CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)

Because  Arrival reminds me a little of Steven Spielberg’s  film, I have gone back into VP’s archives for this review, printed over 25 years ago when a “Director’s Cut” was released.

Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours 13 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

In the past God spoke to our ancestors many times and in many ways through the prophets…

Hebrews 1:1

For many are called, but few are chosen.

Matthew 22:14

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The scientists gather around the portal of the alien shuttle. (c) Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The release of this Steven Spielberg 1977 film provides a welcome opportunity to reflect again on what I regard as the almost perfect film. Everything works to near perfection in this great work–a top notch cast, exciting photography, creative editing and music, and masterful writing and directing by Mr. Spielberg (and he was just 30 then!).  However, I watched this re-release with some trepidation, because I had been disappointed when, a few years after its first release, Columbia Pictures had sent the film out to the theaters a second time in a so-called improved version. Someone had talked the director into shooting extra footage of Roy Neary, our protagonist (Richard Dreyfuss in perhaps his best role ever), inside the alien’s huge Mother ship. But to make way for the additional footage they gutted the crucial segments in which Roy Neary goes almost insane trying to understand his obsession with a tower-like image. These cuts weakened the over-all effect. In the latest edition those cuts are restored, and the additional footage taking us inside the Mother ship with Roy Neary has been dropped. Probably a wise decision, in that it leaves to the viewer’s imagination what transpires inside the glittering ship.

This is a picture in which it is best not to know too much about it before seeing it, so if you somehow missed it during its first two theatrical runs (and also while it has been available on video), do not read beyond this paragraph. Mr. Spielberg takes us around the world in a series of seemingly disjointed scenes. Viewing this film is like putting together a beautiful jig saw puzzle without having the picture on the box to guide you. You trust that there is a coherent whole, even though you are not sure how the piece (scene) before you fits in. We begin during a desert sand storm where a group of scientists gather around a squadron of vintage WW 2 planes, all in pristine condition–and whose engine serial numbers match those of a flight that disappeared forty years earlier in the Bermuda Triangle. What happened? An old Mexican reports cryptically that last night the “sun came out and sang.”

In India a huge crowd gathers on a hillside around their Hindu priests. Again, our scientists are there. The immense throng keeps singing/chanting five notes, over and over. Claude Lacombe, apparently head of the scientific team, asks through an interpreter where they first heard the mysterious notes. Thousands of hands are raised, index fingers pointing straight up.

Meanwhile in Muncie, Indiana, Roy Neary encounters his own mystery. A linesman for the power company, he is called out to investigate a power outage when an intensely bright light shines down on him and his truck is shaken by a powerful force. As he looks up, half of his face is burned as if he had been in the sun too long. Others also are facing strange situations, such as a flight control crew who spot a mysterious object on collision course with an airliner, and then at the last minute the UFO veers off and climbs into the heavens. Not far from Roy, Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and her little son Barry also have seen strange lights in the sky. When Roy races off in his truck in pursuit of the lights, he almost runs into the little boy who has wandered onto the highway. Roy discovers a whole group of watchers gathered on the hill and looking into the skies. Soon all are transfixed by two lights rapidly bearing down on them. Thrilling to another UFO sighting, the crowd’s hope is dashed when the lights turn out to be floodlights on two government helicopters, hovering over them in a menacing way in an apparent effort to disperse them.

Back home Roy seems totally irrational to his wife (Teri Garr) and two children, whom he bundles up in the middle of the night to go with him searching for the lights. They find nothing, of course, and their suspicion that Roy has gone off his rocker intensifies as he becomes obsessed with an image of what seems to be a mountain. He shapes his mashed potatoes into it, and in the bathroom, even his shaving cream. Across town Jillian is similarly obsessed: an artist, she draws hundreds of sketches of a tower-like natural object. In a far-off laboratory scientists play over and over the five notes they had heard in India in an attempt to understand their meaning. Cut abruptly from their keyboard to little Barry playing the same notes on his toy piano. His mother continues to draw the mountain, but soon her obsession gives way to terror when she observes huge clouds filled with what looks like heat lightning moving toward her house. Locking windows and doors, she cowers with Barry as some titanic force envelops and shakes the structure, setting into motion all of Barry’s electric toys. Barry himself stands in stark contrast to his mother. He is delighted by what he regards as a playful, rather than a malignant force. He crawls through the trap door toward the light, and his frantic mother is unable to hold him back. He disappears with the now receding cloud and light.

