New! Visual Parables Journal for March 2017

LOVE MOVIES? Want to spark discussion with friends? Subscribe to Visual Parables Journal. The March 2017 issue is packed with complete study guides, including: A Dog’s Purpose, Get Out, The Red Turtle, An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, The Comedian, Toni Erdmann, and many more. Visit our Visual Parables store to subscribe.

 

The Red Turtle (2016)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 20 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”

Genesis 2:18

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When his raft is destroyed a 3rd time, the man discovers what has been preventing his escape from the island. (c) Sony Picture Classics

British-Dutch director Michaël Dudok de Wit’s first feature length animated film takes up the shipwreck starting point of Robinson Caruso and Castaway, but then forges its own path to a conclusion about survival and making a home. Based on their admiration of his widely admired two short films, Japan’s Studio Ghibli invited him to make a feature-length film, however he wanted to. They provided such excellent supporters as the studio’s Isao Takahata* and Hayao Miyazaki. (It would be fascinating to have been present during their interchanges.) This French-Belgian-Japanese production probably will appeal more to adults than children, due to its slow pace and almost total lack of dialogue, but there are enough elements, especially a gang of amusing crabs, that make this a good choice for a family outing.

We plunge into the middle of the action with an un-named mariner tossed about by huge waves, his ship apparently having sunk. He manages to swim to an island on which a forest of bamboo and fruit trees surround a bald mountain gently sloping upwards. Just about everywhere he goes, he is followed by the group of crabs. Indeed, it was one of these crawling up his trouser leg that had awakened him on the beach. They are not anthropomorphized, but they add a touch of whimsy to the proceedings.

Obviously longing for home, he dreams one night of a bridge leading away from the island. Then of a costumed string quartet playing on the beach at low tide. We knew he is Caucasian; now that he must be a European. He discovers edible fruit in the forest, and potable water in a pool located in the center of the island. The man builds a raft from the abundant supply of bamboo, using a small tree with thick foliage as his sail. Setting forth toward the open sea, he feels something from below bumping the vessel, but he is unable to discover what it is. Then with louder thumps, the unseen creature demolishes the raft. He starts over again. Same thing happens. The third time is no charm, but the man does learn what his nemesis is—a large red turtle. Back to shore again.

The mystery as to why the turtle opposes his leaving unfolds slowly. When the creature is washed ashore, the man vengefully flips it on its back, leaving it to slowly die of dehydration. But then it shapeshifts into a lovely red-headed maiden. The man no longer attempts to flee, the pair making do with the resources of the island to make a comfortable life for themselves, and the son they eventually produce. Not that their life is entirely an Eden: the boy falls into the same deep crevice with water at the bottom that the father had years earlier, but also manages to swim through a subterranean tunnel to rejoin his parents. And years later, a tsunami sweeps across the island, leaving us to wonder for a while if all the family members have survived. Many decades after the man had swum ashore the story ends in a bittersweet way, foreign to any Disney film.

The hand-drawn figures are simple, the animators spending more effort on the details of the jungle and sea. Those who delight in walking along a beach, or sitting while the sun rises or sets, will love the colors. The night scenes, of which there are many, are in black and white. In addition to the resplendent visual beauty, composer Laurent Perez Del Mar’s musical score enhances the action and makes one feel the beauty of woods, sky and sea. The effect of the music perhaps is heightened by the lack of any dialogue, the only discernable word being a “Hey,” uttered by the man early on when he is frustrated by his failure to leave the island. One might consider this Oscar-nominated film as a visual meditation of life and loss, ameliorated by unexpected companionship.

*Mr. Takahata directed my favorite anime’ film, the haunting Grave of the Fireflies, about an orphaned Japanese brother and little sister, bombed out and living on the streets of Kobe near the end of WW 2. I see that my review, published in another magazine many years ago has been lost, so I’ll have to rewrite it, this being a wonderful film that should be widely known.

This review with a set of questions will be in the March 2017 issue of VP.

The Salesman (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours   min.

Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done;

they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.

Psalm 58:10

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;

for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’

Romans 12:19

WithEif

Iranian Amad & wife Rana star in an amateur production of Death of a Salesman. (c) Amazon Studios

It is unfortunate that Iranian director/writer Asghar Farhadi, who in 2011 gave us A Separation, was prevented by international politics from accepting his Oscar for The Salesman. At least he was able to receive in person the Oscar for his 2011 film. His new film, paying tribute to the American drama Death of a Salesman, is a powerful study of vengeance and its effects on a group of residents of present day Tehran.

The married Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) Etesami hastily leave their apartment when it appears that the building is close to collapsing. Their friend offers them another apartment but fails to inform them that its former occupant was forced to leave because she practiced the “world’s oldest profession.” She has left behind many of her possessions in a storage closet, but has refused to come and remove them.  The couple, members of an amateur drama troupe, have been rehearsing a scene from Arthur Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winner, the husband playing Willy Loman, and his wife playing Linda.

