Posts Tagged ‘Dietrich Bruggemann’

A decade of films for Catholics

January 25, 2020

It’s the end of the 2010s, and film buffs the world over are compiling lists of “Best Films of the Decade”. I’m making my own, in fact, but I’ve a number of films still to see before I’m ready to post it here.

In the meantime I’d like to write about the ten films from 2010-2019 that meant the most to me as a Catholic. These are not “Catholic films” in a straightforward sense, but rather “films that could be reasonably thought to be of special interest to Catholics”, or something along those lines, whether because of their themes or subject matter or setting or characters or whatever. Some are focused specifically on Catholicism, some are about Christianity more generally, and some are of wider scope. A few are off the beaten track. Some are about clergy and religious, some not. Some were made by Catholics, some not. Three were made by Terrence Malick, who is not a Catholic, but who is the preeminent Christian filmmaker working today. Few would be appropriate for a parish movie night, but all, I think, are very good films.

By way of prelude, let me run through some candidate films that, for one reason or another, didn’t make my list.

Regrets

These may have had an outside chance of making the list if I’d seen them:

We Have a Pope (2011); The Letters (2015); The Young Messiah (2016); Chosen: Custody of the Eyes (2017); Pope Francis: A Man of his Word (2018); The Apparition (2018); By the Grace of God (2019); The Two Popes (2019); Corpus Christi (2019).

Worst Catholic film of the decade:

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont, 2017) — A prog-rock musical in which Joan alternates between mumbo-jumbo theological speculations and vigorous head-banging in wilderness landscapes. If that sounds bizarrely intriguing, you’ve fallen into the selfsame trap that I did. It is a truly horrendous film, almost unendurable, with absurd choreography and terrible (emphasis on terrible) music, but so committed to its freaky premise that it merits wary acknowledgement. Watch the trailer if you dare!

Honourable mentions: films worth seeing

The Keepers (2017): A Netflix documentary about an investigation into the 1960’s murder of a Baltimore nun that uncovers long-concealed evidence of a predator priest; a good case study in how the establishment — police, lawyers, and the Church — obstructed rather than promoted justice for the victims.

The Way (2010): Martin Sheen walks the Camino!

Lady Bird (2017): Most everybody loved this film; I liked it alright. Lady Bird has a complicated relationship to her Catholic faith, but it means something to her, even if she can’t quite articulate it. A plausible portrait of how many half-lapsed Catholics experience the faith.

The Innocents (2016):  Set in Poland in the months after WWII, as the Allies are cleaning up and the Soviets are moving in, the film centers on a convent of cloistered nuns who have suffered horribly in the waning days of the war, and on a young French nurse who befriends and assists them. A compelling story about how good can come from terrible evil.

Runners-up: films hard to exclude from the Top 10

The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019): A stately, melancholic mobster picture that reckons, as Scorsese’s films have not always done, with the toll evil takes on the soul. Of interest to Catholics, I think, specifically for the final act, in which the Church, a loving mother, tries to coax a heart of flesh from a heart of stone.

***

Le Fils de Joseph (Eugène Green, 2016): A weird and winsome tale about a young man in modern France who finds his life bursting with Biblical motifs at every turn; very funny and quite possibly seriously mystical. There’s nothing quite like it; one scene, in particular, rends the veil.

***

Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015): A film I love on many grounds, I include it here not because it’s especially theological — it is not — but because it gives us an attractive portrait of Irish Catholic parish life in New York in the 1950s, a world that has almost completely vanished in the meantime.

***

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2012): Presenting us with two contrasting visions of love, one founded on romantic feeling, intense and spontaneous, and another founded on commitment, tenacious and steadfast, Malick invites us to consider which is more attractive, more fruitful, and more likely to bring happiness. Though not the first Malick film I would recommend to someone unfamiliar with his work — it is elliptical and elusive, with many narrative gaps and almost no on-screen dialogue — it is an incredibly beautiful film that is finally, I think, a loving address to “the love that loves us”.

*****

And now, without further ado, my top ten:

10. Silence
(Martin Scorsese, 2016)

An agonizing and vexing film that nonetheless deserves to be in a conversation about great religious films, Scorsese’s long-meditated adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel follows two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries to sixteenth-century Japan, where they are tasked with confirming or refuting rumours that one of their Jesuit brothers has apostatized. Captured by the violently anti-Christian and anti-European political powers, the two undergo horrendous suffering alongside the Christians they are trying to serve. It’s a film about faith under terrible strain, about the heroic sacrifices made by Christian missionaries, about what we owe to God, about living with doubt, and about how we discern God’s presence, or absence. As with the book, most of the vexation is packed into a climactic scene that nearly but, arguably, not quite ruins the whole thing.

