Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Paradise Now (2005)

     This semester, one of my classes at my university is International Cinema, where we are given sections of cinema around the world to read about and then watch films from those countries and those time periods. A movie I watched recently for the class was “Paradise Now”, a Palestinian film that I remember being released around 2005 or 2006. At that time, I was in my early teens, and I didn’t have much interest in the movie. But after having watched it, I can now say it’s one of the most powerful modern foreign films I’ve seen in a while.

     The film centers around two friends, Said (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman). They are young men probably in their late-20’s or early-30’s who have grown up together, worked together, and suffered through the hardships in their country together. We see them working together at a run-down auto repair where Said runs into a friend—or lover—named Suha (Lubna Azabal) who has returned to Palestine after spending time abroad.

     One night, Said meets with an old friend who is involved in the organization of suicide bombings as demonstrations against the government. Said, we find out, is the son of an executed collaborator, and he himself has been involved in protests such as burning down a movie theater. And when his friend approaches him about him and Khaled leading a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, Said is not hesitant to agree to the mission, as he says, “if it is God’s will.”

     So eventually, the two friends are armed with a bomb, cleaned off and shaven, and dressed in suits so they will not look like regular settlers. They each go in front of a camera with a gun and record a statement about what God tells them about injustice and why they must be His martyrs. They also leave a goodbye to their families, apologizing for the way they have to be separated but assuring them that they will one day be reuniting. These scenes, I have to say, are disturbing yet fascinating at the same time. As I’ll explain later on, it gives a fresh perspective to the sacredness that these would-be martyrs put on these attacks that Americans like me rarely think about.

     When Said and Khaled are taken to their destination, however, they are driven away by gunfire, and Said and Khaled soon get separated. Khaled returns to the people who sent him on the mission, who believe that Said betrayed them. Khaled, on the other hand, knows that Said would do no such thing, and we see Said trying to find his way back to Khaled. On his journey (mostly on foot), he runs into a lot of familiar faces, though not meaning to, including his mother, his former employer, and even Suha, with whom he shares a kiss before he runs back to his mission.

     Suha eventually catches on, and when she finds Khaled driving in search of Said, she interrogates him about what’s going and why the two of them would want to sacrifice their lives in this way:

KHALED: If we can't live as equals, at least we'll die as equals.

SUHA: If you can kill and die for equality you should be able to find a way to be equal in life. …Then at least the Israelis don't have an excuse to keep on killing.

KHALED: Don’t be so naive. There can be no freedom without struggle. As long as there is injustice, someone must make a sacrifice.

SUHA: That’s no sacrifice. That's revenge. If you kill, there's no difference between victim and occupier.

     Through a series of events, Said and Khaled meet up again, and when they are sent the next morning to try again in the city, Khaled eventually calls up his driver and tells them that the two of them want to return. Said says he agrees, but when the driver comes, Said lets Khaled in the car but sends the driver ahead without him. And Khaled, helpless as the car drives away, weeps as he sees his friend probably for the last time. And the film ends with Said sitting on a bus in silence before the screen cuts to white, fades to black, and rolls the end credits.

     In those earlier scenes where Said and Khaled are preparing for the mission, it dawned on me how religious “Paradise Now” is. It’s not a Christian movie by any means, but it starts out as two men wanting to sacrifice their lives for Allah and his prophet Mohammad, but then they feel conflicted about it. And again, that’s something I don’t think about very often. These men are as zealous for Allah as I am for Jesus—or at least as zealous as I know I ought to be. But even though we both worship God, it’s a very different God—or at least a different image of God. I think of a quote C.S. Lewis wrote: “That is why horrible nations have horrible religions: they have been looking at God through a dirty lens.”

     But if I were to look at God from the perspective of a pure heart, what would I find? I would indeed find that Jesus said, “‘Whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.’” (Mark 8:34) But He also teaches us to “‘love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us]”. (Matthew 5:44) I should not be afraid to be a martyr for my faith. But what good is it if I were to do it in a way that killed others as well? I’m sure other people smarter than I am can debate this more thoroughly, but all I can say is, my prayer for you today is that you would sacrifice your life by loving others and giving up yourself for others.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

     “What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate.”

     The immortal line from director Stuart Rosenberg’s beautifully shot character drama “Cool Hand Luke” can in a way sum up the conflict of the film. The title character, Luke (Paul Newman), is arrested one night for being drunk and screwing the tops off of parking meters. Even the captain (Strother Martin) of the prison he is sent to is confused by this seemingly pointless act. But that’s sort of the whole point with Luke: he doesn’t conform. He often talks about how he hates rules and regulations. Even in prison, he is an independent spirit that doesn’t want to just follow the rules.

