Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

Most science-fiction films exchange intimacy for spectacle. This is as true for popcorn flicks such as Independence Day (1996) as it is for classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). And perhaps there is good reason for this tendency. After all, the reality of existence in space or on planets beyond our own, not to mention the uncanny possibility of extraterrestrial life, naturally boggles the mind, asking us to imagine what we otherwise cannot experience or describe. To encounter the transcendent is to encounter the sublime.

And yet, on occasion, a piece of science-fiction comes along that is able to cast new light on very earthly and all too human concerns and questions. Arrival is an example of such a work. Based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 novella “Story of Your Life,” Arrival centers on a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is thrust into a dire situation when twelve alien spacecraft alight on various points around the Earth. In a series of suspenseful scenes, handled with aplomb by Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve, Louise is able to establish a relationship with the inhabitants of one of the alien ships. She acquires the rudiments of their language, realizing that its circular written form bears a certain way of perceiving reality — namely, as a whole, without a beginning or an end.

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This language of the “heptapods” (as the aliens are called) contrasts with linear and thus formally temporal languages such as English, and, in learning it, Louise comes to see the future or, perhaps more accurately, the world from the perspective of eternity. It is a power that both enlightens and aggrieves, giving her insight not only into the crisis with the aliens, but also into a tragedy that will one day befall her.

Thus Arrival‘s tense plot is actually in service to a poignant question: would you turn down an opportunity for love, if you knew it would entail suffering? This is a heartrending question precisely because it is a universal one. All human beings must, on some level, decide whether or not they will choose to love — that is to say, to will to live and to seek the good of the other — in the face of certain pain and death. And though that choice is not always easy, it is one that most people continue to make and to make in the belief that life is worthwhile, even beautiful.

This fact is not necessarily theological, at least not on the surface. One need not see life and love as transcendent goods in order to value them, even if there is a genuine discussion to be had about the philosophical coherence of such a view. But Arrival does not engage this issue discursively. Instead, its sci-fi premise lends itself to a theological reading. Upon the arrival (or, one is tempted to say, advent) of the heptapods, there is great fear about what will happen next. As it turns out, however, the aliens come bearing gifts, especially the gift of a new way of attending to reality. Their circular “frame” is not understood by all, but, for Louise, it is nothing short of a revelation. She sees time from a transcendent point of view, her life as part of a larger whole. This perspective does not take away her freedom, but it does cast her freedom in a new light. The heptapods give her the strength to move forward by showing her what is to come — the joy, the beauty, and the pain. She comes to exemplify what Kierkegaard writes in his 1845 discourse “At a Graveside”: “Let death keep its power, ‘that it is over,’ but let life also keep the right to work while it is day; and let the earnest person seek the thought of death as an aid in that work.” Further, the heptapodic language makes Louise more empathic, allowing her to reach out to others who are suffering, even when just this vulnerability appears risky.

In short, Louise has received the gift to begin at the end or, indeed, to see the end as an opportunity to begin — a gift that could be understood in, say, Heideggerian terms but, in any case, clearly and strongly resonates with Christianity’s attempt to frame time from the perspective of the eternal. Here it is also worth noting (however provisionally) the “linguistic turn” in Christian theology, whereby doctrine is viewed as a kind of “grammar,” allowing those who are “fluent” in it to see life in a particular way. The strengths and weaknesses of this approach remain debatable, but Arrival highlights its significance nonetheless. In portraying the acquisition of an eternal language, the film calls attention to how words (or grammars) can open meaning to us — or close it.

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Mother! (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2017)

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Today’s review comes courtesy of Ben Winter, who graduated from Villanova’s MA theology program in 2014 and is currently a PhD candidate in historical theology at Saint Louis University. His research focuses on the thirteenth century, specifically on the thought of Saint Bonaventure. You can read more of his writing here (scholarly) and here (general audience). I appreciate Ben’s willingness to contribute to the site while I try to carve out more time to begin posting regularly again. Enjoy!

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Prologue

On a rare night out with a friend, I experienced the film Mother!, directed by Darren Aronofsky. One of the first things I noticed in the film was the vibrating resonance created by common household activities. Switching on the light produces a flickering hum. Doors shutting resound with creaks and thuds. A torrent of water emanating from the bathroom faucet in another room suggests a distant rock ‘n roll soundwave. This film is firmly grounded in the material realm, and it depicts that realm in a strange and unsettling way. Aronofsky takes great pains to remind his audience of the basic (yet malleable and impermanent) nature of all created things. The house in which our protagonist (Jennifer Lawrence) spends the entire film is constantly heaving with the pangs of growth and destruction (or “generation and corruption”).[1] As the prime matter for our story, the staircases, tables, sinks, cellars, boards, hallways, windows, and doorways of this film set the stage for the unsettling events that take place within. Yet like the events that transpire in this film, the set pieces are themselves volatile—often playing tricks on the mind and finding unexpected [ab]use in the hands of human agents. Aronofsky begins and ends the film with a sequence of images that depicts the house being incinerated and then rebuilt. This wordless deluge of vignettes—again, bookending the entire film—signals that the story is taking place on an “elemental” level.

Act One

The theme of earthiness also pervades the plot of Mother! As its title suggests, the film chronicles—in fits and starts—the descent of an unnamed pregnant woman into a place of utter terror and madness (!). Although we are not informed of Lawrence’s pregnancy until midway through the film, she experiences visions (first revealed in the film’s opening act) of a pulsating ball of flesh. These visions are accompanied by spells of dizziness and spatial/audial hallucinations. From the beginning, it is clear that Lawrence is isolated by these visions. She never receives help during them—the rest of the world fades away and she is left to fend for herself (usually by mixing a strange yellow powder into a cup of water and consuming this “medicine”). Her husband, who is simply referred to as “Him,” is never aware of what happens, and consistently dismisses or overlooks Lawrence’s feelings. Throughout the film’s first act, we observe this couple playing out the roles of the tortured artist (“Him,” played by Javier Bardem) and the neglected (but innocent and admiring) spouse. The film really leans into these archetypical roles. When an older man (Ed Harris) enters the story, we quickly learn that the artist (“Him”) is quite interested in the affection and company of others—provided that they are not his wife. The character played by Ed Harris is obsessed with the artist, and creates a victimization narrative to gain his confidence. When Harris’ wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, she immediately begins gaslighting Lawrence—domineering the conversation and normalizing the increasingly bold behavior of these two complete strangers who have invaded her home. Perhaps hardest-hitting are her comments about Lawrence’s failure to produce a baby—with the implication that this is all she is good for.

