Tag Archives: Catholicism

Book Review: Breakfast on Pluto by Patrick McCabe

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Rating: B+/ Call me crazy, but I count Patrick McCabe’s 1992 novel The Butcher Boy among my favorite and most influential books of all time. Sure, it’s Bleak with a capital B, but it turned me on to my current fascination with books featuring unreliable narrators. It was made into a 1997 movie by Neil Jordan, and while it was surprisingly good with a convincing performance by Eamonn Owens as the book’s mentally disturbed narrator, Francie, some of the book’s brilliance was lost in translation. Continue reading Book Review: Breakfast on Pluto by Patrick McCabe

Book Review: Behold the Many by Lois-Ann Yamanaka

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Rating: B/  Behold the Many is kind of a strange book, and one that is hard to summarize and describe, but I’ll try my best to put my feelings about this novel into words. I had never heard of it when I picked it up but I was immediately sucked in by the beautiful cover art, featuring an a black-and-white picture of an innocent-looking Asian girl overlaid with colorful flowers. The image, much like many examples of cover art on the front of novels, has very little to do with the actual story, seeming in this case to have been randomly picked out with little correlation with the plot itself. Continue reading Book Review: Behold the Many by Lois-Ann Yamanaka

Movie Review: The Exorcist (1973)

Rating: B/ So, I finally watched The Exorcist; which makes me kind of late to the party, doesn’t it? My dad, who is a Catholic (or used to be at one time) assured me it was one of the scariest, if not the scariest, movies ever, and he has been talking up just how scary it is for years. Well, as usual, the experience falls short of the hype. Which is not to say The Exorcist is a bad movie; it is definitely an unnerving film with some undeniably creepy moments, and taut editing that makes your hair stand up on end. But I didn’t find myself becoming terrified by it, and there’s definitely something darkly humorous about a possessed twelve-year-old spitting up green goo on a priest’s glasses, and wildly stringing together obscenities like a pro. Continue reading Movie Review: The Exorcist (1973)

Marie’s Story (2014)

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The Miracle Worker in a convent. Sister Marguerite (Isabelle Carre) is a well-meaning but somewhat naive French nun who lives in a convent-slash- school for deaf girls. When Marie Huertin (Ariana Rivoire) arrives, Sister Marguerite as her work cut out for her. Born both blind and deaf, Marie is the wild offspring of working class parents (Gilles Treton and Laura Duthilleul) who, although apparently kind and compassionate, were not up to meeting the needs of their out-of-control daughter.

Marie can’t or refuses to dress herself, eats like an animal, and bites and claws anyone who stands in the way of her achieving her whims. While the Mother Superior (Brigitte Cattilion) believes that Marie can’t be helped and should be sent to an insane asylum or someplace else better equipped to control her unusual behavior, Sister Marguerite takes her on as her own personal project despite being very ill herself. This leads predictably, after much frustration and doubt, to a Eureka moment akin to Helen Keller’s at the water pump and some gradual bonding between Marguerite and her protege.

Marie’s Story is a film which, while very well-acted, should seem familiar to people who hve seen films such as The Miracle Worker, Nell, or Truffaut’s slightly superior oldie The Wild Child. While the character’s disorders are slightly different in the two latter films (having previously been feral humans rather being born blind and deaf,) the set-up is very much the same. The big confrontation between Marguerite and her young charge over whether the wild young thing should eat with a fork strongly echoes a defining scene in The Miracle Worker, while the sequence where the girl is tormented by the poking and prodding fingers of some mean-spirited deaf girls seems reminiscent of the boy’s jarring first arrival to supposed ‘civilization’ in The Wild Child.

It is not surprising that this film should seem uncannily similar to The Miracle Worker, after all, both are based on true stories that occurred around the same time period and both incidents resemble each other a great deal. If Annie Sullivan was a nun who was dying of an incurable disease, well… With all that said, acknowledging that no, Marie’s Story does not feel fresh or particularly innovative or original. it is not a bad movie by a long shot. There’s are some good performances.

