“If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion.”
Whenever any director seeks to tackle the subject of religion, he has to become convinced in his own way as to whether the story he tells intends to be an honest attempt for authenticity or just another piece of personal bias. Most take the latter route, finding themselves incompetent to tell a story rooted in intellectual honesty or simply needing to sell tickets at the expense of the community of faith. With The Apparition, Xavier Giannoli embarks on a half-hearted effort to straddle the middle. Painting his main character (Vincent Lindon) at first with the requisite objective allure required of journalism and then turning his insecurity into a conduit for a rooted bias.
The film has a fascinating design, even if it meanders on the premise for far too long only to capitulate to the storyboard of amateur writers. It’s about a Vatican commission for the authenticationg of miracles: part of the interchurch structure for attracting the faithful back to a practice of veneration. The film rests primarily on testing the authenticity of Anna (Galatéa Bellugi) who claims to have seen the vision of the Virgin Mary, largely probing her psychological well-being and her past for evidence of bias. (This process is a lot like the legal process of seeking out impeachment evidence for disqualifying a witness.) The film is also surrounded by a host of unsavory church figures looking to exploit the image of Anna and use her likeness to sell dolls and postcards. These figures see the investigative works of the Vatican as an impediment with the “natural” growth of the community and, if the miracle is debunked, then obviously the pilgrims will seize to return and the peddled goods will be worth nothing.
The film demonstrates a stillness in its ability to connect the corners of one man’s unresolved sorrow and the substance of religious experience in a world seeking understanding. It does well to draw the church dynamics and the corruption that seeps through any man-made institutions. However, it fails to end with any meaningful position, instead removing the source of the investigation in an escalating and rather unintelligible progression of events that are clearly explained but seemingly lack the emotional maturity to deliver a satisfying resolution.
“[Homosexuals are] brute beasts…part of a vile and satanic system [that] will be utterly annihilated, and there will be a celebration in heaven.”
In the early 90s, the Christian community was coming off an abysmal display of Christian virtue. Having failed to be a support to the gay community in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, they doubled-down their rhetoric to build exclusionary communities away from the sexual deviants and lepers. Conversion therapy retained its appeal and for those today who yearn for the old days defined by intolerant fundamentalism, this technique of re-wiring the identity remains en vogue. Recently, the Williams Institute estimated that 20,000 LGBTQ youth will receive conversion therapy from a licensed professional. People like Sam Brinton who recently told his story on the pages of the New York Times:
But it didn’t stop with these hurtful talk-therapy sessions. The therapist ordered me bound to a table to have ice, heat and electricity applied to my body. I was forced to watch clips on a television of gay men holding hands, hugging and having sex. I was supposed to associate those images with the pain I was feeling to once and for all turn into a straight boy. In the end it didn’t work. I would say that it did, just to make the pain go away.
Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a film about the interaction of these forces. Summarized well by Tomris Laffly (Roger Ebert), it’s a “survival story of a young, orphaned, small-town Pennsylvanian [Chloë Grace Moretz], forcefully sent to a Christian gay conversion therapy camp, armed with nothing other than her non-negotiable sense of identity.” And survival is the appropriate word because the isolated Village-like setting ruled by parochial cult-leaders bent to convert you for your own benefit is only a second form of incarceration. The first, an area explored with too little intensity, is the second-class personal isolationism forced onto the gay community in an effort to keep them outside the camp and bound without recourse for individual expression. There was a moment of this but that moment quickly went away. An opportunity lost to build on the momentum created and to speak truth on an isolation that has rich theological connections. I’ve spent a great deal of my twenties among campus Christians. And, while they rarely reached the dizzying heights that the films most manipulative character (Jennifer Ehle) demonstrates, they embodied the one played by John Gallagher Jr. with uncanny precision.
The film’s shots at Christians are fair; at times poignant and effectual with serious depth. At other times with the triteness that comes with most writers attempts to introduce a Christian experience. And as much as the Left wants to laugh at some of these tendency — I know personally how funny some of the stuff appears — there was a scene in the field that sounded hauntingly similar to the safe space rhetoric we hear so often today from fragile campus protestors and diversity administrators.
Because the film fluctuates and manages to hit on a certain depth that needs to be explored, I agree with A.O. Scott (New York Times) that it deserves “a wide and [especially] diverse audience.” But in its failure to take chances and engage seriously with the multifaceted layers of Christianity, it is a film that fails to overcome its genre.
Elvis Presley Meets Mr. Rogers
A fascinating dive into the life of the rise and fall of Elvis Presley as it correlates to the rise and fall of the American dream. Incredible film editing with an impressive array of musicians riding along in the King’s Rolls-Royce while playing the funeral procession-blues of, what the director, Eugene Jarecki, believes to be the next chapter in the era of Trump. Some deserved criticism:
With an insistence that borders almost comically on obsession, [director Eugene Jarecki] forces the singer’s life into a larger theory of national decline-the American dream is dead, and Elvis is the emblem of its passing.
Some deserved praise:
A provocative argument, but even those disinclined to be persuaded by it can enjoy the mode through which Jarecki presents it.
In the end, this political and social commentary, even with its underlying political bias, “encyclopedia-style snippets of history, [and] authentically pained but insubstantial musings,” is a worthwhile thinking experience that helps us re-consider the value of music to shape a nation and the opportunistic humanity that feeds on the celebrity of others.
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?
In a time when love is reduced to the momentary sensation of emotion towards a figure of political alignment. When children are trained better than ever to become mindless consumers of pop-culture and partisan propaganda to the point of repetition without consideration. Perhaps it is Mr. Roger’s that can save the day.
A profoundly wise Christian spirit of cultural integration that understands well the complications of day-to-day life and finds a measure to express his faith within the confines of a changing universe. While the documentary could have likely gone deeper into certain topics amidst its rich inundation of the relevancy of Mr. Rogers to his culture, it remains as one of those few poignant offers for the audience to feel a sense of potential to love their enemies as themselves. David Brooks (NY Times) gets it exactly right: “[o]ften people are moved to tears by sadness, but occasionally people are moved to tears by goodness.”
“When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her: woman, where are those thine accusers?”
A moving and rustic image of the Christian faith through the lens of a “priest” (Javier Bardem) recorded during the filming of Terrence Malick’s Into the Wonder, Thy Kingdom Come is an unvarnished and unscripted pillage into the depths of America’s forgotten voices; struggling, like the rest of us, to escape our confined realities and not be made the bystanders of life’s cruelties.
The film is short, unadorned by the usual trappings of Hollywood—reminiscent of the many masterpieces of Ingmar Bergman in his beautiful depiction of faith and suffering. Thy Kingdom Come is a much-needed glimpse into the role that religion is supposed to play in society—extending itself past the comfort of American-church indolence and into the homes of the “least of these.” Ready to listen and not to judge.