Archive for December, 2017

Some Catholic films, briefly noted

December 19, 2017

I’ve been going over the list of films I saw this year, preparatory to drawing up a list of favourites. I’ve noticed that I saw a healthy handful of films that were, in one respect or another, about Catholicism. Some of these will make my Top 10 list, but today I am grouping together those that will not, with a few brief comments on each.


Bresson’s Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (1962) follows the trial of St Joan of Arc, apparently with a relatively firm grounding in the surviving records. It cannot escape comparison with Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, a contest from which it does not emerge triumphant. The problem, for me, was the flat — characteristically flat, I am tempted to say — visual and dramatic sense Bresson brought to the material. Although I did appreciate it, in the end I thought it would have worked about as well as a radio-drama, and that is surely not a compliment to a film.

I also saw Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), a film that I was primed to love, as I loved the book on which it is based, but my Bresson Blockade continued. Certainly scenes worked very well, but overall I found him cold as ice, despite a good lead performance. This is essentially a story about a man’s inner life, and to tell it through the medium of film is, arguably, to start with an insurmountable handicap. However, this is by reputation a great film; the fault is mine.

I watched The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952) because of the anniversary of Fatima this year. It’s not bad, exactly. It has some sparkle, and I did appreciate Big Hollywood’s effort to make something to honour ordinary Catholic devotion, which is not something we can count on anymore. But it played much like an ordinary homily: pious, inoffensive, and, in the end, rather forgettable. One character was strikingly irritating. The film’s epilogue, showing real footage from a ceremony at Fatima in 1951, with a million pilgrims on hand, was for me the best part.

No Greater Love (2009) is a documentary that takes us inside a community of nuns in London, mostly during the events of Holy Week. We see them doing the ordinary work of the community: washing the floors, ringing the bells, ordering food, dancing. We meet several of the sisters in interview segments; they tell us something about themselves and about the challenges and rewards of the life they have chosen. All of this is excellent. The film is, unfortunately, marred by poor lighting and sound through much of the production. I’m still glad I saw it, but I wish it had been up to the exemplary standard set by its kindred predecessor Die Große Stille, which is this film’s superior in pretty much every respect.

I hardly know what to say about Silence (2016), a film that suffers many of the same troubling ambiguities and confusions as its source material, but which nonetheless, I think, deserves to be in a conversation about important religious films. It was moving, it was vexing, it nearly cracked under the strain, and so did I; a difficult movie to watch, and probably too long for its own good.

Set in Poland in the months after WWII, as the Allies were cleaning up and the Soviets were moving in, Les Innocentes (2016) centers on a convent of cloistered nuns who suffered horribly in the waning days of the war, and on a young French nurse who befriends and assists them.  The plot, beyond that setup, is best left quiet. Thematically it is a rich stew: God, evil, suffering, family, love, and compassion. The religious life is neither romanticized nor demonized; on one hand, some of the nuns have doubts, some even commit terrible acts, but others are devout and authentic in their faith, and their distinctive way of life is shown as one having its own integrity. My main reservation is that the film’s denouement draws a rather too-sharp contrast between the vocations of Mary and Martha, and is too ready to grant advantage to the latter. That said, it tells a compelling story about how good can come from evil, and is well worth seeing.


I expect to post my list of favourite films from 2017, including a few with Catholic themes, in a week or two.

Livy V: Rome’s Mediterranean Empire

December 15, 2017

Ab Urbe Condita, Libri XLI-XLV
Rome’s Mediterranean Empire
Titus Livius
Translated from the Latin by Jane D. Chaplin
(Oxford, 2007) [c.20 BC]
xxxiii + 386 p.

Perils of time and circumstance have destroyed most of the books of the ancient world. The fate of Livy’s great Roman history is a poignant case in point: of its 142 original books — one of the literary wonders of the ancient world — only 35 have survived in more than fragmentary form. The five books under discussion today, numbers 41 through 45, came down to us by the skin of their teeth, for they survived in a single manuscript, and they bear the marks of their narrow escape, for all but Book 42 are missing at least a few pages.

When last we sat with Livy, we heard of the Roman expansion east into Macedonia and Greece, and of the conflicts with Philip of Macedon and Antiochus of Syria. By the year 180 BC, the powers of Macedon, the fading remnants of Alexander the Great’s empire, had been pushed from Greece, and Antiochus had been forced to retreat to the eastern edge of the Mediterranean.

It was in that same year, 180, that Philip of Macedon died, leaving the subdued kingdom to his son Perseus. The succession was peaceful, but only because the violence had already, by that date, taken place. Philip had had two sons, Perseus and Demetrius, and prior to their defeat at Roman hands they had quarrelled over who would inherit the kingdom. Perseus, a man of considerable guile, convinced his father to consent to the murder of Demetrius, on the grounds that he was friendly with Rome and favoured an alliance. This was done, to the great regret of his father, and Perseus therefore took the throne uncontested upon his father’s death.