The play recedes in importance when a former client of the woman sneaks into the apartment one night while Amad is away and Rana is taking a shower—she had pressed the admittance buzzer believing that it was her husband. The stranger sexually assaults her, but she fights back, injuring his foot in the process. He flees, leaving splotches of his blood behind. The enraged Rana wants to call the police, but Rana is so traumatized that she cannot bare to go through the humiliating interrogation process.

Amad is a high teacher, well-liked by his students, but Rana is now so fearful that she does not want him to leave her alone in the apartment. Feeling guilt that he had not been able to protect her, he goes back to their old apartment, where he finds some clues that will set him forth on an obsessive search for the rapist. This leads to a third act that is as powerful as any that I have seen regarding the passionate desire to extract vengeance and a plea to “let it go.” Little wonder that Shahab Hosseini has won acting awards in Europe for his portrayal of the aggrieved husband, and the film so many awards. We see the opposing sentiments of the two Scriptures quoted above embodied in both the husband and the wife in this memorable film. Do not let the subtitles keep you from seeking out this striking film.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. 2016 issue of VP.

Amazon Studios

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1967614/?ref_=nv_sr_1

I am Not Your Negro (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 33 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees,

and that write grievousness which they have prescribed;

To turn aside the needy from judgment,

and to take away the right from the poor of my people,

that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless!

Isaiah 10:1-2 (KJV)

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Matthew 12:29-31

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Malcolm X & MLK, Jr. were friends of James Baldwin.          (c) Magnolia Pictures

When I was in seminary and early ministry James Baldwin through his provocative writings made a deep impression on me. Many times, I quoted his statement that being a black man in America meant being in a perpetual state of rage. His polemical The Fire Next Time I regarded as every bit of a God-sent prophecy as the denunciations of injustice hurled forth by Amos and Jeremiah. And now we see, thanks to this work by film-director prophet-Raoul Peck, that Baldwin’s words are as relevant today as they were a half century ago. Despite what the naïve Supreme Court justices thought when they ripped out the heart of the Civil Rights Act, racism is still almost as strong as it was when Jim Crow laws kept “Negroes” in their place. Racism has just gone underground, those still under its sway defending themselves by using the term “political correctness” against anyone who would call them out on their remarks and acts (usually disguised by code words and phrases such as “law and order”).

The Haitian-born filmmaker in a way finishes a work that Baldwin was working on at the time of his death in 1987, Remember This House. He had completed just 30 pages and was hoping to visit the survivors of the three prophets he had cherished as friends, murdered between 1963 and 1967, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. As we see words addressed to his literary agent typed onto the screen, Baldwin wanted “these three lives to bang against and reveal each other, as in truth they did, and use their dreadful journey as a means of instructing the people whom they loved so much, who betrayed them, and for whom they gave their lives.”

The author’s text from his unfinished book are scattered throughout the film, read forcefully by Samuel L. Jackson. We hear Baldwin himself in numerous clips from his TV appearances and speeches on college campuses. All of these provide evidence of what an articulate and courageous observer he was, a true prophet willing to call out liberal whites, as well as rabid segregationists, on their shortcomings. Whites too often, Baldwin observed, thought racism to be an individual affair, conquered by converting the individual, when in reality it was systemic, embedded in our culture. The director also inserts archival photos and news clips from Civil Rights demonstrations and clips of his three friends, as well as photos and clips from ads demeaning to blacks, the latter including scenes from Hollywood films. None of the black screen characters, he says, acted like any black person he knew.

The film clips will be of special interest to VP readers. They go back to the silent era’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin­ and the Thirties era King Kong, Dance, Fool, Dance, and the Stepin Fetchit movies with their negative image of blacks. Films from later on include Imitation of Life, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and The Defiant Ones. Baldwin’s comments on the latter remind me of my surprise years ago, when I first read his report of the reaction to the film of the audience in Harlem (I think this was in The Fire Next time.). Like other whites, I saw the film, about a black and a white convict (played by Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis) escaping while still chained together, as an appeal to racial brotherhood because their hatred of each other slowly changes to mutual respect. Blacks saw it otherwise. The two convicts manage to break the chain that had bound them together. When Poitier’s character jumps aboard a slow-moving freight train, Curtis’ almost reaches the black’s outstretched hand, so he can be pulled aboard. Failing to do so, the black jumps off, now unwilling to abandon his friend. Baldwin approvingly reports that the black audience yelled, “Fool! Get back on the train!” The author points out that liberal depictions of black-white relations in film are attempts to get blacks to let whites off the hook and make them feel better without really facing up to the enormous damage that racism has inflicted on blacks—and on whites as well.

