Arts and Culture

Films for Recreation and Reflection

As I was re-reading Pope Francis’ new book, “The Name of God Is Mercy,” which recently was No. 2 on The New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list, I was also thinking about the film “Calvary.” It is the first film that I am showing in the 51st Friday Film Festival, which will begin in two weeks on March 18. The Holy Father’s book contains profound insights into mercy, and I think “Calvary” cinematically depicts mercy beautifully.

Excellent Course on Film

Since 1992, the festival has presented over 280 films. When I first started the festival my goal was to present – at a reasonable price – classic or near-classic films that would be both entertaining and thought provoking. I suspect that there is no festival in the country that has lasted as long, and also consistently shown the quality of films that we have presented. Anyone who has attended the films regularly has received the equivalent of an excellent course on film. By screening the films and offering brief comments about them, I have grown immensely in my understanding and appreciation of film.

I think “Calvary,” which came out about two years ago, is a film that every Catholic should see. By writing about the first scene in the film, I don’t think I will ruin the film for readers of this column, but I hope to whet readers’ appetites so that they wish to see the film.

In the first scene, a priest is hearing confessions. We cannot see the penitent, who says something like the following to the priest: “When I was a small boy, I was sexually abused by a priest. That priest is dead now, so there is nothing that I can do to him to get even. However, you are a good priest. If I kill you, this will publicize the problem of priests abusing children. So next Sunday, I am going to kill you.” The next seven days – the remainder of the film – are the priest’s “calvary.”

Reflecting on “Calvary,” I am recalling some terrific films that are centered around the experience of the confessional, or on a priest confronting the sins of someone. I think that dramatists are fascinated by the confessional.

Built into the experience of hearing confessions is potentially great drama. One film that comes to mind is Alfred Hitchcock’s “I Confess,” starring Montgomery Clift. In the film, a priest hears the confession of a murderer and as the film develops, the evidence seems to point toward the priest as the killer. Of course because of the seal of the confessional, the priest can say nothing about the confession of the murderer.

‘Romero’ Confessional Scene

A great confessional scene is in the film “Romero.” A priest comes to Archbishop Oscar Romero and confesses that for some time he had been critical of the archbishop for not being more involved with the poor and that now he realizes how wrong he has been. Just before leaving the confessional, the priest says “Thank you, Father.” Archbishop Romero delays a moment and after the priest has left says, “Thank you, Father.”

Scenes in which a priest confronts a sinner outside the confessional, but in which he helps the sinner face his or her sinfulness, are in Robert Bresson’s great film based on George Bernanos’ marvelous novel of the same name, “The Diary of a Country Priest,” and “Angels with Dirty Faces,” starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien.

In the former film, which many consider the finest religious film ever made, a young priest tells a mother, who has despaired because of the death of her young son, that God is Love and that if she persists in her sin, she will be cutting herself off from her son for eternity. In both the novel and the film, the scene is presented powerfully.

Unlikely Friends

In the latter film, Cagney and O’Brien have been friends since childhood. Cagney has grown up to be a gangster, O’Brien a priest. The night on which Cagney is going to the electric chair for murder, O’Brien visits him on death row. Cagney is not afraid to die, but O’Brien begs him to act as though he is afraid so that the boys who look up to him as a tough guy and a role model will hate his memory because he will have seemed to have died a coward.

Cagney refuses. He says to O’Brien, “What do you want from me?”

O’Brien says, “What I have always wanted. Straighten yourself out with God.”

Cagney says, “No!”

However, as he approaches the chair, Cagney begins to scream and cry and beg for mercy. It is a great scene and a powerful depiction of conversion at the last moment of someone’s life.

I wonder how the audience will react to the films in this series.

Share this article with a friend.