Song of the Sea (2014)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 43 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight

Philippians 1:9


Even on her birthday Ben is resentful because his sister was born on the day their mother disappeared. (c) 2014 GKIDS & Universal Studios Home Entertainment

In essence the above prayer is the sentiment of Broanch, the mother in Tomm Moore’s new animated film who sings her son to sleep at the beginning of the film. Moore is the co-director of the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells, and if you loved that exquisitely hand-drawn film, you will revel in the new one, which in my opinion should have won the Best Animated Feature at the Oscar ceremony. This gloriously animated film combines Irish myth with Christian values (and images) that might leave you a bit puzzled at times as to what is happening, but always visually engaged by its exquisitely rendered images. You will never miss CGI renderings and such in this absolutely compelling film.

Ben must be 4 or 5 years old when his pregnant mother puts him to bed, closes his eyes, and tells him that he will be the best big brother in the world.


Uttering an apology she disappears mysteriously in childbirth amidst the sea that surrounds their lighthouse home, her husband Conor rescuing the newborn baby daughter whom he names Saoirse. By the time she has reached the age of 4 she has never spoken a word—nor won the affection of her brother who resents her because of the death of their mother. To make a long and complicated story short, their well-meaning grandmother, worried about their welfare living with their still grieving father in a lighthouse on the dangerous sea shore, takes the children to live with her in Dublin. The two run away on Halloween night in the hope of returning to their father. The scores of other children in costumed on the streets add to the mystery, as well as cover their tracks. They are aided by particles of light that stream from the nautilus seashell with finger holes when Saoirse plays it. Ben had once forbidden her to play with it because it was their mother who had given it to him. The lights go before them like tiny fireflies, leading them on and on.


Ben eventually learns that his sister is a half-selkie, a being who lives as a seal in water and a human on land. Playing on the shell the short, haunting song once sung by the mother, the little sister produces magical effects along the way. Their journey leads them through woods and underground as they encounter all sorts of strange creatures elves, owls and an owl witch. It is a wondrous journey filled with beauty and danger. Some of the stories we learn have counterparts in their world, such as the grieving giant whose tears form an ocean being similar to their father who cannot get over the loss of his wife. There’s even one for old Granny. The children’s journey results not only in the reconciliation of their family but also the freeing of various beings who have been turned into stone in order to stop their suffering.


I was fascinated by both the various stories and by the art through which they were told–the swirling lines of the drawings, the characters frequently encircled by light and other objects that suggested mandalas. From the round heads of the children, the half-round shape of the seals’ heads staring at Saoirse, the chambered nautilus carried and played by the children, circular staircases and round doors, and elaborate shots of the children journeying in the center of a pool of light–mandalas seem to be everywhere. I would love to talk with Tomm Moore about this to learn more about his intentions.

Owls &Men

The film is supposedly for children, but the complexity of the plot, and somewhat also the darkness of the story, might be a bit much for preschool children, but what an opportunity it offers older children and adults to talk about myth, life and death, and how sometimes we cannot stay with those whom we love. In addition I should mention the lovely musical score by Bruno Coulais and Irish band Kila, (they also contributed to Kells), enhancing the power of the visuals. This is such a beautiful film that I have included more than the usual amount of stills—they display that beauty far better than my words.


Further thoughts on the mandala, probably having little to do with the film itself:

The mandala arose in ancient India and is an important symbol in Hinduism and Budhism. It also appears in Christianity, especially in the art of the medieval abbess Hildegaard of Bingen. A number of years ago I had a conversation with the Sri Lankan Christian artist Nalini Jayasuriya*, who incorporates the mandala in many of her Biblical works—her version of the Last Supper shows Christ and the disciples sitting in a circular formation; one of her paintings, entitled “Christ Mandela,” depicts Christ sitting in the lotus position with his hands blessing, surrounded by a halo of light. Ms. Jaryasuriya said she uses her culture’s mandala because for her Western Christians emphasize too much straight, angular lines indicating a Yes/No, In/Out, Beginning/Ending way of looking at life. She likes the circle or mandala because it is inclusive rather than exclusive, either/or—straight lines separate people; circles are better exemplars of Christianity at its best, she said, inclusive in that we just enlarge the circle to include the outsider.  In the article “What Is a Mandala” we read, “Carl Jung said that a mandala symbolizes ‘a safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness.’ It is “a synthesis of distinctive elements in a unified scheme representing the basic nature of existence.” Jung used the mandala for his own personal growth and wrote about his experiences.”

