I am David

After the Nazi horrors of World War II came the Communist oppression of Eastern European countries. People who disagreed with the regimes were sent to prison/labor camps: the Gulag. We know little about these years of the Cold War (1946 – 1989) and the situations that led to so much suffering and death. With I am David we are given insight into the results of fascism and totalitarianism, as well as the consequences of hope, courage, human dignity and love.

 

In Bulgaria a family is arrested and a very young boy named David (Ben Tibber) is taken away from his mother. He grows up alone, his only friend an educated man by the name of Johannes (Jim Caviezel). Johannes is a mentor to David and teaches him that there are good people beyond the camp and that David, though skeptical, must hope.

 

There is some trouble in the camp in 1952 and the now 12-year old David is told that he must escape and that he will find a sack with provisions buried just beyond the camp’s fence. He is given a letter, sealed, and told he must bring it to Denmark and give it to the authorities there. David makes a run for it and escapes. He makes it to a Greek port, takes a ship for Italy and walks town by town up the Italian peninsula. Along the way he is helped by various people, and scared off by some who call the police because he is a boy traveling alone.

 

Near the Swiss border he meets a woman painting pictures near a lake. She is Sophie (Joan Plowright). She asks David if she can paint him because she is fascinated by his eyes that are too old for a child so young. Sophie is attracted to David because he reminds her of someone in her own life. It is through Sophie’s kindness that the David’s odyssey continues to its climax.

 

I am David is based on the 1963 award-winning novel by Anne Holm, North to Freedom. The film was written and directed by Paul Feig who created the critically acclaimed television series Freaks and Geeks (1999 – 2000). Feig obviously has insight into adolescence as well as the ability to knit a story together in clever ways that are not revealed until the appointed time. None of the characters speak English as their native tongue. Just how Mr. Feig overcomes this challenge without resorting to subtitles often adds a dimension of humor to balance the drama.

Jim Caviezel has a relatively small role but it is intricate to the plot. He is joined by another The Passion of the Christ star, Hristo Shopov (Pontius Pilate), whose character is much more pivotal.

To call a film “inspirational” is usually a death sentence to its success, but I can’t help it here. The story is told in ways that do not manipulate the emotions, though you may shed a tear here and there. I am David is a journey and a mystery. See if you can solve it before the last leg of David’s heroic journey. Bet you can’t.

Vera Drake

 

-spoiler-

 

Vera Drake, a film by Mike Leigh, is not easy to write about for several reasons. But let this not diminish the fact that Vera Drake is an outstanding example of cinema-craft.

 

It is London in the early 1950’s. Vera (Imelda Staunton) is a working class wife who lives with her husband, George (Richard Graham), and two grown children. Vera goes about working and helping her house-bound mother and others; she is terminally cheerful, busy and kindly, without a hint of selfishness. George is a car mechanic who works for his brother. Their son is a tailor and the daughter also works outside their dark, but clean, tiny post-war flat. They seem a contented family and George and Vera are devoted to each other in a restrained, civilized kind of way.

 

Vera has a childhood friend, Lily (Ruth Sheen) who meets with her regularly at a café and tells her about girls and women who need help. At the arranged times, Vera visits these women and gives them a treatment that induces an abortion. She never checks up on them because she is so sure of her method. Lily, however, takes money for the abortions but Vera does not know this. She quietly helps these girls because they are in trouble, not for money.

 

Meanwhile, a girl named Susan (Sally Hawkins), the daughter of a wealthy family where Vera works as a house cleaner, is raped. Susan goes to a friend who puts her in touch with a doctor. He refers her to a psychiatrist who attests to her fragile psychological state. The doctor then, for a substantial fee, procures an abortion for Susan in a sanitary clinic.

 

The movie is very atmospheric, and London seems like a depressing place to live, the only oasis is the close-knit family.

 

Keys figure strongly in the film, as do doors and stairways. Intriguing symbolism; Vera is always opening and closing doors.

 

Just before Christmas Lily arranges for Vera to help another young girl. The girl’s mother recognizes Vera; they worked together before the war. The girl becomes very ill the next day and ends up in the hospital. The attempted abortion is reported to the police and Vera is arrested during Christmas dinner. Her family had no idea about Vera’s “helping young girls in trouble.” The lead detective asks Vera if she herself had had an abortion. Though the response is not clear because of Vera’s extreme state of distress, it would seem so. We also find out that Vera never knew who her father was.

 

Vera is sentenced in an all-male court (except for the female police officers who treat her kindly) to 2 ½ years for carrying out a medical procedure without a license, a law from 1861.

 

She meets two other women like herself in prison; they are already serving a second term.

 

_________________

 

I really had to think a lot about this film. It disturbed me, of course, because I believe in life from conception to natural death. To even think of taking the life of anyone, especially a child, goes against everything in me.

 

After the film I visited the ladies’ room and three other women came in, as well, all older than me. We started talking about the film and they had such insight: the rich could have legal abortions and the doctors who can finagle their way around the laws, get away with it; the woman, who assisted the poor, was put in jail; the only young woman who seemed to agonize over the abortion was from Africa.

 

It seemed to me, however, that the film is not about Vera performing abortions, nor is it in favor of abortion. The film seemed to be saying to me that there is a huge social context to be considered if we are to support pregnant women and to prevent abortion of any kind: families and society have to provide viable alternatives for women. For example, from my perspective as a human being and as a Catholic, natural family planning must be taught from the time adolescents can understand the concept; social programs must be in place to support women who are raped or who become pregnant without means and support; our culture’s attitude must change, through education and Christian practice, toward women who become pregnant outside of marriage, and so on and so forth. The dignity of the human person, endowed with freedom and responsibility, is the first principle of divine and social justice. From this dignity all else flows.

