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
The primary reason I quit watching Downton Abbey after the second season, and also watch very few television series in general, is that I dislike stories which do not end. In other words, I dislike when there is always some conflict which needs to be resolved, and there can never be a definitive conclusion or resting point. It seems to me that most television dramas can never allow all the character arcs and conflicts to cadence; instead, a new twist must always elide with any conclusive moment and serve as a cliffhanger so the audience will continue watching. Personally, a well told story that comes to a natural end would make me more intrigued to continue watching a new installment.
The finale of the first season of The Churchmen ends with a shocking cliffhanger that will need to be resolved in season 2. I would also wager a guess that some of the resolved conflicts will be revisited and undone in the beginning of the second season. (A look at IMDB’s list of the total episodes for each actor indicates to me that my guess is correct.)
Even though The Churchmen has fallen back upon some trite storytelling techniques for television drama, I do want to commend the writers for a first season which wrestles with themes of forgiveness, mercy, and repentance in ways that highlight the brokenness of all the characters and everyone’s need for God’s mercy, both for those we liked and for those we dislike.
As Ken wrote in his recap of episode seven:
The series does tend to lean a little heavily on the contrast between individual faith (good) and institutional structures (bad, bad, bad).
I think the decision to suggest the hierarchy of the Church is more concerned with appearances than with saving souls is a frustrating and unfairly one-dimensional portrayal, but the acknowledgement of the power of faith and forgiveness to change individual lives is sincere and moving. Enough so, that I choose to see this glass’ portrayal of the Catholic faith as half full.
The opening scene of episode eight is an effective reminder of that forgiveness and mercy which we all need. Raph has gone to see the judge in an attempt to drop the charges against his father’s illegal management of the country. As he tries to blame his now deceased brother, the first thought is: how low is he going to sink in his effort to save his family’s reputation? However, after his exchange with the judge, there is an immediate cut to a shot of Raph sobbing from the stress and tragedy he is experiencing, which manages to evoke sympathy for him, despite his selfish actions.
The other seminarians return to their lives at the seminary, some in a more roundabout way than others. Yann has recovered from his crisis of faith from the past several episodes, after being uncharacteristically nasty in the previous episode and then coming to his senses, sort of like the prodigal son. The homosexual tensions between Emmanuel and Guillaume continues to haunt both of them, and it continues to be the least interesting plot development.
With one exception, the aforementioned cliffhanger, the character arcs for all the seminarians come to uneasy resting points, so that should any one of the actors choose not to return for the second season, writing his character out would seem natural. At the same time, the door is left open to further develop each seminarian.
The vendetta between Fromenger and Monsignor Roman comes to a surprising conclusion, giving an unexpected character a new leadership role. That character’s first act of authority results in the seminary being raided by the police, and as he walks amidst the flotsam and jetsam of the aftermath, the show seems to be commenting on his tenure with a fair bit of snark, which is deserved despite the sympathy the writers have tried to create for that character in other scenes.
Finally, Fromenger’s last scene of the season gives him a natural and moving opportunity to give a speech to the entire seminary, paraphrasing Psalm 139: “[God] didn’t let me down. It was I who lacked faith in Him…He won’t leave you no matter what you do. Only you can abandon Him if you abandon yourselves. And even then, He will still know how to find you.” For a show preoccupied with mercy and forgiveness, that was a fitting and well conceived speech to climax the first season.
Episode 1 (1More Film Blog)
Episode 2 (Catholic Cinephile)
Episode 3 (1More Film Blog)
Episode 4 (Catholic Cinephile)
Episode 5 (1More Film Blog)
Episode 6 (Catholic Cinephile)
Episode 7 (1More Film Blog)
With the preliminary recap that opens episode six of The Churchmen, it is clear that the first season is heading into its final stretch. This recap is the first one of the season to recall scenes from nearly every episode we have seen thus far, and conflicts affecting all the characters are handled reasonably well within the forty-five minute episode.
While developing five separate conflicts without resolving them and connecting those conflicts within one episode is challenging to pull off successfully, this episode mostly succeeds, largely because by this point the personality of all the characters has been well established, and the characters are consistent and familiar enough that their choices seem believable. The lack of resolution for any of the conflicts does give this episode a strong feeling of existing primarily to set up another episode. Naturally, it remains to be seen whether the final two episodes of The Churchmen will be a satisfactory conclusion to episode six’s buildup, although I have so far been impressed enough to think it will be.
