Monday, April 26, 2010

Close to Catholic Films

This spring’s Catholic Culture Film Series took on the same theme as its literature counterpart. We chose to focus on two films that are in many ways “close to Catholic”: Arthur Miller’s famous play turned film, The Crucible (1996), and Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2004). This time, we changed the venue from Legends to the new Andrews Auditorium in Geddes Hall which is more centrally located on campus and has nice theater-like seats for watching a feature-length film. On two consecutive Monday evenings in March, we met in Andrews, watched a film, and then gathered in the Coffee House to discuss the themes over coffee and hot hors d’oeuvres.

We started with The Crucible and the discussion was led by our Program Coordinator, Kathryn Wales, who claims it as her favorite film. While she was teaching theology at St. Joseph’s high School in the fall of 2007, she co-directed the play and talked to the actors throughout about the “Catholic” themes in the drama. “It is a brilliant, multi-faceted look at the human condition under pressure,” she said. “And it is a timeless and universal story about martyrdom.” She and the Notre Dame students in attendance mainly discussed the fact that none of the major contributors to the film—from writer to director to actor—are actually Catholic or even Christians. But this phenomenon acts as a great witness to the unity of truth, beauty, and goodness that is exemplified in the film and understood fully in the Faith. For instance, John Proctor lays down his life for the Truth and to give witness to the holiness of those executed before him and with him. He and his wife transcend the Puritanism of their time and place to discover fundamental Catholic notions of penance, forgiveness, and redemptive suffering. One student said, “I had seen the Crucible in high school and didn't particularly like the movie. I saw it as a critique on religion as such; but watching it again and discussing it afterwards made me realize that Catholicism isn't afraid of the secular world's critiques. We take a coherent stance on reality, and because of this we can critique as well as connect with the secular world, and even find merit in secular martyrdom."

Like last year, we followed an intense drama with a more quirky and light-hearted film. Big Fish is a sort of modern day fairy tale that is filled with colorful visuals that mean more than what meets the eye. Notre Dame theology graduate student, Jay Martin, gave an introduction to the film which encouraged the viewers to watch for notions of sacramental grace in the film’s images and execution of those images. There were plenty of water scenes, wedding ring shots, and more which made for a robust analysis. He also was a theology teacher at St. Joseph’s High School and used this film in his Sacraments class to great success. This time, Notre Dame students had the opportunity to benefit from Jay’s very careful and inspiring view of Big Fish. As one of them expressed, “What I found especially intriguing was the use of water in the film to signify the cleansing and purification of Baptism. From the scene with Edward and his wife in the bath tub together, to Will lowering his father into the river at the end, water symbolized a sort of liberation, much like that provided by Baptism from sin." All of the participants were happy for the opportunity to appreciate a piece of mainstream entertainment as kindling to their faith. It is our hope that they will continue to judge films, books, and the like in this way, and develop an ever more discerning eye for the “close to Catholic.”

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