*Some of Nalini Jayasuriya’s lovely works can be seen at:

This review with a set of discussion questions and lots more pictures will be in the March 2015 issue of Visual

The Patience Stone

Rated R.  Running time: 1 hour 42 min.

Our Advisories (1-10): Violence 6; Language 1; Sex-Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

  Deliver me, O Lord, from evildoers;
protect me from those who are violent,
who plan evil things in their minds
and stir up wars continually.
They make their tongue sharp as a snake’s,
and under their lips is the venom of vipers.

          Psalm 140:1-3

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 10:41


The Woman talks to her comatose husband about their unsatisfactory life together.
(c) 2012 Sony Pictures 

Directed by Atiq Rahimi and based on his own 2008 novel, The Patience Stone is set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country wracked by civil war. The filmmaker apparently wants us to see his characters as the Muslim equivalent of Every Man and Every Woman, because none of them are given names. A beautiful woman (played by Golshifteh Farahani) tends to the physical needs of her older comatose husband who was shot in the neck during one of his forays into battle. She must also tend to their two young daughters, rushing with them at intervals to escape to a shelter from bombs and rockets landing close by.

The woman at first asks if her husband can hear her. He is the only one to whom she can turn, her in-laws all having fled with no concern for the welfare of herself and her two children. With great difficulty she manages to drag and push her husband into an alcove where he can be hidden from view by curtains while she is gone. She tries to find her aunt, but she has moved, and the new occupant of her residence refuses to divulge where she has moved. The wife, with no money to pay for medicine for her husband or food for the children is desperate, so she returns to her aunt’s former home and refuses to leave until the woman reveals the new address. Also during this period two soldiers invade their apartment and strip the wedding ring and her watch. They would have raped her but for her claim that she is a prostitute. She knew that such super moralists as they (or at least the older one, the other being a youth impaired by his stuttering) would recoil from such an unclean woman. When she at last finds her aunt (Hassina Burgan), the older woman tells her she did right—otherwise they would have killed her after ravishing her body.

The aunt, who herself is a prostitute, also tells her the Persian folktale of The Patience Stone, a black stone that absorbs all of the troubles and fears that you tell it, until at last it shatters, leaving the confessor free at last. Thus the woman’s monologue before her husband gradually shifts from reports of present hardships and needs to the past ten years of their arranged marriage. She was but 17 and he was much older. Except for fulfilling at frequent intervals his lust for her body, there had been no sharing or rapport between them. Never had he considered her needs or desires, only his own. All the bitterness and frustration pour forth from her into the ear of the unblinking husband. We wonder if he can take any of this in, and if so, what feelings he must be experiencing.

The young stuttering soldier (Massi Mrowat) reappears bringing gifts. The woman has left her children with their aunt, so she gives herself to him, guiding and encouraging his clumsy efforts. This too she tells her husband, perhaps enjoying a sense of control over her life for the first time. Therapists tell us that we need to vent our feelings, articulate our frustrations and our dreams, and this is well illustrated in this tale of oppression and longing for freedom, the husband perhaps being the patience stone. If so, what will happen when he has absorbed everything to the limit of endurance—what form will his explosion take? The startling climax only partially answers this, leaving a great deal for the viewer to decide about her eventual fate.

