Two Great Films on Religion in 2014

Calvary

Calvary’s Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is a good priest who is faced with sinister and troubling circumstances brought about by a mysterious member of his parish. Although he continues to comfort his own fragile daughter (Kely Reilly) and reach out to help members of his church with their various scurrilous moral—and often comic—problems, he feels sinister forces closing in, and begins to wonder if he will have the courage to face his own personal Calvary.

Anthony Lane, The New Yorker: Gleeson plays Father James, who tends the souls of a rural parish in County Sligo, on the northwest shoulder of Ireland. As aerial shots make clear, the countryside is fierce and green, with the Atlantic breaking the teeth of the coast, and a huge stone mass, like a giant’s vaulting horse, overhanging the land. That is Ben Bulben, enshrined by Yeats in verse, and it dwarfs all those dwelling below, save Father James, who strides around in his black soutane, with a beard of russet and gray. Piece by piece, the present reveals the past: Father James used to be a drinker, and he could be yet again, given the provocation and the chance. He was married, too, before being widowed and then ordained; he has a daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who comes to visit from London, with bandages on her wrists. You start to realize what burdens our hero has to bear. How does he summon the strength to lighten the woes of others?

All this is foreshadowed in the first—and best—scene of the movie. We see nothing more than the expression on Father James’s face, but it’s like an open wound. He sits in a confessional and hears the complaint of an unidentified man, who explains that he was abused by Catholic clergy from an early age, that the damage is irreparable, and that he has therefore decided on vengeance, of a very particular kind. By way of a public statement, he will murder a priest: not a bad priest—that would be too easy, and would solve nothing—but a good one. To be specific, he will murder Father James, in a week’s time, on Sunday, at the beach. “I’m going to kill you because you’ve done nothing wrong,” he says.

What a great setup. It plunges us, without ado, into the guts of a moral crisis, but it also has a satisfying smack of the whodunit or, rather, a who-will-do-it. Think of Agatha Christie’s “A Murder Is Announced” being handed to Dostoyevsky for a rewrite. Moreover, the sequence tells us quite a bit about Father James, who seems far more distressed by the recitation of the man’s sufferings than by news of his own impending doom—the true Christian response, which is even rarer in cinema than it is in ordinary life.

* * *

Maybe McDonagh intended a composite portrait of a place from which the sea of faith has, within a generation (and, some would say, with good cause), begun its long retreat. The owner of the village pub, talking to Father James, refers to “your kind,” as if religion were the mark of an alien race. What stays with you from “Calvary” is not its dramatic pull but its solitude; look at Father James entering his bare bedroom, with its crucifix on the wall, and ruffling the white-golden fur of Bruno, his retriever and best friend. “Even the wisest man grows tense / With some sort of violence,” Yeats wrote, in “Under Ben Bulben,” and that includes the man of God.

Dana Stevens, Slate: Much of Calvary is a philosophical action movie, relatively placid on the surface but full of moral and theological twists: The question of who believes and who doesn’t, or what it would mean not to believe in anything at all, takes on a life-or-death importance. Calvary treats religious faith and the significance of its loss (both by an individual and by a culture) as a serious subject, a quality I admire.

Manohla Dargis, The New York Times: Most of the movie’s many, many conversations suggest that Mr. McDonagh has read his share of Hegel along with the Gospels, and the appeal and the limitations of “Calvary” are summed up by the insistent, dialectical chatter that almost mechanically pings and pongs between lightness and darkness, glibness and seriousness, insincerity and honesty, faithfulness and despair.

He’s especially fond of setting up a human value (say, devotion) only to knock it down, kick it in the teeth and then prop it up again for another go-round. Time and again, a pair of characters face off — with each either significantly isolated in the frame or meaningfully crammed into a tense two shot — and talk and then talk some more. In the beginning was the Word; later, came all the human psychodrama.

Lauren Ely, First Things: Is it possible for a film to capture the horror of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church while at the same time presenting a case for the necessity of the institutional priesthood? Against all odds, this is exactly what Irish director John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary manages to do. Fr. James (played with magnificent presence by Brendan Gleeson) is a good priest, if a haunted one. He is a widower and an alcoholic with a suicidal daughter and a parish full of troubled townspeople in rural Ireland. One afternoon a parishioner confesses to him that he was serially raped by a now-deceased priest as a child, and as a way of taking revenge, he will kill Fr. James in a week.