Roy Neary has become so transfixed by his experience and the mountain-like image that he is at the edge of his sanity. He has lost his job. His wife packs up the children and leaves him. His neighbors watch in amazement as he drags in bushes and a ton of dirt to construct a huge model of the mountain in their family playroom. He accidentally tears off the peak and realizes that this is how his image should look, flat on the top. Finally, he sees the same image on television. It is a powerful moment, an epiphany, for now his obsession with the image is beginning to make some sense. He is not entirely mad. It is Devil’s Tower, where reports of a mysterious plague have caused the government to evacuate the entire area. He sets off on a cross country trek in search of what he now realizes is his destiny, one tied to Devil’s Tower and the lights in the sky.

Mr. Spielberg’s film marked a decided break with the old science fiction films in which alien life-forms were usually shown as malignant. Movie screens of the Fifties, when we were so paranoid about the Red Menace from Russia and China, were filled with slimy aliens coming to do us in, even as we knew that the Communists would love to do so. Only a few films, such as the magnificent The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet, suggested that WE might be the problem, rather than an evil alien species. Spielberg came along and gave us a picture that affirms that the universe is good. Using symbols associated with religious experience — lights and dark clouds, and a mountain — he created a film that uplifts the spirit and mind, as well as providing spectacular entertainment. His direction of child actor Cary Guffey as Barry is inspired, the little boy’s face with its large eyes expressing joy and wonder at the phenomena which terrorizes his mother and most of the other adults. And in scientist Claude Lacombe he gives us an adult counterpart to Barry. Played wonderfully by French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, scientist Lacombe has never lost his childlike wonder, eagerly anticipating the coming Close Encounter of the Third Kind. For that is what is about to happen to all the principals. Each has received a mysterious call, inviting them to a rendezvous at Devils Tower, one which will change their lives forever. Roy and Jillian (the latter also has discovered the source of her obsession) will face tremendous obstacles still, raised up by a paranoid government that does not trust the people with the truth of what is about to happen, but we know that they will prevail. Close Encounters… is that rare movie that seems to get better each time I revisit it. And it’s a visit in which the whole family can partake. Few movies arouse such a sense of wonder and awe as does this film.

 

Maggie’s Plan (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 38 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 0; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 4.

Our star rating 4.5

Whoever pursues righteousness and kindness will find life and honor.

Proverbs 21:21

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Philippians 2:3-4

Jn&Mag

John & Maggie discuss his novel he is trying to write in his spare time. (c) Sony Pictures Classics

We are shown immediately that Maggie (Greta Gerwig) is a kind and decent person, for we see her helping a blind man across a busy street NYC street. She then meets a former beaux, and still friend and now a married father, Tony (Bill Hader) in Washington Square Park where she talks about her plan of becoming artificially inseminated by a former college classmate. She has reached that age when her biological clock tells her it is now or never if she wants to become a mother, and she does very much. It’s just that she has not been able to maintain a relationship with a guy for longer than six months, so she says that she will become a single mother. No complications with a husband.

The guy with the sperm is named Guy (Travis Fimmel). A talented math major, he has become instead a pickle entrepreneur in Brooklyn. However, something happens that will cause her to give up this plan for Plan B. At The New College where she works as a career advisor to art and design students she reports that she has received two paychecks. There has been a mix-up because she has the same initials as an adjunct professor of ficto-critical anthropology named John Harding (Ethan Hawke). Just then he stops by to complain that he hasn’t received his pay check. They leave together and talk in the park. John reveals that he is writing a novel, and, impressed with Maggie, he asks if she would be willing to read the first chapter.