Act Two

Lawrence’s loss of control over herself is soon mirrored by her loss of control over the house. Just as a pregnant woman begins to bond in a different way with the world—and must give up control in many respects—so Lawrence becomes more and more susceptible to her environment, and to the actions of others. When the mysterious couple’s sons show up unannounced, a fight breaks out—culminating in the cold-blooded murder of one of the sons. “The artist” leaves the scene, because his priority is to take the mortally-wounded son to the hospital. Like so many other vignettes in the film, this episode reveals how Bardem’s character effectively ignores the needs of his wife (leaving her alone at home) under the pretense of helping others. Again, because he is the prototype of a tortured artist, he constantly gives of himself—through creativity and language—to strangers. And yet he cannot give himself to the only person who is truly able to give back with parity—his wife, who will soon carry their child. At the end of this second act, we are left wondering whether Lawrence will assert her needs more forcefully (she doesn’t), and to what extent the artist is malicious in his neglect.

Act Three

The latter question is answered resoundingly in act three. Late in the evening, the artist returns from his hospital trip. He informs Lawrence that the family and friends of these strangers will be coming to her home for a celebration. Accordingly, relatives start pouring in. As chaos thickens, Lawrence struggles to assert even a modicum of control over the rowdy scene; instead she ends up expending time and energy on menial household tasks (filling drinks, cleaning up spills or messes, and being called upon dismissively by guests to serve as “hostess”). The gathering spirals out of control, and erupts in violence. After managing to convince her husband to end the party, Lawrence is then attacked forcefully on the staircase by him. He slams her against the wall when she suggests (acting on what was said by Pfeiffer’s character) that he cannot even sleep with her, despite his seemingly endless ability to shower intimacy upon others. At first, it appears that he is going to rape her—and in fact, I would argue that he does. But she accepts his violent sexual advances like the receptive and malleable material of the house itself, given over to revelers by the artist.[2] And like the house, the woman is doomed to a violent end.

Act Four

In the fourth and final act, the film descends into a surrealist nightmare. Images of blood continue to haunt the now quite-pregnant Lawrence, and her visions of the ball of flesh are intensifying. While it appears that things are proceeding normally—the house is quiet, the baby’s room is nearly prepared—there is abject terror lurking beneath the surface. After the husband finishes his writing “project,” he shares it with his wife—who is elated and touched by the work. But when she finishes reading the text, it becomes clear that the artist has already jettisoned his creation out into the world—only giving it to his wife to read as an afterthought. Soon, an unending flow of people mob the house. At first, the crowd consists of paparazzi, journalists, and adoring fans. Lawrence struggles to keep them outside the home, but once a few slip in (ironically, a mother taking care of a child who has wet himself) the floodgates are broken. The following string of words is perhaps adequate to describe the next thirty minutes of this film: unimaginably intense and disturbing.

Time and space fluctuate rapidly as the house loses whatever structural integrity it may have had. Hordes of pilgrims seek the blessing of the artist, who happily focuses his attention and efforts on making them comfortable (“The poet says everything belongs to us!”). A very pregnant Lawrence is physically unable to reach her husband, due to the size of the crowd. As her home is torn apart by a relentless mob, Lawrence is battered (literally) from room to room as police in riot gear descend. No one is speaking to Lawrence, and the events are completely out of her control. Throughout these chaotic scenes, she experiences the painful throes of childbirth. When a police officer finally notices her (she is wearing a white gown, while all other characters are grimy and wearing shades of black), he is immediately shot in the head.

As the film reaches its climax, Lawrence’s husband attends to her labor, and delivers the baby in his home office (which had been boarded up earlier, and thus escaped being overrun by the throng). Aronofsky dials down the madness, giving the audience one last look at the family peace that could have been. Lawrence cuddles her cooing child, but refuses to allow the artist to touch her baby boy. He keeps the door barricaded and the hordes outside have gone suddenly quiet. The vast mob still lurks beyond the door, however, because the artist receives “gifts” from them: food and other items, ostensibly for the baby. When Lawrence falls asleep with the baby in her arms, she wakes to find that her husband has taken the child away. As she pries open the door, our ears are once again assaulted by auditory chaos—a pulsating collective of pilgrims raise the newborn on high and pass him around the home (while he cries and urinates—again, the film is radically focused on material things). This excruciating scene comes to an abrupt end when the boy snaps his neck on a steel support beam.

What follows is a somewhat disjointed and ineffective smattering of events. First, Lawrence slaughters a pack of worshippers. In a satanic parody of the Eucharist, these fiends dismember and consume the child—thus revealing the import of Lawrence’s “ball of flesh” visions. A few minutes later, the home explodes into the fiery abyss of a mushroom cloud. Here one can perhaps find support for an allegorical read of the film—as a depiction of humanity’s descent from the original family to the world-weary and world-destroying denizens of the present day. In the final scene, Lawrence (now a burning corpse) assents to the artist when he asks for the gift of her heart. Perhaps she is simply asking to be put out of her misery, but on a deeper level, this action sums up the film’s theme of male “taking.” As he reaches inside her body and removes its pulsating source, Lawrence shrivels into nothingness. This event triggers the magical rebuilding of the house, and (in what could be described as one of the film’s flaws) the cycle begins anew with a different woman.

