Of God and Men – a witness to love

Not long after midnight on March 27, 1996 seven Trappist monks were kidnapped from the monastery of Our Lady of Atlas in Tibhirine, Algeria. After two months in captivity, they were beheaded; their bodies were never found. The monastery was begun in 1934 and located 272 miles south east of the capital of Algiers. The murders of these priests counted among the estimated 150,00-200,000 Algerian people who were killed during the Algerian Civil War 1991 – 2001, among them nuns, priests, and at least one bishop. The conflict ended with government victory over two Islamic militaristic groups though armed incidents continue even today.

The film, by the prolific French filmmaker Xavier Beauvois, captures the monks’ simple life of work and prayer. Of Gods and Men won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. It reminded me of Philip Groning’s fascinating 2005 film Into Great Silence about life in the Grande Chartreuse, the main house of the Carthusian Order. Yet in many ways Of Gods and Men is reminiscent of the style of the famous Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889 – 1968), especially in his 1955 film Ordet. Dreyer filmed the stark, unadorned fundamentalist Protestant lifestyle of a farming family in a crisis of faith and the possibility of miracles.

The superior, Fr. Christian (Lambert Wilson), even helps people with government paperwork. An elderly monk is a doctor and cares for the people who come to him. The others farm the rough terrain and tend beehives. The people, especially the women and children, genuinely care for the monks. The community will have its crisis and their legacy of faith and charity in utter simplicity is the miracle.

One of the most meaningful and memorable scenes in the film is when the brothers take Christian to task for not including the community in his decision that they will not leave the country or accept government protection. They are also afraid because Christian refused to help guerillas that wanted a doctor and medicine for their injured. For anyone considering religious life, this community meeting is portrayed authentically. It reflects the inner conflicts and tensions of power, the fraternity and love that unites a religious community, and the humility that is essential for wisdom to emerge.

It turns out that some do wish to leave, a few at a time, while others want to stay. Ultimately, they all remain. As Christian explains to Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), who is strongly inclined to depart: they made their decision to stay when they made their vows to Christ. Death, he implies, is a matter of when and with what interior disposition we embrace it, not geography.

The chapel centers the film and the Divine Office provides a rhythmic framework for the narrative. The soundtrack is haunting and the monk’s chant other-worldly yet plain.

A mystical scene towards the end, filled with all the grace and transcendence that cinema can offer, signals that these monks, gathered as a community, are prepared for whatever their love for God will ask of them. It is a promise of a celestial banquet. Their meals are always taken in silence, but here the monks share wine in blithe silence as they listen and move to the dramatic theme of Swan Lake. This is their anointing, joy and music conferring strength when fear hovers just below the surface. For the brothers are innocent white swans that will die for the One they love and God’s poor, with whom they have shared faith through presence and good works. They have become who they say they are.

This two-hour film is without violence but taunt with the expectation of what is to come. The acting is fine, and we feel as if we know these ordinary men who have followed a rare call to holiness is the desert of monastic life in a hostile, far away country.

Of Gods and Men opens February 25 and is in French and Arabic with English subtitles.

My Oscar picks and hopes: A few good men lead the pack

2010 was not a particularly great year for mainstream film.

Stories about men dominated the films up for Oscars and it is my guess that these will sweep the awards – and deservedly so in terms of art.  Films are often in production for years so there is no real way to balance releases though we know that stories about men dominate – male experiences and points of view (wait until you see the upcoming “The Adjustment Bureau” with Matt Damon or check out the 2009 documentary “Oh My God”.)

This year’s slate of nominees is the least racially diverse as well in terms of actors, filmmakers, and stories.  Will it always be the (usually white) male and point of view that represents the universal human experience through U.S. cinema?

The ten nominees for Best Picture include most of the best movies, but they left off  Conviction and Get Low where Robert Duvall gives the performance of a lifetime. Two documentaries, Countdown to Zero about the continuing nuclear threat and Waiting for Superman about the crisis in public education in the United States, deserved nominations as well.

I was able to see all the films nominated in key categories listed here except for seven.

It seems opportune to take this opportunity to protest that the Academy ignored the Millennium trilogy from Sweden, based on the best-selling novels by Stieg Larrson, beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Certainly difficult to watch (especially the first film), but when the final film of the trilogy ended, I felt sad because I would miss this flawed group of characters and their good hearts that drove them. Now a U.S. version is in the works, with “Dragon Tattoo” due out this year. I don’t think even director David Fincher (“The Social Network”) and with Daniel Craig, the new James Bond, in the lead, can top the originals.  We tend to ruin great original films from other countries, or just do a so-so job. Case in point “Mostly Martha”, a German film was remade as “No Reservations.” So-so.

