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Tony Watkins’s article on Florian Henckel von Donnersmark’s Das Leben Der Anderen (The Lives of Others) on the transforming effect of art and love on an East German Stasi officer.

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Having republished my Film & Bible Blog article on _Philomena_ a couple of days ago, I’ve just come across this quote from Steve Coogan in my notebook. . . .

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A Fresh Start – Noah

23 September 2014 — Leave a comment

Darren Aronofsky is a visionary and ambitious film-maker who constantly grapples with big themes in his work. Noah continues in this line as it explores significant – and very relevant – tensions within humanity: between benevolent care for the environment and greedy exploitation, between duty and self-interest, and of course, between good and evil. Aronofsky, along with co-writer Ari Handel, explores these issues and others in spectacular, epic style in the context of one of humanity’s oldest stories.
This post was first published in Film & Bible Blog. © Tony Watkins 2013.

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Philomena

22 September 2014 — Leave a comment

This post was first published in Film & Bible Blog. © Tony Watkins 2013.
For discussion material on this film, see Sophie Lister’s Damaris Film Blog discussion guide and the supplementary questions in the published version of this article in the Film & Bible Blog

Philomena

Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) has lived with a secret for five decades. As a devout Roman Catholic, she has wrestled with the question of whether her sin of deception is greater or lesser than the sin which she has been covering up: having a baby outside of marriage. In Ireland in the early fifties, this was a scandal so terrible that, when Philomena’s pregnancy was discovered, she was sent to the convent in Roscrea. There she was to have her baby – without pain relief, regardless of complications – before slaving in the convent laundry seven days a week for the next four years. This was her penance as a ‘fallen woman’. Philomena was allowed to see her son, Anthony, for just one hour a day. Then with no warning, when Anthony was just three when years old, he was taken away by an American couple who had paid to adopt him. She never saw him again.

Fifty years on, Philomena no longer feels able to keep her secret, and she tells her daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) what happened. While waitressing at a party later that evening, Jane encounters journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who co-produced and co-wrote the film), recently sacked from his post as a Labour party spin doctor and unsure about what to do next. Despite deriding ‘human interest’ stories as being for ‘vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people’, what Jane tells him grabs his attention, and he soon agrees to help Philomena find her son, and to write an article about it for a newspaper.

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in PhilomenaJudi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena. © Pathé, 2013. Used by permission.

The intellectual, middle-class Englishman and the elderly, down-to-earth Irish woman make an odd couple as they embark on their search. Martin is a hard, cynical journalist who seems to be driven as much by anger at the injustices experienced by Philomena at the hands of the Catholic Church as by the need to have his article published. His background as a former altar boy[1] who has turned his back on God feeds into this. When Philomena wants to go to confession, Martin’s anger bursts out: ‘The Catholic Church should go to confession, not you! Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I incarcerated a load of young women against their will, used them as slave labour, and sold their babies to the highest bidder.’

Philomena, by contrast, is warm-hearted, sees the good in everybody, and has a simple faith in God – though her understanding of him owes much more to the nuns’ teaching than to the Bible. Yet alongside her faith she carries an intense burden of guilt, which has overshadowed her life for half a century. ‘What made it so much worse is that I enjoyed it,’ she says to Martin. ‘The sex. It was wonderful… . And after the sex was over, I thought, anything that feels so lovely must be wrong.’ This view of sexuality is completely at odds with Martin’s perspectives, and he swears strongly, before explaining his problem: ‘It’s just that, why would God bestow upon us a sexual desire that he then wants us to resist? Is it some weird game he’s invented to alleviate the boredom of being omnipotent? Baffles me. And I think I’m pretty clever.’ ‘Well, maybe you’re not,’ Philomena responds. His Oxbridge education and high-flying career count for little in her eyes.

Steve Coogan and Judi Dench in PhilomenaSteve Coogan and Judi Dench in Philomena
© Pathé, 2013. Used by permission.

There’s plenty that baffles Martin when it comes to religion, which he dismisses as ‘blind faith and ignorance’:

I read a very funny headline in a satirical newspaper the other day, about the earthquake in Turkey. It said ‘God outdoes terrorists yet again.’ Why God feels the need to wipe out hundreds of thousands of innocent people escapes me. You should ask [the priest] about that while you’re in [confession]. He’ll probably say, ‘He moves in mysterious ways.’

