Video Clips

Religious Themes in Film - Blog Entries

I’m not a great fan of sumptuous costume dramas – sometimes there is too much costume and not enough drama. I was inveigled, not entirely against my will, to watch several episodes of Downton Abbey (Netflix). I found it very contrived, predictable and cliched. And yet because some characters and plot lines were interesting, I gritted my remaining teeth and stuck with it.  Downton Abbey (RTE One, Wednesday), the first of the spin-off movies, just felt like a double episode of the TV show. There were a few cinematic flourishes, but they didn’t push the boat out for the big screen. We got a few lavish set pieces (e.g. a parade for the King’s visit), but the touching human moments were few. There was a promising sub-plot about a princess in an unhappy marriage who resolves to make a go of it, but her husband was a cardboard cad and we got little insight. The poncey poshness and privilege is off-putting. I did however like the sharp one-liners given to Maggie Smith as Violet – she asks another character ‘Will you have enough cliches to get you through the visit?’
I thought religion would have a more of a central role in the community surrounding Downton Abbey, but in the series the minister was dragged out only for weddings and funerals, and he didn’t make any appearance in the film. At one stage a character wants prayer for good weather for the King’s visit, and, when she gets it, concludes that ‘God is a monarchist!’ And of course, there was the obligatory gay subplot, handled less discreetly than in the TV show. The film outdid itself in Mills and Boon vibes in the great ball at the end, but for me it was all veneer hiding an empty shell.

In contrast, Just Mercy (RTE One, Friday) was a more intense, more humane film. It told the true story of a case of racism and injustice involving the death penalty in Alabama. It was by turns moving and disturbing as young lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) represented prisoners on death row, many of whom had poor legal representation at trial, and at least one of whom, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), was innocent. One execution scene was particularly upsetting – the man was guilty this time but there were mitigating circumstances that were ignored. The young lawyer was distraught after it, describing it as ‘the most horrific thing’.
Religion figured strongly in the background, as you’d expect in a black community in the Deep South. We got a lively church scene, bible reading, plenty of incidental gospel singing and prayer before the execution. But it wasn’t simplistic or preachy at least not in relation to religion. You could say it was rather preachy against the injustice and the death penalty, but I suppose preachiness is a little easier to take when you share the values being promoted. Maybe there can be inherent values without preachiness, but then too much neutrality can be passionless. Can you hunger and thirst for righteousness and still be detached? Perhaps it’s all about subtlety, especially when it comes to the arts, but then the emotional manipulation can sneak in unnoticed. As you can guess I haven’t got this figured out fully yet! This film was sentimental at times but was a worthy story full of heart.


A credibly conflicted clergyman featured in the film First Reformed, shown on TG 4 last Monday. it is unpredictable and well scripted to a point (by Paul Shrader). Ethan Hawk does a tremendous job as Rev Toller of the First Reformed – a quaint ‘tourist church’ affiliated to the more prosperous mega ministry nearby. He has developing health issues and is very troubled after a family tragedy. He finds it difficult to pray, but, though full of angst, he is good with the parishioners and in particular finds himself counselling a young married couple. The woman (Amanda Seyfried, never better) is pregnant and looking forward to being a mother, but the husband is overcome by climate doom and doesn’t want to bring a child into this world that, as he sees it, has a grim future. Drawing on his own tragic experience Rev Toller says to him: ‘the despair you feel about bringing a child into this world cannot equal the despair of taking a child from it’.  
Largely driven by set pieces where the reverend speaks to a variety of people, and by the reflections he writes in his journal, the film teases out so many important issues, like reason, discernment, pride, hope, despair, family, courage, prayer, relationships, desolation and much more. The atmosphere is frequently grim, emphasised by the dark lighting in many scenes and suitably conveying the Rev Toller’s state of mind. ‘It’s hard to struggle against torpor’, he says. His pastor boss, sympathetic to a degree but more worldly, says to him, with Gethsemane in mind, ‘You’re always in the garden, for you every hour is the darkest hour’.  
Concern with climate change, pollution and planetary destruction is central, but there are implied warnings against extremism. The only character I found stereotyped and predictable was the businessman who owns the local factory but who funds many church activities.  
For most of the time I found this one the most engrossing films with religious themes I have ever seen, but I thought it went off the rails somewhat in the last quarter, and I wasn’t all happy with the ending.  
The set piece conversations mentioned might be suitable for RE, but on the whole the film is too grim, downbeat and even a bit twisted for young people. There is an implicit admiration of service, but joy is in short supply.

I love a drama series that’s unpredictable, steers clear of stereotypes and has a sharp script, a touch or more of humour and fluid acting. Inside Man on BBC One, which concluded last Monday and Tuesday fits the bill with delights to spare.  Its black humour reminds me of Coen Brothers material, especially the Fargo film and series. David Tennant plays a highly conflicted vicar who lands himself in a compromising situation involving a USB drive that he casually agrees to mind for a troubled acquaintance. The random act of kindness propels him into a hellish spiral as he gets tied up in moral knots to rival a dodgy fishing line. This vicar has a foul mouth on him, but is this caused by stress? I’d love to know what kind of vicar he was before the crisis descends. In the throes of it he spins between sacrificial love and cynical manipulation – especially in a church confession scene that’s hard to watch. His son’s maths tutor Janice (the excellent Holly Wells) gets caught up in all of this in the most bizarre of ways.  
Meanwhile, and initially connected by just the thinnest of threads, a certain Mr Grieff (the hypnotic Stanley Tucci), a prisoner on death row in the USA who solves mysteries from his prison cell, is drawn into the mystery, along with his wisecracking and serial killer neighbour on the row. Credulity is stretched. The script is sprightly and razor sharp, philosophical, reflective and at times cynical. I loved the dig at ‘the recreationally outraged’ and Mr Grieff’s quip ‘self-loathing is clarity’ as well as his interest in deeds of ‘moral worth’.  
The vicar’s faith could do with more exploring. He seems to believe to an extent, despite his misdeeds while his wife, under pressure, mocks his faith. There’s a cheap shot dig about priests and altar boys – that and some crudeness and bad language are unnecessary. Like so many films it does go off the rails somewhat as it nears conclusion and strains credibility to breaking point.  The final musings on human nature are rather downbeat, suggesting that deep down we are all capable of murder. I didn’t find anything here for the RE classroom! 


Conflicts between Church and State can cause a lot of grief to both, but can also help to clarify principles. These themes were explored in the rather unusual film Servants (Film Four, Tuesday of last week). Set in a Czechoslovakian seminary during Communist times, in 1980, it told the story of young seminarians resisting the imposition of state power and trying to protect the integrity of the Gospel message. Unfortunately some of the college authorities were inclined to compromise to keep the State from closing the institution, which led to investigations, informing on colleagues and even one priest being blackmailed to break the seal of Confession. The title conveys the idea of service – to Church or State and the efforts to maintain that balance.  

Filmed in black and white it was a bleak, grim affair with a claustrophobic visual style. It wasn’t what we’d normally regard as entertainment, with an episodic approach, some confusing flashbacks and a largely static cinematography. Yet there were some striking visuals – the large group of seminarians on a spiral staircase, a courtyard football game filmed from above, a truckload of confiscated typewriters, two giant torch-carrying fists in stone butted against each other as seminarians play snowballs (see pic), a deliberately demeaning medical examination of one seminarian, the disposal of a priest’s body under an illuminated railway bridge at night.  

I felt it was weakest on character, not helped by the sparse narrative. I’d like to have understood more about why these young men were training for the priesthood and how they became so courageous and conscientious. The older men were more easily understood – the tired and conflicted priests in charge, collaborating for survival, and the tired and diseased state security man unhappy in his surveillance work but carrying it out routinely, almost robotically.  

I came to Kenneth Brannagh’s film Belfast with high expectations and I wasn’t disappointed. It was humane, wistful nostalgic, optimistic but not oblivious to sadness. Set against the backdrop of the Troubles it wasn’t excessively violent. An opening scene where Catholic families were attacked in a mixed area gave us a sense of the sectarian context, so we understood the fear and tension, but the focus for the most part was on decent people – in particular a Protestant family with no interest in getting involved with sectarian strife.  
Most if not all of the action is seen through the eyes of Buddy (Jude Hill, excellent), a young boy negotiating family and social background. I’ve never seen Jamie Dornan so effective in a role – here he plays Buddy’s father, coping with debts, protecting his family and working in England. Caitríona Balfe is entirely relatable as Buddy’s mother, hoping to be able to carry on and not have her children drawn in to the street violence. The emphasis is mostly on ordinary family life, the politics is mostly peripheral, and there’s a welcome lack of melodrama and cliché.  
Maybe it’s a bit preachy at times, but in such a good and subtle film I’m inclined to forgive – the story is so absorbing and I didn’t feel I was being browbeaten by agendas.  
Religion is part of the social background, just accepted as part of life, the way things are. There are some funny scenes early on when the youngsters discuss Catholic practices like Confession – the misunderstandings are very funny. There’s a fire and brimstone sermon from a Paisley-like preacher who gets himself into a lather of sweat describing the horrors of hell in the most lurid terms. Later he seems much more humane and restrained at a funeral. One could argue that there is a slightly jaundiced attitude to religion, as if it’s the cause of sectarianism, rather than seeing the sectarian strife as a failure of people to be truly Christian. And yet at other times religion seems an integral and accepted part of one’s existence.  I’m looking forward to seeing it again.  


I recently saw the film Hidden Figures - about three feisty African American women who play an important part in the US space programme in the early 1960's. Performances from Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe in these roles are top notch, while Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons do well in other roles. The women encounter multiple prejudices - racism and sexism primarily even as they excel at their work. There is a particularly intense scene where the Costner character finally loses patience with the segregated bathrooms. The film is well disposed to religious faith without being preachy - their are positive scenes of church and grace at meal time.


Strong  people of faith are rare enough when it comes to film and TV drama. One noticeable exception was the film Greyhoundwhich landed on Apple TV last Friday with very little fanfare. Tom Hanks played a navy captain escorting a merchant fleet across the Atlantic during the Second World War, and in an early scene we saw him praying by his bedside. Right through the drama he was a man of faith and honour. He fought against the German submarines attacking the fleet in mid ocean, too far out for air support, but was conscious of the unfortunate casualties when they sank a sub. He said grace before several meals that he never got to enjoy because some crisis distracted him. In an emotional scene he conducted a dignified and prayerful service of burial at sea but was also a calm, competent commander.
The violence was not graphic, and while there was one F-word it was apologised for immediately. The sea battle scenes were tense and exciting, though the digital effects were rather obvious. As often in war films it was hard to distinguish some of the young navy men from each other but I did like the way camera focused on their worried expressions. Hanks wrote the script himself and it was rather minimalistic, with lots of technical detail about radar, sonar and the like. The inclusion of Elizabeth Shue as the love interest was also minimalistic – she had little to do, and perhaps a longer lead in to the sea voyage might have been helpful for more effective character development.
The prayer scenes would certainly be useful in RE class.

A Hidden Life, directed by Terrence Malick (Tree of Life) tells the story of Austrian Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector, who refuses to fight for the Nazis in World War II, or to swear allegiance to Hitler.  It’s a challenge film – slow moving and nearly three hours long, but patient viewers will be rewarded. It’s a poetic and beautiful film enhanced by the wonderful classical soundtrack.
The story is told in a rather episodic and sometimes oblique way, but the characters are riveting and the acting excellent. The central characters are Franz (August Diehl) and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner), but the secondary characters are fleshed out really well – especially Fani’s sister, Franz’s mother and the local priest.
Throughout the film there is much play (in the home scenes), prayer, generosity, faith and in the prison scenes there is much cruelty (not really graphic) but also, even in prison there is hope, liberation, prayer and faith. And there’s temptation too – one prisoner tries rather intensely to deflect him from his religious faith.
The film is multi-layered – there’s the historical story of Franz and family, much allegory with biblical resonances (e.g. two very different prisoners reminded me of the two thieves crucified with Christ), conflicts of conscience, contrasts between people and nature, between rural and urban, and deep and true human emotion – a prison visit is particularly heart rending.
 Faith underpins the values and choices of Franz and his wife, but it’s not all easy going, and this is not a sentimental or preachy film. Characters wonder about what compromises they can make, about how God can seem to be silent when things are going wrong.
I was reminded by plot themes and script of films like A Man for All Seasons (e.g. the prison visit) Sophie Scholl (the interrogation), Hacksaw Ridge, (conflict with superiors), even The Passion of the Christ, (the temptations)and of Malick’s own Tree of Life (style).
For school and Religious Education those other films, or at least clips from them, are more accessible for students, but there are useful scenes here too – especially conversations between Franz and others – his priest, his bishop, his interrogator, his lawyer and his judge.  Dialogue is sparse enough but there’s an urgency and intensity about these scenes that should hold students’ attention.