Here’s my take on who I hope will take home the Oscar this year:

Best Film – “The King’s Speech” stands out in the only category that allows ten nominations. It is the story of King George VI (Colin Firth) and the unconventional speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) who helps the future king overcome his stutter.  I hope and think it will win, though I could live with “The Social Network”, “127 Hours”, “Winter’s Bone” or “True Grit” taking home the Oscar. “The Kids are All Right”, deals with the issues of a lesbian couple raising children and the complications that arise when the find their sperm donor father. While it has social and cultural relevance as family is being continually redefined, I don’t think the film rises to a level of an Oscar.  This film, along with “The Fighter” and “Black Swan” stand out more for individual performances that the story they seek to tell.

Best Actor –  This is between Colin Firth, whom I think will win and should, in “The Kings Speech”, Jesse Eisenberg in “The Social Network” and James Franco in “127 Hours.”  This is where Robert Duval deserved notice because his performance soared over that of Jeff Bridges “True Grit” and Javier Bardem in “Biutiful.”  I think Colin Firth will win.

Best Actress –  A tough category because there just were not enough films with great roles for leading women this year. Why Hailee Steinfeld, almost the only female actor in “True Grit” wasn’t nominated here, I have no idea. She deserved it. Natalie Portman as the darkly driven ballerina in “Black Swan” seems favored to win, or even Annette Benning in “The Kids are All Right.” I think Jennifer Lawrence in   Winter’s Bone would be an awesome upset. She plays a daughter who stands up for her family when her drug-dealing father disappears in a film that too few people saw.

Best Supporting Actor – This is between Geoffrey Rush as the speech therapist in “The Kings Speech” and Christian Bale as the flawed half brother to a future boxing champion in “The Fighter.” It has to be Christian Bale. As I was leaving the theater everyone was talking about Christian Bale’s performance; we knew we had witnessed something extraordinary, a moment when you understand that acting is a transcendent art.

Best Supporting Actress – Kudos to all those nominated but no one, even veteran actresses, is even close to Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit. She was only thirteen when she made the film. The Coen brothers who directed, show us once again, that they are geniuses.

Best Documentary – In a category with all fine films, I hope The Inside Job gets it because we, as a people, need this uncompromising film to teach us financial ethics and morals. If we do not understand the history and cause of the financial crash of 2008 we are doomed to repeat it. . If “Exit through the Gift Shop” wins, however, I would be okay with it. This off-beat story of guerilla art and artists and a quirky man who learned to manipulate the creation of popular culture to make millions by turning nothing into something, is worth watching.  Highly entertaining and just a little bit weird. Restrepo, however, is the film my heart would like to see win.

Best Director – All the directors nominated are deserving, but I am going with David Fincher for “The Social Network.”

Best Writing for Adapted Screenplay – If it were possible to give all the nominees an Oscar, I would say, “Do it!”.  However,  The Social Network gets my vote.

Best Writing for Original Screenplay – My choice and hope is David Seidler for “The King’s Speech”.

Best Animated Feature – Toy Story 3 will probably win, but my favorite is “How to Train Your Dragon” How to Train Your Dragon. It is original, entertaining, and is all about empathy as the foundation for understanding others and making peace.

Best Cinematography – “True Grit” or “127 Hours”? “127 Hours” had to have been the most challenging to film and “True Grit” fused all the elements of the film beautifully through the filming. I will be happy with either one, though don’t count out “The King’s Speech”.

(Funny, but I couldn't find any posters with Alice on them!)

Best Art Direction – This goes to  Alice in Wonderland It may have been short on story but wonderful artistry.

Best Visual Effects –  Tough category filled with brilliant efforts. The stories are fantasy or science fiction, so creativity is on overdrive. But I am going with “Alice in Wonderland” just because it was so much fun and the others have all been done before.

Best Music for Original Score – “The Social Network” did it for me.

Best Original Song – “If I Rise” from “127 Hours” is very moving, but I have a hunch “We Belong Together” from “Toy Story 3” will bring it home.

Waiting for Superman – DVD release today

I am reposting my review … the DVD came out today. REally too bad it was not nominated for an Oscar. One of the most important films of the year – the decade.

