Life During Wartime (2009)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 38 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,vanity of vanities!

All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?

Ecclesiastes 1:1-3

Can Ethiopians change their skin or leopards their spots?

Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.

Jeremiah 13:23

Trish has kept from son Tmmy that his father is not dead but in prison for pedophilia. (c) IFC Films

Compared to writer/director Todd Solondz, Qoheleth and Jeremiah are cock-eyed optimists. In his 2009 film, which I just caught on cable TV, Solondz paints a bleak, pessimistic view of human beings that seems to be a cinematic version of the old Puritan doctrine of the total depravity of humankind. The film is both a sequel to and sort of a remake of his 1998 film about a suburban Jewish family, ironically named Happiness, one that seemed to me to be a tad more optimistic than this dirge. Strangely enough, the filmmaker abandoned the excellent original cast, with even the race of one of the original characters being changed from white to black. Thus, I am not sure that it matters if you have not seen the original, though for anyone admiring the work of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, the 1998 one is a “must see film.”

Life opens about ten years after Happiness, reuniting us with three sisters, Joy (Shirley Henderson), Trish (Allison Janney), and Helen (Ally Sheedy), though the latter appears in just one scene. As in Happiness, many of the scenes take place in restaurants. The scene opens in one in which Joy’s black husband Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) is trying to reconcile with her. He promises, “No more cocaine. No more crack. No more crack-cocaine.” The fed-up Joy’s resolve is weakening before this earnest pleading, but then the waitress comes up to take their order. Apparently recognizing Allen from news reports as a sexual predator, she spits at him and walks away. Joy questions him, and he admits that he has not quite reformed as much as claimed. Maybe he still acts on his passion a little bit, but only “On Sunday.”

Joy’s older sister Trish (Allison Janney) has left their family home in New Jersey so that her sons and little daughter can escape the notoriety caused by the sentencing of their therapist father Bill to prison for his sexual preying upon the friends of Billy. The 13-year-old son Timmy (Dylan Riley) is still at home, and Billy (Chris Marquette) is away at college. Timmy, getting ready for his bar mitzvah, has grown up with the story that his father has died.

Trish, getting back into the dating game again, dines with Harvey (Michael Lerner), a pudgy businessman emerging from a bitter divorce battle. She is delighted that he is so “noooormal,” compared to her convicted pedophile husband. This is the quality she describes to the curious Timmy, along with her sexual arousal by Harvey’s merely touching her arm. However, later, when Timmy, learning from school friends who have discovered through Google that his father is alive and serving a prison sentence for pedophilia, she puts a very different spin on touching. Timmy is worried that he might turn out like his father— “I don’t want to be a faggot.” His mother assures him that is not the case. The boy presses her for what happens during sexual contact between two males, and her clumsy response is both absurd and tragic. The latter because, in trying to reassure him that he is safe, she warns him that if ever a man should touch him, he should scream. This will have unintended consequences later in what begins as a tender scene but climaxes with her dream for a new start in family life shattered beyond repair.

After her break-up with Allen, Joy abandons her altruistic work with flies first to Florida, and then to Los Angeles where sister Helen (Ally Sheedy) is a successful writer for television. They talk about forgiving and forgetting, but Helen is still so scarred from her past that she cannot really help Joy. She is unable to focus on anyone else and their troubles because of her unhappy self-centeredness. Joy is continually haunted by appearances of her dead lover Andy (Paul Reubens), who has committed suicide.

Interspersed throughout the sister scenes are those of the imprisoned pedophile Bill (Ciaran Hinds, much grimmer in the role than was Philip Seymour Hoffman). Paroled from prison, he travels from New Jersey to Florida in the forlorn hope of relating again to his oldest son Billy. Along the way, he drinks alone at his hotel bar where he makes eye contact with the middle-aged Jacqueline (Charlotte Rampling)

who obviously is on the prowl. They engage in conversation and in loveless sex. The guilt-ridden Bill raises the issue of forgive and forget with the woman, who calls herself a monster. Her callous replies bear out her self-designation, her final comment being that forgiveness is for losers. He rises first the next morning and searches through her purse for money. She awakens and, her voice fil cynicism directs him to the roll of bills tucked in a corner.