***

9. First Reformed
(Paul Schrader, 2017)

Paul Schrader is best known as a screenwriter for Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), and is also the author of a minor classic of film criticism (Transcendental Style in Film). These strands, and others, including his Reformed Christian upbringing, come together in this film in which a middle-aged clergyman, Reverend Toller, played with weary sympathy by Ethan Hawke, presides over an historic, but moribund, Dutch Reformed parish. His congregation is so small that First Reformed’s day-to-day operations, including Reverend Toller’s own salary, are paid for by Abundant Life, a friendly evangelical mega-church down the road. First Reformed is preparing to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and Toller is beset by troubles, both personal and political.

While it’s not a specifically Catholic film — all the Christians on screen are Protestants of one kind or another — I suppose it’s on this list just because it’s too well-made to pass over in silence, and its concerns about the temptation to see politics as a substitute for faith, or the hazardous byways we can be tempted down in our search for meaning in life, are of wide application. Schrader has described the film as a tribute to his best loved filmmakers, and one can catch the influence of Bergman and especially Bresson, whose country priest is never far away. It takes a wild turn in the final act, so wild that it will confound many viewers, but still very much worth seeing.

***

8. Kreuzweg 
(Dietrich Brüggemann, 2014)

Brüggemann’s searing Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross) follows a young woman preparing for Confirmation in a schismatic Catholic sect. A variety of factors have made life difficult for her, and she wants to offer her suffering to God as a sacrifice for the good of others, but, in this as in so many other matters, teenaged judgment is deficient. Brüggemann structures the whole film around the fourteen traditional Stations of the Cross, and commits to filming each of the stations in one static shot — almost, and in that ‘almost’ lies at least a few cinematic delights.

The film wrestles with the hazards encountered by any group that struggles to retain its own nature and culture in the midst of a hostile, or even merely different, culture. The issue is not about whether these Catholics are right to resist the larger culture — this film grants the truth of what they believe — but about how difficult it can be: fraught with loneliness and isolation, and beset by risks of imbalance and fanaticism. It’s an austere but potent film that explores religious faith, friendship, and family life using intentionally minimal means, and it has a terrific ending. Of all the films on this list, this is the one most open to an anti-Catholic interpretation, but my view is that it doesn’t force us into that corner. (I’ve written at more length about the film at Light on Dark Water.)

***

7. Ida
(Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)

Set in Poland about a decade after World War II, this quiet film follows a young woman, Ida, who, having been raised in a convent, is preparing to take her vows to religious life. For reasons that are not explained — maybe just as a courtesy, or maybe to test her vocation, or because she knows more than she lets on? — Ida’s Mother Superior sends her out of the convent to meet her only surviving relative, an aunt. The two seem to have little in common, but together they embark on a journey to find the graves of Ida’s parents, who had been killed in the war. In so doing, Ida is exposed for the first time to life outside the convent, and to the opportunities and temptations it presents. For a while the film seems like it might be pitching a simple tale of a naive girl who wises up and escapes from the narrow to the broad path, but it takes an unexpected turn that complicates that story considerably.

The film has been gorgeously shot in black and white, and the director, Paweł Pawlikowski, frames his shots such that the action usually occupies only the lower part of the frame; there is a hovering emptiness — or perhaps a fullness — above, as though there were figures hovering there whom we were just too dull to perceive. Apart from whatever thematic value this might have, it adds something distinctive to the film’s aesthetic qualities. It’s a beautiful, quiet, and tender picture. It won the ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ at the Oscars in 2015.

***

6. Calvary
(John Michael McDonagh, 2014)

Another film that contends with the plague of sexual abuse in the Church, Calvary introduces us to a priest in a rural Irish parish who faces, in a very personal way, the painful fallout of the sins of his brother priests. Brendan Gleeson is superb as the priest — a man of substance, feeling, intelligence, experience, and genuine faith — and the theological aspects of the film are richly developed as, over the course of one week, Gleeson’s priest relives, in his own life, the Passion of Christ. Were St Paul a film reviewer, he might describe it as a portrait of a Christian man, under extraordinary circumstances, being conformed to the image of Christ. Lavishly vulgar and unflinchingly violent, it could nonetheless be defensible Holy Week viewing.

