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March 2016

52 Movies: Week 13 - Track of the Cat

When I brought up this film last year in one of the threads, I mentioned that I had first seen it as a child on a day off school, and that it was a bit of an odd thing for an eight or nine year old to sit through. It’s not particularly action-packed, but is actually rather talky. My guess is that I was pulled into the plot by the sense of tension and fear that is created in the opening sequences, as well as by the slight hint of the supernatural, which made it a little creepy. Was it a real panther or some devil that was harassing the family? A couple scenes stayed with me for a very long time, well into adulthood, until I finally saw the movie again in the late 90’s when it came out on VHS.

The plot is fairly straightforward. The dysfunctional Bridges family finds themselves snowbound on their mountain cattle ranch by an early unseasonal blizzard. Along with the family is present the youngest brother Harold’s fiancée, Gwen Williams, and the old Indian hired man, Joe Sam. The family is cowed by the crude and domineering middle brother Curt (Robert Mitchum), with the passive assistance of their bitter, Pharasaical mother and alcoholic father. Eldest brother Arthur (William Hopper) is noble and a peacemaker, but ultimately too non-confrontational, while Harold (Tab Hunter) is viewed as still wet behind the ears, and hasn’t yet learned to stand up for himself. Sister Grace (Teresa Wright) is a sad thirty-something spinster.

The story starts with Joe Sam waking Arthur to tell him that something’s at their herd, possibly a panther. The old Indian has a superstitious fear of the first snowfall of the year, believing that it brings along with it a ghostly black panther, the same one that killed his family years ago. Arthur is sympathetic to the old Indian’s fears, but the bully Curt ridicules them both. Curt and Arthur decide to go out in the snowstorm to try and kill the panther, leaving the rest of the family to bicker while awaiting their return. The film cuts back and forth between the squabbles in the ranch house and the tracking of the cat, with the absence of the two brothers causing additional tension. Without giving too much away, it can be said that a number of events occur which bring much of the tense familial undercurrent to the surface.

While some critics have described Track of the Cat as an offbeat Western, at least a few have viewed it as an art film masquerading as one. It’s based on the novel of the same title by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, whose earlier novel The Ox-Bow Incident had been successful filmed by director William Wellman in 1943. With Track… however, Wellman had in mind something a bit more experimental. He had for a long time wanted to film a black-and-white film in color. The idea was to use muted colors for almost everything, saving any bright ones only for dramatic effect. This is especially noticeable in the outdoor scenes - - the pine trees are all more gray than green, and the only colors that stand out are such things as Curt’s red coat, spots of blood in the snow, and the blue matches used to start a fire.


The “art film” notion goes deeper than that, however. The film is dark and tense, not in the manner of a noir picture, but more like a European tragedy. The family dynamics are portrayed in a mature and realistic manner, playing almost like a stage drama, while the hunt sequences have a haunting element of awe and mystery uncommon in American movies of the time. These two things make for a fascinating mix.

The cast has only eight members, and they are uniformly good, with Mitchum, Hopper, and the great Beulah Bondi (“Ma Bridges”) being standouts. An unrecognizable Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer from the Our Gang comedies plays Joe Sam. The film does feature the more demonstrative acting style of pre-Method Hollywood, but it’s largely free of histrionics and over-drama.

There’s little doubt that director Wellman and the producers conceived this movie as somewhat of an experiment. It was apparently a box office flop, and contemporary critics were divided. It has gained a certain amount of respect in later years, however, as more recent critics tend to be appreciative of the stylized look, the smart, tough script, and the intelligent handling of deeper than usual psychological themes. It’s strange to think that as a nine-year-old some 45 years ago, I was ahead of the curve. Then again, I was an odd kid.

(Further note: If you like the film, by all means read the novel, which is excellent. The central section, with Curt lost in the snowstorm and trying to find his way home, all the while trying to resist his growing fears, rehearsing his memories, etc., is a 100 page tour-de-force, and an absolutely masterful piece of psychological writing.)

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

What Is Actually Happening

The formerly all-, or perhaps all-too-, American Disney company can get along with brutal dictatorships but not Christians. That goes for Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Salesforce, Unilever, CNN, Apple, and others--including the National Football League (!). Have ordinary conservatives figured out yet that corporate America is as big a proponent of liberal social doctrine as the government?

It's becoming routine for the media to put "religious liberty" in quotation marks, at least where Christians are involved.

A National Enquirer story about Ted Cruz being unfaithful to his wife got lots of attention last week, with people pointing out that the Enquirer was right in several similar cases in the past (e.g. John Edwards). So it's odd that this story about Hillary Clinton got no attention at all as far as I know. Really odd. I just can't figure it out. (Hat tip to Neo-neocon.) 

 (See this post for an explanation of the title of this one.)



Judas is neither a master of evil nor the figure of a demoniacal power of darkness but rather a sycophant who bows down before the anonymous power of changing moods and current fashions. But it is precisely this anonymous power that crucified Jesus, for it was anonymous voices that cried "Away with him! Crucify him!"

--Pope Benedict XVI

After hearing Jesus read from the Prophet Isaiah and say: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21), the congregation in the synagogue of Nazareth might well have burst into applause.  They might have then wept for joy, as did the people when Nehemiah and Ezra the priest read from the book of the Law found while they were rebuilding the walls.  But the Gospels tell us that Jesus’ townspeople did the opposite; they closed their hearts to him and sent him off.  At first, “all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (4:22).  But then an insidious question began to make the rounds: “Is this not the son of Joseph, the carpenter?” (4:22).  And then, “they were filled with rage” (4:28).  They wanted to throw him off the cliff.  This was in fulfilment of the elderly Simeon’s prophecy to the Virgin Mary that he would be “a sign of contradiction” (2:34).  By his words and actions, Jesus lays bare the secrets of the heart of every man and woman.