Maggie likes the sample, and asks to see more. This leads to a series of meetings in the park. This is what leads to Plan B: earlier on Maggie had been in her bathtub inserting Guy’s semen into herself when her buzzer sounded, interrupting the process. It is John with more of his manuscript. During their encounters he reveals he is stuck in a loveless marriage with his Danish wife Georgette (Julianne Moore), an intimidating intellectual who teaches the same subject at Columbia University. In various cuts to their apartment we see him being almost totally ignored by her and their two precocious daughters—all three of them looking down on him and able to leave him out of a conversation by speaking Danish.

Thus it is no surprise that John leaves them and marries Maggie, so enthralled is he with her supportive praise and insights. Jump ahead three years, and we see that he acts the same way toward Maggie, ignoring her while he works full time on his novel. Maggie now supports them both—the book is the same one as before, it now running onto 500 pages and showing no sign of ending. She also finds herself involved with his two snobbish daughters, plus her own infant daughter, and yes, even Georgette. This is when Maggie, sensing that John still carries a torch for his ex-wife, and realizing she no longer is in love with him, devises another, more complicated plan.

Author/writer Rebecca Miller is a gifted filmmaker, showing the crazy and humorous sides of love, marriage, parenthood, and divorce. Her Maggie is warm and compassionate, but needing to be disabused of the notion that one can plan life down to the smallest detail—and also that you can “fix” people. She has some growing up to do, which she proceeds to do in this warm comedy. I like the hint in the script that her genuine concern for others is part of the heritage her mother left her: when she was a child her mother often took her to Quaker meetings. In one brief scene we see Maggie quietly sitting in a Meeting House, perhaps getting her bearings.

All the principal actors are engaging, and at the end we see that maybe Maggie’s Plan A went forward anyway, with Life (or God?) leading her onto an unexpected path. I prefer the second, because it bears out the Biblical perception that God loves to surprise those who think life is going one way, only to find it turning around on them.

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

Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (2014)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 24 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 2; Language 0; Sex 8/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 My child, if you accept my words

 and treasure up my commandments within you,

making your ear attentive to wisdom

and inclining your heart to understanding; if you indeed cry out for insight,

and raise your voice for understanding; if you seek it like silver,

and search for it as for hidden treasures— then you will understand the fear of the Lord

and find the knowledge of God.

Proverbs 2:1-5

MultplImgs

(c) 2014 GKIDS

Like millions of readers, I have loved selected portions of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, often using “On Marriage” in wedding liturgies and “On Children” with parents. Actress Salma Hayek apparently not only loves this book of Middle Eastern wisdom but also decided to produce a movie based on it. She secured Lion King’s director Roger Allers as the over-all director, and then for each of the 8 poems (chosen from the 26 in the book) she selected animators to interpret them. Their eight little segments could stand alone as animated shorts, but joined together with a back story and enhanced by the stirring score of Gabriel Yared, they will remind veteran film lovers of Walt Disney’s Fantasia.

A quick survey of the eight artists and their contributions:

Michal Socha, in the cautionary “On Freedom,” depicts birds becoming entrapped in birdcages, and this changes into a tree that morphs into a wickerman that transforms into an even more intriguing image.

Nina Paley in “On Children” uses a striking style of black figures resembling the shadow puppets from Indonesia. In one segment a pregnant female archer shoots an arrow into the abdomen of another pregnant woman, thus launching into the world another human being.

Joann Sfar depicts “On Marriage” as a tango performed by a bare-footed but formally attired couple. (This is the only one that disappointed me because, instead of looking like a Middle Easter bride and groom, they appeared to be a sophisticated couple from Paris

Joan C. Gratz in “On Work” shows us a farmer harvesting with a scythe, this changing into other shapes, and eventually into hands carving a toy boat and giving it into younger hands as we hear that “work is love made visible.”

Bill Plympton in his short on “On Eating and Drinking” appeals to our appetites. His crayon drawings, beginning with a head ingesting rainbow-like food, then morphing into a plowman and his horse in a field that in turn changes to grain and many other forms, appears crude, even childish, but it is effective.

Tomm Moore (Secret of Kells, one of my favorite recent animated films!) in “On Love” combines Celtic and Middle-Eastern art that at times makes us think we are watching the lovers through a kaleidoscope. My favorite of all!

