Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Beauty of Belle--A lovely tone on an ugly theme

Belle, is a rather beautiful movie and love story.  Love on many levels.

The movie begins with the sweet love of a white father for his “illegitimate” black daughter in eighteenth century England. His love and concern for her care creates the setting for the story as he goes off to military service and deposits her in the home of trusted and high society relatives.

The love of two cousins who should have been divided by race and social standing is warm indeed, albeit challenged on a number of turns. Theirs is a love of sisters as it survives and matures through the pre-established episodes of young life.

The love of money and societal position is everywhere.  It influences world-views, daily opinions and life choices.

The love of a young slave daughter and the son of a vicar make you cheer them on.  Quite an unlikely pair that finds their common passion exceeds their shared interests in the prevailing social issue and justice of the day.

The love of a judge for the law is painstakingly clear as he longs to interpret it well while also deciding what is right above all other opinions and persuasive overtures.

But, the love of human beings, for all people regardless of their color or race or social status is the overarching love of this movie.

Based on a true story from a pivotal legal case in London, England wherein the nature of Africans on a slave ship must be determined.  Are they simply cargo or human life? An early domino that eventually would bring William Wilberforce center stage and the British slave trade tumbling down.

Belle is both a powerful and pleasant movie.  The film is powerful, because of its timely and timeless message.  The inherent value of a person comes from a Higher decree and natural law not social structures or economic utility.   Pleasant can describe this story because it is not difficult to watch.  It is neither a boring period piece nor an angry social justice statement. There aren’t the exaggerated  caricatures of ugly racists.  We’ve seen enough of the Donald Sterlings, this film doesn’t include the likes of him.  But it does deal with the ugly issue head on, in its own beautiful way.

The three heroes of the film are the judge (“second to the king, you are the most powerful man in England”) who has to wrestle with the law and the very structure (social and economic) upon which his society stands, while still wrestling with and choosing what is “right.”  Belle herself, who must come to grips with her identity as a person of color in an all white culture and choose between the opportunity for status or being true to herself and her deep seated convictions as well as her heart.  And then there is the Vicar’s son, a man of no stature at all.  He is simply a person of principle, whose Christian upbringing and appreciation for transcendent law informs his high view of all people.  The latter by desiring to practice law ambitiously wants to change the world.  All three, by their noble convictions and love for what is right actually do set the gears in motion for massive world change.

I highly recommend Belle as a movie well worth seeing and talking about afterward. Though not a highly advertised or marketed film, the story it tells and the human beauty and value it depicts are quite inspiring.  Belle while giving hope even in our day of on-going racial ugliness, offers a refreshing change of tone. Belle indeed

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Monuments Men

What do you get when you mix Oceans Eleven with The Dirty Dozen and Hogan’s Heroes? When this present movie began (and partially because I read enough negative reviews) I would have said Monuments Men; a World War II context with an exciting mission and a bit of levity thrown in.

But it turns out this film has more going for it than that. The story goes like this: George Clooney as Danny Ocean (sorry that was too easy) actually as Frank Stokes, an art historian, who gathers a team of art professionals. Their mission is to go to the war theatre of Northern Europe shortly after the D-Day invasion. They will be risking their lives in an attempt to rescue some of the great masterpieces of Europe from Hitler and his henchmen who are stealing the artwork with the aim of filling the soon to be built Fuhrer Art Museum. If Hitler loses the war, the plan is to destroy all of the stolen art.

One doesn’t quite know initially how to take this film. It does not carry the gravitas of a Schindler’s List, though there is one scene where the team discovers a large basin of gold fillings, all taken from Nazi victims’ teeth. Sober indeed. It isn’t quite as light as an Oceans’ movie, though the playful repartee between Clooney and Matt Damon is present. And then there’s Bill Murray dryly being, well, Bill Murray. In the end Monuments Men is an entertaining look at the true story of this “art rescue mission” and at the passion for art that these middle-aged non-soldier “soldiers” possessed. Their peculiar assignment and less-than military credentials make for some awkward and even humorous moments.