This theme of forgive and forget a rises numerous times throughout the film. Timmy’s paper that he is to read at his bar mitzvah connects becoming a man to forgiveness. Joy and Helen had discussed it, as did Trish and Timmy. Her son is so strongly pro-forgiveness, declaring that he would forgive even terrorists, that his surprised mother asks, “Are you saying you would forgive the 9/11 terrorists?” The very practical boy replies, “Well, no, not those terrorists because they’re dead.” When Harvey accepts Trish’s dinner invitation so he can meet Billy, he brings his grown son Mark (Rich Pecci), who has a mild case of Asperger’s syndrome that he becomes a drag on the table conversation. However, alone with Timmy, he shares his philosophy that people cannot change. Can you forgive the attacker who punches you in the face? One of the terrorist setting the off the explosions they see on TV? Of course, the two being Jews, Hitler? And bringing it closer to the boy, “Your father?” For Mark “forgive and forget make absolutely nonsense.

The last we, or anyone in the film, see of Bill is his brief visit to his son in Billy’s dorm room. It is a tense confrontation, with the father seeking forgiveness and the son too surprised to respond in a meaningful way. When Bill asks questions about the lad liking girls and dating, he is relieved to see that he had come to assure himself that he was not like him, that the boy was not doomed to repeat his mistakes. When it is obvious that Billy is not going to embrace him and his offer to reconcile, he leaves. Billy hesitates for a moment, then rushes out into the hallway. It is empty. Whatever he might have wanted to say or do, it is too late.

Timmy does read his speech at his bar mitzvah. All but Bill are there. All, that is, but Harvey, and we will leave it to you to discover why. The film ends a little later on a poignant note. Timmy is deeply sorry for what he has done. In a conversation with his mother, he says, “I don’t care about freedom and democracy. I just want my father.” Some have said this film is about the three sisters, and one reviewer thought it was about the pedophile father. But this, added to a clip scattered through the film, shows that Timmy is the focus of the film’s maker. In the clip the camera slowly pans over a lovely tree and flower lined pond until, ad end of the water we see a boy, out of focus. Only at the end is the figure in focus. It is, of course, Timmy.

This is not an easy film to watch. I came close to giving up about a third of the way in., Solondz’s take on life is so dark, and his view of his characters and their acts is ambiguous. Does he want to laugh, as I clearly remember many did during a scene in Happiness that to me was tragic, and thus warranted a sympathetic tear? Does he mock them because he despises them, as some critics have suggested? I do not know. Only that the film raises the important theme of love, of forgiveness and forgetting in powerful ways. This is one film you ought not to watch alone. From the many reviews that I have read (I’ve never consulted so many as for this one!), it seems that the film is like a Rorschach test, the response to it depending upon the viewers’ experience and values. If you are one who appreciates the dark insights of Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes, you probably can take this film. And by seeing it with others, you will be enriched by the reactions and insights of your fellow viewers.

 Note: You might want to compare the way that a pedophile is depicted in another film, Nicole Kassell’s far more positive 2004 film The Woodsman, starring Kevin Bacon as a recently released pedophile struggling against his dark urges while being harassed by the cop who originally arrested him and now hoping to catch him in another act and thus be sent away for good.

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

Jeremiah (1998)

Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 min.

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

 Our star rating (1-5); 4

This review is mainly for you preachers. Every three years passages from the Book of Jeremiah are part of the summer lections. This year (2016) they are read during August, September, and much of October, so for the August Lectionary Links I have suggested a specific scene from the film for each Sunday. See these in the upcoming July 2016 issue of Visual Parables.

 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’

Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’

 But the Lord said to me,

‘Do not say, I am only a boy; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,’ says the Lord.

Jeremiah 1:1-8

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This Bible story film begins in the time of King Josiah when workers discover a scroll hidden in a jar in the temple. It contains the laws of Moses (probably most of what is now the Book of Deuteronomy), and it inspires the king to lead a reformation of his kingdom. In Anathoth, a village not far from Jerusalem, the boy Jeremiah lives with Hilkiah and his mother. During the night God commissions him to be a prophet despite the youth’s protest that he is too young. The boy then accompanies his parents to Jerusalem where he witnesses his priest father kill a sacrificial lamb during the festival.

