Religious Movie Seminar

Watch religious movies on Sunday evenings in the meeting room of Saint Dominic Church in Washington DC at 6:30 PM from November to March.

Mission: To teach religion by means of film, facilitate discussion and encourage communal interaction.

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Shown on Sunday, April 7, 2019
N!xau, Marius Weyers, Sandra Prinsloo
Directed, written and produced by Jamie Uys (1980) 109 minutes. A comedy that broke all box-office records for a foreign film in the United States.

Commentary
The Gods Must Be Crazy was so successful that Jamie Uys made a sequel (I & II), but by then, the magic had already been spent. Still, other filmmakers tried to keep it going with four more sequels that never reached our shores. The original film had a budget of about five million dollars but it made sixty million worldwide, half of that in the United States. It was shot in Botswana and South Africa. Languages spoken include English, Afrikaans and Ungwatsi.

N!xau was an actual Bushman from the Kalahari Desert, so his experience in this film was perhaps good and bad. He earned some money, but was perhaps scandalized a bit by his exposure to the world. Before the film, he had only encountered three white people and had never seen a village bigger than his own. Later, he wanted a cinder-block house with electricity and a water pump for his three wives and children. His language, Ungwatsi, has clicking sounds for which no letters in our alphabet can be applied. N!xau suffered from tuberculosis for a long time. He probably died of it around the age of 59 in 2003.

The scientist, Andrew Steyn played by Marius Weyers, provides slapstick humor, but the romantic comedy is merely a subplot. There is even the classic slip on the banana peel. When a watape tree grabs Miss Thompson while dressing, you have to smile. The chaotic incompetence of characters renders a child-like quality to the action like The Keystone Cops, but a very serious issue is presented: Is “civilization” really civilized?

Civilized society adapts its environment to suit itself rather than adapts itself to its environment. The irony is that the society that tried to make the environment adapt to itself finds that it has to adapt to the artificial environment of an ever changing society. So, the audience is forced to question whether they really are civilized or merely artificial, and whether the uncivilized have the advantage, but we have to beware not to depreciate civilization like Jean Jacques Rousseau who exalted the “noble savage” while ignoring original sin. Ecology and production must be balanced, but where the virtuous middle is precisely is debated. Obviously, the film is critical of excesses on the side of technology and sympathetic to the vestiges of Eden. Another perspective is the difference between complexity and simplicity. The revolutionaries in the story demonstrate how serious a clash between two factions can be when they have opposing views of civilization and demand control. A couple of Sam Boga’s men, however, are more interested in playing cards than in revolution.

Civilization, nevertheless, is primarily the result of being enculturated by God. Although religion is not explicit in the sense of a biblical character, religious sister or clergyman, except for the Reverend who has a minor part played by the director and writer himself, Jamie Uys, we see an example of natural religion. Before the Lord revealed His religion to Moses and before Christ perfected it, it was already written into the fabric of nature. Religion is a virtue in the human will more than an external institution. Even our liturgical seasons and feasts are related to agricultural seasons and astronomical phenomena. Two excellent books on the subject are The Age of the Gods by Christopher Dawson and The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade. To the San people, nothing is evil, even a snake. Rather, everything is a gift from the gods. They have no idea of ownership because the world belongs to everyone. Because there are no rocks in the desert, everything is soft, so likewise they are gentle themselves. They are even kind to their prey. They speak to animals as if they too were rational.

The connection between the two worlds is at first a Coke bottle. Something considered to be trash by civilization transforms the primitive culture. In fact, it becomes so useful that everyone wants to own it rather than share it, since there was only one. When it causes contention and even injury, Xi tries to give it back to the gods or simply to be rid of it. He intends to take it to the end of the world and throw it back to the gods. This sets up his encounter with society which is as much barbaric as it is civilized. When Xi inadvertently breaks the law, Steyn becomes his guardian. Meanwhile, the revolutionaries kidnap Miss Thompson and her pupils to serve as a shield as they make their escape. The web of circumstances gets wound tighter.