Mohammed Saeed Harib in “On Good and Evil” drawing in the tradition of Japanese ink paintings, uses bird, tree, vine and seed images.

The twin brothers Paul and Gaetan Brizzi not only drew a maiden or nymph for “On Death,” but also were the storyboard artists for the whole film. (You might recall that they created “The Firebird” segment in Disney’s Fantasia 2000).

Liam Neeson, who also voices the character Mustafa, reads the poems for each of the above sequences. To make such a philosophical book appealing to children, director Roger Allers greatly expanded the slight framing device of Gibran’s book. The connecting story, set in the seas-side town of Orphalese, involves a mischievous little girl named Almitra whose mother Kamila (voice of Salma Hayek) is the housekeeper for Mustafa (Liam Neeson), a poet/philosopher, held under house arrest for the past seven years because his writings are considered seditious. Since the trauma of her father’s death two years earlier the little girl has not spoken, but her lack of voice has not deterred her from getting into all kinds of trouble with the villagers.

One day she follows her mother to work, and soon the poet befriends her, showing her the power of the imagination to make even a prisoner free. But, he warns, in the first of the illustrated poems, one must not worship one’s freedom and thus become its captive. There quickly follows the insightful “On Children.” A large paunched Sergeant (Alfred Molina) arrives to announce that Mustafa is being released immediately, and that he and the guard Halim (John Krasinski) are to deliver him to the ship that has just docked at the wharf below. On the way Mustafa is greeted by the adoring villagers, thus providing opportunities for the recitation of the other six poems. He also is able to smooth things over with “my new friend” Almitra and the villagers whom she has wronged so that she will be looked after when he is gone. He even instills hope and confidence in Halim who has harbored an unexpressed love for Kamila. The people thank Mustafa for his writings not just by their praise and words of thanks, but also by showering him with food for the journey. They insist on accompanying the party to the ship.

Almita senses that the Sergeant’s story about the ship’s taking Mustafa back to his native land does not ring true, but she is not able to convey this to her friend. Her fears are borne out when the Sergeant halts before the grim prison where so many dissidents have been shot. A riot breaks out when the people realize that their hero is not about to be set free. Inside the prison the Pasha tries to get Mustafa to sign a paper renouncing his work, but he refuses. That night with the help of Hamil and Kamila, Almitra is able to climb up to a window and peer down at her imprisoned friend. She finds her voice again as they converse, Mustafa assuring her that life and death are one—and asking that she do him a favor. Go back to his cottage and rescue his art and writings before they can be destroyed. Thus we have a race between the three to gather up the precious works before the Sergeant and his soldiers can arrive. What happens to Mustafa is beautifully depicted, fully in keeping with the intention of the film’s audience of both children and adults.

The varied art is splendid, no doubt some of it appealing to different persons according to their tastes. You need not worry that the children will not “get” the poems, the art itself being entertaining. Small viewers can enjoy the adventuresome Almitra now and return to the poems when they are older, having at least been introduced to them. Some of Gibran’s thoughts are a bit too New Age for me, but most contain a measure of wisdom and stimulation. His caution against deifying Freedom is very pertinent, and the thought that all work—not just that of artists and poets– has meaning takes us back to the similar teaching of Martin Luther that all believers are called to be priests, not just those whom the church ordains. As noted earlier, the film is greatly enhanced by composer Gabriel Yared, Yo-Yo Ma’s lending his cello to “On Death” brings out its bitter sweetness. This is a film filled with such beautiful art that I look forward to owning it on video so as to be able to return to it again and again. I think you might feel this way too after seeing it.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September issue of Visual Parables.

Little Boy (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 4; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 3

 …For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.