The film jumps ahead 16 years to show in Babylon the new King of Babylon Nebuchadnezzar deciding to conquer Jerusalem. Back in Judah Hilkiah tells his son, now a young man, that he and a friend will have the honor of sacrificing a lamb at the temple. In Jerusalem Jeremiah goes to the royal palace where he sees King Jehoiakim issue an unjust verdict against a family from Anathoth that he cares about. On his way back to the temple he sees the quarreling and cheating of the people, as well as the huckstering of household idols. He stops long enough to sweep off the table and smash the clay idols, reminding me of the way in which Christ overturned the money exchanger tables centuries later in the restored temple. (You might recall he quoted Jeremiah at the time.)

Hilkiah criticizes his son for being late because he missed seeing his friend preside at the sacrifice. Now it is his turn. Dressed in the white linen robe of a priest, Jeremiah starts to kill the animal, but out in the crowd he sees the old man through whom God had previously spoke to him. Ignoring the lamb, he speaks to the people and to the king who has joined in the worship service. This is the famous Temple Sermon, as found in chapters 6 and 7 of the Biblical book. It is a strong rebuke of pretending to worship God at his temple while violating the covenant with God.

Thus TV director/writer Harry Winer skillfully weaves together the various narrative strands of the Biblical book to form a coherent biographical film. Unfortunately, he also injects a fictional love story about the young man’s courting a spunky neighbor girl named Judith. I write “unfortunately” because this takes up valuable screen time that could have been devoted to the prophet’s visions—left out are such incidents as the potter’s house and the lament “Is there no balm in Gilead?” that inspired the haunting Spiritual.

However I have to say that the love story insertion does serve to show the prophet’s anguish at what serving God cost him (a family). Also the fate of Judith’s family, due to the unjust decision of King Jehoiakim, is an important part of the sequence (reported above) in which the prophet witnesses the sins of king and people in Jerusalem.

What is included in the script does give viewers who have not read the Biblical account a good picture of this prophet saddled with the awful task of denouncing his own people when the enemy is right outside the gates. In our own times, during the Vietnam War and during President Bush’s Iraq war, protestors also were denounced as traitors—the two priests Frs. Dan & Phil Berrigan in the 60’s and the Dixie Chicks in the 00’s. Of course, none suffered as much as the Hebrew prophet did, first in a dark cell and then in the muddy bottom of the cistern into which he was dumped.

The scene in which the court prophet Hananiah cuts off the yoke Jeremiah is wearing is a powerful one with modern ramifications similar to what was just mentioned. Jeremiah has barged into King Zedekiah’s throne room wearing the yoke as an acted-out parable of the fate of disobedient Israel at the hands of the Assyrians. Hananiah, out to please the King, strikes the yoke from the prophet’s neck and tells his sovereign what he wants to hear, namely that God is not with Jeremiah but with the King and his schemes against Babylonia. Jeremiah, rising from the ground, declares that his opponent is a false prophet feeding the people a lie. During the Vietnam War prophets such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and the priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan denounced an unjust war that was destroying America’s credibility, as well as the worthy War on Poverty, whereas others, such as Billy Graham and Cardinal Spellman supported and blessed the war as a crusade against “godless Communism.” The latter were far more popular at first, with the former gaining more support as the gruesome truth of what we were actually doing to the Vietnamese people came to light, thanks to the reporting of journalists.

The film’s cast is uniformly good, with Patrick Dempsey playing the shy man who gradually became bolder with each new denunciation of his people’s apostasy. Stuart Bunce as his faithful scribe and spokesman Baruch; Klaus Maria Brandauer as the imperious King Nebuchadnezzar; Andrea Occhipinti as the ill-fated King Jehoiakim; and Oliver Reed, in his last TV role, as General Shapan, commander of the Assyrian army—all turn in good performances.

This TNT production, part of its Bible Collection, belongs in your or your church library’s collection. Especially when the Common Lectionary O.T. lessons are taken from the Book of Jeremiah, this would be a good DVD to use in a Bible class on the Sundays when the pastor preaches on the lessons.

