Tag Archives: Catholicism

ROBERT BRESSON’S DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (1951)

cited Robert Bresson as one of two  filmmakers who influenced him (the other being ). Bresson has also been referred to as the most religious of filmmakers, and in some quarters, as the patron saint of cinema.

Although some have claimed Breton considered himself a Christian atheist, his statements, which echo tenets of process theology, contradicts that thesis. Likewise, Breton’s diminutive oeuvre is too mosaic for such a condensed assessment. His prevalent theme is an aesthetic Catholicism, which was shaped by religious upbringing, Jansenism, and a year spent as prisoner of war (an experience indirectly explored in 1956’s A Man Escaped).

Diary of a Country Priest, which was Breton’s first film in five years, is a masterful adaption of the novel by Catholic author Georges Bernanos. An unnamed young priest  (Claude Laydu, in his first role) arrives at the parish of Ambricourt. Pursuing a life of austere poverty and solemnity, he lives off stale bread, soaked in wine and sugar, along with potato soup. It is all he can hold down before vomiting blood, because, unknown to him, his stomach ailment is a cancer that is slowly killing him. The parishioners, unaccustomed to such piety in a priest coupled with his complete lack of social grace, quickly make him into an object of ridicule, spreading gossip about him being an alcoholic and mocking him as “the little priest.” Unwilling to defend himself against the falsehoods, the priest mantles a halo of interior martyrdom. Such is the seriousness of his calling. Adding to the poignancy is the heart-rending revelation that the priest’s parents were alcoholics. A sole parishioner attends mass, and the underlying spiritual upheaval is only inflamed by the priest carrying out his oppressively routine vocation. The turmoil of doubt spreads like the cancer rotting his intestine.

The priest begins a journal recording his struggle with his faith. His oncoming death transcends the physical, although there is that as well. The authenticity of the portrait is such that you can almost empathize with his parishioners. It’s no joy ride, and prefigures Mother Teresa’s journals, which a recall a similar, daunting experience. His priestly occupation is only an occasional effective retreat, and there is a haunting suspicion of the filmmaker engaging self-portraiture here. The result is arduous.

There  are parallels with ‘s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); both are akin to an expressionistic fugue. Both Dreyer’s Joan and Bresson’s cleric embody the notion of a holy calling as a second martyrdom. They willfully—like Christ—embark on a self-immolation, reminding us that this was the quintessential goal of early Christians. When historians note these films are the two most authentically Catholic works in cinema, they’re onto something.

311. SANTA CLAUS (1959)

AKA Santa Claus vs. the Devil

“Be off, my reindeer, and fly through the heavens as fast as you can go. May my palace of gold and crystal enjoy peace, and Jesus, the Son of God, join us on Earth so that we can all have joy and goodwill.” – Santa Claus

“This is weird theology.” Crow T. Robot,Mystery Science Theater 3000, Episode 521″

DIRECTED BY: René Cardona,  [as Ken Smith]

FEATURING: José Elias Moreno, José Luis Aguirre ‘Trotsky’, Lupita Quezadas

PLOT: From his outpost on a cloud high above the North Pole, Santa Claus attempts to fend off the demon Pitch’s schemes to poison the minds of the world’s children against him. Santa spends Christmas Eve sidestepping Pitch’s attempts to derail his rounds. With the help of the wizard Merlin, a collection of child laborers from around the world, and a team of nightmare-inducing wind-up papier-mâché reindeer, he fights to win back the soul of a poor little girl who badly wants a doll.

Still from Santa Claus (1959)

BACKGROUND:

  • Winner of the Golden Gate Award for Best International Family Film at the 1959 San Francisco International Film Festival.
  • Cardona’s remarkably prolific career (he helmed more than 100 films) ranged from literary adaptations to genre classics such as Night of the Bloody Apes and Wrestling Women vs. The Aztec Mummy.
  • Produced in Mexico, the film was purchased by American K. Gordon Murray, the so-called “King of the Kiddie Matinee,” who found financial success re-editing and dubbing foreign children’s films into English and releasing them to an American public starved for something to do with their kids.
  • Murray turned a profit through a careful schedule of limited releases, which artificially manipulated the supply and demand, turning screenings into scarce opportunities. The high density of holiday television broadcasts also added to the film’s coffers.
  • Featured in season 5 of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Years later, Rifftrax–featuring Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy from the MST3K installment––took its own shot at the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: So many to choose from (as you will see in a moment), but the vision I find most difficult to shake is Father Christmas monitoring his acolytes on Earth through the phantasmagoria of eavesdropping devices that make up his Magic Observatory, including an ear attached to an oscillating fan, an eye on an accordion tube, and a pair of very disturbing giant lips.

THREE WEIRD THINGS  Parade of child nations; Santa’s lip machine; cackling clockwork caribou

FIVE MORE WEIRD THINGS (to make 8 for Hanukkah): Interpretive dance from Hell; boxed parents; dream doll ballet; Santa’s rearguard assault; the Cocktail of Remembrance

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Santa Claus seems the results of a cross-border game of telephone: the basics of Santa’s mythology are all there, but the end product is something wholly different and unusual. The attempt to infuse an essentially commercial construct with deeply held moral codes produces a strange sort of alchemy, generating earnest feelings within a deeply unsettling presentation.