***

5. Knight of Cups
(Terrence Malick, 2015)

A high-wire act of extended cinematic metaphor, Knight of Cups follows Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter, who has lost the thread of his life’s meaning and who must, he faintly recalls, recover it. He lives in forgetfulness, sunk in sensual pleasures and self-gratification, chasing after wind, restless and unsatisfied. It is the story of Pilgrim’s Progress, and our pilgrim must escape life’s hazards and temptations in order to set out for the celestial city.

It’s one of Malick’s most difficult films, stylistically. There is little dialogue, intermittent and often fragmentary voiceover, pervasive symbolism, little conventional acting, multi-layered sound, and discontinuous editing. Images wash over the viewer according to a logic that is difficult to discern; we experience it “under the similitude of a dream”.  And it is gorgeous to look at.

Malick aimed, I think, to capture that universal sense that we are summoned to something higher, that in this world, beautiful as it is, we are exiled from our true native land. To a significant extent he succeeded. It is about all of us, about the quest which each of us must undertake to shake off our slumber, to leave the pomp and empty promises of the world in order to climb the dry and dusty mountain where God dwells.

***

4. A Religiosa Portuguesa
(Eugène Green, 2009)

St Augustine said, “My love is my weight.” It is my love that carries me through the world; it is my love that determines where I will go, and where I will end up. The risk is that we can love the wrong things, or love the right things in the wrong way, and end up where we do not want to be. This is the condition of Julie, the lead character in A Religiosa Portuguesa (The Portuguese Nun), as it is your condition and mine.

Julie is a French actress who is in Lisbon making a film. She has a series of mostly ephemeral romantic entanglements with men, but at night she is drawn to a candle-lit church where a young nun sits quietly before the tabernacle. When she finally speaks to the nun, who is already, in a way, her second self (for Julie is playing a nun in her film), she encounters a kindred soul of depth and understanding. What the nun, Sister Joana, says to her is essentially the Gospel: to find one’s life one must lose it; unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it brings forth no life; love means giving oneself away until there is nothing left, and only then does one find happiness. How many films even try to address a question like, “How can I receive God’s love?” and how many fewer can do so without being trite?

What is wonderful is that this elevated spiritual drama fits comfortably into a movie with a sense of humour, and the frank religiosity of much of the film, which might be too on-the-nose from a more conventional filmmaker, is rendered strange by Green’s suite of distinctive directorial tics such that it slips past our defences.

I have cheated slightly; the film was originally released in 2009, but did not premiere in North America until 2010.

***

3. Of Gods and Men
(Xavier Beauvois, 2010)

Based on the true story of nine Cistercian monks who were caught in the crosshairs of Algerian jihadists in the mid-1990s, this is a moving portrait of true Christian martyrdom, which makes such a striking contrast with what is called martyrdom by jihadists. The film focuses on the monks’ earnest and sometimes agonizing deliberations about whether to stay or to leave the country as the violence around them increases, and the screenwriter has allowed not only considerations of safety and human solidarity to complicate the decision, but the monks also wrestle with the nature of the monastic vocation and the demands of Christian discipleship. Few and far between are films in which sound and serious Christian theology has been integrated so naturally into an intensely dramatic and emotionally compelling story. Considered specifically cinematically, this is perhaps leaning to the pedestrian side, but it is a film of high moral beauty. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2010.

***

2. A Hidden Life
(Terrence Malick, 2019)

Another true tale of martyrdom, and even more intense than the last. Malick sweeps us into the world of St Radegund, a tiny village high in the Austrian Alps, where Franz Jägerstätter and his wife, Fani, are raising their young family, safe, they hope, from the infernal terror raging below. But it is not to be: in time the tentacles of the state snake up into St Radegund and Franz, like everyone else in the village, is made to decide and declare his allegiances.

I cannot think of another film that plays out so decisively against the horizon of the good — here is a man facing a specifically moral decision, and the course he chooses has no advantages to recommend it apart from the transcendental one: it is good. Franz must be incomprehensible to those who believe goodness is something subjective or conventional or confined to a world of immanence (and so it has proved). It is, despite its earthy textures and grounded characters, a film of the spirit that sees people — by implication, you and me — as spiritual beings governed by laws higher than those of nature or state. It is a grand cinematic exhortation.