What follows is a surprisingly complex, if imperfectly executed, meditation on the nature of sin and mercy, set in the epicenter of the sexual abuse scandal. We are introduced one by one to Fr. James’s parishioners, each with their own set of problems including drug use, adultery, and prostitution to name only a few. Their attitudes toward the parish priest range from begrudging respect to apathy to outright contempt. Every hackneyed anti-Church saying one can think of is used by the townspeople as a taunt against Fr. James: that the Church is only out for money, that priests are control freaks, that Catholicism has no good answer for the problem of evil. By contrast we see Fr. James doing the hard, daily work of the priest with dogged fidelity as he counsels prisoners, administers last rites in the middle of the night, and comforts a young widow. The film paints very clearly the life of the priest in stark relief to the world’s perception of what a priest is, all while allowing Fr. James to retain his spirited, gruff, flawed humanity.

The key difference between Fr. James and his parishioners is that he sees his part in the sinfulness of others—in fact, he sees the role that sin plays in the greater spiritual world at large. When a group of men at the local pub berate Fr. James for going to give spiritual counseling to a child murderer in the local jail, Fr. James points out that the murderer at least sought his help, even if it was with mixed motivations. “We talk too much about sins and not enough about virtues,” Fr. James tells his daughter. “Forgiveness has been highly underrated.” In the face of the mundane callousness of his parishioners, one can see the priest weighing his options—are such people worth ministering to, repenting for, dying for? Exactly what are his obligations to them?

Ida

Anna, a young novitiate nun in 1960s Poland, is on the verge of taking her vows when she discovers a dark family secret dating back to the years of the Nazi occupation.

A. O. Scott, The New York Times: “Ida” is a breathtakingly concise film — just 80 minutes long — with a clear, simple narrative line. But within its relatively brief duration and its narrow black-and-white frames, the movie somehow contains a cosmos of guilt, violence and pain. Its intimate drama unfolds at the crossroads where the Catholic, Jewish and Communist strains of Poland’s endlessly and bitterly contested national identity intersect.

* * *

“Ida” is as compact and precise as a novella, a sequence of short, emphatic scenes that reveal the essence of the characters without simplifying them. Having set up an obvious contrast between Wanda and Ida — atheist and believer; woman of the world and sheltered child; sensualist and saint — the film proceeds to complicate each woman’s idea of herself and the other. Their black-and-white conceptions of the world turn grayer by the hour.

This is almost literally true, thanks to Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski’s beautifully misty, piercingly sharp monochrome cinematography. The look of “Ida” — images captured by a mostly stationary camera in the boxy frame associated with old movies — serves an obvious period function. What you are watching could virtually have been made in 1962. (The Polish countryside seems to have cooperated by not changing too much in the decades since.) Until the very end, the audience never hears music unless the people on screen hear it, too, and many of the scenes — at once austere and charged with an intensity that verges on the metaphysical — owe an evident debt to ’60s cinema heroes like Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson.

But “Ida” is hardly an exercise in antiquarian pastiche. It is rather an excavation of truths that remain, 70 years after the Holocaust and a quarter-century after the collapse of Communism, only partially disinterred. And it is, above all, about the spiritual and moral condition of the women, who, between them, occupy nearly every second of this film.

Mr. Pawlikowski’s style of shooting might be described as sympathetically objective. His camera maintains its distance, and he never presumes access to the inner lives of his characters. He keeps them low in the frame, with unusually ample space above their heads, creating a kind of cathedral effect. Ida and Wanda can seem small and alone, lost in a vast and empty universe. But their surroundings often achieve a quiet grandeur, an intimation of divine presence.

There is an implicit argument here between faith and materialism, one that is resolved with wit, conviction and generosity of spirit. Mr. Pawlikowski has made one of the finest European films (and one of most insightful films about Europe, past and present) in recent memory.