--Pope Francis, Chrism Mass, March 24, 2016

Tomorrow, Holy Thursday, Jesus gives himself to us as food and, in the washing of feet, teaches us the need to serve others. On Good Friday, in the mystery of Christ’s death on the cross, we contemplate that undying divine love which embraces all mankind and summons us in turn to love one another in the power of the Spirit. Holy Saturday, the day of God’s silence, invites us not only to solidarity with all who are abandoned and alone, but also to trust in that faithful love which turns death into life. These, then, are days which speak to us powerfully of God’s love and mercy. In one of her visions, Julian of Norwich hears the Lord say that he rejoices eternally because he was able to suffer for our sake out of love. Let us prepare then to celebrate the coming days with gratitude for this great mystery of God’s mercy, poured out for us on the cross of our salvation.

--Pope Francis, General Audience, March 23, 2016

52 Movies: Week 12 - The Scent of Green Papaya

Week12-best cover

I find it interesting that so far almost half of our movies have been Asian, and here is yet another, this one from Vietnam. The Scent of Green Papaya takes place in Saigon in 1951, which means that the First Indochina War is taking place, but that does not play a part in the movie at all. It is the story of a 10 year old girl, Mui, who has just been hired to work in the home of a middle class family. The family consists of the parents, the father's mother, and their three sons. The mother's shop where she sells fabric and sewing notions is in the front of the house.

Week12-floorThis is not a story of the miserable life of a child who is forced into hard labor in an unkind family. Mui has to work hard, but she is treated well and her work is not too much for her to bear. The older servant who works with her is a good woman, and the mother of the family, who has lost a daughter who would have been just Mui's age, is very kind, indeed, she loves Mui, although not in a demonstrative way.

The family is not a happy family, each member seems to be caught in his own little web of sorrow. The father, while physically present, lives in a sort of invisible isolation booth. He sits and plays music and barely responds to his wife's comments and conversation. The oldest son, who is in his late teens, is seldom home. The middle son is very angry, and torments small things. The youngest son, who is about 5, torments Mui with cruel pranks. The grandmother lives upstairs and spends her days alone in prayer, mourning her husband and granddaughter. The mother is the sole provider for the family, and she works hard for them while mourning the death of her daughter, and coping with her husband's occasional disappearances.

In contrast, Mui is that very rare person who is completely content with her own life, and who lives in constant awareness of the beauty that surrounds her. She gazes in rapt attention at the life that unfolds before her, and the viewer becomes a party to her vision.


Here we pause a moment and contemplate the way the milky liquid of the green papaya drips onto its leaves . . .


and marvel at the little treasure chest they secret inside themselves,

Week12-inside papaya

or we look out the window in the morning and anticipate the new day.

Week12-morning window

I love this scene. Can't you just see the anticipation in Mui's back?

Mui's innocence is tangible, especially in contrast with a certain lack of that innocence in even the youngest member of the family. The film also retains a certain aura of innocence even though the characters may not. I'm sure that I am not the only viewer who became a bit nervous when Mr. Thuan came on the scene.


We are so jaded that even the most blameless encounters can seem suspicious, but there is nothing to worry about here. Mr. Thuan's interest is born in his love and concern for the grandmother of the family, and he and Mui become fast friends.

This movie, which won the Caméra d'or (Golden Camera) award at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, is, as you can see, very beautiful, and would be worth seeing for that alone. It is, at least in the first long part of the movie, a very muted beauty filled with greens and browns.


We look through many beautifully fretted windows and walls. The family's house is filled with a variety of wood hues. I was struck, as I was in Pather Panchali, by how much of Mui's life is lived outside, and the house has a feeling of being drawn from the elements of nature. The sense of being surrounded by the natural world is also enhanced by the constant songs, cries, and chirping of birds, and insects.

The second, and much shorter part of The Scent of Green Papaya, takes place 10 years later, when the family, due to difficult financial times, can no longer afford to employ Mui. They find her a job,a better job, with a young man with whom the viewer knows, Mui has been infatuated for years. At this point, the film becomes filled with color.

Week12-red dress

I find that many of these newer Asian films, both regular films and some of the graphic films of Studio Ghibli, are filled with a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty around us—both the beauty of the natural world, and that of man's creation. The filmmakers are not afraid to take their time and move slowly through the story, giving us time to soak in the beauty that we see, and by contrast really highlight the crassness and emptiness of so many American films.

The Scent of Green Papaya can be found on YouTube, or streamed from Amazon, or you can get the DVD from Netflix. I am seriously considering buying the DVD.

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

We might well ask ourselves just one question: Who am I? Who am I, before my Lord? Who am I, before Jesus who enters Jerusalem amid the enthusiasm of the crowd? Am I ready to express my joy, to praise him? Or do I stand back? Who am I, before the suffering Jesus?

We have just heard many, many names. The group of leaders, some priests, the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, who had decided to kill Jesus. They were waiting for the chance to arrest him. Am I like one of them?