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

Affirm Films

Cry, the Beloved Country (1995)

Reprinted from the May 1996 VP

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

Our content ratings (1-10) Violence 4; Language 2; Sex/Nudity -1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had
compassion, and ran and embraced him …

Luke 15:22

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point
of view…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has
passed away, behold the new has come.

2 Cor. 5: 16-17

CrybelovedCountry95

It has been almost 50 years since we walked with Stephen Kumalo down the “lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills,but Alan Paton’s great lyrical novel seems as fresh as ever – even if the dawn that he wrote about at the end of the novel has begun to penetrate the darkness. This second film version, fittingly directed, produced and adapted by South Africans, serves the novel well. How could it not with two such great actors portraying the anguished fathers victimized by a cruel system that hurt its supporters almost as much as its victims, though in less obvious ways?

There have been many presentations of Mr. Paton’s version of the Prodigal Son story, set in the oppressive milieu of Apartheid, and Director Darrell James Roodt’s is as good as any of them – the 1949 adaptation for Broadway by Maxwell Anderson, Lost in the Stars with Kurt Weil’s hauntingly beautiful music; the play performed by so many amateur groups in the l950’s, along with the 1951 British film version (See “Morearticle below).

The story is one of jouneying/questing.ilike most such tales, on two levels – the anxious search of Pastor Stephen Kumalo (J.E. Jones) for his wayward son that leads from the hills of his Ndotsheni parish to the squatter’s slums, brothel and prison of Johannesburg, and finally to the courtroom where his son Absalom is sentenced to hang for shooting Arthur Jarvis during a burglary – and his questioning of his faith when assaulted by so much human misery cruelty. James Jarvis (R. Harris) also from Ndotsheni, when he learns that his son been murdered, and he too is engaged in a spiritual quest when confronted by his son’s papers espousing love and cooperation with “the natives.It is a difficult quest, for the elder Mr. Jarvis had strongly disagreed with his son on how to regard and treat “the natives- but when he visits the Boys Club for black youth, where his son had been the chief benefactor, and, later encounters Stephen and learns that he is
the father of the murderer of his son, we see the process working that leads to what St. Paul called “the new creation.

Memorable/preachable scenes:

1. The Reverends Kumalo and Theophilus Msimangu, after hear ing John Kumalo, a rising but unscrupulous protest leader, give an impressive speech, talk about him. Stephen is upset that his brother has forsaken the church because it seems powerless and ineffectual. The younger priest confesses that there is some truth in what the speaker has said. “But how can there be truth, Stephen objects, “when God is not on his side?His friend’s reply is good food for thought – “Perhaps God is on his side – and he doesn’t know it.

2. James talks with his wife about an essay their son had written, one that stabbed his conscience, apparently. “He said we taught him nothing. He said we were Christians, and cared nothing for Christians who are hungry …. When we say we are Christians, we mean we are white.3.

3. Jarvis encounters Stephen when the old man is going up the mountain to wait for the rising sun, announcing the execution of Absalom. Joined by their common grief, they are reconciled, Jarvis promising to build a new church to replace the present crumbling, leaky-roofed one.

For a powerful parable of grace and reconciliation, “Cry, the Beloved Country is not to be missed!

More Films on South Africa

  1. Cry, t. Beloved … The 1951 B & W version featured Sidney Poitier as the young priest who aids Stephen during the search for Absalom.
  2. Lost in t. Stars (1974), as title suggests, stresses Stephen Kumalo’s anguish to the point of losing his faith, only Jarvis’s reconciliation bringing him back. Great Kurt Weil music!
  3. A Place of Weeping (1986), made by the same S. A. team as the current Cry… is the story of a black
    woman’s courageous struggle for justice and dignity.
  4. Sarafina (1992) The film version of t. musical stage play about a black high school girl, influenced by a
    charismatic teacher, deciding whether or not to accept violent means of resisting Apartheid. Excellent!
  5. Bopha! (1993) Morgan Freeman directed Danny Glover & Alfre Woodard in this tragic story of a black
    policeman & his family, t. former torn by loyalty to his white superior & t. freedom struggle of his people.
  6. Mandela (1987) also stars Danny Glover & Alfre Woodard as Nelson & Winnie Mandela, from t.
    founding of t. NAC through his trial and the first part of his long imprisonment.
  7. A World Apart (1988) Barbara Hershey in t. true story of journalist Diana Roth, whose part in t. fight
    against Apartheid comes between herself & her teenage daughter.
  8. A Dry White Season (1989) The story of t. awakening of a white teacher to the evils of Apartheid is distinguished mainly by Marlon Brando’s small role as a trial lawyer.
  9. Cry Freedom (1987) Richard Attenborough’s is a sweeping tale of martyr Steve Biko’s friendship with the white journalist Donald Woods.
  10. Gandhi (1980) The great Indian leader develops his non-violence philosophy and tecniques  in S.A.