What most surprised me about A Hidden Life was its emotional power. We expect Malick’s films to be overwhelmingly beautiful marriages of sight and sound — and that holds true here — but at the heart of this film is another marriage, Franz and Fani’s marriage, that is so richly developed that it gives this film a warm, beating heart Malick’s films have not always had. I think of the moment when Fani realizes that Franz has not just been expressing reservations, but intends to allow himself to be swallowed by the evil maw snapping at them, rather than commit an injustice. We feel the agony that either destroys love or forges from it something adamantine.

By any measure a luminous achievement, I believe A Hidden Life has to be given serious consideration in the conversation about which of Malick’s films is his second best.

***

1. The Tree of Life
(Terrence Malick, 2011)

No surprises here. One need only reason out the syllogism: (A) The Tree of Life is the greatest film of the decade of interest to human beings; (B) Catholics are human beings; and therefore (C) The Tree of Life is the greatest film of the decade of interest to Catholics. QED.

I’ve now seen it seven or eight times, and its beauties do not fade. Its mercies are new every morning. Certain images illuminate my imagination: a mother kissing her sleeping child, a stained-glass Christ, a dance in the air, a child swimming toward the light, a field of sunflowers, a little foot cupped by a father’s hands. Malick’s deep dive into memory has left its mark on me — or in me.

It is not possible to say in short compass just what The Tree of Life is doing — I have written about the film at greater length here and here — but I treasure it, in part, for realizing on screen the secret inner life in which a boy awakens to the world and plunges into mystery, a mystery inhabited by a hidden but alluring God. It is a work of wonder.

***

I’d be happy to hear about good films that I ought to have considered, or to hear reasons why I ought not to have bestowed my praise as I have.

Favourites in 2016: Film

December 30, 2016

Today I wrap up these year-end reflections by considering my favourites of the films I saw this year.

I don’t get out to the movies much anymore, so I don’t see movies until they are on DVD. For instance, I’ve seen only a couple of the films on this list of 2016’s best. Instead, I watched a lot of old movies this year, from the likes of Sergio Leone, Howard Hawks, Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, Krzysztof Kieślowski, François Truffaut, Frank Capra, and Charlie Chaplin. These are all great filmmakers, and no doubt those films were great too, but I’m still learning how to appreciate them, and the films I liked best — the 10 I’ve chosen to discuss in this post — are of recent vintage and generally less distinguished pedigree.

***

By way of prelude: It will come as no surprise that the best film I saw in 2016 was, once again, The Tree of Life. In fact this year I enjoyed it even more than before, in part because I had several opportunities to think about it, both when I wrote about it at Light on Dark Water and when I read Peter Leithart’s book on the film.

treeoflifeclimb

But I propose to write today about films I saw for the first time this year.

***

brooklynA young Irish woman leaves her family to travel to New York, c.1950, in search of a better future. She slowly makes a life for herself state-side, but then events in Ireland draw her back, and she finds herself torn between two homes, and two competing visions of her future.

Yes, of the films I saw for the first time this year, and if plentiful tears are anything to go on, my favourite was Brooklyn. I am a little surprised at this, because unlike some of the films I’m going to praise below, this is pretty much by-the-book movie-making. It has no grand ambitions, no particular sense of style, and no philosophical overtones. But what it does have is a compelling human story and a superb actress in the lead role, and those two elements together carry it through triumphantly. Saoirse Ronan has a quiet but commanding presence, and that Irish lilt is irresistible. (Not since Jennifer Ehle was Elizabeth Bennett have I been so ready to fall in love with a leading lady.) It’s a wonderful performance, and it’s a wonderful film that feels like a classic.

***

My favourite comedy of the year was Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship. Adapted by Stillman from a little-known novella by Jane Austen, it follows Lady Susan Vernon (played by Stillman regular Kate Beckinsale) as she picks her way through the lives of her circle of friends and relations in the quest to obtain marriages for herself and her grown daughter.

Lady Susan is a delightful creation: a prodigy of manipulativeness whose capacity for duplicity is boundless and whose conscience is dead. The men in her life, especially — with a notable exception — are helpless before her combination of feminine charms and devious wit. Stillman’s films have all been, to some degree, comedies of manners, so he and Austen are kindred spirits. It feels to me that the period setting, with its latitude for elegant and articulate dialogue, is especially friendly to Stillman’s comedic instincts. Though the film is, at some level, a showcase for guile and hypocrisy, it eventually comes around, as every Austen adaptation must, to a happy ending, and one that feels honest to me. Treachery may have its fascination, but virtue is the charm that most adorns the fair.