‘Waiting for Superman’

by Sr. Rose Pacatte

Davis Guggenheim got the idea for Waiting for “Superman” one day as he drove his kids to an expensive private school. He passed a downtrodden public school and wondered about kids who didn’t have a choice. The film’s concept was formulated in early 2008 and Waiting for “Superman” screened at the Sundance Film Festival last January where it won The Audience Award.

The film’s title comes from’ a comment made by Geoffrey Canada, founder and CEO of Harlem’s Children Zone, a consortium of three charter schools and other educational entities, for poor families. “One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me ‘Superman’ did not exist. ‘Cause even in the depths of the ghetto you just thought he was coming…. She thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.”

The film follows five children as they seek an authentic American public education. Daisy is a fifth-grader from Los Angeles; Francisco, a Bronx first-grader; Anthony, a fifth grader from Washington D.C.; Emily, is an eighth-grader in Silicon Valley and, unlike the others, from a economically sound family, and Bianca, is a kindergartner from Harlem. These children are determined, as are their parents. The kids all end up in actual lotteries for places in schools that have chosen children over everyone else. The film affirms parents of every social and economic class and region who work hard to prepare their children for school and support them, as well as teachers who do care. But the few stories about teachers who do not, are chilling.

I will tell you now that I was in tears at the end, happy for a few, but desperately sad for the many. I went to public school until my junior year in high school; I know what it was like to be “tracked.” We kids figured out that because my brother and I were in the same grade he got all advanced classes because he must have tested higher. I instead was in large, experimental 120-student “team classes” where I earned straight A’s on my history tests and papers and A-‘s in English. When my first quarter report card gave me a B+ in history with a comment that I had earned the highest mark in the class, I questioned it and was told that they graded “on the curve”. Without even asking my parents first, I marched out of class to the school office and demanded to be changed to advanced classes. The counselor said I could not do the work. I said, “Try me.” I was in 8th grade and made the National Honor Society the next year. That was public education in California in 1964 and, truth to tell, I remember all my teachers well and liked all of them. I was so lucky. It wasn’t the teachers; it was the system. The film’s premise is that today it’s pure chance for a child to get a good education.

Besides Geoffrey Canada, Waiting for “Superman” profiles Michelle Rhee, education reformer and School Chancellor of Washington, D.C., who took on the NEA for its role in maintaining the status quo by refusing to reframe contracts and teacher tenure. To be fair, the film also looks at restrictions placed on creative teachers by standardized testing and teaching-to-the-test.

Production notes given to film critics state that “Eight years into No Child Left Behind, the U.S. has four years left to reach the landmark education act’s goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading. Most states currently hover around 20 or 30 percent proficiency. Seventy perecent of 8th graders in the U.S. cannot read at grade level.”

As other workers in the early 20th century, public school teachers unionized because they were paid a pittance and had no benefits or rights. Now, however, the teacher unions function like any of those in the AFL-CIO (the NEA is an AFL-CIO union and the AFT is a partner) Teaching children is considered the same as a forty-hour a week job on the assembly line, office or in the restaurant industry. The definition of a teacher and of education needs to change because the current system is not working. Education has to be about students first, not teachers and school administrators and their benefits.

Rhee sums this up best when after the teacher union refused to vote on her proposal to remove automatic tenure from contracts and pay six-figure incomes to teachers who deliver, she said, “There’s this unbelievable willingness to turn a blind eye to the injustices that are happening to kids every single day in our schools in the name of harmony amongst adults.”

Is there anything we can do? The film tells viewers to celebrate teachers, ensure world class standards, invest in great schools (not great prisons), and raise literacy rates. Families and communities must let their voices be heard.

Davis Guggenheim has delivered another inconvenient truth, but no one can argue with the facts that this film illustrates so clearly. “Our system is broken, and it feels impossible to fix, but it can’t wait.”

Don’t miss this one, even if it seems a bit long at two hours. It’s classy and artfully produced. Stay through the credits and listen to the lyrics of the song “Shine” by six-time Grammy winner John Legend. Public education is everyone’s business. I usually advise responding, rather than reacting, to films. This film, produced under the banner of Paramount, Participant Media and Walden Media, calls for both. Check your local drop out rates and this will be proof enough.

Waiting for “Superman” releases on DVD Tuesday, February 15.  For more information visit www.waitingforsuperman.com.