Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

Rated PG-13. Running Time 2 hours 29 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 0; Sex Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Mark 10:33-35

David Newell played Postman McFeely with Fred Rogers, and he also handled PR for the show–he was the one who conducted me from the studio door to Fred when I first interviewed the host.       (c) Focus Features

Fred Rogers was the most famous Presbyterian minister in North America before his death in 2003, beloved by millions of children and parents, most of whom did not know that he was a minister. As fellow pastor Rev. George Wirth explains in Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville’s new documentary, Rogers managed to preach Christian values without using the doctrinal language of a sermon. Better than most ministers, and undoubtedly than any other children’s program host, he shared Jesus’ love of and concern for children and understood their needs.

Mr. Neville has lined up a studio-full of interviewees who were close to the man, including his wife of almost 51 years, Joanne Rogers, herself a talented pianist; their two sons Jim and John, and Fred’s sister Elaine Crozier. There is Producer Margy Whitmer; Hedda Sharapan, child development advisor; Joe Negri, “Handyman Negri;” David Newell, “Mr. McFeely” and Publicity Director (he is the one I first met when I visited the studio for an interview with Fred); Francois Clemmons, the black singer cast as “Officer Clemmons;” biographer Max King; journalist Tom Junold, former guest Yo-Yo Ma, and several others. Fred himself speaks through numerous archival clips.

The film opens with Fred at the piano explaining his ministry with children by playing chord modulations, a couple of which he demonstrates–an easy one, and a second more difficult. Referring to the latter, he says that he wants to help children “through some difficult modulations in life.” Influential childhood experts like Dr. Benjamin Spock and psychiatrist Erik Erikson influenced Fred, as well as millions of parents, to be alert to the feelings of children, to take them seriously and not dismiss them lightly. Child psychologist Hedda Sharapan  became a member of his staff—in fact she sought her Masters degree at his advice when she first came to WQED seeking a job right after her college graduation. Thus, Fred combined scientific knowledge of child behavior with his instincts, dealing with their feelings like no one else on TV. These were feelings felt by virtually all children—need for security and of self-worth, fears of going to the doctor or dentist, even of loss and death.

A gifted music student in college, he felt a call to the ministry, but put this on hold after watching the newly arrived TV set at his parents’ home. As he states, TV can be a good method of education, especially for young viewers, but he was appalled at the way it was being used—the director cues shots of people shoving pies in faces and hitting one another and talking down to children. Rogers deplored that this powerful mediumt was being employed primarily to sell products to children—we see two boys watching a war film when suddenly, to their wide-eyed delight, a hand emerges from the set giving the delighted boys the same kind of guns used by the soldiers.

In 1951 Rogers worked at NBC in NYC as a member of the production crew for such programs as Your Hit Parade, The Kate Smith Hour, and The Voice of Firestone. Unmentioned is his role in bringing Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors to the network. As I learned during my first visit with him, this was something of which he was very proud.

He began his work in children’s TV at WQED in Pittsburgh in 1954, the program being The Children’s Corner. With host Josie Carie, he worked behind the camera as producer and puppeteer. During this period, he earned his ministry degree at what became Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and was ordained in 1963, with the mandate to minister to children through television.

He moved right afterward to Toronto to develop the children’s show that became Misterogers. There he was coaxed to come out in front of the camera because of his natural speaking talent. (The film skips over these Canadian years.) In 1966 Rogers gained from CBC the rights to his program and moved back to WQED where he developed what became his 30-minute series we now know as Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.