     And prisoners around him notice this. One of them, an older, bigger prisoner known as Dragline (George Kennedy) challenges him at first to a fistfight outside the prison. He ends up beating Luke without letting Luke hardly get a punch in. But that doesn’t stop Luke from constantly getting back up once he’s been knocked down. And this says a lot about Luke’s character as well: he’ll never be beat. He’ll never be broken. He’ll just keep getting up.

     Eventually, this has a positive effect on pretty much every prisoner. Luke stays positive, and so does everyone around him. One day as they do yardwork around the prison and down the street, he starts working faster and faster. Soon, all the prisoners feel his spirit and start working faster too—and they end up finishing two hours early. Later on, Dragline, who has become friends with Luke now, bets that Luke can eat fifty eggs in an hour. Luke does it—all fifty in one hour, even though near the end he gets so full that they have to lay him on the table and feed him the eggs.

    But soon, the rules and regulations of the prison start making an attempt to break Luke after all. When Luke’s mother dies, the prison guards keep him in solitary confinement—“the box”, as they call it—so that he won’t think about escaping. When he is finally let out after a few days, Luke decides to escape the prison for good. Friends help him get out, but he is eventually caught and brought back to camp. And this is where the captain utters the immortal line:

CAPTAIN: What we've got here is... failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach. So you get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it... well, he gets it. I don't like it any more than you men.

     But Luke soon escapes a second time, seemingly for good, until he is brought back once again, this time really beaten up and constantly bossed around by the guards. One night, after being forced to dig what looks like two graves in the ground, he cries out for mercy, that “he’ll get his mind right”. And after a while, he seems like the guards’ pet, doing little chores for them and looking like his mind really isn’t right after all. That is, until he sneaks into one of the guard’s trucks with Dragline and drives away.

     That night, Dragline and Luke split up, and Luke finds himself in a church, where he prays for the first time in a while.

LUKE: Hey, Old Man. You home tonight? Can You spare a minute? It’s about time we had a little talk. …I know I got no call to ask for much... but even so, You've got to admit You ain't dealt me no cards in a long time. When does it end? What do You got in mind for me? What do I do now? Right. All right. On my knees, asking. (silence) …Yeah, that’s what I thought.

     But just then, Dragline runs in and police cars surround the church. Luke chuckles as Dragline explains that if Luke comes out peacefully, the guards won’t hurt him. But Luke comes to the door and says: “What we got here is a failure to communicate!” Right before being shot in the chest by the head guard. He presumably dies on the way to the hospital, but Dragline is brought back to the prison and is able to tell the prisoners about Luke one last time: “He’s a natural-born world-shaker.”

     I guess there are a few different directions you could take this movie in terms of its spiritual content: about Luke’s nonconformity, about the guard’s mercy, and so on. But I was really struck by the idea of Luke acting as sort of an example of Christ in the prison. Seriously, even watch the scene where he finishes the egg-eating contest, and tell me he doesn’t look like Jesus on the cross, in nothing but a white rag, arms stretched out. But in a way, Luke inspires the other prisoners to live in a new way the same way Jesus taught His disciples to love others in a new way.

     Think about it: in His time, Jesus’ teaching seemed really out of place. For years, Jews have learned to hate their enemies, that they should take revenge, “an eye for an eye”. But then Jesus, the New Covenant, comes along and tells them that Grace has come. That doesn’t mean the law is changed: it means that now the law is becoming a matter of the heart, that it’s more than just ideas that people like the Pharisees teach and then do the opposite.

     And in Matthew 23, Jesus condemns the Pharisees and hypocrites like them: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.” (23:25-26) Jesus taught that following the law is more than just a commandment: it’s something that involves your heart and your soul, something that you have to believe in wholeheartedly.

     My prayer for you today is that you will see Jesus’ commandments and His life as a whole not as just a belief, but as a lifestyle that involves your whole being. Only then can we show the true love of God.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Les Misérables (2012)

     One of the most-loved films of 2012 (at least, by audiences) was the musical version of Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables”. I remember seeing the teaser trailer when I was in Ecuador in May last year, and I was immediately pumped. With Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway leading the way, I knew this was going to be a cool movie—and indeed, I thought, it was. Some of the singing wasn’t exactly always pretty (looking at you, Russell Crowe), but some of it wasn’t intended to be: the movie musical has the advantage of letting the actors take the song and its emotions in many different directions and volumes, and director Tom Hooper used that very effectively, in my opinion. But there is also a very powerful story throughout the musical of redemption, forgiveness, and a hope for a better life.