 

Suffragette (2015)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 4; Sex /Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them.

Ecclesiastes 4:1

Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

Luke 14:27

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.

Ephesians 6:12 (RSV)

MaudSonHusb

Maud with her young son & unsympathetic husband. (c) Focus Features

Today we shudder at the ways in which women are treated in some Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia where they cannot drive, or in rural parts of Pakistan where radical fundamentalists tried to kill a teenager advocating the right of girls to go to school. However, it was just a hundred years ago, director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan remind us in their new film, that women in Europe and America were not much better off. Their film, set in England a few years before the First World War, could be considered a prequel to the 2004 HBO movie Iron Jawed Angels, the story of America suffragettes Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, both of whom gained experience in the women’s rights movement in England.

The new film mixes real characters with fictional ones, reminding me in a way of the exceptional film about the Montgomery Bus Boycott The Long Walk Home. Whereas both Iron Jawed Angels and Boycott dealt with the generals in the war for equality—the movies Home and Suffragette focus on the foot-soldiers, the lowly but courageous folk whose names never appear in the newspapers or history books, but without whom the generals would lack the power to effect change. It was a Montgomery maid working for a white family in The Long Walk Home. In this London-set film Carey Mulligan’s Maud Watts works at the same industrial laundry as her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw). She has been too busy with work, husband, and a young son to pay much attention to the upperclass Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) and the forceful demonstrations of the latter’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which Pankhurst founded in 1903. It is now 1912, and when Maud’s overbearing boss Norman Taylor (Geoff Bell) orders her to deliver a package to London’s West End, she comes upon a protest demonstration in central London that has turned violent, the women hurtling rocks through store windows.

Maud recognizes one of the protestors, as Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), a new worker at the laundry. Through her, as well as goaded by the terrible treatment by her boss, Maud becomes caught up in the movement, especially when she is almost forced to step in and speak for Violet before a Parliamentary Commission because Violte has been beat up, presumably by her husband. Later she befriends Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), an ardent suffragette. They are inspired by a speech made from a balcony by Emmeline Pankhurst herself, albeit a brief one, as the police arrive hoping to capture the fugitive leader. The women take to heart Pankhurst’s basic message, “It is deeds not words that will get us the vote.”

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Meryl Streep appears briefly as Emmeline Pankhurst. (c) Focus Features

Other conspirators include chemist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) who hosts meetings of female conspirators in the back of the shop she and her supportive husband Hugh (Fynbar Lynch). Edith does more than talk about fighting the patriarchal system; she acts, mixing the materials for the small bombs that volunteers stuff into corner mailboxes, thereby blowing them up. Like those protesting the Vietnam War several generations later, Edith stresses that care should be taken so that no one would be harmed by the blasts. But what about when the women start bombing buildings?

Maud soon makes the acquaintance of the Irish cop Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), determined to penetrate and break the increasingly violent WSPU. Maud is arrested, much to the disgust of Sonny, who comes to seek her release from jail. After she is arrested several times Inspector Steed offers Maud a way to escape prison time—turn informer. Like many women of her time, Maude pays a high price for her activism, perhaps the worst price that could be imposed on a mother by a hostile husband. Throughout the film women find themselves up against a brutal system, the police at times seeming to enjoy using their heavy billy clubs to beat the women, even when they are down on the ground. In prison, when some of the suffragettes go on hunger strikes, the methods of forcing food down their throats is just as brutal. And at the climax of the film, which takes place at a race track in 1918, Maud’s friend Emily Wilding Davison also pays a terrible price, her exact motive for doing what she did generating considerable debate. But her example inspired her fellow protestors to continue on with what at times seemed like a hopeless struggle. Their motto became, “Never surrender. Never give up the fight.”

