Saints and Cinema
CHRISTIANS IN THE MOVIES
A Century of Saints and Sinners
by Peter E. Dans
Rowman & Littlefield, 2009
409 pages, $49.95
To order: rowmanlittlefield.com
By STEVEN D. GREYDANUS
An associate professor of medicine as well as a serious movie buff, Peter Dans has an understandable interest in the portrayal of the medical field in cinema. In 2000 he channeled that interest into Doctors in the Movies: Boil the Water and Just Say Ahh!, an entertaining and insightful study of social attitudes regarding medicine as illustrated by Hollywood.
Dans, a Catholic, has published a second book, Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners, a similarly impressive inquiry into the cinematic portrayal of Christianity and Christians. Like his first book, Christians in the Movies is both a highly readable and informative work of film commentary and a discussion of changing social attitudes.
Just as doctors enjoyed a “golden age of medicine” before being knocked off their pedestals, Dans notes how “[t]he movie clergymen of my youth were tough-yet-good-hearted priests, often portrayed by big stars like Spencer Tracy, Pat O’Brien, and Bing Crosby. Now it appeared that all orthodox clergy and believers were either vicious predators or narrow-minded, mean-spirited Pharisees.”
Dans not only documents changing images of faith, he sketches the larger social context of films from The Passion of Joan of Arc and Angels With Dirty Faces to Dogma and The Magdalene Sisters. (Full disclosure: Dans cites my Register review of that last film.)
Proceeding decade by decade, each chapter opens with a brief consideration of the overall state of the culture, of Hollywood, and finally of the portrayal of Christians typical to the period. The bulk of the chapters consists of discussion of noteworthy individual films, with plot summary followed by commentary on the film’s overall merits as well as its depiction of Christianity.
This schematic procedure is more methodical than the thematic approach Dans took in Doctors in the Movies, enabling Dans to cover more ground in almost exactly the same space: Both books are just over 400 pages, but Christians in the Movies discusses almost 200 films from the silent era to the present, while Doctors in the Movies confines itself to the sound era and gets through about 70 films.
The flip side is that the writing is less organic and more programmatic than Dans’ earlier book, in which plot and critical evaluation are interwoven and one film segues into another. In a word, Doctors in the Movies is more literary while Christians in the Movies is more encyclopedic in approach.
This doesn’t mean that the new book is any less informed by the author’s critical insights and opinions. Dans is an incisive analyst as well as a knowledgeable annalist, and readers will find him a reliable guide not only to discovering films that would otherwise have eluded them, but to better understanding the spiritual and artistic merits or flaws of films they know well.
Dans has no formal film training, which he perhaps rightly feels helps him identify with ordinary viewers. Those who have struggled with Black Narcissus, say, will appreciate Dans’ frank assessment that “the murkiness and weirdness of this melodramatic story, as well as the almost stylized stringing together of the scenes as if they were portraits” may leave viewers wondering “what the film’s ‘classic’ and ‘four star’ status is about.” (That was certainly my reaction, despite my film training.)
Even when Dans’ opinions diverge from the reader’s, his views are always engaging and thought-provoking, and the reader’s views will benefit from interacting with Dans’. For serious Christian movie buffs, Christians at the Movies is a must-have.
Steven D. Greydanus is the
Register’s film critic.
That Which Is
THE MIND THAT IS CATHOLIC
Philosophical and Political Essays
by James V. Schall, S.J.
Catholic University of America Press, 2008
330 pages, $24.95
To order: cuapress.cua.edu
By GERALD RUSSELLO
Jesuit Father James Schall is among the best contemporary examples of how an active intellectual can “think with the Church” with no loss of academic freedom.
A legendary professor at Georgetown University, Father Schall has introduced generations of students to the classics of Western political philosophy.
Those not lucky enough to have witnessed him in the classroom can take heart. Father Schall is also a prolific essayist and reviewer. Earlier collections, bearing playful titles like The Unseriousness of Human Affairs, mask the profound questions that Father Schall addresses. For he seeks to explain and understand what Plato called “to on,” Greek for “that which is.” Father Schall recognizes that the most important things are the most fundamental to human life: play, work, friendship, the bonds and obligations of family and community and religious piety. These have been the constant themes of Western thought, and Father Schall has continued in that great tradition.
