It’s probable that few Catholics will want to see this film, but it’s one that they should.
A huge thanks to Ken Morefield for setting up this opportunity:
Year of release: 2015 Directed by Dietrich Brüggemann. Starring Lea van Acken, Franziska Weisz, Florian Stetter, Lucie Aron, and Moritz Knapp.
The first comparison which came to my mind watching Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross was Kieslowski’s The Decalogue. Both films take their titles from a religious item (a well known Catholic devotion and a famous scripture passage, respectively) which also serves as an inspiration for a modern dramatization of the underlying concept behind the titular item. In Stations of the Cross, watching the fourteen year old Maria (Lea van Acken) go through fourteen various encounters, each reminiscent of the corresponding Station of the Cross, becomes a vehicle for a critique of fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism is always an easy and deserved target for critique. It is to the credit of director Dietrich Brüggemann and his film that this critique achieves an astounding level of pain and tragedy without devolving into parody. The first scene (Jesus is condemned to death) sets the stage for the film exceedingly well. It shows Maria to be a conscientious, sensitive, and studious girl who desperately wants to devote her life to Christ. She is in a preparation class for her upcoming Confirmation, and her pastor Fr. Weber (Florian Stetter) explains to them they are becoming warriors for Christ, a regrettably overused and rather inaccurate analogy even among non-fundamentalist Catholics. As Fr. Weber encourages them to make sacrifices to attain holiness, Maria wants to go one step further: sacrifice her whole life to God for her mute four year old brother. While Fr. Weber clearly means sacrifice as a life of prayer and self-denial, Maria takes it much more literally, and the film’s remaining thirteen tableaux show her struggles to be holy as she understands it from her fundamentalist church community and family.
The fourth tableau (Jesus meets his mother) highlights the relationship between Maria and her family and the primary way in which the film dramatizes its source material. Maria asks her Mother (Franziska Weisz) if she can sing in the choir of another Catholic church, which performs mostly Bach and little soul and gospel as well. However, Maria and her family are members of a Catholic Church which not only adheres to the Tridentine Rite (pre-Vatican II Latin Mass for any non-Catholic readers), but also believes the introduction of the Novus Ordo (Mass in the vernacular) with Vatican II was when the devil entered the church and corrupted it by invalidating the Mass. Naturally, soul and gospel (as well as rock and pop music) are demonically influenced, and Maria receives a stern lecture about damning her soul for music. The episode is extremely painful to watch, but in the opposite way that Jesus’ encounter with His own mother was painful on His walk to Calvary.
Other scenes also show the subversion which this approach to faith results in. The sixth station is Veronica wiping the face of Jesus as an act of compassion. In that scene Maria’s face is wiped with her tears as she’s humiliated for apologizing to her mother. The eighth station is Jesus speaking to the women of Jerusalem to console them. That scene consists of a very upset Maria telling another student to leave her alone, because he’s an obstruction on her path to holiness.
Each one of those episodes is shot in a single take with a motionless camera, creating a long still take which adds to the tension and tragedy that encompasses Maria’s life. There are two notable exceptions to the otherwise motionless camera, and those moments remind the viewer that the austerity of Maria’s fundamentalist family and church is not the final word or an example of true religion, which becomes exceedingly clear when the camera slowly moves to a God’s point of view shot at a crucial moment.
My one miniscule complaint is that if someone knows the Stations of the Cross (and I do quite well) it becomes fairly easy to figure out where the film is going and how it is going to end, especially when the ninth tableau begins a more literal application of the stations to Maria’s life. However, Brüggemann has some surprisingly thoughtful touches which he saves until the end.
Last year’s Ida similarly explored questions of faith and doubt in a broken world, using long takes and infrequent camera movement as well. One big difference between Ida and Stations of the Cross; however, was that Ida depicted characters struggling with doubts. Here the characters are rigid in their mentalities. Both films raise challenging questions for the viewer, but if there’s one thing that keeps Stations of the Cross just short of greatness, it is the unchanging attitudes of all its characters (including Maria). Nonetheless, this is still a very, very good film about faith, fundamentalism, and loss.
Content Advisory: Very tense scenes of family discord, depictions of an emotionally abusive family.
Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment
Personal Recommendation: A-
Thanks to Ken Morefield for publishing my review.
Everyone knows the classic storyline in which an awkward protagonist ends up feeling betrayed by the unique newfound friend who gave said awkward protagonist a new confident outlook on life, because that friend, who had been overly idolized, makes an asinine mistake. What this film presupposes is: what if the newfound friend was never overly idolized and what if the awkward protagonist is the one who makes the asinine mistake?
