Probably for most of us there are special dates that reoccur each year that have special meaning in our lives. I think immediately of birthdays and anniversaries. Twice a year, and every year for the last 24 years, I have moderated a film festival at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston. This spring will be the 53rd festival, which will include the showing of the 300th film.
Entertain, Educate, Inspire
I received the idea of running film festivals while I was a graduate student at Marquette University in the mid-1960s. My intention in moderating the festivals has remained the same for the last 24 years: to provide excellent entertainment at a reasonable cost through the screening of films that not only entertain, but also educate, provoke thought, stimulate discussion and even inspire. The 300 films are either classics or “near classics” and anyone who has attended the film festivals regularly has received, I believe, the equivalent of a course on the meaning and mystery of movies.
Through the years, we have shown the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens, Leo McCarey, Elia Kazan, Fred Zinnemann, Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood and Howard Hawks as well as foreign films by such directors as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Robert Bresson.
After each film I make a few brief remarks and then those present have an opportunity to discuss or pose questions about the film. My impression is that everyone enjoys the evening and also seems to benefit from the event. At the beginning, the festivals drew large numbers of people. Now, between 50 and 75 people attend, but I am going to try to boost attendance this spring.
Why do I think these festivals are an important apostolate? Pope Francis, as well as his immediate predecessors, has reminded us that creation mirrors the beauty of the Creator. All creation is sacred and can be a mediator toward a relationship with God.
Great artists seem to be more sensitive to the appearance of beauty than the rest of us, and they are able to present that beauty to us through the works of art that they create. Artists, in creating works of beauty, imitate God. By experiencing beautiful works of art we can grow as persons and even become more sensitive to the presence in our lives of God, Who is Infinite Beauty. To minimize the important role that art can play in our lives would be a great mistake.
All art can be a powerful conveyor of beauty, but I think that stories have a special power to educate us, to inspire and to challenge our consciences. As stories, films can be especially influential because of their accessibility and potential power.
I could give hundreds of examples of films that can have a positive influence on a viewer, but I will limit myself to mentioning four of my favorites: Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront,” Fred Zinnemann’s “A Man for All Seasons” and Robert Benson’s “Places in the Heart.”
“By experiencing beautiful works of art, we can grow as persons and even become more sensitive to the presence in our lives of God, Who is Infinite Beauty.”
Introduce New Films, Artists
My guess is that everyone reading this column has seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” at least once. It is Capra’s masterpiece. I would show it in my philosophy and film course at St. John’s University except that I try to choose films that the students have not seen and so introduce them to new films and new artists. I cannot watch Capra’s classic without wanting to be a good friend.
With the exception of the film “Romero,” Kazan’s film – which is my favorite of the countless films that I have seen in my life – is the best American film about a priest. I cannot view the film without wanting to be a better priest. Karl Malden’s sermon in the hull of a ship is the best sermon in any American film and serves as the centerpiece and key to what the film is saying.
“A Man for All Seasons” is a perfect film. Everything in it is excellent: the camera work, the music, the scenery, the dialogue, the marvelous acting and the magnificent plot centering on the holiness of Thomas More. Whenever I hear the name “Thomas More,” I think of the actor Paul Scofield. If ever an Academy Award was bestowed on the right performer, it was on Scofield for his portrayal of More.
Some students at St. John’s judge “Places in the Heart” to be the best film in the philosophy and film course I teach. I have also found that people of high school age find the film exceptionally powerful. Whenever someone asks me to recommend a film to be shown to teenagers, Benson’s film is the one I suggest.
I am eagerly looking forward to the start of the festival.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).