Early Hollywood’s negative view of blacks was carried over into print, a series of shameful magazine ads depicting blacks only in servant roles, adding a touch of color to the mostly B&W documentary. (Aunt Jemima was just one of many such servile characters.)

Just as traditional Christianity teaches the total depravity of humanity, Baldwin teaches the total depravity of American society because of the embedded racism in it. Indeed, he fled his native land to Paris so that he could experience for the first time a sense of freedom, but felt compelled to return to the U.S. when the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum. He says that he wanted to be a witness (and participant) to the struggle to change America, rather than watch if from afar.

Baldwin wrote as an outsider, pointing out that he was not Black Muslim, a Black Panther, nor a Christian –the latter, he says because the church did not practice the command to love the neighbor. He also might have added that the intense loathing of homosexuals of most of church leaders and members at the time also put him outside its pale. (There is just one mention of his homosexuality in the film, revealed in an excerpt from a report by the FBI that kept a watch on him because Hoover saw the writer as Communist endangering the security of America.)

Because of his repeatedly calling out the “moral apathy of American whites’, viewers might be reminded of Baldwin’s friend’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which Dr. King denounced his Southern white detractor’s, some of whom considered themselves liberal, and complained that he was pushing racial matters too hastily. By including scenes from Ferguson and recent police beatings and shootings (including Trayvon Martin’s murder), the director shows that the Black Lives Matter movement is very much needed.

This is truly a movie that matters, and should be seen and discussed along with another film that ought to dispel illusions that racism has been defeated, Ava DuVerna’s 13th. Some have called racism “America’s Original Sin.” When Jesus’s summary of the Law is read, it is apparent that it is indeed the church’s, given the long history of so many of its members’ complicity in the slave trade, slavery, and the maintenance of segregation. All religious leaders who believe that the Scriptures have relevance to current life should be calling this important film to their people’s attention!

In closing, I leave you with these Baldwin quotes to ponder:

“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”

“What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.”

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed that is not faced.”

Note: This director’s film Lumumba can also be found on this site.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. 2016 issue of VP.

 

The Founder (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running Time: 1 hour 55 min.

Our contents Ratings: Violence 0; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star ratings (1-5): 4.5

It is well with those who deal generously and lend,

who conduct their affairs with justice.

Psalm 112:5

Therefore walk in the way of the good, and keep to the paths of the just.

Proverbs 2:20

And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

Luke 7:7-8

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Ray Kroc opens another McDonald’s. (c) The Weinstein Company

Ray Kroc and Willy Loman have one thing in common—they are both salesmen. But what a world of difference in their fates, as is well shown in what could be called The Life of a Salesman. Director John Lee Hancock, working with Robert Siegel’s screenplay and a good cast, follows the growth of a food franchise that feeds 1% of the world every day, from one hamburger restaurant in San Bernadine California to virtually every town in America and 119 other countries around the world. Virtually every American has been influenced by the gigantic McDonald’s Corporation, even those who never pass through its golden arches.

In the opening minutes of the film Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) seems destined to wind up like the failed salesman of Arthur Miller’s play. Ray has a smooth, well-practiced patter to how his Multimixer milkshake machine will increase a restaurant’s business, but virtually everyone turns him down. He is on the road in middle America, where some of the restaurant owners won’t even speak to him. When talking on the phone with his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) back in Illinois, he tries to make it seem that all is well.

One day, when he calls his office, his secretary Jane breaks the news that he has an order for six machines. Thinking it a mistake that anyone would want so many, he calls the McDonald brothers in San Bernardino and is told that there is a mistake—they want eight. Almost before he can say “milkshake,” Ray is traveling on Rt. 66, arriving at last at the McDonald brother’s restaurant. He cannot believe what he sees.

Earlier, Ray had experienced the inefficiencies of most drive-in restaurants at the time. Besides their mediocre food, he had to wait from 20 to 30 minutes for it to arrive, brought to him in his car by harried carhops. Too often there was a mistake in the order, but he was unable to correct it because the carhop had moved on to the next customer impatiently awaiting his food. Also, the places attracted too many teenagers who loitered about, creating a very unfriendly atmosphere.

Ray’s first surprise is that McDonald’s Restaurant is not a drive-in, but a walk-up restaurant, and there are two long lines in front of the two windows. A lady ahead of him tells him not to worry, the line moves quickly. And so it does, and Ray wonders if it is really food in the bag that is handed to him just a few seconds after he placed his order–burger, fries, and a soda for 35 cents. The hamburger and fries are served in paper wrappings rather than dishes, thus no expensive plates or silverware needing to be washed and dried. He asks the attendant where he is to eat the food, and he says in his car, at a park, or at home.