Martin’s vaunted cleverness elicits another quick put-down from Philomena: ‘No. I think he’d say you were a fecking eejit.’ No answers to Martin’s challenge are forthcoming, however. And when Philomena goes into the confession box, wordlessly weeping for her lost boy as much as for any of her sins, the priest is unable to say any more than ‘Have faith, my dear. God will forgive you.’

Steve Coogan in PhilomenaSteve Coogan in Philomena
© Pathé, 2013. Used by permission.

Martin finally comes face to face with Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford), who meted out much of the cruelty Philomena endured in the convent, and he voices his anger: ‘what’s disgusting is lying to a dying man. You could have given him a few precious moments with his mother before he passed away, but you chose not to. That’s disgusting… . Not very Christian is it?’’ When Sister Hildegarde claims that, ‘The Lord Jesus Christ will be my judge, not the likes of you,’ Martin challenges her understanding of Jesus’s values: ‘Really? Because I think if Jesus was here now he’d tip you out of that f****** wheelchair and you wouldn’t get up and walk!’

The idea that Jesus would tip an old woman out of her wheelchair is unlikely, but the God-denying journalist is actually much closer to an understanding of Jesus’s values than the nun. Jesus’s strongest words were directed at the self-righteous religious people, who ‘crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden’ (Luke 11:46). What Sister Hildegarde expresses is at odds with the Bible: ‘I have kept my vow of chastity my whole life. Self-denial and mortification of the flesh – that’s what brings us closer to God. Those girls have nobody to blame but themselves, and their own carnal incontinence… . Their suffering was atonement for their sins.’ She understands the seriousness of sin, but nothing else.

Steve Coogan and Judi Dench in PhilomenaSteve Coogan and Judi Dench in Philomena
© Pathé, 2013. Used by permission.

Nowhere does the Bible ever suggest that we can make atonement for our sins through suffering. On the contrary, it insists that we are helpless to do anything about it. In his letter to the church in Rome, the apostle Paul says that all kinds of behaviour put us under God’s judgment (see Romans 1:8–34) – all arising from the basic human disposition to value something more highly than God in our lives. He goes on to argue that we can never become righteous enough for God through what we do: ‘For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are’ (Romans 3:20). In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah makes the same point: ‘All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away’ (Isaiah 64:6).

Paul insists that we are helpless to do anything about our predicament, but that God himself did everything necessary for us to be forgiven through the death of his son, Jesus Christ:

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God. (Romans 5:6–11)

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in PhilomenaJudi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena
© Pathé, 2013. Used by permission.

Contrary to what Sister Hildegarde says, we do not get closer to God by our actions, and nobody atones for their sins through suffering. The Bible teaches that we come to God simply through faith in his grace and mercy, and that Jesus atones for us through his suffering: ‘Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God’ (1 Peter 3:18). The priest in the confessional box may not have said much, but what he did say pointed in exactly the right direction: ‘Have faith, my dear. God will forgive you.’

It’s hard to be sure quite what Philomena understands of her faith, but she does finally see that it is about grace, not condemnation. While Martin is full of righteous anger at Sister Hildegarde, Philomena simply says to her, ‘I want you to know that I forgive you.’ Martin is astonished at this apparently easy forgiveness, but Philomena insists that it’s no such thing: ‘That’s hard for me. But I don’t want to hate people. I don’t want to be like you.’ Martin and Hildegarde come from very different places, but they are both characterised by self-righteous denunciation of others. Philomena, however, understands at least a little of the heart of Jesus. When a woman caught in adultery was brought before Jesus, he challenged her accusers saying, ‘let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone’. When they all slipped away, leaving only the woman with Jesus, he said to her, ‘Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you? … Neither do I. Go and sin no more’ (John 8:1–11).

Footnotes


  1. This reflects Steve Coogan’s background, rather than that of the real Martin Sixsmith.  ↩

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Gravity poster

In the previous post, I explained the allusive nature of film, and the fact that films can be open to more than one way of reading them. The first way of reading Gravity is to see it as an impressive, but straightforward action movie with no deeper meanings – that is, reading it denotatively. The second is to see it in naturalistic terms as the triumph of the human spirit and the denial of any spiritual dimensions to reality. This views some images as not merely denoting exactly what they show, but connoting additional meanings.