Ariana Rivoire does an amazing job as Marie. Not once does she break character, it is easy to imagine that she is really a disabled, nearly feral young girl. Isabelle Carre provides steady support, and while she did not impress me as much as Rivoire (Rivoire admittedly having the more showy role,) she didn’t fail to compel me as a true woman of God. I don’t know if there is a God (being a very skeptical agnostic,) but if there is, people like Sister Marguerite do him proud.

Despite very little dialogue spoken by the character throughout the film, Gilles Treton as Marie’s father touched my heart in a way I can’t exactly explain. You can tell by his look of concerned devotion that he is a good man who provided his daughter with a life much better than most severely disabled people in that era could dare to dream of. He just couldn’t provide her with what she needed most; communication. I found myself liking his character even though he had next to no lines, just call it a hunch, or really good acting on Treton’s part. Although it gets a bit too sentimental at times, Marie’s Story has a good story and strong characters.

It’s a good film in all respects, but it just can’t manage to avoid the pitfall of seeming like ‘another Miracle Worker type’ movie. It doesn’t differentiate from the former enough to give it a true identity. However, if you want a film with Faith-based themes that doesn’t condemn the Catholic church yet doesn’t feel like a proselytizing ‘Christian movie,’this might be a prudent choice. I enjoyed this movie and as a skeptic I consider it a religious movie that doesn’t make a agnostic want to barf. It balances God with a fascinating (if familiar) story and gifted actors. In French. So if you like these kinds of movies, in all likelihood, you’ll enjoy this one. There are far worse films about people living with handicaps to choose from.

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Au revoir les enfants (1987)

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A single look can change everything.

Louis Malle’s heartbreaking autobiographical film is set in 1944 at Catholic school in Nazi-occupied France, and chronicles a naive preteen’s wrenching coming-of-age. Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse,) a well-to-do adolescent mama’s boy, thinks he knows everything there is to know about the real world, but things are about to get a whole lot realer, and life a lot more harrowing, during a seemingly uneventful stint in boarding school.

A pixyish, somewhat androgynous child already contending with impending puberty, a harrowing experience in it’s own right, Julien is first seen bawling out his doting mother (Francine Racette) at the train station, where she prepares to send him on the train to school. “I don’t give a damn about dad, and I hate you,” he sniffles, caught in the throes of typical adolescent self-absorption and angst.

But Julien finds unexpected pleasure and enjoyment at the academy, where he roughhouses and plays with the other boys in his age group, sells black market jam to the crippled kitchen hand and school outcast Joseph (François Négret,) and strikes up a tentative friendship with a low-key, musically gifted boy named Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö.)

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The nosy Julien does some prying and discovers that his new friend is actually a Jew, named Jean Kippelstein, and smuggled into the school by the altruistic and rebellious Father Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud.) A hell of a priest and a hell of a good guy, Father Jean quietly defies the Nazi Occupation and does what he thinks is right regardless of what society expects of him.

You might think that 20th-century upper-class French kids are somehow less rambunctious than the modern American preteen, but this movie will inform you otherwise. The boys in this movie, are rowdy, wild, combative, and often rude and mean. They just don’t have an Xbox to lull them into complacency. Most of them are more or less completely unaware that their country is in discord, preferring to roughhouse, haze the new guy, and read each other the dirtiest book they know (The Arabian Nights, the veritable Fifty Shades of Grey of their time.)

Filmmaker Louis Malle chooses wisely not to make the boy characters too worldly or introspective, instead deciding to stick to a more realistic approach to adolescence. And the movie is not without it’s humor- when Jean and Julien wander off during a treasure hunt and get lost in the woods, they run into a scared wild boar and are charitably wrapped in a blanket in the back of a German military vehicle and returned to school.

When they return home to their peers, however, Julien elevates the story to legendary heights- now there was not one, but one hundred mad boars and the soldiers shot at them as they ran through the woods. Why, they barely escaped with their lives. This provides some comic relief, but it also has a lot of truth to it- stories all seem to get bigger in the minds of young boys.

