Tag Archives: Christianity

CAPSULE: THE BOOK OF BIRDIE (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Elizabeth E. Schuch

FEATURING: Ilirida Memedovski, Kitty Fenn, Suzan Crowley, Kathryn Browning

PLOT: A young woman is brought to a convent to protect her from an unspecified danger. There, she explores both her emerging spirituality and womanhood.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Schuch’s movie relies heavily on a theological flavor of “magic realism”. While it explores various fringe topics—(clerical) sisterhood, puberty, paganism, and suicide—using a variety of stylish techniques, it doesn’t push boundaries as far as it should, and ultimately doesn’t adequately explore the various narrative avenues it goes down.

COMMENTS: Director Elizabeth Shuch cannot be accused of lacking in ideas. With her directorial debut, she touches on many. So many that I feel compelled to type (some of) them out, bullet-style:

  • The intersection between Femininity and Christianity.
  • The intersection between Christianity and Paganism.
  • The intersection between Paganism and Femininity.
  • Coming of age, first love, and suicide.

Throughout The Book of Birdie, Shuch touches on all these topics while maintaining a precarious narrative thread.

Our story begins in a dying convent consisting of a dozen or so nuns. Young Birdie (Ilirida Memedovski) has been brought there for the protection and (ostensible) comfort that a life of wholesome religiosity may bring. Birdie integrates with her new wards slowly, but surely, while also making acquaintance (then friendship, then love) with Julia, the daughter of the convent’s groundskeeper. Birdie learns prayers, attends services, and sees the ghosts of two dead nuns haunting the convent. After staining her bedding with a heavy menstrual flow, things become slightly more unreal.

Arthouse film techniques abound. There are long shots of Birdie’s entrancingly dark eyes. Ephemeral lighting illuminates the inside of the compound while the bleak sun saturates the outdoors. Stylized animations of symbolic imagery are seamlessly integrated. While the camera-work and editing flirt along the edge of heavy-handedness, they never fall into parody. The nun characters—both alive and dead—help to keep the film grounded in the reality of this hollowed-out haven. One enthusiastic nun in particular stands out. She confides her aspirations to Birdie: “I knew Jesus was the only man for me when I had my First Communion. I felt the wafer sizzle in my mouth and I felt him calling to me. Everything I’ve done since then has been to prepare me for a spiritual life. I want to be the best.” Unfortunately, it is Birdie who experiences the transcendence that this nun strives for—without even trying. The cause (effect?) of this transcendence brings me to a needful observation.

This film has a lot of blood in it. A lot of menstrual blood. It shows up in specks around the chapel, it shows up in trails, and it shows up in the small vials that Birdie fills with it and on occasion drinks from. She also crafts what I can only describe as a “fetus fetish” from porridge and stores it in vinegar. This entity comes to life on occasion, as does a statue of Christ—as do her reproductive organs, which we see escaping her body and flying off, like an angel. There is a mountain of symbolism of which, with my limited catechism, I can only understand fleeting hints.

The important question , though, is whether this works as a movie. To that I say, “Yes… mostly.” The performances are all tip-top and the limited scenery provides a real sense of a derelict, isolated haven. And, I suppose, the narrative moves from one point to the next, with a beginning, middle, and end. However, I can’t help but feel that this movie is like an empty Chinese puzzle box. Fascinating to watch unfold, but ultimately yielding nothing. An ambiguously tragic life is explored with ambiguously theological symbols to bring us to an ambiguous, but tragic, ending. All spirit and no flesh, perhaps?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird, glittery, feminine fever dream.”–Lindsay Pugh, Woman in Revolt (festival screening)

ANDREI RUBLEV (1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (originally titled The Passion According to Andrei ) is a 1966 film about a painter whom we never see painting. Furthermore, it’s about a 15th century artist who we know very little about, not even the exact years of his birth and death. Only one existing painting, “The Trinity,” can be authenticated as being entirely painted by Rublev. Yes, Rublev is one of those uncouth religious painters: an iconographer. This is anathema here today—and, when it was made, most especially in his Russian homeland. Despite all that, Rublev is a painter of legendary status. As enigmatic as he is, a film about such a figure would seem to be a recipe for disaster. Someone forgot to advise Tarkovsky, because he not only produced the most substantive film to date about a historical painter, but also one of the most astonishing and vexing accomplishments in cinema.

Rublev, scripted by Andrey Konchalovskiy and Tarkovsky, had a “sky’s the limit” budget (the biggest Soviet budget since ). Its production swallowed up two years. Distribution proved to be an ideological purgatory, however, a politically complex and arduous endeavor. Along the way, it dawned on atheistic Soviet authorities that, as a film about a deeply religious painter directed by the starkly spiritual Tarkovsky, Rublev was an embarrassing reminder of Russia’s faith-contaminated past.

