step further by getting Marin the town chemist to substitute the birth control pills with vitamins. Soon the birth rate gets better and even marriages are performed. The island even attracts news attention from across the nation and visitors from around the world.

Unfortunately schemes do backfire. Even though the scheme is approved by everyone inside and even the bishop, problems arise. One woman is carrying a baby of her boyfriend who recently died in an accident. His parents lock her up to prevent her from getting an abortion. One baby is found abandoned at Marin’s doorstep. A father grows hostile upon marriage and fatherhood. Even a suicide among the villagers. The scheme had caused great strife amongst the village and major stress among the priests in the end. Don Fabijan himself has to confront the wrongs of the scheme. This paves the way to an ending of humorous but touching resolve.

One thing film festivals like to do is showcase films that put envelopes. I don’t know if this film would push a lot of envelopes upon release in North America but I’m sure this film would raise eyebrows in the director’s home country of Croatia. We shouldn’t forget that Croatia’s a highly-conservative country. It has a lot of mainstream traits in its society common with most of Europe but the country still holds tight to its Roman Catholic roots and still looks at the Church quite highly for the most part. Bresan steps on a lot of touchy ground here when he focuses on the Church, its anti-birth control message, even its scandals in other countries and the subject of Croatia’s declining population and national feeling of xenophobia. It’s a wonder how Croats would take to that film. It’s also a wonder how Catholics will take to such a film.

There’s also question about how such a film would boost the Croatian film industry. We should not forget that Croatia has been a nation independent of Yugoslavia for 22 years and is a country of 4.5 million people. It has an entertainment system that’s capable of holding its own inside Croatia but not well enough to cross over. In fact I heard one Croatian rock singer once say that there’s no current rock scene in Croatia.

As for film, Croatia’s okay for producing entertainment for their own country but there hasn’t been a film style or signature director that is able to give a signature definition to Croatian film. Vinko Bresan is one director that has been able to make a name for himself in Croatia with some crossover success in other countries. Two of his films were Croatia’s official entry for the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film category. For the record, no Croatian film has ever been nominated in that category nor has it made the nine-film Shortlist before nominations. He has received recognition for shelling out films that break taboos of society, especially Croatian society. His films range from comedies like 1999’s Marshall Tito’s Spirit and 2009’s Will Not End Here to dramas like 2004’s Witnesses. His films have done very well at the Croatian box office and have also won international awards at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, the Pula Film Festival and Witness was even a nominee for the Golden Bear at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival.

As for The Priest’s Children, this film earned a nomination at Karlovy Vary. It doesn’t hold the same buzz as some of Bresan’s more celebrated works as far as awards go. As for seeing the film myself, I found the film humorous, has some edginess and even looked like one that could rattle cages. However there were many comedic elements that I’ve seen in films past. Also I didn’t notice anything in terms of its edginess or its distinctiveness that really stood out. The acting was goos from actors like Kresimir Mikic, Niksa Butijer and Marija Skaricic but nothing that really stood out. I will sum the film up as good for Croatia but not really one to take film to a new level or make a big statement.

The Priest’s Children is a humorous film that’s entertaining but not too original and doesn’t really stand out too much. Nevertheless it is an added boost to the developing Croatian film industry and Croatia’s developing arts scene.

Pope Benedict XVI: 21st Century Radical

Pope Benedict XVI: 21st Century Radical

One thing about the Easter holidays is that there’s often stories on magazines focusing on Christianity, Churches, Jesus or other Bible figures.  The Pope also becomes subject of cover stories around Easter time. This Easter, there were a lot of good reasons to pay attention to the Pope and the Church, especially this Easter. This also comes to light as April 16th was Pope Benedict’s 84th birthday.

Joseph Ratzinger has been with the Vatican since 1981 when he was voted Cardinal-Prefect for Pope John Paul II. After John Paul’s death, he has led the Catholic Church as Pope Benedict for six years. He has made a lot of news over the years on the actions he’s done and the responses to issues he’s spoken out about. The responses have differed. Some have welcomed his views and his actions. Others are unhappy or even outraged. Even though he is an interim Pope, he has already made his own legacy in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.