Epilogue and Implications

Despite the somewhat unsatisfying conclusion (the film would have been more effective had it ended with the explosion of the home), it is evident that Aronofsky has created a masterpiece. This film is open to many interpretations, but its primary theme seems to concern the material foundation of life—a foundation that is at once shifting, volatile, and magically strange. The film (intentionally?) follows Aristotelian causality when it comes to Lawrence’s pregnancy. The artist is the formal cause; his distorted psyche creates the conditions in which the child becomes a distorted blob of flesh to be consumed by others. The mother is the material cause; she shelters and nurtures the child but exerts no control over its fate or telos. When it comes to the child’s death, the crowd is the material cause and the house is the formal cause. The artist is the efficient cause, since he willingly hands over his baby to the dangerous mass of people. The final cause of the boy’s death is also the artist: he accepts it as an acceptable “end,” and willingly participates in the ritualized appropriation of the murder. Perhaps Aronofsky is simply retelling the Eden story—with Eve as innocent victim of a capricious male psyche. In this interpretation, her child is the distorted son of the “god” that the artist has created of himself. A son must be sacrificed to appease the hunger and vulnerability of the god’s followers (scapegoating).

Yet Aronofsky’s societal critique is not limited to religion, or philosophy. The fundamental imbalance of motherhood and male-female relationships is laid bare by the brutal and manipulative artist—again, it is his agency that transforms the quiet and peaceful home into a den of thieves and murderers. The artist’s magnetism is the distorted inverse of the love that should develop between a woman, her world, and her child. There is a scene, between acts three and four, that effectively summarizes the film’s message. After the sexual conquering of Lawrence, we see the camera pan upwards from the two human beings in bed. The earth around their home begins to bloom, creating a beautiful and verdant garden that expands with vital energy. The home is ordered; the world is ordered. After this brief respite, the remainder of the film depicts the departure from this garden—culminating in the murder of a child, the ritualistic eating of the child’s flesh, and the father of the child stating, “We have to forgive them.” Because Lawrence rejects this narrative, she effectively becomes the sacrificial lamb—immolated upon the pyre of male domination. By placing Lawrence in such a position, Aronofsky powerfully urges his audience to feel both sympathy and horror. It says something very wrong about the world today if it takes a film like this (and it does) to remind us of the fragility of life, and of the dependence of all upon The Mother.

My Rating: 9/10

Recommended viewing, provided you have the stomach for psychological horror.

[1] I am using Lawrence’s real name for “the mother”—while using “Bardem’s character” (etc.) to describe the other actors—because Lawrence is our only protagonist.

[2] This point is emphasized throughout the film: Lawrence maintains—and possibly even built—the house; her husband writes.

Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller, 2015)

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On the surface, the title Mad Max: Fury Road appears straightforward enough. It indicates, first, that the film belongs to director George Miller’s series of films about Max Rockatansky — a police officer in a dystopic, post-apocalyptic society, who, all too often, is left to fight the forces of chaos and evil alone. Second, it implies that the most recent installment of the franchise is, like its predecessors, a road film at heart, following Max as he wanders about the burned-out Australian landscape. But why, one might wonder, is this road called “Fury Road”? What is the term “fury” — which comes from the Latin furere, meaning “to rage” — given such prominence?

Here, again, a cursory glance at the plot would seem to suffice. As the film opens, Max (now played by Tom Hardy, in a role that once was almost synonymous with Mel Gibson) has been captured by the War Boys — an army of mechanics and car jockeys, who, like kamikazes, only want to serve and to die for a tyrant named Immortan Joe. The material basis for Joe’s rule is his control of the fresh-water supply, but, for those under his thumb, he is a veritable god. A hulking figure, painted white, whose grandeur is preserved by a suit of translucent armor and a menacing mask, Joe has proclaimed himself “redeemer” of the people:

Of course, as this clip makes clear, Joe is no redeemer. Not only does he oppress the masses, but he has enslaved a number of people for his personal use, including five women for “breeding.” With support from a pair of partners known as The Bullet Farmer and The People Eater — the former a military leader and the latter a kind of oil tycoon — Joe’s is a thorough and, it seems, endless reign of despotism. After all, with Max effectively imprisoned, who would be capable of challenging him?

The threat, it turns out, comes from within. One of Joe’s top commanders is a lithe yet fierce woman called Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Tasked with driving a petrol tanker known as the “War Rig,” Furiosa instead dares to escape to an unknown territory known as “The Green Place.” It is an audacious plan, made all the more so by Furiosa’s cargo — namely, Joe’s “wives,” one of which is pregnant with his child. Joe soon realizes that Furiosa has betrayed him, and he sets out in pursuit, accompanied by the War Boys (one of whom is holding Max as his prisoner) in addition to The Bullet Farmer and The People Eater. From this point forward, in an example of cinematic bravado, Fury Road turns into a ninety-minute car chase. It is an exhilarating and almost wearying ride, which, at last, tilts in favor of Furiosa and her crew, particularly once Max escapes and is able to join them.

Still, the central character in the film is not Max but Furiosa — a point that quite clearly harks back to the film’s subtitle, Fury Road. Does this notion of “fury” simply refer to the character Furiosa? Or does Miller have something else in mind? As noted, the Latin verb furere means “to rage,” and it is indeed true that Furiosa is a wrathful figure, devoted to avenging Joe’s abuse of the innocent and the needy. And yet, as Miller surely knows, Furiosa’s name and character also point to Greek mythology and to the mysterious “Erinyes” or “Furies.” Often depicted as three female deities, the Furies were described by Homer as those “that under earth take vengeance” on persons who have deceived others. Later, Dante situated them in Canto IX of his Inferno, where they were said to guard the City of Dis — a place reserved for those who have committed active sins of malevolence, rather than passive sins of weakness. They appear as well in other great works of literature, from Aeschuylus’ Oresteia to (in more veiled form) Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Of course, that Miller would gesture toward the classical tradition in making Fury Road is not surprising in and of itself. Countless other filmmakers have done the same. But what may seem peculiar, especially to contemporary audiences, is that Furiosa evokes theological concerns. As noted, the Furies were goddesses, charged with righting the wrongs of humanity. And, of course, the notion of a divine judge is hardly foreign to the Judeo-Christian tradition. “To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence,” proclaims God in the Hebrew Bible (Deut 32:35). Similarly, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus prophesies a time where he will return as the just adjudicator of the righteous and of the wicked (Mt 25:31-46).