Always concerned with the development of children and their feelings, Rogers, who wrote all the scripts and songs, divided his Neighborhood into two sections– the Neighborhood of Make Believe with its puppet characters and his house into which he enters at the beginning of each show and changes into his sweater and sneakers. He did not want to confuse his young viewers, so he separated fantasy from reality by never appearing in the Make-Believe segments. His famous Trolley, traveling back and forth between the two, provided the connection with King Friday and his subjects. He ended his shows by assuring his viewers

Rogers took on seemingly frivolous (to adults) topics, as seen in his song based on a child’s early fear of falling into the toilet and being flushed down the drain, and such serious ones raised by the timid Daniel Tiger’s question following the murder of senator Robert Kennedy, “What is assassination?” Decades later he also dealt with fears in the wake of the destruction of the Twin Towers. In his answers he drew on words his mother had once said to him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Fred’s enormous influence through his dedicated and sincere service to children is beautifully shown in the archival clip from his 1969 testimony before a Congressional committee whose chairman Senator John Pastore supported President Nixon’s intent to cut the $20 million allotted to PBS in the Federal budget. Fred’s testimony was just six minutes long, but so strong that the Senator ended it by telling the witness that he has his $20 million. (Rogers never mentioned this accomplishment to me during the several times that I interviewed him, even though others have lionized him for the achievement.)

The film also deals with the lampoons of his mild manner, he good naturedly accepting them when served up in good will. There is even a clip in which an interviewer gingerly enquires of Roger’s gender, the host replying that he is straight. This is a topic covered by African American singer Francois Clemmons, who was the friendly Officer Clemmons on the show. In a segment in which he and Fred took off their shoes to bathe their feet together in a small pool was deliberately staged at the time when whites were demonstrating against the integration of swimming pools in the South. Neither mentioned the turmoil over interracial swimming, but the camera’s close-ups of their white and brown feet immersed in the water beside each other preached volumes to young viewers.

What Rogers refused to deal with on his program, Clemmons states, was homosexuality. The African American was a closeted gay man back then. When word reached Rogers that he had been seen in a Pittsburgh gay bar, Rogers told him that if he were to go there again, he would be dropped from the show. There is no bitterness in the gay man’s telling of this. He goes on to say that he understood Roger’s concern that the show would lose sponsors and audience were Clemmons’ secret to reach the public. Indeed, he goes on to report that Fred told him at one point that he loved him. Not even my father said that to me, he says, so from that point on he loved Fred Rogers as a true friend who accepted him as he was.

There is so much in this film that religious leaders could have a great time gathering an adult group together to discuss it. I would focus the discussion upon children and our ministry with them (in keeping with Fred Rogers’ approach, I use “with” rather than “to”), using the film as presenting us with a good model for this. I strongly recommend that you read and use Michael G. Long’s fine spiritual biography, PEACEFUL NEIGHBOR: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers. Director Morgan Neville takes a mainly secular approach to his subject, whereas the book, published by our own WJK Press, is written by and for believers who are really into social justice, the author pointing out how, though he was not out-front marching with C-R and anti-War protestors, Fred Roger’ programs and songs subtly dealt with basic issues of justice and love.

Any discussion of this film risks becoming a nostalgic session, with parents and grandparents fondly recalling the time when they and their children almost religiously watched the show. (One of the interesting things I learned from my interviews with Fred Rogers was that their research showed that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was very popular on college campuses. Thousands of college students, missing their secure home environment, tuned in to their TV friend who reassured them that they were persons of value.)

You will appreciate Mr. Rogers even more after seeing the film—and I suspect will look forward with anticipation to seeing TriStar’s dramatic film about him scheduled to go into production this fall. It reportedly is based on journalist Tom Junold’s chronicle of his friendship with Rogers during the last 5 years of the Rogers’ life. (This is the journalistic who appears throughout the documentary.) I suspected Fred Rogers would blush, but be pleased, with the news that Tom Hanks has been signed to play the best friend that children ever invited into their homes.  In the meantime, there is this documentary, scheduled for release on June 8.

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

Note: To see an account of my four personal encounters with Fred Rogers go to:

https://www.readthespirit.com/visual-parables/wasnt-it-nice-in-the-neighborhood/.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 15 min.

Our content ratings (0-5): Violence 4; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1 .