This Easter weekend, he did something unique for a Pope. On Good Friday, he hosted an international televised dialogue where he answered questions written to the Vatican. Of 3000, he answered seven. This was done so on an Italian television show In His Image which was taped a week earlier.

One question was from a 7 year-old Japanese girl Elena. She asked him to explain the suffering in her country ever since the March earthquake and tsunami. His response: “I ask myself the same question: Why is it this way? Why do you have to suffer so much while others live in ease? And we do not have the answers, but we know that Jesus suffered as you do, an innocent.” He went on to give words of comfort: “even if we are still sad, God is by your side.”

Other questions he asked included one from an Italian man of what Jesus did in between the time of his crucifixion and resurrection. His answer: “The descent of Jesus’ soul should not be imagined as a geographical or spatial trip, from one continent to another. It is the soul’s journey.” An Italian woman asked of the soul of her son who has been in a coma for two years:  “The situation . . . is like that of a guitar whose strings have been broken and therefore can no longer play . . . The soul cannot be heard, but it remains within.” A woman from the Ivory Coast asked of the violence that’s tearing her country apart: “Violence never comes from God, never helps bring anything good . . . The only path is to renounce violence, to begin anew with dialogue.”

This is a break from the traditional or expected norm for the Pope. It’s a common belief that the Pope preaches from the pulpit but has no clue of what’s going on in the real world. If that interview has proven something, it’s that the Pope is listening and he is aware of the situations around the world and of people’s concerns. He’s also willing to give answers. Last year, we saw an example of his response to sexual abuse scandal by setting up a council dedicated to the scandal. This year’s example of how he’s willing to answer questions for an Italian television show demonstrated how Pope Benedict is willing to go to connect people with the answers of the Church. This factor is enough to consider Pope Benedict a radical of the Catholic Church.

We shouldn’t forget that during the reign of Pope John Paul II, John Paul came to Benedict for advise and speeches back when he was Cardinal Ratzinger. It was because of this that he was heavily expected to be elected Pope after the death of John Paul II. Pope Benedict knew what the job of being Pope was long before he took to the throne. Despite what one believes, he is to represent the moral voice of the Roman Catholic Church to its 1.2 billion followers. He can’t simply ‘go with the times’ or ‘get with the program’ and say ‘yes’ to what is already deemed sin in the Bible. In fact many faithful admire how the Pope is refusing to bless popular sins. New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said that the Church now has a ‘counterculture’ status: “Jesus stood in opposition to the world, in opposition to culture and society. It’s a good thing the Church is against the world.” This is enough to label Pope Benedict a radical of the times.

This is one of the challenges of the Church and of Pope Benedict. He knows that the Catholic Church has to be an example of God’s love. He also knows that the Church has to be a strong moral voice to its followers and condemn sinful acts. Finding a balance between the two is the hard part. This is not the only balancing act Pope Benedict has been trying to do. Another is trying to bring back a lot of common traits of the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council from fifty years ago. One of which was encouraging a return to the Latin Mass. He knows how a lot of Catholics left when the Latin Mass was dropped. He also is taking into account the Traditional Catholics that separated themselves from the Vatican after the Council and consider the Church false and the seat of the Pope vacant.

However the biggest surprise I received in terms of the press’ attitutes towards Pope Benedict came in an Article from Maclean’s magazine. It asked “Is The Pope Catholic?” It gave account to a lot of surprising things Pope Benedict has done over his reign and puts them into question. MacLean’s has even highlighted some of his questionable sayings:

From inflaming the Islamic world by quoting medieval anti-Muhammad remarks to welcoming disaffected Anglicans into the Roman fold, becoming personally embroiled in the clerical sex-abuse scandal, endorsing the (sometimes) use of condoms, writing a passage in his newest book exonerating Jews from the charge of killing Christ, and a host of less headline-grabbing initiatives (including a casual acceptance of the theory of evolution).