This is the second film this year in which I have admired Carey Mulligan as a woman who battles against patriarchy. In Far From the Madding Crowd she played Bathsheba Everdene, a woman who strove to prove to skeptical males that she could take on the man’s job of running the large farm she had inherited. In Suffragette she is far lower down the social ladder, almost by accident becoming involved in a movement that would raise her status in society. What happens to her is what liberation theologians such as Paolo Freire called “conscientization,” an often slow process by which a person becomes aware of the forces that oppress him or her, and then understanding the situation, sets out to change things. I love to see this in such films as The Long Walk Home, Norma Rae, The Official Story, Silkwood, The Burning Season, Romero, and The Grapes of Wrath. In all these films the characters emerging into full consciousness pay a price, and Maud is no exception. Ms. Mulligan’s expressive face conveys the sorrow and pain of one who pays the price, one for Christians symbolized by the cross, for following one’s new convictions against the principalities and powers that dominate the world.

This is a film that every mother, and father, should be watching and discussing with their daughters and sons. Though the “glass ceiling” still prevents women in many areas from full equality, our society has come a long way from the period of this film, something that is worth celebrating. Two of the men, Maud’s boss and her husband, represent the worst of the domineering powers, but there is also a more ambiguous male figure in the man hired to protect the status quo, the police inspector. Arthur Steed shares the prejudices of society, regarding the protestors as dangerous criminals who deserve what they get in the way of beatings and imprisonment. We see him mellowing as he witnesses the courage and tenacity of the women, who refuse to give up, despite their terrible treatment in prison. By the film’s end he is not ready to pick up a sign and join a picket line, but, as both Gandhi and Dr. King noted often, the actions of the women did exert a meliorating experience on his once closed mind.

The film concludes with a series of surprising statistics that show what slow learners most of the world is, the statistics showing how long it took many countries to grant women the right to vote After watching and talking about this film, go on to see how the war spread from Great Britain to the USA by watching Iron Jawed Angels.

This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Nov. 2015 issue of VP, available for purchase on this site.

 

 

Iron Jawed Angels (2004)

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

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:40-42

 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

1 Corinthians 14:35

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The women are the first group ever to protest outside the White House, even refusing to disperse when the nation enters WW 1. (c) 2004 HBO Films

Although there are many good films dealing with the Civil Rights movement, there are relatively few about the struggle for women’s rights. Thus we should be glad that HBO saw fit to produce this film for Women’s History Month in March of 2004. At first glance it might seem strange that German filmmaker Katja von Garnier was chosen to direct a movie about the American Suffragette movement—unless one had seen her previous film Bandits which dealt with strong women. (It centered on female convicts who form a band and then flee captivity when they get a chance.) Someone at HBO must have seen the film and realized her ability to direct a female cast. Someone was very right.

Ms. von Garnier has taken the work of the three women and one man listed (at IMDB) as authors of the script and fashioned it into a compelling narrative that brings to light a largely unsung heroine of the almost eight years just before and after the election of President Woodrow Wilson and the First World War. And she has garnered the services of some top female actresses to bring the script to life, making her film, as the US President who is a semi-villain in this story allegedly (but probably apocryphally) said about a far different film, “It is like writing history with lightning.”

Hilary Swank plays Alice Paul, or, as the suffragette preferred, “Miss Paul,” the woman largely responsible for writing the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, often referred to as “The Equal Rights Amendment.” That it was not an easy task, the film well shows. Alice Paul not only had to battle die-hard MCP’s (“Male Chauvinist Pigs,” in case, you haven’t seen the term that was once popular in the 60s and 70s)—Woodrow Wilson is not let off lightly in this film—but she had to fight even against fellow suffragettes who thought her too radical.

