Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Tag: Catholicism

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Since its premiere in October 2014, there has been more than a little debate about whether or not Interstellar is a “religious” film. Catholic film critic Steven Greydanus claims that, for all of its metaphysical interests, Interstellar never really addresses the question of God — an omission that he contrasts with Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), another sci-fi film that clearly broaches religious themes as it braces for its dénoument. And yet, Christianity Today’s Alissa Wilkinson calls Interstellar an “inescapably (r)eligious film,” as does Megan Garber of The Atlantic, who considers it an exploration into “the spiritual implications of space.” What gives?

Part of the issue, doubtless, has to do with what counts as “religious” in today’s increasingly secular culture. For, as Wilkinson and Garber note, the very plot of Interstellar bears concerns that can’t help but raise questions about the destiny of human beings and the role of the supernatural therein. Matthew McConaughey plays Joseph “Coop” Cooper, an astronaut and scientist, who is led by a series of uncanny experiences to a secret NASA plant. There he learns that the crop blight plaguing the Earth will not abate and that he is to head an expedition to a wormhole near Saturn, where, it is hoped, he will find a new planet for the Earth’s population or, at the very least, a place where several thousand human embryos can be raised and the human race preserved. Preceding him in this endeavor are twelve other persons, and, while a number of them are presumed dead, three have sent back encouraging feedback about planets near a black hole, Gargantua. Though torn — Coop is leaving behind a family, including his intelligent yet fragile young daughter, Murph — he agrees to lead the mission and leaves with a small crew of scientists and robots. The journey to the wormhole alone will take roughly two dozen years in Earth time, and Coop is unsure if he’ll ever see his family again.

Already, then, a key theological question is indicated: what, if anything, binds human beings to the Earth? And, in Interstellar, an answer is given: nothing. Indeed, the film might be fairly characterized as anthropocentric. Human beings are in charge of their own destiny, and so not only can the Earth be left behind, but there is no reason to be attached to it. It’s just the “rock” where humanity got its (accidental?) start and, sensu stricto, is in no way preferable to any other planet. But this is a far cry from the biblical account of creation, which was recently emphasized in Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato si. As he writes:

The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23).

Of course, Francis’ reading is in line with Catholic orthodoxy, to which Nolan need not adhere. And yet, one might wonder just what is lost in the transition from the older, Catholic perspective to Nolan’s more Darwinian approach. If human beings are not, in a certain sense, bound to the Earth, then why should they care for it? Perhaps human development, following the law of evolution, will ultimately transcend what the Earth can provide, and so the planet should simply be stripped of its resources and discarded as a sign of “progress”? This viewpoint is not explicitly stated in Interstellar, but it is telling that, in one scene, Coop laments how human beings have wasted too much time “staring in the dirt,” rather than seeking their place in the stars.

In any case, as the film moves on, the plot becomes as cumbersome as the imagery sublime. Coop’s crew lands on a number of potentially habitable planets, including one whose gravitational force results in recurring (and destructive) tidal waves:

Moreover, due to gravitational time dilation, Coop’s experience in space is occurring at a startlingly quick rate in Earth-time. Murph is now an adult, working with NASA to find an equation that might harness gravity. Her efforts have proven unsuccessful, but then something unexpected occurs. Coop plunges his ship into Gargantua, only to emerge into a tesseract wherein he is capable of interacting with multiple dimensions of reality. Thus he is able to transcend spacetime and to communicate with Murph through gravity waves — a discovery that dovetails with the uncanny experiences that inaugurate the film. Eventually, the tesseract collapses and, in a whir of color and light (which suggests Nolan’s fondness for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) Coop finds himself in a space station orbiting Saturn, where he is reunited with the now elderly Murph. The mission to save humankind has proven successful, but, just as importantly, Coop has been reunited with his daughter.

Here, again, Interstellar skirts up against various theological issues. For example, Coop’s ability to outstrip the normal limitations of human nature (finitude, temporality, perhaps even mortality), not to mention his “second coming” at film’s end, suggest godlike status — a point arguably intimated by his initials, J.C. And yet, Coop’s powers are not conferred by a deity, nor are they intrinsic to his nature. Rather, they were bestowed by a future human civilization, which has learned to master the very conditions that burden human beings.

In the end, then, Interstellar dares to imagine a humanity that itself has become divine. It is a theme, I suppose, that could be spun in a Christian direction. After all, as Nolan sees it, science itself is not a dispassionate discipline, motivated by objective data and perfunctory inquiry, but is driven by love — love of our children and, if not our planet, then our race. And from where, one might ask, does that love originate? Why, indeed, are we the way we are? Such questions are ripe for theological interpretation, but, as noted at the outset, Nolan doesn’t bite. Just why is a matter of speculation, though it seems safe to say that, for Nolan, it’s far more interesting to think about where humanity is going than where it came from. For when we look to the stars, not as a heavenly abode but as a world to conquer, we are able to save ourselves. And, in this conclusion, Nolan turns science into a religion unto itself.