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.

Judges 21:25

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.

Ecclesiastes 4:9

     

New & old characters in this stand alone prequel.        (c) Walt Disney

This film suggests that Han Solo’s rough exterior and cynicism, which set him apart in A New Hope, was due to the early events chronicled in his life. Like Rick in Casablanca, his soul is seared by betrayal—in Hans’ case real and not just perceived. We also learn how he came by his last name; how he acquired his rust bucket ship The Millenian Falcon; and what happened on his legendary trip that he boasted about when he made “the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.” (This latter refers to the howler mistake in the original when the script writer used a measure of length— “parsec”—for one of time.)

Director Ron Howard, brought in late after the two original directors– Phil Lord and Christopher Miller– were fired over “creative differences,” delivers a deep space heist/cowboy film packed with thrills and a few surprises as it hurtles toward an ending that leaves us anticipating the two sequels for which actor Alden Ehrenreich has signed up, supposing, of course, that the public responds well to this prequel. Judging by the positive reaction of many critics, the actor need not worry about his job security for the next few years. A major factor in the success of this film is the script by the father-son screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Jonathan Kasdan, the former who wrote two of the best loved Star Wars films, Episodes 5 & 6, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and The Force Awakens.

The scrolled prologue, stating “It is a lawless time” brought to my mind the last verse of the Book of Judges, a book filled with strong characters (even a woman) who led adventurous lives. The young, orphaned Hans and girl-friend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) survive on the crime-ridden planet of Corellia by stealing vehicles. Ravaged by over-mining, the polluted air hanging over huge factories where even children work as slaves, it is planet from which Hans hopes to escape by enlisting in the Imperial Navy. He hopes to bring Qi’ra with him, but is unable, Hans vowing to return for her.

Three years pass, during which during a futile war Han deserts and hooks up with Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and the criminal’s partner Val (Thandie Newton). There is an episode of the dangerous heist of a huge mono-rail train up in the mountains, followed by their being captured by master crime lord (Dryden Vos) Paul Bettany. He is the ultimate cynic when he tells Han, “Let me give you some advice. Assume everyone will betray you. And you will never be disappointed.” This turns out to be pretty much on the mark.

Vos has a surprise, Qi’ra, Han’s lost lover, is now teamed up with him in more ways than one. She, who appeared so sweet, turns out to be quite a femme fatale, with our heelro often wondering to whom she has given her heart. Or is it to what? In typical tough girl language, she says to Hans, “You’re after something. Is it revenge? Money? or is it something else? You look good, little rough around the edges, but good.”

There is much more to the plot, including the meeting up with Wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) in a muddy prison and that fateful card game in which Han wins the Falcon from its first owner Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). Maybe I should say games, because the crafty Lando wins a first game by literally having a card up his sleeve. The shot of Han returning to the bar for a rematch has an iconic shot right out of a hundred Westerns—we see Han, pistol strapped to his hip, standing in the doorway of the dive filled with tough-looking hombres—well, no, mostly creatures, Lando being the hombre. The latter is teamed up with an interesting character, his droid-girlfriend L3-37, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, interesting because she is concerned with the enslavement of droids by humans and others.

There are enough special effects to satisfy most geeks who love the sci-fi genre because it requires a small army of digital technicians to pull off a film. I loved the amazingly diverse aliens filling the dives and crowded streets of the cities, some wearing bubble helmets, so they can breathe their native atmospheres. I recall forty years ago George Lucas wishing he had had more time and money to make his great cantina scene in A New Hope more exciting with additional aliens. His successors have no such problem. When I was a boy I thrilled to the covers of sci-fi magazines such as Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction with their eye-popping cover s showing multi-story high machines and mile-long space ships, which film makers could not match, given the crude cinematic tools available to them then.