Beckinsale dominates the film, but the supporting cast is good. The amiable fool Sir James Martin stands out as a particularly wonderful character; a cheerful idiot whose good intentions leave him ill-prepared to contend against Lady Susan’s wiles; he is played with hilarious volubility by Tom Bennett.

Love & Friendship has its laugh out loud moments, but it’s also a film that has humour in its very bones: in a sense, everything in the film is funny, starting with the title and proceeding through the situations, the characters, the dialogue, and the tone. Even the music, which has been judiciously chosen and carefully integrated into the action, has a comedic role to play. The whole package is highly enjoyable. Decidedly enjoyable. Not unenjoyable at all.

*

My runner-up comedy is 1942’s To Be Or Not To Be, a war-time film about the Nazi invasion of Poland that dared to make the Nazi war machine the subject of farce. One can still sense the dangerous edge of the humour, and apparently the film did offend viewers when first released. But it is easier now to appreciate how well the film is made, to enjoy how delightfully funny it is, and to admire the chutzpah of those who made it.

***

Several films caught my eye this year partly on account of their unusual formal elements.

Dietrich Brüggemann’s searing Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross), from 2014, follows a young woman preparing for Confirmation in a schismatic Catholic sect. A variety of factors have made life difficult for her, and she wants to offer her suffering to God as a sacrifice for the good of others, but, in this as in so many other matters, teenaged judgment is deficient. Bruggemann structures the whole film around the fourteen traditional Stations of the Cross, and commits to filming each of the stations in one static shot — almost, and that ‘almost’ is key. On one level the film is not really, per se, about this fringe sect, but about the hazards encountered by any group that finds itself positioned against a majority while trying to retain its own intrinsic nature and culture. The issue is not about whether they are right to resist the larger culture — and this film grants the truth of what they believe — but about how difficult it can be, fraught with loneliness and isolation, and fringed with risks of imbalance and fanaticism. It’s a potent film that explores religious faith, friendship, and family life using intentionally minimal means, and it has a terrific ending. (I’ve written at more length about the film at Light on Dark Water.)

***

Personal sacrifice also plays an important role in La Sapienza (2014), from writer/director Eugène Green, albeit in a different way and with very different results. The film introduces us to Alexandre, a successful architect who, in the midst of honours bestowed upon him, finds he regrets the principles he has followed in his art. He resolves to travel to Italy to study the works of Borromini, the idol of his younger days. His wife, from whom he is very nearly estranged, comes with him initially, but, as it falls out, it is instead a young man, a budding architecture student, who accompanies him to Rome.

Rome! Over the years I’ve tracked down quite a number of films made in the Eternal City simply for the pleasure of watching the backgrounds, but never have I encountered, or even hoped to encounter, a film that puts the city on such loving display as does La Sapienza. The camera fairly caresses the marble facades, and the viewer is invited to bask in the many beauties on display. To call it magnificent is to undersell it.

But the film is more than surfaces: Green, though the adoption of a whole battery of highly unusual conventions in perspective and acting style, asks us to contemplate the depths that surfaces conceal, and to entertain the thought that beauty might be more than just in the eye of the beholder. It is a film that slowly creates around itself a space in which mysterious currents of the spirit flow. It’s rather profound and very lovely, and is unseen, I believe, by almost everyone. (Again, I’ve written a brief essay about it for Light on Dark Water.)

***

As great as are the challenges posed by these last few films, they pale when set beside Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, a high-wire act of extended cinematic metaphor that, after several viewings, has left me with the sense that I have still only dimly understood it.

The difficulties don’t lie in the basic structure of the film, which is clear enough: we follow Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter, who has lost the thread of his life’s meaning and who must, he faintly recalls, recover it. He lives in forgetfulness, sunk in sensual pleasures and self-gratification, chasing after wind, restless and unsatisfied. It is the story of Pilgrim’s Progress, explicitly so, and our pilgrim must escape life’s hazards and temptations in order to set out for the celestial city.

Many reviewers have said that the film is about the superficiality of Hollywood, but this commits the error of taking literally a film that, it seems to me, takes place almost entirely on an analogical or metaphorical plane. It is about all of us, about the quest which each of us must undertake to shake off our slumber, to leave the pomp and empty promises of the world in order to climb the dry and dusty mountain where God dwells. Hollywood comes into it only because fairy tales work best when the contrasts are bold and consistent, and nothing says pomp and empty promises like Hollywood.