Matthew 17:20b

  And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

Matthew 26:39

PepPrst&Bottl

Pepper tries to show Fr. Oliver his magical ability to move a bottle. (c) 2015 Open Road Films

 Critics have almost universally savaged this faith-based film about two of society’s outsiders. Only Rex Reed of the IMDB’s Metacritics gives it a score above 50 (75 on a scale of 1 to 100), and one just a 10. Because it shares with most faith-based films a lack of subtlety, I would put it somewhere between 75 and 50—and would have gone lower but for some saving qualities. The latter consist of its message of tolerance and acceptance and its exploration of faith, magic, and miracle. The film might be mediocre but it could lead to a great discussion for people of faith. I emphasize people of faith because I think this is the only audience that will be taken in by its thick layers of sentiment.

The story, set in the small seaside town of O’Hare in northern California, begins just before the outbreak of World War Two. The unseen narrator is Pepper Busbee, looking back at his unhappy childhood. A small child, Pepper (Jakob Salvati) was cruely harrassed by the other kids, especially by a group led by the  plump son of the local doctor. At home, however, all was fine, his car mechanic  father James (Michael Rapaport) especially close to him. However, the boy’s domestic bliss comes to an end after the bombing of Pearl Harbor when his older brother, London (David Henrie), is turned down by the Army because of flat feet. Thus it is his father who leaves home to fight the Japanese and is reported missing in action in the Philippines.

With no father to support him Pepper’s life is filled with misery, the other boys taunting him with the title of “little boy.” Even the adults call him this, rather than by his given name. Pepper finds refuge in the adventures of a famous magician named Ben Eagle (Ben Chaplin), featured in comic books, movie series, and then in the traveling magic show that plays at the town’s movie theater. Of course, when the magician asks for an assistant from the audience, he chooses the little eight year-old, who is so naïve that he thinks Ben Eagle is endowing him with the power to make a bottle move across a table. It helps that what Eagle says to him is what his father often had said to him before a difficult task, “Do you believe you can do this?”

Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is a widely hated Japanese American living on the town’s outskirts. Somehow he has escaped the government round-up and internment of Japanese American citizens—which we are shown in a newsreel being imprisoned in camps. One night Pepper joins his brother and other “Jap-hater” boys in attacking Hashimoto’s house with stones and a fire bomb. The boys are caught, and the village priest, Father Oliver (Tom Wilinson)  tells Pepper that as his penance he must perform the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy listed on a card he gives him: “Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless. Care for the sick. Visit the imprisoned. Bury the dead.” If he does these acts in good faith, the priest tells him, the Lord might be moved to bring his father home safely. But the good priest wants to do more than reassure a fearful boy; he also wants him to grow in tolerance, so he adds to the list, “Befriend Hashimoto.” One of the Works is easy, as Pepper’s brother London, being older, has been arrested for attacking the house, and sits in jail. But Pepper is aghast at “befriend” the hated “Jap”?

Pepper does, and of course, as he slowly gets to know the tacitern man, there develops a friendshp and mentoring akin to that in the classic The Karate Kid.” It is a friendship that proves costly, with the young boy, already an outsider because of his shortness, now ostracized because he is a “Jap lover.” Fr. Oliver and Pepper’s mother Emma (Emily Watson) stand by him, she even agreeing to invite Hashimoto for dinner. The meal ends badly when London comes home, very upset to discover “the Jap” at the dinner table. He orders the man to leave at the point of his shotgun.

Fr. Oliver tries to cope with Pepper’s insistence that he has magic by explaining the difference between magic and miracles, but the boy persists. In one somewhat ridiculous scene Pepper, challenged by the townspeople to prove that he can “move a mountain,” the boy stands in the street and points and waves his arms at a distant mountain as he grunts and puffs (some very bad acting and directing here!). Suddenly the ground trembles, the buildings shake. The earthquake is small, not at all destructive, but it convinces the people who had been laughing at his antics that there is something to the boy’s claim.

Then comes the sequence that at first I found appalling. Pepper, certain that he can use his powers to bring his father back from the POW camp in the Philippines where he is reportedly being held, stands at the edge of the sea every day performing the magic act that he is convinced caused the earthquake. This goes on day after day, with the people often looking on in sympathy. Suddenly the news of the end of the war reaches the town, and if you know much about how WW 2 ended you will guess the significance of the boy’s nickname. The name of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima was “Little Boy,” the jubilant townspeople pointing this out. I thought at first, what an insensitive travesty, suggesting that one American life was equal to that of the tens of thousands of people who died on that day from the blast, and later by radiation! Of course, it is understandable that the townspeople would accept this, but the filmmakers? Fortunately, the latter add a scene in which Pepper has a nightmare in which he sees the terrible destruction wrought by the bomb, including what looks like a group of blackened children, their hands clasped in a circle. Maybe he now cannot share the jubilation of the townspeople after all. I’ll leave it to you to discover what happens to the father.