Mistress America is a film that defies any simple genre classification. Sure, it’s certainly a comedy, highlighting the humor in perfectly ordinary situations, exaggerating and laughing with the characters at the small everyday blunders everyone makes. (Panicking over what type of pasta to buy for a casual gathering is one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year.) At the same time, the film is keenly aware of the brokenness and hurt that small acts of selfishness cause, acts which most people don’t even think about. Consequently, it takes a sobering dramatic turn, which briefly threw me for a loop, even though the more I think about it, the more perfectly that turn ties the film together.
Tracy (Lola Kirke) is our awkward protagonist, who desperately wants to be accepted into the cool lit-club as she begins her freshman year at college in NYC. Shy enough not to get invited to parties, confident enough to fall asleep in a twelve-person class, and self-conscious enough to be overly guarded around anyone she wants to impress, Tracy seems like a fairly typical college student: fairly intelligent yet anxious and lost regarding to how she fits into the world.
Brooke (Greta Gerwig) has no qualms about how she fits into the world. As she haphazardly descends into Tracy’s life (literally, that’s Gerwig’s first entrance), she inspires the fledgling writer with a passion for life and confidence in her abilities. The two are soon to be step-sisters, as Tracy’s mom is marrying Brooke’s dad, and they bond better than many sisters, as Brooke unreservedly welcomes Tracy into her life, showing her the city and the odd collection of jobs she works, all the while dreaming of opening a restaurant.
Brooke’s happy-go-lucky lifestyle is naturally perfect for Gerwig’s effervescent screen persona, even going so far as to reference one of her repeated quirks from Frances Ha with an easy to miss cameo. However, small cracks appear in the world which Brooke has constructed and which Tracy eagerly accepts. None of Brooke’s grand plans ever seem to come to fruition. All of her money is precariously tied up in the restaurant, which could fall through at any moment. An old high school acquaintance of Brooke runs into them in a bar, and her bitterness at Brooke’s past teasing of her clearly reveals real hurt, even as Brooke downplays the incident and refuses to apologize for something she barely remembers and doesn’t really believe was wrong.
At the same time, Tracy is careening down a path which will soon place her in a similar situation to the one Brooke was in with her former high school acquaintance. Tracy may be enamored of Brooke when around her, but when she writes her short stories (inspired by one of Brooke’s failed ideas) she’s acutely aware of Brooke’s imperfections and unhesitant to dramatize them. The result is a scene familiar to any film about a budding friendship, yet played out from an unexpected point of view, humorously providing more than one side to a multitude of characters.
As Tracy reads her story via voiceover, the story highlights the aspect which Brooke and Tracy share, which makes their friendship so natural and believable, as unexpected and unusual as it may be. Both of them try to fit into the world both as it is and as they want it to be, aware of its imperfections, yet overlooking their own, believing that they have the power to change it through a story or a restaurant even as they let other aspects of their lives fall apart. The desire to cast oneself as a superhero, saving the world on the side like a “Mistress America,” is a folly which I think is fairly common. The reality is other perspectives exist all around us, and we often chose not to perceive them, and the consequences of our selfishness are funny and sad, but only because we recognize how we have messed up and how we have an opportunity to do better.
Throughout all the screwball shenanigans Mistress America maintains whimsical tone, finding humor in both joy and sorrow. It may not quite be the masterpiece that is Frances Ha, but it is another great film from Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, proving them to be one the best writer-director teams working today.
Personal Recommendation: A
I debated for awhile on whether or not I should write a review of God’s Not Dead, last year’s surprise faith-based hit. On the one hand, it’s the type of movie at which it is easy to take cheap shots, which can be fun and cathartic, but at the same time, even if those shots are deserved, they can be unfair to the filmmakers and also unfair to people who genuinely like the movie and do not understand why it’s not only bad art but also bad theology.
However, last weekend saw the latest offering of “Christian Cinema,” War Room, top the box office, (which I have not seen and hope not to) and I decided I should comment on the movie which proved to Hollywood that “feel good” movies targeted to Christian audiences can be huge financial successes.
If you’re wondering why a self-proclaimed Catholic film critic is so emphatically negative towards a low budget film by Christian filmmakers that was intended to promote the Gospel, then please bear with me as I explain. I chose the title “Catholic Cinephile” for this blog for two reasons. First, I believe all the Catholic Church teaches and professes to be revealed by God, and that influences my movie watching. Secondly, I believe in the power of art to transform, inspire, and move us closer to the divine. Good art makes the world a more beautiful place, and bad art makes it uglier. Cinema is an art form, for which I have cultivated a love and which I wish to study in order to recognize and appreciate beauty and truth as presented by the artists who make films.