The film begins in 1912 when the two friends Alice Paul and Lucy Burns (Frances O’Connor) are meeting with Carrie Chapman Catt (Anjelica Huston) and Anna Howard Shaw (Lois Smith), heads of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Though the older women have misgivings about their plans to stage a March, they agree to hire the applicants and send them to Washington. Despite the fact that President Wilson (Bob Gunton) was to arrive in Washington for his inauguration on the same day, the two stage the march as planned. Their friend and colleague Inez Milholland (Julia Ormond) makes a striking picture as a Joan of Arc-type warrior mounted on a horse at the head of the marchers. Jeering opponents resort to violence, the parade ending in chaos, but the widespread publicity makes the nation more aware of the issue. During the grueling cross-continent campaign that follows, Inez, now an icon for the Movement thanks to the photos of her mounted on her horse, is sent around the country. Exhausted, she tries to drop out for a while, but Alice persuades her to fulfill her duty. When she dies as a result of her run-down condition, Alice is filled with guilt, but fortunately has Lucy on hand for support.

The women appeal to President Wilson for support of a Constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, but the otherwise liberal politician tells them that there are more important issues, such as revising the tariffs that demand his attention. In other words, he does not want to expend his political capital with Congress on an issue he regards as peripheral. There is a reference later in the movie to this same view back in Civil War days. Then women and Abolitionists had worked together to abolish slavery as well as for the equality of women, but when the battle in Congress began, the men dropped women’s suffrage to concentrate on obtaining black men the right to vote.

The women decide to picket and display large banners at the main gate of the White House, much to the dismay of opponents who fear that the Republicans will benefit. Even when the US enters the European war, the women refuse to stop their public display. In one scene Alice reads excerpts from the President’s speeches about democracy and then disdainfully tosses the paper into the fire roaring in a barrel in front of her. Critics expect the women to falter under the frequent attacks and insults hurled at them by angry bystanders and advent of winter, but as the months pass, the women show up despite rain, snow and cold temperatures.

By this time Alice and Lucy have broken with the conservative American Woman Suffrage Association and set up their own single-issue organization, The National Women’s Party. Carrie Chapman Catt becomes almost as vociferous a critic of Alice and Lucy as any of their male enemies. Both radicals are arrested and jailed, first Lucy, and then Alice. The prison conditions are horrible, from the maggoty food to the forced labor at sewing machines to the brutal ways in which the women, especially Alice, are treated when they resist. Alice goes on a hunger strike, something she had done during the period when she worked in the women’s suffragette movement in England. The scenes in which she is strapped to chair and food forced down her throat are difficult to watch. More upbeat is the sequence in which a psychiatrist is brought in to examine Alice, apparently in the hope that she will be declared insane so that they can lock her away in an asylum. No doubt to the authorities dismay, the examiner finds her with her faculties totally intact, comparing her to Joan of Arc, who would die for her convictions.

Word about her tortuous treatment is leaked out, the news of her courage bringing many around to her side. This includes former enemy Carrie Chapman Catt, who in a pivotal scene threatens President Wilson with withdrawal of her crucial support if he does not agree to sponsor an amendment in Congress. His subsequent speech before both houses of Congress is eloquent and decisive in garnering the votes that will send the proposed Amendment to the states for ratification.

As historical films go, this one is fairly accurate, except for the introduction of a fictional would-be beau for Alice, one that panders too much to popular tastes—Miss Paul never married. Also, there was no Senator Thomas Leighton and wife Emily (Joseph Adams and Molly Parker), but their addition demonstrates a typical couple of the time and how they were affected by the movement. I especially appreciated the true to history scenes involving the great African American crusader Ida Wells-Barnett (Adilah Barnes) who demands that she and her women not be relegated to the tail-end of the 1913 March. Even though raised by Quakers and thus imbibing their values of racial equality, Alice refuses, explaining to her that their southern ladies, whose support they badly need, have refused to march if the parade is integrated. Ms. Wells-Barnett will have none of this: on the day of the parade she and her small contingent wait on the sidelines until Alice and Lucy march by, at which point the African Americans insert themselves into the ranks. I wish the script had included more on their relationship.

This is a film that should be seen by every American who treasures the progress that genuine democracy has made in this country. I wrote above that Alice Paul is an “unsung heroine.” The only book on this subject I have had through the years is the well-illustrated Ideals Publication Women in America. The slim 80-page volume does a fairly good job of raising up important women, all the way back to Queen Elizabeth and Pocahontas, but it devotes just two pages to Women’s Suffrage in the early 20th century. And nowhere will you find Alice Paul’s name, the authors giving Carrie Chapman Catt the entire credit for getting the 19th Amendment passed! This powerful drama corrects this wrong.