Despite its many flaws, there are the above good things in this film—though for an understanding of the injustices that Japanese Americans were subjected to during WW 2 Come, See the Paradise, American Pastime, and Snow Falling on Cedars are far better. Besides a discussion of racism and the young, the scene in which the priest tries to help Pepper understand magic, miracle, and faith offers food for thought. Fr. Oliver sure would be able to help the boy understand that magic is a pretty self-centered way of getting what one wants, whereas faith and miracle always must include the words or thought of Jesus, “Yet not what I want but what you want.”  This movie, despite its sincerity and spiritual qualities, will not make VP’s Top Ten Spiritual Films this year, and so I commend it to you with reservation, rather than recommend it. I keep hoping that faith based filmmakers will come up with films that are artistic and not  visual sermons. Sermons are fine in the sanctuary, but in the movie theater they are as unconvincing as they are out of place.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the May issue of Visual Parables.

The Hunt (2012)

(“Jagten” in Danish & English)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 33 min.

Our ratings: V-5 ; L-5 ; S-5/N-1 .

Our star rating(1-5): 5

 My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction,
and my neighbors stand far off.

            Psalm 38.11

He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Isaiah 53:3

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

James 3.5

LucTheoNchur

A confrontation with his best friend at a Christmas Eve Service is a highlight of this drama.
(c) 2012 Magnolia Pictures

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, who also wrote the screenplay with Tobias Lindholm, this film, set in a small Danish town, unfolds between the months leading up to Christmas, ending sometime in the following year at the beginning of hunting season. There is a crucial church scene on Christmas Eve that is a masterful combination of the Nativity and crucifixion, making this a marvelous film for people of faith to discuss.

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a middle-aged schoolteacher frequently battling over his cell phone with his divorced wife about the custody of their teenaged son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom). Unhappy with his mother, the boy badly wants to live with Lucas. Although the messy divorce cost him his teaching position, Lucas has been able to find work at the local kindergarten where the children adore him. When he arrives they enjoy hiding and then attacking him en mass, clinging to his legs and arms, and piling atop him when he falls to the ground and plays ”dead.” One of the assistant teachers also adores him, the Polish immigrant Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), the two soon entering an affair initiated by her.

Lucas has a circle of hunting buddies with whom he enjoys drinking, though he is the one who stays sober enough to take the inebriated home. His best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) is one of these, the man’s wife Agnes (Anne Louise Hassing), gratefully appreciating this. In another scene Lucas rescues a friend from drowning when the man develops a cramp while swimming in a cold pond (it is November). Thus it is no wonder that Lucas is popular with adults as well as children.

Little Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), a kindergarten pupil and daughter of Theo and Agnes, develops a crush on Lucas, often showing up at his house so he can walk her home. During one of the pile-ups at kindergarten, he rebuffs her when she kisses him on the lips. Miffed by this, she repeats to head teacher Grethe (Susse Wold) some pornographic penis talk she has overheard on her older brother’s iPad.  She lies that Lucas exposed himself before her. Shocked at what she hears, Grethe, without informing him of all the details, including the child’s name, orders Lucas to take a leave while she brings up the matter with the other staff, with Theo and Agnes, and then that night, at a scheduled meeting with the all the parents.

Thus, as James observed, the little tongue, or we should say the tongue of a little one, starts a fire that blazes out of control, ruining the reputation of a good and kind man. Only Nadja and Brunn (Lars Ranthe), the godfather of his son Marcus, stand by him—and of course, Marcus also, although his alarmed mother tries to break off the boy’s contact with his father. Also, little Klara, becoming aware that what she now calls “a stupid” remark has caused Lucas much pain, tries to see him, showing up at his door to ask if she can walk his faithful dog. He sends her back home, all too aware that her parents would be very upset at any further contact between them.