While he is eating on the bench in front of the service window, a mother and her two children join him. He realizes that this a family oriented place. He also notes that the quality of the food is better than that of the drive-ins. Ray goes inside to introduce himself to the busy Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch), telling him he was the one who sold the milkshake machines. Mac shows him around, explain what they call their Speedee system of food preparation. Later that night at a sit-down restaurant he and his brother, Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), describe how they arrived at their system through long experimentation, beginning at a parking lot where they chalked in where the grill, condiment station and everything else in the kitchen would be, and then put their employees through drill sessions, making changes as problems arose. The flashback sequence is enjoyable to watch, revealing both the persistence of the brothers and their ability to think way beyond the box in which other hamburger restaurants were stuck.

The rest of the film deals with the many obstacles that Ray meets on the long, winding road to success, perhaps the most formidable being the McDonald brothers themselves. They are geniuses at solving details of producing the food fast and efficiently, but they lack Ray’s broader vision. Fearful that changes threaten the quality of the food, they fight him when he wants to make changes that will expand the number of outlets—and in the long run we see Ray’s ruthlessness, stooping to dishonest means to get them to agree to his plans—plans that will leave them out in the cold and not even be allowed to use their own name for their original restaurant left to them. Thus, Ray Kroc is not the exemplar of the just man described in Psalms and Proverbs.  However, in persistence he is like the midnight knocker in Jesus’ parable who will not quite until his friend opens the door. Still another parable character that comes to mind is the dishonest steward who feathers his nest at the expense of his boss when he learns he is about to be fired for his dishonesty.

I love the early scene in which Ray, after driving through numerous small towns observes crosses atop church buildings and American flags flying over courthouses and post offices. Meeting with the McDonald brothers, he exclaims, “Crosses. Flags. … Arches.” He goes on to say, “McDonald’s can be the new American church.” Quite a vision for what many consider is “just a fast food joint.” *

The film also shows the importance of being open to others, beginning with the businessman Harry Sonneborn (BJ Novak), who helps the almost bankrupt Ray discern that his business model needs to change, that he is as much in the real estate business as he is in the food business. He informs Ray that the real money will come from owning the land and then leasing it to a local franchise owner, rather than the owner buying the site himself. Another person of great help is the woman whom he steals right out from under the nose of her husband, who comes up with an idea that enables them to replace ice cream for their milkshakes with another product, which means that they do not require the large money guzzling freezers to store it.

As seen in this film Ray Croc is a hard worker, dedicated to the stringent quality control set up by the McDonald brothers. He at times works along with the crew at an Illinois outlet he had set up, even sweeping the front walkway late at night. When some of the rich snobs at his country club buy a franchise, but fail to keep the restaurants clean as well as turn out sloppy food, he moves quickly against them.

If only Ray Kroc were as moral as he was business savvy, but then this is a strength of the movie, Michael Keaton portraying the good and the dark side of the man. As to the darker side of the fast food industry, that of poor food nutrition and its contribution toward our nation’s obesity problem, nothing is said in the film. Though it is enjoyable to follow Ray Croc as he surmounts one problem after another, discerning viewers might wish for a film that is not just another American success story, but one with some social bite to it. Some might see the film as one long McDonald’s commercial supporting the success myth so basic to our culture. Others, focusing on Kroc’s morally objectionable acts, such as his maneuvering the brothers into accepting his promise of giving them a share of the franchise profits with just a handshake, could regard it as an indictment of capitalistic chicanery and degraded values. You be the judge.

*A good friend of mine, Dennis Benson, hangs out in his Michigan town at a couple of local restaurants speaking to lonely travelers, thereby giving them a measure of encouragement. The management at the local  Ponderosa in appreciation of his welcoming ministry has designated “his table” with his name on a small plaque. Because he likes to write in a place abuzz with human activity, he also spends time at McDonald’s. While writing, he also keeps a sharp eye and ear out for fellow patrons in distress, often talking over problems with them. Noticing such encounters, staff members also have come to him to unburden themselves and receive a word of encouragement and hope, thus making him in effect the local McDonald’s chaplain. (His most recent story on FaceBook took place at the McDonald’s.) I hope he gathers together and publishes his accounts of his encounters, the way he did in his delightful book My Brother Dennis, back in the days when he hosted a call-in show on Pittsburgh’s KQV Radio. For more on Dennis, see my ReadtheSpirit blog.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Feb. 2017 issue of VP.

 

 

Silence (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 41 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 6; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”

            …

I say to God, my rock,
‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?’

