About 10 years ago a lawyer friend of mine told me that he would like to learn more about movies, that he would like to deepen his appreciation of great films and be able to distinguish a masterpiece from other films. He arranged with his wife and me to have a series of “film evenings.” Everyone who was invited to my friend’s home for dinner and an evening devoted to discussing films was obliged to watch two films some time before the evening on which we gathered. I was to choose the two films.
Meeting three or four times a year, my guess is that we have viewed close to 30 movies. My friends now have the reputation of having the most popular dinner parties in their neighborhood.
The guest list for the film evenings varies but there are usually between 12 to 15 people present. Over the years the guests have represented many different professions, ranging from college presidents and lawyers, to professors and psychiatrists.
I have chosen films directed by Orson Welles, John Ford, William Wyler, Frank Capra, Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. The discussions have been lively and have illustrated what I have long believed — namely that just as there are masterpieces in the other arts such as painting, music and theatre, there are film masterpieces. The discussions that people have had at the film evenings have usually been positive toward the films that I have chosen but more important than that is that the discussions have clearly shown that people bring their entire background to a work of art. At times when I hear a person’s reaction to a film that I have chosen, I wonder if the person and I have viewed the same film.
If I tried, I suspect I could recall a number of examples of people interpreting a religious film from a completely secular viewpoint but the one which stands out in my mind is the discussion we had about Neil Jordan’s film of Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair. The novel and film are about a married woman who, believing her lover to be killed during an air raid, makes a promise to God that if her lover lives she will terminate the adulterous affair. The lover lives and the woman, believing a miracle has happened, keeps her promise and seems to become a saint. I was stunned when the discussion began to center on the psychology of the woman and neglected the religious dimension of the film.
These film evenings are on my mind at this moment because the next evening has been scheduled and the two films that I have chosen are Of Gods and Men and The Tree of Life. I think that both films are deeply religious and I am eager to see how the discussion will go.
My guess is that everyone will like Of Gods and Men, which is a very inspiring film. It tells the true story of a group of monks in Algeria who become martyrs because they will not abandon the people they feel called to serve. The monks believe that their vocation is to bear witness to God’s love among the poor even though there is a danger that they will be killed by terrorists. The English word “martyr” comes from a Greek word meaning “to bear witness.” In bearing witness to God’s love, the monks literally become martyrs.
The acting in Of Gods and Men is so good that several times while viewing the film, I thought I was seeing not actors but real monks. At least some of the actors prepared for their roles by spending time in a monastery. The director of the film stages scenes of the monks praying so well that we feel as though we are present at real prayer services. These scenes contrast strongly with the violence that typifies the life of the terrorists.
There is no way that I can summarize The Tree of Life. This may be the most demanding film that I have ever seen. No one who does not take film seriously should bother to see this film. I heard that in the lobby of one of the theatres that was showing the film there was a sign which read: “If you are going to see The Tree of Life, do not ask for your money back.” I think the film is brilliant but will anyone else at the film evening?
Because I think that film is important and that there are film masterpieces, I encourage people to form film discussion groups. Viewing and discussing films can be fun and educational. With the availability of DVDs it is now relatively easy to get almost any film.Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.