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.

Joyeux Noël
Shown on Sunday, December 16, 2018
Diane Kruger, Benno Fürmann, Guillaume Canet, Gary Lewis, Daniel Brühl; Directed by Christian Carion
(2005) 116 minutes

Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) is a beautiful film for preparing ourselves to celebrate that season of joy. According to history, this story is based on what happen not only at one place, but at several points along the front on Christmas Eve 1914. Although it shows that God can make a garden flourish in a desert, the barrenness eventually destroyed the garden, except perhaps for the fruit that still lived in the hearts of those who experienced this miraculous truce during World War I.

Despite the efforts of governments to indoctrinate even children with vile propaganda to incite hatred, basic virtues still prevailed in soldiers used as pawns of greater powers. Rhymes have been used to teach children even before the first chapter of Genesis was composed. Since ancient times, others have tricked the innocent in the same way, as when Pelagius spread his heresy with folk songs.
When war is declared, we see candles snuffed out. Do they represent the lives about to be lost? Every war is horrible. Many could argue that World War II was the worst, but it seems to me that the First World War was unsurpassed in misery. Old methods of warfare like frontal assaults of infantry were suddenly faced with machine guns and other modern weaponry while troops tried to survive in muddy trenches.

In the midst of this infernal warfare, we witness a charming love story. One thing for sure is that this film has superb musical performances by professional vocalists whose voices dub the actors. First, Anna’s singing saves Nikolaus from the trauma of war so that his voice is set free. Then, the two work their musical magic at the front with the help of a Scottish bagpipe. Nikolaus suddenly finds himself accompanied by Chaplain Palmer. Nikolaus dares to emerge from the trench to sing, but instead of getting shot, the enemy emerge as well to applaud. The commanding officers, modest lieutenants, meet to discuss a ceasefire for Christmas Eve. When the troops meet face to face, it is an awkward moment as each realizes that the other is human. The cat even has a roll in the film because both sides claim its allegiance, yet it remains free to cross the line as it pleases. Is it Felix or Nestor and is he a double agent or above all dissension? Everyone warms up after a few exchanges of chocolate, cigarettes and beverages. The chaplain unites them all in the common Christian faith, praying in the international language of Latin. Even the Jewish officer felt included in the devotion. Sadly, the rumbles and flashes of distant artillery recalls them to their assignments.

On the morning of Christmas Day, another noble cause unites them in a peaceful effort: the care of the dead. We see the custom of leaving a dog tag in the mouth of the dead soldier for later identification. Sometimes they were jammed between the front teeth. Next, the sides contend, not violently, but athletically. Their truce, however, becomes a friendship that could be interpreted as treasonous fraternization. They even warn each other of artillery barrages.

German soldiers ask Anna to take their mail back to Berlin, but that creates complications. When Anna and Nikolaus surrender to the French, the letters, intended for the Red Cross, are read, revealing what happened. The Scottish priest was scolded by his commander early in the plot for an act of mercy, which discipline should supposedly eclipse. By the end, even his bishop seems devoid of Christian charity. He causes the only real scandal by thinking that the soldiers who celebrated a day of peace went astray. This bishop preaches on the words of Christ: “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword,” then calls the war a crusade.

Tragedy occurs when a Scotsman, who cannot forgive because of the loss of his brother, kills a Frenchman dressed as a German. Perhaps post-traumatic stress syndrome kept the hatred burning in his heart. Because superior officers can no longer trust their men to fight the enemy, however, they are reassigned. Can they fight again with “pugnacity”?

Benefits of the truce, nevertheless, endure. The French lieutenant’s father is a general who discovers that he is a grandfather because of information acquired from occupied France. The crown prince may be able to smash a harmonica, but his men hum the Scottish tune, “I’m Dreaming of Home” for the music lives on in their spirits.

Francis of Assisi
Shown on Sunday, December 9, 2018
Bradford Dillman, Dolores Hart, Stuart Whitman, Finlay Currie, Cecil Kellaway (1961) 105 minutes
Directed by Micheal Curtiz

Francis of Assisi by Michael Curtiz is not at all like Brother Sun Sister Moon by Franco Zefferrelli. Whereas the famous Italian director magnified a specific aspect of Francis, his total renunciation of possessions and its effect on others, by using artistic symbols such as exaggerated costumes, Curtiz presents a broad biography of the saint in a straightforward way, letting the drama of an inspired life and the skill of a superb cast satisfy the audience. Besides, instead of the folk music of Donovan supporting a kind of Franciscan hippie commune in the 1972 film, we hear a celestial chorale surrounding stutuesque personas in this 1961 version. One thing that both movies have in common, nevertheless, is that Count Paolo of Vandria becomes a counterpart as Francis leaves worldliness. Of course, Clare makes a threesome, adding more tension. The screenplay for Francis of Assisi is based on a book, The Joyful Beggar, by Louis de Wohl.

