Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #19

Re: The 13th Day (2009)

I’ve never really felt compelled to write to someone about a review, but I just read your review of The 13th Day and it touched a nerve. Please understand that I am not personally attacking you, but having seen the movie last night in a packed theatre for a Catholic fundraiser and then having read your review this morning, my first thought was, “Did Steven D. Greydanus and I watch the same movie?”

My first concern is that you recommended the film for kids. My children would be terrified at many parts of this film. The scary dreams of hell, threats to the children and the overall unsettling and tense atmosphere would make it, in my opinion, frightening and uncomfortable for children. I would have to think this type of film would discourage a child from wanting to see spiritually based films.

Second, the chiaroscuro technique was promising at the beginning, but became tiresome and mind numbing over time. Good art is a combination of tension and release, contrast and uniformity, familiarity and unfamiliarity. The 13th Day inundates the senses with the chiaroscuro style, but never allows the viewer the chance to “come up for air.”

Third, the script was extremely weak. There needs to be an emotional hook that captures the attention. I tried really hard to care about The 13th Day as I watched it, and even went in with the attitude that this could be a really good spiritual experience for Lent, but nothing about the storytelling drew me in or encouraged me to want to care about it.

I felt embarrassed for the actors. Lucia was unconvincing. She seemed as if she was simply reciting words and the voice over kept the viewer from really becoming engaged in her story. My final critique is with the musical score. While the directors did have the good taste to use some legitimate classical music in the film, most of it was B-movie quality.

While I agree with you that it is a plus-4 on the moral/spiritual value, for these reasons I stated, I would not rate it an “A” for recommendability, give it 3½ stars for artistic/entertainment value, or recommend it for children.

While I don’t agree with your take on this particular film, I do ask you to please continue to provide your critiques to help us make good choices about worthwhile films for us and our children. I appreciate the good the work you do and please don’t take this as a personal attack. Rather please accept it as a compliment that your work is being read and analyzed.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Rest assured, I don’t feel attacked when readers disagree with me, even strongly! On the contrary, I appreciate it.

You are not the only thoughtful Catholic to be dissatisfied with The 13th Day, and your response to the film is in the main quite legitimate. I stand by my review, though. A few thoughts:

Families and children are very different. What scares one 10-year-old may be entirely manageable for another five-year-old. My 15-year-old has trouble with things that my six-year-old takes in stride. My nine-year-old can easily handle exploding Nazi heads and decapitated orcs, but falls to pieces if anything bad happens involving parents. For this reason, age-based ratings can never offer more than the broadest and most general guidelines. At any rate, I watched The 13th Day with my entire family, and no one had any trouble.

I can appreciate your finding the film’s stylistic rigor stifling or monotonous, but to extrapolate some such generality as “good art is a combination of tension and release, contrast and uniformity, familiarity and unfamiliarity” is useful only as a generality, not as a hard and fast rule. The artist is under no obligation to provide release or familiarity; this would not be a helpful rule to bring to much of Tarkovsky, say. Or Matthias Grünewald.

Art is not obliged to provide an “emotional hook.” Such a hook may be a necessary apparatus for some types of narratives, but there are other types of narratives. My response here is the same as my response to those critics of The Passion of the Christ who objected to the dearth of character development and dramatic structure, and to critics of The Lord of the Rings who objected to the lack of psychological depth and moral ambiguity. These are narratives that are doing something else, and doing it effectively.

Acting, too, can mean very different things in different contexts. Have you ever seen a Bresson film? The actors don’t “act” at all. They recite their lines with an absolute minimum of affect, which is what Bresson wants. Conversely, consider the exuberance of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., which some might consider garish overacting, but which TV Guide perceptively describes this way: “His daringly, beautifully florid performance is grounded less in dramatics than in dance.” I can respect someone not appreciating either or both, but that’s not a criticism.

I know someone who hates The Wizard of Oz for reasons such as Dorothy’s age making no sense (is she supposed to be seven or seventeen?). If you give the film something of the liberty of a stage musical, though, it works.

Regarding score, unfortunately this is an area where I’m less sensitive than I’d like to be. I don’t know what a more musically attuned critic might say here; I would only say that there are things one can easily forgive in a micro-budgeted picture like this, and this may be one of them.

None of this is to try to change your mind on the film, only to suggest that it may be working on a different level than you’re critiquing it. For me, The 13th Day works as an expression of the quality of the events in question as fragmentary, jewel-like childhood memories crystalized and sharpened over two decades in the mind of Sister Lucia as she sits writing her memoirs. If it doesn’t work for you, or even if you think I’m just plain wrong, that’s okay. I’m not the pope of movies. Even the pope isn’t the pope of movies. Hope that helps.

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