I saw the film Unplanned a few nights ago and have mixed feelings about it. It tells the abortion related story of Abby Johnson, clinic director at Planned Parenthood, who eventually saw the wrongness of abortion and became a pro-life advocate. It’s a hard hitting exposé, and may well change hearts and save lives. It’s fairly graphic in the early stages, especially with one suction abortion at the clinic, and Johnson’s own chemical abortion. It’s good to see it getting a wide release in Ireland, though its impact will depend on whether it is attended by more than already-convinced pro-life advocates. For them it will be a huge motivator for continuing their work. It comes very much from a pro-life perspective, though all the usual pro-choice arguments are given an airing, especially by the sympathetic Johnson character herself as she promotes abortion to other young women.
The message is important and we get insights into the workings of the abortion industry, but I wasn’t impressed with the film on the artistic front. Ashley Bratcher did well in the central role, but other characters, especially the original clinic director and the men were quite wooden, with stilted performances. They were two-dimensional characters, often just used as ciphers for particular pro-life and pro-choice arguments.
I did however see some artistic value in the scenes at the fence of the clinic – the fence acted as a useful symbol for the divisions on this issue, and some of the scenes there were quite moving – e.g. when Johnson, now on the outside, speaks to a young girl heading in for an abortion. An earlier scenes feature an African-American mother frantically trying to dissuade her daughter from aborting a grandchild. Early on we saw some aggressive anti-abortionists at the clinic but they were not treated sympathetically and to some extent the film was a promo for the initiative known as ‘40 Days for Life’, which relied more on prayer and gentle persuasion.
As regards school use, the graphic abortion scenes are not appropriate, but the scenes at the fence are certainly worthwhile for illustrating various aspects of this controversial issue. There’s also an emotional scene about forgiveness when Johnson discusses with her husband her regrets about the abortions she facilitated.
There are useful clips on Wingclips -

I like films where conscience is taken seriously and all the more if the film making is of high quality. The film Hacksaw Ridge (Channel 5 last Sunday, RTE 2 last Monday) left me conflicted. It has so much good stuff going for it, but I have serious reservations. Directed by Mel Gibson it tells the true story of US Army medic Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who saved the lives of many soldiers in the war against the Japanese. Andrew Garfield is excellent as this most appealing and admirable character who stands his ground despite misunderstanding and bullying, standing up for principles largely based on his religious faith – he was a 7th Day Adventist. There’s a sweet and innocent love story involving Doss and a young nurse, interrupted by his conviction that he must serve his country, despite being unwilling to kill another human being. There’s a touching scene where she visits him in jail as he awaits court martial for refusing to follow orders – reminiscent of that scene in A Man for All Seasons when his family visits St Thomas Moore in jail to see if compromise is possible.  That court scene along with earlier scenes where he defends his conscientious objections to army authorities are quite compelling and tease out lots of conscience issues - suitable for school use when exploring themes of conscience, principle, virtue and church-state relations.
Doss prays, holds his little Bible dear, especially as there’s a picture of his wife in it, but others who will take part in the war say they also hold to the same values but are willing to kill in what they regard as a just war. As one officer says to him – the Biblical ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ is usually taken to mean a prohibition on murder.
However the big problem for me is the graphic violence – despite the overall theme it seems to wallow in the bloodletting to an unhealthy degree (the Gibson factor?). This is particularly the case in the opening scene and in the last quarter or so. No doubt it’s a realistic portrayal of the horrors of battle, but I’m not convinced that such repulsive detail is necessary to make the point. Further, I don’t think it’s intended to be an anti-war film as such – the film doesn’t question the need for this particular war, or even the need for the army to keep on attacking Hacksaw Ridge despite the huge losses. There’s a few uncomfortably gung-ho moments towards the end, but I did like the final sequence where we get to see some of the real people the film is based on.


Films and TV programmes, when dealing with religious themes often go for the cultish, extreme or even twisted versions of faith, but on good days it’s just the pleasantly offbeat.  Last Saturday night’s film on BBC Two was all of the above. Stations of the Cross is a German film, serious, well made, but not easy viewing. It told the story of a teenage girl receiving Confirmation preparation from a traditionalist Catholic group who reject the Pope and Vatican II. I found it absorbing, disturbing, sad and challenging. The traditional stations are compared to a series of 14 key events in the girl’s life over a short period. I think militant atheists will be confirmed in their distaste for religion, traditionalists will be displeased about the way they are portrayed and more mainstream people of faith will be uneasy (especially with a Communion scene) but also glad that their outlook is reflected in one of the most sympathetic characters, a French au pair named Bernadette. Apart from confronting the difficulties of being a traditionalist religious teen in a secular society it’s also about the idealism and naiveté of youth and how it much be carefully nurtured, and neither exploited nor crushed.
I gathered another confession scene for my collection. It starts in an ordinary way, but the priests delves too much into sexual matters when the young girl has a delightful innocence. And it's not that that the priest is particularly creepy, but he probably feels he is just doing his duty. This sequence is matched to Simon helping Jesus, but it seems ironic here. Scenes with the girl in the hospital are tough going and belivers may wince when the medical staff have a problem with the girl reciving the Communion host, even though she has asked for it.
The minor characters are interesting - the mother comes out the worst - loving at times, but frequently cranky and very harsh and lacking in understanding. The father is almost an invisible presence, uneasy at what's happening but ineffectual. The young priest is cheerful, articulate and sincere but too much inclined towards legalism without human understanding.
All in all it's hard to see this film being useful in RE as it may put students off religion unless they have a very mature and solid faith.


The movie Unplanned was released in the USA last week.  It tells the story of Abby Johnson, formerly a clinic director for Planned Parenthood and now a pro-life advocate and it may well give quite a shake up to the abortion industry. Unplanned – Behind the Scenes (EWTN, Wednesday of last week) gave us an insight into the making of the film. What struck me most was the passion and faith inspiration of those involved. Of course this can sometimes lead to a film that’s overly preachy and therefore less effective with those who most need to get the message. Judging by the clips show it seems the film has avoided the pitfalls. I was impressed by the performance of Ashley Bratcher in the lead role – for her it wasn’t just another role, and in a quirk of fate she found out during the making of the film that she was minutes away from being aborted but her mother left the clinic in time – previously she was aware in a general sense that her mother had considered an abortion.
The real Abby Johnson and several other pro-life leaders, including Lila Rose, founder of Live Action, and Shawn Carney, co-founder of 40 Days for Life, were enthusiastic about the project and I was inspired by how committed the creative team were to religious faith and the pro-life cause. They even have a supportive prayer campaign accompanying the movie.  There’s no sign of the film being released here yet, and when is does arrive I suspect the secular media will be knocking it, but then if the artistic standard is high maybe it will get a fair hearing. In the meantime clips are available at – worth a look.

Bella is one of the most moving films I've seen in quite a while. Set in New York the plot concerns a young chef José who is damaged by a tragedy in the past and a young waitress, Nina, who feels her future is threatened by an unplanned pregnancy. It's slow moving at times, and as the story is not told entirely in a linear fashion it can be hard to figure out at times what's happening - but I see this as a virtue - it keeps the mind working on the figuring out and avoids predictability. The film largely avoids sentimentality too - there's a positive life affirming message, but it's not preachy and is all the more effective for that. The filming is excellent and Tammy Blanchard is outstanding as Nina, giving it an emotional credibility. There's a nice contrast of cultures too, especially when Nina visits José's family - I particularly liked the grace scene as they sit down to eat. The Latin interest in food family and music comes across strongly and it's like a warm blanket for Nina. There are conflicts, but they are handled with such empathy. There are subtle faith elements e.g. José using rosary beads and the grace before meals. As regards educational use the full film should suit senior classes - it's PG rated but juniors might find the pace slow and the plot development confusing. However I'd say they would appreciate that grace scene as one of José's brothers introduces his girlfriend to the family.


For exploring the theme of forgiveness it might be worthwhile having a look at the film Amish Grace. This is based on a school shooting in the Amish community – it was noteworthy at the time because of how quickly that community offered forgiveness and engaged with the family of the shooter. The film is a bit stiff and wooden at times, and in the efforts to avoid it being too graphic or upsetting the shooting is treated so obliquely that it’s hard to know for a while what exactly has happened. Tammy Blanchard gives a fine performance as the shooter’s distraught wife and deftly captures the gamut of emotions she experiences. Kimberly Williams-Paisley does pretty well as the fictional mother of one of the victims – not surprisingly she has difficulty in being so forgiving and her inner turmoil gives rise to much of the dramatic conflict. Fay Masterson plays a reporter – the media view gives something of an outside perspective on the events, reflective how difficult it is for outsiders to understand the Amish commitment to forgiveness in the face of such tragedy. Likewise students may find the whole Amish thing a bit strange and hard to relate to, but some scenes may be useful – e.g. the community’s first visit to the home of the shooter. There are some strong discussions on forgiveness between the husband and wife of one of the victims, and a touching scene near the end where the mother visits one of the survivors in hospital. There is also the problematic issue of ‘shunning’ – where the community shuns those of their own who have abandoned the community. Background historical information would be useful here for context, and there is plenty of material online giving coverage of the original shooting.



I finally got around to see Lady Bird, Gretta Gerwig’s film starring Saoirse Ronan as Christine/Lady Bird, a teen nearing the end of High School trying to find her unique way in the world, while attending a Catholic school for girls. Despite some reservations I enjoyed it thoroughly.
It’s an entirely credible and touching portrayal of family life – there are plenty of loving frictions, testy exchanges, naiveté, predictable outcomes, unwholesome behaviour, pettiness and great tenderness. The mother daughter relationship is particularly fraught – Laurie Metcalf is excellent as the mother – while that of father and daughter is low key but quite touching.
In some ways it’s a typical US indie teen movie and there are a few clichéd elements – how many times have we seen a genuine character trying foolishly to impress the cool kids while abandoning their true friends but later learning some sense. But it’s done so well here – largely thanks to Saoirse Ronan’s fine performance, capturing innocence and a darker side equally well.
The Catholic school background is positively portrayed – the priests and nuns are cheerful and dedicated, with a very human side – an approach that’s a rarity in modern films. There’s a priest who is dedicated to develop school dramas and a nun who responds kindly to a prank because she enjoyed it  - some students tie a ‘Just married to Jesus’ sign on the convent car, but eventually Lady Bird says Jesus is ‘a lucky guy’ to have nuns of that calibre married to him!  It’s all portrayed with a warm humanity.
The students are shown as not being that interested in religion – sometimes we see them respectful at Mass, but then again we find two of them, including Lady Bird, wolfing down communion hosts – while stressing that they are not consecrated. She declares very certainly that she does NOT want to go to Catholic colleges after high school. In her more rebellious phase she ridicules a teacher giving a pro-life talk, but it may be more the character than the film that is mocking her. She says just because something looks ugly doesn’t mean it’s morally wrong. Towards the end there is a church scene that is quite positive, but to say more would be a spoiler.
There are some stereotypes – the large Catholic family, the Irish girls getting ‘sloshed’ before noon on St Patrick’s Day. Though Catholic schooling is presented in a positive light, there is much in the values on show that are not in harmony with Catholic teaching (predictably in attitudes to pre-marital sex). There is quite a bit of foul language, the inevitable gay sub plot, very frank sexual dialogue and a few scenes of sexual activity that are strong enough but perhaps relatively restrained by modern standards (which aren’t very high in this area!) I’d suggest there’s little to suit school use in terms of suitable clips, though perhaps the scene where we expect the nun to scold Lady Bird because of the prank might be useful to portray kindness and understanding, and the scene where the priest tries to get the drama class to cry on cue is rather moving.
There's quite a collection of music on the soundtrack including Rosa Mystica, Performed by the University of Notre Dame Folk Choir  with Music by Chrysogonus Waddell, OCSO. 

On RTE 1 last week I watched Spotlight, a challenging film that outlined in dramatic form the Boston Globe’s investigation into child sexual abuse by priests in that diocese and the subsequent cover-up by Church authorities. The film’s approach was restrained, but of course the abuse highlighted was appalling and any discomfort of Catholic viewers pales into minor significance by comparison. On an artistic level the film was absorbing as the newspaper’s ‘Spotlight’ team forensically investigated the abuse and how it was handled by Church authorities. Civil society, including journalism, didn’t escape lightly either – there was considerable reluctance in police circles to bring abusive priests to book, lawyers facilitated confidential settlements, and even staff at the Boston Globe ignored or missed information sent to them years previously. The film proceeded almost thriller-like with its investigation of the facts, and certainly there was no cheap voyeurism or melodrama. And yet the crusading narrative was somewhat simplistic at times – too often it felt like ‘journalists good, priests bad’. At one stage it was suggested that 6% of priests were likely to abuse, but we got to see precious little of the 94% (there are passing references to two priests who helped, including one auxiliary bishop). I thought there was little of broader context or insight into the phenomenon, e.g.  in a throwaway remark it was suggested without evidence that celibacy was at the heart of the problem, and there was no sense that abuse figures for non-Catholic clergy and other professions are similar. There was one scene where an elderly priest tried to rationalise his behaviour to one of the journalists but this intriguing conversation was cut short by the priest’s sister who shut the door on the journalist.
The film should act as a salutary tale to faithful mature Catholics, a warning against moral blindness, lust, arrogance, clericalism and abuse of power. For others, especially younger viewers, I fear the effect will be to increase prejudice and alienate them from this community of sinners we call the Church.