The principal narrative of these five Books, then, relates how Perseus governed Macedonia, how he provoked conflict with Rome (in what is now called the Third Macedonian War), and of how that conflict brought about the end of the Macedonian kingdom.

Initially Perseus concluded a treaty with Rome, but rumours soon began to spread that he was consulting with Carthage and had resumed harassment of the Greeks, who were now under Roman protection. In response, in 171 BC Rome declared war on Perseus and marched an army into Macedonia. But the territory proved difficult for the Romans; the Macedonians were experienced soldiers who knew how to choose their battles well. Perseus himself was a competent commander who more than once handed the Romans a defeat.

After a few years of haphazard, ineffective action, plagued by failure in the field and corruption and incompetence at home, Rome elected as consul a man who promised to act decisively. Lucius Aemilius Paullus was elected in 169 and immediately set out to achieve victory for Rome. He first lured Perseus out of a fortified position, and then met him in open conflict at the Battle of Pydna. The battle had a memorable prelude: on the day prior there was a lunar eclipse, and though the Romans predicted it beforehand, and therefore took its occurrence as a sign of Roman superiority, it took the Macedonians by surprise, and they took it as an ill omen. The Roman advantage in confidence carried over into the battle itself, and the Macedonians were decisively defeated. Perseus and his two sons were captured.

This marked the final destruction of the Macedonian empire, which had been a world power under Alexander the Great just 150 years before. Perseus was brought back to Rome in chains, and Paullus, after some political wrangling against jealous rivals, enjoyed a triumphal parade through the city that lasted a full 3 days. He was to be remembered by Roman citizens as one of the last great men of Republican Rome. (Plutarch included him in his Lives.)

Meanwhile Rome brought Macedonia under her own governance, lowering taxes and promulgating new laws. Diplomatic parties from across the region streamed to Rome to pay respects to the apparently unstoppable power of the still-burgeoning Roman Republic.


We might wonder what became of the Seleucid kingdom in the east, which Rome had chased out of Greece in the previous few Books. When Antiochus III died, he was succeeded by his son, Antiochus IV, who proved an erratic and colourful figure. Initially his people called him Epiphanes (“Rising Star”), but soon altered it to Epimanes (“mad one”) on account of his antics. We don’t hear a great deal about him from Livy, other than that when he besieged Ptolemy and Cleopatra (not that Cleopatra, obviously) in Egypt, Rome send ambassadors instructing him to cease. At first he temporized, saying that he’d consider what to do, whereupon the Roman ambassador drew a circle around him on the ground and told him to give an answer before leaving it, whereupon Antiochus relented. It’s a good story, and it showed that Roman power, even unofficial, now extended throughout the Mediterranean basin.


As usual, Livy focuses in these Books on military history; this was evidently what most interested him or his readers. But from time to time we get a glimpse of the goings-on back home in Rome, and it is almost always interesting.

We learn, for instance, that there was a fire in the Forum that burned down the Temple of Vesta and caused the sacred flame tended by the Vestal Virgins to be extinguished. The prescribed punishment for this offence was scourging; despite the extenuating circumstances, the scourging was carried out on this occasion as well.

Later there was a law proposed whereby no woman would be allowed to inherit property or money. Our old friend Cato, never one to shrink from eloquent defence of a controversial measure, supported it.


Livy’s main historical source for this period was Polybius, who was writing roughly contemporaneously with the events. Although for us the events treated in these 5 Books are, perhaps, of limited interest — few, I think, regard the Third Macedonian War as a conflict of enduring fascination — for Livy this was an important period in Rome’s moral development, when it endured and then overcame lax discipline and corruption to re-establish the preeminence of Roman virtue. His hero, Lucius Aemelius Paullus, embodied those virtues to an exemplary degree.


As I mentioned at the outset, although this by no means marked the end of Livy’s history, it does mark the end of the history that has survived to our day. What we have, however, in place of Livy’s full work, are the Periochae, fourth-century abridgements of each of Livy’s 142 Books. They are included in this Oxford edition, and I plan to consult them as my Roman reading project moves forward. The next historian I intend to read is Appian, who treated the civil wars that erupted as the Roman Republican bonds began to strain, but before that I believe I’ll take a few trips to the theatre, to read the plays of Terence. Until then, ave atque vale.

Deeper roots of The Tree of Life

December 10, 2017

I’ve been watching my favourite film again, and I’ve discovered a worthwhile commentary on it in the form of a video essay. This format is especially well suited to a visual analysis of a film, and if there was ever a film that would benefit from a visual analysis, it is The Tree of Life. Recommended to those who’ve seen the film at least once; it’s about 20 minutes in duration.

Note that the essay relies heavily on the screenplay to draw out the film’s structure and themes, which does seem to shed some light, but is also, perhaps, misleading, for Malick generally feels free to depart from script during both filming and editing, and indeed it is obvious that he did so when making The Tree of Life. That said, and despite a few other minor missteps, I learned some valuable things from watching it.