At a private screening, Moscow critics were incensed and demanded cuts. Tarkovsky conceded and trimmed the film from its original three-and-a-half hours to 186 minutes. Not satisfied, authorities demanded additional cuts, which Tarkovsky then refused. The film was cut without him, resulting in various running times, including  an 81 minute travesty. Still, not satisfied, producers sat on Rublev until 1969, when the Cannes Film Festival requested a screening. The USSR submitted the 186 minute cut and Rublev won the International Critics award, despite being pulled from the competition. Soviet authorities were enraged; Leonid Brezhnev stormed out of the showing. Unmoved by its critical accolades, bureaucrats kept Rublev shelved until 1971, when it became a critical and box office success in its homeland.

Andrei Rublev is more of an iconographic than a biographical essay, focusing on a spiritual and artistic struggle, which might be seen as an icon of  sorts for Tarkovsky himself. One is unlikely to encounter a more idiosyncratic and desultory odyssey in cinema. There is a quality about it that could be likened to the inflamed mysticism of Antonin Artaud. Tarkovsky’s mastery is in ample evidence from the enigmatic, tenebrous prologue; attempting to mount a hot-air balloon, a medieval daredevil provokes peasants who woozily chase after him, only to see his endeavor utterly fail when it crashes to the earth below. Cinematographer Vadim Yusov had his work cut out for him. He unquestionably triumphs when his cherubic camera pursues Heaven’s would-be gate crasher in a serpentine take.

The remainder of the film is grounded; and oh, is it grounded. Tarkovsky himself referred to it as a “film of the earth.” Unflinchingly brutal and oppressive, disheartening, experimental, bleak, saturated with nudity and bloodshed, it’s paradoxically intimate and epic; feverish and spiritually crepuscular; chaotic, and austere in its expansive silences; sublime in its depiction of sensual elements (mists, panoramic landscapes, rivers, the fire of candles, torches, and Rublev’s smoldering robe) and factitious symbols (bells, a white church, ladders, crucifixes). The film is equally haunting in its chimerical potpourri of beasts (the decaying corpse of a swan, snakes, birds, cats, geese, a herd of reindeer, and a striking black mare) and visually distressing sights (the pleating of a dead woman’s hair, unfathomable carnage, and extreme closeups of weathered Slavic faces).

Still from Andrei Rublev (1966)When the ethereal Andrei Rublev () remains true to the purity of his art by rejecting a commissioned “Last Judgment,” he virtually dismantles his career and embarks upon a haphazard journey, accompanied by two monks. Along the way, we see the sufferings of peasants (in a memorable scene, a jester is manhandled) and exotic, undiluted paganism (the queerly ritualistic Saint John’s Eve) met with startling, heart-breaking violence.

Rublev’s journey is authentic, deprived of a destination, and largely plays out under an umbrella of the artist’s vow of silence, rendering Tarkovsky’s opus not so much a film as a poem scrawled through the ashes of a dilapidated fresco.

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.

STOCKING COAL: KIRK CAMERON’S SAVING CHRISTMAS (2014) & THE BURNING HELL (1974)

A few months back, a co-worker sent me a meme of Homer Simpson mimicking Donald Trump mimicking a handicapped reporter under the heading: “Look Marge… I’m a Christian.” If one associates Christianity with brain dead right-wing WASPs, then the only better symbol than a Homer parody would be walking caricature Kirk Cameron. In addition to his roll-on-the-floor Left Behind rapture series, Cameron, in 2014, prefiguring Trump and his Trumptards, took it upon himself to “Save Christmas” and ‘Murica from all those War-on-Christmas “Happy Holiday” and “Season’s Greetings” coffee cups (with no snowflakes, dammit).

Like all of Cameron’s movies, Saving Christmas was universally panned, which prompted the Christian entrepreneur (smelling a potential box office loss for his booming franchise) to panic. He called on “the real people” (as opposed to the sub-human critics) to give him a thumbs up: “Help me storm the gates of Rotten Tomatoes,” he wrote, “all of you who love Saving Christmas – go rate it at Rotten Tomatoes right now and send the message to all the critics that WE decide what movies we want our families to see.” Kirk’s endeavor promptly backfired. Even the “real people” ripped it to pieces, which of course Cameron blamed on liberal atheists, no doubt paid off by George Soros. Now, before we dismiss this as yet another easy target: lest we forget ‘Murica elected Cameron’s triple-chinned, mentally-challenged, pedophile-conspiracy kook,  silver-spoon fed billionaire, and CINO (“Christian-in-Name-Only”) prophet to the highest office of the land in 2016. Saving Christmas is is a lump of stocking coal that ‘Murica has reaped.