Au revoir les enfants is tender, true-to-life, and achingly sad. The children behave as children will, ignorant of the impending storm, and the adults talk worriedly among themselves. The matter of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is a series of decisions and choices, and morality doesn’t always triumph over doing the cowardly and ultimately shitty thing.

There is at least one main character who does a terrible thing (not Julien, whose ultimate act is comprised of folly. not malice) This person screws the others over and is presumably rewarded for it. The movie teaches a sad but true lesson- Happily ever After can occur for the most undeserving people. The righteous man is not always the one who gets a good outcome. And doing the right thing should be because it’s the moral thing to do, not because you’ll be rewarded for it.

The child actors do an admirable job in a foreign film that almost everyone with a taste for a rich narrative should find accessible. At the end of the movie, Julien says he’ll remember that last morning in January til the day he dies. You should remember this movie as such;  not because it is traumatic, but because it is moving and beautiful, without a hint of bitterness for a carefree childhood torn asunder by life’s cruel ironies.

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The Magdalene Sisters (2002)

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Never wanted to kick a nun in the face? Think again.

Now I am sure there are many decent, loving, and compassionate nuns in the Catholic Church who live by Christ’s example, but they’re nowhere to be found in actor/director Peter Mullan’s unrelentingly bleak drama, The Magdalene Sisters. Three young Irish women are sent to a brutal convent where they are subject to myriad humiliations and made to work night and day in the laundries for no pay.

These are the heroines’ crimes. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) got raped. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) got pregnant. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) flirted with some boys over the fence of the orphanage where she has been placed indefinitely. For these ‘crimes’ the trio are considered fallen women, but you’d think fallen women would at least get to have more fun then these girls do. Degraded, bullied, and beaten into submission, the womens’ ultimate crime was being born in the wrong time, at the wrong place, to the wrong people.

That’s right. Heartbreakingly, the girls at the convents’ have been shamed by their families and pretty much given off to a life of virtual slavery. When one girl, Una (Mary Murray,) makes a successful escape attempt from the convent, her dad (writer/director Mullan) drags her back, beating her hysterically all the while, and shrieks “You’ve got no home. You got no mother. You got no father. You killed us, you slut. you killed us both.” Remember in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when Billy Bibbit, played by Brad Dourif, kills himself because he is so shamed by the idea of his mama finding out he ain’t a virgin no more? This is that reality.

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I think this is why Kevin (Sean McDonagh,) Margaret’s first cousin and rapist, just stands impassively as Margaret tells her family what he did to her. This is the really disgusting thing. He knows he can get away with it. He knows that among many people in his society (1963 Catholic Ireland) that the men aren’t considered culpable for anything they do. While boys are casually told to keep it in their pants, women suffer the real brunt of it. And that’s not the most reprehensible thing on display in this movie.

 The Magdalene Sisters would seem totally out there if it weren’t reportedly based on a true story. How accurately based, I don’t know, and it’s easy to see why the Catholic church went nuts when this came out. What’s really interesting, though, is not the claimed attack on Christianity (which is a dime a dozen in movies and TV) but the performances (outstanding across the board) and the dynamics between the characters. Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) is one of the most bone-chillingly evil villainesses in film history.

And there’s nothing worse than an evil person thoroughly convinced by their own moral superiority, who believes without a shadow of a doubt that they are going straight to heaven. Mostly Sister Bridget is someone you just want to punch, self-satisfied and heartless, who gets through her day with the loose-fitting mask of a urgently pedantic aunt or grandmother who knows what’s best for you, damn it. Occasionally (more often than occasionally) the mask slips and you see the complete hypocritical soullessness underneath.

Remove this as well and what do you get? Probably a woman who really hates herself. Because she is a woman and women, by definition, must be cleansed. She’s probably got a sad story beneath all the wickedness and bile (the movie at several instances, through the characters of Katy (Britta Smith) and Una, shows us that victimization is a cycle, only broken when someone has the strength to throw the towel in and choose not to hurt people,) but I’ll be damned if I know what it is.