I saw the film Goodbye Christopher Robin twice recently and think it's brilliant. Domhnall Gleeson is so good in everything he does. Prayers figure a few times in a very positive and endearing way in the early stages as the young 'Christopher Robin/Billy Moon' says prayers at his bedside. Faith doesn't play much of a role other than that, even in times of crisis, but the film is full of warm humanity without being mushy about it. The film is about the life of A.A. Milne, author of the Winnie the Pooh stories. Whether you love the stories or not, I think the film is endearing - the prayer scenes might be useful in RE class - maybe teasing out how childhood prayers could become mature adult prayers, rather than being left behind.


It was a treat earlier in the week to see the new film in the Star Wars series. Star Wars: The Last Jedi has some eyer popping moments, and while many popular characters return (especially Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill) there are many fresh elements in the plot and visuals - including the scenes shot in Iceland - the red and white motif is particularly striking. Of course Skellig Michael in Kerry figures large and those sweeping aerial shots make it look hugely impressive. Little did the monks of early Christian Ireland think their secluded location would become so popular. The fictional place is described as being one of the remotest places in the galaxy! The beehive huts are central, and there are ancient texts, though I think it's the first time that Jedi is referred to as a religion in the films. I'm open to correction on that. And I realise that some people today declare themselves Jedi when asked about their religion! Commentators have often drawn parallels between religion and 'The Force', though it seems more Buddhist or New Age than Christian. One of the rebels (the good guys!) at one stage says 'God speed' as others leave on a dangerous mission, but this isn't explored further. The universal struggle between good and evil is is noteworthy throughout - evil is clearly recognised for what it is - and the process of temptation is intensely played out in the character of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) - some ket temptation scenes might be useful for RE.. It was good to see the late Carrie Fisher still in the role of Princess Leia, but a pity that she's not around for the release.


The film The Lady in the Van turned up on BBC 2 last Saturday - my expectations were low but I really enjoyed it. And I was pleasantly surprised by the faith content, which I wasn't expecting. The film tells the story of Miss Shepherd, a homeless lady who parks her van in the driveway of writer Alan Bennett and stays for years. It's a warm human story about unusual relationships. Bennett claims he put up with her out of laziness but I suspect he is just being modest. I also liked the way the story is populated by quirky secondary characters, most of whom are kind to the lady, apart from the ex-policeman who blackmails her periodically. He manipulates the burden of guilt that she carries - relating to a traffic accident from the past. This guilt haunts her and she seems to be a regular at Confession over the matter, though in a new Confession scene for my collection the priest assures her that absolution doesn't expire! She had spent some time in a convent and the nuns don't come out of that too well, reinforcing some negative stereotypes, but I don't think the film is bashing religion. Bennett's homosexuality is obvious and portrayed sympathetically but treated subtly. And I loved the way he has two personas, both well played by Alex Jennings, so that we get an insight into his inner debates and conflicts. As usual Maggie Smith in the title role makes excellent acting look effortless.



I really enjoyed the film Love and Friendship which I rented online a few nights ago. It is based on a lesser known Jane Austen novel, Lady Susan, and was filmed in Ireland. Lady Susan herself, well played by Kate Beckinsdale, is a thoroughly unlikeable character - manipulative, cynical and not very loving towards her daughter, but the joy of the film is its wit and irony, and its barbed social commentary. Religion figured here and there ... there's some funny confusion over the fourth commandment, the obligations of which commandment are teased out several times. There's a young clergyman who is quite enthusiastic but not very intuitive - Lady Susan's daughter comes to him for advice, but gets a learned sermon instead. Mind you he's not as silly as Rev Mr Collins in Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I'd love to see it soon again as there's quite an array of characters and sub plots, mostly based around relationships, so on a second viewing things might make more sense, especially in the opening scenes.



I was lucky enough to get to the Irish premier of Martin Scorcese's new film Silence a few nights ago. It was quite a challenging experience and I'm still conflicted about it. In writing about it I must be constrained as I must do my best to avoid spoilers.
It's great to see such a highly regarded Hollywood director taking such a deep and serious interest in religion. I doubt it will be a huge commercial success, so I reckon it must be a labour of love. It seems Scorcese has been dedicated to the project for quite some time. Based on the novel by Shûsaku Endô the film tells the story of Jesuit missionaries to Japan in the 17th Century, when many were martyred and some renounced their faith.
There was much to be admired about the film – the cinematography was superb, right from the misty and moody beginning which portrayed a gruesome martyrdom, with the lush greenery and hilly landscapes of Taiwan standing in for Japan. The acting was excellent, especially from Liam Neeson as a Jesuit who has allegedly gone native and Andrew Garfield as a young priest on a mission to find him. Though nearly 3 hours long I found it absorbing throughout, whether in the action scenes (quite violent) or in the more talky scenes where varying approaches to life, religion, culture and universal truths are teased out. Some characters display an intensity of faith and willingness for self-sacrifice that will leave many in a modern audience scratching their heads, mystified. There are deep conflicts between courage, compromise and cowardice – to say these conflicts are thought provoking is putting it mildly. Much of the action is filtered through the Garfield character, whose faith is sorely put to the test.
Trying to discern the overall point of view of the film isn't easy, and maybe it's deliberately so. I didn't find the overall impact uplifting though it was certainly inspiring at times and challenging throughout. The attitude to religion I found ambiguous, and I suspect that Christians, Buddhists and non-believers alike will all find something to lift them and something to cast them down. The ambiguity was there right to the end. What's not ambiguous is the reality of human weakness, especially in the face of tortuous dilemmas. In some respects it seems to show martyrdom in a poor light, and yet one could also find admiration for the courage of martyrs. There was little ambiguity in the matter of religious intolerance – the suffering inflicted on the local Catholics and the visiting priests came across as a thorough indictment, with plenty of resonance for modern times. I felt that the motivation of the local political figures in seeking to crush Christianity could have been clearer.
There are negatives. I though the inclusion of the 'voice of God' in a few instances was rather random and presumptuous, even if it was possibly in the mind of one of priests. The cruelty portrayed was intense throughout, and some will find it overly graphic. For the most part the best lines and prominence are given to priests who renounce their faith while those who don't are under-developed as characters. No doubt the director found their struggles the most interesting and complex. It is worth noting that those who renounce their Catholic faith seem spiritless after that but were passionate and energetic before it.
At times I thought this was a truly unique film, and in many ways it is. But then I was frequently reminded of other films – The Passion of the Christ (extreme violence in an artistic religious film), A Man For All Seasons (martyrdom, conscience v state), Apocalypse Now (seeking a prominent figure who has gone rogue), The Mission (historical, cultural differences, epic sweep). There were plenty of Biblical parallels, especially linking the sufferings of the priests to the Passion of Christ. For example, in a Palm Sunday moment, though reversed somewhat, the Garfield character (who looks like traditional images of Christ at this stage) arrives into a town on horseback (or was it a donkey?) a prisoner reviled by the people. There are resonances of Gethsemane and several crucifixion motifs. At one point the Garfield character is accused of arrogance for relating his sufferings to those of Christ.
As regards educational use I'd be doubtful. Apart from the length of it, the vicious cruelty, torture and graphic killings are a big problem for school use. As regards faith I suspect young people might just find it weird, and it could as easily shake their faith as nourish it. At the very least it's a film for those of mature and firm faith. Plenty of background information and context would be needed beforehand and a lot of guided discussion afterwards. That being said individual clips might be useful – for example there's a striking scene of Eucharist and quite a few Confession scenes, including several featuring a Japanese man who confesses the same sin of apostasy several times, is always sincere and always sins again – to the point of these scenes acting as comic relief.
My reactions to the film are still in a state of flux, so I may revisit!

During the week I finally got to see the film Sing Street, having heard it praised widely. In a way it's a well worn plot, with young people starting a rock band (this time in 80's Dublin) - reminiscent of The Commitments, School of Rock and That Thing You Do. In fact there's even a nod to Romeo and Juliet. On the plus side it was very funny in spots, especially in the early stages, as the students assemble the band and find their musical identity. Teachers will find lots to laugh at and even some stuff to shiver at as the students get up to mischief, not all of it a matter of harmless larks. Bullying and domestic discord also darken the mood. The original music is excellent as well, and lead actor Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, effectively subtle in his role as Cosmo, does all his own singing. However there is an element of Catholic bashing and some lazy stereotyping of Christian Brothers (the film is set in Synge St!), which spoils the overall good-humoured nature of the proceedings. Yes, teachers can be bullies as well as students, but tarring a whole group with the same brush wouldn't be tolerated in other circles. I won't include a spoiler but I found the ending rather weak and stretching credulity.


People (Koreans in this case) encountering racist attitudes was central to the plot of the film Gran Torino, shown on TV 3, last Sunday night. I was never a fan of Clint Eastwood’s macho anti-heroes from his early days, but he has matured wonderfully as an actor and director – he filled both roles with distinction for this film. If anything he flipped his usual persona this time, especially  towards the end, but to say more on that front would be too much of a spoiler!
One engaging plot strand had the Eastwood character, Walt, in an ongoing skirmish with the young local priest who promised his now deceased wife that he’d try to get Clint back to the Church. This culminated in a touching and funny Confession scene – the priest, suspicious of Walt's motives, expected some atrocity from Walt’s time in Vietnam, but what Walt was most worried about was kissing another woman at a Christmas party, short changing another person in a deal over a boat and not knowing his sons well enough.


Watched plenty of films and TV dramas over the holiday period. Finally caught up with the film Gravity, with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Eye-popping visuals and a tense storyline, and I was surprised to find some faith elements. At one stage, on a Russian space station attention is given to what looks like an icon of St Christopher carrying the baby Jesus, and later in a crisis Bullock's character expresses regret that no-one taught her how to pray.








I finally got to see the film Selma last night and it was certainly worth the trip. David Oyelowo was excellent as Martin Luther King and even better was Carmen Ejogo as his wife Corettta. Their relationship was one of the most interesting aspects of the film, but it wasn't thoroughly developed... things were more hinted at and the actors, especially Ejogo, conveyed the emotional subtleties really well.
The film seemed to accept to some extent the stories of King's womanising tendencies, while at the same time hinting at FBI plots to discredit him. King came across as confident and sure footed in public, but conflicted in private, as he tried to steer a non-violent path on the way to getting for black people vindication of their right to vote - the right was there in Alabama, but country officials threw so many obstacles in the way of registration that it was practically impossible.
The filmmakers were wise to concentrate on this one particular phase of King's life, culminating in the famous civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. The first effort to cross the iconic bridge in Selma was met by brute force on the part of the police and that is conveyed in an effective but quite frightening way. Moments like these are unbearably tense and necessarily violent, but at least our sympathies were with the victims and not the perpetrators.
Conflicts within the movement were acknowledged and highlighted which guards against the film being overly sentimental, though there's an understandably triumphal mood at the end.
Religious faith is prominent in the film and sympathetically presented. King, a pastor, is obviously motivated by his faith, as are many of his supporters. At the march, supportive priests, ministers and nuns are very much in evidence. I thought some early scenes were a tad lethargic and overly talky which would make classroom use of the full film tough going, and with hints of King's affairs and a little bad language it mightn't be appropriate for juniors anyway.
Overall I found it an inspiring and moving film and can see plenty of opportunities for school use, especially using clips, in teaching themes like human dignity, justice, politics and faith, courage, maturity of conscience and more. Suitable scenes include one, early on, where a black woman, played by Oprah Winfrey, is thwarted in her efforts to register for voting. Any of King's speech scenes are excellent, including an early one on the importance of the right to vote. The attack on the first march will hold the attention of any class and encourage a strong sense of injustice, though the violence is rather strong. There's a useful scene as well at the second march where King leads the crowd in a silent prayer.


Another 'Resource of the Day' to highlight - this time I've chosen this supper scene from the wonderful film 'Of Gods and Men'. It comes near enough to the end of the film when the monks who are under threat from insurgents in North Africa. They have decided, despite the danger, to stay on and serve the local community, largely Muslim. The film has many wonderful moments suitable for classes dealing with inter-faith relations, sense of community, the religious life, ritual and more, but this scene is particularly powerful, especially if you have watched the film up to this point so that you know the characters involved. Not a word is spoken, but the scene is beautiful and emotional. The parallels with the Last Supper are clear, and this clip is a wonderful resource for classes on table fellowship. My study guide to the full film is here.

Today's 'Resource of the Day' is a link to Decent Films, a film reviewing website that takes a faith perspective into account. The writer, Steven D. Greydanus, has written for many American catholic publications. His reviews are detailed and perceptive and should help any RE teacher looking for suitable films for the classroom. Maybe I'm calling him perceptive because I agree with most of what he writes! For example there's his recent review of Calvary (here), the best I've read so far, and also of Noah (here). Going back to 2003 I liked his review of Bruce Almighty (here) , often used in RE when studying images of God.

Yesterday I highlighted the last interrogation scene from Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, definitely my favourite film for RE. The film tells the true story of Sophie Scholl, a young woman and marvellous role model who campaigned against the Nazis in Munich in the early 1940's. The film packs a powerful punch, and this scene is one of the most useful for RE - touching on themes of racism, conscience, discrimination and more. If you start with this scene you may be persuaded to continue ... shortly after there is a very intense trial scene (the ranting Nazi judge was just like that in real life). As for the ending ....