The difficulties of the film lie not in its structure, then, but in its manner. Malick’s recent stylistic hallmarks, following on from To the Wonder, are presented undiluted: almost no on-screen dialogue — and what little there is is often sunk into the mix and made unintelligible — intermittent and often fragmentary voiceover, pervasive symbolism, little conventional acting, discontinuous editing, and — a saving grace — gorgeous cinematography. The images wash over the viewer according to a logic that is often difficult to discern: waves on a shoreline, a city skyline, a road, Rick and one of his (many) girlfriends circling one another, the sun, a swimming pool. It seems to follow a dream logic (and indeed we are told in the first minute of the film that, like Pilgrim’s Progress, it will be “delivered under the similitude of a dream”). This dream aspect allows Malick to mix realism and visual metaphor with gusto. When Rick, at a strip club, crawls into a gilded cage, we understand that a point is being made, and the point is clear. When he stands at a fence gazing at a line of distant palm trees the point may be less evident, until we remember that someone had earlier told him, “You see the palm trees? They tell you anything is possible.” But is this the “possible” of formless self-invention or the authentic “possible” of escaping unreality for reality? Palm trees are trees, tall and thin, which in Malick’s visual vocabulary usually makes them signs of transcendence, reaching instinctively toward the sun.

This call of the transcendent will not leave Rick alone. It seems always present, like the distant roar of the ocean, recalling him to himself especially in his moments of greatest debauchery and aggrandizement. Even when he hears it, however, and even when he heeds it, he faces a recurring question: “How do I begin?” His life’s rotating door for beautiful women testifies to his confusion, for in eros he perceives an intimation of the reality he seeks, though more often than not he mistakes the sign for the reality itself. At one point we hear in voiceover an excerpt from Plato’s Phaedrus, in which feminine beauty is said to remind the soul of the wings which it has lost, evoking in it a desire for flight.

He does eventually begin to recover the thread of his quest, spurred to a significant degree, it seems, by an act of violence that disturbs his restless reverie. He begins to take an interest in meditation, he visits a priest, and, eventually, in one of the more purely metaphorical scenes, he sets foot on the lower slopes of a steep mountain. The resonances with Sinai and Purgatory are very much intended, I expect.

The texture of the film is complex, right down to the sound design. There are moments when there are 3 or even 4 layers of audible “action” occurring at once: on-screen dialogue, interwoven voices of different characters musing to themselves, a narrator, along with music or other sounds. A distinctive feature is that there is almost always a low hum present in the soundtrack; true silence is rare. And this hum is ambiguous, for sometimes it turns out to be the sound of wind or, as I have said, of waves on the shore, but at other times it becomes the sound of a passing car or airplane. It thereby co-operates in one of the film’s leading formal strategies, which is the contrast of the natural world, understood as God’s world, with the textures of modern urban life, the quintessential city of man.

My principal reservations about Knight of Cups pertain to the visual strategy, and in particular to the seemingly disconnected way in which the images sometimes succeed one another. I’ve already conceded that there may be a governing symbolic logic to these sequences, but is the viewer sufficiently tutored in that logic as to able to follow it? A truly great filmmaker should not waste a shot, and while I am convinced that Malick is certainly a great filmmaker, there were moments in Knight of Cups where I was not sure it was a great film, and precisely on these grounds. My jury is still out. The film requires thoughtful attention.

I want to link to two very good essays on the film. At Mubi, Josh Cabrita explores the Christian themes in Malick’s films generally and in Knight of Cups in particular, and at Curator magazine Trevor Logan considers the film from a specifically Kierkegaardian point of view.

***

Successful filmmakers are talented people, and it stands to reason that they might have put those talents to uses other than making movies. Are movies worth committing one’s life to? This is the question explored by the Coen Brothers in Hail, Caesar!, an introspective but witty and appreciative look at the means and ends of movie-making. Set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, it follows a studio executive (Josh Brolin) who has his hands full dealing with the personal foibles of his stars, the intrusive probings of the press, and the many challenges of putting a picture together, all the while pondering an offer to move out of the movie business and into a more practical and respectable line of work. It’s a paen to old-time movies — the Coens take us on set of a number of different productions, but rather than giving us a cursory look they, rather affectionately one feels, let each scene play out in its entirety before moving on — and a good-natured satire on Hollywood too, with bubble-headed big stars in one corner and coteries of Communists hatching dark conspiracies in another. Tonally it’s an odd duck, with farcical elements playing on the surface but serious questions about the value of art underneath. Nevermind, though; the Coens can handle it. Noteworthy are a number of fantastic bit parts played by Scarlet Johanssen, Tilda Swinton, and Ralph Fiennes (whose comic turn as drawing-room drama director Laurence Laurentz is a riot). It’s not quite the greatest story ever told, but it comes closer than you might think.