The claim here is not that, in making Fury Road, Miller was thinking of these connections in particular. It is just to say that his chosen theme bears unmistakable theological questions. Can human affairs be truly judged and, if so, by whom? If not, won’t the abuse of tyrants such as Immortan Joe be disregarded or, even worse, viewed as the fundamental prerogative of the powerful? In light of Fury Road‘s critical acclaim and financial success, these questions would seem to remain pressing. On the other hand, as there is increasing consensus that Western society has entered a “post-truth” era, Fury Road‘s popularity appears almost paradoxical. Do we now live after divinity, after judgment, and after truth…except in the movies?

Up next: Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

Silence (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2016)

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One of the more astonishing things about Martin Scorsese’s Silence is that it is not obviously his work. In other words, while Silence has been celebrated as a labor of love for Scorsese, there really isn’t much “scorseseing” in it — no Brooklyn accents, no “Gimme Shelter” (in fact, hardly any non-diegetic music at all), and limited use of freeze frame, tracking shots, and other quintessential Scorsese techniques. Indeed, it would be forgivable if one were to confuse Silence with the work of a Dreyer or a Bresson or even a Malick. It is a reserved, thoughtful, even aloof film, and therein lies both its strengths and weaknesses.

Scorsese had wanted to make Silence since the late 1980s, when he first encountered the eponymous novel on which it is based. Penned by the great Japanese writer, Shusaku Endo, Silence [沈黙] met with critical acclaim upon its release in 1966, winning the Tanizaki Prize as a work of the “highest literary merit.” Since then, its stature has only increased, garnering a notable body of secondary literature and emerging as a “classic” of historical and religious fiction. Indeed, Scorsese’s film is the third cinematic adaptation of Endo’s novel: the noted Japanese auteur Masahiro Shinoda released a version in 1971, and Portuguese director João Grilo offered his own take in 1996. Hence, for all of the talk about Silence being a “passion project” for Scorsese, it is also true that his film falls in a long line of responses to Endo’s novel. This point is essential in understanding the film, lest one see Scorsese’s version as an independent work — say, an expression of his own pious yet pained relation to Catholicism or a bona fide contribution to films about “white saviors.” To whatever extent such perspectives are valid, it is far more accurate to say that Silence really isn’t about Scorsese at all. Qua director, he recedes into the background of the film, thereby implying that Endo’s story is sufficiently powerful on its own.

And what of that story? The plot is, indeed, simple enough. Set in the seventeenth century — several decades after the Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, brought Christianity to Japan in 1549 — Silence centers on a trio of Jesuit priests. The first is Fr. Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a Portuguese missionary to Japan, rumored to have renounced his faith when Japanese authorities began to persecute Christians. Dismayed by Ferreira’s alleged apostasy, two of his young pupils — Fr. Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, who intensively prepared for his role) and Fr. Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver, in a striking performance) — journey to Japan in order to rescue him. Yet, upon arriving in Japan, they encounter a situation even more desperate than they had imagined. The last remaining Christians in the land, almost uniformly fishermen and peasants, are forced to practice their faith in secret. What’s more, the shogunal authorities carry out periodic trials, where persons are required to repudiate Christianity in public, typically by stepping on an icon [fumi-e] of Jesus or of the Madonna and Child. Some Japanese Christians disavow their faith, but many do not, and they are tortured and often executed. Perhaps the most stunning example of this torment, both in the novel and in Scorsese’s adaptation, is the days-long process of crucifying Christians at sea:

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As the tide comes in, the water creeps up to the victims’ necks — and even higher; those who don’t drown are eventually done in by exposure and exhaustion. Scorsese, like Endo, depicts this event with judicious restraint: there is nothing glorious in such suffering, at least not recognizably so. Indeed, as the film continues, and as the persecution intensifies, doubts begin to gnaw at Rodrigues and Garupe. What are they supposed to do for the faithful? To leave Japan would be to abandon them, but to stay exposes them to danger. After all, the victims are not only dying in order to preserve their faith, but also to protect the last two priests in Japan. And yet, there is a bigger problem: why does God allow such hatred and oppression? If the suffering of the poor and the humble doesn’t incite God’s justice, what will? Is there even a God at all?

Ultimately — and without giving away too much — it is Rodrigues who is forced to wrestle with these questions most acutely. That Scorsese (again, like Endo) leaves his fate in doubt ensures that the story never becomes trite or grandiose. But he is making a theological point is as well. The English word “silence” comes from the Latin silere, which means “to be quiet or still.” Thus “silence” is not a making or a taking; it is a passio, a “suffering.” The one who is silent is one who relinquishes control.

It makes sense, then, to name a story about suffering Silence. But the suffering depicted in Silence is not just any suffering. It is, first and foremost, a suffering modeled after Jesus Christ, who remained silent under persecution (Mt 26:63) and finally was put to death on the cross. Endo’s novel makes this connection clear when Rodrigues is faced with the decision to step on the fumi-e: “Trample!” he hears Jesus say, “It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.” In his abasement, Rodrigues comes to know the abased Christ far more intimately than he had before. He comes to know not only the humility of Jesus’ life, but also the humility of God’s patience with humanity — a patience that he, stripped of his identity and vocation, now needs in the utmost.