Psalm 42:1-3; 9

At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice,

‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’

which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Mark 15:34

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’

John 21:15

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The “hidden Christians”eagerly attend the mass offered by Fr. Rodrigues. (c) Paramount Pictures

Rarely has there been such a film as this one, challenging us to think about faith and doubt, martyrdom and pride, the church and Western imperialism, and above all, suffering and the silence of God. Martin Scorsese and co-scriptwriter Jay Cocks have masterfully adapted the Japanese Catholic writer Shusako Endo’s 1966 prize-winning novel for the screen. It has reportedly taken the director almost 30 years to get his version produced (there have been two others—Masahiro Shinoda’s 1971 Chinmoku in Japan, and in Portugal João Mário Grilo’s The Eyes of Asia). After experiencing (a far better word than “seeing”) this one, I can gladly say it was worth the wait.

At the beginning, in the year 1637, we hear words of Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) in a letter he has sent from Japan to his superior in Lisbon describing the way in which a group of Japanese Christians were tortured to death. Hands bound to their bodies, the unfortunates, all of whom had refused to recant (the less familiar word “apostatize” will also be used throughout the film) their faith, are led to the volcanic springs where their captors sprinkle onto them boiling water, and then tie them to posts where they slowly die from their scalding wounds. We see the heads of two priests displayed on a wooden trestle by the side of one of the springs. The priest says that the two missionaries not only refused to renounce their faith by stepping one foot onto a fumie, a sacred plaque bearing the image of Mary or Jesus, but asked to be tortured “so they could demonstrate the power of their faith.”

The above is from the last of Ferreira’s letters describing his intense experience in Japan, read by Father Valignano (Ciarán Hinds) to two idealistic Jesuits, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver). When he tells them that there is a rumor that Ferreira apostatized and is now living in Japan with a wife and child, the two priests refuse to believe the report. It is beyond Fr. Rodrigues’ comprehension that the man who had been his teacher and mentor could have done so. “Impossible,” they both say. They gain permission from their reluctant superior to journey to Japan so that they can find Fr. Ferreira and prove to the world that he is still the great missionary he was reputed to be.

Thus, the film becomes a quest story, one that has reminded some of the quest by Martin Sheen’s idealistic Capt. Willard for Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Indeed, this film might remind viewers of numerous films, such as those made by the Japanese filmmaker whom both Scorsese and his friend George Lukas admire so much, Akira Kurosawa, thanks to the glorious cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto who captures so well the mists from which figures emerge so mysteriously, and the sun which at times lights up the sky, mountains, and seascapes. Then there also is The Mission, Roland Joffé’s film about Jesuit missionaries a century later in South America.

In the Chinese port of Macao our adventuresome priests are brought to the only known Japanese person in the city, and does he turn out to be a disappointment! Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) is in a drunken stupor, dressed in rags, and lying in the bottom of a boat. He claims not to be a Christian, but is willing to put them in contact with some hidden Christians near Nagasaki. Dating back to 1549 when Francis Xavier had begun missionary work in Japan, there had once been a flourishing Catholic enclave there, said to number between 200 & 300K, much of this growth being due to the Jesuits’ mixing of trade and religion. Then later in the century the rulers, sensing danger from the introduction of a foreign cult and the learning of the take-over of lands in the Americas by the Portuguese and Spanish, reversed their initial tolerance and banned Christianity under pain of death.

Rowed close to shore during the night, the three furtively make their way to shore where a party from the nearby village of Tomogi await them. The kakure kirishitan, “hidden Christians,” are both thrilled and afraid as they welcome their three guests. Thrilled, or perhaps I should say “thirsty” like the deer to which the psalmist compares himself, to at last have priests who can hear their confessions and administer the sacraments. Afraid because word of them might bring their shogun’s Inquisitor to their village, which could lead to interrogations, arrest, torture, and death. Rather than house the two priests in the village, they conduct them to an old shack up the mountainside. They give them a secret knock, telling them never to open the door if the knock is different. There is a tiny room under the floor for the two to hide in.

Thus, days are spent confined to the small one-room shack, and nights are spent in a busy round of hearing confessions, baptizing children, and celebrating Mass. The people have long lived without any visible sign of Christ, so they are excited when Rodriguez gives one his small wooden cross and fashions others out of strands of straw. There are so many eager for a tangible sign that he even dismantles his rosary and hands out the beads. All but their guide Kichijiro eagerly receive one. Later the guide reveals to them that when arrested and told to step on the fumie, his parents had refused, but he did. They were burned alive as he looked on. He cannot consider himself a Christian any more.

As the days pass by, the two priests grow restless over their confinement, and so come out to bask in the sunshine. Startled to see a couple of peasants looking their way, they retreat into the shack. The terrified Garrpe urges his companion not to go to the door when they hear knocking, but Rodrigues does. The visitors turn out to be Christians from another village who have heard about the priests’ arrival. Rodriguez agrees to visit them, again finding the people eager to have a priest to whom they can confess and receive the sacraments.

