February 8, 2011


“Of Gods and Men” is a feature film made in France about the seven Cistercian monks killed in Algeria in 1996 (subtitled in English). It’s up for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film—a pretty big deal, especially due to the fact that the film itself (not just the subject matter) is profoundly and explicitly and—I would say--purely religious.

It’s almost as if the monks are truly telling their own story from beyond the grave. The motivation for their whole lives was simply and only God and His people. The motivation for their martyrdom (which they could have avoided by choosing to flee or accept protection—both luxuries not afforded to those whom they served) was simply and only God and His people. But although there is a simplicity and single-heartedness here, the lives of the monks were fraught with complex tensions, and, each having their own temperament, they each faced their agony in their own way. But together.

This is a very European, very French film. It moves slowly and is reminiscent of “Into the Great Silence,” but with dialogue. Watch it when you are calm or want to be calm. It’s a prayer experience. You must take time to reflect on the radical Gospel concepts put forth. I can’t think of a more perfect movie for Holy Week.

The movie is also very French in its poetic approach to God, religion and life. A poetry with teeth, that you can hang your hat on, but at the same time that is very tender like Jesus who is “Infinite Love.” (When’s the last time you heard that in a movie?) And--mais oui!--nothing sounds like the name “Jesus” in French, does it?

The film takes its time, almost to get you into the rhythm of the lives of the monks. We chop wood with them, attend to mothers and children in the free clinic, make and sell honey, work the land, eat in common, but most of all pray together. There are lots and lots of prayer times, with beautiful singing in French: “hymns and Psalms and inspired songs.” The Psalms, in particular, become more and more germane and real as the danger increases. There’s a beautiful scene were the liturgically-vested, white-robed monks throw their arms on each other’s shoulders in a chain as they sing their prayers (the ever-strong Psalm 141!) while helicopters menace over the chapel.

The monks also deliberate much together. They sit down in council and discern. What should they do? Stay or go? What would be the point of each course of action? What would their Master do?

The monks are middle-aged or elderly. They chafe a bit against each other (a Canadian priest of the Oratory once said: “community life is like a bunch of pennies in a bag rubbing against each other, shining each other up”), but the love runs so much deeper in a thousand and one little details and kindnesses.

“Of Gods and Men” is also a marvelous film for interreligious dialogue/reflection. Algeria is a Muslim country, colonized by the French. This causes built-in problems, but also a coming together of two nations and religions with a great deal of mutual respect. The common people love the monks and the monks love them. An armed terrorist apologizes for bursting in on the monks on Christmas—the birth of the “Prince of Peace.” Muslim village elders decry the violence against non-combatants erupting in the Civil War. This is a very nuanced view of Islamic-Christian relations.

Why do these monks—over ten years later—still capture our imagination? Because they knew what they were getting into. They understood the brutality they could face. Although some hesitated to stay, others did not. As one said to another: “We already gave our lives by becoming monks.” Their act of heroism, of resistance, of love, of freedom (freedom is a big theme!) was to stay and carry on with their daily lives of harmony, charity and worship. Their act of selflessness reminded me of Blessed Charles de Foucauld (another French monk martyred in Algeria).

I rarely watch movies twice. But this one needs to be seen over and over. It’s a meditation. Few films have ever gotten this close to the heart of Christianity.


--Heathen nun that I am, I got a little annoyed with the very many prayer times. But, good gravy-stains, I thought later, why SHOULDN’T we see a plethora of them, experience them! The praise of God is the raison d’etre of the monks’ lives (and not just some social activism) and, ahem, the raison d’etre of, like, everyone else’s life on the planet, too? What better words in the words of men than the words of God? When there are no more words to say, what better words in our mouths than God’s Word?

--Pope Benedict is virtually PLEADING with us these days to READ and REFLECT on THE WORD OF GOD!

--THEOLOGY OF THE BODY: The Incarnation and Resurrection shine through this movie like sun through stained-glass. There is a continuous eschatological expectation shot throughout, even before Death begins rattling his rusty sabre….

--THEOLOGY OF THE BODY: A lovely and funny description (as only the French can!) of what love is. The doctor-monk talks to a teenage Muslim girl. He even begins to outline BJP2G’s stages of love from “Love and Responsibility”: attraction, desire….