This new collection of essays wrestles with the question of whether there is a distinctively Catholic view of considering the world and the enduring questions of human existence. The Mind That Is Catholic is divided into a number of sections, including essays on “Reckoning with Plato,” “Implications of Catholic Thought,” and “Where Does It Lead?”
The core of Father Schall’s understanding of the Catholic mind is contained in his introductory essay, “A Certain Crime Unobserved”:
“It is all right to think of political and philosophical things in the light of revelation. But it is also important that those who consider themselves recipients of revelation also think and think well.”
The “crime” of the title is a quote from Samuel Johnson that illustrates another of Father Schall’s points: What seems “madness” to the secular world is in some sense exactly to what Christians are called. The secular world believes that prayer can be a sign of madness, yet St. Paul calls us to “pray always,” even in the midst of that world.
The Catholic mind, in other words, at its best is open to all things, including the possibility that there are things we can grasp only with the help of revelation. In addition, the Catholic mind acknowledges that we are not divine, and knows that both our reason and our reception of revelation are marred by the Fall. This acknowledgement must affect how we understand ourselves and our society, and it has been a central theme of Western political thought since Augustine’s great work, The City of God.
Gerald J. Russello is a fellow of the Chesterton Institute at
Seton Hall University.
BENEDICT XVI: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT
by Peter Seewald
Ignatius Press, 2008
260 pages, $24.95
To order: ignatius.com
By FRANKLIN FREEMAN
With all the near-hysterical brouhaha about Pope Benedict’s reinstatement of the anti-Semitic Bishop Richard Williamson last spring, it would have helped if news organizations had shown an inclination to learn or remember something about the Pope himself.
Peter Seewald’s new book, Benedict XVI: An Intimate Portrait, would have, despite its faults, been a good place to start.
Seewald describes his own association with the Pope, beginning with his first profile about him and then the two book-length interviews he had with him which became Salt of the Earth and God and the World. It also — and this is more to the point — tells the story of his life.
Benedict grew up in Bavaria, and both his father, a police magistrate, and his mother did not hesitate to profess their contempt for Adolf Hitler and the Brownshirts. His father applied for early retirement so as not to have to serve in the Nazi regime, and his mother was fond of telling a joke about Hitler that scared the other villagers. Benedict’s membership in the Nazi Youth has often been mentioned without noting he had been conscripted into it against his will.
Benedict, after becoming a priest and professor, wanted to produce a body of theological work and had a promising university career ahead of him, but was called upon to serve the Church in a more and more sacrificial manner, first as bishop and then as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and finally as Pope. Contrary to the assertions of former colleagues such as Hans Küng, Seewald writes, the Pope has neither toed the party line to gain power nor reversed positions because he was traumatized by the student rebellions of the late 1960s.
Rather, Pope Benedict has always striven to serve the Church in both a faithful and revolutionary way: faithful to the dogma “as the living source that alone made knowledge possible,” but revolutionary in trying to apply and live out this dogma and not giving into the zeitgeist of the world.
Seewald also shares fascinating insights about the Pope, such as the following:
The discovery that had the most lasting effect [in his student days] was that of one of the really great figures in the Church, who was to become a kind of alter ego for Ratzinger, a congenial friend, a second self: Augustine. He was a man of artistic sensibilities, of all-around capabilities of penetrating reflection and, in addition, a strict, systematic theologian, whose stormy life led him in the end to wisdom and adoration. The newly educated student still found it difficult to approach Thomas Aquinas. “His crystal-clear logic” seemed to him “too firmly enclosed within itself, too impersonal and ready-made.” In Augustine’s case, by contrast, “the passionate, suffering, and questioning man” was “always directly present,” says Ratzinger, someone “with whom one can identify.”
Seewald, however, tells his story confusingly, especially with regard to chronology. There is also an awkwardness in tone and syntax. I’m not sure if that is a matter of Seewald’s style, the translation, the editing or all three. An index would also have been helpful.
Despite these distractions, Benedict XVI: An Intimate Portrait is worth reading for those who want to really learn something about the Pope.
Franklin Freeman writes
from Saco, Maine.