We have also heard another name: Judas. Thirty pieces of silver. Am I like Judas? We have heard other names too: the disciples who understand nothing, who fell asleep while the Lord was suffering. Has my life fallen asleep? Or am I like the disciples, who did not realize what it was to betray Jesus? Or like that other disciple, who wanted to settle everything with a sword? Am I like them? Am I like Judas, who feigns loved and then kisses the Master in order to hand him over, to betray him? Am I a traitor? Am I like those people in power who hastily summon a tribunal and seek false witnesses: am I like them? And when I do these things, if I do them, do I think that in this way I am saving the people?

Am I like Pilate? When I see that the situation is difficult, do I wash my hands and dodge my responsibility, allowing people to be condemned – or condemning them myself?

Am I like that crowd which was not sure whether they were at a religious meeting, a trial or a circus, and then chose Barabbas? For them it was all the same: it was more entertaining to humiliate Jesus.

Am I like the soldiers who strike the Lord, spit on him, insult him, who find entertainment in humiliating him?

Am I like the Cyrenean, who was returning from work, weary, yet was good enough to help the Lord carry his cross?

Am I like those who walked by the cross and mocked Jesus: “He was so courageous! Let him come down from the cross and then we will believe in him!”. Mocking Jesus….

Am I like those fearless women, and like the mother of Jesus, who were there, and who suffered in silence?

Am I like Joseph, the hidden disciple, who lovingly carries the body of Jesus to give it burial?

Am I like the two Marys, who remained at the Tomb, weeping and praying?

Am I like those leaders who went the next day to Pilate and said, “Look, this man said that he was going to rise again. We cannot let another fraud take place!”, and who block life, who block the tomb, in order to maintain doctrine, lest life come forth?

Where is my heart? Which of these persons am I like? May this question remain with us throughout the entire week.

--Pope Francis, Palm Sunday homily, April 13, 2014

Mercy “expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert, and believe” (Misericordiae Vultus, 21), thus restoring his relationship with him. In Jesus crucified, God shows his desire to draw near to sinners, however far they may have strayed from him. In this way he hopes to soften the hardened heart of his Bride....

For all of us, then, the season of Lent in this Jubilee Year is a favourable time to overcome our existential alienation by listening to God’s word and by practising the works of mercy. In the corporal works of mercy we touch the flesh of Christ in our brothers and sisters who need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, visited; in the spiritual works of mercy – counsel, instruction, forgiveness, admonishment and prayer – we touch more directly our own sinfulness. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy must never be separated. By touching the flesh of the crucified Jesus in the suffering, sinners can receive the gift of realizing that they too are poor and in need. By taking this path, the “proud”, the “powerful” and the “wealthy” spoken of in the Magnificat can also be embraced and undeservedly loved by the crucified Lord who died and rose for them. This love alone is the answer to that yearning for infinite happiness and love that we think we can satisfy with the idols of knowledge, power and riches. Yet the danger always remains that by a constant refusal to open the doors of their hearts to Christ who knocks on them in the poor, the proud, rich and powerful will end up condemning themselves and plunging into the eternal abyss of solitude which is Hell.

--Pope Francis, Message for Lent 2016, October 4,2015

The crowd, who just a little earlier had acclaimed him, now changes their praise into a cry of accusation, even to the point of preferring that a murderer be released in his place.  And so the hour of death on the cross arrives, that most painful form of shame reserved for traitors, slaves and the worst kind of criminals.  But isolation, defamation and pain are not yet the full extent of his deprivation.  To be totally in solidarity with us, he also experiences on the Cross the mysterious abandonment of the Father.  In his abandonment, however, he prays and entrusts himself: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:46).  Hanging from the wood of the cross, beside derision he now confronts the last temptation: to come down from the Cross, to conquer evil by might and to show the face of a powerful and invincible God.  Jesus, however, even here at the height of his annihilation, reveals the true face of God, which is mercy.  He forgives those who are crucifying him, he opens the gates of paradise to the repentant thief and he touches the heart of the centurion.  If the mystery of evil is unfathomable, then the reality of Love poured out through him is infinite, reaching even to the tomb and to hell.  He takes upon himself all our pain that he may redeem it, bringing light to darkness, life to death, love to hatred.

--Pope Francis, Palm Sunday homily, March 20, 2016

A heart troubled by the desire for possessions is a heart full of desire for possessions, but empty of God. That is why Jesus frequently warned the rich, because they greatly risk placing their security in the goods of this world, and security, the final security, is in God. In a heart possessed by wealth, there isn’t much room for faith: everything is involved with wealth, there is no room for faith. If, however, one gives God his rightful place, that is first place, then his love leads one to share even one’s wealth, to set it at the service of projects of solidarity and development, as so many examples demonstrate, even recent ones, in the history of the Church. And like this God’s Providence comes through our service to others, our sharing with others. If each of us accumulates not for ourselves alone but for the service of others, in this case, in this act of solidarity, the Providence of God is made visible. If, however, one accumulates only for oneself, what will happen when one is called by God? No one can take his riches with him, because — as you know — the shroud has no pockets! It is better to share, for we can take with us to Heaven only what we have shared with others.

--Pope Francis, Angelus address, March 2, 2014

If I could have only one composer...

...I think it would be Bach. I've tried over the past few years to listen to his St. Matthew Passion during Lent. I have two recordings, one made in 1962 and conducted by the legendary Otto Klemperer with some of the greatest singers of the past century or so, the other made in 1973 and conducted by Herbert von Karajan, with some of the same singers. The former is on CD, the latter on an LP that I picked up used somewhere or other, and I think I'm going to get rid of it, if only because the sound is inferior due to wear and tear on the discs. Anyway, the general feel of the performance is similar to Klemperer's, but not as good, so why keep it?

