A Convert’s Testimony on the Power of Film
These movies were not made to teach, edify or persuade. Far from it. But as God brought me from Islam to the Catholic Church, they unexpectedly became tools of his providence.
The coronavirus lockdown has left me, and so many of us, with loads of spare time. I’ve been doing what I can to ensure that my furlough is productive: praying, running, reading, writing (I’ve even written an entire novella!), keeping in touch with friends (especially those from my days in New York), and even building up my mediocre Spanish vocabulary. Even with all this, I’ve found myself with spare time to spare. And so I've done what comes naturally to me: watching movies.
I’ve loved film for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, when my parents became desperate to shut me up for a couple of hours, there was an easy solution at hand: put one of the Indiana Jones or Star Wars (original trilogy, of course) movies into the VCR.
I was raised Muslim. Film has played a role in my own conversion to Christianity, as well as my reception into the Catholic Church some years after that.
“Then the disciples came and said to him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’” (Matthew 13:10)
When I was a Muslim, I didn’t bother watching films deemed blatantly Christian. But if I’d ever heard it that a film was critical, or even mocking, of Christianity, then I still considered it halal. Though the bulk of my friends were nominal Christians, I’d maintained a social strategy of avoiding enthusiastic Christians, thus sparing myself from the annoyances of being preached to. But Providence is very clever.
In late 2004 I had read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. From that book I’d been given the strong impression that the Catholic Church had had major qualms with the speculations dealt with in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. And so I decided to go ahead and give it a watch.
The film’s production was executed very well, as are all of Scorsese's works. But I probably would have avoided watching it altogether if only I’d been forewarned how one particular scene would affect me:
Mary Magdalene (played by Barbara Hershey), who up until then had shown hostility toward Jesus, whom it was strongly suggested had had some previous relationship with Jesus, was dragged by her hair to the site where she was going to be executed. She crawled into the fetal position as a mob of men throwing stones at her. Jesus (played by Willem Dafoe) stepped between Magdalene and the hostile mob, even getting pelted by several rocks doing so. He held stones in each of his hands. “Which one of you people has never sinned?” he asked the mob. “Whoever that is, come up here,” he shouted, lifting up the stones in his hands, “and throw these!” Magdalene, crying in terror and desperation, clutched Jesus’ ankles. But slowly, beginning with one of the mob’s elders, the would-be executioners were convinced to relent. Jesus had saved the life of a woman from a crowd acting in the name of righteousness.
Oops. For days afterward, I just couldn't shake out that image of Magdalene, crying and clutching at Jesus’ ankles. It was seared in my mind. I had heard the line “let the one without sin cast the first stone” before then (and I’ll admit that I'd remembered it best from an episode of the Simpsons), and knew it to be from somewhere in the Bible, but I’d never actively sought to learn its context. “Could Muhammad himself have matched a compassion so deep?” I had wondered. Having purposefully watched what I thought would be an “anti-Christian” film, recommended to me by an anti-Catholic book, I’d unwittingly stumbled one step closer to accepting belief in the Son of God.
“This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matthew 13:13)
I had renounced Islam in February 2006. Following an existential crisis, I was baptized as a Christian in 2007. After some years as an Evangelical Christian, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2012. There were many influences in my journey: friends (especially those who held biases against the Catholic Church!), books, experiences, situations, travel, arts and so on. My love of film was, of course, one of those influences. I’d even had the privilege of serving on the ministry team of a filmmakers group at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, the Protestant church which I had attended before I became Catholic.
Two particular films played a crucial role in my decision to become Catholic.
As a longtime fan of horror, I had loved The Exorcist before I ever became a Christian. It’s a terrifying film, no matter what a person’s creed (or lack of creed) may be. But as a born-again Christian — one who was becoming, by slow degrees, progressively sympathetic toward the Catholic view of the sacraments — I had begun interpreting this classic with a fresh perspective.
My great takeaway was that the Church, and only the Church, had, within her vast storehouses of wisdom and knowledge, that which all of our temporal human knowledge of medicine and psychology thoroughly lacked: the correct answer to what had afflicted poor Regan MacNeil (played by Linda Blair). The answer was overlooked, and dismissed as superstitious, by most. Even the protagonist, Father Damien Karras (played by Jason Miller), who himself was a psychiatrist, was reluctant to believe in the likelihood of demonic possession. The ancient Church had access to truths which worldly knowledge fails and refuses to understand. I couldn’t help myself from wondering the degree to which that is true.
The Exorcist is a glance at hell, with the potential power to frighten persons to the eschewing of evil. The Flowers of Saint Francis is a film that has great power to inspire, to awaken its viewer’s yearning for sainthood.
Italian director Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 classic (in Italian) was not so much an autobiographical film, with a conventional plot, as it was a showing in glimpses of the great saint’s character, particularly his whimsy, and the effect that he had on his early followers. Several of the key roles, including that of St. Francis himself (played by Brother Nazario Gerardi), were portrayed by actual Franciscan friars, rather than regular actors.
Gerardi’s performance is absolutely spellbinding. “Is there any other church that can boast of having produced saints of such high quality?” I’d wondered to myself upon viewing the film the first time, “is there any other church that can teach a person to wear the world as such a loose garment?” This film, along with G.K. Chesterton's biography of the saint, was my introduction to St. Francis (whom I had known before only as some guy who got along with animals) — an introduction that not only helped persuade me to become Catholic, but to also join the Secular Franciscan Order after my confirmation.
“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
So many of the Christian inspirational films that are made in our day, such as Heavenly Deposit, are written with foregone conclusions — something along the lines of a main character accepting Christ and having all of his problems magically vanish immediately after. The antagonists in films such as God’s Not Dead are so often given strawman treatment, with characters who already are Christian often devolving into lecturing mouthpieces. Filmmakers and producers, even those with the noble intentions of spreading the Gospel message, all so often give life to narratives that amount to propaganda — films highly unlikely to appeal to a non-Christian audience.
The films that have done, at least for me, what many Christian filmmakers intend to do were directed by men who weren’t renowned faith warriors. Martin Scorsese, who was raised Catholic, was on his fourth marriage (of five) during the filming of The Last Temptation of Christ. William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist, was raised Jewish and became agnostic later on in life. Roberto Rossellini, whose films often explored Christian values, was not a practicing Catholic, and he was in the midst of an affair with actress Ingrid Bergman during the production of The Flowers of Saint Francis.
None of these men were likely to volunteer themselves as Sunday school teachers, and yet each of them directed a film, with narratives fully immersed in matters of faith, that helped bring me to Mass every Sunday. It all goes to show that Providence is very clever indeed.
And so here I am, still with plenty of spare time, weighing one great question in my mind: what am I going to watch next?