The third main reading of Gravity views the religious images and language connotatively, but views the final escape sequence more denotatively. On this view, Ryan’s lament, while trapped in the entangled Soyuz capsule, about no one having taught her to pray – which she repeats, underlying it’s importance – is itself an act of prayer. This is a woman without spiritual background who is at the very limit of her resources; she longs to reach out to God, but has no clue how.

Ryan has a vague sense of life after death, but no confidence of attaining it. She mourns the fact that no one will pray for her soul and hopes Aningaaq might do so – though of course he doesn’t understand a word she’s saying. She is communicating with him ‘in the blind’ (that is, communicating in the knowledge that the transmission may not be heard or understood) as so many of the transmissions to Houston are. Her expressions of hopelessness are explicitly spiritual; are they communicating with God in the blind? Indeed, Kowalski earlier explains the need to keep transmitting in the blind by saying, ‘If someone is listening, they might just save your life’.

Sandra Bullock © Warner Bros. Used by permissionSandra Bullock © Warner Bros. Used by permission
One small image at this point is very powerful. Dr Stone has shed tears, one of which is floating in front of, and moving away from, her. At the point at which she grieves that she has not been taught how to pray, the focus shifts to this tear. Denotatively, it’s just a tear in space; connotatively, it can be seen as a potent symbol of her inarticulately reaching out to God.

On this reading, the appearance of Kowalski (in a bright white space suit, in contrast to Ryan’s grubby grey one) appears to be in response to her expression of spiritual need (which was focused on her apparently inevitable and imminent death, not of resources to survive). Whether he is a dream or an angel doesn’t really matter.

It is worth reflecting on the way in which Kowalski functions as some kind of Christ figure within Gravity. He has a wonderful love of life, and is profoundly moved by the beauty of earth and space. His role as a self-sacrificing rescuer is obvious. During the rescue, he repeatedly instructs her to let go of, or detach from, the things which she instinctively clings to for safety. He also tells her that she needs to learn to let go of her ideas that she can rescue him as he drifts away.

The religious symbols on the two escape craft, on this reading, are not merely denoting the cultures of the crew, but connote the existence of a spiritual reality (it’s important to recognise that it is not suggesting a Christian understanding of a spiritual reality, or even a theistic one; the shot of the Buddha on the Shenzhou suggests a pluralist view). The St Christopher icon is framed very explicitly right after the appearance of Kowalski at exactly the moment when Stone says, ‘right, let’s stabilise you.’

Sandra Bullock © Warner Bros. Used by permissionSandra Bullock © Warner Bros. Used by permission
Now, while the second (naturalistic) reading of Gravity views the religious imagery and language denotatively and the final escape from the Shenzhou connotatively, the third (spiritual) reading does the opposite, seeing the escape from the submerged capsule denotatively.

That is, on the third reading, the frog is just a frog – it is not evoking Darwin, but making clear to the viewer that she is in a freshwater lake rather than the sea (it is also briefly possible to see this before the capsule touches down). The fact that the radio picks up both mission control and a snippet of an American radio station with a weather forecast for the Midwest shows that she has returned to a place not far from her home by Lake Zurich.

Ryan Stone crawls onto the beach and struggles to her hands and knees before cautiously but determinedly standing up. Is this really denoting the evolutionary process, or simply a reflection of how hard it would be for an astronaut, having been through such an ordeal, to find her feet? It is certainly an explicit reference back to something that Matt Kowalski says to her in the Soyuz craft: ‘You’ve got to plant both feet on your ground and get on with living your life.’ Her struggling to her feet – with the camera then fixed on her feet and legs – communicates both her achievement and her new determination to live, not merely work and drive.

Gravity can be read in at least three radically different ways, then. Is one of these the correct reading, the only allowable reading? Not at all. If you want to see it simply as an action movie without deeper layers of meaning, you can do so. Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón had metaphorical ideas in their minds as they wrote it, but they have not said ‘this is what it means’. Like all good filmmakers they have left it to us to interpret the elements, but because of the nature of metaphor and the allusive nature of film, viewers will not agree on what it means. The Cuaróns know what they were thinking about, but all we can do is weigh up the evidence to come to our conclusions on how to read it.