The Klemperer performance is nowadays considered unacceptable by some because it predates the vogue for authentic 18th century instruments and performance practices. Nevertheless it continues to show up on lists of classic recordings. It's big, rich, and slow, and I love it. Here's the opening chorale. 


I am curious, though, as to how I would like some of the paradoxically more modern, because more antique, performances. John Gardiner's from 1989 seems to be highly regarded. At least in the opening it's so much faster that it almost seems a different piece. The version above runs nearly twelve minutes, the one below doesn't quite make it to seven. 


The Klemperer recording runs over three and a half hours, the Gardiner roughly an hour less. I wonder if that, or perhaps Klemperer vs. some other recent recording, is some kind of record for divergence between performances.

p.s. Here's a link to the text.

From the event of the Transfiguration I would like to take two significant elements that can be summed up in two words: ascent and descent. We all need to go apart, to ascend the mountain in a space of silence, to find ourselves and better perceive the voice of the Lord. This we do in prayer. But we cannot stay there! Encounter with God in prayer inspires us anew to “descend the mountain” and return to the plain where we meet many brothers weighed down by fatigue, sickness, injustice, ignorance, poverty both material and spiritual. To these brothers in difficulty, we are called to bear the fruit of that experience with God, by sharing the grace we have received.

--Pope Francis, Angelus address, March 16, 2014

[John 9:1-34] sets before us the story of the man born blind, to whom Jesus gives sight. The lengthy account opens with a blind man who begins to see and it closes — and this is curious — with the alleged seers who remain blind in soul. The miracle is narrated by John in just two verses, because the Evangelist does not want to draw attention to the miracle itself, but rather to what follows, to the discussions it arouses, also to the gossip. So many times a good work, a work of charity arouses gossip and discussion, because there are some who do not want to see the truth. The Evangelist John wants to draw attention to something that also occurs in our own day when a good work is performed. The blind man who is healed is first interrogated by the astonished crowd — they saw the miracle and they interrogated him —, then by the doctors of the law who also interrogate his parents. In the end the blind man who was healed attains to faith, and this is the greatest grace that Jesus grants him: not only to see, but also to know Him, to see in Him “the light of the world” (Jn 9:5).

While the blind man gradually draws near to the light, the doctors of the law on the contrary sink deeper and deeper into their inner blindness. Locked in their presumption, they believe that they already have the light, therefore, they do not open themselves to the truth of Jesus. They do everything to deny the evidence. They cast doubt on the identity of the man who was healed, they then deny God’s action in the healing, taking as an excuse that God does not work on the Sabbath; they even doubt that the man was born blind. Their closure to the light becomes aggressive and leads to the expulsion from the temple of the man who was healed.

--Pope Francis, Angelus address, March 30, 2014

52 Movies: Week 11 - Tree of Life

I have dithered over how best to approach this little introduction to The Tree of Life. My burden is that I've volunteered to write about the film that means more to me than any other. It's a work of art that touches me as Josquin's Ave Maria or van der Weyden's Deposition do: right there in my soft center. How can I do it justice? Shall I take my inspiration from the film itself, embark on a flight of rhapsody, and bear my reader aloft like a feather on the wind? Shall I whisper quietly in his ear the secrets of my heart? Introduce an interlude on natural history? Shall I fragments allow to splinter to my prose? Shall I try to carry it off without using words at all?

The Tree of Life is a rich film, ravishing in its beauty, and resonating internally with profound ideas, but it is also a very tangible film, grounded in a particular time and place. There are sequences in which I feel I could almost reach out and touch it, breathe it in, or which set me back on my heels with a shock of recognition: I remember that. Indeed, the whole film can be (and has been) interpreted as a sustained descent into memory, a reverie in which experience is pondered, turned this way and that, sifted, shot through with longing. Like St Augustine's Confessions, it is a work in which mystery and memory intertwine, in which the inscrutable majesty of the Divine and the inscrutable mystery of one man's life meet.


But I am getting ahead of myself. The Tree of Life is the work of Terrence Malick, a filmmaker almost as famous for not making films as for making them. His first two films, Badlands in 1973 and Days of Heaven in 1978, had earned him critical plaudits and a place at the table with the new generation of American filmmakers then coming to prominence. But following Days of Heaven he went quiet for twenty years (though not so quiet as is sometimes thought, for during that long period he worked on a number of scripts and projects that never came to fruition, including an adaptation of Percy's The Moviegoer). When he re-emerged in the late 1990s with The Thin Red Line he might as well have been a different filmmaker. True, there were some similarities between the earlier period and the later, but the differences were more than a matter of degree. He had found a way to invest the very grammar of film -- sound, editing, and camera movement -- with his own personal vision, a style distinctly his own. Malick has been compared to Tarkovsky, or to Kubrick at his most ambitious, but really there's nobody like him.

The very title of this film is an evocative one. We think of the scriptural Tree of Life which stood in the midst of the garden, and again of the Tree of Life which appears on the last page of the Revelation to St John, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations. I myself think of Christ's words: "I am the vine, and you are the branches... Abide in me, as I abide in you." But the Tree of Life also appears in On the Origin of Species, where it covers the earth with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications, and so we might justly call to mind the tumbling and twisting genealogical tree of life on earth, being reminded of that deep history, of that litany of forms, of strange beauties and violent deaths, and of the fact that sons are descended from mothers and fathers.