The first conflict shown in episode six is a return to the vendetta from episodes one and two between Monsignor Roman and Father Fromenger. Having received the Vatican’s letter to force Fromenger to retire, Roman cancels his meeting with the Little Sisters of the Poor so he can drive to the seminary and hand Fromenger his dismissal in person, making him more of a villain than I initially thought. However, tensions between the Vatican and the Chinese government have been mounting through the past few episodes, and as it turns out, the Chinese ambassador to the Vatican is good friends with Fromenger, and it appears that Fromenger is the only person who can act as a peacemaker. This twist to keep Fromenger at the seminary borders on deus ex machina, but even if it is slightly unbelievable, watching the two cardinals (one Roman’s friend, the other sympathetic to Fromenger) argue over the best way to resolve the tensions with China is compelling drama.
Meanwhile, back at the seminary, several characters are going through crises. Father Bosco is handling his revelation about Fromenger from the last episode with extreme bitterness, which would be expected considering that he idolized Fromenger, and Fromenger failed to live up to Bosco’s expectations. Yann is reeling with disillusionment and an unwillingness to forgive himself after his mistake from the last episode, which also would be expected given his optimistic worldview contained a sort of denial which did not leave much room for sin or mistakes. Raph has suffered a painful family tragedy, and with his natural leadership skills he takes over his family’s affairs, temporarily leaving the seminary. Finally, both Guillaume and Emmanuel are gay and are struggling with affection for each other.
The show seems to be laying the groundwork for four of the five seminarians to withdraw from the seminary at the end of their first year. At the same time, there is a recurring theme that everyone is a mortal human being who makes mistakes, and those mistakes do not disqualify us from fulfilling our God-given vocation. (For the record, while I know many Catholics will disagree with me, I don’t see a particular reason why a man with a same sex attraction could not be a priest. An inability to deny one’s sexual temptations (either homo- or hetero-) and live a life of celibacy is, in my mind, far more disqualifying, and both Guillaume and Emmanuel may lack that control.)
The one seminarian who seems most determined and most suited to become a priest is the ex-convict Jose, and there is a very nice moment where he shines as a natural leader, teacher, and peacemaker, using the story of the Tower of Babel both to quell an argument and teach others about the dignity of all human beings.
At this point, while The Churchmen has overall been positive in its portrayal of Catholicism, accepting the characters’ faith as a natural outlook on life, I do wish to express a little disappointment that the more difficult teachings of the Catholic Church, while not ignored, have been given short shrift when they arise. Guillaume’s argument against abortion in the fourth episode was pathetically weak. An earlier episode alluded that Fromenger disagrees with the Church’s teaching on contraception. While the writers clearly are aware of what actions are grave enough to be a mortal sin, they sometimes seem to be unaware that any sin requires a free act of the will. (Thus Yann’s mistake is somewhat mitigated by his accidental imbibing of a spiked drink.) In this episode, nearly every priest strictly adheres to the now discontinued policy of no funeral for someone who commits suicide, seemingly forgetting that while suicide is gravely immoral, culpability for it (and thus its degree of sinfulness) is very often lessened or completely removed by external factors such as extreme fear, duress, or mental instability as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
I don’t think those inaccuracies are a damning flaw, and they certainly detract neither from the drama nor the compelling and consistent characterization which drives the show. It doesn’t even bother me that the characters struggle with those teachings; many Catholics do as well. However, I think one empathetic character who accepts all the Church’s teachings would make a more complete picture of Catholicism in a show centered around life in a seminary.
Recaps of past episodes:
When Pope St. John XXIII was asked how many people work in the Vatican, he famously responded, “About half.” In his recap of episode three, Ken mentioned that the investigation of the Capuchin seminary spurred by a vendetta between Monsignor Roman and Father Fromenger struck him as potentially unbelievable. The most unbelievable aspect is the speed at which it progresses. While the Vatican probably would look into any complaint brought forward on both sides, the speed at which it would would be reminiscent of the Ents in The Lord of the Rings.