To be sure, the insights gained from suffering are often the most incisive, if also the most painful. And perhaps few things explain Christianity’s perseverance as well as its insistence that humility and suffering are virtues that teach us about, and lead us to, the divine. Both Endo and Scorsese seem to grasp this point well, both as Christians and as artists, though many in the media have seen it otherwise. Silence has been criticized for being too long, too boring, and, ironically, too quiet, and it has generally struggled during “awards season,” garnering but a single Oscar nomination. Some of these criticisms are fair. Silence lacks the dash and flair of Scorsese’s best work, and one senses that he let (!) his devotion to the subject matter govern his direction. But, in another sense, isn’t that the point?

I end with an anecdote: I saw Silence in Center City, Philadelphia in early January, roughly a week before its general release in the United States. The previous weekend I had seen Manchester by the Sea in a suburban theater; it was packed, and spectators were crying throughout the film. However, when the end credits began to roll, audience members quickly got up and made their way toward the exits.

Silence was different. Though the crowd was a bit smaller and less conspicuous than that of Manchester by the Sea, no one budged as the film came to a close. Moreover, there was hardly any talking; it was as quiet as a theater could be. I was surprised. My initial feeling was that Silence was a good, not great, Scorsese film. But as the audience’s contemplatio persisted, punctuated only by the nature sounds accompanying the end credits, it occurred to me that Scorsese’s film had met its objective. Silence was never about him or “awards season.” As with much religious art, it is meant to elicit self-reflection and to open up a space where God, known negatively through human impoverishment, might be encountered. It is a “passion project,” after all.

Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

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Midway through Kenneth Lonergan’s acclaimed film, Manchester by the Sea, sixteen-year-old Patrick Chandler (Lucas Hedges) complains that his mother’s fiancé is “pretty Christian.” He delivers this observation with a hint of adolescent sarcasm, as if being “pretty Christian” is not only peculiar but, indeed, absurd. Listening to him is his uncle, Lee (Casey Affleck), who dryly responds: “You know, we’re Christian, too, right?” It is, in many respects, a throwaway scene — a bit of conversational filler as Lee and Patrick run errands in this picturesque town north of Boston. And yet, as the film unfolds, it takes on increased significance, as Manchester by the Sea is a film about the possibility (or, better yet, the impossibility) of redemption.

Lonergan’s screenplay — which almost certainly will receive an Oscar nomination — is a masterclass in narrative structure, navigating between past and present with devastating economy. The story centers on Lee, a Boston-area handyman, who spends his days doing thankless jobs for apartment clients and his nights in expressionless solitude, beer in hand. Yet, when Lee’s older brother dies of a heart attack, he is called to Manchester-by-the-Sea to handle the funeral arrangements and to assume custody of Patrick. Lee handles the former task with guarded efficiency, as if it were an extension of his job, but the latter task proves far more troubling. Patrick is a challenging responsibility, whose social calendar is as active as his personal life messy, and Lee is faced with the burden of possibly uprooting him from Manchester or leaving him with his alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mol, in a poignant cameo). But there is an additional, and even more dolorous, complication. In a horrifying flashback, it is revealed that Lee and his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams, another likely Oscar nominee), once suffered a catastrophe of incomprehensible proportions, and, in the wake of that event, Lee no longer feels capable of relationships, to say nothing of raising a young man. He simply wants to return to Boston and (quite literally, since he lives in a one-room basement apartment) bury himself underground. What’s more, many of the residents of Manchester feel the same way, effectively rendering the judgment of Job’s wife: “Dost thou still retain thine integrity? Curse God, and die” (Job 2:9).

In the end, then, Manchester by the Sea boils down to this dilemma: will Lee choose to live (with all of the consequences of that decision, from caring for Patrick to reconciling with Randi), or will he choose to die? Indeed, it is a heartrending scenario, made all the more so by Affleck’s mournful performance. And though Lonergan seems to want to avoid neat answers, there is no doubt that his film is, finally, a tragedy. But what is a “tragedy”? It is a term that, despite a curious etymology, refers to “a play or literary work that has an unhappy ending.” In his Poetics, Aristotle argues that good tragedies bear the following characteristics:

  1. A protagonist with a basic flaw (ἁμαρτία) in his or her personality.
  2. A radical change in the protagonist’s fortune (περιπέτεια), due to this flaw.
  3. The consequent revelation or discovery (ἀναγνώρισις) of the protagonist’s true identity.
  4. The arousal of pity and fear in the tragedy’s spectators, which, in turn, brings about their own emotional purification (κάθαρσις).

Manchester by the Sea certainly exhibits the first three of these qualities, and, based on the audible sniffles and sobs in the theater, it achieved the fourth trait as well. Hence, as a formal exercise, it’s hard to conclude that Lonergan’s film is anything but a success. And yet, it is also for that reason that Manchester seemed deficient. It was as if I could hear Lonergan ponder: “What do I have to do to make Lee’s situation truly unbearable — indeed, tragic?” In that sense, I never fully accepted Lee’s περιπέτεια; rather than an organic occurrence, it felt contrived and, when combined with the other calamities facing the Chandler family (divorce, untimely death, unemployment, attempted suicide, alcoholism, ostracism, etc.), pretentiously overblown.

But I had a deeper concern, which recalls the reference to Christianity mentioned at the outset. As a tragedy, Manchester by the Sea effectively forecloses on the redemption of its protagonist: Lee confesses that he “can’t beat” his affliction and chooses to suffer his failure alone. Such a conclusion kindles our pity and fear (as it should), but it contradicts Lee’s profession of Christianity — a faith that, as Dante famously illustrated, is a comedy rather than a tragedy. That is to say, Christianity never stops at the cross but, rather, concludes with the resurrection and the ascension. Yes, it grants the pain of death, but this pain is slowly but surely overcome by love and, indeed, by Life itself. Despite featuring ostensibly Christian characters, Manchester by the Sea never seriously entertains this possibility. Its world is a world bereft of “good news.”