English-language trailer for Santa Claus (1959)

COMMENTS: Look, Santa Claus is weird. The guy, I mean. A preternaturally jolly man with a fortress hidden away in the farthest Continue reading 311. SANTA CLAUS (1959)

CALVARY (2014) AND I CONFESS (1953)

John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary was one of 2014’s best films, with  a central performance that is authentic in the rarest of ways.  Brendan Gleeson is a welcome throwback to a specialized breed of cinematic actors: big, erudite men (Robert Shaw was such an actor). Gleeson began his acting career  at a young age, appearing in the plays of Samuel Beckett and William Shakespeare. He was an English teacher for over a decade before embarking on a film career. Naturally, he has specialized in playing Irish patriarchs, mentors and historical figures, which makes his casting as Father James, a potential martyr, shrewd.

Traditionally, the role of a Catholic priest has been thought of as an actor’s plum. It is easy to see why, especially in the contemporary world. The Roman Catholic priest, with his vows of  poverty, chastity, and obedience, has willfully chosen a subculture that is shockingly in direct opposition to the precepts of modernism’s worldview. The priest believes, whether he inevitably lives up to it or not, that he has an existential calling. He does not take the honor unto himself. Rather, he regards that his is a vocation called by something inward. His rejection of materialism is, hypothetically, inclusive. Capital, desire, and ego, theoretically are tenets of a status quo path that he has chosen to reject. The priesthood is the quintessential revolt against all that which is temporal.

Still from I Confess (1953)‘s I Confess (1953) features a performance by Montgomery Clift, as Father Michael Logan, which takes the psychology of the priestly vocation to an icy extreme. Clift’s performance, born of primordial method acting, parallels the film’s inert aesthetic.

Robert Burks’ shimmering cinematography exudes a Genesis-like potency. This, combined with Clift’s acting achievement, rendered I Confess a cult favorite among New Wave filmmakers and French critics.

American critics and audiences found it a more curious affair. It is akin to Gabriel Fauré’s music. Its appeal is primarily provincial; so subtle that invoking its aesthetic content proves to be a task.  Critics deemed this theological drama from the Jesuit-schooled Hitchcock too inaccessible, an inside affair amidst the director’s populist oeuvre. With introverted themes of Eden-esque transgressions, annihilation of carnality, and dogmatic devotion, I Confess was too bound in the interior of an orthodox landscape. Had Hitchcock’s film taken a more commercial approach, Western reception would have been considerably broader. Local critics predominantly panned Continue reading CALVARY (2014) AND I CONFESS (1953)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE CATECHISM CATACLYSM (2011)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Robert Longstreet

PLOT: A goofy priest who seems more concerned with funny stories and YouTube videos than Jesus Christ sets out on a canoe trip with his childhood icon Robbie, a musician who dated his sister in high school.  As they paddle down the river, more details about their history are revealed, and things get really weird when they meet fellow travelers posing as characters from Huckleberry Finn.

Still from The Catechism Cataclysm


WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It starts off as a funny, somewhat quirky canoe trip, relying on dialogue and a few offbeat stories to entertain its audience. But then it gets weird. Really weird. I’d say the last 20 minutes are weird enough to make up for the comparative normalcy of the preceding 50.

COMMENTS: When the effervescent Father Billy first meets up with his middle school idol at a roadside diner, he accidentally drops his bible (which he gets autographed by musicians) in a diarrhea-filled toilet bowl. This sets the stage for a story that is deceptively average on the surface, but delightfully deranged underneath, finally showing its true colors during the final sequence. Their journey is peppered with some strange side-stories, from a heat-packing granny to a suicidal businessman who can’t die, along with some effectively ominous filming techniques and a heavy metal soundtrack that humorously clashes with the bucolic river landscape. While there are flashes of weirdness throughout, nothing truly prepares the viewer for the big Weird payoff at the end, which I will not spoil for you.

Father Billy is a well-meaning goofball with an oblivious, clingy personality, and it’s never actually clear why he would become a priest—an occupation that takes remarkable dedication and sacrifice—in the first place. He seems perfectly content to sit around listening to 80’s metal and drinking milk. His dips into unpriestly behavior (lying to his superior, drinking beer, etc) coincide with dire circumstances that should be enough to completely shake his faith. Steve Little puts in an offbeat performance, making Father Billy just slightly creepy enough for viewers to question exactly what is going on here. In contrast, Longstreet’s portrayal of Robbie is so open and believable, he stands as a pillar of ordinariness and often represents the audience’s own reactions to Billy’s off-putting characteristics.