Klara recants her story, but Grethe and the others believing in the innate goodness of children will not accept this. Lucas is banned from the kindergarten and also from the local supermarket (even Marcus is ordered not to come back when he shops for his father—the boy refusing to stay away from his dad). The staff at the supermarket beats up Lucas when he keeps coming back demanding to buy groceries; someone hurls a rock through Lucas’s window, injuring him; and worst of all, his constant companion, his gentle dog loved by all the children is killed. The police do arrest and interrogate Lucas, but they have to release him. You will enjoy the reason because it is part of the group hysteria that seems to envelop most of the characters.

Although set in a modern Danish town, the story reminds me of the Massachusetts town of Salem in the 17th century. The Salem girls who initiate the mass hysteria are older than Klara and the effects of their delusions and lies about their neighbors being witches are far more deadly. At least the Danish authorities do not convict and hang Lucas, but the persecution he suffers is severe by 20th century standards. A likeable guy respected by all becomes in the eyes of almost everyone the ultimate outsider of the 21st century, a child molester. Lucas becomes so stressed out that he drives away Nadja when she tries to stand by him, and he even tells Bruun to leave him alone.

Matters come to an explosive head on Christmas Eve, just as much a cultural event centering on children in Denmark as it is on this side of the Atlantic. Most of the congregation has gathered for the service when Lucas shambles in, finding the only pew with room for him almost at the front of the sanctuary. The woman sitting there gets up and moves to another pew. All disapproving eyes are focused on the outcast, including Agnes and Theo. The pastor offers a warm welcome, and this time we gather that the “welcome to all” is not ceremonial—-after all, this is a small city and the pastor must know something of what has transpired. The kindergarten children have been formed into a choir, and as they file in we see the radiant little Klara. She spots Lucas and is obviously pleased.

As the children lead the people in a carol about the birth of the Child, the crucifixion of a good man stands in juxtaposition. Theo, fixing his gaze upon his erstwhile friend, remarks to Agnes, “I can see it in his face,” indicating that he now is aware of the innocence of the friend he has abandoned—at that moment I thought of the disciples at Gethsemane who during Jesus’ prayer could not stay awake to watch with him, and then ran away when their master was arrested. The anguished Lucas breaks down. Rising from his pew, he walks back toward Theo, and—.

I don’t know how much director Thomas Vinterberg knows of the church fathers who never sentimentalized Christmas, treating it as we do as a Hallmark moment to glorify children. They never separated the Nativity from Good Friday, often asking in their sermons and their writings, “Why did God become man in order to die?” Medieval artists also sometimes combined themes of Nativity and Crucifixion in their paintings. An artist in Cincinnati a few years ago did this in a mural that he created on the wall of the fellowship hall of his church, as you can see below.

There is in this film not only the Nativity and the crucifixion (of Lucas); there is also a type of resurrection. I will leave this for you to see, though this is perhaps not as convincing as the depiction of crucifixion, with Lucas obviously welcomed back into his circle of friends. I am not suggesting that Lucas is a complete Christ figure, as in such movies as Cool Hand Luke or Babette’s Feast, because Lucas does not seek crucifixion, it is imposed on him. In the four gospels Jesus is not just the victim, but also the victor who, apparently inspired by the Suffering Servant poem in Isaiah 52 & 53, voluntarily lays down his life. By no stretch of the imagination does Lucas, who is struggling just to get by with his life, seek out the opprobrium he suffers. His suffering is for himself, but it is still a type of crucifixion.

The film’s title comes from the next to the last scene depicting a ritual in which Marcus is now initiated into his father and Bruun’s group of male hunters, a sign of his “becoming a man.” The film ends on a jarring note, which calls into question what seems to be a movie “happy ending.” Maybe “all that ends well is well” doesn’t apply after all here.

A full review with a set of 12 discussion questions is in the Sep/Oct 2013 issue of Visual Parables, which can be purchased at the store, either as an individual issue or as part of an annual subscription.