Philomena (dir. Stephen Frears, 2013)

The ninth “deliberation” in Søren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love (1847) is called “The Work of Love in Remembering One Dead.” Though it has been accused of suggesting that loving the dead is preferable to loving the living, Kierkegaard’s argument is actually far different. As he sees it, one of the pitfalls of human relationships is that, even when they flourish, there is a quid pro quo involved. It is not so, however, when one loves the dead, for to love the dead is precisely to love one who can give nothing in return. Hence, for Kierkegaard, the practice of loving the dead is a kind of “training” for loving the living. It teaches one to seek love even when it is not (palpably) returned, to allow oneself to be oriented by love even in the face of grim reality. In this way, the loving one comes to reflect the love of God.

Stephen Frears’ Philomena might be seen as a meditation on Kierkegaard’s insight. Inspired by a true story — albeit with a few key deviations — it tells of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench, in a poignantly understated performance), an Irish woman who longs to be reunited with the son she gave up for adoption almost fifty years before. But there are significant obstacles. Philomena’s son was conceived out of wedlock, and, as punishment, she was sent to work at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland. In turn, the abbey’s nuns legally assumed control over her affairs, including her baby. So, when they approved the child’s adoption by an American family, Philomena was not only powerless to prevent it but even excluded from any knowledge of his whereabouts. It was, in any legal or political sense, as if she had never known him.

And yet, one of the presuppositions of Philomena is that love cannot be reduced to the juridical or to the political. Love has the unique quality of being limitless, uncorrupted by worldly realities or the ravages of time. Hence, when journalist Martin Sixsmith (a mordantly amusing Steven Coogan) agrees to help Philomena find her son, she jumps at the opportunity. Philomena and Sixsmith are the proverbial odd couple, and Frears mines their relationship for both humor and perspective. Philomena (despite everything) is a devout Catholic, while Sixsmith is an atheist, who cannot reconcile faith in God with the atrocities of the news cycle. Ultimately, the validity of their respective worldviews is tried in the extreme. Following a number of leads, they learn that Philomena’s son, after a successful career, died of AIDS and requested to be buried in Ireland — indeed, at the very abbey in which he was born. Sixsmith is livid. The nuns had told Philomena that they knew nothing of her son’s fate. Thus the pair travel back to Roscrea, where a climactic confrontation takes place.

Indeed, it is here that the film’s theme crystallizes. Frears depicts two opposed institutions — that of a church seeking to protect its interests and of a press hostile to everything but a marketable story. Philomena refuses to join either side. She is angry with the sisters of Sean Ross Abbey, even as she wants nothing to do with Sixsmith’s cynicism. To be a Christian, she understands, is about love. And it is the love that she has for her son — a love that is its own gift, for it asks nothing of the other — that now teaches her to forgive.

As is well-known, many have objected to this denouement, noting its historical inaccuracies and (potentially) anti-Catholic undertones. Granted, the portrayal of one Sr. Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford) is, in effect, pabulum, pandering to the crudest stereotypes of Catholic nuns. And yet, Philomena does not dwell on this point. As the film comes to a close, Philomena visits the grave of her son. A chastened Sixsmith joins her there, and he presents her with a small figure of the Most Sacred Hart of Jesus. The aging woman places it on her son’s gravestone — a symbol of the love in which she shares and still finds hope.

Don Jon (dir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 2013)

Don Jon is, most likely, not the sort of movie you’d want to watch with your mother. Depicting the struggles of Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, also the writer and director), an Italian-American lothario, who, despite his sexual conquests, is addicted to pornography, it is not a film that shies away from the uncomfortable. There are numerous scenes of Jon masturbating to porn, not to mention frank discussions of sex in general. Nevertheless, this edginess is actually in service to what might be seen as an old-fashioned moral. Jon’s trouble, it turns out, is not so much his addiction as his narcissism: he prefers porn to “real sex” because the latter requires him to relate to the other, to care about her emotional and physical needs, whereas the former satisfies his urges free of responsibility. Moreover, this lack of empathy is depicted as a cultural phenomenon. Jon’s girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson) is more interested in his upward mobility than in him; his mother (Glenne Headly) doesn’t care what he does as long as he settles down and gives her grandchildren; his sister (Brie Larson) stares into her phone with nary a word; and his father (Tony Danza, a long way from Who’s the Boss?) watches football at the dinner table, pausing only to berate Jon about this or that point. Jon is surrounded by narcissists, and so, the film suggests, it’s not surprising that he engages in similar behavior.

What finally breaks this spell over Jon is his relationship with Esther (Julianne Moore), an older woman, who, it is revealed, has experienced her share of tragedy. In Esther, Jon finds a friend and, indeed, a lover who takes an interest in him. She’s not embarrassed to discuss his porn addiction because she is able to understand the underlying problem — that he is lonely, just as she is lonely. Thus their relationship, however improbable, becomes a means of salvation. In caring for someone else, Jon finally learns to care for himself.