     Jackman plays prisoner 24601, or Jean Valjean, arrested during the French Revolution for stealing a loaf of bread and thus in prison for almost twenty years. Against the orders of commander Javert (Crowe), he breaks parole and after a time becomes the local mayor. Along the way, he finds Javert again, who does not recognize him now, and a young woman named Fantine (Hathaway), who, after getting fired from her job, becomes a prostitute to financially support herself and her daughter Cosette, who is currently in the care of relatives.

     Valjean makes a promise to Fantine that he will find Cosette and take care of her himself, right before weak Fantine passes on. He searches for the young Cosette, finds her, sneaks her out of the care of her ignorant guardians (played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), and takes care of her, all while Javert now has identified Valjean and vows to search for him until he puts him back in prison.

     However, years later, in France after the Revolution, there are eventually young men and women who are still fighting back. One of those young men is Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who, to the dismay of his friend Éponine (Samantha Barks), falls in love with Cosette, now an older but still young woman (if that makes any sense). And long story short, Marius fights with his friends against the government, many of them are killed, Éponine sacrifices her life for Marius, Valjean and Javert meet again, Valjean has a chance to kill Javert but doesn’t, Valjean fights with Marius and ends up saving his life, Javert finds the two of them but is remorseful to kill a man who saved his life, Javert jumps off a bridge to his death, Marius and Cosette get married, and Valjean passes on of old age and meets Fantine and other characters who died in the midst of battle. (Sorry I rushed all that, I just knew that if I detailed everything this would be a freaking long article.)

     But I got to go back to the beginning in order to detail the spiritual aspect of “Les Misérables”. What I didn’t mention about Valjean breaking his parole was that the first place he goes for shelter is a church, where the priest welcomes him in. But one night, Valjean sneaks into the priest’s silver and steals a bunch of stuff and is soon caught by the police. They bring him back to the priest and tell him Valjean said he was given all that silver. But the priest confirms this: he even gives Valjean two candlesticks, telling him he forgot the best silver.

     Valjean, in a moving musical number, is very regretful of this mistake, but grateful at the same time that he was shown mercy and that his life was saved. This new idea of mercy stays with him the rest of his life, as he shows compassion to the disgraced Fantine, the poor Cosette, the innocent Marius, and even his enemy Javert. And at the end of his life, when he is dying before his daughter and son-in-law, he is able to find a new home in Heaven (literally, he goes to Heaven and is let in by the priest from earlier, and then sees a bunch of the young men who he fought with in battle).

     They never really mention Jesus’ name in the musical (maybe once or twice, I don’t really remember), but I do remember one repeated line in the musical: “To love someone is to see the face of God.” And to love someone is to show them compassion and mercy, an idea that most of the world has rejected. But Jesus taught His followers in the Sermon on the Mount: “‘You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’” (Matthew 5:43-45a)

     It’s hard to love people that don’t love you back. And that could mean lots of things: a classmate, an authority, even a lover. But showing them all love despite your getting nothing in return is the sacrifice that Jesus asks for, and the sacrifice that He will reward us for someday. I pray that we would remember that today.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

     Oh boy, here comes this movie. Until Christmas break, I hadn’t even seen this movie, only because I never saw it around at the video rental or anywhere. But I had a chance to finally see “The Last Temptation of Christ” about a month ago, and… well, all I can say is, it was interesting. Director Martin Scorsese has made probably his most interesting film (although “Raging Bull” and “GoodFellas”, to me, are more entertaining), although it’s not exactly theologically correct.

     “The Last Temptation of Christ”, as it states in a title card at its beginning, is not based on the Gospels, but is rather a fictitious account of Jesus’ life if He actually was a sinner. Christianity widely believes that Jesus, though He was fully man, was also fully God and therefore never sinned. But what if He did? But what if he struggled with his identity as the Messiah? And what if He wanted to live His own life on Earth, as a married man with children? And from its release in 1988 to today, this part of this film has received enormous controversy with good reason. But all that said, I’m really glad I was able to see the film so I could have my own viewpoint on it all.