Still catching up. This week I've been attending events for the Ecumenical Bible Week. In particular there are presentations on the Bible and Film and the Bible and Music. On Monday I got to the film presentation in the Presbyterian Church in Arklow and it an excellent night. David Shepherd, Assistant Professor of Hebrew/Old Testament in the Loyola Institute and Trinity College, explored many aspects of the Bible and film, focussing especially on the recent film Noah and what director Darren Aronofsky intended. He reflected on the biblical and non-biblical aspects and had plenty of clips to illustrate the point. He also looked at Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ especially the portrayal of the non-scriptural Veronica, and where her story might have originated. He related this to a much earlier portrayal of her in a film by French director Alice Guy Blaché, who started making films in 1896 and died in 1968!

I have mixed views about the film Calvary and I suspect it will polarise audiences. It has quite a bit going for it, but many downsides as well, a bit like the flawed humanity it portrays.
Brendan Gleeson gives a powerhouse performance as a priest in the West of Ireland who is told in the opening confession scene that he will be murdered in a week. The rest of the film develops as a sort of countdown to that fateful Sunday on a local beach. Gleeson's Father Lavelle is portrayed as a good man, surrounded mostly by crude and/or vain locals. He goes about his priestly work with empathy and care for his parishioners and we also see him saying Mass and hearing confessions. There's little of the support structures that priests usually have in a parish, and most of the surrounding characters are quite off-putting from the dodgy guard to the drunken businessman living in the big house and the foul-mouthed male prostitute.
It's an interesting twist that the priest was previously married and has a troubled daughter. She felt that by joining the priesthood after his wife died he had left her with two parents lost to her. She is one of the few sympathetic characters as is the American writer that the priest supplies with provisions. There is some good-natured fun between the priest and a canny altar boy. There are lots of anti-Catholic jibes, especially about paedophile priests, which is a prominent theme, but one could argue that these come from the obnoxious characters and therefore may not form part of the viewpoint of the film.
It's not only these elements that that makes the film fit only for mature audiences. The language is frequently though not relentlessly crude and some of the violence is graphic. Suicide is also a strong theme. In its favour Gleeson's performance is a standout, eliciting our sympathy for this good but troubled man.
Themes of forgiveness and redemption are woven into the plot and if anything the film has a very favourable view of the work of a priest, and there are harsh words for his fellow priest who is not very dedicated to the work, though he is a bit of a cliché - I've seen so many dramas where a passionate priest was paired with a wimp of one sort or another. I felt that some of the worthy themes were handled in bite-sized snippets and that the treatment often lacked depth.
Due to the adult content I don't see a lot of use for this film in RE for young people. The confession scene at the start is too crude, but there's a beautiful sequence where the priest anoints a foreigner who has been fatally injured in a car crash, and consoles his wife immediately afterwards. The local doctor's cynicism seems all the more ugly in this light. The forgiveness theme is highlighted in two matching phone call scenes near the end, both involving the daughter, but without context these scenes, especially the latter, won't make much sense.
There are clichéd and melodramatic scenes (e.g. the pub shoot up) contrasted with some beautifully filmed scenery, making for an interesting but unsatisfying whole. It's heart is in the right place but a dose of subtlety wouldn't have gone astray.

Some other thoughts on Noah ... I deliberately avoided reading any reviews until I had seen the film for myself. It has been fun reading the reviews since then and the film has certainly divided people. For a wide spread try these. The first article is quite negative, the second challenges it and the others range from positive to mixed.
(the last two by prominent film critic Steven Greydanus) (review by Fr Robert Barron)

Meanwhile last Friday's God Slot (RTE Radio 1) had Barry McMillan's perceptive review of the film. He seemed to like it, especially its message of mercy and respect, but called it 'relentlessly odd', 'quite mad' and a 'spectacular grand folly'. He thought the film adhered to the spirit of the original text in Genesis, even if some odd unusual elements were added.

Got to see the film Noah tonight, and so these are first impressions. I may add more later, after 'mature reflection'.
Well first of all the good stuff. Noah is an impressive film on many levels. Sometimes the visuals are poetic and the special effects dramatic. The acting in the main roles is excellent. Russell Crowe seems able to bring a striking humanity to epic roles (eg Master and Commander, Gladiator), Anthony Hopkins dominates his scenes as Noah's Grandfather, Jennifer Connelly is convincing as Noah's wife though she doesn't seem to age as much he does! Emma Watson is fine as an adopted daughter though the characters of Noah's sons are underdeveloped.
There are two sequences that RE teachers may find particularly useful - a poetic creation sequence as Noah tells the story to his children, and the beautiful rainbow event near the end. This ultimately gives the film a sense of hope and optimism that was absent from much of the film.
The bleakness is because Noah is convinced that God, referred to throughout as 'The Creator', is punishing all of humanity and is just going to save the 'innocent' animals, using Noah as his vehicle. At times it seems that director Darren Aronofsky is pushing a trendy environmentalist line, a bit like the way the Noah story is treated in Evan Almighty. But it's not that simple, as faith and hope in a loving humanity is restored, a humanity that hopefully will have respect for creation.
The film takes major liberties with the Genesis story, the most bizarre aspect being the 'Watchers', a bunch of giant rock creatures that are reminiscent of the walking tree creatures (The Ents) in the Lord of the Rings films. It turns out that these are angels that The Creator is punishing for siding with human beings and trying to help them. They protect Noah from other humans who want to be taken on to the Ark and a great big battle scene ensues, a field day for the CGI artists! The Ark itself is more like a fortress, all square shaped and ugly, looking like something that couldn't possibly float. The deluge is spectacular when it comes, not just rain but geysers rising from the earth and the scenes of people drowning are quite distressing. That, the strong violence and a brief suggestive scene rule out the very young.
The film drags a bit after that, complete with sub-plot about an evil stowaway! The film teases out issues of good and evil, love, discerning the will of God, temptation, choice and free will, and in that way is a cut above many current films.

I see that one of my favourite films The Execution of Private Slovik is now available on DVD (e.g. here at Amazon). This is a 1974 TV movie starring Martin Sheen in the true story of Eddie Slovik, the only US soldier executed for desertion in World War 2. Have ordered it from Amazon, but I did get to see it again few years ago and here's what I wrote at the time: 'It was simple basic and hard hitting, and as moving as ever.
It is not in the least heavy handed in it's message, and some viewers may even find Slovik a somewhat unsympathetic character. Two scenes in particular are useful for class - around the middle of the film the chaplain talks to the firing squad about the morality of it all, and towards the end there is Slovik's final experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He prays on the way to execution, but this scene is tough going and may not be suitable for younger classes at least. And without the context of the full film the emotional impact wouldn't be the same. '

Finally caught up with the film Stella Days last night. I was well disposed towards it, being a fan of Martin Sheen, but though it has its good points I found it hard to warm to. Clichés abound in yet another of these awful-Ireland-of-the-past films. The storyline has Fr Barry (Sheen) starting up a cinema in Borrisokane, out off his love for the art form but also to raise funds for a new Church he's not too enthusiastic about. Predictably the cardboard cut-out cranky old bishop (Tom Hickey, in an unsubtle performance) is against it on moral grounds (the filth!) until he sees the money being raked in by other cinemas. Even more opposed is the local politician, right wing Catholic of course (one-note surly acting from Stephen Rea).
In a way there are too many plots, many of them predictable, for any of them to be handled with any depth - the story of Fr Barry's vocation, whisked away to seminary at age 12, the handsome new teacher who falls for the lonely abandoned wife, the young boy waiting for his father to come home from England, the EBS woman promoting rural electrification, the old lady whose faith is dodgy but who thrives on multiple anointings. The verdict isn't all bad however. Martin Sheen brings a certain warmth to his role that is largely absent from the rest of the film. We can empathise with his efforts to live out a vocation he may never have had, and yet see the vanity that motivates to want to get back to the academic life in Rome. I can't remember any instance of him praying, he's overly distracted by the cinema controversy and in one scene seems unconcerned or even tacitly approving of the adulterous relationship between the teacher and the lodger. Yet he cares for and is kind to his people without in any way trying to lord it over them as the politician and the bishop would like him to do. They're big on control while he wants to be of service.
Though largely dark in mood, the films tries hard at the start to be whimsical, with a pleasantly light-hearted music score and some entertaining confession scenes to add to my collection - most of the time it's people confessing that they've taken the Lord's name in vain. We see him performing several of the Sacraments, for the most part treated respectfully, though one scene seemed to suggest that the new electric cookers were 'magic' like the Eucharist. I couldn't see myself using the full film in class, but the confession scenes might be useful.


I saw the Oscar winning Mystic River for the first time during the holidays and was impressed. It's rough, with lots of F-Words, fairly strong violence and a child abuse theme, but none of this is gratuitous and the film is superbly directed by Eastwood (he doesn't star) and the acting is top-notch as would be expected from the likes of Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Baco and Laura Linney. It's a murder story with an absorbing plot, but is full of humanity. There's a religious background in that many characters are Irish Americans, and there's a First Communion scene.


Also saw the film Nativity! for the first time - it stars Martin Freeman as a teacher in a Catholic Primary School in England who is reluctanly persuaded to take on the school nativity play. I don't think it's a classic, and teachers will find some unrealistic elements (e.g. a teacher taking two pupils to Los Angeles under the impression that parents had signed permissions!), but it's good natured and amusing, with some touching scenes. The final nativity play is more than a tad over the top, but there's no denying the feel-good atmosphere.

Last night I went to see Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in the O2 in Dublin - it was on a giant screen with full orchestra and choirs onstage providing a live soundtrack. As you got absorbed in the film it was easy to forget that the music was live, and every now and then I looked at the musicians and singers to remind myself that they were present - might have been easier to be aware of that if I hadn't been so far back in the venue! I was reminded of how the scenes with Gollum/Smeagol so well captured the conflict between good and evil in all of us - thiough normally it's not so dramatic. There are several scenes where this character, so damaged by his pursuit of earthly power symbolised by the Ring, engages in this inner conflict, torn between being loyal to the good Hobbits and wanting to kill them for selfish reasons.

Last night I finally got to see the film Gran Torino, where Clint Eastwood plays an irascible old racist in conflict with local immigrants. There's quite a bit of foul and racist language so I can't see myself using it in school, but there's a interesting young priest in the story. He promised the Eastwood character's wife who has just died that will keep an eye on Walt and try to get him to Confession. Needless to say Grumpy old Walt resists. The priest is young, and perhaps naieve (Walt didn't have much time for his funeral oration) but he does persist and both of them learn a lot about life and death. The scenes between them are quite entertaining and thought provoking. Ultimately there's a touching and funny Confession scene - another worthy addition to my collection of Confession scenes!


One of the best films I saw during the holidays was Doubt , starring Meryl Streep as a school principal and nun who must deal with the suspicion that the school chaplain, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman is conducting an inappropriate relationship with a student. It is set in the early 1960's and the period flavour is well conveyed. The acting is excellent as would be expected of Streep and Hoffman, and the script by John Patrick Shanley has a sharpness and intelligence that is rare in mainstream cinema. The controversial issue of abuse is handled subtly and with restraint, and I didn't sense any hidden agendas or axe-grinding. One could raise issues - e.g. why does no-one seem to question the child? Is the mother's attitude credible? Yet in the context of the time and within the world of the film it was believable. As regards school use, I'd be hesitant. There is a useful scene where the priest gives a strong sermon on the damaging effects of gossip, but I think the film is best suited to a mature audience. For very young students it might just
reinforce the paedophile priest stereotype, and they mightn't get the film's subtleties.