This is a beautifully photographed film about the ugly, dark side of religious fanaticism. It is not anti-Muslim (though some American conservatives might so conceive it), being made by an Afghan filmmaker. The husband could just as easily be a radical Christian whose literal interpretation of the Old and New Testament (largely Pauline, it being necessary to discard Luke’s view of a feminist Jesus) leads him to believe men are superior to women. Only a Middle Easterner such as Atiq Rahimi could have made this film without being labeled an anti-Muslim propagandist. As it is he has given us a challenging visual parable of a woman much like the Mary who preferred to sit at the feet listening to Christ rather than staying in the kitchen with her more traditional sister cooking dinner.


Gravity (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 30 min.

Our Content Adviserories (1-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star Rating (1-5): 4.5


Astronauts Dr. Ryan Jones and Mission Commander Mat Kowalski are stranded in space when debris destroys their space shuttle.
(c) 2013 Warner brothers

 Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,a strong fortress to save me.

You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

            Psalm 31:2-5

We see no evidence in this suspenseful space film that Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a believer, but if she were, the above words of the psalmist might well have been her prayer. A medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, she is space suited up and teamed with another astronaut repairing a device on the Hubble telescope’s extended arm while the mission commander, veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), is enjoying using a thruster pack to propel himself around. This being his last mission, he regrets that he will fall short by a few hours of beating the space walk record of a Russian cosmonaut. The three are chatting with each other and Mission Control (voice of Ed Harris, a delightful bit of voice casting because he was one of the stars of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13), Matt repeating an old astronaut joke, “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission.” A few minutes later this turns out to be prophetic when Houston sends an emergency warning that a Russian station has blown up, the debris hurtling their way at 55,000 mph.  When Ryan is slow to respond to Matt’s command to stop her work and reboard their station, he yells at her to get moving. By then jagged bits and pieces of the remains of the Russian station are flying by them.

Thus, after a marvelous single shot scene lasting about 13 minutes, the roller coaster sequence begins in which the two struggle in zero gravity, first to connect with each other, and then to decide what to do when their station is destroyed, killing all aboard. The third astronaut out working with them also is killed. Ryan, already struggling with the nausea of motion sickness, has trouble when the long cargo arm of the station breaks loose, swinging her wildly around and around and around. When she extricates herself from it, she keeps spinning out of control. Thanks to the calmness of Matt, she overcomes her momentary panic, and at last he is able to connect with her. They are running low on oxygen, so he decides they must head for the Russian International Space Station which should have a shuttle to transport them safely back to earth. There follows a series of mini-disasters that could be regarded as confirmation of Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Their contact with Mission Control is severed, so they are completely on their own.

This is one film that truly deserves that overworked expletive “Awesome!” Director Alfonso Cuarón, working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, as well as his co-script writer son Jonas, has produced a variation of the old survival film worthy of placing alongside of Cast Away and Life of Pi. And not since t he latter film and Avatar has 3-D photography been used so effectively—and is so essential to fully experiencing the film. For once 3-D is not a financial rip off to increase a film’s profits.

Thus Gravity is not a film to wait for until it comes out on DVD in order to save a few bucks. You owe it to yourself to see it on a large screen, with the 3-D really bringing you into the action. When Matt reaches out for a special wrench or nut that is floating toward you, you have to stifle the urge to dodge the gloved hand. There are spectacular, glorious shots of the earth and stars, but equally effective are the close ups of Sandra Bullock’s face, which might remind film buffs of the almost exclusive use of such close ups in Carl Theodor Dryer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. Ms. Bullock is fully up to the challenge of conveying through her facial expressions the gamut of emotions, ranging from nausea, fear, and near panic to relief and determination to survive. The camera at times seamlessly moves from the external or third person POV into her helmet so that we see her in extreme close up, and then it swivels so that we are sharing her perspective on her predicament. She also achieves the almost ballet-like motions of a dancer in the sequence in which, shedding her bulky space suit, she floats her way through a long corridor of a space shuttle. With the least amount of dialogue of any of her films, it is through her facial expressions and the movements—or lack of them when during her period of despair she assumes a fetal position –that she reveals what a consummate actress she is. If you appreciated Tom Hank’s solo feat in Castaway, you are sure to love her performance in this masterful film.