The fourth episode of season one of The Churchmen has a few other similar inaccuracies in its depiction of the Catholic faith. Most of those relate to the use of Catholic terminology. My first thought after this episode was that I wish I spoke French. After a misuse of the word “beatification” in the previous episode and this episode containing a scene which confuses “Eucharist” with “consecration,” I am wondering whether the very small theological slips are a writing problem or a translation problem in the subtitles.
A Christmas gathering at which “Silent Night” is sung makes me think it is a writing problem. While the lyrics of “Silent Night” which The Churchmen provides via subtitles are substantially different than the English ones (as well as the original German lyrics), those lyrics are an accurate translation of how the French version of the famous carol goes:
Douce nuit, sainte nuit!
Dans les cieux! L’astre luit.
Le mystère annoncé s’accomplit
Cet enfant sur la paille endormi,
C’est l’amour infini!
C’est l’amour infini!
The last two lines translate: “this is infinite love,” which is what appeared on the show. Running the rest through Google translate, the result mostly matches the lyrics which the show provided.
The confusion between “Eucharist” and “consecration” comes right before that Christmas gathering. The five seminarians are spending Christmas with Father Galzun, a depressed alcoholic priest who has decided his parish hates him, and as revenge he won’t celebrate Christmas Mass. (The show seems to be unaware the fact that if a priest actually did that, as soon as his local bishop heard, the repercussion would be swift and severe.) As a result, the optimistic Yann insists that the people should have some celebration for Christmas, and he says that as seminarians they can do everything (readings, hymns, and prayers) except the Eucharist. Actually, the seminarians can distribute the Eucharist to the congregation from whatever previously consecrated hosts are in the tabernacle; since they are not priests, they cannot consecrate more hosts into the body of Christ. It did not seem to me the show knew the difference.
Despite subtle inaccuracies like that, I still think The Churchmen remains well above average both as a drama and in its depiction of Catholicism. All the seminarians are believable characters, and I appreciate the way each episode focuses on different ones. The different interpretations that characters bring to their shared Catholic faith is believable, and it is remarkable that despite those differences, the show remains villain-less. Cardinal Roman is the closest any character comes to being a villain, but he is barely in this episode, and even so there are subtle hints that he may be reconsidering his vendetta with Fr. Fromenger.
The conflict between Roman and Fromenger is developed through the perpetually anxious Father Bosco, who lies to Fromenger that he needs to spend time with his family as a pretense for going to Rome and begging Monsignor Gandz not to remove Fromenger. The results of the investigation from the past two episodes are less damning then one might expect; the worst thing is that the accounting is sloppy. However, a new twist reveals that Fromenger has been fixing his accounts with the help of a loan shark, so there will be more money for maintaining the seminary.
Between Fromenger’s fraud; Bosco’s lies, manipulation, recurring contempt, and self-induced anxiety; and Fr. Galzun’s appalling shirking of his duties; this episode shows us three priests with significant moral failings, some of which could potentially be grounds for laicization. It seems that each of the seminarians will also be tested in ways that question whether they should continue in the seminary or not.
Yann remains a perpetual optimist. He is tested more in this episode than he has been, but an admission from a village woman that everyone needs priests gives him renewed energy. In my review of episode 2, I said Raph and Claire might have an affair. While Raph is haunted by dreams of committing adultery, nothing comes of it, except an email at the episode’s end from Raph to Claire saying he is going to remain faithful to the path he chose. In light of the recent scandals which have plagued the Church, Emmanuel’s revelation from episode 3 is perhaps dealt with naively, but the show indicates that he has repented. It will be interesting to see if anything else comes from that.
The most interesting and regrettably most shallowly handled conflict is the one that plagues Guillaume. However, since Guillaume’s decision happens within the last ten minutes of the episode, I suppose it is likely that the consequences will be handled in future episodes. His teenage sister Odile decides to commit a gravely sinful act, and after some weak protestations from Guillaume, he decides to help her, even as he is overwhelmed by guilt. Whether his actions are an affirmation of his sister’s decision, or simply being present to protect her is something that could have been explored more, and this is another conflict I am curious to see how the show handles.