Sadly, when he returns to Tomogi, he learns that the local Inquisitor has learned of their presence and taken away hostages, keeping them until the villagers renounce their faith. He returns and demands three more hostages, two who are volunteers and the third a very reluctant Kichijiro. He says that when he comes back again, they will be required to publicly deny their faith. When Rodrigues emerges from hiding and is asked what they should do, he, not wanting to see them die, counsels them to submit. Upon the officials’ return, Kichijiro quickly steps onto the holy image, and so do the villagers, but the Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) knows this is pretense, so he demands something more degrading. They must spit on a crucifix. Kichijiro does, but the other three refuse. They are bound to stakes at the sea shore, condemned to drown slowly when the tide comes in and the waves wash over their heads.

Rodrigues, hiding at the edge of the forest, is forced to become a mere observer now, his soul tossed about by doubts about the goodness or the power of God. His anguish is expressed by his question, “How can I explain His silence to these people?” He suffers alone because Fr. Garrpe has gone off to work in another village. Soon, Rodrigues too is captured, and comes up against Inoue and his interpreter (Tadanobu Asano). The priest, kept apart in his own cage in the compound, encourages his fellow prisoners. Between these scenes are confrontations with both the Inquisitor and the Interpreter. They say that Japanese people do not want Christianity because it is alien to their land. Rodrigues replies that plants can be transplanted and grow in different soils. But, the retort is that Japan is a swamp into which an alien plant like Christianity will not grow.

Some of the Japanese Christians are brought out before the priest’s cage and told to step on the image. When they refuse, they are sent back to their cell, except for one. Without warning a guard takes out his sword and kills the man, his severed head rolling in front of the priest’s cell. As his headless body is dragged through the compound, the priest again questions the silence of God. To his captors, Rodrigues is anything but the man of faith awaiting martyrdom. “He’s arrogant, like all of them,” the interpreter declares, while Rodrigues is out of earshot, “but he’ll fall.” Taken to Nagasaki, Rodrigues watches helplessly another such brutal incident: a line of prisoners approaches, among whom is Fr. Garrpe. Wrapped in straw mats that pin their arms to their torsos, the Japanese are put aboard a boat. Rodriguez tries to shout to his friend that he should apostatize to save the hostages, but they are too far apart to be heard. When Father Garrpe sees what is being done to the hostages, he…

It becomes apparent that Inoue does not want to make his prisoner a martyr. He wants something far more devastating to any who might still cling to their faith in secret. He transfers Rodrigues to a Buddhist temple where he is told that the man who had triggered his quest is now a Buddhist scholar. The priest demands that he be allowed to see Father Ferreira. When at last he (and we) see Ferreira, there is a flashback to a time when a body is hung upside down, the head in a pit of feces. A small slit has been cut close to the victim’s ear so that slowly blood drips into the pit. This will make sure that the brain will not hemorrhage and that the person will slowly die from lack of blood. Ferreira reveals that he is that person.

The former teacher tells Rodrigues that he had been kept there for several days until at last he had broken, agreeing to convert to Buddhism. Shocked and disillusioned by reality, Rodrigues argues back and forth with his visitor, stating that he has seen many faithful Christians sticking with their faith until death. Ferreir replies that they were not really Christians, that they had mixed up “the Son of God” with the Oriental concept of “Sun of God.” Bound to a horse, Rodrigues is paraded through the village so that the people can heckle and denounce him. Still later Kichijiro visits him, ashamed of his betrayal and asking for penance again. (This is the third or fourth time, I think!) Reluctantly the priest grants it.

In a further conversation with Ferreir, the latter tells him God had been silent to his pleas. When, late at night, Rodrigues is upset by a snoring-like noise and screams, Ferreir explains that the noise comes from five Christians being tortured as he had been, their bodies hanging upside down over pits. They have already apostatized, but their ordeal is being prolonged until Rodrigues does so also. Speaking again about the silence of God, Ferreir asserts that even Christ would apostatize for the villagers’ sake.

The next day Rodrigues is still struggling over his decision. If he is to save the lives of the tortured wretches, he must renounce Christ. The Interrogator urges him to apostatize. He increases the pressure by referring to the captives being tortured, “Do you have the right to make then suffer? Apostatize for their sake!” At last the priest hears what he assumes is the voice of God saying that He had been with him, also suffering throughout the silence. The voice says that He came into the world to share men’s pain by going to the cross. He tells Rodrigues to step onto the image. Rodrigues raises his foot above the fumie and brings it down. Then he collapses.