We are reminded at the beginning of the film that nothing can be heard in space, where there is no atmosphere to convey the sound. This makes the sound of Ryan’s labored breathing all the more effective, reminding us that her oxygen is in short supply. Her struggle to reach the ISS, and from there the even more distant Chinese space station, becomes an epic journey of the mind and spirit as well as of the body, a testament of human pluck and perseverance. Steven Price’s musical soundtrack stops at just the right moments so that the silence of space is emphasized all the more.

From one standpoint the coldness and indifference of space might lead to an atheistic outlook—what difference does it make if these two humans live or die out there almost four hundred miles from home? On the other hand, for those who believe, to quote from William Cowper’s hymn, “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform,” Ryan’s moment of hallucination might be the modern equivalent of Joseph’s life saving dreams early on in the Gospel of Matthew. Filled with despair at one point in the Chinese station so that she is resigned to death, Ryan turns down the oxygen to hasten the inevitable. But her hallucination awakens her to the clue for the possibility of survival that she had not thought of before, and she springs into action. Scriptures in many places suggest that dreams or hallucinations at times have an external, as well as an internal, source. Of course, there is no way to prove this, but then isn’t that what faith is all about? As Hebrews 11:1 puts it, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Again, I urge you not to put off seeing this film, one that will no doubt be up for multiple awards, from Best Actress to all of the technical awards that the Motion Picture Academy offers. “Awesome!” really does sum up this film.

 The full version of this review, including a set of 9 discussion questions, will be in the November 2013 issue of the journal Visual Parables, available to subscribers near the end of October.


Francis of Assisi

4th in the series of St. Francis films.

Director: Michael Curtiz. NR. Year: 1961. Rating: NR.  Length: 105 min.


I doubt that the director of Casablanca considered this overly pious film of equal value. The film is like the sentimental paintings of saints used for Catholic holy cards—lots of color (the costumes look like they have never been worn, but are right off the rack), but little depth of feeling. Bradford Dillman and Dolores Hart as Francis and Clare look like the moderns that they are, displaying theatrical emotions that simply are not convincing.

There is more of the story told, such as Francis’s famous trip to Egypt to convert the Sultan, played by Pedro Amendaris. Although the manufactured contest in which Francesco challenges the Sultan’s priests (yes, that term is used even though Islam has no “priests”) to walk through fire in order to prove whose God is powerful (shades of Elijah and the Baal priests on Mt. Carmel!) is a bit much, the ensuing discussion about love and war is worth noting—indeed, the only part of the film I recommend. Francesco says at one point, “God is not in the sword or in the taking of life, but in the giving of life, for he is love.” Not exactly the sentiment of the popes and crusaders who had responded to the call for the Fifth Crusade, “God wills it!” The words put into the Sultan’s mouth in 1961—uh, I mean 1219—take on a prophetic meaning when we consider what has transpired between Christians and Muslims during the past 40 years, “And if our peoples continue to pursue the ways of hate, then war upon war will return until we become the destroyers of the world.”

The plot, adapted from a novel by Louis de Wohl, also involves actor Stuart Whitman, as Paolo, a knight who becomes an early friend and then a rival for Clare before Francis’s conversion. Throughout the film he bitterly opposes Francis, this addition apparently an attempt to jazz up the story and make it follow a more traditional Hollywood story arc. You don’t have to be a Sherlock Holmes to deduce whether or not he will come around to the saint’s side.

If you watch either Brother Sun, Sister Moon or Francesco first, you already know the story of the saint, so you might want to watch just the scene involving Francis and the Sultan. It is embellished a lot, with Francis trekking across the desert alone (actually he had a companion) when two Saracen’s leading cheetah’s on leashes spot and capture him. (Yes, I kid you not, cheetahs as part of a desert patrol!) Set aside too the fact that the Italian spoke no Arabic, and the Sultan knew none of the dialects of Italy—in this version they have no language problem. The crux of the scene is the growing respect between the two men. Francis does not conceal his desire to convert the Sultan to Christ so that there will be peace between the two peoples, and he has no answer to the latter’s suggestion that if he and the other Christians were to convert to Islam, there would also be peace. This scene could be used to launch a discussion on Christian/Muslim relationships and dialogue today. There is an intriguing 22-page paper by graduate student Cathy Hampton that would prove very helpful for such a venture. Entitled “St. Francis of Assisi’s Meeting With Sultan Malik-al-Kamil and Interreligious Dialogue in the 21st Century,” it is available at:

Also, I just discovered that Franciscan Communications has produced a new documentary called In the Footsteps of Francis and the Sultan. I hope to be able to review this in the near future. In the meantime you can read about the film in a National Catholic Reporter article by going to:

**                    **                    **                    **                    **

If you have made it this far through all four reviews, you might be asking, “Which of these best captures the essence of this little but great man. “ The answer is simple, “None of them. ” And it’s complicated because the real Francis, for all his vaunted simplicity, was far more complicated than supposed. He was born rich, but chose poverty for his lifestyle. He demanded absolute obedience to “Lady Poverty,” and yet, as we see in Zefirelli’s film, made room for those who could not abstain from sex or give away everything, “the Third Way” or “Third Order.” He lived among those who hated Muslims and thought it was God’s will to kill them, yet he met directly with the leader of the enemy. We have examined, however briefly, four films, some better than others perhaps, but all of them, even Hollywood’s glamorized version, provide a few pieces of the mosaic that we call Francis of Assisi.



The Attack (2012)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 42 min.

Our Content Advisories (1-10): Violence 5 ; Language 1 ; Sex/Nudity 1 .

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 The heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful,
a puzzle that no one can figure out.

                     Jeremiah 17:9 (The Message)


Siham and Amin seemed to have been the perfect couple,
two secular Palestinians integrated into Israeli society.
(c) 2012 Cohen Media Group

In this adaptation of the novel by Yasmina Khadra (pen name of Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul) filmmaker Ziad Doueiri’s immerses us in an alien culture, leaving us at the end pondering why someone unexpectedly does the inexplicable. Co-written with Joelle Touma, this is a dark and troubling film about a dark and troubling situation—the hostile relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.

Dr. Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman) is a Palestinian surgeon who has chosen to live and work in Tel Aviv because there are greater opportunities there than in his Arab homeland. He has put aside his Muslim heritage, so he feels very much integrated into Israeli society. Most of his friends are secular Jews. He is about to be given the highest honor for a surgeon, but he is disappointed that his wife Siham (Reymond Amsalem), a secular Arab Christian, is not with him on the night of the award ceremony, she insisting instead on visiting her grandfather in Nazareth.

In the darkened auditorium, moments before the presenter calls out his name, his cell phone rings. Annoyed at the intrusion, he says that he cannot talk, and hangs up. In his acceptance speech he points out that he is the first Israeli Arab to be so honored, proof that integration of the two hostile cultures is possible.

The next day he and his colleagues, hearing a bomb blast at a near by café spring into action when the victims are brought into their hospital.  One bloodied man insists on a Jewish doctor when he sees Amin standing over him. Seventeen people, most of them children attending a birthday celebration, are killed, and even more are wounded and maimed.

In the wee hours of the morning, summoned back to the hospital, Amin is shocked when he is told that his wife was killed in the attack—and that she is accused of being the bomber. Already devastated by the sight of her half-blown away body in the hospital morgue, collapses for a moment. He refuses to believe that such a loving woman could have blown up herself and so many children and adults. He is certain, he tells Captain Moshe, his harsh Shin Bet interrogator, that she kept no secrets from him—and she is a Christian, not a fanatical Muslim. He himself neither practices his religion nor is engaged in any political cause.

However, the relentless policeman marshals the evidence, while at the same time interrogating the doctor as if he were a part of the plot. After the suspicious police confirm that he was not involved, Amin is released but quickly finds his life up-ended.  Dismissed from the hospital where he had been so recently honored, now only two friends stand by him, Kim Yehuda (Evgenia Dodina), a hospital colleague and Raveed (Dvir Benedek), a  police official. The vandalization of his apartment is symbolic of his new status. Then comes the letter written to him and posted from Nablus in Palestine by his wife the day before the bombing.