The O'Briens have three sons. They live in a quiet neighbourhood of a small town in Texas in the 1950s. It is a time and place where boys roam until dusk, chasing one another, wandering through fields and forests, breaking windows in abandoned buildings. The yards have no fences. Mr O'Brien (Brad Pitt) is a responsible and hard-working man, but is not rewarded as he thinks he should be, and he lives, it seems, with some regrets over the path he has chosen in life. He teaches his sons that life is a struggle, and that they must be strong. He loves his boys, but he is hard on them, and perhaps he does not know how to be otherwise. Mrs O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) is the heart of the family, and she takes her boys gently under her wing; she teaches them that they must love.

For most of the film we are in and around the O'Brien's home, floating down its hallways and drifting from room to room as though gently nudged by a gust from an open window. (One of the joys of The Tree of Life is that the camera, wielded by Emmanuel Lubezki, almost never stops moving.) We watch the children as they grow, ponder the sometimes tender and sometimes troubled relationship of the parents, and see the common joys and perils of family life unfold before us, vividly realized, and in the shade of the great tree that lifts its lofty, spreading branches over the home.


Suffering visits the O'Briens, as it visits us all. "There is no hiding place in all the world where trouble may not find you," says their priest from his pulpit. The boys witness disease and deformity. We are not five minutes into the film before death visits them. And the darkness does not just encroach from without, but emerges from within: Jack (Hunter McCracken), the boy whose story the film is, must contend against the lust and anger of his own heart, forces that he himself hardly understands.

The Tree of Life can be seen as a great wrestling with evil: where does it come from? why does God permit it? what does it mean? The book of Job is the film's Biblical touchstone: we meet Job's friends, we ask Job's questions, and, in one of the film's most thrilling and audacious sequences, we witness God's reply to Job: Where were you when I laid the foundations? This reply of God's has been the occasion for much baffled commentary. We're unaccustomed to a filmmaker who departs from his story to show us how the world came to be. Except of course it is not really a departure, but character development. The O'Briens are not the only characters with leading roles in The Tree of Life.

If we think of this film as a symphony -- and this is a remarkably fruitful way to think of it -- we are right to identify suffering as a recurring motif. But the principal themes are wonder and love. The spirit of Mrs O'Brien -- or, rather, the spirit of which she is a lowly handmaid -- pervades the film, setting the screen aglow. The sheer beauty of the world, the wonder of being, the shining glory of what is, unaccountably, not nothing -- these are the film's deep sources, and they seep into our hearts as the images wash over us until, at its best, and for those attuned to its vision, the film becomes an occasion for prayer.

So, at least, has been my experience. Not everyone, I know, has responded to it in this way. Sometimes seed falls on rocky ground, or among thorns. Bewilderment and exasperation were not uncommon responses when it played in theatres. Some couldn't keep straight who was who. Some didn't like the dinosaurs, or the splashes of surrealism. Some found the narrative thread too thin and allusive. Some found it pretentious, or were confused by its theological vision. Well, we shouldn't expect the greatest films to satisfy conventional expectations. And, as even I will admit, the film does have its weak points. (The last quarter-hour, a much-discussed excursion into Jack's soul, or into the afterlife, or into some abstract psychic space, is suggestive and subtle and grows more so with each viewing, but is still, I think, a failure.)

But, my friends, few films come our way with this much feeling, with this ecstatic power, with this determination to pursue that which is always only seen from the corner of the eye, and with such an abundance of beauty as to make the heart tremble. Love every frame.


—Craig Burrell is a longtime reader of Light on Dark Water, and blogs at All Manner of Thing.

In this Sunday’s Gospel, we find Jesus’ invitation: “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). ,,,

This invitation of Jesus reaches to our day, and extends to the many brothers and sisters oppressed by life’s precarious conditions, by existential and difficult situations and at times lacking valid points of reference. In the poorest countries, but also on the outskirts of the richest countries, there are so many weary people, worn out under the unbearable weight of neglect and indifference. Indifference: human indifference causes the needy so much pain! And worse, the indifference of Christians! On the fringes of society so many men and women are tried by indigence, but also by dissatisfaction with life and by frustration....To each of these children of the Father in heaven, Jesus repeats: “Come to me, all of you”. But he also says it to those who have everything, but whose heart is empty and without God. Even to them, Jesus addresses this invitation: “Come to me”. Jesus’ invitation is for everyone. But especially for those who suffer the most.

--Pope Francis, Angelus address, July 6, 2014

(Continuing from yesterday the discussion of the parable of the wheat and the weeds):

And here we arrive at the second theme: the juxtaposition of the impatience of the servants and the patient waiting of the field owner, who represents God. At times we are in a great hurry to judge, to categorize, to put the good here, the bad there.... But remember the prayer of that self-righteous man: “God, I thank you that I am good, that I am not like other men, malicious” (cf. Lk 18:11-12). God, however, knows how to wait. With patience and mercy he gazes into the “field” of life of every person; he sees much better than we do the filth and the evil, but he also sees the seeds of good and waits with trust for them to grow. God is patient, he knows how to wait. 