The irony of Saving Christmas is that it’s the most dumbed-down, offensive, holiday killing, morally bankrupt Christmas movie ever produced, especially if one subscribes to the precepts taught by one Jesus of Nazareth. It actually embraces and endorses avarice and gluttony, and takes to task wimps who dare suggest that giving money to charity or the less fortunate is more Christ-like than spending money on oneself (apparently, the filmmakers never read the Lazarus and the Rich Man parable). Cameron’s movie, directed by co-star and fellow disgusting human being Darren Doane, does a Linus in reverse, proclaiming how good and Christian materialism actually is because, ya know, Jesus doesn’t really want peace on earth to men of good will, he wants us to to gorge on the day we celebrate his birthday. (Cameron’s head-scratching thesis insists that holiday materialism is good because God, taking over Christmas, became material). Having the chutzpah to proclaim that his masterpiece puts Christ back in Christmas, Continue reading STOCKING COAL: KIRK CAMERON’S SAVING CHRISTMAS (2014) & THE BURNING HELL (1974)

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: THE FILMS OF DAINA KRUMINS

During one of my incognito Sacred Heart Catholic Church field trips with my Aunt Greta, visiting from the Arizona desert, I received a mild scolding—albeit not from immediate family, who would have flipped out had they known my father’s sister had smuggled me into one of those Catholic churches. Rather, it was from Greta herself, who corrected my venial sin: in being transfixed by the statues of the Infant of Prague (a toddler Jesus in drag), Our Lady of Sorrows (Mother Mary with seven knives jabbed into her chest), and Teresa of Avila (she of Lorenzo Bernini’s orgasmic ecstasy), I made the mistake of saying: “It’s cool that your church has such weird imagery, worships women, and you don’t have to worship Jesus.” Greta very quickly and sternly pointed out to me: “We do worship Jesus, and we don’t worship Mary or Teresa. We venerate them.” In hindsight, and putting aside that I was in my teens that was probably the first time I became vaguely conscious of a latent (although denied by some) connection between feminism and blue-collar Catholic Surrealism.

The films of Daina Krumins have these qualities, and more. As with most Krumins followers, I was introduced to her via The Divine Miracle (1972). I can’t recall where I first saw it, but it was in the late seventies, and Aunt Greta’s parish icons immediately called to mind Krumins’s film. Another weird image that I had cemented at the time, mixing my mythologies, was from a TV documentary about the suicide of George “Adventures of Superman” Reeves, in which the narrator described the late actor’s devoutly Catholic mother going to the crime scene and placing holy cards of saints on all the blood stains and bullet holes in the room (the narration was accompanied by eccentric flashing images of devotional postcards). The reason I reference the latter is that there’s something of a holy cards-on-bloodstains texture to Krumins’ work.

Krumins was born in 1947 in a Munich refugee camp. Her family immigrated to the U.S.A. Like her mother, Krumins suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. Fortunately, her father, who was an accomplished photographer, and her uncle, a Latvian painter, encouraged her early creative eccentricities, which included collecting metal shavings, wax teeth, snakes in formaldehyde, jellyfish, and crabs. Ignoring her teachers’ advice to be more social and pursue a normal life, Krumins received her BFA at the NYU Film School, followed by an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, and found employment as a rotoscoper with Lookout Mountain Films. Images from her art and film can be viewed on the filmmaker’s website).

Still from The Divine Miracle (1972)Krumins is a New Jersey resident and has been described as a “homegrown Surrealist.” That description suggests something coming from the earth, which is apt. Krumins refers to her film, photographs, woodwork, and sculpture as preoccupations with textures. To date, she has completed a total of four  films, Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: THE FILMS OF DAINA KRUMINS

LIST CANDIDATE: THE HAWKS AND THE SPARROWS (1966)

Uccellacci e Uccellini

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Totò, Ninetto Davoli

PLOT: A wandering father and son meet a talking raven on the road.

Still from The Hawks and the Sparrows
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It is, indeed, quite weird, with Totò and his young companion passing from one absurd scenario to another as they walk down life’s metaphorically dusty path. The main problem with the movie, however, is that it seems very much a product of its time and place: which is to say, not merely the 1960s, but Italy in the mid-1960s, and not merely 1960s Italy but 1960s Italy as seen through the eyes of leftist intellectuals of that period. For all its supposedly timeless and mystical talk about class and religion, I’m not sure this movie has traveled well in its long journey to our era.