And still in the end this movie is asking the question: how important is art? The military brass doesn’t seem to care about this mission. But when a tremendous amount of Nazi gold reserves is found these leaders celebrate. To which one of the team members wryly comments, “they may not care about art but they sure care about gold.”

Is saving art, especially priceless masterpieces worth losing one’s life over? Almost as an afterthought this sticky ethical question is raised. And never quite dogmatically answered.

An easy ethical question, it is not. That at times other heroic efforts were made to preserve the masterpieces is briefly depicted in the movie. Having spent much time in Milan, I appreciated the scene of Italians placing sandbags on one wall of the church Santa Maria delle Grazie so that da Vinci’s The Last Supper would survive an Allied bombing. But organized efforts like this were few and weak in comparison to Hitler’s grand theft scheme. And no lives were lost, until the Monuments Men carried out their mission. And so the question remains, just how vital to culture and human civilization is art? Is great, irreplaceable art worth losing human life over?

From a cultural and political perspective, President Eisenhower commented on art’s value and the importance of such rescue efforts and preservation:
"The freedom enjoyed by this country from the desolation that has swept over
so many others during the past years gives to America greater opportunity than
ever before to become the greatest of the world’s repositories of art. The whole
world will then have a right to look to us with grateful eyes; but we will fail
unless we consciously appreciate the value of art in our lives and take practical
steps to encourage the artist and preserve his works.”
Though not a perfect movie, Monuments Men is a human one, telling the story of an heroic cultural rescue while raising a valid ethical question.

Being somewhat unfulfilled with my own thoughts about this movie and even more so the ethical dilemma it presents, I pondered and dug a bit deeper. Is it ethically appropriate to risk one’s life for anything other than another human life or for one’s God? It’s not done infrequently: for country, for an ideology, for liberty, for “truth.” Let’s face it, for things right and noble. So what about art? It has been the premise of this blog to examine films (and periodically other art forms) because art can be a worthwhile and “spiritual” expression of life and beauty.

On the value and potentially divine grace which art can be, Pope John Paul II wrote in a letter addressed to the artists of the world:
"Created “in the image of God,” man also expresses the truth of his relationship
with God the Creator by the beauty of his artistic works. Indeed, art is a
distinctively human form of expression; beyond the search for the necessities of
life which is common to all living creatures, art is a freely given superabundance
of the human being's inner riches. Arising from talent given by the Creator and
from man's own effort, art is a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge
and skill, to give form to the truth of reality in a language accessible to sight or
hearing. To the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a
certain likeness to God's activity in what he has created."
The making of art, the creation of masterpieces may be a means of glorifying God and reflecting a bit of his nature and character to a spiritually blinded world. Not as icons, but as extensions of human beings who have been created in the image of God and gifted thereby “imaging” or reflecting God to the world by the works of their hands.

And so, one more time I ask Monuments Men and the reader, is it justifiable to risk one’s life to rescue works of art?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Brief Pass at Several Movies You May Have Overlooked

As I was going over the roster of movies we saw this past year, I came across several that you may have overlooked or that at least my friends chose not to see. So, here goes a brief synopsis of each with a “cinematheology” perspective on them.

Hannah Arendt: Okay for you action movie lovers, a word of caution: This will probably be the most “boring” movie you’ve watched in quite sometime. But what it lacks in “action” it makes up for in deep philosophical debate and controversy. Arendt was an early 20th century philosopher, born into a secular family of German Jews, who created the phrase “the banality of evil.” This idea means that evil is not necessarily dressed up in devilish horns and a proverbial pitchfork. There may be little problem with that generalization until one is applying it to the atrocities of Nazi Germany and to Adolf Eichmann specifically. This movie is based on Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker Magazine. Her observations and conclusions about the face of evil were hotly argued and ridiculed in her day and are sure worth a good discussion today. Not for everyone, but if you are looking for an intellectually stirring film about something as real as evil, Hannah Arendt is worth watching.