There is no spiritual talk because there are no Jedis around to teach anyone about the Force. There is, however, spirited music, most of it composed by John Powell, who scored Ferdinand, How to Train Your Dragon, Bourne and Ice Age. John Williams did compose the opening “Han Solo” theme, and Powell incorporates liberal portions of the master’s music throughout the film. All in all, this is a fun-fest that makes no demands on the brain or claims to explore any spiritual or ethical issue. It might be just what you need to escape from the world’s troubles for a while, especially if you like Westerns and the previous Star Wars films. Bring on the sequels.

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

 

Itzhak (2017)

Documentary. Running time: 1 hour 22 min.

Our content ratings (0-5): Violence 1; Language 1 ; Sex/Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.

Psalm 98:4

At home in his NYC apartment with his Stradivarius. (c) Greenwich Entertainment

Lovers of great music will find much to enjoy in Alison Chernick’s documentary about violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman. Thanks to her cameras, she takes us into his New York City apartment where we also meet Toby, his devoted wife of half a century, as well as follow him around the city and the world as he enchants thousands with his exquisite performances. One scene on a snow-piled New York sidewalk epitomizes the film maker’s message. Setting in his scooter and accompanied by Toby and friends, he is able to navigate a blocking mound of snow when one of the party sees his snow shovel to widen the passage so Perlman can cross the street. The musician is a polio survivor who, with some help along the way, has more than a survivor, he is a victor.

Born in 1945 in Tel Aviv of Poles who had left Europe in the mid-Thirties, the boy was a child prodigy who came down with polio when he was four-years-old. Although he was able to study at Julliard, his career was hindered because of his disability. And then Ed Sullivan featured him on his hit TV program in 1958. Toby, who also is a t rained violinist, suspects that the offer was made partially out of pity for “the poor crippled boy.” Maybe, but it made him world-famous, and his career took off. He returned to the show in 1964, along with The Rolling Stones.

This latter reminds me that Perlman enjoys playing all kinds of music, the film opening, not with a piece by Mozart or Bruch, but with his rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The setting is Citi Field in Queens where, sporting a Mets jersey, he has been invited to play The National Anthem. Later we see him absorbed in his performance with Billy Joel. He also has made a jazz recording and played his violin for film scores. The most notable of the latter is the haunting theme from Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List—Perlman notes that wherever in the world he performs, someone always asks him to play this. This sequence includes archival footage of Jewish prisoners playing their violins.

In many places, such as the sequence in which he entertains in his apartment his good friend Alan Alda, we see he is a lively story teller with a great sense of humor. During a visit to Tel Aviv he jokes that the film maker should look up street names on the “Jewish Google” because so many are named after famous Jews.  “If you could Jew-gle,” he quips, “that would be nice.” During his visit in Tel Aviv to the cluttered shop of friend and famous violinmaker Amnon Weinstein, he says, while doing exercises on a newly-made instrument, “It plays Jewish automatically.” I love especially the comment made by this master craftsman that his friend is “praying with the violin.” Perlman himself comments, while playing a Bach piece, “The violin is a replica of the soul.” The way he plays it, we can certainly believe him.

In addition to the opening baseball park episode there are many concert hall scenes, during which Perlman plays sitting down. These are filled with beloved selections from the music of Bach, Brahms, Bruch, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schubert, Strauss, Tchaikovsky—and of course, Billy Joel and John Williams. He also teaches, obviously enjoying interacting with his talented students. Back at his home we also meet many family members (the couple have five grown children) who gather for a Shabbat dinner.

The film is a warm loving tribute to a man who continually brings music to a world badly in need of its beauty and joy. We see that even a great handicap such as polio can be overcome by pluck, strength of spirit, humor, and the loving help of family and friends.

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

Lean on Pete (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 1 min.

Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 2; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords,

the great God, mighty and awesome,

who is not partial and takes no bribe,

who executes justice for the orphan and the widow,

and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.