--Slowest scene in the film: Father Superior walks up the hill. And walks and walks and walks and walks and walks and walks.... Somebody wake up the editor!!!!

--MY community watched the film before me and only complained about one scene: the “Last Supper” scene. It didn’t work for them because the monks put on a cassette of “Swan Lake” which plays rather bombastically while the camera pans back and forth over their faces. The problem is, we forget that the sound is diegetic, and begin to think the filmmakers made a really back choice of scored music here. Some of the characters looked very self-conscious and camera shy for the first and only time, while others burned up the screen, ready for their close-up. The ancient Fr. Jean-Pierre is the best little actor of the lot. Father Superior at this point gets a little melodramatic. However, this scene DID work for me. I kept thinking, maybe they DID play “Swan Lake.” (There were actually 8 monks in the monastery when the abduction happened, so there is a living eye-witness of everything that took place before. He is still alive at 86.)

--THEOLOGY OF THE BODY: Spiritual but not religious? You just split yourself in two. “Spiritual” is of the soul. “Religious” is of the body. We need both. If we’re “spiritual” and not “religious,” then we’re just tripping out on something unseen, interior, unverifiable that has no consequences in materiality. If we’re “religious” but not “spiritual,” our religion is empty, “lip service,” external formalities, hollow, heartless. (“Religare” means “to bind.” I sure want to bind myself physically to God, too! And, we’re ALL spiritual any way because we’re ALL body and soul.)

--This movie reminded me of another recent French movie, “Lourdes” (2010). The French are not afraid of the human body, the human face. They don’t dress it up too much. It’s just there in all its plainness, stillness.

--The monks deliberations are in faith, trust, natural and supernatural reasoning.

--It’s all about imitating the helpless Christ-Child and the vulnerable Pierced-One who has the power to lay down His life and take it up again, and us with Him.

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February 4, 2011


"THE BEAVER" with Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster. Uh-oh. Mel plays a psychologically unhinged husband and father who has to "go away" and begins talking to everyone through a beaver puppet. Uh-oh.

"JAYNE EYRE" Yes. Another one. (But you can't do better than Timothy Dalton!)

"CEDAR RAPIDS" Debauched comedy: square insurance salespeople live it up at a convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Stars Ed Helms and John C. Reilly

"THE TREE OF LIFE" Eerie, transcendent. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. A little boy...his parents...a father who is tough on him..."There are two ways: nature and grace--we choose which one"...[WRONG!!! GRACE BUILDS ON NATURE AND THEY ARE A PACKAGE DEAL!]..."unless you love, your life will fly by"..."guide us to the end of time".... This looks tres intriguing!

"THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU" Suspense/thriller: Our lives are run by other people through hi-tech. John Slattery (from Newton, MA) heads up the bureau. Matt Damon (from Cambridge, MA) isn't having any of that because he wants the plan for his life to include Emily Blunt (from across the pond).


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I did not want to see this movie. I was preparing myself for yawnsville. Nothing of the sort.

“The King’s Speech” is leading the Oscar nominations, and with good cause. Even though we more or less know the premise and the outcome (stammering royal needs to make important speech and somehow does), we don’t know the stakes, the historical situation, and the profoundly human story behind it all.

It’s 1925. British King George V’s son, Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth in an impeccable performance), has had a life-long stammer. No one has been able to help him. His wife, Elizabeth (HELENA Bonham-Carter), finds an eccentric speech therapist, Lionel, played by that chameleon, Geoffrey Rush. An amusing, ongoing power struggle ensues between doctor and patient, royal and commoner, continuing for most of the film and resolving into the true center here: friendship. And not just a friendship of mutual need, employer and hireling, or a closed-in friendship, but two men who always have in mind their service to the greater good, the common good, to duty and helping humanity.

If it had NOT been a friendship, the therapy would not have worked. This is evident from the best scene in the movie which takes place in Westminster Cathedral. Perhaps we have not plumbed the depths of what Jesus meant when he said: “I no longer call you servants, but friends.” Perhaps we have not tapped the power of true, altruistic, outward-looking friendship enough in our private and public lives. (Another film that highlights the power of friendship to do good in the public sphere is “Amazing Grace,” about William Wilberforce and his friend, the prime minister, who put their heads together to end slavery in England and pass other beneficial legislation during their lifetimes.)