Rush: Okay, here’s one for those who measure a film’s greatness by its action. Well, you don’t get much faster pace than Formula One racing. Again, a true story of two competitors, stoic Austrian Niki Lauda and playboy Englishman James Hunt. More than two different styles of driving, the movie depicts two ways of approaching life. Hunt is all risk-taking, reckless and even undisciplined in his relationships, to the point of losing his marriage. Lauda on the other hand displays a precision, a careful calculation and discipline to all things driving and personal, even withdrawing from a key race because of the danger to him and potential anguish to his family. Here’s the rub, you (at least I did) find yourself cheering for Hunt, the reckless playboy and disliking Lauda the principled albeit pompous Austrian. All in all Director Ron Howard weaves us a good story about the illusion of fame and reality of mortality.

The Great Gatsby: I sort of remember reading the book in high school. And I faintly remember the Robert Redford/Mia Farrow version of this film (we watched it again to compare it with this new movie, which I must say wasn’t Redford at his best). But what this latest rendition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story made me think of was the movie Moulin Rouge with more than a hint of Fellini. In Leonardo DiCaprio’s other big role of 2013 he plays Jay Gatsby a wealthy recluse who in wanting to win back his old flame Daisy, throws wild parties for the beautiful people of New York. These parties and the entire story are a clear depiction of the narcissism and spiritual emptiness of the roaring 20’s. Though there seems to be no collective conscience or moral pinning, this does not escape the all-seeing eyes of God. The billboard of the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg that overlooks the Valley of Ashes going into the city, was a reminder and a symbol of the judging and omniscient God who sees American society and its moral decay. We aren’t the only ones watching the moral demise and decadence of the day. In the end, no one escapes the watchful eye of God.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks (Revisiting Our Fathers)

Today was the anniversary of my father’s passing. My brother texted reminding me that it’s been 15 years! Yes it has. Many memories and stories. They grow fonder as the years go by. At times perhaps, a wee bit of revisionist storytelling. That’s the kind thing to do with fathers.

Okay, that’s a downer way to start an article about a movie. Sorry, but I was initiating the theme of the present film. For you see, it’s all in the title: “Saving Mr. Banks.” The famous actors (Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Ferrell, Paul Giamatti) and the familiar story (the recreating of Mary Poppins onto the Disney screen) easily take our attention away from the title and the point of the

More than telling us the story of how a great film producer talked an author into trusting him with her prized book, Saving Mr. Banks carefully looks into the heart and memory of a daughter who wishes to shine a kind light on her flawed father. At one telling moment in the movie, Travers tells the Disney team who are trying to bring this story to life in their Disneyesque way, “it's not about the children or Mary Poppins, it's about their father.” A father whose legacy she wants somewhat redeemed.

For a significant part of the film, we are transported back in time to experience a family’s life in early 1900’s Australia. The father is a dreamer and a drunk, and it turns out quite ill. His daughter experiences the manic swings of the father she adores whilst watching him fail as a banker and as a family man. We learn that this is P.L. Travers’ father and that the young daughter in the Australian scenes is Travers herself, the author of Mary Poppins.

Mr. Banks, the father in the Mary Poppins story is also a banker and a rather grumpy one at that. For the moviemakers he fits the bill of the typical Disney “villain.” But Travers wants more than that. The father must be presented in more than a one dimensional way. And behold the door opens wide to the title and the thread that runs through the film. (Even Disney himself repeatedly expresses his wish to be a good father. "A man can never break a promise he makes to his kids, no matter how long it takes," he says. "That's what being a daddy is all about.”) Though Mr. Banks may have been an imperfect detached father, at the end of Mary Poppins he openly loves his children and finds the time for them.