Needless to say, it would be surprising if Lonergan were unaware of this absence. Perhaps he’s commenting on the recalcitrance of human nature in the face of adversity? Perhaps he’s suggesting that, even if the rites and symbols of Christianity remain, we live in the era of the death of God? Whatever the case, in offering a tragedy for contemporary viewers, Manchester by the Sea takes us back in time…before Christianity, when the alluring yet haunting worldviews of Aeschylus and Sophocles reigned — an Oedipus Rex for our age.

Hacksaw Ridge (dir. Mel Gibson, 2016)

Hacksaw Ridge may be a number of things — the most violent war film in cinematic history, an allegory of the importance of religious freedom over against state encroachment, a vehicle intended to rehabilitate the image of much-maligned director, Mel Gibson. Yet, despite such complex possibilities, the film is most effective when simply taken as a chronicle of Private Desmond Doss and his service at the Battle of Okinawa (1945). I was not familiar with Doss prior to seeing the film, but, after viewing Hacksaw Ridge, his status as a compelling and even heroic figure is beyond doubt.

After a brief prelude, which foreshadows the violence to come, Hacksaw Ridge opens with Doss’ childhood in rural Virginia. There are intimations of Edenic bliss in these first scenes, but Gibson does not linger on them. As it turns out, Doss’ father (Hugo Weaving, in a fervid role) was an abusive alcoholic, scarred by the psycho-spiritual trauma of World War I. Consequently, the Doss home is a tense place, where young Desmond and the rest of the family often cower in fear. Attentive to his own shortcomings, Doss comes to emulate his pious mother, realizing that anger and violence run contrary to his Christian background. Now a young man (and played with winsome innocence by Andrew Garfield), Doss falls in love with a local nurse (Teresa Palmer) and hopes to start a family. But World War II intervenes, and he feels called to join the military — not as a combatant but as a medic. Indeed, Doss is adamant that he can serve his country without firing a weapon, but, upon arriving at boot camp in South Carolina, it becomes clear that the Army sees it otherwise. Ridiculed by his fellow recruits and commanding officers, Doss is nearly court-martialed for insubordination. Yet, he remains true to his convictions and, after a surprising plot twist, is allowed to accompany his unit to Okinawa. “Private Doss,” an army official sternly warns, “you are free to run into the hellfire of battle without a single weapon to protect yourself.”

It is at this point that Hacksaw Ridge erupts into a violence so grisly that even the most ardent devotee of Game of Thrones will cringe. Indeed, it’s fair to wonder if Gibson — whose The Passion of the Christ (2004) seemed to confirm a possibly unhealthy concern for bloody imagery — goes too far in his depiction of the Battle of Okinawa. Not only does Hacksaw Ridge show the shootings and stabbings typical of the genre, but Gibson is intent on portraying Okinawa as a campaign sui generis: there are severed heads, rotting bodies, halved corpses, and flesh-eating rats. It is, in short, a nightmarish vision, which is frankly difficult to watch. Be that as it may, Gibson does seem to have been true to the historical subject matter. Consider the words of Private Eugene Sledge — an Okinawa veteran, whose experience has since been chronicled the HBO series, The Pacific (2010):

“[Okinawa was] the most ghastly corner of hell I had ever witnessed….Every crater was half full of water, and many of them held a Marine corpse. The bodies lay pathetically just as they had been killed, half submerged in muck and water, rusting weapons still in hand. Swarms of big flies hovered about them. [I] saw maggots and decay. Men struggled and fought and bled in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool.”

Thus the gore of Hacksaw Ridge is hardly gratuitous, even if it is disturbing. Moreover — and presumably this was Gibson’s underlying purpose — it serves to cast Doss’ efforts in the sharpest possible relief. Bearing only a small Bible and a handful of medical supplies, Doss repeatedly runs into battle unarmed, even remaining atop Hacksaw Ridge (or the Maeda Escarpment) when his fellow troops had retreated. He ultimately saves 75 wounded soldiers, including a number of Japanese men — an outcome, he was certain, that was only possible in and through the grace of God:

Still, one might ask: why make a film about Doss now? What does Gibson have up his sleeve? As mentioned at the outset, various answers have been tendered in response to such questions. To be sure, Hacksaw Ridge has quickly (and stunningly) bettered Gibson’s reputation in Hollywood, and the film undoubtedly makes a plea for the tolerance of religious convictions — a plea that is deftly handled, insofar Doss’ Christian pacifism is shown to cooperate with the objectives of the state, rather than to flout them.

And yet, it’s hard not to wonder: would this film be received in the same way if Doss were, say, a champion of school prayer or of any issue that runs counter to contemporary politics? Moreover, while Hacksaw Ridge demonstrates that certain religious “beliefs” might be worth tolerating in a secular democracy, it does not get around to weighing the truthfulness of such beliefs. In other words, is Doss’ nonviolence an idiosyncratic yet charming way of looking at reality? Or is it, in fact, the true way to live? That Gibson avoids the latter question manifests the Americanism implicit in Hacksaw Ridge: for him, what matters is that Doss is “accepted” or “tolerated,” not whether or not he is right. His “belief” is a private one, and he fights both for his right to serve according to his convictions and for a nation that putatively supports this right. The contents of, and the rationale for, his faith are little more than suggested.

Of course, that by no means diminishes Doss’ heroism in battle, and I’m grateful that, through Gibson’s film, I’ve come to know his remarkable story. Nevertheless, to call Hacksaw Ridge a “Christian movie” seems to be a misnomer. In truth, it is a film about permitting Christian devotion, with a nod to the potential benefits of doing so.