As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his 1999 letter to artists:
Through his “artistic creativity” man appears more than ever “in the image of God”, and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous “material” of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him. With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of His own surpassing wisdom, calling the human artist to share in His creative power. Obviously, this is a sharing which leaves intact the infinite distance between the Creator and the creature, as Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa made clear: “Creative art, which it is the soul’s good fortune to entertain, is not to be identified with that essential art which is God himself, but is only a communication of it and a share in it”.
As I said above, the unfortunate reality is that movies such as God’s Not Dead (and Fireproof and Facing the Giants) are very bad art. As a result they neither contribute to the beautification of the world nor spreading the Gospel (which the filmmakers presumably hoped to do with said movies.)
If there is any doubt that God’s Not Dead is terrible cinema, here are some examples from the script. A woman is diagnosed with cancer; when the doctor tells her, she responds: “I don’t have time for cancer; I’m too busy.” When that woman tells her boyfriend, his response is: “Couldn’t this wait ’til tomorrow?” In case it’s not obvious, both of those characters are atheists, and in the world of God’s Not Dead, atheists are terrible selfish people with no social skills or basic human decency, which makes it odd that many of the atheists have prestigious jobs, because one usually needs those skill sets to acquire such positions. The reality is human beings do not speak as either of those characters do, but the makers of God’s Not Dead are not interested in portraying atheists as human beings, but rather as fictitious boogeymen out to crucify poor defenseless Christians, as blatantly reinforced by naming the pastor Reverend Dave (against atheist Goliaths). To which I reply: if one cannot love the atheist they have seen, how can they love God whom they have not seen? (cf. 1 John 4:20)
Nowhere is the disdain for atheists more apparent than the climactic scene, when Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) who challenged college freshman Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) to prove God exists or “commit academic suicide” and then blackmailed Josh outside of class, and is somehow next in line to be the department head, has been humiliated in front of his class, spurned by his girlfriend, and finally gets hit by a car. As he’s fatally injured, the film cuts to a God’s point of view shot (angling the camera downward at a ninety degree angle), suggesting that God has willed the vengeful humiliation and death of the antagonist, because in being injured he repents and accepts Jesus as his savior. My advice to anyone who thinks this portrayal of God as a petty, vengeful middle school bully is something to celebrate is to read Ezekiel 33:11. (I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked…)
I’ll mention three other examples of horrendous filmmaking. First is a scene in which a Muslim girl is secretly listening to Christian sermons on her iPod. The movie needs her extremist father to angrily throw her out of the house, so for no reason at all, as she’s quietly sitting in her room after school, her little brother sneaks in and takes the iPod and shows their father. Next, when Josh cites a renowned theist to correctly call Stephen Hawking’s argument against the existence of God an example of circular reasoning, Josh then turns around and uses circular reasoning to “prove” the existence of God. His philosophy professor, who’s supposedly very intelligent, fails to notice this. Finally, the woman who is diagnosed with cancer discovers her car with the window smashed in and her GPS stolen. She says, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” That’s a good summary for much of the film, because in reality, the word which most actual human beings would use in such a situation is one that rhymes with duck (or maybe odd slam hit).
Art cannot and should not exist in a vacuum. Consequently, good art will be aware of the condition of the world. A whitewashed world where you can tell heroes from villains by who looks forward to a Newsboys concert is neither realistic nor does it share in the divine creativity of God, because it ignores the reality of God’s greatest creation (humankind) in favor of contrived messages and code symbols designed to give those in the know a feeling of superiority.
The common objection to all these points is that faith-based films, such as God’s Not Dead, “made me feel good.” The question to ask oneself is “why did I feel good?” Is it because my preconceived worldview was confirmed as I was pandered to? Is it because an ostensibly Christian protagonist was vindicated, even if that involved clear hatred for one’s enemy? Joel Mayward fleshes this phenomenon out in detail, but he is absolutely correct here:
The response of “I liked it, so stop critiquing it” may be an indicator that our faith is placed in something less than the death-and-resurrection power found in Jesus and the reign of his kingdom values in our world. Jesus doesn’t invite us to be nice so that everything works out to make us happy. He bids us to come and die, to live a life of sacrificial love, compassion, justice, and mercy.
The belief that if you proudly stand up and proclaim your faith, God will reward you has an obvious appeal for Christians. Not only does God’s Not Dead twist that into be a jerk to your enemies, it also prevents a version of faith so naive that books of The Bible such as “Job,” “Lamentations,” and “Hosea” have absolutely no place in its world. Remember by what act Jesus draws the world to Himself (or uplifts us)? That is completely foreign to God’s Not Dead and many other examples of “Christian cinema.”
Personal Recommendation: F