     The film begins showing Jesus (Willem Dafoe), indeed the son of a carpenter, but a very different Jesus than what many Christians are used to seeing. He carves crosses used to crucify convicts and even helps nail them to the crosses. He has an interesting relationship with Judas (Harvey Keitel), who seems to know Jesus’ destiny even more than Jesus does. And Jesus has also apparently had an intimate relationship with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), who we see working as a prostitute as Jesus even sits and watches her.

     WHAT THE HECK?! I’m not kidding, all this we see within the first hour. I was tempted to turn it off, I was so ticked. I know the filmmakers acknowledged this was fiction, but it’s still frustrating to see a sinful Jesus. But then things start to make a little more sense… but not really. Finally, Jesus decides that He really is the Messiah and needs to be about His Father’s business. (I guess Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader forgot about Luke 2:49.) But anyway, we see Jesus gaining disciples, forgiving the woman caught in adultery, being tempted in the desert, preaching the Sermon on the Mount, turning over tables in the temple courts, and calling the Pharisees hypocrites.

     But here’s another thing that was really strange: a lot of this happens out of order. Jesus forgives the adulterer, THEN preaches the Sermon on the Mount, THEN gains disciples, and THEN is baptized. Why is all of this in another order than what’s recorded in the Gospels? Seriously, 90% of this movie is just dang confusing.

     But I will admit, seeing another perspective on a lot of these stories from the Gospels opened my eyes a little bit. For instance, all of this dialogue is basically paraphrased from the Bible and not taken word-for-word. It’s kind of like the Message Bible if it were written by Paul Schrader. Here’s an excerpt of Jesus’ preaching to a crowd of Pharisees:

JESUS: I'm here to tear down everything around you, and you know what I'm going to replace it with? Something new: God. The World of God. …You have gold and silver? It's going to rot, and that rot is going to eat away your heart. All of you! There will be a flood, and there will be a fire. Everything will be destroyed. But there will be a new ark riding on that fire, and I hold the keys and I open the door, and I decide who goes in and who doesn't. You're my brothers from Nazareth, and you're the first I invite on the ark.

     And then there is other dialogue that seems completely contradictory to the Gospels. In one scene, Jesus talks with Judas and almost convinces him to have him killed, because the Messiah needs to die.

JESUS: I wish there was another way, but there isn't. I have to die on the cross.

JUDAS: I won't let you die.

JESUS: You don't have a choice. Neither do I. Remember, we're bringing God and man together. They'll never be together unless I die. I'm the sacrifice... Forget everything else, understand that.

     And you guessed it: Jesus and the disciples take part in the Last Supper (where the wine actually turns into blood, which I thought was a fascinating Catholic image), and that night Jesus is arrested and taken to Pontius Pilate (played by David Bowie, of all people), and He is crucified. However, before He is to die, an image appears to Him: a little British girl (weird) who claims to be His guardian angel. She takes Him off the cross and leads Him to a house where Mary Magdalene is waiting for Him and cleans off His wounds. They make love, have a kid, she dies, He grows old, and then on His deathbed, His aged disciples come to him and confront Him about why He didn’t die on the cross after all.

     And Jesus realizes that the little girl was Satan in disguise: this was the last temptation of Christ. And Jesus runs out of his house to Jerusalem on fire around Him and cries out to God:

JESUS: Father, will you listen to me? Are you still there? Will you listen to a selfish, unfaithful son? …Can you forgive me? …I want to be your Son! I want to pay the price! I want to be crucified and rise again! I want to be the Messiah!

     And with those words, Jesus is transported back to the cross, where He dies after crying out: “It is accomplished!” And in my opinion, the movie was worth it for those last two minutes. Why? Because I believe that’s what my reaction has to be. I am a sinner and have tendencies to want to run my own life my own way. But that’s not what God wants for me: he wants me to play a part in his saving of the world! And I have to cry out for forgiveness and want to serve God in the same way that this “Jesus” does in the film.

     I’ll be honest, I do not appreciate “The Last Temptation of Christ” making Jesus a sinful human being, because even though He was indeed human, He was without sin: as is written in 1 Peter, we are not redeemed by silver or gold, “but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect”. (1:19) But I do appreciate the image of surrender portrayed in the film, similar to what the Christian believer has to do everyday. And I pray that you would today.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Godfather (1972)

     Happy New Year, friends, and thanks for coming back to read “Reel Christianity”. I hate, however, to start this new year with some sad news: I’m declaring 2013 my last year for writing this blog. I’ll continue throughout the year, but I feel like this may be a good time to end so I can pursue other ministry God has put in front of me. But I look forward to continuing to share my heart with you all, and I’m excited for how we can grow together by finding God in the movies.