A year later the two former priests sit as they examine closely trade goods brought in by a Dutch trader Dieter Albrecht, we hear the Dutchman’s words as he has written them in his journal. The two men’s task is to find and refuse entrance to anything that could be construed as Christian. In one instance they uncover an image of Christ concealed behind another. Even a porcelain dish that has a group of crosses that are purely decorative in the background is rejected. Living with a wife and children, Rodrigues has taken the Japanese name of Okada San’emon. Kichijiro is now a household servant. His fate I will leave for you to discover, as well as a fascinating ending that is open to differing interpretations.

You know a film is great if you continue to think about many of its parts after leaving the theater—and indeed which prevent you from going to sleep for a long while—and which also makes you think of so many other films. The silence of God, of course, is a theme found in many of Ingmar Bergman’s somber films. Also, mentioned earlier are Apocalypse Now and The Mission, both of which end unpleasantly. Still another is the 1955 film The Prisoner in which the great actor Alec Guinness portrays a Roman Catholic cardinal in an Iron Curtain country where he is put on trial for treason. Jack Hawkins is his nemesis, like the one in Scorsese’s film, known only as The Interrogator, who also uses psychological means to break the cleric and get him to confess to the charges.

We wonder about the charge made that Fr. Rodrigues is as full of pride as much as faith. If that is the case, then his soul is in as much danger as that of Archbishop Thomas Becket in T.S. Elliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral. In that play it has become obvious to him in his quarrel with the King of England that he will be killed. Three tempters come to him, and he rejects them. But the fourth is the most tempting of all, to become a martyr and thus gain glory, hence his reply that contains the lines, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Is this also Rodrigues’ temptation? Also, would it be right for Rodrigues to preserve his own faith and place in heaven at the expense of the suffering and death of the five tortured Christians? Is this not His cross, damning his soul by his apostatizing to save them?

How the story of Rodrigues fits into the traditional tales of martyrology is another question that Scorsese raises. The church has used stories of brave believers facing death unflinchingly throughout its history, such stories inspiring believers to face their own trials. Does the last shot at the end of the film place Rodrigues in this stout-hearted company? Think of the way that The Robe ends, with the newly converted Roman soldier Marcellus and his lover Diana standing before the Emperor Caligula who has just condemned to death. They march away from the Emperor’s throne as their surroundings change to that of heaven while Caligula almost plaintively saying that they are going to a better place. A choir sings an inspiring chorus celebrating the faithful to death faith of two more martyrs.

Martin Scorsese’s probing film might well be named The Passion of Sebastião Rodrigues. Do not miss it!

Note: The Hidden Christians of Japan have evoked lots of study and comment since they were discovered when Roman Catholic priests were allowed to return in the mid-19th century. There is an interesting 34-minute documentary on them, and you can see the ten-minute preview of it at http://www.der.org/films/otaiya.html.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Feb. 2017 issue of VP.

A  Monster Calls (2016)

There might be spoilers in the last two paragraphs, so beware of how far you read if you

don’t want any hints as to the conclusion.

 

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 48 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

I went about as one who laments for a mother,
bowed down and in mourning.

Psalm 35:14b

conmonsgrvyrd

12-year-old Conor faces the Monster that visits him while his mother is slowly dying of cancer. (c) Focus Features

Spanish director J.A. Bayona, who in 2012 gave us the wonderful, grace-filled disaster film The Impossible, returns in a very different film with A Monster Calls. His previous film was set amidst a tsunami that took over 230,000 lives in Southeast Asia. This one, based on screenwriter Patrick Ness’s own novel of the same name*, is more miniature in scope, dealing with the impending death of a mother and the anger of her son who does not want to give her up.

The film, set in England, begins with 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) on the edge of a cliff near an old stone church and a huge yew tree. An earthquake has just destroyed the church, and deep fissures split the grounds. In a close-up, we see his hand holding onto that of what we assume is a woman’s. His grip is slipping, he lets go, and…he wakes up. It is a bad dream, one that keeps recurring throughout the film.

The next morning, he looks in upon his mother, still asleep, and fixes his own breakfast. Afterwards, when he returns to her room, bedridden Lizzy (Felicity Jones) talks about her wigs and a new chemotherapy treatment. When she says that he will not have to fix his own breakfast because his grandmother is coming, he is clearly not pleased. At school an older boy stares at him, and after class follows him with two friends, who watch as he beats up Conor.

That night as he is about to go to sleep, the numbers on his digital clock switch from 12:06 to 12:07. He hears a deep voice calling his name. The huge yew tree near the old church, which he can see at a distance from his bedroom window, shakes, slowly taking on a humanoid form, becoming a tree monster. The boy tells it to go away, but the Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) grabs and carries him outside, telling him that he does not come around often, but that he will visit him again to tell him three stories, and that then Conor will tell a fourth. It will deal with truth, Conor’s truth about what he is most afraid of, and which he hides in his dreams. This is why he (Conor) has called out to him. When the Monster is gone, and Conor is back in his room, the floor is covered with leaves. Was this more than a bad dream?