--Pope Francis, Angelus address, July 20, 2014

[T]here is a rather complex [parable] which Jesus explained to the disciples: it is that of the good grain and the weed, which deals with the problem of evil in the world and calls attention to God’s patience (cf. Mt 13:24-30, 36-43). The story takes place in a field where the owner sows grain, but during the night his enemy comes and sows weed.... We all know that the demon is a “sower of weed”, one who always seeks to sow division between individuals, families, nations and peoples. The servants wanted to uproot the weed immediately, but the field owner stopped them, explaining that: “in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them” (Mt 13:29). Because we all know that a weed, when it grows, looks very much like good grain, and there is the risk of confusing them.

The teaching of the parable is twofold. First of all, it tells that the evil in the world comes not from God but from his enemy, the evil one. It is curious that the evil one goes at night to sow weed, in the dark, in confusion; he goes where there is no light to sow weed. This enemy is astute: he sows evil in the middle of good, thus it is impossible for us men to distinctly separate them; but God, in the end, will be able to do so.

--Pope Francis, Angelus address, July 20, 2014

[In Matthew 13:44-52] are two small masterpieces: the parables of the treasure hidden in the field and of the pearl of great value. They tell us that the discovery of the Kingdom of God can happen suddenly like the farmer who, ploughing, finds an unexpected treasure; or after a long search, like the pearl merchant who eventually finds the most precious pearl, so long dreamt of. Yet, in each case the point is that the treasure and the pearl are worth more than all other possessions; and therefore when the farmer and the merchant discover them, they give up everything else in order to obtain them. They do not need to rationalize or think about it or reflect: they immediately perceive the incomparable value of what they’ve found and they are prepared to lose everything in order to have it.

--Pope Francis, Angelus address, July 27, 2014

Arthur Koestler: Darkness At Noon

When I was a college student in the 1960s, this was one of those books that seemed to have a certain prominence and yet to be little read. As it is not a long and difficult book, this may have meant that it had been prominent, but was fading. I never read it, and I think the sense of its being passé, perhaps even disreputable, had something to with that fact. Moreover—and this I can definitely explain—it was an anti-communist book, and anti-communism was not something that anyone in the youthful political left wanted anything to do with. It was about a man imprisoned by the Soviet government, and we didn't want to hear about that. It wasn’t so much that we denied such things as that we thought them unworthy of attention: it wasn’t “Oh, all that has been disproved or exaggerated,” but “Oh, all that is old and irrelevant.” Not that one thought or said this consciously; rather, one automatically changed the subject, even within one’s own mind.

I’m not sure what provoked me to read it now. It may be only that I picked up a copy at a library sale, or even from a library give-away table. The latter is more likely, because it was a paperback that had sold for thirty-five cents in 1956, and it fell apart in my hands as I was reading it.


I was expecting a sort of expose of totalitarian methods, something like the treatment Winston Smith gets toward the end of 1984 (in which Orwell is said to have been influenced by Koestler). And it is that, but not in the way I expected. It’s not a picture of an innocent and defiant man being crushed by brutal mistreatment, but rather of a man acquiescing to the implications of an ideology which he shares.

Without using the names of real people, and without even admitting that he is talking about Russia, Koestler gives us a protagonist, Rubashov, who was one of the heroes of the communist revolution, and has continued to serve it for twenty years or so, but has now become a victim of the purges of the 1930s. The book opens with his arrest. He knows what this means, and he does not want to die. But he has come to have doubts about the revolution, and so in a sense is actually guilty, even though he has taken no action against it, and doesn’t intend to. He is never beaten, and the closest thing to torture he experiences is being allowed very little sleep during a long series of interrogations. He does not, in other words, get the soul-destroying Winston Smith treatment.

By non-communist standards, Rubashov is far from innocent. Accepting the party’s philosophy that the end always justifies the means, he has brought about the deaths of other people who simply happened to be in the way of the party’s aims at the moment, or to have associated with people who were in the way. They had to go because the party is the instrument of history, which operates according to definite and known principles, and to oppose or in any way hinder the party, even accidentally, is to make oneself an obstacle to the attainment of the perfect society—an obstacle which must be removed, which it would be immoral not to remove. And in the end he finds it difficult to claim that the same logic should not apply to himself.

It’s a good novel in the most basic sense: an interesting story, well told. It’s also a very philosophical novel, a novel of ideas. And two of those ideas are what I found most interesting about it. First, I don’t think I had ever quite grasped just how rigorous communist theory is, or was. I don’t think you can find many people now who accept the full theory, with its claim to be a science. It’s easy to find people, not even very far on the left, who will assert that communism was basically a good idea, but hasn’t been executed well, or that people just aren’t good enough for it. At best I think you can say complimentary things only about the fundamental impulse—why can’t we all just share everything? Why can’t we all get along? Imagine no possessions. The structures erected on that impulse were gravely defective, to say the least, and often monstrous. Rubashov is an intellectual; he takes ideas very seriously and lives by them. This book helps to explain the fact that communism was once considered an intellectual rival to the Catholic Church, not just a political and spiritual opponent.

Second is what Rubashov calls “the grammatical fiction”: the first person singular, that is, the self. One of the effects of Rubashov’s loss of faith in the revolution is that he begins to question what is apparently the communist doctrine—the doctrine of these communists, at least—that the individual not only does not matter but does not even truly exist, or at least ought not to. It wasn’t clear to me whether this was a metaphysical principle or a matter of mental discipline.

With his faith in the party going or gone, and death most likely not far away, the grammatical fiction begins to trouble Rubashov. He calls it the “silent partner,” and it often manifests itself as a conscience which he does not want to possess. In one interrogation, thinking of a time when he betrayed a man, the words “Now I shall pay” present themselves to his mind, and this shocks and puzzles him.

