Arts and Culture

There Is Nothing Like A Good Story

Octavia Spencer and Sam Worthington star in a scene from “The Shack,” part of the 55th Friday Film Festival in Douglaston this spring. (Photo: Catholic News Service/Lionsgate)

FOR THE PAST WEEK I have been thinking about the important role stories can play in our lives.

The reason that the nature and power of stories have preoccupied me is that I will once again participate in the Friday Film Festival and the adult education course on The Catholic Novel, two programs that I have been involved in every fall and spring for too many years to remember.

The festival has screened over 300 films; the Catholic novel course has covered over 150 books. Still, this spring, I am excited and enthusiastic about both programs. I think the six films in the festival are excellent and the four novels we will cover in the course are special.

I wonder how many readers of this column recall the first film in the festival, “The Lost Weekend” (1945) starring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman. The film won the Academy Award and so did Milland. I don’t think there was anything in Milland’s previous films that would suggest that he could turn in such a magnificent performance.

The film is among the few that seriously treat the problem of alcoholism. When I first saw it more than 70 years ago, I had no idea how powerful an addiction alcoholism is. My own training in the seminary concerning addictions left much to be desired. For years, I naively thought alcoholics could easily stop drinking.

Another film, “Crossfire” (1947), deals with anti-semitism. Looking over the list of classic or near classic films that we have screened, I find it interesting that I have chosen so many that deal with prejudice and bigotry. I made those choices probably because I believe in the power of a great story – either on the screen or on the page – to challenge consciences.

I also am showing “The Shack” (2017) because of the enormous popularity of the novel on which the film is based, but also because the movie is a really interesting attempt to depict God’s love for us. The first time I viewed the film I was on vacation with a doctor’s family. The doctor loved the film so much that he watched it twice in less than 24 hours.

I think “Michael Clayton” (2007), starring George Clooney and Tom Wilkinson, though demanding, is one of the best films released in the last 10 years. Wilkinson is one of the most talented contemporary film actors. He seems to be able to play any part and to play it well. The movie is a wonderful depiction of a person following his conscience and doing the right thing.

James Dean only made three films, “Giant” (1956), “East of Eden” (1955), which is a great film and which was shown in a previous festival, and “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) but he is considered an icon. I saw “Rebel Without a Cause” when it was originally released and did not think much of it. I do recall a critic saying that it was an interesting film because it captured a mood that was prevalent among many teenagers. I will be interested in what those who attend the festival think.

The final film in the festival is a delightful musical, “Cover Girl” (1944) The plot is paper thin, but the dancing and songs by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin are tops. Occasionally, the festival includes a comedy or musical just for entertainment.

The four novels that will be discussed in the Catholic novel course are exceptionally interesting. I will give the first lecture on Alice McDermott’s “The Ninth Hour,” a wonderful novel. I have invited three other teachers to cover Mary Gordon’s “There Your Heart Lies,” Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and Paula Huston’s “A Land Without Sin.”

None of the novels are exceptionally long, and the lectures are spaced in such a way that reading the books shouldn’t be a burden for anyone taking the course. There is a group of about 20 who have been taking the course each year. I am confident they will enjoy these four books. I am hoping for newcomers to attend as well, because I strongly believe good books can expand our horizons and deepen our understanding of the human mystery, and even deepen our understanding of God.

Some people might judge that a course on Catholic novels is too parochial, too narrow. I believe the exact opposite. Catholic novels deal with what is universal and what is most real.


Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of two books on Pope Francis, including “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).

Related: 55th Friday Film Festival

Spring Catholic Novel Series

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