Eventually, everything works out well, yet little understanding is achieved between Xi and the other main characters, who remain in separate worlds. Xi believes that he has achieved his purpose, as absurd as it seems to us, yet that is satisfactory because we can be sure that the Lord accepted whatever he offered and removed the evil from their midst. The juxtaposition of such diverse elements is a great achievement in the art of filmaking and is the reason why The Gods Must Be Crazy is downright hysterical.

Keeping the Faith

Shown on Sunday, March 31, 2019
Ben Stiller, Jenna Elfman, Anne Bancroft, Eli Wallach & Edward Norton who also Directed (2000) 128 minutes

Commentary

Keeping the Faith goes well with The Chosen, but now the friction among friends extends beyond Judaism to Catholicism, and to make the situation more complicated, there’s a secular woman in the middle. With an estimated budget of 29 million dollars and a worldwide gross of nearly 60 million, this is a major production. Indeed, there are a lot of familiar faces in the cast, especially from television. The comedy of Ben Stiller can be annoying, but this performance is not. We certainly hear several songs throughout the film. The credits for the soundtrack make a long list of titles and artists.

Since childhood, Jake and Brian have shared their religious practices. The method for teaching boys how to make the Sign of the Cross, however, has been used in several movies. In Nuns on the Run (1990), we heard, “Spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch,” but even Austin Powers has said it too. After becoming a priest and a rabbi respectively and overcoming early difficulties, the two young ministers of God attain some success and popularity with their congregations. According to Father Brian Finn, who can be seen in a clerical shirt hanging outside his beat-up blue jeans at times, faith is a hunch that ties everything together and the hunch is God. On the other hand, Rabbi Jake Schram tries to give his people the old-world God with a new age spin. Jake even turns a Jewish hymn into a Negro Spiritual to get people fired up! Both young men shake things up as “The God Squad”! Jake, however, gets friction from the traditionalists, even though they are Reformed Jews, not Orthodox Jews. He needs to lead, not push. Tradition, after all, is not a dead relic of the past but a progressive and vibrant movement forward guided by God.

When their childhood friend, “Anna Banana,” returns to New York as an important businesswoman, both men are quite impressed. Cell phones were just beginning to replace phone booths at the time, but Anna is already inseparable from hers. Her presence stimulates questions of sexual relationships. This may be a romantic comedy that young people went to see with their dates, but some of the sexual humor is a sad commentary on the decline of civilization. An interesting note is that Ben Stiller is five foot seven whereas Jenna Elfman is five foot ten. So, some special footwear or flooring had to be used in some scenes where they are eye to eye. For the record, Edward Norton is six feet tall. There are many funny cracks, like the mothers who try to get the rabbi to date their daughters are called the “kosher-nostra.” Finding a wife is difficult but Jake needs to do so if he hopes to become the leading rabbi. Anne Bancroft plays Jake’s mother, Ruth Schram. Although she is actually a native New Yorker and Italian, she is familiar with Jews and comedy because she married the funniest Jew ever, Mel Brooks, with whom she lived 41 years. Her Jewish accent is very good.

The relationship between Anna and Brian is complicated by his celibacy, which not surprisingly makes him even more attractive to women. Men who are at peace with purity make women feel safe. In their presence, women are less inclined to vanity and seduction. Having her around, though, awakens old feelings in him. To get a grip, Brian even reads Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus by John Gray. Do priests “fall in love?” They do, and if they are French perhaps frequently, but that does not mean that they must act differently. Father Havel says that he has been a priest for forty years but has fallen in love at least once every decade. Priests often keep unrequited or unconsummated love for a female friend secretly in their heart, offering their brokenheartedness or loneliness to God in sacrifice.