The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, a film shown on RTE in the early hours of last Thursday, told the inspiring and true story of a Catholic social worker in Nazi-occupied Warsaw who smuggled Jewish children out of the ghetto to save them from deportation to extermination camps. Anna Paquin, a former child actor who has made a fine transition into adult roles, played Sendler, and was the emotional heart of the film. While it lacked the dramatic intensity of Polanski's The Pianist, one thing the film did well was to show the internal conflicts among the Jews about whether they should let their children be looked after by Polish families who would pretend the children were Catholic. Some couldn't let go emotionally, some couldn't believe that the cultured Germans could plan such a fate for the Jews, some feared their children might be converted, though Sendler stressed that this wasn't her intention.
Though it was somewhat slow in developing the story in the early stages, there were some heart-rending moments, especially when children were separated from their parents, even to save them. There was an especially unsettling scene as children were rounded up from the ghetto orphanages - they went off singing as they thought they were going to a better place. The bleak faces of the adults and Sendler's frustration told a different story.
Nazi atrocities were not that graphically portrayed, though the atmosphere of fear was well conveyed. The worst sequence was the interrogation of Sendler by the Gestapo.
As for specifically religious content, it was unobtrusive. The local priest was seen helping Sendler, convents were seen to be hiding Jewish children,
respect was shown to the Jewish tradition - there was no intention to convert the children, and Sendler kept records so that the children could, if possible, be reunited with their own families after the war.
Scenes that would be useful in class include a Seder meal, a family discussion on whether the children should be hidden with Christian families, an early scene where some of Sendler's co-workers can't bring themselves to help the Jews because of prejudice (see clip above, which also features other useful scenes).
A Jewish community scene also discusses the issue of what to do with the children and raises the difficult of lying to stay alive e.g. documents are forged, Jewish children pretend to be Christian by learning to bless themselves and say Christian prayers - mental reservation anyone?
As the film ends there's a touching addition where the real Sendler speaks about the Jewish mothers who
gave up their children and the Christian mothers who risked their lives to save them. She died in 2008 at the age of 98!
For more information on Irena Sendler, including educational resources, go here:


The Tree of Life: director Terrence Malick specialises in reflective storylines, interesting characters and stunning visuals. The Tree of Life includes all these but the emphasis is not so much on plot this time, which makes for challenging viewing. It's a long film (about 2 hours 20 mins), it's episodic like a series of memories, the timeline isn't chronological, the viewer will have to work hard to make sense of it at times, but I'd say the patient, reflective viewer will find it rewarding. The plot, which is only one aspect of this complex film, concerns a family in USA in the 1950's - the father (Brad Pitt) loves his wife (Jessica Chastain) and children but is gruff and rather domineering. This causes problems for his three sons, one of whom, Jack (Sean Penn) we see in his later adult life, trying to find meaning. The film was most appealing to me in the family life scenes, but these scenes are just fragments, only sometimes approaching "normal" film style.
The acting throughout was superb - Pitt can be both appealing and off-putting as the father, Chastain is the moral and emotional core of the film as the mother, Sean Penn doesn't have a lot to do, while the child actors are excellent, especially Hunter McCracken as the young Jack.
The visuals are beautiful - the camera lingers lovingly (boringly, I'm sure some will say!) on water, skyscapes, sunflowers. These visuals are accompanied subtly by light classical music, and overall the clarity of the picture is exceptional - see it on Blu-Ray when it comes out on DVD!
There is a strong faith element, but it's more reflective than preachy. The Book of Job figures strongly (the film starts with a quote from the book) and a variety of prayers and scriptural quotations graces the film. Some of the background music is religious as well - e.g. there's a striking Agnus Dei at a particularly significant moment.
Big meaning of life questions are raised and answers are only hinted at. The issue of human suffering is tackled, mainly through the efforts of Jack to make sense of what he has learned about God and the world. The father is a religious man, but it seems too much on the surface, while with the mother it's a more internal thing. Her opening voiceover (clip above), on what she has learned about the difference between nature and grace is crucial to an understanding of the film's themes.
Needless to say I was wondering how this might be used in school. Certainly I can't see myself showing the full film - I'd suspect students might mitch to avoid it! But there are some useful clips - e.g. the opening voiceover of the mother, a scene where young Jack is praying, a sermon in church, a scene near the end that may be a representation of Heaven.
One could fault the film for its perfunctory plot, its overuse of lingering pretty pictures, its excessive length,. Some critics have accused it of being ponderous and pretentious (which I wouldn't agree with). Yet it gives the impression that it was well thought out and that everything is the way it is for a good reason. The one thing I'd be less inclined to make allowances for is the difficulty at times of making out what the characters are saying - what with the regional accents and the mumbling and whispering. There's little enough dialogue, so I would have thought it should be clearer. I'd be inclined to activate the subtitles when I get the DVD.
The more I think about the film the more I find I want to see it again, and that wasn't my first reaction. I think it's one of those films that call for a second viewing - there's just too much to take in first time around.

In the last few days I've been showing parts of the film Sophie Scholl, The Final Days, with 3rd Year students. (Sophie Scholl was a real life character who campaigned against the Nazis in Germany - she was arrested for leafletting). It fits in really well with the morality element of the course. I even used the clip on left as past of my assessment with the TY students. This clip is the final interrogation of Sophie, and the script is based on transcripts of the original interrogation. One could get several classes out of this ten-minute clip - issues raised include conscience, the state and religion, empathy, world view, persecution of the Jews and the mentally ill, and God. Sophie is a great role model for young people, but even the interrogator is an interesting character. I was glad to see the third years absorbed by this, as there's a lot of talk, and it's subtitled.

Finally got to see The Way last night, and I wasn't disappointed. This new film is about a father-son relationship and is set against the background of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain. Martin Sheen plays the father, while his son Emilio Estevez plays the son, and also wrote and directed.
It was quite moving, challenging and thought provoking. Gradually we get to know the Sheen character and the motley crew he meets up with. It's a strongly human film, and its empathy with the characters is what makes it involving and touching. The Pilgrimage motif is of course a powerful one - the journey through life, the baggage we carry apart from our backpacks, the varying paths we take, the people we journey with. Estevez uses the motif subtly enough, but may have been worried about critical reaction as he has the Irish writer (played by James Nesbitt) revel in the "metaphor bonanza" and yet wonder if he is being over fanciful - things may be what they seem and no more than that. Perhaps Estevez wishes to distance himself from having an overly religious film - at one stage a minor character says it's not about religion at all, and stresses the point. None of the characters makes an obvious connection with God in any way, yet the film is imbued, in a positive way, with religion, without being heavy handed in any way. The Sheen character prays, though at the beginning he doesn't see the point. In a key scene the woman struggles with prayer. Churches and religious images abound, and there are at least two positive priest characters.
There are some fine set pieces, and such scenes may well be useful in RE, though the full film is probably too long and leisurely for youngsters. Near the start a French policeman explains the nature of the pilgrimage, and later, on the road, the pilgrims discuss the nature of the "true pilgrim" (both clips useful in classes on pilgrimage). For symbolism there's a scene at one point where the tradition is to say a prayer and leave a stone at a particular monument (useful for ritual as well). The scene where they arrive at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostella is really well done, and really captures a sense of awe and wonder. Among the interesting conversations on the road, one has a subtle pro-life message as a woman wonders about her unborn baby. Some elements raise questions of suitability for young viewers - in particular there's an ambiguous attitude to soft drugs, but I think it will give mature viewers a warm glow, Many films deal with journeys (physical and metaphorical) of self discovery but The Way has carved out a distinctive little niche of its own.

In the last few days I've been showing parts of the film Sophie Scholl, The Final Days, with 3rd Year students. (Sophie Scholl was a real life character who campaigned against the Nazis in Germany - she was arrested for leafletting). It fits in really well with the morality element of the course. I even used the clip on left as past of my assessment with the TY students. This clip is the final interrogation of Sophie, and the script is based on transcripts of the original interrogation. One could get several classes out of this ten-minute clip - issues raised include conscience, the state and religion, empathy, world view, persecution of the Jews and the mentally ill, and God. Sophie is a great role model for young people, but even the interrogator is an interesting character. I was glad to see the third years absorbed by this, as there's a lot of talk, and it's subtitled.

I finally got to see the film Of Gods and Men (Des Hommes et Des Dieux) , still drawing crowds at the Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield, Dublin. This tells the true story of a group of Cistercian monks under threat from Islamist terrorists in Algeria. It's a slow moving drama but well worth the effort to stay with it. Rarely have I seen a film with such depth of faith and respect for its subject. It's not in the least bit preachy or sentimental, but treats the deepest of religious themes in an accessible but challenging way. Unless you know the historical background very well it's entirely unpredictable - I couldn't help thinking at various stages that Hollywood would treat it so differently, but thankfully it avoids clichés and stereotypes.
The characters of the monks is what appeals most as they try to serve the local Muslim population with respect and compassion. The increasing terrorist violence in the areas puts them on edge as they grapple with internal and external conflicts, agonising over whether they should stay and risk all or leave to save themselves.
I couldn't see myself showing the whole film in class, because it's so slow moving and so much requiring maturity in the viewer (there's also a rather graphic killing), but there are several scenes that might work well. For example, the scene where they get their first visit from the terrorists is particular striking and tense, and features an unusual bit of impromptu inter-faith dialogue! Later the monks sing together (as they do regularly in the film) in an act of solidarity as a military helicopter hovers menacingly overhead. A scene where they finally decide what to do is also of interest, while near the end there's a touching letter from one of the monks about the relationships between Christians and Muslims. Several scenes show the monks in intense moments of prayer.
What remained with me most was the individuals and their relationships - the character of each monk is portrayed beautifully, and the film stands as a tribute to their human dignity, cameraderie, courage and faith.
The film has been held over at the Lighthouse much longer than expected due to public demand - significant that a challenging film with religion so central should develop such a following.

Watched the film Raising Helen last night and was surprised by how positive it was towards religion and how warm towards people and good values. Kate Hudson is excellent as Helen, a swinging party girl who must grow up fast when she has to raise her sister's children when the sister dies. At one stage she prays that God will find her a good school for the children and immediately passes a Lutheran faith school - "That was quick" she says/prays. There's a very funny scene where she pretends to the pastor (she calls him "Father Pastor") that they are all Lutherans. The Pastor jokes that they will have to have a blood test to prove it, but Helen doesn't get the irony and says the kids can have no blood tests, on medical grounds. Later, when the pastor asks her out on a date, she feels terrible that she may have lead him away from God and his vows of celibacy - he explains that clerical celibacy is not an issue for Lutherans!

Oh well, back to school over a week now and exhausted. Surprised to see how long it is since I added to the blog.
Starting off again with a review of the film Karol, A Man Who Became Pope, shown on RTE 1 last Saturday. There's lots in it that will be useful for RE class, and the follow up film is coming up this Saturday afternoon.

The first film takes the story from the German invasion of Poland to Karol becoming Pope. The central performance by Piotr Adamczyk is excellent - thoughtful, convincing, often moving. Also impressive are Malgorzata Bella as Hanna, a possible love interest for young student Karol, and Raoul Bova as Fr Tomasz, a young priest and close friend of Karol. Any scenes with any one or more of these three are intense and involving. In fact it is in some of the set piece scenes that the film excels most. There's one that's fraught with tension as Fr Tomasz is "invited" to hear the confession of one particularly nasty Nazi, but storms out from the dinner table after delivering a brave rebuke to the Germans present over their treatment of Jews and their children in particular. Great scene for illustrating themes like injustice and prejudice. All scenes between Karol and Hanna are so credible, a lovely portrayal of friendship and blossoming romantic love. The tensions between them, over how to react to the German occupation (words or guns - useful moral dilemmas here) and his growing discovery of his vocation (see clip above), are sensitively but realistically handled. You can feel Karol's sense of mission, but also Hanna's sense of loss. In fact the way his vocation is handled is so well done that the relevant scenes would be very useful for covering the theme of vocation in class.
Scenes of the Nazi cruelty and the persecution of the Jews are strong and affecting. It could hardly be otherwise I suppose. After the World War 2 scenes there's much more talk as the fortunes of the Church and Polish culture are at the mercy of the godless communism of the Russians and their puppet rulers, but this part is affecting too, with some strong emotional moments, especially the forgiveness of a spy - very useful scenes for Confession and forgiveness. I thought the film was less successful when the talk was less concerned with interpersonal issues and more concerned with politics and theology. It's not that I'm faulting the theology, but at times the film was a tad preachy, trying to get important points across with lumps of theology and morality that didn't flow as easily as dialogue should.
If you missed it, it's available for less than a fiver at, and is available in segmented form on YouTube.

Saw the film Premonition on RTE 1 last night. Sandra Bullock played a married woman who has premonitions of her husband's death. It was quite a rivetting thriller with all sorts of timeshifting twists and turns. It raised some interesting issues about love, relationships and what's important in life. At one stage the Bullock character visits a priest to get some guidance - it's an intersting exchange, about two thirds of the way through. He suggests that faithless people leave a vacuum in their lives that other forces may then occupy, and that it's important to know what's really important in your life and to fight for that.

Last Friday to celebrate the school holidays I got to the cinema to see The Blind Side - the film that won a Best Actress award this year for Sandra Bullock. It tells the true story of a black teenager, uniquely skilled at American football, adopted into a white family. It was moving, uplifting and absorbing, though overlong and certainly sentimental.
There's a faith dimension, but it's not too preachy. Bullock does a great job playing the mother of the adoptive family, a gutsy Christian woman who opens her home to the homeless boy, who is enrolled into a private Christian college. When the authorities there are reluctant, considering the boy's background, one character suggests that the word "Christian" on the school's sign should be painted over or taken seriously. A challenge to all our Christian schools.
Themes of racism and family conflict are touched on subtly, but there are no huge conflicts. This makes the film less intense, but more gentle, and it's certainly imbued with a respect and love for its characters - at the end we get to see footage of the real life characters the film is based on.
This family is certainly well off (huge house!), and while their material wealth isn't questioned there is an empathy for those who are poorer, e.g. in Bullock's visit to the boy's birth mother.
Maybe I'd like it to have been a little rougher around the edges. Is the family too sweet to be wholesome? Perhaps, but it was good for a change not to have the family members having clichéd rows just for dramatic effect. It was certainly believable.