The Catechism Cataclysm is a difficult film to encapsulate. It’s a mish-mash of high school reunion-esque reflection, Catholic introspection, fascinating urban legend storytelling, and off-the-walls absurdity that winds its way into an enjoyable, funny, decidedly memorable experience. Overall, it’s an impressive show of irreverence and eccentricity from a director with a foundation in mumblecore.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

A dryly absurd road comedy with the caveat being that they core duo are floating down a river rather than driving along a road… This is down home Americana re-imagined as gradually escalating dementia with a dark yet still sweetly naive edge.”–Todd Brown, Twitch

CAPSULE: THE PROMISE [LA PROMESA] (2004)

DIRECTED BY: Héctor Carré

FEATURING: , Santaigo Barón, Ana Fernández, Juan Margallo, Evaristo Calvo

PLOT :  A devout nanny’s religious convictions are tested when a clairvoyant child implores
her to murder his father.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The events in La Promisa unfold in a weird way, making the story bizarre.  The nature of these events, however, is no different from those in any occult film; the film is as conventionally produced as any horror movie.  While the story is definitely out there, the overall viewing experience is not quite weird enough to be certified as such.

COMMENTS:  Solid performances and Santiago de Compostela locations compliment this creepy, offbeat occult tale.  Gregoria (Maura) is a modest housewife leading a life of quite desperation.  Her marriage is suffocating, her husband (Margallo) is an ogre and her spirit is repressed.  When her husband’s abuse takes its toll, Gregoria seeks refuge in the ecclesiastical.  Finding solace in religious fervor, she plunges into the deep end of delusional thinking.  Or does she?  Taken to episodes of brief catatonia, Gregoriia becomes accident prone and paranoid.  Every shadow hides a demon and every accident is a sign of manifest evil.  Her chosen solution is to pray incessantly.

When a bizarre tragedy leads her to a chance encounter with a dying soothsayer, the doomed man implores Gregoria to fulfill a prophecy at a mysterious church in a remote mountain village.  Supernatural voices drive Gregoria to murder her husband, after which she flees to the strange hamlet.  There, on a fog enshrouded mountain estate, she takes a job as caretaker to a telepathic boy named Daniel (Barón).

Haunted by voices and fearing that she is losing her mind, Gregoria is drawn into a divine good versus evil enigma. Her snowballing predicament becomes centered around a secret passage, a well that presents a nasty fall hazard, the ghost of her husband, and her young ward’s murderous psychic manipulations.  But the answer and her fate are inexplicably intertwined.  The key to it all lies grounded in the sinister old church that she is destined to visit.  The clairvoyant Daniel will use any means necessary to entice her there to fulfill The Promise.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an offbeat, mostly effective story of madness that combines a psychological study, a supernatural yarn and a tale of domestic violence to surprisingly rounded effect.”–Jonathan Holland, Variety (contemporaneous)

26. THE MILKY WAY [LA VOIE LACTEE] (1969)

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”–Matthew 10:34-36

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , Laurent Terzieff, Bernard Verley, Edith Scob, ,

PLOT:  Two tramps follow the ancient pilgrimage road leading from France to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, where the bones of the apostle James are supposed to be interred.  Along the way they meet strange characters from various times who debate ancient Catholic heresies, a child with a stigmata, an angel of death, and a nun voluntarily undergoing a crucifixion.  Also scattered throughout the film are recreations of fictional and historical events, including dramatization of an Inquisition trial, a cameo by the Marquis de Sade, and scenes from the Gospels.

milky_way_coie_lactee

BACKGROUND:

  • In retrospect, director Luis Buñuel realized that The Milky Way formed the first part of a trilogy about “the search for truth” along with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974). The subsequent two films use the same fragmented, non-linear narrative style pioneered in The Milky Way.
  • The film is exhaustively researched, with many of the episodes composed of direct quotes from the Bible or the writings of heretics.
  • Released while the general strike and student protests of May 1968 were still fresh in France’s mind and a spirit of liberal revolution was in the air, some leftists were not happy that one of their own had chosen this moment to make a non-political film about the history of heresy in the Catholic church.  According to anecdote, Buñuel’s novelist friend Julio Cortazar accused the director of having completed the film with financing from the Vatican.
  • Although the film is often blasphemous on it’s surface, it was well-received by the Catholic Church, who even intervened with the Italian censors to reverse their decision to ban the film.  This was an unexpected reaction, as the Vatican had declared Buñuel’s 1961 film Viridiana “blasphemous”.
  • With it’s large, almost epic cast, it’s inevitable that several French actors with significant contributions in the weird movie arena appeared in cameo roles, including Delpine Seyrig (Last Year at Marienbad) as a prostitute, Julien Guiomar (Léolo) as a priest, and Michel Piccoli (La Grande Bouffe, Dillinger is Dead) as the Marquis de Sade.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The execution of a pope by a gang of anarchists, a scene that leads to the film’s funniest and most unexpected punchline.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  In The Milky Way two worldly pilgrims make their way through a

Original trailer for La Voie Lactée

strange, heresy-obsessed world in which every maître d’ is an expert theologian and Renaissance fops duel to the death over arcane philosophical doctrines, while any random stranger they meet may actually be God, an angel, or the fulfillment of a recent prophecy.

COMMENTS:  Of all the great directors, Luis Buñuel was the greatest prankster.  His son, Continue reading 26. THE MILKY WAY [LA VOIE LACTEE] (1969)