     That being said, I’m starting out 2013 with another staple in the history of cinema. It seems a little funny that I haven’t gotten around to writing about “The Godfather” movies yet, but I guess that’s because—and don’t hate me—I don’t find them as groundbreaking as everyone says they are. I do recognize these movies (the first two, anyway; I still haven’t seen “Part III”) as beautiful, powerful films, but I just feel like they’re not that much different, in terms of at least the acting, than some other movies before it, like “On the Waterfront” (ironically also starring Marlon Brando).

     But I still find them an interesting commentary on power, especially in this Catholic context, and so I’ve decided to start the new year with “The Godfather”. The first film introduces us to Don Vito Corleone (played by a magnificent Marlon Brando) and his family—which happens to be a huge, HUGE Italian family. He has three sons, Sonny (James Caan), Fredo (John Cazale), and Michael (Al Pacino), with another adopted son named Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) and a daughter named Connie (Talia Shire). Michael is courting Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) and brings her to Connie’s wedding, where she marries Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo). And on the day of his daughter’s wedding, Don Corleone cannot refuse a business request from any man.

     What is his business? Well, he’s a Mafia boss. And in the first half-hour or so of the film, we see him promise a man justice on the two young men who beat his daughter, another man that his daughter will be able to marry a young man about to be deported, and his godson, singer Johnny Fontane, that he will be able to get the lead role in a new Hollywood war film. This latter promise we actually see happen—Tom Hagen flies to Los Angeles to meet with the film producer, who is raising a prized horse on his enormous property, and when the producer refuses to put Johnny in the role, Tom has the horse’s hand cut off and planted in the producer’s bed as a threat. (It’s actually a pretty disturbing scene when the producer wakes up the next morning, literally screaming bloody murder.)

     But the way we see Don Corleone, it seems that he has respect for even the other mob bosses in his area, and he also even has limits for the kind of business he wants to do. For instance, when businessman Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) offers Don Corleone an opportunity in the narcotics racket, the Don refuses, calling drugs “a dirty business”. Sollozzo, anxious for the political connections that the Corleone’s have, doesn’t like this, and has an assassination attempt put on the Don so that his oldest son Sonny, who was in favor of the deal, will become the new Don and let Sollozzo in.

     However, when young WWII veteran Michael starts getting involved, things start to get ugly. Michael doesn’t exactly understand this idea of justice versus revenge, and when a corrupt cop working for Sollozzo breaks Michael’s jaw when he tries to visit (and protect) his father at the hospital, Michael is anxious to meet with Sollozzo and the cop to try and settle business—and then kill them both. Sonny’s first reaction to this is the following:

SONNY: (laughs) What, do you think this is like the Army where you can shoot them from a mile away? No, you gotta get up like this, and badda-bing, you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit. Come here; you’re taking this very personal. Tom, this is business and this man is taking it very, very personal.

MICHAEL: Where does it say you can’t kill a cop? …I’m talking about a dishonest cop, a crooked cop who got mixed up in the rackets and got what was coming to him. …It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.

     And Michael indeed meets with them, kills them, hides out for a year in Italy, falls in love, watches his lover killed in a car bomb (planted by somebody from the mob looking for him), and then comes back to go through the recovery of his father, the moving of Fredo to Las Vegas, and the assassination of Sonny. So after all that, Michael slowly assumes his father’s position as his father becomes weaker and eventually suffers a fatal heart attack. And once he is the new Don Corleone, he becomes godfather to Connie’s son, orders hits on all the other mob bosses around, and gets deadly revenge on Carlo who evidently played a part in Sonny’s death.

     Like many of the other classic movies around it, such as “Citizen Kane” or “Vertigo”, “The Godfather” is the story of a man who becomes so obsessed with worldly things—in this case, power—that he abandons the things and the people closest to him: I didn’t even mention the ending, where Michael lies about his ordering Carlo’s death to his now wife Kay, and then closes the door on her as he is named Don Corleone by his servants. “The Godfather Part II”, which I probably won’t write about, takes it even farther when Michael orders Fredo’s death and leaves Kay.

     And as I did last year when I wrote about “Citizen Kane”, I’d like to share one of the most powerful Scripture verses I’ve ever read In Matthew 16, when Jesus told his disciples: “‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?’” (16:24-26) In order to follow Christ wholeheartedly, we must forget about the things of this world: money, power, even revenge. And instead, we need to look toward Heaven to eternal life. Only then can we be truly satisfied. My prayer for you is that you will indeed be truly satisfied in Him today.