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Alone in the Clouds: Malick’s “A Hidden Life”

Franz Jägerstätter was an Austrian farmer who refused to pledge allegiance to Adolf Hitler and was guillotined by the Nazis on August 9, 1943. He was beatified as a martyr by Benedict XVI in 2007.

His life is worthy of a major motion picture, and I was genuinely excited to see A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick’s new biopic about Bl. Jägerstätter. If you’ve never seen Mr. Malick’s 1978 film, Days of Heaven, you should, and you’ll be impressed by the look of it, although much of the credit for that belongs to Nestor Almendros, one of the finest cinematographers of the last century. In any case, Malick’s films have ever since been notable for their visual beauty.

But, Mr. Malick, although something of a visionary, is not a particularly accomplished entertainer, a consequence of which is that his films lack the humanity that arises from vivid characterization and language, and this is especially true of A Hidden Life, which has very long sequences in which the film’s characters say nothing or next to nothing and don’t do much either. It’s rather like a perfume commercial.

Jörg Widmer’s camera work on A Hidden Life is very good, if somewhat static. It’s like sitting in a medical office, waiting between the nurse’s visit and the doctor’s arrival, and staring at an HDTV screen as one high-definition photo after another cycles through: mountains and rivers and lakes. In A Hidden Life, it’s the scenery of Italy’s Tyrolean Alps (standing in for Austrian mountains), but scenery it is, interrupted only now and then by human faces, usually shot in tight to show human feeling: joy or sorrow, apparently the only emotions there are. Sometimes these humans talk to one another, although much of the narrative is accomplished in epistolary fashion: letters between Franz (August Diehl) and his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner).

Click here to read the rest of Mr. Miner’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .

Comfort ye, My People

“Comfort ye,” wrote the Prophet Isaiah, a man who – to put it mildly – had to denounce the sinfulness, to say many uncomfortable things, to the stiff-necked Israelites, which is to say to people very like ourselves. A people, like people in every age, in need of comforting, true comforting, because of the turmoil around them and within them – often the result of their own waywardness – with no ordinary human remedy in sight.

It must have been a crucial message even back then, because Isaiah repeats it and – surprisingly – even specifies from whence it came: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (Is. 40:1-2)

All that, of course, has inspired and encouraged the world for nearly 3000 years, which has included many moments even more troubled than our own deeply bewildered age.  Just a few centuries ago, it gave Georg Friedrich Handel the inspiration for his Messiah, which many of us will hear in this season. A servant stumbled in on Handel just as he finished writing the Hallelujah Chorus and found him in tears: “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” If you are prone to doubt divine inspiration, consider: Handel produced that immortal 260-page score in just twenty-four days.

And Isaiah’s spirit is still alive among us.

Click here to read the rest of Bob Royal’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .

A “Carol” for the Ages

It’s fair to say that no Christmas story except THE Christmas story (the one St. Luke relates) has had more enduring popularity than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In the brief survey below of dramatic adaptations, I’m going to focus solely on films (excluding all TV and animated versions – and ones with puppets), despite the fact that fine actors such as George C. Scott, Michael Caine, Albert Finney, and Patrick Stewart have participated in some of them.

The very first dramatic presentation of A Christmas Carol was by Dickens himself, who read the book to enthusiastic audiences in Birmingham, England in 1853, a decade after the book’s publication. Since then there have been more than sixty theatrical productions (in an uncountable number of performances, including revivals), several dozen cinematic versions, and nearly three-dozen TV or direct-to-video versions. I’m not going to attempt to tally up all the radio performances and recorded books. There have been four operas. And you probably couldn’t count the number of TV series that have had episodes with a haunted-villain-changes-his-life storyline.

Mr. Dickens was not a Catholic (in fact, he called our faith “a curse upon the world”), and he was not a particularly enthusiastic Anglican either. But he did have a sense of how faith can transform lives, and it’s reasonable to say that, in A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge has a born-again experience (well, better to call it metanoia) thanks to the visits of the three ghosts.