At the start of our discussion at the Keswick Unconventional Film Club, the audience was about three or four to one in favour of the film pointing to some spiritual reality. I doubt that will have changed much during the interaction, though I forgot to take another straw poll at the end to see. You can probably guess easily enough which way I lean. Having now watched it four times – twice in the last three days – I have become even more convinced of the third reading. But that still doesn’t make it the ‘right’ way to read it.

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This post has been delayed as I’ve been away and without internet access for the last week. Part two will be published in a little while.

Gravity poster

The final day of the Keswick Unconventional Film Club was, for me at least, the most fun of the week. Having found myself in a little Twitter debate about it a day or two ago, I was already reflecting on at least one of the directions our discussion was likely to go in. But more of that shortly. First, it’s worth a comment or two on the nature of film.

Images in films can create meaning in two ways – they can be denotative or connotative. The denotative meaning is the obvious, surface level meaning. An image of a punch in a film denotes exactly what it shows, even though we know that one actor has not really hit the other. Connotative meanings arises because images can represent other things – they are symbols or signs which represent other things to us.

Connotative meanings play a very significant role in films. At its best, film is an allusive medium. That is, film tends to refer to things indirectly rather than being explicit about them. That’s why an oft-quoted adage of film-making is ‘show, don’t tell.’ Film is brilliant at hinting at things, and juxtaposing them so that the viewer can make the connection without actually saying ‘look, this links with that.’ When film-makers start being too explicit, viewers find it clumsy, heavy-handed and artless.

This inevitably means that films are often open to multiple readings. Two people may well infer different connotative meanings from images within a particular film. Some people may see an additional connotative meaning to an image or shot which has a clear denotative meaning.

© Warner Bros. Used by permission© Warner Bros. Used by permission

What has this to do with Gravity? Alfonso Cuarón is a director who very much works at the connotative level, rather than the merely denotative. Gravity has a number of images, shots and scenes which can be read in more than one way. This results in at least three substantially different readings of the film as a whole.

The first is to read it purely denotatively: Ryan Stone (played brilliantly by Sandra Bullock) finds the mental and emotional resources, experiencing a hallucination along the way, to overcome immense challenges and get home. Nothing in the film points beyond itself to a deeper level of meaning. Cuarón, and his son Jonas who co-wrote the film, have said enough in interviews to make clear that they intend it to be understood at a metaphorical level. In particular, Cuarón has said that outer space is a metaphor for inner space. That doesn’t mean you must read it in that way, though.

The second main way of reading Gravity is to see it as a story of the triumph of the human spirit and a statement of the indomitable will of the species to survive. This reading is a step beyond the denotative reading of the film as a whole, but still reads many of the images in that way. The two explicitly religious images – the icon of St Christopher in the Soyuz capsule and the Buddha figure in the Shenzhou capsule – are simply objects that happen to be there because of the particular cultural backgrounds of the Russian and Chinese crews. They mean nothing more than the Marvin figure in the shuttle or the table tennis bat in the Tiangong.

On this reading, when Ryan despairs of life in the Soyuz and laments that nobody taught her how to pray, it is an expression of the futility of religion. The surprising appearance of Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is a figment of her imagination. As she subconsciously reflects on his words to her, she is able to figure out a solution to her problem and is re-energised by the hope which that gives her.

The end of the film is then sees as Darwinian symbolism: as Ryan escapes from the submerged capsule, the frog reminds us of the evolutionary process. She collapses onto the land, then crawls on all fours before standing on her two feet: a triumphant human.

The third main reading of Gravity will need to wait for a second post.

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Beasts Of The Southern WildBeasts Of The Southern Wild

Day four of the Keswick Unconventional Film Club found us watching Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin’s extraordinary magic realist film, which is unlike any other I can think of. During or after our discussion yesterday evening, one person compared aspects of it to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and another compared it to Lord of the Flies, yet as a whole it is radically different from either of those.

Six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis plays the central character of Hushpuppy, who lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in extreme poverty on an island, which they call the Bathtub, in a Louisiana bayou. There is a debate to be had over whether the film romanticises poverty or celebrates human dignity even in the most deprived circumstances. On the latter view, Beasts of the Southern Wild portrays Hushpuppy’s world as immensely rich in the things which matter most: friendship, joy, freedom, a close relationship with the natural world.