Surprisingly, Francis begins to hear the call from God even before he goes off to war, partly through the instrumentality of a mystical beggar who seeks not alms, but love. Is he the Lord in disguise? Francis has no need to interpret signs, however, because God actually speaks to him audibly. Many facts are respected throughout, such as the number of friars that went to Rome, eleven, yet some liberties are taken. A priestly canon did join them, but not until after their papal approval and his name was different. Cecil Kellaway as Cardinal Hugolino accurately portrays the counsel offered by an historical figure.

The legend of Francis appearing in the pope’s dream upholding the Church is also attributed to Saint Dominic, a contemporary. Indeed, we have a stained-glass window of Innocent III dreaming of Dominic in our church. Both saints have been depicted in the other works of art together securing both side walls. Moreover, both Founders of mendicant orders flank the Chair of Saint Peter in the Basilica on the Vatican. In the movie, some prelates don quasi-Dominican habits because black and white help to paint the scene, but 1209 was a bit too early for friars preachers. Later in the movie, Dominican friars do appear.

Francis was eventually ordained to the deaconate, but considered the priesthood to be too lofty for him. Although we see no ordination in this film, he blesses the people and preaches. This gives the screenwriter an occasion to incorporate the famous Prayer of Saint Francis. His love for animals, of course, is emphasized throughout the story with birds, pets, livestock and even ferocious beasts. While in costume, Bradford Dillman was asked by the children of Assisi to bless their animals and a priest told him that it would be fine, so the cast called him Saint Brad.

When Clare decides to profess vows as a religious, Francis gets Benedictine nuns to help. They cut her long hair (a wig) and replace her elegant dress with a habit. Coincidentally, Dolores Hart soon became a Benedictine nun and eventually became a prioress (but not the abbess). She kept her name, so she is Mother Dolores. Her long hair would get cut, however, in the movie Lisa. During the filming of Saint Francis, she met Pope Saint John XXIII and told him that she plays Clare. He told her in Italian, “Tu sei Chiara! (No, you are Clare!) Dolores visited the incorrupt body of Saint Clare which is in a glass sarchophagus in Santa Chiara in Assisi. In the story, she soon dons the habit of the Poor Clares and acquires a following. Coincidentally, Mother Dolores just turned 80 years old on October 20th and her autobiography, The Ear of the Heart, is a delightful read. She recalls that the weather was very wet, but when it was time to shoot a scene, the Sun came out. She was only 22 years old, but had already developed remarkable acting skills.

The 800th anniversary of the encounter between Francis and the Sultan Malik al-Kamil in Egypt during the 5th Crusade will soon be celebrated in 2019. The trial by fire is not recorded in the earliest historical documents, but this legend had circulated among the brethren, so Saint Bonaventure later added this to his hagiography. This mission, nevertheless, is why Franciscans have cared for the Holy Land ever since. For the record, Mohammeddans do not have “priests.”

The flourishing growth of the Friars Minor and the disputes that ensued are accurately rendered. The controversy regarding strict mendicancy (begging daily) as opposed to property for sustenance was soon decided by Rome. The ideal of Saints Francis and Dominic put too much strain on local communities. Francis retreated to the Eremo delle Carceri, a hermitage 2½ miles above Assisi. He lost most of his sight before receiving the stigmata. At the end, we almost hear the Canticle of the Sun, composed by Francis, the “Troubadour of God.” He died about the age of 44 in 1226. Finally, the circle of life is completed in peace and goodness (pax et bonum). Coincidentally, Michael Curtiz died the year following the release of this film, having offered up this saintly tribute as a devout prayer to God to end his imperfect life in peace and goodness.

Francis of Assisi – Bradford Dillman, Dolores Hart, Stuart Whitman, Finlay Currie;
Directed by Michael Curtiz (1961) 105 minutes

The Sign of the Cross
Shown on Sunday, December 2, 1918
Fredric March, Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille (1932) 125 minutes

