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BY Jim Cosgrove
LITTLE WOMEN (1994)
Louisa May Alcott's popular novel has been adapted to the screen four times. The 1933 George Cukor production, starring Katherine Hepburn, is on the Vatican's list of 45 best films. This most recent version, directed by Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career), emphasizes the trade-offs between marriage and a passionate commitment to career — an important issue for many women today. But it also remains true to the spirit of the original in presenting family as the place where our basic values are formed.
Little Women's emotional spine is the coming-ofage of Jo March (Winona Ryder), an aspiring writer in New England during the Civil War. She and her three sisters are being raised by their mother (Susan Sarandon) in genteel poverty while their father is off fighting. They learn how to cope with illness, suitors and a mean-spirited rich aunt. Their deep love for each other sustains them through disappointments and success.
TENDER MERCIES (1983)
Most of us mess up our lives pretty badly at one time or another. Christianity teaches us that redemption is one sincere change of heart away, and God usually shows us the way if we're willing to listen.
Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) is a talented country-western singer-song-writer who's destroyed his career and personal life through alcoholism. A relationship with a widowed motel owner (Tess Harper) and her young son offers him a chance start anew. But life's twists and turns have a few nasty surprises left. “I don't trust happiness,” the singer declares. “I never have, and I never will.”
Australian director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) and screenwriter Horton Foote (To Kill A Mockingbird) show that the path to redemption isn't easy but always worth the effort. The Oscar-winning Tender Mercies is filled with simplicity, grace and true-to-life emotions.
TO KILLA MOCKINGBIRD (1962)
People's values are usually formed in childhood, and a parent's influence is the determining factor. The Oscar-winning To Kill a Mocking Bird dramatizes a widowed father's attempts to raise two pre-adolescent kids in a small Southern town during the depths of the Depression.
Jean “Scout” Finch (Mary Badham) nostalgically recollects the summer and fall of 1932 when she was a 6-year-old tomboy. But the bitter is mixed with the sweet. When her lawyer-father, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white girl, most of the townsfolk ostracize the family.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,” Atticus advises, “until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” The kindly patriarch walks the talk, teaching his children to always stand up for their beliefs and extend charity even to those who are different.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.
BY Jim Cosgrove
Central Station (1999)
Few movies succeed when they set out to combine relevant social News with a personal story that tugs at the heart strings. The Brazilian-made Central Station pulls it off with intelligence and flare by a skillful use of documentary-film techniques.
Dora (Fernanda Montenegro) writes letters for illiterates in Rio de Janeiro's central station through which pass 300,000 people each day. Cynical and misanthropic, she systematically abuses her clients' trust until she encounters the 7-year-old Josue (Vinicius de Oliveira), whose mother has just died. Against her better judgment, Dora agrees to help the boy find his absent father, who's rumored to be in a recently developed settlement out in the boondocks. On the journey the lives of both are changed as this unlikely pair makes contact with a network of Protestant converts and hooks up with a band of Catholic pilgrims on their way to a festival centering around the Virgin Mary.
Central Station is both a Latin American road
movie and a psychological study of two people whose values are put to
the test. Its main characters' personal odysseys dramatize the vast economic and cultural changes that capitalism brings to developing nations. Although the film isn't presented as a carefully thoughtout religious allegory, there are several significant plot twists which hint in that direction.
Going My Way (1944)
Believe it or not, in the 1940s Protestants used to complain that Hollywood was giving preferential treatment to Catholics, and Going My Way was usually cited as proof. This heartwarming, positive film won four Oscars — for best picture, best actor (Bing Crosby), best supporting actor (Barry Fitzgerald) and best song. Its humor and melodrama spring from the clash between the different ways two dedicated priests view their vocation.
Father Fitzgibbon (Fitzgerald) is a stern, patriarchal figure approaching retirement who reveres the Church's traditions. Father O'Malley (Crosby) is a kindly, youthful innovator who uses psychology and song to win converts. Both are obedient to the hierarchy, an orthodox understanding of the faith and a commitment to a life of service. The parish they share is in a poor section of town. Money is always short and crime appears attractive to their youthful charges.
The story is uncomplicated and sentimental, with an optimistic resolution — the old and the new work together to triumph over evil because everyone's intentions are pure. Yet beneath all the sweetness there's an important, and truthful, historical nugget: Back when the world was frequently hostile to ethnic Catholics in America, local parishes played a key moral and spiritual role in the lives of the faithful.
Wide Awake (1996)
For the past 20 years there's been a continual stream of movies (Heaven Help Us) and plays (Sister May Ignatius) which portray Catholic schools in a negative light. Set against this climate, Wide Awake, an early film by this summer's hot director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense), is a welcome relief. This poignant, often humorous story chronicles a young boy's temporary loss of faith and subsequent search for God, and it depicts parochial schools as well-run, emotionally nurturing institutions whose students get a first-class academic and moral education.
Josh Beal (Joseph Cross) has been raised in an affluent suburban Philadelphia household in which both parents work.
When his grandfather (Robert Loggia) dies from bone cancer, Josh seeks a sign that his former best friend has gone to heaven. Emulating the methods of the videogame and TV space commanders who are his role models, the 10-year-old embarks on “a mission” to find God.
During his quest, Josh learns to view his fellow students in a more charitable light. It's all presented as a normal part of growing up.
Catholic schools are shown to have a positive impact on kids' lives, as exemplified by the maverick Sister Terry (Rosie O'Donnell) who tries to instruct him in the faith.
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Jane Austen's novels assume a strict code of values which seem as indestructible as the class systems and country homes which frequently mark their settings. Here a sudden reversal in fortune places the well-born Dashwood sisters, Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Marianne (Titanic's Kate Winslet), on the edge of genteel poverty. Finding the right husband becomes a matter of economic survival as well as an affair of the heart. Learning how to balance these two motives is the crux of their moral education and their path to emotional maturity.
Elinor is drawn to Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), a cautious, reflective person like herself. But his ambitious family discourages the match. The more impulsive Marianne is swept off her feet by the dashing hunk Willoughby (Greg Wise), who jilts her for a wealthier woman. But as the two sisters suffer, the plot takes some surprising turns.
Emma Thompson's Oscar-winning screenplay promotes old-fashioned virtues like modesty and prudence and presents immediate gratification as the enemy of lasting love. As our culture continues to slide into moral anarchy, audiences are hungry for a vision of a world where ethical standards are held high even if not everyone can live up to them. Sense and Sensibility takes for granted its stable social order and honors the wise and virtuous heart.