Father Callam ‘Goes to the Movies’

There’s one thing about movies that I very much like: it’s the one art form that everyone feels himself qualified to comment on. Take me, for instance. I know next to nothing about making movies; don’t ask me what a “best boy” is or a “grip.” I’m not even sure what role producers play in producing a film. But so what? I can reply to any criticism of my book on those grounds by quoting Pauline Kael, who wrote her devastating movies reviews for The New Yorker back in the 70s and 80s. When her right to adjudicate on the merit of a movie was challenged because she could never have directed one, she is said to have replied, “You don’t have to be a chicken to smell a rotten egg.” And so I join the legion of fans who are confident in their evaluation of a film and so assess it as it was meant to be, viz., by movie goers. And I am one of them.

Each of us will have his own angle from which to pass judgement on what he sees. My slant is theological, for such is my interest and training. Let me illustrate what I mean by quoting a few lines from my review of Into the Wild:


The encounter between Jesus and the rich young man came to mind as I watched Into the Wild. It would surprise me if the director, Sean Penn, intended it, but the movie can be read as an intriguing variation on the incident. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells the virtuous, somewhat pompous, youth that one thing is lacking: “Go, sell what you have, give to the poor, and come, follow me.” When the young man went away sad, Jesus commented, “It will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” The film reverses the Gospel story, in that the hero, Christopher McCandless, begins by giving away or destroying his possessions and then for the rest of the film tries to discover why he has done so. As a parable for today, Into the Wild ends with the hero’s never having found a full answer to his quest; he starved to death in Alaska, in 1992.


This approach has one major advantage: it’s rare! Serious consideration of the unspoken assumptions of a movie-maker is remarkably absent in most reviews, and no more so when the theme is overtly religious. And the general public, docile in this regard, generally bypass such movies. Even the magnificent and serious film about the Jesuit missionaries to Japan—Martin Scorsese’s Silence—did poorly at the box office, as did two other similar films, both Polish: The Innocents and Ida, and this despite the latter having won an Academy Award as the best foreign film of 2014. A striking instance of this obtuseness is the critics’ reaction to Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978).[1] The film is drenched in biblical allusions. The very title—Days of Heaven—comes from the book of Deuteronomy (11.21; LXX), and the images of the natural world—a constant of Malick’s movies—are grandiose, settings redolent of the Garden of Eden whose continuing beauty is dependent on man’s relationship with a God who is “ready to punish.” The plot is a version of Genesis 12.10-20, in which Abraham passes his wife, Sarah, off as his sister. Her having been placed in Pharaoh’s harem unleashes God’s wrath on Egypt, just as in Days of Heaven Texas, in a similar situation, undergoes the biblical plagues of fire and locusts. This magnificent film was dismissed when it first came out as “intolerably artsy,” “a farrago,” “self indulgent,” “unintelligible,” “meaningless.” Strangely, such reactions reveal a refusal on the part of the critic to recognize movies as a serious art. But there are films that will reveal their depth only through repeated viewings. Which movies have you seen more than once? In his autobiography Alex Guiness mentioned a fan letter he received from a young woman who had watched Star Wars a hundred times. He suggested that she may have exhausted its contents, but her attitude is surely to be commended, for even light-weight movies can be artistic. I like to return to the screwball comedies of the 30s, such as Bringing Up Baby and Cafe Metropole; and Singing in the Rain never seems to lose its freshness. But re-watching them is a pleasure repeated. Other movies have to be seen over and over again because each viewing brings out something new; as we listen to the Schubert string quintet or Beethoven’s fifth symphony times without end, so films can be equally rich, one such being Days of Heaven. Of it, Father Own Lee worte:


Ultimately, Days of Heaven does what a great work of art should do—it makes a personal statement about what the world is and what man’s place in it is. And it does this in a way only a film and no poem or novel or opera or painting can—by using moving pictures. Pictures limned with color and imbued with the additional suggestiveness of words and music. But, first and foremost, pictures. Moving pictures.[2]


I have experience of this lacuna in popular and critical sensibility. When the director Whit Stillman was in Toronto for special showings of two of his movies—Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco—each evening closed with a Q&A session. The questions were uniformly banal, about writing clever dialogues, designing costumes, selecting the cast and so on. No one there, it seemed, was aware of their overtly Christian content. So I stood up, in my Roman collar, and asked if my interpretation of The Last Days of Disco, as an allegory of the history of salvation, was a valid reading of the work. A lot of ambiguous bluster followed, but Stillman later told me that my question had been for him the highlight of the evening.

Every film implicitly presents a point of view, even one as simplistic as Drag Me to Hell, not quite in line for an Academy Award. A young woman encounters a hag, actually a witch, who curses her for her insolence. Nothing the young woman does can overcome fate, desperate as her efforts become. And so, at the end, like a naïve Don Giovanni, she is actually dragged to hell. You are probably saying to yourself, and rightly so, that the producers merely wanted to make a fast buck as a return for a low-budget movie, but their assessment of what could sell in the horror genre tells us something about life today: actions, even relatively insignificant ones, have consequences; fate is relentless and unforgiving; there is evil but no force of good to counter it, i.e., no religious figure who could be called upon to exorcise the victim. And however formulaic the action, there remains in the viewer and uneasy feeling that there may be something in these ideas, for often—relatively—innocent people suffer horrible consequence for what seem to be trivial failings.

The reason serious films, even the most accomplished, are generally misread or bypassed is the religious illiteracy of most people in our secular society. There is thus a great need for Justin Press (that published my books) and for websites such as Bishop Barron’s Words on Fire. Books, too, address the philosophical and theological bases of contemporary society, including the cinema. In my book you have another instance, different from some by the length of its reviews and from others by the explicit Catholic ethos that informs it. I hope you like it.

[1] Cf. M. Owen Lee, The Best Films of Our Years (Bloomington [IN]: AuthorHouse, 2007), pp. 355-60.

[2] Ibid., p. 360.