The Sign of the Cross was a short film as far back as 1899, but that was about Satan taking the form of a priest. Another short of the same title was made in 1905 based on a play by Wilson Barrett written in 1895, but in French. That is the story of Marcus Superbus and Mercia. In 1914, The Sign of the Cross was released as a motion picture in English. The version by Cecil B. DeMille improved on this tradition.
Although the moral code was established in 1930, it was not enforced rigidly until 1934, so in 1932, DeMille had stretched the guidelines. Indeed, in the Wikipedia article on the Code, there is a screen-shot from The Sign of the Cross of a young nude woman wrapped in garlands bound to a column in the arena with a lurking gorilla! So, in the arena when a damsel faces beasts, DeMille provided a combination of sex and violence. Besides, we will see the classic milk-bath with Claudette Colbert. For that, the bath was filled with powered Klim which acquired the thickness of cream cheese under the hot lights within an hour.
The name “Superbus” makes me laugh because it reminds me of a skit by the original cast of Saturday Night Live in which Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi greet each other in ancient Rome, “Hail, Maximus.” “Hail, Gluteus.” Yet, Superbus was an actual name used in ancient Rome, and in fact, was the name of the last king before the republic.
DeMille wastes no time getting the attention of the audience. Even before the opening credits have finished, we see Rome in flames in 64 A.D. The legend that Nero played the harp or fiddle while the city burned has no historical basis, but it has been employed in films repeatedly. We saw Peter Ustinov as Nero do it in Quo Vadis. Charles Laughton as the Emperor, of course, is magnificent.
Although early Christians used the sign of the fish (ichthus), the sign of the Cross is used anachronistically here. The symbolic Cross was not common for the Church, however, until after Constantine outlawed crucifixion in the 4th century. Do you remember the 1962 film, Constantine and the Cross, with Cornel Wilde as Constantine who sees a vision of the Cross in the sky and uses it as an emblem for his legions? In the movie, Polycarp, one Christian draws half of a fish with his staff while another Christian completes the drawing with his, but doing the same with a Cross is fictional. The oldest Crucifix in art is on the door of Santa Sabina in Rome, a 5th century basilica and headquarters of the Dominican Order.
Saint Titus shares Saint Paul’s Letter to him with his host, particularly chapter 3 in the King James version, which begins appropriately, “Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work, to speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men.” Although Titus claims to have seen and heard the Lord, he was only a boy in Antioch in the time of Christ. At the grove in the temple ruins, Marcus sees the Cross held by a martyr and is taken aback.
Poppaea never ceases to astound with her extravagant luxury as does DeMille with his spectacular paraphernalia, such as her pet leopard and fans of peacock feathers. The decadence of the Roman aristocracy has no power to tempt Mercia, even after Ancaria tries to bewitch her with a dance to the Naked Moon during which Marcus gropes her. Her singing mimics Marlene Dietrich. When Marcus says that he would not share Mercia with Christ, she would rather die than live with him. Elissa Landi was not a convincing beauty, but she compensated with talent. On the other hand, Fredric March had not adapted to talkies well because his melodrama was better suited to silent films.
Just when he loses Mercia, Marcus again sees the Sign of the Cross. He appeals to the Emperor out of love for Mercia, but out of love for Marcus, Poppaea demands her death. Then, comes a paradoxical exchange. Marcus says, “You harlot.” Poppaea replies, “I love you.” In De Vita Caesarum (The Life of the Caesars), Suetonius recorded the famous phrase: “Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you.” Marcus again sees the Sign of the Cross as if Mercia was crucified to the door to the arena.
Ultimately, the love that he has for her is so great that he is willing to sacrifice everything. His faith in her leads him to believe that they could always be together. They go to their fate sealed by the Sign of the Cross. Salvation can come, then, to sinners who at least love the faithful, and hence the Lord Whom they perceive in the goodness of their hearts.

Directed by Cecil B. DeMille (1932) 125 minutes

Directed by Cecil B. DeMille (1932) 125 minutes

Saul: The Journey to Damascus
Shown on November 25, 2018
Emmanuelle Vaugier, John Rhys-Davies, Kyle Schmid
Directed by Mario Azzopardi (21014) 82 minutes

Saul: Journey to Damascus, shot in Malta, was nominated to receive the Canadian Screen Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Program or Mini-Series. In this low-budget film, Mario Azzopardi was the director, screenwriter and the executive producer. The story concentrates on a short period of time in the Acts of the Apostles when Saul, the Pharisee, is converted to Saint Paul, the Apostle.
The first crack in his hard surface occurred when Saint Stephen forgave him at his martyrdom. That forgiveness continued to haunt him. The tension between the wise, old Gamaliel and the ambitious Caiaphas adds drama to the plot.
Once again, Saint Mary Magdalene has a major role because she is one of the Christians who flees to Damascus to get beyond the reach of Saul. She is played by a beautiful Canadian, Emmanuelle Vaugier.
For action, the story twists the Scriptures a bit by having Saul get to Damascus before the Lord appears to him, giving him enough time to cause trouble first. This literary device also created an opportunity to have Saul save the ones he arrested to win their trust.
Saul realizes that his blindness is a punishment from God, yet many people today believe erroneously that God never punishes. In fact, He does not spoil us, but punishes to correct. The physician that first attends to Saul, who is now blind, is none other than Saint Luke, who in fact, was a physician that developed a close relationship with Paul later in his ministry. It is a clever way to tie elements of Sacred Tradition together artistically.
Besides external persecution, the early Church has to struggle with doubts within its own ranks, especially during persecution. Why, though, does Saul’s last victim die just as he is reborn to new life? Are we to understand that her broken body represents his sinful past that is now gone or is this another test whether the Church can forgive? According to the story, Saul has a nickname. Can anyone forgive the “Butcher of Judea”?
Callum Blue, who plays Addai, has a key role and executes it magnificently, giving his life to prove his forgiveness. By that heroic act, he also binds himself in love to his bride. Because John Rhys-Davies is a big star, the filmmaker includes him in the climax in Damascus. Escaping the city by being lowered in a basket is from Acts, chapter 9. Ultimately, the film is edifying with its simple themes of love and forgiveness.

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