so, there’s this great Joyce quote. I can’t remember where I even read it in the first place, and I spent an hour unsuccessfully attempting to locate the exact phrasing. As I recall, it went something like: “In my youth, I was troubled by the differences I found between life and literature.” Not “In my younger and more vulnerable years…” That’s Gatsby. Fitzgerald. Right. You get the gist, no?

You’ve also, by now, probably surmised that this is going to be one of those long, indulgent pieces about how some obscure (in this case, moi) writer grew up all wrong. My hope is that you’re only partly correct. When I read that quote, the one by Joyce I tried to paraphrase above, I remember instantly identifying with it—not because Joyce is my favorite author (though he is) nor because I enjoy likening myself to Joyce as a fellow writer (indulgent, maybe, but not hubristic), but because, mostly, albeit indirectly, I come from the same hood he came from, we share basically the same stories. Granted, Midwestern America, circa the 21st Century, is a pretty long trip from turn-of-the-(20th)-century Ireland, but hear me out.

Where Joyce and I “bond” is over a Catholic upbringing that apparently hasn’t changed that radically in a hundred years’ time; and, more pointedly, a certain know-it-all adolescent rejection thereof that’s led, in turn, to a secular adulthood singularly haunted by images of ceremonial robes and stained-glass windows, the sounds of Latin-derived mass hymns and Hellfire sermons. I may not serve that in which I no longer believe—and, truth be told, haven’t for as long as I’ve been capable of making up my mind for myself regarding such matters—but, damn,…that shit sticks with you. Which is to say, if I’m a confirmed non-Believer, humanist-materialist through and through, why do I find myself, time and time again, drawn to work of a religious, or at least “spiritual,” nature?

First off, without going all World Religions 101 (or worse yet, boxed into one of those infuriating semantic circle-jerks), what exactly is a “soul” anyway? I’m fairly positive I’ve used the word “soulless” as a pejorative in reviewing movies and/or music. And yet, logically speaking, I reject the idea of a soul, a spirit, or whatever you prefer to call it. I know where my heart, my kidneys, and my smoke-blackened lungs are located within the makeup of my body; where, again, is my soul? But tell me, in print or conversation, that you find Ridley Scott’s films “soulless” and I’ll nod and happily agree.

My all-time favorite movies? Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, followed closely by Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. In a contrary mood, I might, instead, nominate Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry or Malick’s Days of Heaven. Either way, these are films of an undeniably religious/spiritual nature, prone, at worst, to a sense of mysticism I take pleasure in making fun of, save the art I happen to like.

At least, I can take some relief in the knowledge that Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut have progressively overtaken 2001: A Space Odyssey in my personal ranking of Kubrick’s filmography. In terms of religiosity, there isn’t a more ambiguous figure in cinema than Kubrick. The majority of his oeuvre sticks to the material world, but 2001, his signature film, concludes with some celestial transubstantiation that’s only vaguely Nietzschean and unabashedly spiritual. Right up there with the final images of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart in John Ford’s The Searchers and Hitchcock’s Vertigo, respectively, it’s one of film’s iconic parting shots.

No less intriguingly, Spielberg (who, like Kubrick, is Jewish) took the project he inherited from his late mentor—after who knows how many years in creative limbo—in a curiously Catholic direction. If E.T. was Spielberg’s popcorn vision of the Christ story, A.I. is his Pieta. Forget Freud—Haley Joel Osment’s David is the boy Jesus, desperately fleeing the Philistines in attempt to make it back into his mother’s arms. Naturally, most of the film’s detractors, upon its release in 2001, zeroed in on the coda, Spielberg’s painful, benedictive masterstroke. Heaven is, after all, a place where nothing ever happens.

Bresson and Dreyer represent Devotion with a capital ��D.’ (The latter, in fact, landed multiple entries on The Vatican’s recommended list of films!) Though Balthazar and Dreyer’s Passion are a decidedly far cry from the straight-to-video, Kirk Cameron-starring Left Behind series and Mel Gibson’s ultraviolent Passion, the take-it-or-leave-it force driving these masterpieces is Faith. Bresson famously contended that “there are no real atheists.” I’d beg to differ, but that doesn’t mean I’m not emotionally (spiritually?) floored by the suffering saints in his films, whether a hapless, wino priest or a mistreated donkey.