Click here to read the rest of Mr. Miner’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .

Don’t Watch “The First Temptation of Christ”

The Wise Men, if we should call them so, are confused. Is that a star or a comet?

“Last time we chased a comet. . .we ended up in Greece.”

“Are you complaining?”

Well, Greece is beautiful this time of year, and pace Mr. Eliot, it can be a pretty cold coming elsewhere in December, “Just the worst time of the year,” in fact.

I’m reflecting here on the opening of The First Temptation of Christ, a sticky Brazilian confection on Netflix, a comedy (if you’re, say, 13-years-old) about Jesus bringing home his homosexual “friend” to meet the family.

Worldwide protests are mounting. But I hate to condemn anything out of hand, so let me do so in hand.

Click here to read the rest of Mr. Miner’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .

The Vatican’s China Syndrome

How long can the Vatican remain silent about the Chinese repression in Hong Kong and about reports of persecution and re-education camps for religious believers in the rest of China? Clearly, the figures in the Roman Curia (primarily Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin) who crafted the still unpublished accord with the Communist government have put themselves in a moral bind. If they speak out, they may jeopardize the agreement (which would not exactly be a tragedy, since it has only led to even more violent, more open acts against Christians in China). If they don’t speak out, they run the still greater risk of being accomplices, conspicuous accomplices, in the repression and potential liquidation of a heroic Catholic people of confessors and martyrs.

It didn’t have to be this way. Just as the Vatican PR machine is able to gin up campaigns to promote Pope Francis’ preoccupations about the environment, immigrants, the death penalty – and now nuclear weapons – it could also have made crimes against Christians, particularly Catholics, far more visible, and an urgent priority for anyone, anywhere in the world who pays attention to the moral leadership of the Church. And not only in China, because persecution of Christians exists in various hotspots around the globe and there are increasingly anti-Christian attacks even in Western nations like France and the United Kingdom, to say nothing of our own country.

Many Catholics were rightly upset when Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Council of the Social Sciences, returning from a trip to China, said, “Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese.” That was so absurd – considering the religious repression, the environmental damage, the forced abortions, the Orwellian surveillance of their own people – that it doesn’t bear a moment’s thought.

Click here to read the rest of Bob Royal’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .

Joe and Jorge’s Excellent Adventure: “The Two Popes”

Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (2002) was not, despite the title, a religious film, but a gritty, semi-documentary drama about kids in Rio’s slums. Mr. Meirelles’ new film, The Two Popes, is also not religious.

The film claims to be “inspired by true events,” which at its heart is a lie, and it clearly doesn’t understand what’s going on in this mysterious thing called the Roman Catholic Church. Or if it does know, dislikes it intensely.

Written by Anthony McCarten, screenwriter of two very fine (and very different) films, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody, The Two Popes imagines a 2012 meeting between Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) and Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins). The cardinal has been summoned by the pope ostensibly to discuss the former’s resignation as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. As it happens, before receiving the pope’s summons, the cardinal had already bought a plane ticket to Rome in order to urge Benedict to accept that resignation. Kismet?

Pope Benedict is well aware that Bergoglio finished second in the 2005 conclave voting that had elevated him to the papacy, and therein lies the gambit: the pope really wants to discover what sort of man his likely successor is and what effect a Papa Bergoglio might have on the legacy of Benedict’s papacy.

Click here to read the rest of Mr. Miner’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .

Intimations of Immortality in the Americas

Intimations of eternity are rare in this life. I had one, about this time of the year, when I was in high school. I’m enough of a modern man to know how unreal the claim seems. But it’s true. I was walking with a few friends under autumn leaves. We’d just been reading Virgil together in Latin, during last period. From somewhere, there welled up in me an overwhelming sense of both geologic ages and the immense extent of human life. And something beyond even those. Years later, I came upon an Italian poem – L’infinito – that captures the experience.