It reminds me of what someone (don’t remember who,) once said, “Any true villain is a hero in their own eyes.” I have no idea how Sister Bridget and the other nuns could think they’re living in the example of Christ, but hey, you can convince yourself of anything if you believe it hard enough, Don’t make it so, I’m afraid.

If this movie has an overreaching flaw, it is that it sometimes seems a bit heavy-handed in it’s themes. But the drama will keep you glued to your seat and, as agonizing it is, you must watch to the end, just to see if the protagonists escape their circumstances. Ultimately, the free-spirited Bernadette is the most complex character, and her final act of defiance (simple and seemingly insignificant as it was) will give you goose pimples.

   The Magdalene Sisters will make you wonder what it would be like to have these girls’ strength, their resilience. And it will make you thankful you never had to come against these circumstances. Give me my comfortable life and my cowardice over their personal hell anytime, thanks. But still it will force you to think what you’d be made of under these conditions. And glad you’ll probably never have to know.

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Philomena (2013)

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I know I’m probably a little late getting onto the bandwagon, but Judi Dench is an amazing actress! Her eyes are like twin oceans that reflect her character’s feelings, whether stormy or sunny, to an absolute tee. And although some people might find Stephen Frears’ biopic drama Philomena trite or predictable, I thoroughly enjoyed and it’s touching tribute to motherhood. Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) is a simple woman- kind, a little eccentric, and privy to the simple joys that life provides. What she lacks in worldliness she makes up for in good cheer and her big heart.

But something in Philomena’s past haunts her well into her twilight years. As a girl, Philomena had a little boy named Anthony who was taken from her and given to an American couple by the nuns that kept her as an indentured servant to work off her sins as an unwed mother. Not exactly living out the example of Christ, these nuns have refused to tell her over a span of dozens of years what became of Anthony, and despite being the mother of another grown child, a daughter, Philomena’s heart aches to discover Anthony’s whereabouts and to involve him in her life.

That’s where Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan,) a disgraced journalist, comes in. Against his own better judgement, the cynical Martin is recruited by Philomena’s daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) to locate Anthony and reunite him with his aged mother. Thus, begins a funny, sad, and bittersweet journey to Ireland, Philomena’s birthplace, the U.S., and finally, home again (hopefully with son in tow.) On the way Philomena challenges Martin’s atheism and grim viewpoint on life in general, and Martin is gradually buoyed by Philomena’s infectious attitude.

If you enjoy well-acted, gently quirky and sweetly predictable British dramedies that showcase the best humanity has to offer and heart-tugging plots, this movie is for you. I know what I like, and I’ve always enjoyed these kinds of movies, which seem soft and cozy enough to lull you to a peasant catharsis but real enough (compared to their U.S. counterparts) to take seriously. They’re the movie equivalent of comfort food, with laughs and tears along the way.

“Philomena” is sad, but not in the nihilistic soul-crushing way a Von Trier movie is sad. It is funny, but not in the way a crude teen comedy is funny. It has just enough reality to make you think and just enough fantasy (like the prerequisite and entirely fabricated scene where Coogan gives his speech about decency and basic human rights to the geriatric, cold-hearted nun (Barbara Jefford) that sent Philomena’s son away in the first place and not an eye is dry in the house) to be warm and familiar, like a well-worn blanket.

Yet, despite the familiar territory and the paper-thin supporting characters (Including Game of Thrones‘ Michelle Fairley as Martin’s implausibly soulless editor, and Martin’s wife (Simone Lahbib), who appears at the beginning to complain about his emotional unavailability and scarcely seen or heard from again), the movie works, and contains a handful of genuinely touching moments that will move you to tears.

If “Philomena”‘s intent was to move me, it has duly succeeded. If it’s intent was, also, to make me curious about the real Martin Sixsmith’s book, ‘The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,’ it has succeeded in this regard too. “Philomena” won’t rock anyone’s world with particularly innovative filmmaking and storytelling, but can’t us softies have our comfort food to watch as well as to eat and drink? For a taste of bittersweet, heartwarming, and maybe a little formulaic British cinema, look no further.

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