In Diary of a Country Priest, the film’s ostensible tragedy isn’t the parish-members’ thoughtless treatment of the titular clergyman—it’s the progressively dimming convictions of his ordination. This is a distinctly Catholic dilemma. If the religious demographics on census reports were to accurately reflect our population’s denominational leanings, the word “lapsed” would likely precede “Catholic” almost as often as not. Being a Good Catholic, I would dare to argue, is considerably more difficult, in most cases, than Being a Good Protestant. To quote Andre Guibert’s Priest of Torcy:
Make order. Make order all day long. Make order while thinking that disorder will take over the following day, because it is precisely within order, unfortunately, that the night will blow away yesterday's work.
It isn’t just a matter of maintaining faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost or remembering to say the “Hail Mary” before you go to sleep at night. It’s also subscribing to the Vatican platform (Abortion? Birth control? Premarital sex? No, no, and no), and adhering to the traditional formalities of the Church. (Most of the legitimately Good Catholics I know are widows deep into their AARP years, who still speak Latin and haven’t missed a day’s service since our only Catholic president was in the White House.) Which is to say, George W. Bush’s quiet time, asking God to bless America and keep him off the bottle, wouldn’t cut it in Catholicism. Personal donations, however, are gladly accepted.

Paul Schrader finds the aesthetic distance to label the work of Bresson and Dreyer (and Ozu, who I love very much, as well) “Transcendental.” This works just fine, except that Schrader is a hard-line Calvinist (and one-time theology major). I’m an atheist. You know, maybe I should just keep repeating that, ad infinitum, tapping my heels together like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (another Vatican-approved classic). Instead, I recall verbatim the opening verse of the Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

There’s this idea I’ve been tossing around a lot lately. For lack of a better description, I tend to refer to it as “Selfless Acts of Human Kindness.” If the term isn’t sufficiently self-explanatory, it’s something akin to the Christian notion of Good Works (but subtracting God/Heaven from the equation). Well-meaning gestures of liberal-guilt are dime-a-dozen and, too often, compulsory. Nevertheless, at the risk of sounding hopelessly patronizing, I’m increasingly drawn to the idea of helping People Less Fortune Than Myself, of doing whatever I can to Leave the World a Better Place (Once I’m Gone), regardless of any sort of recognition. I’m thinking of modern-day saints like Nelson Mandela, Mr. Rogers, and Gandhi (who, too, gets props from the Papacy, via Sir Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning biopic). The catch is that they’re, in a broad sense of the word, celebrities, de facto or otherwise. What about the Gandhi’s and Mandela’s who’ve never graced the cover of Time magazine, and never will? Do I legitimately aspire, with the same sense of conviction, to follow in their thankless footsteps?

This thing, the saint—it’s such a Catholic concept, isn’t it? “Christian” friends of mine worship God and love Jesus and that’s pretty much the end of it. Mary was a nice lady, Mother of the Millennium and all of that, but they’re not about to pray to her. Joan of Arc was a loon. St. Nicholas is the guy on the Coke bottles come wintertime. This is where we diverge, where “Catholic” and “Christian” are two very different matters.

Through eight years of Catholic schooling, I was taught to admire suffering; selflessness. Most saints, naturally, are martyrs, marble and stained-glass sacrificial lambs offering up their lives as the ultimate token of their devotion. Despite scandal and protests for change, priests, to this day (and unlike ministers in most Protestant denominations), are required to take vows of abstinence. The half-joke in my uniform days was that they’re “married to Jesus,” but, in principle, it’s not far from the truth.

Falconetti’s Joan of Arc (her sole film role)—trapped for eternity in Dreyer’s rigid, angular torture chamber—is the screen embodiment of the sublimity-through-suffering dogma that fuels the Catholic catechism. That the film, with its grotesque inquisitors and manipulative clergy, functions as a critique of the Church’s unwieldy power is a moot point. This is precisely the Joan I knew, from religion text books and mass lectures, long before I found Dreyer’s film as a teenager interested in cinema. The overwhelming, unrelenting sense of pain displayed in the contortions of Falconetti’s face, and, specifically, in those impossibly haunted eyes (reportedly, a result of Dreyer forcing her to kneel on stones for long stretches of time) struck some chord inside of me. But where? Certainly not my kidneys.

The scene that gets me in Tim Robbins’s Dead Man Walking comes near the end of the film. Susan Sarandon’s plainclothesed nun visits Sean Penn’s condemned murder in prison, as the clock ticks toward the date of his execution. He asks her to sing a hymn. She says that she can’t because there isn’t any music—not even an organ. He pleads with her to sing him one anyway. The hymn, she chooses, “Be Not Afraid,” goes:
If you pass through raging waters
In the sea you shall not drown
If you walk amidst the burning flames
You shall not be harmed
If you stand before the pow’r of Hell
And Death is at your side
Know that I am with you through it all