“The King’s Speech” is something like the tale of the three workmen who were asked what they were doing. The first said, “laying brick,” the second said, “installing windows,” and the third said, “I’m building a cathedral!” Albert and Lionel always have sense of the bigger picture. “The King’s Speech” presents a nobility that is accessible and able to be practiced by all. A noble attitude. Something it seems to me we need to recover in today’s society. In fact, has our modern-day eschewing of some semblance of decency and societal mores really gotten us anywhere? I rather fancy them. They served a high purpose and gave direction and peace of mind. To the filmmakers’ great credit, these social mores are presented intact, without “modernizing” them or belittling them.

Just to clarify, without giving too much away—but of course, if we know our history, which I didn’t exactly, it won’t be giving anything away—Albert is not yet “king” when the movie opens. His brother, David, is next in line for the throne.

The exposition in “The King’s Speech” is masterful. There is much timely background we need to know about the famous “years between the wars,” yet we never feel like we’re being “instructed.” Apart from an early scene where Albert and Lionel sit opposite each other and their eye-lines are off and we can see them reading their lines, “Speech” is flawless and seamless.

Albert and the Duchess make a great pair, a great team. A lovely portrait of what marriage can be.

“Speech” is a total showcasing of the craft of acting. Long scenes; long, intense close-ups leave the actors totally exposed. And each actor—without any kind of grandstanding--fills the screen, fills up our cinema with intelligent emotional substance that leaves us rapt. Bravo.

Colin Firth does a fantastic imitation of Albert’s struggle to do something so mundane, and yet so vital, especially for his day (live speeches and radio) and his rank (world leader). And yet, Firth doesn’t drag out the stammering so much that we are in agony waiting for his next line. Just enough to let us know how real, burdening, frustrating and painstaking was the handicap.

Isn’t it interesting how so often we seem to be called to or thrust into a position that we are ill-equipped for? And yet we MUST succeed at? Or perhaps we often choose—consciously or subconsciously--to be or do something that involves conquering our biggest fear or what we’re NOT good at? Why can’t taxi drivers drive? Why can’t anchormen and anchorwomen talk? “Speech” isn’t just about one speech, but about the very act of speaking. Imagine if you could barely do it. The world of speech pathologies is opened up to us (at least as much as was known at the time) in a very creative and often lighthearted way.

King George V makes his own great “media literacy” speech to Albert about the new importance—in the life of a monarch/ruler--of being able to use media well. How they now are obliged to “invade people’s homes” as “actors,” and must become beloved celebrities this way. (Whereas, before, they just had to “look good in uniform” and not “fall of their horse in public." Ha ha.)

“Speech” is a well-rounded out, full-course meal, seasoned with dry British wit, while still being a slice of history—not easy, that.


--HELENA Bonham-Carter looks like she was born to wear 20’s/30’s styles.

--Corgis! (The present-day Queen Elizabeth II, Albert’s daughter, still has ‘em!)

--Great 1930’s inflections, pronunciations and vocabulary….

--British actress, Emily Blunt, used to stammer (or stutter), and one of her schoolteacher’s helped her overcome it by telling her to pretend she was someone else, put on a slight accent, and it worked!

--Very spooky when old newsreels of Hitler suddenly fill the entire screen and we feel like WE’RE in the theater watching this live, pre-WWII….

--Lionel looks like he’s conducting an opera when he’s working with Albert.

--Judicious soundtrack.

--Winston Churchill has a small but meaty part.

--Exaggerated, fictitious or otherwise: “Speech” worked in great turning points (e.g.: “Treason!”)

--Nice camera angles throughout. Reveals a lot of thought and preparation. They also serve to heighten and “show” Albert’s phobia of the microphone (or “apparatus” as Churchill calls it).

--The content of THE speech that the movie is named for is quite a doozie and certainly worthy of a movie.

--A quiet, understated, British ending. As humble and as great as Albert himself.

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