Yet there is a darker side to life in the Bathtub: alcohol abuse is clearly rife (which seems to be portrayed in a positive, often humorous light) and we never see a complete family. Hushpuppy and her father have a particularly dysfunctional domestic set-up. Her mother left some time ago and Hushpuppy lives in one squalid house while her father lives in another. Much of Wink’s communication with his daughter comprises of shouting. Life is not as harmonious as we’re meant to think.

Quvezhane Wallis and Dwight Henry in Beasts of the Southern WildQuvezhane Wallis and Dwight Henry in Beasts of the Southern Wild

We had some interesting discussion about the way writer-director Benh Zeitlin included the local community in his film, using entirely first-time actors and employing locals as crew. It is, arguably, a holistic approach to film-making which genuinely values these people. At the same time, some people felt a little uncomfortable, arguing that the screenplay still has a very middle-class perspective, and was not truly representing the community.

Nevertheless, Beasts of the Southern Wild raises interesting questions about brokenness and death. Hushpuppy’s world may already look very broken to us, but she doesn’t see it that way. So when, in an angry outburst she expresses her wish that her daddy was dead, and hits him on the chest causing him to collapse, she believes that she is responsible. She doesn’t understand that he is ill, presumably with some heart condition. Nor does she understand that the rumble of thunder and the announcement of a coming storm are unconnected with her actions. In Hushpuppy’s mind, everything is connected and she has broken the world.

The approach of the strange, fierce aurochs from their millennia-long frozen imprisonment in the Antarctic symbolises the approach of Wink’s death. Hushpuppy is scared of them both – until she and some friends swim out to a strange boat, the skipper of which tells the little girl that it will take them wherever she needs to go.

Quvezhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern WildQuvezhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild

The place they end up in – called Elysium Fields – seems to be some kind of bar and brothel. The time there is filmed very dreamily, and Hushpuppy encounters a woman who, we cannot help wondering, could even be the little girl’s mother. We are never told this, but the woman’s working of ‘magic’ (with fired gator) and her tenderness towards Hushpuppy, as well as her warning that life is not easy, somehow empowers Hushpuppy to return to the Bathtub and face both the aurochs and her daddy’s death with courage.

Was this strange encounter in the Elysium Fields a truly magical experience, or just how it seems to a six-year-old? Is she strengthened spiritually, or merely encouraged by human love? It could be read either way. Are the aurochs simply in Hushpuppy’s mind, or do others see them too (and if so, what do we make of these creatures which have never existed)? It’s a film which raises many questions, and makes a straightforward and certain interpretation difficult.

In her Film & Bible Blog article on Beasts of the Southern Wild, Sophie Lister makes a fascinating connection with the Bible. Hushpuppy rejects her father and the whole world seems broken as a result; the Bible story is that humanity rejected its father, God, and the whole world was broken as a result (see Genesis 3 and Romans 8:19–25, for example). Hushpuppy’s world is put back into some balance by a new depth of understanding the world; the real world – and the fundamental problem facing humanity – is only fixed through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This, Paul tells us, makes possible the reconciliation of everything (Colossians 1:19–20) – which is, I suspect, what Benh Zeitlin is, without realising, longing for.

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Son of Rambow quad poster
Day three of the Keswick Unconventional Film Club had smaller numbers as Son of Rambow is nowhere near as well known as Blue Jasmine and Philomena. Written and directed by Garth Jennings (his directorial debut) and released in 2008, this eccentric gem of a movie is one of the best films about growing up.

I’m going to cheat with this blog post as I’m really too tired to write something fresh tonight, and I won’t have time in the morning. So here’s something I wrote on the film several years ago for Culturewatch. If I was writing this now, I would focus more on the centrality of imagination and creativity in the story. Will (Bill Milner), one of the two boys at the centre of the narrative, has a wonderful imagination and draws incessantly. His creativity becomes the catalyst for change in several other characters, not least the other protagonist, Lee Carter (Will Poulter). Indeed, it becomes the means for some kind of redemption. But now I’m getting into writing something new, so I’ll leave it at that and let you reflect on that for yourselves.