Be not afraid
I go before you always
Come, follow me
And I will give you rest
I didn’t have to Google that one, for the record—and I haven’t seen the movie in years. Aside from weddings and funerals, I haven’t attended a church service in longer than that. It’s odd, the things that stick in your memory, regardless of whether you want them there or not. Even thinking about this scene now, I feel a bit choked up. It’s partly a matter of context; the most poignant scene in a powerful movie. Despite an early sexual pass made by Penn’s character (and politely but conclusively rejected by Sarandon’s), their relationship is, at most, platonic, but this particular mass staple is, unmistakably, a love song. The sentiment of the piece is incredibly beautiful, regardless of who or what you put your faith in, and, frankly, it’s not too far a cry from, say, Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U.” Of course, coincidentally or not, The Purple One is himself no stranger to religion…

Perhaps I should’ve stuck with Taste of Cherry. Not because it’s the product of a culture that associates Catholicism with the Crusades (fun fact: my elementary school’s team mascot was the Crusaders…), but because there’s hope there, in Kiarostami’s blessed ambiguity. At least, his purposefully blank protagonist, Mr. Badii, isn’t burnt at the stake just before the credits roll. He is left, by his own volition, to die in a hole in the ground, but his redemption (?) is Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, itself the sound of a specter risen from the grave. His resurrection (film’s?) is digital video, as Homayon Ershadi (the non-actor cast as Badii) kindly lights his director’s cigarette. As Jonathan Rosenbaum acutely observed in his seminal review of the film, “Far from affirming that Taste of Cherry is ��only’ a movie, this wonderful ending is saying, among other things, that it's also a movie. And we don't have to remember all of the lyrics of ��St. James Infirmary’ to know that death is waiting for us around the corner.”

Malick’s elemental, impossible-not-to-mention lyricism offers less of an escape route for determined secularists. In at least the last three of his four features, his characters’ place in the world is measured largely in relation to their distance from, or understanding of, That Higher Somethingorother. Linda Manz’s Linda in Days of Heaven, James Caviezel’s Private Witt in The Thin Red Line, and Q’Orianka Kilcher’s Pocahontas in The New World are, if not suffering saints, the closest examples of auteur surrogates in Malick’s oeuvre. They’re innocents and idealists, swept up by human conflict and violence they either fail to fully comprehend or refuse to negotiate with. “What’s war in the heart of nature?” asks Witt over The Thin Red Line’s prologue-in-paradise. “Nobody’s perfect,” counters Linda, “There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you.”

Above all, this trio of deep-feelers is In Tune With Nature. And, as I’m often reminded and Malick can evidently attest, God Is Everywhere: In the brilliance of a fin de siècle sunset and the ominous autumn breeze blowing through the wheat fields; in the bird staring down at you from a tree limb overhead and in the poor donkey, Balthazar. So I’ve been told. But looking now at my dog, gazing deeply into those pitiful charcoal-lump eyes, I don’t see God at all. In fact, I’m pretty sure she just has to poop.

Two of my favorite American movies of the new millennium are Kenneth Lonergan’s critically-anointed You Can Count on Me and Edward Norton’s woefully tossed-aside Keeping the Faith. The former centers on a pair of siblings, long alienated but reunited in their hometown, where she’s raising her son while he drifts between jobs and women with that unmistakable, Gen-X slacker ennui. She still attends mass and consults her priest for life-advice, while carrying on an affair with her (married) boss, but they’re both effectively lapsed. Through the lens of my own experiences, this is an acutely poignant look at young adults attempting to escape the subconscious stranglehold of that fire-and-brimstone original sin business. In the film’s closing scene, Laura Linney’s Sammy breaks down in tears at the bus stop, worrying as to what kind of trouble her little brother will get in now that he’s leaving again. Terry (Mark Ruffalo) gives her a hug and assures her that “nothing too bad” is going to happen, something we could all do well to hear every so often.

Norton’s film follows the friendship between a priest (Norton) and rabbi (Ben Stiller) living in New York. Their buddy-buddy “God Squad” rapport is complicated by the return of a childhood friend (Jenna “Dharma” Elfman) they both crushed on growing up. After play-dating with her and having a sweaty dream about a woman not named Mary, Norton’s Father Brian realizes he’s in love. Unbeknownst to him, she thinks of him as “just a friend,” and is shacking up with Stiller’s Rabbi Jacob. This is a problem for Jacob because Anna is not Jewish. It’s more of a problem for Brian because, well, he’s a priest, and has consequently vowed to remain celibate; there’s even a Thorn Birds reference in there.

Of course, it all ends happily enough: Jacob and Anna hook up for good, and the men of faith are pals again. The bittersweet note that lingers, though, is that Brian not only doesn’t get the girl—he can’t; by oath, he’s relegated to suffering in silence, not unlike Claude Laydu’s doomed Priest of Ambricourt in Bresson’s Diary. “I would prefer that it had been for the love of a good woman rather than what you call your intellectual evolution,” indeed: Suffering is something Catholics are all-too familiar with.

By: Josh Timmermann
Published on: 2006-04-24
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