 

Respect and love for life begins in homes that understand and live life as a value and that is tolerant and accepting of all human beings, without distinction.

 

This is not a film about the need for a pro-abortion or an anti-abortion law. Rather it is a key to help us unlock our hearts. It is about the need to be truly human and Christian (as the Second Vatican Council teaches in the document Gaudium et spes, these words mean the same thing) in our culture, attitudes, social programs, etc. so that abortion is not the only alternative a woman thinks she has to survive in this world. A law will not stop abortion, but generous human kindness and the living the Beatitudes will. Some will say we need both – and this is the subject of the kind of conversation that needs to take place among people who care for human beings wherever we are, or whomever we are.

 

 Vera Drake is a movie, hopefully, that will launch a million conversations.

 

National Treasure

National Treasure is a very entertaining film about a family, with links to America’s Founding Fathers, that generation after generation follows historical clues to a treasure hidden – buried by the Freemasons in the early years following the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776) somewhere in the United States.

 

Nicholas Cage is Ben (Franklin) Gates (re: Bill Gates? Riches?)and his whole life’s mission is to find the treasure. His partner in discovering the last clue on a ship sunk in the Arctic is Ian Howe (reference to the British General Howe?) played by Sean Bean. Is this a conspiracy theory they are chasing, historical fact or what? They find the clue and realize it is hidden on the back of the Declaration of Independence in the Library of Congress.  But Ian double-crosses Ben and the race is on: who will get the Declaration first to discover the next clue?

 

The film goes on and on, tit for tat, along the Bos-Wash corridor to its culmination. It is in turn tense and funny, and Ben gets the girl.

 

Some interesting points about the film concern the way the writers link the treasure hunt to Freemasonry. While much of the history is accurate (who first came up with the idea for daylight saving time? And how many signers of the Declaration were Masons?) the link between the Knights Templar and the Masons didn’t hold up to my Encarta Encyclopedia research. Also, the story gets its origin from a message left by Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration, as if he were a Mason; if he was he was in deep trouble from the Church because the Church forbade membership in the organization for centuries. I couldn’t find any indication in my research that he actually was a Mason. This all makes for quite a yarn, though!

 

The film, while very entertaining (Nicholas Cage’s performance is right on as a kind of sweet, nerdy type with a strong penchant for patriotic adventure) also seems to be making a subtle political statement or commentary on the political reality of the United States selective messianic role in the world today. The only part of the Declaration that is quoted is:

 

“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

 

(This made me wonder why they chose this quote and if this is where our leaders get the idea that we can save the world, indeed rationalize our war-making. Are our leaders applying the Declaration of Independence to other countries? And if so, why?  And if so, was this the thinking of the Founding Fathers?

 

(Just last night I saw the premiere of HOTEL RWANDA (see my review) about the genocide there and the fact that no country went to the aid of the people. The same thing is happening in the Sudan. Where are the and the United Nations then and now? Aren’t Africans people, too?)

 

National Treasure is a fun watch, but it has a world-view; more than one. This is an excellent movie to talk about with kids. It’s more than just entertainment.

Sideways

In vino veritas is the first thing I thought of when I was watching director/writer Alexander Payne’s (About Schmidt) new film, Sideways .  Naturally, the marketing team got there first with the connection, but it is true. This is a film that uses wine as a metaphor for life. Sideways is a small film because it never goes beyond itself; it stays courageously focused on a one week journey taken by quasi-middle-aged friends Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) through central California’s vineyards.

 

Miles is a kind of loser, a divorced high school history teacher from San Diego and Jack is a cad who is about to get married. Their week together is a bachelor’s last fling for Jack . Jack, a different kind of loser, certainly gets everything he can out of the time before he is to be married.

 

Jack  is the mirror image of Miles. Miles has a sense of his dignity, morals, and an incredible knowledge and appreciation for wine. He is also indecisive and tentative. Jack is impetuous, immature, cocky, self-centered and has not an iota of insight. They meet up with a waitress, Maya (Virginia Madsen), whom Miles knows from previous visits to the area and Jack meets a single mother, Stephanie (Sandra Oh). In one exquisite conversation with Maya, while Jack is having it on with Stephanie, Miles describes himself in terms of the Pinot Noir grape, and Maya responds in kind.

 

Day by day, Miles struggles with Jack’s cavalier attitude toward women and his upcoming commitment. They end up having to escape the naked (literally) wrath of another woman’s husband because of Jack’s amoral lifestyle (and that’s putting it mildly.)

 

In the mid-1970’s I got to learn how to make wine and did so for four years – about 200 gallons a year, made of a mixture of Grenache (2/3) and Alicante (1/3) grapes. When our nuns first came to the US from Italy in 1932, they drank wine the way we drink soda. To save money, one of the sisters learned how to make the wine. She continued to make just enough for our convent for decades. When she was transferred, another sister and I got to learn how to make wine from a retired New York firefighter, who learned from his father. What a story. You wouldn’t believe where we got our oak barrels from. Anyway, from this experience I can say that the main character Miles certainly knows his wine and the winemaking process. It made me enjoy the film all the more.

 

You just have to remember that Jack is a royal jerk, and some of the situations and scenes are distasteful to say the least. The film, therefore, won’t appeal to everyone.

 

The ending for Miles is left hanging, like grapes on a vine. But as with a good crop of grapes, you can pretty much guess the outcome.

 

There is a scene in French Kiss (Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline) a film in the more PG-13 category, where Kline’s character explains a school botany project to Ryan. I like that wine metaphor very much, as well.

 

In vino veritas.