Deuteronomy 10:17-18

Charley & Lean on Pete find water during their flight from the authorities. (c) A24

Director/writer Andrew Haigh’s film, adapted from Willy Vlautin’s novel, becomes at its midpoint a road trip tale—only much of the trip is on foot, not by car, or even on horseback, even though it is the horse that is the cause for the trip. Although the horse in question gives its name to the film, this is really about the long journey that a lonely but determined teenage boy makes in his search for happiness, the emotional/spiritual journey being as long as the boy’s physical one, from Portland, Oregon to Laramie, Wyoming.

The film is divided into two parts, the first introducing us to Charley (Charley Plummer) and supporting characters as the boy meets and bonds with a five-year-old horse, and the second which consists of Charley and Lean on Pete’s taking to the road to search for his long-lost Aunt Margy (Alison Elliott, who played Percy Talbott in The Spitfire Grill).

Charley and his single-parent father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), have moved from Spokane, Washington, to a small house in Portland. Ray has a good relationship with his dad, but the latter is no more grown up than the son, drifting from job to job and chasing virtually every waitress that catches his eye. One morning Ray’s current conquest cooks the two an egg breakfast before Charley starts out on his daily jog, and the boy asks if this could last. However, she is married, and so this fling will result in terrible consequences for Ray and his son.

As he jogs along, Charley comes upon Del (Steve Buscemi), needing help with a flat tire on his trailer-pulling pickup truck. After paying the boy $10 to fix it, he offers the boy $25 a day to help him at the Portland Meadows race track to which he had been heading with his horse. Pete likes both the horse and the work, performing so well that the impressed Del pays him far more than the agreed upon price. Over the next few days Charley bonds with Pete and befriends female Jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny). Del occasionally wins with his second horse, but not with Pete, so he talks about sending Pete “to Mexico.” Charlie is disturbed by this euphemism, but Bonnie warns him against getting too attached to the horse: “You can’t think of them as pets. They lose too much, they get fired.” During a trip to a circuit of small race tracks Charlie grows all the more closer to the horse, especially after the tragic event that orphans him.

Lean on Pete continues to lose races (often two or three-horse affairs), so when Del decides to “send the horse to Mexico,” Charley rashly takes off with the truck in the direction of Wyoming. Throughout the film we see him trying to find via telephone operators the whereabouts of his aunt. Along the way the penniless boy encounters various people—some helpful and sympathetic, another friendly, until the boy acquires some money. Charley’s impulsive flight with lean on Pete without any real thought as to how the two would survive does not turn out as he had hoped. However, despite the dark events, the film ends on a hopeful note that the young man seeking stability in his life—he yearns to be able to play on a high school football team again—has found it. There are few better scenes of welcoming compassion than the tender one that concludes this film!

Andrew Haigh’s tale is no My Friend Flicka. It is completely unsentimental, Lean on Pete always depicted as just a horse, rather than the super intelligent animal depicted in so many horse and young owner films of the past, able to contribute to the resolution of the plot. This makes this character study even more believable, and the ending in Laramie leaves us with the belief that Charley is a survivor who will grow into a fine young man despite his past—or probably, because of it. The film maker chose the perfect song for the soundtrack, Bonnie Prince’s version of R. Kelly hit “The World’s Greatest,” with the following words that, in describing Charley, are by no means an empty boast:

“I’m the world’s greatest
And I’m that little bit of hope
When my back’s against the ropes
I can feel it
I’m the world’s greatest…”*

Charley is the kind of outsider very much like those championed by the Lord God throughout the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.

You can hear this anthem on You Tube. https://video.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?fr=yhs-pty-pty_packages&hsimp=yhs-

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

RBG (2018)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 38 min.

Our content ratings (0-5): Violence 0; Language 0; Sex/Nudity  0.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue,

so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Deuteronomy 16:20

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;

maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.