***

The best horror film I saw this year (from a small sample) was The Witch, the debut of director Robert Eggers. I’ve heard it said that the principal challenge of directing a film lies not so much in the technical aspects, nor specifically in working with the actors and the cameras, but in maintaining a tonal consistency throughout the process, so that the finished product comes to the screen feeling organically put together. Based on this criterion, Eggers is to the manner born. His film rests largely on precisely this careful calibration of tone to generate and maintain suspense. Much of the success of the movie is presumably due to his careful preparation; I understand he gestated this project for several years, doing a great deal of background work to bring the authentic textures of seventeenth-century New England life, including the distinctive cadences of their speech, to the screen.

The movie, which is subtitled “A New-England Folktale”, is about a Puritan family, banished from their community, trying to establish a new farm in a hard-scrabble wilderness on the edge of a great forest. (The location, in all its glorious desolation, was filmed not all that far from where I live.) They experience a series of strange and increasingly disturbing events that hint at the activity of a malevolent supernatural force dwelling in the forest, and the movie follows them as they do their best to contend against it. It’s a slow movie, heavy on atmosphere and dread, that, at least for most of the runtime, keeps its secrets under wrap.

The film has faults. I have particular reservations about the acting of one of the characters (I shant say which), and, like many people, I have some doubts about the way Eggers chose to end the film. However when first I saw it my principal objection was this: in the world of this movie the power of evil is palpable and effective, but the power of good seems impotent. Prayers for safety and deliverance fall, for all we can tell, into the void, and all the while something definitely not imaginary is encroaching on this family’s peace. This is not only a theological problem, but a dramatic one, for there can be no contest of good and evil if goodness is absent. However when I reflected on the initial setup of the story — that this is not simply depicting a Christian family, but a family that has been cast out from the Church — then in a curious way their impotence before the evil that confronts them might be interpreted as a reaffirmation that extra ecclesiam nulla salus. But this still doesn’t solve the dramatic problem.

***

George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1988) is a superb psychological thriller about a man whose wife goes missing while they are on holiday. Part of the tension of the film relates to what happened to her, but much of it is focused on the husband left behind. How can he carry on with his life without knowing what become of her? What would he do if she came back? Can he let her go? What would he do to find out what happened to her? At its heart it’s a love story, and a rather convincing one. It is also a study in the psychology of evil, for we spend much of the film observing a third character who is up to no good. Sluizer’s direction is unobtrusive and perhaps a bit flat, though there are a few key shots that use the camera very effectively.

The Vanishing is sometimes classified as a horror film. I knew this going in, but was puzzled as I watched, for it didn’t seem to have any horror elements at all. But no: having seen it to the end, it earns its horror film credentials, in spades.

Note that I’m praising here Sluizer’s 1988 Dutch-language film (also called Spoorloos). He re-made the film in English in Hollywood in 1993, but that version I hear is dreadful (and not in a good way).

***

The Hunt is a 2012 Danish film that depicts what happens to a small, closely-knit community when one of its members is accused of a terrible crime. Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) helps at his village’s kindergarten, but his life becomes a nightmare when he is (wrongly, as we the viewers know from the start) suspected of sexually assaulting one of the children. This is dark subject matter — though not so dark as if the allegations were true — but it nonetheless makes for riveting drama. Friendships rupture, fear and mistrust spread through the community, and Lucas, of course, is ostracized and personally devastated.

The film is notable not just for its exploration of personal relationships subjected to intense strain, but for its implicit criticism of well-intentioned “zero tolerance” policies. So much that goes wrong in this village goes wrong because “best practices” are allowed to replace prudential human judgment. Naturally, such policies and practices are intended to promote justice, but The Hunt illustrates how easily the opposite can result.

***

Rounding out my Top 10 is About Elly, from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. It was originally made in 2009 but only got an international release in 2015, and I caught up with it this year. It’s a stunner.