Secondary school can be a difficult place when you’re a shy, weedy, but bright child with a vivid imagination. Encounters with the toughest boy in the school are always fraught with danger. It’s hard to know how to react: stand up to them or go along with their unreasonable demands? It’s a dilemma I remember all too well, though I was never in such a difficult position as Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) in Son of Rambow. Will is not only almost painfully puny, his father has recently died and he’s part of a rigid, separatist Christian group known as the Exclusive Brethren. These days, the Exclusives run their own schools, but in the early 80s, when this film is set, their children attended normal schools. It was often a difficult experience for them. Television is banned, so when Will’s geography teacher shows a programme in class, Will must leave the room.

Bill Milner in Son of Rambow. © Optimum Home EntertainmentBill Milner in Son of Rambow. © Optimum Home Entertainment
While he’s sitting outside, doodling as always in his notebook, another boy is thrown out of his lesson by a furious teacher, to cheers from the rest of the class. The boy is Lee Carter (Will Poulter), a troublemaker who has no respect for anyone else and who is determined to have as much fun as he possibly can. When Lee gets hold of the notebook in which Will doodles incessantly, a scuffle results in a fish tank crashing to the floor. Both boys are sent to the headteacher, but Lee offers to take the rap for both of them – in return for Will’s watch. The watch had been Will’s father’s, and he wasn’t supposed to have it, but he is so scared he reluctantly agrees to the deal. Later, Lee imposes a further demand on Will: he is to be the stuntman in the film which Lee is filming for a competition.

Lee Carter’s film is ‘Son of Rambow’, inspired by First Blood, and Will is soon dressed up like Rambo and rampaging around in the woods doing death-defying stunts. It’s a surprising turn of events for an Exclusive Brethren boy, but he has been transformed by his first encounter with film. When he first goes to Lee’s home, he sees a video of First Blood, and the intense combination of image, sound and action opens up exciting new imaginative possibilities for him. His doodles become filled with explosions, and he imagines himself as part of a Rambo-like adventure.

In his daydreams, and soon in the film too, Will becomes ‘Son of Rambow’, heroically rescuing his father from his evil captor. What First Blood seems to have given him is a way to begin using his imagination to process the loss of his own father. This is one of the film’s key themes. Will is desperately missing his father, and he faces the prospect of Brother Joshua (Neil Dudgeon) taking his place. Joshua visits Will’s mother (Jessica Stevenson) often, and becomes increasingly directive in how she should bring Will up. He clearly sees himself as a proxy father.

Will Poulter and Bill Milner in Son of Rambow. © Optimum Home EntertainmentWill Poulter and Bill Milner in Son of Rambow. © Optimum Home Entertainment

Lee Carter is also lacking a father figure: his parents live abroad for much of the time, leaving him in the ‘care’ of his much older brother, Lawrence (Ed Westwick). Although Lawrence treats him as a slave, Lee worships him and tells Will that Lawrence is ‘all I’ve got’. So while one boy has lost the father he loves, and sees him being replaced by a very unsatisfactory alternative, the other boy feels abandoned by his father and has only his self-centred brother as a substitute. For Will, Rambo becomes an ideal father: brave, resourceful, strong and very exciting.

How sad that Will finds a father figure in Rambo when he is part of a community that claims to know God as father. Joshua presents a very negative view of fatherhood as stern, repressive and totalitarian. If this group really understood the Father, they would be expressing his deep concern for widows and orphans. Jesus’s brother James wrote, ‘Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you’ (James 1:27). These people, however, have focused all their attention on the latter, and failed to think through what the former should really look like. In fact, they have not thought through the latter requirement either: refusing to let the world corrupt you is not a matter of separating from it, but of being integrated in it while not living by its values.

No wonder Will is so exhilarated by his new-found freedom. Without the restrictions of his fundamentalist sect, he is discovering the joy of play, imagination and real friendship. The implication seems to be that ‘a rich and satisfying life’ (John 10:10) is found by turning away from religion. In a sense that’s true: when Christian faith is twisted into mere religious observance, rather than being a life-transforming relationship with God as Father through faith in his Son, then it becomes a travesty and should be rejected. Rejecting authentic faith, however, is missing out on the most vital dimension of life. Nevertheless, this funny, sometimes touching story about growing up affirms that life should be lived within the context of relationships based on an accepting, giving commitment to each other. Will and Lee Carter both grow up a little through discovering just how important this is.