Psalm 82:3

 

President Carter greets Ruth Bader Ginsberg. (c) Magnolia Pictures

Co-directors Julie Cohen and  Betsy West open document not only Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s great contributions to American law, but also present what could be called “one of the great love stories of the 20th century.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passions were the law, music, and the first man who loved and respected her for her brains, Martin Ginsberg. We see these three passions throughout the film, thanks to the skillful interweaving of interviews, archival footage and photographs. Included are Ginsburg’s children, life-long friends, colleagues, admirers and such famous folk as Gloria Steinem and former President Bill Clinton.

The film begins with shots of Washington DC accompanied by the voices of her detractors, aptly followed by her saying that she “asks no favors for my sex—I just ask that they take their feet off our necks.” To show her determined struggle against sexism we see the first of many sequences of the 85-year-old working out in a gym. One of her friends marvels that she still can do push-ups.

The historical bias against women is depicted in shots of feminist demonstrators and comments by Gloria Steinem. Ruth was not out front with the demonstrators but used her legal skills to knock down barriers. She argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, winning five of them. To some she became the Thurgood Marshall (a jurist she admired) of the feminist movement.

No doubt her championing gender equality was fueled by her own experience. She enrolled in Harvard Law Scholl where she was one of nine women in a class of five hundred. The dean demanded of the women why they should take the place of a man. Moving to NYC when her husband secured a job there, she transferred to and graduated from Columbia Law School (tying for first place in her class). Top of her class, yet no firm would hire her.

Her favorite Columbia professor secured a clerkship for her with Judge Edmund L. Palmieri of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York only by threatening never to recommend another student if he did not hire her. She served for two years and then went on to her history making career as a lawyer and professor of law (at less pay than her male colleagues!) advocating the equality of women. During this period, she worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to bring cases before the Supreme Court and also serves on its board.

It was Jimmy Carter who noted disapprovingly that most judges looked like him, and so appointed her to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980. In 1993 when Pres. Bill Clinton was to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, she was not among his top considerations. Her husband Marty, deeply respecting her abilities, became one of her main advocates, pushing for an interview. Clinton reports that soon into their interview he was convinced by her brilliance that she would be his nominee. She is overwhelmingly voted onto the Court (96 to 3) by a Congress that at the time was willing to operate in a bi-partisan manner. The film goes on to show how she has been influential in such cases as The United States Vs. Virginia in which Virginia Military Institutes’ ban on the admission of female students was struck down.

A lover of opera, Ginsburg says, “The sound of the human voice is like an electrical current going through me.” Her passion for opera was part of her bi-partisan friendship with Judge Scalia, also an opera lover. Although always voting on opposite sides of many cases, the two respected each other and enjoyed sharing music. In one delightful sequence the two, dressed up in costumes, participate in an opera that had a brief scene with speaking parts. They appear to be having a delightful time. Many of her admirers took issue with her befriending such a conservative, but she insisted that a person could reach across divides when they shared a greater interest—and she loved the way Scalia could make her laugh.

Throughout the film she speaks of “Marty,” and we see him standing close by her in many photos and clips. He was the extrovert and she the reclusive workaholic. He was a tax lawyer willing to put his career second to hers, especially when it appeared that his wife might be considered to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. Some thought that at 60 she was too old for consideration, presidents usually favoring a candidate young enough to serve 30 years or more. Marty got busy using his connections so that President Clinton would be made aware of her vast accomplishments. As the former President says, it was but a short time into their conversation that he knew he had his nominee. Marty’s death in 2010 brought an end to a loving relationship that began when both were students at Cornell University in the early 1950s.

At 85 she is the oldest member of the Supreme Court at a time when it and the country and the Court are becoming increasingly conservative. To those liberal admirers who anxiously ask about her retiring, she replies that she hopes to last until another (Democratic) president can replace her. She utters a harsh criticism of candidate Donald trump, and then, made aware of its inappropriateness by critics, has to walk it back.