On the other hand, the relationship between Anna and Jake is even more complicated because they are both sexually attracted to each other, but she is not Jewish. A Jew could be shunned for a mixed marriage, not only by his congregation but by his own family. His mother shunned his brother for marrying a Catholic. Another element is that Anna could be leaving the city soon. Although adultery with a married person is blatantly condemned in the Jewish Bible, fornication with an unmarried person is also condemned if one searches carefully, yet that is more of a fine for rape. (Dt. 22:28-29)

Anna inadvertently sets her dearest friends at odds with each other. Although Brian’s vocation is his to keep, Jake’s is at the mercy of his Synagogue. He confesses to everyone on the Day of Atonement and asks their forgiveness. Besides having faith in God, the screenwriter preaches that we should have faith in each other. That doctrine is questionable. Faith in people depends on trustworthiness, yet Ruth learns to trust her younger son because she failed to trust her eldest. Moreover, the Synagogue trusts Jake and ultimately everything is resolved. Keeping the Faith is a funny movie, yet reconciliations in the end are satisfyingly cathartic. Although the behavior of the threesome is far less than saintly and the movie seems to condone moral mediocrity, the victory that their friendship achieves over serious difficulties allows for a rewarding finish. Ultimately, they “keep the faith” in each other while growing in their faith in God.

The Chosen

Shown on Sunday, March 24, 2019
Maximilian Schell, Rod Steiger, Robby Benson
Directed by Jeremy Kagan (1981) 108 minutes

Commentary

The Chosen is good for Christians to see because we might be unaware of different sects or offshoots of Judaism. Hasidic and Zionist Jews are both devoted to their Covenant with God, but the former emphasize an other-worldly relationship with the Lord while the latter actively engage the world. Still, in the time of Jesus, Pharisees and Zealots likewise tried to restore the glory of Israel respectively through religious observance or the sword.

Although we love God inclusively, not exclusively, there could be a time to shun or excommunicate people to protect the community. In those situations, Jesus told us to “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Mt.18:17) These divisions, nevertheless, which may seem like the result of heresy, can yet be overcome by ecumenism among Jews. The lesson is that we can always work on what we share in common to grow closer and understand better.

Unlike the foolish fued between the Montagues and Capulets bridged by Romeo and Juliet, however, the bond in this case is a couple of friends who share their minds and hearts fully. Surprisingly, by the end, they practically change places. The wise Rabbi, nevertheless, knows that friendship is not easy. Is friendship the greatest thing in the world? The two greatest Commandments could be interpreted as friendship with God and neighbor.

Jeremy Kagan beautifully captured Brooklyn in the 1940s with the music, costumes and classic cars. Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter are extremely different boys because Danny has been isolated within an almost changeless culture while Reuven is a typical New Yorker. To Reuven, Danny, at first, seems like he comes from another century and speaks like he is from another planet, but Danny has great skills. He not only “hits like Babe Ruth” but also has an extraordinary memory. Danny never heard of Benny Goodman or Errol Flynn because he had never been to a movie, but eventually, Reuven remedies that amazing defect. Even before Danny met Reuven, however, he had been going to the library secretly to read about the world outside the Hasidim. Coincidentally, the one who had been directing his reading turns out to be Reuven’s father. So, the bridge between the Hasidim and the world is started by Danny’s open mind and the Professor’s knowledge and experience.

The most blaring difference between the boys is their fathers: Professor Malter publishes and speaks out publicly for Zionism but holy Rabbi Saunders treasures contemplative silence. His son learns to hear the pain of the world in it. Malter thinks that the Scriptures were written by men inspired by God, but Saunders thinks by God. From accent to gestures with passion and skill, Rod Steiger plays the Rabbi masterfully. The Hasidim rejoice in their religious observance with such fervor and song that it borders on mantic prophecy. Indeed, the Rabbi seems to be inspired with a divine illumination or carried away by zeal for the Lord while his displays of emotion exhilarate his adherents. When in Russia, Rabbi Saunders was shot by Cossacks, but recovered and took his people to America. For Catholics, one who survives an attempted martyrdom is called a confessor. In the early Church, confessors commanded great respect. So, Saunders is more than a rabbi. He is a righteous medium between God and His People, a ẓaddiḳ.

