Friday, January 4, 2008

Book Review: Movies That Matter

MOVIES THAT MATTER: Reading Film Through the Lens of Faith
by Richard Leonard
... St. Thomas argued that wherever faith, hope, love, justice, fidelity, self-esteem, prudence, mercy, and hospitality are present, then named or not, Christ is present. The best of missionary dialogue has been conducted on this basis, recognizing and affirming the goodness in culture. What applies to non-Christian cultures equally applies to non-Christian elements in our own culture -- at the metroplex.

We approach the task of inculturation by not being against everything. If a film presents virtues and values, and many do, then named or not, Christ is present in and through them. We should say yes to these movies and promote them. Yet we often insist that the world talk our talk and walk our walk. Jesus' great commission to go our to the world does not lead to that conclusion. Rather, Christ sends us to meet our sisters and brothers where they are, as they are. Again, Jesus is our model. The parables do not mention God. They rarely have a religious setting. Jesus takes ordinary events of daily life and draws out lessons about faith, hope, love, justice, fidelity, self-esteem, prudence, mercy, and hospitality. The cinema's parables can provide us with a venue in which to fulfill the great commission.
Richard Leonardi examines fifty-four popular movies and shows how Christian subtexts can be found in the most unlikely subjects. He begins by talking about the power of media to shape ideas and goes on to a good examination of positive and negative cultural "signposts" that can be found in current movies. This is followed by a look at individual movies which includes "teachable moments" to be found in each, a plot summary, how each shines a light on a particular Christian value, and a few simple questions that can further discussion.

Leonard has written a book that serves as a good primer for people who never have examined a movie beyond whether it entertained them or not. I can think of several friends who would benefit from such a book. Leonard's writing is clear and concise. He does a good job of communicating how to find Christian subtexts in the movies and how to apply them to our lives. Indeed, in the case of several movies that I thought I had thoroughly mined for information, he had several new ideas that I really enjoyed thinking about. For instance his discussion of The Exorcist and the nature of true evil as well as how The Exorcist is wrong on some key points was welcome and enlightening. When Leonard points out the sacramental nature of Chocolat I suddenly realized that chocolate in that movie is Eucharistic. Everyone who eats it suddenly realizes their true and better nature. The Lord of the Rings trilogy brings an insight about a Trinitarian imagery that I hadn't considered. I was well aware of Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn as Christ figures. However, I hadn't caught another reference.
Alternatively, we have a reimaging of the Trinity: Gandalf, the father who creates and calls; Frodo, the son who bears the form of the least but whose destiny is to save; and Galadriel, the spirit who inspires, enlightens, and comforts.
Unfortunately, a true movie aficionado will find that Leonard's commentary about The Lord of the Rings also embodies one of the ways that he falls prey to his own personal prejudices. He has a habit of using surprising and inappropriate moments to push his own personal agenda, which leans heavily towards social justice. Quite often, the interjection of a seemingly random, albeit quite pointed, comment throws the reader off stride since there is rarely any preparation for the remarks and seldom any follow-up. Many Catholics won't be surprised to find that Leonard is a Jesuit since this is a particular passion of that order. Social justice as a theme is certainly a purview of the movies, however, one only wishes that Leonard could contain his passion for more appropriate moments unlike his introduction to the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Some Christians object to stories about wizards, elves, and dwarfs. For those who take evil seriously, such objections are nonsensical. I only hope those who get into a lather over the evil of fictitious creatures are equally committed to the anything-but-fictitious fight against starvation and the unjust distribution of wealth.
Unfortunately, instead of the author's intended effect, the above passage had the unintended result of making nearby people ask this reader what was so funny in response to the resultant snort of laughter. Similarly, one finds his anything-but-subtle commentary about theology scattered throughout as well. This continues through remarks about more accurate renditions of violence being shown if more women directed movies, the idea that only Jews can recognize blatant anti-Semitism (yes, that tired old horse is being beaten in his Passion of the Christ comments which can only have been included for Leonard's desire to castigate it considering the overwhelming negativity), and the idea that we have "overdone the father language in theology and liturgy" from which we are liberated when we pray to "God as mother." This becomes quite tiring after a short exposure and the reader wishes that the editor had been more vigilant about the author's interjection of personal commentary.

One suspects that this passion for social justice is also what prompted the quite predictable inclusion of movies which the movie-going public needs no help with in seeing a Christian subtext. Almost half the movies (21 of 54) are those in which the theme is so blatant that the title is all one needs to know the social issue being explored. Usually the movies also have been discussed ad nauseum so that one knows the specific message without having to have seen the movie as well. Gandhi, Romero, JFK, Unforgiven, Schindler's List, The Shawshank Redemption, City of God, The Magdalene Sisters ... the list goes on and on. We already know these movies matter. Movie critics have told us so time and again. It would have been refreshing to have Leonard show us how movies matter that don't necessarily pound us over the head with message, however sensitive or well done. A few of these movies are to be expected but for such a large percentage to be so very obvious becomes quite boring and one again wishes for a more vigilant editor who would call the author to a higher standard. Even these could be forgiven if the author plumbed new depths but he follows the same well-trodden path as every other commenter. Perhaps that is because there are no other depths to be found in these films. As praiseworthy as the subjects of these pointed films are, they are not the movies which the general public is flocking to see, as is evident from the list in the beginning of the book of top ten grossing movies of all time. If the author was going for the obvious movies, these would have been the ones to include. We then would have seen such films as Titanic, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Star Wars, and gone with the Wind discussed. What enthralling and unexpected commentary that would have been for many.

It is obvious that Leonard does understand what sorts of movies that are both interesting and informative to discuss simply because of the strong possibility that no one ever looked for a Christian subtext. It was delightful and fascinating to see Groundhog Day, Finding Nemo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Italian for Beginners, and Chocolat discussed.
Christianity has had a variable relationship with the world. At times the world has been viewed as a hostile place with temptations and risks to the life of faith. This is the Marlin school of theology - venture out only when necessary, and then do so with extreme vigilance...

The Nemo school of theology holds that the world is the gift of God, to be explored, dealt with, delighted in, and within which we learn who we are and who God is in the scheme of things.
I never would have considered this reading of Finding Nemo and it was quite eye opening. I did not necessarily agree with the reasons given for his assessment (not included in the excerpt) but agreement is not necessary. Simply having the concept brought up opens new vistas of a movie in which one can then go on to explore those themes for oneself. Those glimpses of depth and insight applied to more popular movies were what frustrated the most in finding so few of these movies discussed. Even with these movies one does wish for an additional, deeper level of discussion such as can be found in the reviews from such favorite reviewers of deep faith as Nehring the Edge, Overlook Journal or Decent Films. However, if this book is viewed as a primer the lack of depth is more excusable.

Despite the negative, this book does have value and a place in the education of the film going public, especially those faithful Christians who haven't considered looking below the surface of movies that don't have an obvious Christian message. As I mentioned, the author does have some very interesting things to say even to those who are used to examining every movie indepth. The mere fact of disagreement with so much of what Leonard included has been the subject of on-going discussion in our household for the past three days. Any book that can engage such conversation is definitely worth reading. However, one must do so with an awareness that the author has his own specific nonsubtle message as well as simply pointing out how faith lies beneath seemingly ordinary entertainment.

Reposted from a previous review at Happy Catholic


Carolina Cannonball said...

Thanks Leticia for giving me the heads up about this new blog of y'alls.

will the reviews include music, TV and books as well?

Julie D. said...

In fact, this very post is a book review! So definitely yes! :-)