At one point she states, “The law is something I think I deal with well. … I don’t have the kind of talent to be an opera singer.” Some, who regard her with almost as much enthusiasm as fans bestow upon rock stars, will say “Amen” to that—though obviously not those whose voices we heard at the beginning of the film.

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

 

Red Dust (2004)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 50 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 4; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

No one who conceals transgressions will prosper,

but one who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.

Proverbs 28:13

 

Lawyer Sarah Barcant & Alex Mpondo join a demonstration in memory of his murdered friend.                   (c) HBO Home Video

This riveting courtroom drama, with its flashbacks to South Africa’s apartheid past, provides us with a good perspective on one of the most unique social experiments of the 20th Century. During the dark days, when the Afrikaner-dominated Nationalist Party came to power in 1948, the oppression of blacks by whites became so brutal and bloody that many resisters, including Nelson Mandela, gave up non-violence and turned to bombings and shootings to force change. The white resistance to those struggling for racial equality became so brutal that virtually everyone came to believe that when apartheid was conquered there would be bloody reprisals by the victorious blacks. One of the scenes from Alan Paton’s lyrical novel Cry the Beloved Country that impressed me years ago is that in which a black clergyman observes that he fears that when whites finally turn to love, “we will have turned to hate.” That this did not happen is credited to Nelson Mandela*, Archbishop Tutu, and others whose Christian faith taught the futility of vengeance and the necessity for reconciliation.

Those heady years of the 1990s produced what was often called “The Miracle of South Africa” and the implementation by Mandela and his African Nationalist Party’s program of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), headed by Archbishop Tutu. The new President knew that it was impossible to punish all the underlings of the officials, but that the victims deserved some measure of justice, hence the TRC hearings at which abusers met the victims (if they had survived) or their families. The officials at a TRC hearing could grant amnesty to those who had committed abuses during the apartheid era, providing that the abuser’s crime was politically motivated, full disclosure of the abuse was confessed, and the person was truly repentant.

The film’s fictional story chronicles such a hearing in a small town when former police officer Dirk Hendricks (Jamie Bartlett) seeks amnesty for the beatings of Alex Mpondo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Steve Sizela (Loyiso Gxwala) in 1986, both allegedly brutally beaten and tortured, with the fate of Sizela still unknown.

Years earlier Sarah Barcant (Hilary Swank) had fled the town because as a 16-year-old she had run afoul of the authorities due to her friendly relationship with blacks. Now a New York-based attorney, she has returned to represent Alex, a successful politician representing the area in Parliament. The parents of Sizela also have retained her to question Hendricks concerning what happened to their missing son.

Alex is forced to go through the trauma of his arrest and beating once more. Unable to remember the details of his ordeal, he worries that he might have betrayed his friend and their resistance comrades. Hendricks, pretending contrition before the Commission, uses a break in the trial to threaten Alex and thus destroy his burgeoning political career. Much depends upon finding the body of his deceased friend, so there is a great deal of suspense. One other former official also is involved Piet Müller (Ian Roberts), under who, Hendricks worked.

Director Tom Hooper is a gifted English director who helmed seven episodes of the ministries John Adams, and then The King’s Speech; Les Misérables; and The Danish Girl. Working from Troy Kennedy-Martin’s script (based on Gillian Slovo’s novel), he brings to life a complex situation faced by thousands of South Africans during the time of the TRC hearings. His cast is excellent, especially Jamie Bartlett who manages to humanize the loathsome torturer Dirk Hendricks. We see how some oppressors tried to take advantage of the procedure.  It is no surprise that both Hilary Swank and Chiwetel Ejiofor capture well the confusion and pain of two people, though from differing perspectives, the pain of a past filled with brutal suppression.  This story is fictional, but reflective of the truth—according to Wikipedia, only about 10% of those seeking amnesty received it. Those interested in social justice issues will find this well worth the effort to track it down.

* For the excellent film that shows to what lengths President Mandela went to bring reconciliation see Invictus.