It is a tidy ending — too tidy, in my opinion — but one that is common enough in Hollywood. Yet, from a theological perspective, what makes Don Jon particularly interesting is its portrayal of the Catholic Church. True to his Italian heritage, Jon regularly attends Mass with his family, and he frequents the sacrament of penance. But, for him, these activities function in a way not unlike porn: once he gets what he wants (in this case, priestly absolution), he is satisfied, so much so that he feels no need to really change. The sacrament appears to dispense forgiveness just as porn dispenses sexual pleasure — free of responsibility.

That Gordon-Levitt here misses the meaning of Catholic sacramental theology and practice has been noted, and rightly so. Still, that does not entirely dismiss the point. Jon’s (mis)understanding of the sacrament is not unheard of in Catholic circles, and, besides, one could argue that in a culture of narcissism we are bound to treat the sacraments narcissistically, thinking of them as resources for self-gratification, rather than as the objective presence of God. Thus Don Jon hits on a genuine problem. What is concerning, however, is the film’s failure to see that its proposed solution to Jon’s troubles (his newfound willingness to give selflessly to another) is not at odds with Catholic teaching but, rather, presupposes it. In other words, Jon’s love for Esther is not a radical departure from his upbringing. On the contrary, it is the first time in his life that he actually realizes much of what the Church teaches — that penance is not merely individualistic but also interpersonal; that sexual pleasure obtains significance only in the context of other-directed love; that human happiness requires more than the satisfaction of material desires.

Toward the end of the film, Jon complains that his confessor — whom the viewer, notably, never gets to see — has not recognized his growth as a human being. In response, the confessor merely says, “Have faith, my son,” and then shuts the screen separating him from Jon. This scene intends to underline the hollowness of Jon’s Catholicism: the Church, it is implied, only speaks in veiled platitudes. But might it be just the opposite? Might it be the case that Jon’s habit of confession, however flawed, has disposed him to seek the kind of love he finds in Esther? Isn’t it possible that the sacrament, which marks God’s continued presence on earth, has slowly but surely broken through Jon’s hard-heartedness and set him on the path of redemption? Has not Jon’s imperfect contrition (attritio) made possible a deeper engagement with the world and with others, so that, in the words of the Council of Trent, “[it] is a gift of God and a prompting of the Holy Spirit, by whose help the penitent prepares the way to righteousness”?

Such a conclusion would be plausible, though Don Jon does not acknowledge it. As it is, Jon’s “conversion” is purely immanent, arising from a kinder, gentler romantic love that has no reference point beyond the subjective needs of its participants. For all of its good intentions, then, Gordon-Levitt’s attempt to transcend the culture of narcissism never really gets off the ground.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (dir. Peter Jackson, 2013)

Confession: I’m a Tolkien fan, and I have enjoyed each of Peter Jackson’s movies based on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit — yes, even last years’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, whose flaws were, in many respects, owing to Jackson’s fascination with the entirety of Tolkien’s oeuvre. That being said, The Desolation of Smaug is a far superior film. It’s a nearly three-hour romp through Middle Earth, which, ironically, only runs out of steam when Bilbo encounters the dragon deep in the heart of the Lonely Mountain. Yes, Smaug is magnificent, but, really, how long do we have to watch him blast through walls of Erebor and breathe tunnels of flame at defenseless dwarves?

The literature on Tolkien and theology is expansive and seemingly growing. I have not studied it in earnest, but I suspect that one issue that crops up is Tolkien’s understanding of evil. Is evil, for him, something that is, or is it a privation of being? The latter view, as is well-known, was common for many of Christianity’s greatest thinkers (Augustine, Aquinas, et al.), who, while not denying that evil things happen in the world, asserted that such things are neither created by God nor part of the structure of being itself. The upshot, for them, was the very nature of the cosmos: is it a place where good and evil are locked in a perpetual war, or is it a place where good always already retains primacy and will, indeed, prevail in the end?

As a Catholic, Tolkien would presumably be sympathetic to this view. But what about Jackson? After all, his films relish the clash of good and evil, and, though he does not not stray too far from Tolkien’s material, he grants Sauron and the denizens of Dol Guldur and Mordor a kind of sublime power. At the very least, Jackson seems to flirt with a Manichean dualism. For instance, in The Desolation of Smaug (spoiler alert!), not only is Gandalf vanquished by the Necromancer, but he appears impotent, even fearful, in the face of such evil. Still, I think Jackson ultimately toes the line set by Tolkien. Consider his portrayal of the orcs:

They are grisly, to be sure. And yet, they are clearly distortions of the human form; they are not a race sui generis but, rather, a deficient version of that which is. That, in fact, is why they are so frightening, for they represent the privation of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Of course, in this, Jackson again follows Tolkien, who wrote that the orcs were bred from elves captured and subsequently corrupted by Melkor, one of the Ainur (angelic spirits), and himself a fallen being. In Middle Earth, whether in page or on screen, evil does not have the first — or the last! — word.