Rubashov tried to study this newly discovered entity very thoroughly during his wanderings through the cell...he had christened it the ‘grammatical fiction’. He probably had only a few weeks left to live, and he felt a compelling urge to clear up this matter, to ‘think it to a logical conclusion’. But the realm of the ‘grammatical fiction’ seemed to begin just where the ‘thinking to a conclusion’ ended. It was obviously an essential part of its being, to remain out of the reach of logical thought, and then to take one unawares, as from an ambush, and attack one with day-dreams and toothache.

Communism in its rigorous ideological form does not seem to have many adherents now (though in its misty sentimental form it has many). This question of the grammatical fiction, however, is presenting itself by another channel: the neuro-psychology which is said to be in the process of proving scientifically that the existence of the self is an illusion. How an entity can falsely believe in its own existence is a conundrum I cannot solve. But a “scientific,” i.e. the materialist, denial of the soul, with all its implications, is coming at us in a new package, with who knows what consequences.

Dear young people, you are the new generation.... With the power of the Gospel and the example of your ancestors and the martyrs, you know how to say “No” to the idolatry of money – “No” to the idolatry of money! –, “No” to the false freedom of individualism, “No” to addiction and to violence; you also know how to say “Yes” to a culture of encounter and of solidarity, “Yes” to the beauty that is inseparable from the good and the true; “Yes” to a life lived with great enthusiasm and at the same time faithful in little things.

--Pope Francis, Angelus address, September 21, 2014

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus speaks to us about the response given to the invitation from God — who is represented by a king — to participate in a wedding banquet (cf. Mt 22:1-14). The invitation has three characteristics: freely offered, breadth anduniversality. Many people were invited, but something surprising happened: none of the intended guests came to take part in the feast, saying they had other things to do; indeed, some were even indifferent, impertinent, even annoyed. God is good to us, he freely offers us his friendship, he freely offers us his joy, his salvation; but so often we do not accept his gifts, we place our practical concerns, our interests first. And when the Lord is calling to us, it so often seems to annoy us.

--Pope Francis, Angelus address, October 12, 2014

A saint used to say: “I am afraid that the Lord will come”. Do you know what the fear was? It was the fear of not noticing and letting Him pass by. When we feel in our hearts: “I would like to be a better man, a better woman…. I regret what I have done…”. That is the Lord knocking. He makes you feel this: the will to be better, the will to be closer to others, to God. If you feel this, stop. That is the Lord! And go to prayer, and maybe to confession, cleanse yourselves… this will be good. But keep well in mind: if you feel this longing to be better, He is knocking: don’t let Him pass by!

--Pope Francis, Angelus address, December 21, 2014

52 Movies: Week 10 - Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven

Blogger's note: this week's post was scheduled to be from Grumpy, but she's not feeling well, so I'm filling in. 

Discussion of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which I have not seen, a few weeks ago made me curious about the two Kurosawa films I have seen: Rashomon and Seven Samurai. I was not particularly taken with either of them. It was probably twenty years ago that I saw them, on VHS tape, and probably late at night, and they just didn’t make a big impression on me. The only specific thing I remember is trying to stay awake during Seven Samurai, which is three hours long. Considering Kurosawa’s reputation, and the reputations of these two films in particular, I thought I’d give them another try. I started with Seven Samurai, for no particular reason.

This time I watched it on DVD, during the day, and in multiple sessions. (I do this frequently because I watch movies on my lunch break, which I try to keep under an hour, although I no longer have an externally-enforced requirement for that.) Ideally two sessions would be about right, as there’s an official intermission about halfway through. At any rate, it is a fairly slow-moving story, and I found that breaking up not only did not detract from the experience, but probably enhanced it, because I didn’t get restless.

I found, as with certain other Japanese movies I’ve seen, that the foreignness of language and expression presented a certain barrier initially. As was mentioned in the Yojimbo discussion, the acting style in this film may be more than just a cultural difference: Kurosawa may have been trying to produce an archaic effect. But my difficulty decreased as the film went on and I got more used to the style.

In 16th century Japan, a farming village is menaced by bandits. They decide to hire a group of samurai to protect them. The story builds slowly and powerfully. The villagers take some time to decide about even making the unlikely to attempt to hire samurai from a nearby town. Once the first warrior agrees, it takes some time for him to recruit the other six. Then there is a long period of preparation—decisions about tactics, construction of fortifications, the evacuation of outlying parts of the village which can’t be protected, having the men of the village make and learn to use bamboo spears. The characters of the individual samurai and some of the villagers are explored. The leader of the samurai appears to be the oldest and most experienced. He’s wise and patient but no less capable than the others. One of them is a boy, not really even a full-fledged warrior, extremely eager and impulsive. One is himself the son of farmers and has experienced first-hand the depredations of bandits, which gives him conflicted feelings about the warrior class. One is quiet and modest but also the deadliest swordsman of the group. And so on.

The cumulative effect is quite powerful. It’s a study in nobility and courage. This is one of those movies that I appreciate more than like—for sheer enjoyment it would not be among my very favorites. But it certainly passes my informal test for classification as first-rate work: I would like to see it again, and possibly more than once.

Here is a trailer of sorts for the Criterion Collection edition. It gives you a good sense of the style and atmosphere.