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

 

 

POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD (2018)

Documentary . Running time: 1 hour 36 min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 

A cheerful look brings joy to the heart…

Proverbs 15:30

How happy are the humble-minded, for the kingdom of Heaven is theirs!

Matthew 5:3 (J.B. Phillips)

Pope Francis addresses the United Nations on a number of issues.        (c) Focus Features

Wim Wenders’ new documentary is not a biographical film, but in a sense, a road trip film in which we are companions of the man who heads the Roman Catholic Church. We are invited along to witness this amazing man’s journeys throughout the world. Equipped with a warm smile and arms outstretched to embrace everyone, Pope Francis travels to Buenos Aires; St. Peter’s Square, where on March 13th, 2013, a vast crowd cheers as the Cardinal of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, just elected as the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church, greets them in Spanish. In NYC he addresses the United Nations; in Philadelphia he reminds those at a men’s correctional facility that the first saint was a prisoner, whom Jesus promised a place in Paradise; after a devastating typhoon, Pope Francis brings hope to the throng of Filipino people; in Africa he comforts parents and children at a hospital; in Israel at the Holocaust Memorial he joins with those who say “Never again!” and he prays at the Jordan River; in Washington, DC he urges the members to stop the arms trade and to welcome refugees; on the coast of southern Italy he meets some of those fleeing from war and poverty; at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan he stands with leaders of many faiths against hatred, as he does later with a similar inter-religious group at Assisi, Italy.

Wenders offers us almost nothing on the early life of Jorge Mario Bergoglio or of his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, his concern being on what his subject says and does now.* He does, however, in black and white sequences that appear to be from a vintage Life of St. Francis, shows us the great saint who inspires his every word and deed, the film opening with lovely shots of the hill city of Assisi, its glorious Basilicas with Giotto’s famous murals of the Saint, followed by the scene of the call of Francis while he is praying in the small church just outside the walls of Assisi. There are several other B&W sequences scattered throughout the film.

Social justice advocates will want to see and reference this film because of this pope’s strong advocacy of issues such as helping the poor, welcoming of refugees, and protecting the environment. He strongly denounces “the plunder of the earth,” and in his encyclical on ecology “Laudato si” he quotes St. Francis’s “Canticle of the Sun.”

When it is available on DVD, short clips from this film can be used to start or conclude a sermon, so many of them being quote-worthy. Here are a few memorable ones:

“Tenderness makes us use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other.”

“Tenderness is not weakness, it is strength.”

“God does not see with his eyes. God sees with his heart.”

“The future has a name, and its name is hope.”

“In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good.”

“Never let the day end without making peace.”

“In the world today, we have so much to do, and we must do it together.”

Perhaps thinking of his church’s history, Pope Francis declares, “As long as the church puts hope in wealth, Jesus is not there.” As the film’s title indicates, Pope Francis is a man of his word. He gave up the luxurious art-decorated papal quarters to live in a guest room. When the Vatican sent him a first-class air ticket to fly to Rome for the conclave of cardinals, he traded it for a coach class seat. And he traveled by public transport from the airport to the Vatican rather than send for a limousine. In these and other ways (such as his remark that he is not the judge of gay Christians) this pope has, as Pope John XXIII said, let fresh air into the church. Many of us believers still have disagreements (women as priests) with him, but our admiration for him far outweighs these. This pope is indeed one we can all look up to for guidance and hope in dealing with the formidable issues of poverty, hunger, the welcoming of refugees, and saving the environment.

Note: To encourage viewership, the studio is offering group tickets. For information, go to http://focusfeatures.com/pope-francis-a-man-of-his-word/groupsales

*In 2016 The National Geographic Channel aired an hour-long drama/documentary, Rebel Pope, that dealt with the Pope’s earlier life. (Reviewed in the April 2016 VP.). Also, there is a 4-part series on Netflix called Call Me Francis which does deal with his early life: I will report on in a future issue.

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