The title of the film, a label originally made up, as I recall, by not so sympathetic journalists, certainly describes well the strong determination of the suffragettes. Indeed, their backbones had to be more like steel in order for these brave women to stand against virtually everyone who held power at the time. In the story found only in Luke’s gospel, we see that Jesus favored Mary’s seeking education over her sister Martha’s socially approved domestic duties. It was a sad development of history that the male church leaders who came after Jesus and Luke gave in to the prejudices of the times, even the apostle of Freedom in Christ in some of his letters putting woman “in her place.” The result was that the church in Alice Paul and Lucy Burns’ time was part of their problem, as it had been for centuries. We are still trying to catch up to Christ in this regard—and many others.

 This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the September 2015 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.

AMERICAN HISTORY X (1998)

Since the murder of the 9 black church members in Charleston, many have questioned how the killer could have done such a terrible deed and what his home life must have been like. Thus I am reprinting a review of the 1998 film about two brothers who espouse views similar to Roof’s when they become involved in a Neo-Nazi group.

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 59 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 8; Language 7; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail.

Proverbs 22:8

Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Matthew 10:34-36

Bros

Derek tries to win Danny back from the Neo-Nazi group to which he had once belonged.             (c) 1998 New Line Cinema

Director Tony Kaye directs David McKenna’s excellent script that explores the world of Neo-Nazis and its impact on an American family. The film moves beyond the merely liberal view, in which the characters are often caricatures, to show us human beings caught up in circumstances in which racism seems to make sense. Danny Vineyard (Edward Furlong) has idolized his older brother Derek and longs for the day when he will be released from prison. Before his imprisonment Derek (Edward Norton) had been recruited by the sinister organizer Cameron Alexander (Stacy Ketch) to head up a local group of skinheads. Their mother Doris (Beverly D’Angelo) prays for him, and his girl friend Stacey (Fairuza Balk) eagerly waits to resume their romance. Derek is in prison for brutally killing a young black man who had tried to vandalize or steal his car late one night. Danny had witnessed the killing with a mixture of horror and admiration. Derek, enraged and holding a gun on the attacker, had stomped him to death while he was lying helpless on the sidewalk. At his own request none of the family had seen Derek since his imprisonment.

On the day Derek is to be released from prison Danny is called to the office of principal Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks) because he has turned in a book report praising Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Sweeney had worked with Danny’s brother and was concerned that Danny was headed toward a similar fate. He insists that Danny write a new report right away, one that explains how his brother came to his racist views that led to his hate crime. It is from this perspective that the rest of the film unfolds.

Unknown to Danny and the skinheads Derek has undergone a transformation in prison. With more time to think, Derek rebuffs the attempts of other imprisoned skinheads to include him in their group. They vent their wrath on him by beating and gang raping him in the showers, but he still refuses. His only relationship is with Lamont (Guy Tory), his workmate in the laundry, who shows him the procedures. Ironically, Lamont is black. His friendliness and humor gradually melts Derek’s reserve, eventually undermining his long-held racist stereotypical views. How his family and skinhead friends react to the new Derek makes for fascinating viewing. Derek dedicates himself whole-heartedly to the winning of his brother’s soul, a struggle in which his former mentor Cameron is more than willing to use any means necessary to keep Danny within his fold.

Moment of grace: At his release Derek seeks out Lamont. After his first beating he had expected further attacks, if not from the skinheads then from the blacks who hated all Neo-Nazis. But none came. He finally realized that it must be due to his friend that he had enjoyed years of relative peace. He thanks him, realizing what a great debt he owes the gentle, joking friend.

Insightful moment: The brothers remember a family meal when their father was complaining about matters at the Fire Department where he worked. Blacks were not only being hired, but were being promoted to positions of authority. Their father derides affirmative action, claiming that inferior blacks are crowding out better-qualified whites. Derek comes to realize that Cameron was not the source of his racism, merely the exploiter. The poison of racism begins in one’s own family.