On Monday last I got to see the Irish Premier of the film Lourdes, shown as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. It tells the story of a young woman, almost paralysed with MS, who visits Lourdes with a pilgrimage group, helped by Order of Malta volunteers.
It's a hard one to review as I have conflicted feelings about it. It certainly held the attention throughout its ninety or so minutes, even though for much of it there was nothing dramatic going on. I found it completely unpredictable, which helped, and I suppose because it was subtitled I had to concentrate all the more. The characters were ordinary, but still interesting. Sylvie Testud as the main character Christine was superb - the whole thing might have collapsed without such an intriguing performance. She managed to capture a whole range of emotions - sadness, anger, enthusiasm, loneliness - and yet there were times she was inscrutable.
The location work at Lourdes captured the atmosphere really well, in fact at times it had a documentary feel to it. But it was difficult to figure out what the viewpoint of the film was. Yes there were possible miracles, lots of prayer and devotion, and the main character, despite her suffering was at least open to faith. But ultimately it seemed like an agnostic's view of the Lourdes experience (and here I'm not making any assumptions about writer-director Jessica Haussner, except that she's highly talented). I felt the film lacked warmth towards faith, and I didn't feel any sense of relationship with Our Lady or Jesus. It's as if Haussner was saying: here's what might happen on an average pilgrimage to Lourdes - what do you make of it?
And yet it wasn't entirely objective or dispassionate. There was a quiet empathy with the invalids, especially as so many little cruelties were shown to them - e.g. when Cécile, the chief nurse announces that there will be an outing next day, but that those in wheelchairs would have to stay behind. The carers do their job, often with a smile, but too often they are more interested in flirting with each other - believable but unsettling. "We are not here to have fun", says the irritating chief nurse, and sure enough there is little enough of it. Everything is just a bit too slow moving and uninspiring.
The pilgrimage chaplain is a very average priest, mostly OK with the pilgrims, but his answers to their deep questions smack too much of platitude. The other pilgrims are a mixed bunch, from devotional to cynical. The chief nurse is all smiles and efficiency, not too likeable, but then she is shown to have her own suffering. The chief Order of Malta man attracts the eyes of all the ladies, including the main character, but he too, ultimately, seems hollow.
Talking to some people after the film confirmed what I suspected, that people will have wildly different assessments of the film. Maybe this lack of a clear stance will charm some and disconcert others, but while I did find it riveting, sometimes funny, and even quite hopeful at times, I thought the final impression it left was on the bleak side.
For that reason I wouldn't be rushing to show it in school, though there was one interesting Confession scene with the main character and the chaplain, where she calmly confesses her anger. I like collecting Confession scenes from film and TV drama, and this will be a worthy addition.

Last night I got a chance to see one of the first Irish screenings of a new feature film about the appearances of Our Lady of Fatima.
The 13th Day
was written and directed by Ian and Dominic Higgins. It's great to see Catholic filmmakers turning their talents to spiritual matters in such a creative and imaginative way. Visually the film is a treat - it's not surprising that the Higgins brothers come from an artistic background. Each frame of the film would make for a beautiful still picture - mostly it's black and white, with colour being used when Our Lady appears and Heaven touches the earth. Watching it I was reminded of arty YouTube videos, European cinema, and even The Blair Witch Project (visual effect not content!).
It was almost surreal in its presentation, which made it quite captivating at times. The film seems to tell the Fatima story faithfully, framing it by using the reminiscences of Sr Lucia as she writes her memoirs. For me the telling of the story was somewhat episodic, always a potential problem when filming real life events. I also felt there was too much narration and not enough dialogue given to the actors which made it difficult for them to really inhabit their roles. That being said the girl who played the young Lucia, Filipa Fernandez, had a striking screen presence, crucial when she was the central personality of the film.
One thing the filmmakers have achieved is to present this timeless story to a modern audience in an idiom they can understand and relate to. I didn't find it corny or preachy or sentimental, and these are also traps that a religious film can fall into.
As always I wondered about its use in Religious Education. There would have to be plenty of discussion afterwards, and the teacher would want to be well informed about the background to the Fatima story. The vision of hell and one rather scary angel make it more suitable for secondary students. For teachers who might like to use just an extract, the scene of the miracle of the sun is quite striking and captures the essence of the film. At the time of writing The 13th Day is available only on Region 1 DVD (USA).

With constant repeats on RTE and Channel 4 one can get overdosed on the Simpsons, but to be fair it takes a lot of repeating to drain the humour out of it. Last weekend both channels showed The Simpsons Movie, and like a lot of comedy shows transferring to the big screen it was a questionable exercise - yes, the movie was funny, but it didn't offer much more than a typical bunch of episodes shown back to back. As always there was an amount of religious content - and while you might welcome films that show religion as a common part of life (airbrushed out of most American shows) you'd smart at the sharp barbs thrown at believers. The story began on a Sunday morning with Homer once again grumbling about going to church - why, he says, can't he be allowed worship God in his own way - "like praying like hell on my death bed". He grouches about Rev Lovejoy's congregation, "pious morons" with their "phoney baloney God". Grandpa Simpson starts speaking in tongues about some apocalyptic event, and wouldn't you know, it was to be an environmental disaster. The show often pokes fun at those believers who are big into "the end times". There was one hilarious scene when the end of the world was nigh (yet again) - the believers abandoned the church and headed for the bar, while the drinkers rushed out of the bar and made for the church. The sign on the church said "We Told You So"!
While Ned Flanders was presented, as usual, as a Holy Joe, he is also portrayed as the most human and caring of the Springfield folks - providing such a stable father figure that Bart wants him as father instead, but only for a while of course. Yes, its mildly crude and borderline irreverent, but its definitely funny, and even thought provoking. And suitably for the time that's in it, it gave an outing to the idea of "epiphany" - Homer must get a deep insight into his selfishness or he won't be able to save Springfield and win his family back. And was there every any doubt about the outcome?

Got to have another look at the film Millions on DVD last night. It's a film by Danny Boyle of Slumdog Millionaire fame and features a young boy who's a moral anchor for those close to him who compromise so easily. He tries so hard to be good, and is fascinated by the stories of the saints, many of whom appear to him, complete with halos, in little vignettes through the film. A big bag of money, the proceeds of a train robbery, comes his way - he thinks it's a gift from God and wants to use it responsibly, but finds it so hard just to give it to the poor. It's a sweet film, but not overly sentimental, and it's imbued with a warm attitude to religious faith. The scenes with the saints are particularly clever and amusing. It's not for very young children as there is some menace, complex moral issues and a one-night stand (with possibilities for the future!) between the widowed father and a charity worker.

Recently I got to see the Irish premiere of a multi-award winning documentary The Human Experience. Can documentaries be regarded as art? Whatever the case, this film was well put together, and it should prove a great resource for teachers doing classes on the search for meaning. Unfortunately it is not available on DVD yet. It tells the story of two young American brothers, Cliff and Jeff Azize, who are searching for meaning in their lives. They live with the homeless in their native New York, visit a care centre for disabled children in Lima, Peru, and visit a leper colony in Ghana, Africa. I thought the Peru segment was the best - the children were so positive, considering their situation. One of the things I liked about the film was the way they let the people they visited speak for themselves. Also, the fact that it is segmented makes it particularly classroom friendly. There is a parallel story running through the film - one of the brothers reflects on his own upbringing and has many issues to confront - this culminates in an emotional reunion with his father. There are many thought provoking quotes interspersed through the film, which again should help in the classroom context. It's a film I'd like to see again to make a fuller judgement. Some of the film makers were present at the screening which was a treat. I asked about the DVD release but was told it would be a while yet as they were working on distribution arrangements. For the moment check out the film's website, and watch the trailer above.

I know it's unseasonal, but last night I got to attend the multimedia screening of A Christmas Carol - this is Robert Zemeckis' new film adaptation of the Dickens story for Disney, and what a treat it is! Those who have seen his Polar Express will be familiar with the kind of animation applied here - a technique of motion capture that has the characters looking incredibly like the actors that do their voices. The effect here is immeasurably heightened by the eye-popping 3D effects. And it's not just the occasional gimmicky scare with something being flung at the audience - the 3D effects are seamlessly integrated throughout and you'd wonder how you could ever bear to watch it in 2D cinema or DVD. You seem to fly through the air with the characters, it seems to be snowing in the cinema, and yes, occasionally a few things appear to fly into the audience, the most delightfully disgusting being Jacob Marley's ghostly spittle as he tries to warn Scrooge about the consequences of leading a selfish life. The amount of detail is incredible - we see textured wrinkles and spotty skin, which doesn't sound very appealing but in the context it's brilliant.
The technical wizardry is jaw-droppingly impressive, but without a good story it would ultimately leave an empty feeling. Of course, Dickens provides a timeless and very human story of redemption at Christmas time which is told faithfully in this adaptation. Jim Carrey plays the central role of Scrooge with his usual zest - he savours the role, wallows in it, hams it up at times, and yet, despite many laughs it is a very serious story and we get to feel all of Scrooge's changing emotions. Yet, for some reason it fell that little bit short at the emotional level, perhaps because of the fact that the characters are animated no matter how realistic the detail. I felt this particularly to be the case when Scrooge is given a glimpse of the sweetheart of his youth, estranged by his over concern with money. The emotional resonance should, I thought, have been much stronger here. One of my favourite previous versions was the Muppet Christmas Carol and amidst all the crazy Muppets, the real Michael Caine did a better job at capturing the humanity of Scrooge.
The film doesn't hedge on either the frightening or the religious elements of the story - if anything they are heightened. Smaller children may get a legacy of nightmares from the death coach that chases Scrooge, or the horrors of the graveyard scene where the ghost of Christmas come lets Scrooge see what a miserable future and death he will have if he continues with his self-centred behaviour. After a series of horrors he finds himself dangling over a yawning grave, with his open coffin waiting for him, and under that a hellish red glow. Then there's the horrific appearance (video clip on left) of the ghost of Scrooge's deceased partner Jacob Marley - he seems to have come from hell or more likely purgatory carrying the chains he has made for himself in life (reminded me of the first appearance of the ghost in Hamlet). And as he leaves we get a scary vision, worthy of Dante, of many other troubled souls, tortured by the choices they have made in life.
But it's primarily a story of redemption and salvation and so the other religious elements are more positive, apart from a dig at "men of the cloth" who seem responsible for Sunday closure of a place where the poor can cook their food (reminded me of those who criticised Christ for healing on the Sabbath). There was liberal use of traditional Christmas hymns on the soundtrack. Sometimes it's just a hint, (Ave Maria), sometimes more prominent (Hark the Herald Angels Sing) and sometimes quite central (Adeste Fideles). On the end credits there's a new song, where Adrea Bocelli takes up Tiny Tim's "God Bless us Everyone".
Christmas Carol is due in cinemas on Nov 6th - go see it! For more info and trailers see the official website.

Got a chance at the weekend to see a preview of the film Sinner, a new independent film from USA. It looked promising, but was a real disappointment. The storyline features a middle-aged priest (Fr Romano) who had a secret love affair in the past that he feels guilty about. He has to share a parish with a young priest (Fr Stephen) who is conservative but in an unpleasant way (surprise, surprise) e.g. he rails against Vatican II liberals. Eventually Fr Romano sends him away for psychiatric evaluation! Yes, it's a bad time to be conservative! Into this mix comes a prostitute who preys on priests - Fr Stephen hits her - to protect his celibacy, he says. She tries to blackmail him but Fr Romano takes a more compassionate approach, though resists her advances. Meanwhile Fr Stephen takes pictures to build up a case against Fr Romano with the bishop. It's a pretty hackneyed male fantasy pot-boiler as might be obvious by now, but perhaps something good might have been made of it. However it's ruined by poor pacing and plotting, stereotypes and most of all by many objectionable elements - nudity, loads of foul language and many distasteful scenes.

Happy New Year to all and best wishes to religion teachers for the new school year!

I saw loads of interesting material on TV over Christmas, hard to keep up with it all. Watched a video of the absorbing film The Apostle, starring Robert Duvall in a tour de force portrayal of a fiery preacher in the Deep South of the USA. His character is intriguing if not entirely appealing. Old style preaching is his life, but he is also a womaniser and prone to violence, yet conscious at times of his sinfulness. After beating up his wife's new boyfriend he has to escape and sets up a church in a new location, making a new life for himself, but temporarily. As I watched I wondered if I could use any of this in religion class - there's a brief scene early on where he prays to God in his bedroom, which is restrained enough, and a sequence where he drives around in his bus gathering worshippers for a service. The many extended preaching sequences might be useful as a study in cultural context, though our students might just find it all very weird. I find they often lament the tameness in Irish liturgical events, compared to the American style black gospel approach, but I'd say this might cure them! Still, it's always good to see a meaty religious film that takes its subject seriously.

Last Saturday night's film on RTE 2 was also very violent, sometimes excessively so, and there was plenty of profanity and more than a few clichés, but there was still more than a touch of humanity in Proof of Life, a kidnap drama set in South America. It helped that the leads were played by Russell Crowe as the rescuer/negotiator and Meg Ryan as the wife of the victim. When religion surfaced it was indirect but respectful for the most part There was a positive priest character - a wily Frenchman who was formerly in the foreign legion and was also a kidnap victim - who showed compassion and courage when trying to help the husband. Married love was seen as valuable - though they had conflicts, the Ryan character remained devoted to her husband, despite her growing attraction to Crowe.