The Travers character, which is played so well by Emma Thompson is tirelessly loyal to her father as she makes sure the Disney film makers honor her memory of him in the telling of her story. And isn’t this what we all do a bit?

I remember that the command, “Honor your father and your mother,” was originally given not to children about minding their parents. It was written to adults regarding their older parents. What better way of following that than remembering them well as time goes on? Saving Mr. Banks tries to do what we all desire, tell the stories of our father in as meaningful and positive and accurate way we can. And who better to do that than Walt Disney?

Monday, January 27, 2014


This film could be seen as a predictable slam against established and even conservative institutions. The Roman Catholic Church and in a lesser way the Ronald Reagan administration are easy familiar targets and play at least an accomplice role in this movie.

But Philomena is not a slam against the church or conservative politics. This thoughtful movie is a real story about a real mother on a difficult quest to find her adopted son. The situation that caused Philomena to lose him was tragic indeed and this film could have added fuel to the already blazing fire against the Catholic Church and its pedophile scandal. But the main character does not allow that to happen as she differentiates her faith with the abusive actions of a few of the church’s leaders.

Judi Dench is as brilliant as ever, playing the broken hearted mother on a quest to find her son after 50 years of separation. As a pregnant teen-ager in Ireland, mother with baby are sent to a home run by nuns. As a form of penance, many young unwed girls worked there while their children were being taken care of by the sisters. Unbeknownst to the adolescent mothers, their babies were being sold to adopters by the “Sisters of No Mercy.”

And so the journey begins with Philomena hiring an investigative journalist (Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Croogan) to help her on her search.  Philomena is based on a book by Sixsmith entitled, Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search. In many ways the story of the film is the relationship that develops between these two very different people. He is a skeptical atheist, due in part to the failings of the church. Philomena’s steadfast faith despite the situation is deemed unreasonable by Martin and readily challenged by journalist and audience alike.

Philomena provides a humble example of real faith in cynical days. Despite the failures of her church, she is able to distinguish the bad apples (and their painful actions) from the essential core of her faith. Not easy to do. Just check out how many have left the established church these days for “offenses” much lesser than what Philomena endured. 

Forgiveness enters the screen in a late, pivotal moment of this film. When Martin explodes with anger and even hatred at the culprits (specifically one older nun), Philomena forgives. “Just like that?” Sixsmith angrily chides Philomena.  And in a simple yet accurate statement about forgiveness she replies, “No! Not ‘just like that.’ It’s hard for me, Martin.” The honesty of this scene is felt in how much one identifies with Martin as well as how noble yet difficult the act of forgiving truly is.

I enjoyed this movie. It was an ethical/moral journey, at times comical, well-paced, occasionally cliché but very worth seeing. As an active opponent to human trafficking, its story moved me. Give it a look. You’ll be glad you did.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Still Mine (A quiet triumph)

Sue and I were at a restaurant last Fall deciding what film we should go see.  One of those artsy, independent movies theaters was across the street. We read the summary (and watched the trailers on my smart phone) of several films showing there. We chose to see and thoroughly enjoyed a rather obscure (it was gone a couple of days later) yet very thoughtful Canadian film.

Still Mine was a warm (not sappy) and engaging story of an eighty-something year old couple for whom "their luck was running out." Old Craig Morrison was played by the same actor who was the pig owner in Babe (“That’ll do Pig, that’ll do”) and the warden in The Green Mile. You would know him if you saw him.  

Morrison’s wife has begun down the slippery slope of dementia. His love and perseverance are inspiring. He decides to build a new one-story house on their property so that it may be easier for her to get around in. Though a master builder, he knows or cares little about the building codes or bureaucratic red tape one must comply with to build a home.  

I won't spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that what we watched was a splendid story of grace and of the strangulation of those who are so tied to the letter of the law that there is no room for wisdom or love or relationship. The government worker whose duty it is to uphold the law is both maddening and quite believable. We have all met this guy before. Maybe in the mirror. Sort of reminds me of the older brother in the Prodigal Son parable.