COMMENTS: Casting the famous clown Totò (the Italian equivalent of France’s or Hollywood’s ) as an amoral bourgeois tramp in a nonlinear Marxist/Surrealist adventure may have been a coup and a stroke of genius in 1966, but it’s a move that doesn’t register with a modern international audience—jokes lose their force when they have to be explained via a footnote. Similarly, it’s sort of funny when, in the middle of the movie, intertitles pretentiously inform us that the talking raven represents “a ‘left-wing intellectual'”; but then they confuse us by adding “…of the era preceding Palmiro Tagliatti’s death.” Who wants to have to pause the DVD to jump on Wikipedia and discover that Tagliatti was the head of the Italian Communist party from 1927-1964? (You can see his portrait in footage from his funeral that Pasolini splices in at random at the end of The Hawks and the Sparrows). Much of the flighty Hawks seems like an in-joke made for people who are long dead now, which is a bit of a shame, because Pasolini’s pair of clowns do encounter some universal themes on their journey from and to nowhere. The meat of the movie is a flashback to the time of St. Francis, who tasks Fra. Totò and apprentice with bringing the Gospel to the “arrogant” hawks and the “humble” sparrows. Against all odds, through months of prayer and chirping and hopping about, the monks appear to accomplish the feat, only to watch a bitter punchline undo all their good work. The movie feels complete at this point, but there are still 45 minutes to go, so Totò and son return to the modern world, where they get involved in various land disputes as both the exploiters and the exploited, and join up with a wandering carnival for a while before ending up by competing for the affections of a roadside slut. The movie’s messages are encased in the candy shell of Totò’s slapstick, with lots of mugging for the camera, absurd little dances, and sped-up chase scenes. Pasolini’s parable seems, at first, to prophesy that Marxist ideas of equality will eventually triumph and bring about the ancient Christian vision of the brotherhood of man that the Church has failed to achieve in centuries of work. But, given the the raven’s final hopeless failure to convert Totò and son, perhaps he isn’t so naïve about equality’s prospects in this bird-eat-bird world.

I must confess to having a personal disaffinity for the works of Pasolini; it’s hard to explain why. To me, he always seems like an intellectual who has turned to cinema, not a natural born filmmaker. One of his movies is even entitled Theorem, for God’s sake. The irrational came naturally to directors like or , but when Pasolini wants to fly beyond reason, I always see his wings straining. He’s still a huge figure in cinema, and something of his deserves to be on the List of the weirdest movies ever made, but what?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “A sort of Marxist Hellzapoppin, politicized vaudeville and skittery poesy, an open structure overflowing with gags and ideas…”–Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion (DVD)

CAPSULE: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973)

DIRECTED BY: Norman Jewison

FEATURING: Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman

PLOT: The last days of Jesus Christ, including the Last Supper, his betrayal by Judas, and his crucifixion, sung to a propulsive rock score composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Still from Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though the very premise – a rock ‘n’ roll passion play – is inherently offbeat, and this particular version is laced with anachronisms and unusual characterizations, this is at heart a straightforward, earnest account of the story.

COMMENTS: When Superstar debuted on the Broadway stage in 1971, the very notion of a rock-n-roll passion play must have carried an unmistakable air of sacrilege. (Although another pop-oriented take on the story, “Godspell,” premiered off-Broadway the same year, and a film of that musical also came out in 1973.) But the show struck a chord with audiences; spawned from a concept album that had sold millions of copies, the musical ran for nearly two years on Broadway and spent eight years on the London stage, closing as the longest-running show in British history. A film version was probably inevitable; that the adaptaion would be placed in the hands of the director of In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair might not have been.

To Norman Jewison’s credit (the screenplay is credited to him and British broadcaster Melvyn Bragg), the movie faithfully retains the show’s determination to treat its characters as human beings, rather than the religious icons they have become. Lyricist Tim Rice sparked some controversy by suggesting that he and partner Andrew Lloyd Webber simply wanted to portray Jesus as a man, but they doggedly stuck to that vision, and the results are intriguing: Jesus is beleaguered and plagued by doubts. Judas is a buzzkill true believer, hectoring Jesus for being insufficiently pious and ultimately betraying the man he idolizes out of a sense of moral outrage. Pilate is the most reasonable man in Judea, Mary Magdalene is hopelessly confused, and the apostles are shiftless hippies. It’s probably not the version taught in Sunday school, but it lends the events a greater dramatic heft.

If Jesus Christ Superstar is controversial, it’s because it doesn’t traffic in the more mystical Continue reading CAPSULE: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973)