You can view the original Japanese trailer at YouTube. I’m not including it here because it gives away rather more of the story than I would. But these words from it establish a cultural context for the samurai’s actions which I didn’t entirely get from the film itself, and which makes the story even more powerful:

In a mad age obsessed with ambition and glory, seven samurai turned their backs on fame and wealth and fought to protect a village of oppressed farmers. This is their story. They disappeared, nameless, with the wind. And yet, their kind hearts and courageous actions are spoken of to this day. They are the true samurai.


As most people who pay attention to cinema probably know, a famous Hollywood western, The Magnificent Seven, is a sort of remake of Seven Samurai. The basic story is identical, but the place is the American southwest and northern Mexico, the time is the late 19th century, the farmers are Mexican, and the samurai are gunslingers. It follows the model of Seven Samurai quite closely for the most part. There is the older and wiser leader, very effectively played by Yul Brynner (never mind that he’s from eastern Russia, not southwestern America). There’s the kid who wants to join the glamorous crew. Many specific incidents from the original are mirrored with appropriate cultural and technological modifications.

The biggest difference I noticed is in the treatment of the bandits. Kurosawa’s bandits are hardly seen as individuals at all. They’re a mostly faceless malevolent force sweeping down on the village. But Sturges (John, the director of The Magnificent Seven) gives the leader of the Mexican bandits a very definite face and personality, and the struggle against him has a definite personal element, on the part of both the villagers and the “samurai”. And from the point where the gunmen arrive at the village and the real conflict with the bandits begins, there’s more of a difference: there’s less planning and strategy in the defense of the village, for instance.

But The Magnificent Seven just not as good as its model. I think the problem is less the director’s fault than the limitations of Hollywood movie-making at the time: too much of it just isn’t entirely convincing. The actors are charismatic stars or future stars: in addition to Brynner, there are Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and others. But for reasons that I can’t put my finger on—how much is the acting? how much is the script?—their characters don’t seem as fully real as the samurai do, despite the foreignness of the latter. The gunplay features that weird Hollywood mannerism in which the shooter often seems to be trying to fling the bullets from his gun rather than aiming and firing. In general there’s a sense that one is not seeing a heightened version of reality, but a cruder version of it.

It’s not a bad movie at all; as Westerns go, it’s probably one of the best, and I enjoyed it. It just isn’t on the artistic level of the Kurosawa work. But one thing must be said for it: the score, by Elmer Bernstein, must be the best score of any Western. Well, ok, maybe Morricone is in the same class, but he’s totally different. Bernstein’s is sort of the archetype of the American Western score.


The music in Seven Samurai is good, too, by the way.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

["The cure" refers to the bronze serpent which healed the Israelites in the wilderness; the pope is comparing marriage to that journey.] The cure which God offers the people applies also, in a particular way, to spouses who “have become impatient on the way” and who succumb to the dangerous temptation of discouragement, infidelity, weakness, abandonment… To them too, God the Father gives his Son Jesus, not to condemn them, but to save them: if they entrust themselves to him, he will bring them healing by the merciful love which pours forth from the Cross, with the strength of his grace that renews and sets married couples and families once again on the right path.

The love of Christ, which has blessed and sanctified the union of husband and wife, is able to sustain their love and to renew it when, humanly speaking, it becomes lost, wounded or worn out. The love of Christ can restore to spouses the joy of journeying together. This is what marriage is all about: man and woman walking together, wherein the husband helps his wife to become ever more a woman, and wherein the woman has the task of helping her husband to become ever more a man. This is the task that you both share.

--Pope Francis, homily at Mass, September 14, 2014

Discovering the face of God makes life new. Because he is a Father enamoured with man, who never tires of starting with us all over again in order to renew us. The Lord is patient with us! He never tires of starting over again each time we fall. However, the Lord does not promise magical changes, He does not use a magic wand. He loves changing reality from within, with patience and love; he asks to enter our life gently, like rain on the ground, in order to then bear fruit.

--Pope Francis, Angelus address, January 1, 2016

Give Up On the Republican Party?

About ten years ago Rod Dreher interviewed me by email for his book Crunchy Cons. On the subject of politics, I said something I'd said before and have said since: that the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is the difference between an enemy and an unreliable ally. The Republican party has never been a great friend of what for lack of a better term I'll call social conservatives, while the Democratic party is an enemy, out and out.

But recent developments involving same-sex marriage and religious freedom have me wondering whether both parties are now, in practice, enemies. The Republicans aren't openly hostile the way the Democrats are, but they seem to be quietly siding with the Democrats. This piece by Maggie Gallagher ponders the question at length. What's most alarming to me is her description of several incidents of which I had been unaware, in which Republicans including Mitt Romney and John McCain actively intervened to stop legislation intended to protect the freedom of Christian businesses to refuse to participate in same-sex weddings etc.

We've always known that economic questions took precedence over social ones in the Republican Party, and that "economic questions" often meant in practice dominance by business interests. Corporate America is now firmly behind the movement to marginalize objection to same-sex marriage and related matters, and Republicans are falling into line. Yes, the presidential candidates continue to say that they will support protections for religious freedom, but how much can they do, and can they even be trusted?

It doesn't help, of course, that there are approximately zero prominent voices in the non-conservative media who are willing and able to articulate the difference between refusing all service to someone (because one "disagrees with their lifestyle", an obviously trivializing way and inaccurate way of describing it), and refusing to perform a specific service that involves a conflict with one's faith. As far as I know none of the cases of this sort that have been in the news over the past couple of years have been of the first kind. It is a crucial distinction, which the Democrats refuse to see, and the Republicans increasingly don't seem able to see.