This was brought to the attention by a book by Canadian author Michael Coren entitled Why Catholics Are Right. Coren defends the Church and Pope Benedict’s actions in the book. However it’s also highlighted that the top concern of Pope Benedict is the spiritual state of Europe. There’s no question that the secularizing of European society has upset Benedict a great deal and he wants Europe to see that the Church has reason in society. He also wants to see Europe return to the Church-based values that helped shaped the continent for centuries. Only time will tell if it does or not.

Interesting the quote above mentions the ‘condom use’ part. Many remember how Pope Benedict mentioned that condom use is justifiable in some cases, like sex with a prostitute. Although it created a lot of news the world over, one thing that was overlooked that that sex with a prostitute remains a mortal sin, condom or no condom.

As Easter passes, the Church will experience another year. As the world becomes more secularized, Pope Benedict carries the Church and its moral voice on his shoulders. Some will welcome what he has to say while some will question and others will be outraged. Nevertheless, the Church has to stand firm on its morals as it carries the conscience of the Church’s 1.2 billion believers. Pope Benedict knows it and he’s ready to meet the challenge.

WORKS CITED:

MACLEAN’S: Is The Pope Catholic?. Macleans.ca. Author: Brian Bethune. 2011. Rogers Media Inc.<http://www2.macleans.ca/2011/04/18/rebel-with-a-cross/>

NEW YORK POST: Pope Benedict Answers Questions On TV On Good Friday.NYPost.com. Author: Andy Soltis.2011. NYP Holdings, Inc. <http://www.nypost.com/p/news/international/good_fri_popecast_bXYW6mxE0djUeun3iQ4j5K>

Movie Review: Of Gods And Men

The French/Arabic-language film Of Gods And Men doesn’t have the type of subject matter that would normally bring in a large crowd. The film is about Cicstercian Monks living in a small village in Algeria facing threats from fundamentalist terrorist groups. Nevertheless those lucky enough to see it will love it for what it is.

This film is based on an incident that happened in 1996. Seven French monks from the Algerian village of Tibhirine were found decapitated. The film focuses on the days just before they were killed. They were a group of eight monks who lived in a monastery in Tibhirine. They devoted their lives to monk rituals of gardening, distributing medical help to locals and religious devotions. They were present at the village during times of celebration and they conversed with the villagers regularly. They all did this during a time of the Algerian Civil War. Religious extremists were committing acts of brutality amongst foreigners and their own people. The pressure was felt by the monks. Christian, the leader and resident religious scholar, tells authorities they will not go. However this is hotly debated with the other monks as some fear for their own safety. Christian then gives the men time to decide whether to leave or not. News gets grimmer by the moment. They even face potential threats of their own. Authorities of the Algerian government request they leave for their lives. The villagers however convince them of how vital they are to the community. In the end, as one brother pays a visit to the monastery, they all vote to stay. Late in the night, seven of the nine are found, captured and taken away. Those would be their last minutes known to be alive.

The film has many great qualities. Its best technical quality was the cinematography as it added to the film in showcasing the landscape in its best splendor. The film was well-directed and well-written by French director Xavier Beauvois. The script he co-wrote with Etienne Comar was excellent and very no-nonsense as it cut at the heart of the monks and the village they served. As important as it was to show the events that happened leading up to the times, the script’s biggest focus was on the monks and their lives. It was more about people than events. Even the scene of the last dinner with the music of Swan Lake in the background was done with the focus on the men. 

 The biggest strength of the movie is definitely the acting. Of all performances, the two that stood out were that of Christian the leader and Luc the doctor. Lambert Wilson’s performance of Christian was excellent and the most intense. Often he said more in his scenes of silence than he did with his spoken parts. Michael Lonsdale’s performance of Luc the Doctor was the best supporting performance. There wasn’t a hint of phoniness in it.

