Decent Films Blog

Into the Desert: Lent and Film

Posted Feb 16th 2010, 12:58 PM

The traditional forty days of Lent, Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II have reminded us, recall our Lord’s forty days of fasting in the desert. In Lent we are invited to join Christ in the desert, to recapitulate Israel’s forty years of wilderness wandering.

Lent is a penitential season, but also an invitation to a closer intimacy with God. The Pentateuch presents the forty years of wilderness wandering as a punishment for unbelief, but the prophets offer a startling complementary vision of the desert as a privileged time of intimacy between God and Israel, a romantic season in which God wooed Israel as his bride (Jeremiah 2:2, Hosea 2:16).

The two aspects are inseparable; the time of privileged closeness to God must also be a penitential experience of wilderness wandering. Pope Benedict has recently reminded us of the three specific practices the Church proposes especially during Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

All three are important and even inseparable; fasting can’t be abstracted from prayer, nor prayer from active charity for one’s neighbor in need. That said, in his address above Pope Benedict focuses on almsgiving in particular. I’ve written in the past about fasting (see A Short Primer on Fasting; More on Fasting … More), a discipline sadly neglected in the Christian West.

In my second post above I ventured with trepidation to lament that the Latin Church’s current discipline on fasting and abstinence seems mere token ascesis. I was gratified by the confirming comment of canon law professor Ed Peters, who opined that the current law of fast “does not even get to the level of token: it is purely legalistic. And I think THAT breeds contempt for law.”

As a point of contrast, our Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brethren observe regimen that includes (but is not limited to) completely eschewing meat and all animal products (eggs, dairy, etc.) throughout all of Lent. I have to admit that strikes me as dauntingly severe, but my hat’s off to them. Of course, many Catholics go far beyond the official requirements, but many others don’t, and I’m saddened that the bar is set so low.

A few words about film and media.

Many Catholics observe Lent with a discipline of withdrawal, in whole or in part, from mass communications media: movies, television, Internet, radio, music, newspapers. This is an admirable discipline, and one I recommend.

Short of withdrawal, I recommend limiting and altering one’s media use in keeping with the spirit of the season. For example, if you typically have, say, U2 or Taylor Swift CDs in your car, or if you listen to talk radio, try exchanging your usual listening for some Gregorian chant. (If you usually listen to chant, try holy silence, or maybe CDs of the Bible or something.)

My work doesn’t permit me not to watch movies at all. I could try to cut back to the bare minimum of movies necessary to do my job, but I find it helpful to make a practice of spiritual viewing during Lent, just as many make a practice of spiritual reading.

For those inclined to consider this practice, here are six suggestions for the six weeks of Lent, with links to reviews at Decent Films.

Week 1: Into Great Silence. My #1 “into the desert” film. If you can set aside two and a half hours to spend with the Carthusian monks of the Grand Chartreuse, ideally in one sitting, definitely do so. (Besides the review above, see also my interview with the director.)

Week 2: The Face: Jesus in Art. The riches of Christian art, above all the art of Christ, are a spiritual treasure trove. This documentary is a treasure map.

Week 3: Diary of a Country Priest. Bresson’s adaptation of Georges Bernanos’s novel is a transcendent portrait of a dark night of the soul.

Week 4: The Flowers of St. Francis: Laetare Sunday, with its rose vestments, anticipates the joy of Easter. Rossellini’s cinematic homage to Franciscan “perfect joy” is a beautiful film for this week.

Week 5: The Passion of Joan of Arc. No film makes a better preparation for Holy Week and Good Friday than Dreyer’s silent masterpiece of Joan’s via dolorosa.

Holy Week: The Miracle Maker. My favorite Easter film, The Miracle Maker the only Jesus film I have seen that does justice to the resurrection accounts. Ideal for family viewing.

Not the most imaginative suggestions, I admit, but a good place to start.

Tags: Seasonal Viewing

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Mail: Re: Into the Desert: Lent and Film

Would you consider supplementing an English-only list? I love the idea of a Lenten movie night, but I have several children under reading age, and my husband just dislikes reading his movies. LOL. I will have to carve out time on my own during the week to watch the intriguing foreign films you have included.

Good question. I admit it didn’t occur to me as I drew up my list that four of the six films require reading dialogue! (Two of the films, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Into Great Silence, have intertitles even in their native languages; the former is a silent film, and the latter is dialogue-free for long stretches, though it does have some sung Latin and spoken French.)

In general, I’m not very sympathetic to adults who don’t like subtitles — and even less so during Lent, when we should all be willing to compromise our preferred comforts and take on hardships. Tell your husband he should watch the subtitled movies with you as a Lenten sacrifice! Certainly he should see these films at some point in his life.

Pre-reading kids, though, that’s a different matter.

For what it’s worth, some context: The problem isn’t my preference for foreign films, it’s simply that English-speaking cinema and Hollywood in particular hasn’t produced much in the way of genuinely spiritual fare compared to the rest of the world. As I’ve pointed out before, Hollywood is well represented in the 1995 Vatican film list under the categories of Values and Art, but sadly underrepresented in the Religion category.

Adding family friendliness as a criterion narrows it further. The Vatican film list’s Religion category includes two British films (both scripted by Robert Bolt), A Man for All Seasons and The Mission, that are the right language, but both are too sophisticated for young viewers, and The Mission has some mature content. You might consider either of those films for viewing with your husband — both are appropriate Lenten fare — but it doesn’t help with the kids.

For more family-friendly fare, you might consider, say, The Song of Bernadette or The Reluctant Saint. Perhaps neither is quite as Lenten in spirit as A Man for All Seasons or The Mission, but they’re lovely films and among Hollywood’s best religiously themed fare.

Going back to my original list, The Miracle Maker is eminently appropriate family fare, and children might benefit from watching at least part of The Face: Jesus in Art (note that there is some gruesome Passion art in the second half). Also, some people might think I’m crazy, but I’ve watched Into Great Silence, or long bits of it, with pre-reading children. So much of it is dialog-free that language hardly matters (and what dialog there is one can easily read aloud for their benefit). They don’t necessarily sit raptly through the whole thing, but they may watch a good bit of it and sort of walk in and out while you have it on. It’s worth doing even if they don’t watch the whole thing.

Besides The Miracle Maker, there are other Jesus films you might consider. Some years during Holy Week my kids and I have watched the second half of The Gospel of John, comprising the Johannine Passion narrative. (It works quite well on its own, without the first half.) We’ve also watched bits of “Jesus of Nazareth” and The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Finally, I’m a great fan of watching silent movies with children (you can comment freely on the action and explain things to kids without worrying about missing dialogue). A great Jesus film to watch with even the youngest kids is The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, a very early silent film with no dialog at all. You might also consider Cecil B. DeMille’s silent The King of Kings (not to be confused with the similarly named 1961 film).

Hope that helps. Have a blessed Lent!

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Blog: More on Lenten Viewing

My Lenten viewing suggestions prompted a reader to ask: “Would you consider supplementing an English-only list? I love the idea of a Lenten movie night, but I have several children under reading age, and my husband just dislikes reading his movies. LOL. I will have to carve out time on my own during the week to watch the intriguing foreign films you have included.”

Continue reading this post >

Blog: Spotlight: Into the Desert: Lent and Film

Spotlighted for your Lenten benefit: my 2011 blog post “Into the Desert: Lent and Film,” including some general thoughts on fasting and ascesis and some recommendations for appropriate Lenten viewing. Note that among the last year’s crop of films are a number that would make excellent Lenten viewing.

Continue reading this post >

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