Grandma does show up, and it is immediately apparent that her strictness does not set well with Connor. He keeps asserting that his Mum will soon be well after another treatment. When she tries to prepare him for what she sees as the inevitable result of the cancer, he angrily lashes out at her.

Later he has to move in with her, his anger over this and his mother’s illness erupting in a fury that causes him to destroy a room full of her possessions, the loss that hurts her the most being a beautiful heirloom, an antique grandfather clock. This destructive episode accompanies the Monster’s second story which ends with the Monster destroying the church.

Part of the boy’s feeling of loss erupting into anger is due to his divorced father (Toby Kebbell) returning for a short visit from Los Angeles where he has remarried and is raising a daughter. Conor wants him to stay, but he cannot, due to his American family and job. The promise that he will return in a couple of weeks, and that Conor can visit them at Christmas time is not consoling.

The Monster does return three times to tell the promised stories, but they are so dark and morally ambiguous (if not repugnant) that the boy is left frustrated and puzzled. There is no trace of the simple moral or inspirational lesson contained in most fairy tales. The first two stories are illustrated by water color animation, skillfully executed. We also wonder about them, though as each tale progresses, both Conor and we viewers begin to see their connection to the boy and his situation, especially when Mum tells her son, after the chemo treatment fails, that her doctors are going to try a treatment using a medicine extracted from yew trees. The fearful boy has been pleading all along for Mum to be cured, but as the stories progress, the Monster tells him that he has come not for his Mum’s sake, but for Conor’s.

Though the intended audience for the film and book is children, this dark tale is very different from such cheery tales as Trolls or Sing. Adults should take seriously the PG-13 rating and pay attention to the conversations between Conor and the Monster, the latter an embodiment of his fierce anger and rage. Children, especially if they discuss the film with an adult, will discover that humans are far more complex creatures than those found in most other films and books. As the Monster explains after telling the story about a prince, there is no good or bad guy in the story—most people are in between the poles of Good and Bad. But the ultimate truth that the Monster forces Conor to face and admit is more specific, more personal. It stems from the basic human desire to escape from, or to end, suffering. This is the meaning of his persistent dream of letting go of his mother’s hand, a truth which he, like so many of us faced with the seemingly endless suffering of a loved one, buries deep within himself.

Have you felt anger at times that it seems a monster is taking over? I recall an incident when I was a child working on what was then called a “stick model” airplane, requiring that long thin strips of balsa wood had to be glued to a series of carboard bulkheads, and then over the struts, colored tissue paper glued to them, forming the skin of the fuselage and wings. You pressed the stick onto the spot of glue on the bulkhead and had to wait a few minutes until the glue dried. I did this for several struts, but the glue would not hold for one, and the stick sprung up when I released my hold on it. I reglued it several times, but still the stick would not hold. I finally grew so frustrated and irritated that I raised the model, over which I had already labored a couple of hours, and smashed it to the ground. The anger last several minutes more, until it was replaced with regret. I had spent my allowance money on the model, and spent a couple of hours in assembling it!

And regarding Conor’s truth, perhaps you also have felt a tinge of impatience when visiting a loved one in a hospital or hospice that it was taking so long for the sufferer to die. You probably pushed this feeling or thought down because it centered as much on yourself as on the loved one. You certainly would not express it aloud to anyone, knowing how selfish it would seound. And yet it is there, and often the relief that we feel when the victim finally gives in to death is for ourselves as well. We say, “Well, at last she is no longer suffering” and secretly add, “nor am I,” even though sorrow will linger.

The conclusion of the film is masterfully dramatized, Conor at last able to accept his truth, painful though it is, and to accept it. The reconciliation with Grandmother, and her remark that their common ground is their love for Lizzy, is heart-warming. When Conor is in his new room at Grandmother’s house, he sees his mother’s little book of drawings she had made as a child. No doubt Grandmother placed it there for him. Leafing through it, he is surprised at what she drew so many years earlier. And this should remind us of that hospital scene in which he had let her go, and the expression on her face as she looked beyond her son to see behind him…well, you discover this for yourself.

This dark, complex tale offers so much to adults and children alike that I cannot recommend it highly enough. Though it does not follow the usual path of faith in regards to death—one might wish Grandma or one of the parents had the faith expressed at the beginning of Psalm 35—it is a profoundly spiritual film, one of benefit to believer and nonbeliever.

*Which in turn was based on a story by Irish writer Siobhan Dowd. Ironically Siobhan Dowd died in 2007 of breast cancer. She had started the book, and when she could not finish it, Patrick Ness took it on, giving her credit.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Jan. 2017 issue of VP.