The heart of Craig Morrison in Still Mine is a heart of love that is totally devoted to the other blinded to all objections or obstacles. His is a heart that intuitively keeps the greater law and standard even if it is unaware of the minutae of codes and policies. Though a man of imperfections, Craig is clearly the hero of this fine story because of his love and care for his wife and for what deep down is truly "right." 

How easy it is fall into the trap of keeping all the rules and laws and feeling that we've done our duty before God and man. And yet forgotten to love others along the way.  

I doubt if this Independent Film from Canada will get much mention come Oscar time, but it deserves to be watched and appreciated. You will be glad you did.  

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Spiritual Perspective on the Movies

One of my first experiences at the movie theater was watching Mary Poppins flanked by my brother and sister in that dark cinema. We watched Dick Van Dyke light up the screen, singing and dancing with glee. There was the grouchy Mr. Banks and of course the magical Mary Poppins. And as I recall, it was the children of that film that I mostly connected with. They were troubled and happy and astonished and all emotions in between.

I guess that is why I am still an avid watcher of movies. The experience, all very emotional, intellectual, and spiritual, is very real and unique with each picture. Also, at least for me, very personal, like my association with the Banks children.

As I initiate this new blog I could tell you of my “brush with fame” as it relates to the movies and cinematography. How my cousin, Gianfrancesco Lazotti is a very successful filmmaker in Italy. Or that the famous American producer/director Chris Columbus (think Harry Potter, Mrs. Doubtfire and many more) was my good friend in high school and that we collaborated on his first two films as teen agers.

Rather, aside from fame and the namedropping, I want this blog to be thoughtful and probe the spirituality of movies. There is meaning and truth and I dare say slivers of God’s story in the movies. Now, not in all movies and certainly in varying degrees. But inasmuch as a finely crafted story coupled with brilliant artistry absorbed in a couple of hours of personal solitude can speak into one’s life, movies can have a profound effect on an individual, spiritually and otherwise. At least they do with me.

And so it is with this premise that I begin “Cinematheology,” a blog that takes a look at the movies through a spiritual and biblical lens. The blog’s title I take from a sermon series that Dave McClellan and I developed a number of summers ago while we were serving at Riverwood Community Chapel in Kent, Ohio. We chose a number of films (e.g. The Matrix, Bruce Almighty, The Hours etc.) and their themes to teach biblical lessons and truths.

Cinematheology will be a blog whereby I examine the themes and narratives of various movies with the aim of gaining spiritual enrichment. At times the theological correlation will be rather clear,
as when Robert DeNiro playing a murderous mercenary in The Mission finally rids himself of the heavy pack he has strenuously and penitently carried up the cliff. His tears of relief and release from guilt are as beautiful a picture God’s grace and forgiveness to the repentant as you
will ever see. Or even the ending scene in Gran Torino where Clint Eastwood gives up his life for his young Korean friends and the camera shows the executed one in a clear crucifix pose.

Now with that last movie in mind, let me briefly say that due to brutal violence, gratuitous sex, or even excessive foul language (Gran Torino is a doozy for that) some films will be avoided. More on that in a later entry.

Finally (and I promise my posts will be briefer that this initial one), obvious biblical themes or not, to appreciate movies and art in general for their beauty and transcendent qualities is truly a right and noble thing. I concur with and will abide by the Apostle Paul’s injunction:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true,
whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—
if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—
think about such things (Phil. 4:8).

May this blog and the movies we comment on be about these things! So, here we go with Cinematheology. My plan, God willing, is to write about a new film regularly. And also go into the vault and comment on oldies but goodies too. I intend to write about movies and the arts in general from a spiritual and biblical perspective. The goal will be our spiritual enrichment and joy, while not taking this blog or ourselves too terribly serious.