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Shaming the wise

29 July 2014 — Leave a comment

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena. © Pathé, 2013. Used by permissionJudi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena. © Pathé, 2013. Used by permission

Day two of the Keswick Unconventional Film Club was absolutely packed for watching and discussing Philomena. Directed by Stephen Frears from a screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, it’s a film which is loved by audiences and critics alike. It won a BAFTA for best adapted screenplay, but lost out on the four Oscars for which it was nominated.

Coogan first came across the true story of Philomena Lee in a 2010 Guardian article by Martin Sixsmith. The journalist and former government spin doctor had written a book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, about a single mother who, in 1952, had her illegitimate child taken away by Irish nuns and sold to an American family.

When her pregnancy was discovered, she was sent away to the convent in Roscrea to have her baby. Like other ‘fallen women’, she was effectively a slave in the convent laundry, working seven days a week for the next four years. Philomena was allowed to see her son, Anthony, for just one hour a day. Then without warning, when he was just three years old, he was taken away by an American couple who had paid to adopt him. She never saw him again and kept his existence a secret for fifty years.

During our discussion, it was moving to hear one lady – communicating via sign language as she is deaf – share how she had been put in a children’s home as a toddler and then one day was taken away having been adopted by a Canadian couple. Another lady, who grew up in Dublin, told us how true the film’s representation of Philomena’s story was to the Ireland of her childhood. Personal perspectives like these make film discussions very special.

Sophie Kennedy Clark in Philomena. © Pathé, 2013. Used by permissionSophie Kennedy Clark in Philomena. © Pathé, 2013. Used by permission

Despite what had happened to Philomena (Judi Dench), she remained a devout Roman Catholic. Martin could hardly be more different: an educated, cynical atheist, he dismisses religion as ‘blind faith and ignorance’. He seems to be as driven by anger at the injustices as by needing to have his article published. When Philomena wants to go to confession, Martin bursts out, ‘The Catholic Church should go to confession, not you! Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I incarcerated a load of young women against their will, used them as slave labour, and sold their babies to the highest bidder.’

Martin finally comes face to face with Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford), who was responsible for much of the cruelty Philomena endured in the convent. He accuses of her ‘not being very Christian’ towards Philomena and her son, but Sister Hildegarde claims that, ‘The Lord Jesus Christ will be my judge, not the likes of you.’ Martin angrily challenges her understanding of Jesus’s values: ‘Really? Because I think if Jesus was here now he’d tip you out of that f****** wheelchair and you wouldn’t get up and walk!’

I’m convinced that Jesus would not tip an old woman out of her wheelchair, but the Martin the atheist seems to have a much better understanding of Jesus’s values than the nun. Jesus’s strongest words were directed at the Pharisees – self-righteous religious people, who ‘crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden’ (Luke 11:46, NLT).

Judi Dench in Philomena. © Pathé, 2013. Used by permissionJudi Dench in Philomena. © Pathé, 2013. Used by permission

When Sister Hildegarde says, ‘Self-denial and mortification of the flesh – that’s what brings us closer to God,’ she completely misunderstands what Jesus said about his disciples needing to ‘deny themselves and take up their cross and follow’ him (Mark 8:34). According to Isaiah, ‘all our righteous acts are like filthy rags’ (Isaiah 64:6). He dismisses their fasting as useless for coming to God (Isaiah 58:1–5) and says, ‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?’ (Isaiah 58:6–7). Sister Hildegarde understands nothing of this.

Philomena’s understanding of her faith seems a little muddled, but she does know that it is about grace and forgiveness, not condemnation. John Risbridger commented in our discussion that in some ways, Philomena is about power: that of the Church on one side and that of the media world on the other. Neither come off well. The one that is positive is the power of forgiveness. In Martin’s mind, it is a weak thing, but in fact it is transforming. Philomena insists that forgiveness is ‘hard for me. But I don’t want to hate people. I don’t want to be like you.’ Hate and anger come easily to us, but forgiveness is real self-denial. Having been forgiven through Jesus’s sacrifice, we go the way of the cross when we put our desire for self-justification to death and forgive those who have sinned against us.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tony Watkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.tonywatkins.co.uk.

Money Blues

28 July 2014 — Leave a comment

Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine; © Gravier Productions, Inc./Warner Bros., 2013. Used by permission.Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine; © Gravier Productions, Inc./Warner Bros., 2013. Used by permission.