The story is about a group of families who go together to a beach-house for the weekend. One of the families invites their child’s teacher, Elly, to come along as a guest. The first half of the film is a loose study of how this group of people interact with one another, how certain personalities dominate, what they think of one another, and how they include or subtly exclude their guest. With deft use of foreground and background and reliance on multiple overlapping conversations it feels like a Robert Altman masterclass, while also preparing us for the film’s crucial sequence.

In that sequence, which occurs at about the mid-point, something happens (which I’ll not reveal); when it is over Elly is gone and no-one is sure where. The second half of the film is then a drama exploring how all of those relationships we learned about in the first half change under stress. We are shown the devastating power of lies, and the film finally arrives at a point where the duty to tell the truth is surpassingly clear and pressing. It’s a terrific movie.

***

Brief thoughts on other films

Apart from the few runners-up already indicated, I also enjoyed this year the CGI-animated The Jungle Book, though it’ll not replace the 1967 film in my affections, and the documentary The Look of Silence, a follow-up to The Act of Killing from Joshua Oppenheimer, a man with a fair claim to be the world’s bravest filmmaker. I saw Spotlight, Best Picture winner at the 2016 Oscars, and while I thought it was quite good, and appreciated its willingness to tell its story clearly and soberly, it wasn’t as good as its model, All the President’s Men (1976), which I also saw this year. Other highlights for me were the harrowing escape drama Green Room, with Patrick Stewart a superb villain, and the off-beat but delightful Bird People, about … bird people.

*

In the waning days of the year I was unexpectedly able to see Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time. This film has been released in two versions: a 90-minute version for regular theatres and a 40-minute version for IMAX theatres. It was the latter that I saw, at our local science centre, with two of my kids and a crowd of holidaying families. This was a bit like going to Disneyland and finding an exhibition of Rembrandt and Titian. My guess is that few of those present were expecting this contemplative, philosophical pondering of what natural history tells us about the universe and ourselves. Malick wonders about the origin of being, about whether consciousness preexists created minds, and whether it is love that animates and unites the natural order. The film is visually stunning — imagine a longer version of the creation sequence in The Tree of Life — and the music, dominated by Mahler 2, Arvo Pärt, and the Mass in B Minor, is superb.

I loved it. I must say, too, that I was proud of my kids (5yo and 7yo), who were fully engaged with it throughout. Eldest Daughter’s favourite part was a quiet moment in which the camera floated gently down a stream between high canyon walls — a lovely moment, to be sure — and Eldest Son’s favourite part was the space shuttle launch — in truth, this was part of the pre-film demonstration of the IMAX theatre’s sound system, but he did very well. Now, if only I could see the longer version…

*

Did you see Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films? I suffered through the first two but dodged the third. But this year I learned that an enterprising fan had edited the trilogy to exclude anything not in the book, which cuts the run-time in half. This Tolkien Edit I did see, and while I would not quite call it good, it was decently enjoyable, and certainly far superior to the theatrical versions.

***

Miscellanea

Oldest films: Dante’s Inferno (1911); Safety Last! (1923); The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Newest films: Voyage of Time: IMAX (October); The Conjuring 2 (June); The Jungle Book (April)

Most films by the same director(s): 4 (Coen Brothers & Terrence Malick)

Longest films: The Right Stuff (1983) [3h13m]; Magnolia (1999) [3h08m]; Fanny and Alexander (1982) [3h08m]

Shortest films: World of Tomorrow (2015) [0h17m]; Night and Fog (1955) [0h32m]; Voyage of Time: IMAX (2016) [0h40m]

Started, but not finished: Dazed and Confused (1993), The Peanuts Movie (2015)

Disappointments: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Safe (1995), The Right Stuff (1983)

Films I failed to understand: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000); La double vie de Véronique (1991)

Most egregious foregrounding of bad music: Sing Street (2016)

Best hagiography: Jean la Pucelle (1994)

Scariest goat: The Witch (2015)

***

And that, more or less, was my year in movies. Comments welcome!

Stations of the Cross

November 9, 2016

I’ve written another contribution to the 52 Movies series at Light on Dark Water. This time the movie is Stations of the Cross, a very interesting 2014 film from German director Dietrich Brüggemann.

Despite its formal elegance, the film occupies a messy middle-ground in which a combination of personal, social, psychological, and spiritual elements combine to turn religion toxic. Exactly what those elements are, and in what proportion they matter to the outcome, is unclear. There is much to ponder.

Read the whole thing here.