David Denby, The New Yorker: We are so used to constant movement and compulsive cutting in American movies that the stillness of the great new Polish film “Ida” comes as something of a shock. I can’t recall a movie that makes such expressive use of silence and portraiture; from the beginning, I was thrown into a state of awe by the movie’s fervent austerity. Friends have reported similar reactions: if not awe, then at least extreme concentration and satisfaction. This compact masterpiece has the curt definition and the finality of a reckoning—a reckoning in which anger and mourning blend together.

* * *

“Ida” becomes both an investigation of sorts and an intermittent road movie, featuring a dialectically opposed odd couple—Catholic and Communist, innocent girl and hard-living political intellectual, lover (of Christ) and hater (of the Polish past). Yet neither is a type, and what happens to each has to be understood as both an individual’s fate and a Polish fate. Ida’s faith and disciplined simplicity will be jostled by experience, and Wanda will be tested, too, as her own buried sorrows come back to life. Sardonic comedy lurks within the strange pairing. At first, Wanda can’t stop taunting Ida’s indifference to sex, and, about the village, she says, “What if you go there and discover that there is no God?” Yet Pawlikowski doesn’t favor one point of view over the other: the two women are equal in their isolation and their need to pull together the shards of identity in a country that has been almost entirely broken.

John Anderson, Newsday: Let us give thanks and praise to the Motion Picture Association of America for imposing a PG-13 rating on “Ida,” thus preventing too many 13-year-old Americans from being exposed to a black-and-white movie set in postwar Poland that confronts issues of guilt, sin, identity, God, and the cosmic accidents of the universe. Or for allowing impressionable children to see exactly what cinema can achieve, and so rarely does, thus having their standards raised to heights that can only lead to a moviegoing life of continued disappointment and bitter tears.

To call “Ida” a masterpiece sounds trite; the word has been overused, especially regarding some very forgettable movies. “Ida” is unforgettable, though – for its starkly evocative photography, refined musical sensibility and mostly for Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s sensitive handling of a story whose seething volatility is incubated in what might be called extreme innocence.

Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today: In the end, Ida realizes that she doesn’t understand her aunt at all. She can’t fathom why she made the life choices she did, and has to consider becoming her aunt’s double, inhabiting her aunt’s reality—wearing her clothes, engaging in her activities—in order to see what it was to be her, and to understand how she could have done what she did. And, perhaps, Ida’s wondering if it’s the best way that she can pray for her soul.

In a very imperfect way, this reminds me of the incarnation—the idea that God could inhabit a human body so that finite people could trust him to know what it is to be human, and to understand how Christ could intercede for them. To become another is in some way an act of love for that other person. Jesus knew what it was to be a person, and not one in an ivory tower.

On a night of unhappy drinking, Wanda tells Ida, “Your Jesus didn’t hide out in a cave with books but went out into the world . . . This Jesus of yours adored people like me. Take Mary Magdalene.”

Truthfully, though Ida’s small, flawed attempt at incarnation was all I could think about while watching the film, I doubt that doctrine is what Pawlikowski had in mind. But it puts me in mind of another Kieslowski film—Blue, in which Julie (Juliette Binoche) comes to realize that she can only love others and experience true liberty by coming alongside them and dwelling in their pain. She takes compassion on those who have hurt her, choosing to stop living life apart from them and start living with them.

The beauty of movies is that the good ones allow us to practice a little bit of flawed and limited incarnation, too. In films, as in good fiction, we get to live a little bit of someone else’s reality. That requires being open to the experience, and it requires attention, something that’s hard to come by in our world. But a film like Ida gives us a chance to walk alongside the characters for a while, trying to understand their world and their struggles, and it’s a pleasure to do it when it’s so beautiful.

Anthony Lane, New Yorker: This is solemn filmmaking, devoutly restrained and unshakably purposeful. We expect its austerity to fend us off, but no; it gathers us in and forbids us to look away.

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: Spare, haunting, uncompromising, “Ida” is a film of exceptional artistry whose emotions are as potent and persuasive as its images are indelibly beautiful.

David Thomson, The New Republic: Quite soon in watching Ida, you recognize that you are going to have to see the picture again and again. It intends to live with you. For it has a simplicity that is crammed and so concentrated, you are feeling drained. We are not used to watching so closely, or with a spirit we may have forgotten.

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