Have just watched yet another ghost-ish story, that kept reminding me of Ghost Town (see below). Just Like Heaven featured Reese Witherspoon as a workaholic doctor who has a crash and ends up haunting (sort of) the new occupant of her apartment. It's an enjoyable romantic comedy, though not very innovative. As in Ghost Town the religious aspects of the next life don't figure much. At one stage, in desperation, the new tenant (Mark Ruffalo) hires an exorcist, but I thought that scene was a little tasteless - the priest thunders away calling on the spirit to leave the building by the power of Christ, but his ritual makes no impression (we discover the reason later - it's not that Christ doesn't have the power). The psychic owner of a nearby occult bookshop (another endearingly dopey role for Jon Heder of Napoleon Dynamite fame) comes across more appealingly than the priest, and more tuned in to the spirit world. Again there are broad themes of love and redemption (not of a specifically religious kind) but I can't see any major use for it in the classroom (also, it includes some mildly unsavoury sexual elements). The right-to-die issues surfaces, but it's not pushing any particular line. In fact, if anything, it would nudge the audience against being over hasty in switching off life support.

Saw the new film Ghost Town recently and enjoyed it. It's one of those films that deals with the next life without getting very religious about it. The main character, played by Ricky Gervais, had a near death experience and now sees ghosts, and they want him to do their unfinished business, so they can "move on". Unfortunately the Gervais character is a rather selfish type, and doesn't really like his fellow human beings, dead or alive. It won't be everybody's cup of tea and reviews have been mixed, but I laughed out loud at some of the more bizarre scenes and chuckled throughout at the dry and subtle wit. I don't see much potential in it for classroom use, unless perhaps when covering the "last things", though I'm not sure how sound the theology is - all these ghosts hovering around in a sort of purgatory-limbo state, with no sign of God at all. He does get a mention - when "acts of God" are mentioned, Gervais dryly says - "Why does he do those things?". There are broad themes like love and redemption, and certainly belief in an afterlife, and though there are a few rude bits there is a very strong disapproval of adultery - the main ghost (Greg Kinnear) has to come to terms with the harm his adultery has done.

I wasn't expecting to use clips from Amazing Grace (see entry for 14/9/08 below) so soon in RE class, but we doing a class on morality and the law and predictably the question of slavery came up - I showed the scene where Wilberforce speaks from the deck of a slave ship, and it seemed to hold the students attention and illlustrate the point. The clip on left is a shorter version but contains the relevant speech.



Now that I've survived the shock of getting back to school I'm fit to write again. One new resource I'm going to use soon is a film I saw recently, Amazing Grace. It tells the story on the campaign to abolish slavery in England, focussing on the efforts of William Wilberforce to get an anti-slavery bill through Parliament. It moves slowly, goes back and forward in time quite a bit, but still holds the attention. There are so many clips that could be used in religion class, and not just on slavery and justice issues. For example there's an early sequence where Wilberforce tries to discern his vocation in life - torn between the work of God and his political activities. Eventually he believes he can do both by campaigning against slavery. Other useful clips include a scene where he meets his mentor John Newton, writer of the song Amazing Grace and a former slave ship owner who is now haunted (metaphorically) by the ghosts of the slaves he carried. The representation of slavery is not that graphic, but there are descriptions in another early scene where a group of like minded friends gather at table to discuss the issue with Wilberforce, and later when some well off citizens are given a close quarters experience of a slave ship. The scenes where he addresses parliament should also be useful in holding students' attention and introducing issues.

A few films I saw recently on TV got me thinking again about religion in the movies, and in many cases there were interesting marriage scenes that might be useful ice breakers in class when discussing relationships and marriage.
Intolerable Cruelty is another cracking film from the Coen brothers (their most recent being Oscar winner No Country for Old Men). It was quite raunchy in spots, but was a marvellous send up of American divorce culture. Despite all the marital shenanigans the film did seem to favour real love and lifelong commitment. Dealing as it did with marriage, it wasn't surprising that religious imagery figured - there was one wedding scene in particular worth mentioning. It was a garden wedding, and the priest, strumming his guitar, approached the happy couple while singing Simon and Garfunkel songs! Grist to the mill, I'd suspect, for those who might not be enthusiastic about the liturgical changes of recent years. The "religious" wedding was a more attractive proposition than a later registry office wedding which had a Scottish theme, complete with a bagpipe version of Bridge Over Troubled Water. Yuk! I didn't find the religious wedding imagery in any way offensive, perhaps because there was a good humoured warmth about the film.
The wedding scene in Wedding Daze was more problematic. A third rate made-for-tv movie, it started well I thought, as a warm tale of a father and his three daughters, but it quickly descended into pure and irritating corn. A triple wedding was arranged, the father delighted in the money he was saving in not "renting" the cathedral. This time the priest didn't turn up at all and so, as they weren't too fussy they persuaded a nearby rabbi to do the honours! The religious sensibilities of a groom's Italian parents were quickly overcome.
I really enjoyed The Bachelor, which starred Chris O'Donnell as a young man with commitment issues. His miserable efforts at proposing to his loved one were particularly hilarious. When told he must marry by a certain deadline to inherit the family fortune and save the family company he becomes even more desperate, leading to one of the most bizarre wedding scenes ever (the priest is in a police car, the groom on a nearby fire escape, and the bride sandwiched between hundreds of other brides). And there's an earlier attempted wedding of convenience that might also be a useful clip for R. E. class. The film is ultimately pro-marriage and pro-commitment, but some may find the treatment of the sacrament lacking in respect. The Catholic priest (another fine turn by James Cromwell) seems quite willing to go along with efforts at the inheritance driven marriage with scant regard for Church standards, but there is a touching scene, about two thirds way through, where he has a chat with the groom in a boat - telling how he was married with children and became a priest late in life when his wife died - he has only the best of praise for marriage and this helps the groom to overcome his fear of being tied down.
More troubling was the use of religious imagery in Shanghai Noon, This was one of Jackie Chan's comedy martial arts westerns so we can't get too worked up about it, but for no reason to do with the plot the final shoot out took place in a church. From the statement of the crooked Marshall Van Cleef (a good, bad, or ugly joke?) - "I'm glad to see we're all church goers here", it smacked of disrespect. Statues were shot to bits and we were supposed to laugh. In fact the whole church was pretty much wrecked when the mayhem was over. Overall it was a funny film, but it's hard to find sacrilege and desecration funny.
The religious imagery in Before and After was brief but more positive - we saw a funeral scene with a priest comforting a woman whose daughter had been killed - an image that's more true to life. The young man who was the chief suspect ran away from home, but wrote to his parents, telling them he knew they didn't pray, but asking them to pray now, for him. The father (Liam Neeson) impulsively covered up for the son, but the mother (Meryl Streep) was more pure of heart - she wanted to do what was right and tell the truth, even though she was mocked for her principles and "absolutes" - not too often you find a leading character supporting the idea of objective and absolute truth. Not only that but the film seemed to support that point of view - it was seen as a healthy thing for the family to face up to the truth, even though there was a cost. The film wasn't entirely enthusiastic to religion however - some religious bigot harassed the family by phone when the son was a suspect (yes, I know, there are plenty like that who give religion a bad name), and there was a negative comment from the father about the Abraham and Isaac story, which raised father-son issues that he thought relevant to his own situation. Overall a thoughtful and unpredictable film.

Finally got to see The X-Files: I Want to Believe, recently arrived in Irish cinemas. There are lots of scenes I'd like to look back on, so perhaps I'll revise my initial opinions when it comes out on DVD. First off, it was great to see Mulder and Scully back in action - it's been about 6 years since the TV show ended. The film was certainly true to the spirit of the show, though apart from the principals only one other character reappeared. As with the TV show there were strong religious elements - the title "I Want to Believe" says it all.
I'd say religious believers won't be entirely happy with the way religion is presented - one of the main characters is a paedophile former priest, still referred to as Father Joe, played with deadly earnestness by comedian Billy Connolly, a strange but effective casting choice. Scully can't hide her revulsion when in his presence, but at least he seems repentant. So though, on one level, the character might be reinforcing lazy stereotypes, he is humanised and challenges the judgementalism of Scully and the viewer. But there is negative portrayal of other priests also - in particular a rather cold fish at the Catholic hospital where Scully is treating a young boy for an apparently incurable disease. At best this priest is a fussy administrator, but the young boy says he doesn't like the way this priest is looking at him.
The plot centres around "Father Joe" helping the police find some missing women because he says he has been having visions. Is he in league with the perpetrators or has God answered his prayers of repentance? Mulder in particular wants to believe he is genuinely psychic, but Scully is more doubtful, still conflicted about such matters, though Fr Joe describes her as "a woman of faith". She was often thus in the series, so it seems her character hasn't progressed much in the intervening years, and for that matter Mulder seems driven by the same concerns as always, though the alien theme of the so-called "mythology" episodes doesn't figure this time. There are many discussions about faith during the film, especially a dramatic confrontation between Scully and Fr Joe when she reluctantly goes to seek his help - (in this scene he says of abusers that they hate themselves and hate each other). Other discussions fall into the trap of wordiness that was one of the faults of the TV show. These are the scenes I'd like to see again to form a more rounded judgement.
The plot also features the stem cell research issue, and treats it in an interesting way - Scully dabbles in it to try and save her young patient, but the bad guys are also into it for more gruesome purposes, so it advocates and critics alike may feel somewhat satisfied. The distinction between adult and embryonic stem cell research doesn't figure.
For most of the X-Files series Mulder and Scully were just good friends - this close but platonic relationship was one of the show's attractions, but if I remember correctly there was a hint in the 9th series that the relationship had become physical, and in this film they seem to be living together at least some of the time. And in another sign of the times two of the bad guys are married to each other! Have tried not to give away too much here, but if you do go to see it be sure to stay until the end of the credits!

(for my article on the religious themes in the X-Files TV series click here)

Got to See the film Road to Perdition again last night. Tom Hanks, excellent as always, plays Michael Sullivan, a gangster in US prohibition times. His son Michael is curious about his work, and is shocked when he sees his father involved in a murder. More tragedies follow as father and son take to the highways to avoid a hired assassin. The cinematography is beautiful, the music striking, the characterisations reflective.
The gangsters are Irish Catholic in name and culture (the Sullivans say grace before meals), but it's disconcerting to see the worst of them attending mass looking devout. The main gangster, played by Paul Newman, goes to Communion in one scene, but in a subsequent chat with the Sullivan character says that one thing is sure, none of them will see Heaven. Sullivan, also a killer, seems to agree, but thinks that his son has a chance to avoid that particular road to perdition. Neither gangster seems interested in changing his situation, no sign of redemption, or repentance - too much to loose I suppose, rather like Macbeth - "I am in blood stepped in so far that returning were as tedious as go 'oer". This scene might be worth using in senior classes, it's about two thirds way into the film.
Like a lot of the "Catholic" gangster films they are supposedly great family men. This is fairly true for Sullivan, but in the pursuit of revenge he does turn down a chance escape to Ireland with his son to start a new life.

Nicholas Cage was in missionary territory in Lord of War, last Thursday night's film on RTE 2. But instead of a gospel of love he brought death to the people of the third world. Cage played a freelance arms dealer who liked the work, not just because it made him rich but because he was "good at it". This arrogance led to the death of his brother, alienation from his family, separation from his wife and child, and he still kept at it.
His religious upbringing was curious - his mother was Catholic, but his father pretended, with great enthusiasm, to be Jewish (for immigration reasons if I remember correctly) - in fact it was at synagogue that the Cage character, Yuri, met his first important arms dealing contact. He was painfully adept at rationalising, accepting no responsibility whatever for the destruction caused by his weapons. He sold to murderous dictators in West Africa but hid behind the weakest of platitudes - it's not our business what they do with the weapons, someone else will do it if I don't etc The film was marred by grauitous sex, drug abuse and the foulest of language, a pity coming from writer director Andrew Niccol who had scripted the subtle Truman Show, but in other ways it was moral, even to the point of being preachy. There was little doubt that the film showed the arms trade as hugely cynical and destructive. An Interpol agent of impeccable integrity (well played by Ethan Hawke) tried to nail Yuri but was thwarted by the shady military connections his adversary had made in high places.
It was here that the film became most preachy - hammering home the point that however repulsive the arms dealers were, the super power governments of the world were worse. And I was uneasy about the way the Yuri character was portrayed - cool, charismatic, successful on a material level, perhaps an attractive role model for some young or immature viewers? Just a little close to those films that purport to be anti-war and yet seem to revel in violence.

On St Stephen's Night I watched Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, with Russell Crowe in the lead role - it was set during the Napoleonic Wars, as a British warship tried to track down a French frigate. It was well directed and written (by Peter Weir), with battles at the start and finish and lots of interesting events in between, in many ways an old fashioned epic. The main characters were religious, but not in any overbearing sort of way - and there are some prayers especially as crewmen are buried near the end. Yet it is violent - including amputation flogging for discipline and suicide. There is little questioning of the need for war in the first place though the on-board surgeon does rebel a little.