Sullivan’s Travels (dir. Preston Sturges, 1941)

The great American filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen, have long been interested in the question of what it means to be an artist. However, this theme has been at the very core of their last two films — Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and Hail, Caesar! (2016). The latter work attends to cinematic art in particular, and it probes the ambiguity of making films, from the hypocrisy of movie stars to the medium’s tendency to lapse into shallow, mindless entertainment. And yet, as Hail, Caesar! concludes, the Coens seem to land on a position: whatever the flaws of cinema, the world is better off with films than without them. Might as well pull up a chair and enjoy!

Doubtless, it is a thesis of which Preston Sturges would’ve approved. During his career peak, he was one of Hollywood’s most celebrated (and well compensated) auteurs, and he won a screenwriting Oscar for The Great McGinty (1940). Yet it is Sullivan’s Travels — a film centering on the failed attempt to make a movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a title later repurposed by the Coen Brothers — that stands as Sturges’ most enduring work. That significance should be ascribed to Sullivan’s Travels is more than a little ironic, since the film is commonly interpreted as a dig at self-serious Hollywood “message pictures.” Joel McCrea stars as John L. Sullivan, a director of popular yet vacuous comedies. Young, rich, and marketable, Sullivan is nevertheless unhappy, since his films are profitable at the expense of socially conscious themes. But, as Sullivan’s studio bosses ask, what does he know about poverty, loneliness, and heartbreak? Thus he resolves to acquaint himself with human misery and leaves his California mansion to ride the rails.

It is a plan fraught with difficulty, and eventually Sullivan comes to know more about hardship than he bargained for. But it is precisely here — in the film’s best and most poignant scene — that Sturges undermines his protagonist’s quest. Jailed and now forgotten by those who once lauded him, Sullivan and his fellow prisoners are hosted by an African-American church, where the pastor (Jess Lee Brooks, in a timeless scene) welcomes them with a rendition of “Go Down Moses.” And yet, just after this moment of sublime sympathy, the prisoners are treated to a Disney cartoon:

Here Sullivan comes to learn a profound lesson — that laughter can also help the poor and the outcast or, more precisely, that laughter is more beneficial than po-faced pontificating about “causes” and the like. Hence, when Sullivan is finally released from jail, he resolves to return to Hollywood and to resume his career in comedy.

It’s an ending that has been read as a validation of Sturges’ own vocation, and that may very well be true. However, it bears a wider and more ambiguous meaning as well. To be sure, one might wonder if Sturges is implying that all comedy is inspired work? Could we apply his premise, say, to Jackass: The Movie (2002)? Such questions get to the very core of the nature of comedic art — questions that date back to Plato (who generally warned against comedy) and Aristotle (who generally commended it).

What’s more, in linking Christian charity with comedy and laughter, Sullivan’s Travels makes a provocative theological point. Yes, a key aspect of Christian discipleship concerns the so-called corporal works of mercy, e.g., feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and so on. But there are also spiritual works of mercy, and, rightly done, comedy would seem to have a role here. After all, laughter provides comfort to those who are sorrowful, and the heart of Jesus’ message is, in the end, “good news.” (The English word, “gospel,” comes from the Greek εὐαγγέλιον, meaning “good message.”) Thus Sturges’ intuition to situate Sullivan’s redemption in a church is not incidental but, rather, critical to his overall point. Comedy’s most basic impulse — to make people happy — finds its footing in the salvific work of the Body of Christ.

The Big Short (dir. Adam McKay, 2015)

Plot  Based on Michael Lewis’ 2010 book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday MachineThe Big Short tells the story of a handful of financial insiders who, in the mid-2000s, realized that the American housing market was on the verge of collapse.

Themes  Not unlike Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), The Big Short is a kind of morality play, whose flamboyant direction belies a purposeful condemnation of the American financial sector. Yet, whereas The Wolf of Wall Street takes the viewpoint of a “pump and dump” scam artist, The Big Short centers on a handful of investors who discovered one of the greatest scandals in American economic history — namely, that the housing boom of the 2000s was being propped up by risky subprime loans. This perspectival difference facilitates a different approach to the problem. Scorsese’s film revels in the hedonistic nihilism of its protagonist, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), effectively answering the question: what does the dark underbelly of American capitalism look like? It is an intoxicating portrait, albeit one that is reluctant to probe its anthropological implications. There’s no doubt that Belfort is a “bad guy,” and yet, the film suggests, is he not just an extension of a systemic problem? Such, at any rate, seems to be the point of his early tutorials at the hands of Wall Street veteran (Matthew McConaughey, as memorable as possible in a five-minute role):

In contrast, director Adam McKay imbues The Big Short with reflections on the human condition writ large. Sure, there are a number of puzzling — if also fascinating — commentaries on banking practices, so many, in fact, that one would by no means be foolish to watch the film with the Barron’s Dictionary of Finance and Investment Terms in hand. But the film keeps circling back to a single question: did not the roots of the 2007-08 financial crisis lie in the hearts of people, rather than in mere systemic breakdown? Throughout the film, it is observed that the willingness to take on jeopardous subprime loans stems not only from human greed but also from gullibility and, yes, “stupidity.” In other words, people so badly wanted to live in luxury that they were ready to overlook facts; their investment practices did not reflect reason so much as bet against reason:

Of course, this conclusion runs counter to what Adam Smith saw as one of the basic presuppositions of capitalism — namely, that market economies are driven not just by self-interest but, more precisely, by rational self-interest. That The Big Short suggests otherwise gives it postmodern, counter-Enlightenment appeal that, in my view, opens it up to theological commentary. For, after all, Christian theology has long maintained that humanity, for all of its philosophical and technological ingenuity, is marked by a fall from the good. This fall is not insuperable — such, indeed, is the “good news” offered by Jesus Christ — but it is stubborn and ever ominous. One dismisses it only at one’s peril.