Read: Night’s Bright Darkness

December 7, 2017

Night’s Bright Darkness
Sally Read
(Ignatius, 2016)
152 p.

Not long ago I wrote about Robert Hugh Benson’s memoir of his conversion to Catholicism. As in most such stories, there was in that book a more-or-less clear thread that one could follow as he moved toward the Church: certain questions rankled, particular insights were had, specific errors were rejected or certain truths embraced. At the end, one could understand, largely if not entirely, how it came about that he became a Catholic.

Sally Read’s conversion memoir is, rather amazingly, not like that. She begins as a cradle atheist, brought up by parents who conscientiously inoculated her against any kind of religious faith, and she ends up a Catholic, almost an instinctive Catholic, and, having read the book, it’s very difficult to say how it came about. The drama of her conversion seems to have happened just below the level of apprehension, and I have the feeling that she’s nearly as mystified about it as we are. But the book is still wonderful to read, and strangely edifying.

If we’re looking for a particular moment, we have to look for something innocuous. Imagine, for instance, that she sits down one evening to read Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a book grown familiar over many previous readings, but this time something is different:

This time I put the book down when I read the vicar’s assessment of religion: “(Religion) is an art, the greatest one; an extension of the communion all the other arts attempt.” The conversation goes on, by the fire, over Madeira, the rain beating down outside. God, says the vicar, is “merely shorthand for where we come from, where we’re going, and what it’s all about.”

It wouldn’t pass muster in a catechism class, but from this humble beginning, so far as I can tell, the life of faith began to grow in her. She was particularly struck by the thought that a religion could be a form of art, to be appreciated and experienced like a work of art. She was (and is) herself a poet, and the sudden connection between art and religion, like a spark, suddenly altered her understanding of both her own relationship to faith and her own artistic ambitions:

Why, after so many years of reading, thinking, arguing, would this truth penetrate me now? It was as if the tin roof of the sky peeled away. My desperate yearning to write the line, to make the poem, to nail the truth was illuminated. It wasn’t for editors, prizes, readers or myself that I sought so earnestly to harness reality. It was for communion with God, who knows already, who has the metaphor, the poem, already in hand, who is already writing, and already written, the ultimate poem. It was to try to touch that poem.

That night, I barely apprehended this. What I thought was just one word: possibility, and the sibilance of that word seemed like the distant yet all-encompassing black sea that I perceived God to be. A sound like the amniotic roar of traffic in London or the simmer of sea in Santa Marinella that natives unlearn how to hear. I had begun to learn how to listen.

It reminds me of that passage in Augustine (which, naturally, I cannot find) in which he says that each of us,  when we earnestly seek what is good, or true, or beautiful, when we long for that rich and true happiness that will come with the possession of whatever is the deepest and truest good that we pursue — then we are truly searching for God. Everything that rises, as the saying goes, must converge.

But at this point she knew next to nothing about any religion, and had no particular interest in Christianity. But she moved to Rome with her Italian (and agnostic) husband, and, when taking care of her young daughter, fell in with a group of Catholic mothers, and, through them (if memory serves) struck up a friendship with a Byzantine-rite Catholic priest, a good and intelligent man. Before long, she was reading Simone Weil, Josef Pieper, T.S. Eliot, St John of the Cross, and the Gospels, and she was well launched.

There are twists and turns in her story, but always one has the sense that her way has been prepared, that in her progress toward faith, as rapid as it is, she is nonetheless outpaced. Despite the rocky terrain she must cover — she begins as a well-catechized secularist and holds all the traditional pieties on matters like abortion, marriage, and sex — she seems not to stumble, never to find herself on the horns of a dilemma; her difficulties melt away, or are silently displaced. This, I think, is very unusual.

She returns often to her experience of Catholicism as having an aesthetic dimension. The Eucharist she sees as a kind of enfleshed poem:

…to get close to Christ I had to let him into me — not solely through mental prayer and actions, but by physically taking him into my body. There is nothing empty in God’s poetry; nothing is mere metaphor.

Even the hierarchical nature of the Church has for her a poetic effect, for it is “God’s poem — the transformative instrument of the chaos of the everyday.” That’s more suggestive than precise, but it gets one thinking, and this is true of much of her writing, which, true to her calling as a poet, is evocative, sometimes oblique, and often beautiful, just like the story she has to tell.

All this took place just a few years ago. “What do you want me to do?” was her persistent prayer through the whole process, and this memoir is, in part, part of the answer:

God’s revelation to me that spring was already a poem. I only needed to write it down and not attempt to explain its mystery. It is, in a sense, unfinished. It takes the unhesitating energy of that wave at its breaking point; it’s a love letter in response to love.

Alma Redemptoris Mater

December 3, 2017

During Advent this year I intend to learn this lovely hymn, which is sung at Compline during the Advent and Christmas seasons.

A happy Advent to all those observing it.