I'm currently in the middle of a module on religious themes in film with Transition Year class. Firstly I divided them into small groups – each group had to lists films with religious themes in various categories – e.g. comedy, horror, serious drama, biography, and “weird” (films about cults, dodgy faith healers etc, the movies often focus on this aspect of religion). This was a useful 40 minutes as I could ramble from group to group discussing the various issues that arose. I then took feedback and filled the board with all the films named in their categories. The next step was to show clips that would represent some of these films and categories. I used the parting of the waters scene from The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. de Mille version, 1956) as an example of the old fashioned Bible epic, some scenes from Sister Act (including the first appearance of the gospel choir) as an example of comedy, the scene from The Field where the priest upbraids the community for hiding a murderer (I find the film version to have an anti-clerical bent not present in the original John B. Keane play), and the similar but more positive scene from On the Waterfront where the priest (Karl Malden) remonstrates more kindly with his community, also for staying deaf and dumb about a murder) – both examples of serious drama. As an example of “weird” I used a clip from one of my personal favourites Static, about a collector of faulty crucifixes who believes he can tune in heaven on his TV. The scene where he reveals his invention always holds the students’ attention. It raises interesting questions about heaven, and has echoes of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea but I don’t find it disrespectful, and it’s certainly unpredictable. Next, I’ll be moving on to a class or two about films on the life of Jesus.

Saw Spiderman 3 last night and wasn’t expecting any deep themes, religious or otherwise. But I was in for a surprise. The most overtly religious scene was decidedly odd. Spiderman, going through a bit of an evil alter ego experience (as you do when you’re a superhero), looked up a church, as if longing for goodness, and perched himself on the steeple for a bit of a think. Meanwhile inside the church, one of the villains was actually praying to Jesus to kill Spiderman! This guy was no stereotype villain – he was a young photographer who had let ambition lead him to do wrong (quite a bit like Macbeth). Mind you, he was under the influence of a parasitic alien life form, but seemed quite willing to go over to the dark side. There was a strong message against revenge in the film (Spiderman’s aunt warns him against the inner corruption in a scene that I might use in class), and there is a significant redemption theme when he is reconciled with one of his friends at the end, and when he forgives one of the villains for unintentionally killing his uncle. I’m not sure how useful this segment would be in class as they students mightn’t thank me for giving away the ending.

Meanwhile, in class I’ve managed to use a good few artistic resources. Continuing the “Images of God” classes in third year I used clips from Oh God You Devil, with George Burns as a genial old God – I used the scene late in the film where the main character contacts God by phone! The Insight video Jesus B.C. has its problems but the scene where Father Son and Holy Spirit discuss what to do with the rebellious human race is a useful attempt (the only one I know of) to portray the Trinity – with three actors – the Holy Spirit is portrayed as a black woman! Martin Sheen’s portrayal of God as a cocky young man in a white suit in the Insight video The Walls Came Tumbling Down sparked a few interesting comments – I used the opening 10 minutes. Would have used the scene from Bruce Almighty where Bruce meets God for the first time (hilarious) but my copy of that has gone astray. Tomorrow I’ll complete this module with a prayer service, which I’ll write up soon as I’ll be using some appropriate music along with scripture readings.

Saw The Fighting Temptations on RTE 2 Friday last - a film that centres around a gospel choir. There's great music, but the storyline was a tad corny and predictable - in order to get an inheritance a guy must get the local (and useless) gospel choir into shape for a competition. Guess what the outcome is! The film is favourably disposed to faith in a lukewarm kind of way, though church busybodies get a lash! The main character is a habitual liar, but he learns to be true to himself, though without any major religious conversion. The stereotypes would make you cringe at times, but the script is witty, and the whole thing so cheerful and upbeat that it's easy to enjoy and hard to get annoyed at. Some of the gospel music segments (including gospel rap - my son left the room in disgust at this stage!) might be useful in class to illustrate the variety of religious music, and the whole movie might make a useful example of a film with religious themes.

Saw a couple of interesting films in August that might be useful in class. Evan Almighty was something of a disappointment after Bruce Almighty, but it wasn't a washout. The scene where Evan is persuaded that Morgan Freeman (reprising his earlier role) is really God is useful for "Images of God" classes, though the equivalent scene in Bruce is far better and more focussed. Overall the film is passable entertainment, genial and well disposed to faith, the main characters pray, and it's less crude than Bruce. Apart from the scene already mentioned there's an interesting exchange between God and Evan's wife when she is getting frustrated at Evan's efforts to be a modern day Noah. The Ark scenes are impressive enough, though the environmental message is a bit hackneyed.
I bought Saints and Soldiers in a sale after hearing some good reviews, and it was worth it. It's a war film, set shortly after the D-Day invasion when some American troops get caught behind enemy lines. One of the soldiers is a religious person (a Mormon I think) and one a cynic, leading to some interesting exchanges. There are sound human values in the film, but it's not sentimental. The opening scenes and closing are quite violent, but there's a lull in the middle that makes for good character development.

There was an appealing priest character in last Friday night's film on RTE 1. The Runaway Bride was a sharply scripted comedy with appealing performances by Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in the leading roles and a rake of great supporting characters played by Joan Cusack and Paul Dooley among others. In one scene we learned that the runaway bride had abandoned at the altar one guy who went on to become a priest. Despite the real hurt back then he was now quite happy in his vocation.


In class I've been doing religious themes in TV drama. I started with a brainstorm from the students on what TV dramas they've seen that featured religious themes, and among the programmes that featured in the feedback were Father Ted, The Simpsons, Lost and Ballykissangel. I then showed some relevant clips, which were spread over two double classes. These are clips I have built up over the years and keep adding to, though not as diligently as before. Hard to find the time. I don't like using too many old clips, so I was glad to be able to show a clip from an episode of Lost which been on a few days previously - this was a scene where the Hurley character had prayed for enlightenment and got it. I also used a few earlier Lost clips - including the scene where Claire and her baby are baptised by Mr Eko. Some of my Lost clips are actually lost, so I had better trawl through my videos and catalogue everything. I used some clips from the X-Files as well, though as time goes on students are less familiar with this series. My article on the religious themes in the X-Files is on the articles section of the website. In one scene one of the main characters, Scully, is saying the rosary (you don't see that too often in TV drama), while her partner Mulder is blowing the lid on yet another government conspiracy. I also used a clip of Scully going to confession, where she talks about being afraid that God is speaking but that no one is listening.
I used a short Father Ted clip just to illustrate a point about stereotyping of nuns and priests and to raises issues relating to the respectful treatment of religion. However I don't particularly like the underlying attitudes in the show and was somewhat reluctant. The attitude of the boys was that it was only a bit of fun. Joan of Arcadia got a look in as well - the US show where God appears to a young girl in various guises. A clip from 7th Heaven was necessary to be comprehensive, though I got the feeling some of the lads didn't like it. I used a nice clip from a popular (but rough and sometimes adult in nature) series Band of Brothers, which is about the aftermath of D-Day. In an early episode a captain reflects and prays on the day's events, and promises God that if he survives the war he'll live a peaceful life. My Ballykissangel clips tape has gone missing, but I showed clips from Paradise Island, the American version, a short-lived series which was quite enjoyable. Next week I hope to do a class on relevant animated series, especially The Simpsons and God, The Devil and Bob. More of that anon. I plan to turn these clips into digital files so I can play them from the laptop, perhaps as Powerpoint presentations.

Have seen an excellent film recently that might be useful in religion class. I saw The Execution of Private Slovik many years ago and it made a lasting impact. It's the true story of Eddie Slovik (played superbly by Martin Sheen) the only American soldier to be executed since the Civil War - he was shot for desertion in World War Two. It's hard to get and I finally found the video on Ebay recently - the only version available seems to be this American NTSC video which means it won't play correctly over here unless you have an NTSC compatible video machine. I got one of those recently so I could finally catch up on some American tapes (including some Peter, Paul and Mary concerts which include gospel material). I hoped I wouldn't find it dated (it was originally broadcast on US TV in 1974), but thankfully I didn't. It was simple basic and hard hitting, and as moving as ever. Two scenes in particular are useful for class - around the middle of the film the chaplain talks to the firing squad about the morality of it all, and towards the end there is Slovik's final experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He prays on the way to execution, but this scene is tough going and may not be suitable for younger classes at least. And without the context of the full film the emotional impact wouldn't be the same.

Recently saw the film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days - it's about a young student, motivated by her Christian faith, campaigning against the Nazis in Germany during the war. The religious element is there, but subtly integrated. In German, with English subtitles, it is riveting as we see her interrogated by the German police, and all the more poignant as it is based on real events. Julia Jentsch does a brilliant job in the main role. Despite the setting there is no graphic violence, but there is plenty of tension. One scene of particular use in class starts with Sophie praying one night in prison, leading to a scene with her interrogator where conscience is discussed. I hope to use this clip after mid term break as I'm doing conscience with fifth year students. Another useful exercise I've found doing this issue is to get the students drawingtheir own symbols for conscience. I like to ramble around the class (purposefully of course!) chatting with individuals about their symbols. Usually some will draw the angel-on-the shoulder image, but whatever comes up it is a useful discussion starter.

And finally a school update. Finished my classes on religion and film with Transition Year on Friday last, with a final look at Jesus films - showed two clips from The Passion of the Christ - the atmospheric opening scene in the garden which I love, and a brief clip from the way of the cross - where Jesus meets his mother at a cross roads on the way to Calvary - it's very touching, especially when intercut with the flashback of when Jesus fell as a child. Perhaps more of the brief flashbacks and less of the intense violence would have helped the film achieve a broader perspective on the life of Jesus.

Was looking at religious themes in films today in Transition Year class. In a previous class I had broken the students in groups, each to list films with religious themes in various categories - horror, serious drama, comedies, biographies, and weird (films about cults, dodgy preachers etc). Today I followed up this exercise with clips from relevant films. The clips went down well I think: from Ken Loach's Raining Stones the scene where the Irish priest (Tom Hickey, excellent) tries to persuade the main character not to spend too much money on his daughter's first communion dress; the sermon from The Field where the priest (Sean McGinley, very unsympathetic) lambastes the locals for hiding a murderer; a similar scene from On the Waterfront, where the priest (Karl Malden, very sympathetic) encourages the dockers to stand up to the mob and reveal who killed one of their members; the few scenes from Sister Act were enjoyed, especially the scene in Church where the new choir gets its first outing - corny I know; I felt I had to give an example of a Biblical epic (can't stand 'em) so I showed the parting of the waters from The Ten Commandments (great skit on that in the soup parting from Bruce Almighty). The students were attentive, made some very interesting points in discussions between clips and laughed at the more subtle humorous moments (I've had classes that have sat stony faced watching Fawlty Towers (English class!). Next week we're doing films on the life of Jesus.

Finally saw Walk the Line last night - the Johnny Cash biopic. More could have been made of the importance of religion in his life, but there were some nice moments - his brother Jack getting familiar with scripture to get ready for life as a preacher while Johnny listened to country music on the radio. There's a funny incident when Johnny sings a gospel song for a record producer who finds it too ordinary and unconvincing - Cash misinterprets this as the producer thinking he, Cash, doesn't believe in God! It's clear all along that both Cash and future wife June Cater were inspired by gospel songs from an early age, and when she gets him to leave behind the drink and pills it is suggested by a Church visit that religion has a part to play in this turn around. But Cash is shown warts and all, and his cheating on first wife Vivienne is particularly painful. The film well deserves all the accolades it got, especially tghose for the two performances at the heart of it - from Reese Witherspoon and Joacquin Phoenix.

The Da Vinci Code film is out today - shown in Cannes and previewed in Ireland. First indications are not so good, it seems the awful image the book created for the Catholic Church has not been softened. It's hard to get time to follow the controversy but I managed to write about some of it for this week's Irish Catholic column (out on Thursday). Last Monday in school a speaker from Hope Ireland (who have set up the excellent website gave a presentation to the Transition Year students (the Powerpoint slides, with notes, are available free to download on that website). I gave up 2 free classes to hear it! The presentation was excellent and the speaker very knowledgeable (there's a section of the website to request a speaker).
It was a tough audience, lots of awkward questions and comments, but he handled it well. Just to show the prejudices out there - one student accused the Church of flexing its censorial muscles! But this group is not calling for boycotts or protest campaigns - the approach is rational and informative. In fact the speaker assumed that many would be going to see the film. A handful had read the book, some were obviously influenced, while some couldn't remember much about it! The hour we gave to it was probably too short - a double period would be needed, especially if the students are responsive, as mine were. Personally I had a qualm - would all this attention give the film more attention, publicity and even credibility? Probably it will be getting all this anyway, so responding to it to clarify all the inaccuracies is probably a sensible way to approach it.
By September it will probably be out of the cinemas, so the next wave of publicity for the film will be when it comes out on DVD, presumably near Christmas. When the students ask, I say I'll hardly go to see the film as I wouldn't be keen to support something that was so opposed to my faith. Maybe I'd have liked the speaker to take a similar line, though he certainly didn't go anywhere near recommending the film.
Also on Monday we had a visitor from the Dublin Diocesan advisors who came to present certificates of achievements to the TY students - some of the work involved working on the religion and the arts theme and the students displayed their wares. I'd certainly recommend taking up this offer of certs from the Diocese. It's nice to be encouraged in the work.