I’m running the Keswick Unconventional Film Club at the Keswick Convention this week. It’s the first time we’ve run it, though we did have a one-off film discussion one wet afternoon last year. I’m planning to write a brief blog each day about the films we’re watching and discussing together. Our first film was Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.

Woody Allen’s best films have always combined both humour and a bleak view of reality. Think, for example, of Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) or even Annie Hall (1977). Blue Jasmine is, for my money, one of his Allen best (though this article shows that every one of his films back to 1993 has been hailed as a return to form by some critic of other). So there is plenty of humour, but it’s the bleakness which makes the bigger impression – not so much the bleakness of life generally, but of one life in particular.

The life in question is that of the title character, who is played to perfection by Cate Blanchett (a deserving Oscar and BAFTA winner, though personally I’d have liked Judi Dench to win). Jasmine had everything – or so it seemed. Her devoted husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), was an extremely successful businessman, and she enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle among New York’s upper classes. But this glittering edifice was built on sand: Hal’s financial dealings were fraudulent and his devotion to Jasmine was a sham. When it all fell apart and Hal was arrested, she lost everything – homes, jewellery, friends, husband, step-son – and had to resort to moving to stay with her working-class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in San Francisco.

Jasmine feels the loss of both wealth and status acutely, and can hardly bear the thought of ending up living like her common sister. She has managed to hang on to some of her glamorous wardrobe and a few items of jewellery, as well as her set of Louis Vuitton luggage, and she flies first class, despite the exorbitant cost. She dream of reinventing herself, but with no skills or qualifications to speak of, other than a good eye for style and design, the path to rejoining the wealthy social set will not be easy.

Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. © Gravier Productions, Inc./Warner Bros., 2013. Used by permission.Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. © Gravier Productions, Inc./Warner Bros., 2013. Used by permission.

Her mental state is fragile and she relies heavily on Stoli Martinis and Xanax to control her anxiety. Throughout the film, she keeps thinking back to the life she has lost – both to all the beautiful things that she laments losing, and to the rottenness that she refused to see, though it was staring her in the face. She cannot let go of the idea of being wealthy, and repeatedly lies to hide the facts of her reduced circumstances. It’s a strategy doomed to fail.

Several other characters also practice deception at some point or other. It always has negative consequences, but it’s debatable whether Allen is suggesting that honesty is the best policy, or that the problem is being found out. In many ways, Blue Jasmine feels like a morality tale, but given Woody Allen’s views about the meaninglessness of the universe, perhaps it isn’t.

Is deception Jasmine’s fundamental problem, or is it her desperation for wealth? In her case, at least, the two are intertwined. As the apostle Paul says in his first letter to Timothy, ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’ (1 Timothy 6:10). The love of money corrupted Hal; the desire to make an easy profit prompted Ginger and her then-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) to hand over their lottery winnings to Hal rather than invest it in an honest business.

Sally Hawkins and Andrew Dice Clay in Blue Jasmine. © Gravier Productions, Inc./Warner Bros., 2013. Used by permission.Sally Hawkins and Andrew Dice Clay in Blue Jasmine. © Gravier Productions, Inc./Warner Bros., 2013. Used by permission.

Jesus said some strong things about the dangers of wealth. When someone asked him to tell his brother to divide up their inheritance, Jesus told a parable about a rich man who had an abundant harvest. He decided to pull down his barns so he could build bigger ones in which to store his surplus. Then he would be able to ‘take life easy; eat, drink and be merry’. But, says Jesus, ’God said to [the man], ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself? This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich towards God’ (Luke 12:13–21).

Jasmine yearns to once again take life easy, eat, drink and be merry. Instead, she struggles through life, drinks too much and is full of anxiety. What hope is there for her life, with her deteriorating mental health and lack of anyone to love her, other than Ginger? Her life is a tragedy because of her addiction to wealth and status, despite no longer having them.

Jesus advised a rich young man that the one thing he still needed to do in order to get right with God was to get rid of all his wealth and give it to the poor (Mark 10:17–30). The young man wouldn’t do it. Like Jasmine, he couldn’t imagine leading a good life without wealth. Jesus observed, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! … It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ Wealth blinds us to our need for rescue. If Jasmine was ever to recognise that all this world’s means of support had proved themselves inadequate, she might find herself in a place where turning to God would finally make sense.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tony Watkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.tonywatkins.co.uk.