As a result of that letter Amin sets forth on his parallel spiritual and physical journeys back briefly to his wife’s hometown of Nazareth where he learns that she had not gone there after all. He then pays an unannounced call on his family in Nablus where he intends to confront the person responsible for convincing his wife to commit her terrible deed. The taxi driver transporting him disturbs him by playing a cassette tape containing a tirade of anti-Jewish hate by a Nablus Moslem cleric. Arriving in the Arab city, Amin is disturbed to learn that Siham is considered by the people as a heroic martyr to their cause of liberation from the Israeli occupation. Large posters with her picture are plastered on all the walls, and children are selling postcard-size pictures of her.

His sister is glad to see him, though she reminds him that it has been a long time since he has visited or written to the family. His brother-in-law at the supper table says he is very proud of Siham, and his niece wonders what it is like to live among “them.” His elusive nephew Adel, who admits to being with Sahim on her last night, says, “Something snapped in her head.” They and others whom Amin subsequently meets think that he might be working with Israel’s Shin Bet. Thus Amin is a stranger in his own land, caught between the conflict between the two peoples. In between all this there are flashbacks to happier days with Sahim. In one of these they are on a motorcycle, she sitting behind him in her white wedding dress clutching his waist. He is all the more puzzled at how this seemingly loving woman could have committed such a hateful act.

At the local mosque he tries to talk with the Moslem cleric whose diatribe he had heard on the taxi radio/cassette player, but the security guards stop him. Later in the night, when he manages to catch the sheikh on the street, the man says “We are a ravaged people fighting for our dignity with whatever we have.” He also warns him to leave town.

Amin expects that from a Muslim radical, but even an Orthodox Christian priest, admiring Sahim’s deed and wishing that he had met her, tells him, “We’re not Islamists and we’re not fundamentalists, either. We are only the children of a ravaged, despised people, fighting with whatever means we can to recover our homeland and our dignity.” Even his visit to the ruins of Jenin, a Palestinian refugee camp where the Israeli Defence Forces in 2002 fought a bloody battle with PLO militants, resulting in rumors and claims of “a massacre,” does not explain Siham’s double life that he now realizes she had led. She had never talked about politics or expressed criticism of their Jewish friends.

Amin confronts a truth so terrible that it will scar him forever, making him an outsider to both Israelis and to his Arab family. His fall from grace with his Jewish friends—even Kim is exasperated because he will not go and tell the Shin Bet what he has learned in Nablus—and his anguish that he did not really know the person whom he loved the most will haunt him forever. Did his obsession with his career lead him to neglect his wife snd thus caused her not to confide in him her deep concern for their people? Or could his apolitical withdrawal from the conflict raging around him have prevented her from raising her concern over the suffering of their people at the hands of the Israelis?

One of the most spiritually challenging films of the year, Lebanese-born Ziad Doueiri’s film is as helpful for understanding the Palestinian viewpoint as was the 2005 film about two friends preparing to become suicide bombers, Paradise Now, a film in which Ali Suliman co-starred as one of a pair of friends volunteering to become suicide bombers. It would seem that the conclusion of Jeremiah and of our searching surgeon is the same, the human heart is a puzzle with no answer sheet. The film is somewhat like Steven Spielberg’s Munich in that its maker tries to be even-handed, condemning neither one side nor the other—and yet is attacked by both sides. The Arab League was so upset that Doueiri shot the opening scenes in Tel Aviev that the members banned the film in all 22 of its member nations. Thus the tragic conflict goes on and on, with not even the movies able to bring the two sides together. (We will have to see if Secretary of State Kerry’ peace efforts can begin to bridge a gap wider than the Grand Canyon.)

This review in the Sept/Oct. issue of VP will include 9 discussionquestions and suggestions for finding more information on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.