As for the monks as a whole, the most remarkable thing about the film is its ability to give three-dimensional portrayal of monk characters. The film not only showed them in their prayer life but also showed the devotion during their prayers. The film showed them in their occupations and how important they were to the village. The film showed their convictions and their beliefs. The film showed the bond between the men. Above all, it was alll done in a three-dimensional manner. This is very rare for a film to accomplish that feat. Even back during the days of the Hays Code–where one of the rules was that religious figures were to be depicted in a positive manner–religious figures were still two-dimensional at the most. Even the negative depictions of religious figures that came once the Hays Code was dropped in the 60’s as ‘censorship’ or ‘restrictive of creativity’–were also two dimensional and often too stockish. This film has to be the most realistic and inside-out portrayal of religious characters, in both character and their vocation, that I’ve ever seen on the big screen. Even 1997’s The Apostle doesn’t compare as Robert Duvall’s portrayal of a minister had more focus on his passion and personal demons than on his vocation.

Also vital is the ending of the film. It is not known who exactly killed the monks. An Islamic extremist group has claimed responsibility but recent documents from the French secret service claim that the Algerian army carried it out as a mistake during the rescue attempt. The film doesn’t pick one group at fault as the monks are captured in the dead of night with the darkness hiding their identity.

There may be some nervous in seeing this film, feeling it might try to ‘convert’ them to Catholicism. For the record, director Xavier Beauvois has not directed a religious film in the past. One thing we should note is that while the monks lived at the monastery, there’s no scene of them trying to convert any of the villagers from Islam. In fact Brother Christian was as knowledgeable about the Koran as he was about the Bible. When religion extremists threatened to shoot the brothers in one instance, Brother Christian quoted a passage from the Koran which caused the leader to drop his gun and order his followers to leave. I believe Beauvois wanted to show that for the monks, the faith was mightier than the sword. Also in the script was a scene where the monks talk about the difference between the Islamics and ‘Islamists’. This is good for a time when religion faces a lot of flack from religious dissenters. I believe that may have been another point from Beauvois that it’s important for one to recognize the believers from the ‘beliefists’.

This film has won a lot of accolades. It won the Grand Prix and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The Grand Prix is second to the Palme d’Or as the most prestigious award at the Festival. Other nominations and awards have followed such as wins at France’s Cesar Awards, nominations at the European Film Awards, nominated for Best Film Not In The English Language at Britain’s BAFTA awards and was France’s official entry for the 2010 Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film category. The film was well received by critics here in North America and has a 91% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

Although this is a movie that makes for excellent viewing for Catholic communities, it’s not completely 100% ‘safe’ for everyone. There is a few profanities utters, including one by a monk. There are also some scenes of violence. The most violence is the scene of soldiers being cut at the throat by the extremists. Most of the violence is only seen through news footage.

For writers and directors with religious values, this film offers a ray of hope for those who want to break into film making. It shows that a film showcasing religious values can not only be shown on the big screen but also be written and produced well. That has long been the dilemma ever since the Hays Code has been lifted. This was best summed up in a quote by Catholic scriptwriter/acting school director Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington: 

I realized coming (to Hollywood) that it’s not so much Hollywood is persecuting the Church as much as it was the Church was committing suicide in Hollywood. Big difference. So I basically wrote an article about it saying that Hollywood isn’t anti-Christian as so much as it’s anti-bad art, and we’re just giving it schlock.

She states a major hurdle here as all too often a lot of Christian writers have written a lot of scrpits viewed by Hollywood as sub-standard in skill while the more liberal writers seem to know how to write for the screen. It’s a hugely difficult task to write a film of positive values or strong faith for the general audience without crossing the line of being schmaltzy or manipulative. Of Gods And Men shows that it can be done and it’s just a matter of learning how to do things right.

If you’re fortunate enough to have it come to your city, I highly recommend you see Of Gods And Men. Even if you don’t buy the Catholic faith or want a movie with preachy religious themes, it’s a film worth watching. It’s as much about people and their devotion to their beliefs as it is about an incident that happened. Even with the tragic ending, it tells a lot about the human spirit that will stay with the viewer once they leave the theatre.