At the Saunders’ home, people touch the mezuzah on the doorpost as they enter, then kiss their fingers. It contains a parchment with Dt.6:4–9;11:13–21, the Shema prayer to the One God. When we first encounter Mrs. Saunders, she has her head wrapped because Hasidic women modestly cover their hair traditionally or even shave their heads and wear wigs. Hirsch College in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan was founded by a rabbi of an Orthodox Jewish community from Frankfurt, but the movie fictionalizes the school. Even though it is strictly Jewish, sending their son there instead of the Torah school was a major concession for the Saunders. It goes to show that the Chosen People are not the puppets of God, but they too can make choices. As Saint Paul said to the Church, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Gal.5:1) At that time, Catholic parochial life had been lived with a similar kind of ghetto mentality. Even today, Evangelicals are somewhat inbred by the way they maintain a tight community, even though they are always going out to add new members.

The Hasidim, however, would not even allow a marriage to Jews outside their sect. Besides, the separation of the sexes is complete. The arranged marriage of Shaindel clashes sharply with Reuven’s worldview, particularly because he felt attracted to her. Modern Americans may be tempted to think that it is wrong to arrange marriages because of an excessive emphasis on romantic love and individualism, but I would wager that such unions are more likely to last. For centuries, marriage was largely based on economics, hence the importance of the dowry and the contract.

Robby Benson, who plays Danny, has pentrating eyes and looks as handsome as John Travolta in his youth. The curled sidelocks of Jewish men are called payot. Leviticus 19:27 seems to them to imply that the corner of their hair should not be cut, but some Jewish men tuck them behind their ears. Russia banned payot in 1845. After World War II ended, a girl steals a kiss from Danny. He is scandalized.

Coincidentally, in the cinema, they watch Thrill of a Romance starring Van Johnson and Esther Williams (1945), but the revelation of the Holocaust from the newsreel causes profoundly different reactions. The Professor, with his German-English accent, claims that “We can’t wait for God.” Hence, Zionists work to turn Palestine back into Israel. Other movies focus on that subject, such as Exodus with Paul Newman, Lisa with Dolores Hart and Orchestra of Exiles about the violinist Bronislaw Huberman.

The Rabbi, on the other hand, becomes enraged if anyone suggests that the Jews should go to Israel before the Messiah comes to take them. The complete dedication of the two fathers to opposite views puts an extraordinary strain on the the boys’ friendship, yet the Professor respects the Rabbi whose fanaticism has saved Jews historically. Beyond this, other Jews become contentious and hostile toward each other. One Hasid claims that Hitler killed Jewish bodies but Zionists kill their souls! Reuven suffers excommunication from the Hasidic society, forcing Danny to shun him. Filial obedience tragically defeats friendship, at least temporarily. The ordeal of separation actually strengthens their bond and their relationship with their fathers. Later, a fellow student at Hirsch was killed in a kibbutz which was a kind of commune in Israel usually based on agriculture. When the nation of Israel becomes a reality, it is no longer an issue that divides the boys, but healing is needed. Reuven hates what happened, but it is not personal.

In a climactic soliloquy, Rabbi Saunders laments that his son has such a great mind that he must go his own way when instead he wanted a son with more of a heart. He then confesses why he tried to teach Danny through the pain of silence as his father had done to him. He learned that others are alone and sorrowful. Merely saying the word “psychologist” is difficult for the Rabbi, but he trusts that now Danny has become a ẓaddiḳ, a righteous man. He even recognizes that the world needs such a man, so he lets him leave their safe cultural cocoon. Father and son not only reach an understanding; they reach each other in a tenderly poignant conclusion.

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