McKay’s film underlines the latter point, and thus it stands as a surprising complement to a book such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864). While so many are preoccupied with human progress, these works fix on a more sinister side of human nature — the one that confounds the rational egoism apparently underlying modern life. They remind us, in turn, that no human endeavor is pure, just as no bet — even one vouchsafed by institutional authority — is a “sure thing.” As the book of Ecclesiastes so pointedly puts it: “Bubbles…everything is bubbles.”

Hail, Caesar! (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

Plot  The film is set in Los Angeles, 1951. Capitol Pictures’ executive, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), works tirelessly to keep the scandalous behavior of the company’s stars out of the press. Hilarity ensues.

Themes  Though in many ways a screwball comedy, Hail, Caesar! introduces a number of important themes. The most obvious one is that of the entertainment industry itself, which the Coens satirize with knowing affection. Not only does Mannix have to deal with egomaniacal actors, demanding executives, gossip columnists, and aggrieved writers — the latter being communist sympathizers who, led by Herbert Marcuse (yes, that Marcuse), wax poetic about Marxist theory and “the new man” — but he has to do so with the public in mind, making sure that the best “picture” is made. It’s enough to make a man feel servile, and that, indeed, is what a recruiter (Ian Blackman) from The Lockheed Corporation tells Mannix in a series of meetings at a dim Chinese restaurant — namely, that life in Hollywood amounts to little more than a joke, while “real work” is being done by the military-industrial complex.

And yet — in Hail, Caesar!‘s second major theme — Mannix can’t escape the feeling that making films is important after all. Artistic work gives expression to humanity’s greatest hopes and dreams, and filmmaking is the modern world’s quintessential art form. Thus cinema is uniquely suited to “embody” (to borrow Mannix’s phrase) sacred stories such as “the tale of the Christ,” which, in fact, is the subtitle of Capitol Pictures’ latest “prestige” movie, Hail, Caesar!. With this in mind, Mannix hosts a gathering of religious leaders, hoping to convince them that the film takes its religious subject matter seriously. “Does the depiction of Christ Jesus cut the mustard?” he asks with amusing frankness. The ensuing debate is not only comical, but it hints at the challenges of any rendering of the sacred:

To be sure, as Mannix well knows, what goes on behind the scenes of any cinematic project is messy, though the finished product may nevertheless foster genuine inspiration. The Coens, it seems, are too ironical to explore this latter point in detail, though one scene comes close. While filming the climactic scene of Hail, Caesar!, the film’s pampered star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), delivers a long soliloquy on the person of Christ. For a moment, everyone in the studio stops what they’re doing, transfixed by the notion of this loving and merciful Savior — that is, until Whitlock forgets his line (the word “faith,” not coincidentally) and the director is forced to cut the scene.

Still, despite the disarray of the artistic process, Mannix comes to believe in his work. A pious Catholic, he confesses to his priest that he is tempted by the Lockheed position, because it would be “easy.” In contrast, the motion picture business is “hard” but “seems right.” The priest, sympathetic yet wearied by Mannix’s scruples, softly responds, “The inner voice that tells you what’s right — it comes from God, my son.” Mannix, in turn, darts from the confessional, now certain that his career is a calling. As he puts it earlier in the film, “You have worth if you serve the picture.”

Verdict  Hail, Caesar! is not one of the Coen Brothers’ masterpieces, but it is masterful all the same. The film is that rarest of rare breeds — an intelligent comedy. Of course, this is a genre to which the Coens have already contributed in films such as Raising Arizona (1987) and O Brother, Where Art Thou(2000). For those who have ears to hear, Hail, Caesar! is likely to join their ranks.

THE REVENANT and Other Issues

I’ve been meaning to write on The Revenant for the last couple of months, but, alas, I haven’t been sufficiently motivated to do so. Don’t get me wrong: I thought it was a pretty good movie, and “the bear scene” lived up to the hype — and then some. But The Revenant also left me a little cold (no pun intended), and it ultimately struck me as an ode to Terrence Malick, albeit with more violence and lesser philosophizing. With other writing commitments on weekdays — and my sons’ baseball games on weekends — the task of analyzing a “revenge film” just didn’t seem enticing. Moreover, excellent reviews of The Revenant are already available. In particular, Steven Greydanus’ piece on the film merits reflection, not least in light of recent events.

Looking ahead, there are a number of acclaimed movies that, shamefully, I have yet to see. This neglectfulness is likewise a matter of being overcommitted…well, that and catching up on too many television shows. The good news is that, as of this writing, I’m just a season behind in The Americans and Game of Thrones respectively (don’t tell me about Jon Snow!), and I’ve now started Mr. Robot. They are all fantastic TV, but I do miss feature films, which present their material in pithier fashion and offer far more diversity. After all, one could argue that, however great, small screen offerings like Mad MenThe SopranosBreaking Bad, and The Americans are the same story with different settings and plot details: the basic theme — that people aren’t who they seem to be — is essentially unchanged.

In any case, here are some films that I hope to watch over the summer and review in due course. There are quite a few here, so my write-ups will need to be brief (2-3 paragraphs). But, hopefully, they’ll demonstrate that theological ideas and insights remain crucial to the cinematic medium.

  • Son of Saul (2015)
  • Risen (2016)
  • Hail, Caesar! (2016)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
  • Spotlight (2015)
  • The Big Short (2015)
  • Room (2015)
  • The Lobster (2015)
  • Love & Mercy (2015)
  • Anomalisa (2015)
  • Sicario (2015)
  • Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
  • Maggie’s Plan (2016)
  • The Witch (2015)

On a final note (and with a nod to one of my upcoming projects, Theology and the Films of Terrence Malick), I was elated to learn that Malick is already at work on another film, namely, Radegund, which will be about Blessed Franz Jägerstätter — an Austrian Catholic layman, who refused to fight for the Nazis during World War II. Malick, then, is returning to his roots in historical subject matter, and this is a vehicle that should perfectly suit his authorial interests.