I had a similar experience this past Saturday morning. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco celebrated an Extraordinary Form Latin “Mass of the Americas” at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, accompanied by the music of Frank La Rocca, whom the archbishop had commissioned for that purpose.

But listening to the recording and even watching the video can’t even begin to convey what the Mass was like in the Basilica. To underscore just one element, Archbishop Cordileone celebrated the Mass on the main altar under the Baldacchino, way at the back of the church (instead of the new altar closer to the congregation). That had a marvelous effect. At least for me.

When he and the concelebrants processed to the far altar, near the imposing mosaic of Jesus as Pantocrator (“Ruler of All”), it was as if they were going deep into the divine mysteries. And later, when the priests came forward to distribute Communion, it was as if they were bringing the Body and Blood to the congregation from the depths of God Himself.

Click here to read the rest of Robert Royal’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .

72 Hours: a Review of “Midway”

It’s Veterans Day, which you know and which I mention to explain why I’m reviewing a film that has little to do with Catholicism explicitly, but everything to do with the kind of self-sacrifice Christianity, more than any other religion, has made central to its teaching and finds its strongest secular counterpart for us in those who have served our country.

German director Roland Emmerich has made the best film about Americans in World War II since Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1999), although not at that level of achievement. His Midway – a tense, action-filled movie that is very much better than the star-studded 1976 film of the same title – is a welcome reminder of why we celebrate those who serve.

Midway begins with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Those sequences are good, although one is conscious of the video-game-like computer-generated imagery (CGI), partly because its execution is at times imperfect (that’s the world we live in), and partly because you know the dive-bombing and strafing Japanese Zeros and extravagant explosions and burning ships cannot possibly be live-action. Imperfect though it is, it puts you smack-dab in the action – much more so than Michael Bay’s 2001 film, Pearl Harbor.

Click here to read the rest of Mr. Miner’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .


On Joe Biden and Judging Souls

The political season, alas, we always have with us now, but last week it took a turn in earnest.

Father Robert E. Morey, a courageous priest in South Carolina, denied former Vice-President Joe Biden Holy Communion owing to the longstanding public scandal of his support for unlimited abortion. To my mind when Biden, as vice-president, performed the wedding ceremony for two gay White House staffers, it was a cynical move for LGBT support, but far more importantly another brazen scandal demanding a response from the Church. He has been essentially defying the American bishops for decades, knowing that it’s highly likely they won’t dare put him on the spot.

Reactions to that priest’s act fell, as always happens, along the usual political lines. But this is not a political matter. It’s a question of whether the Church, as it claims, takes seriously the most serious things, namely the nature of the Eucharist and what it means for someone to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.

There have been various dodges from the Church hierarchy on this matter. New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, for example, remarked that he would never judge the state of someone else’s soul. But that’s not what is involved in the Biden case and many others like it.

Click here to read the rest of Robert Royal’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .

Miracle in Poland: a Review of “Love and Mercy”

It’s a remarkable thing that the visions of a 25-year-old Polish nun would, after years of suppression by the Vatican, become what is now a major feast day in the Catholic Church: Divine Mercy Sunday.

Sister Maria Faustyna Kowalska (born Helena Kowalska in 1905) was a nun of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Plock, Poland when she began receiving instructions from our Lord, including that she arrange for a painting of Him as she saw Him in her visions that would include the phrase “Jezu, ufam Tobie” (“Jesus, I trust in you).

We might wish to know more about this woman, the feast she helped inspire (in 2020 it will fall on April 19), and the Divine Mercy chaplet and its promises. And now we can know, thanks to a new docudrama by director Michal Kondrat.

Love and Mercy is an odd but valuable film. I say this 90-minute movie is odd – that’s often true of docudramas (films that intermingle actors performing dramatic sequences with interviews of non-actor experts) – because the documentary scenes are unexceptional, although informative, and the dramatic reenactments of Faustina’s life are truly fine cinematic work.

Click here to read the rest of Mr. Miner’s review at The Catholic Thing . . .