Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Chocolat -- Including or excluding?


Director Lasse Hallström, 2000.

"Once upon a time, there was a quiet little village in the French countryside, whose people believed in Tranquilité - Tranquility. If you lived in this village, you understood what was expected of you. You knew your place in the scheme of things." Thus begins Chocolat. Set in 1959, tradition, expectations, appearances, all are an integral part of life in this charming, sleepy town. All will be challenged and changed by the end of the movie.

Against a backdrop of the beautiful landscape, two people in red capes scurry, backs bent against the wind that seems to push them forward to their destination. When they ahttp://www.geocities.com/zerogamer54/chocolat.jpgrrive, they set up shop, literally, in an empty patisserie. Single mother Vianne (Juliette Binoche) with her young daughter open not a pastry shop, but a chocolaterie, a store where she makes magical confections from Mayan recipes.

Her arrival, however, is in the middle of Lent, where abstinence is rewarded and indulgence is frowned upon. Mayor Comte Reynaud (Alfred Molina) draws the battle lines early. He will not countenance his villagers frequenting her store. Yet, as those in real relational need drop by, Vianne works a magic, mostly by listening and befriending. Her warmth is natural and she genuinely seems to care -- about people not appearances.

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2295/2262604026_afa5669b57.jpgJust when things seem to have hit rock bottom, a group of river rats, floating gypsy-like travelers, arrive. Of course the townsfolk want nothing to do with them, but Vianne offers acceptance and tolerance. She is ready to welcome them. Perhaps being an outsider, she is drawn to them. Perhaps it is Roux, the handsome Johnny Depp, who is attracted to her, and she to him.

As in other movies (An Unfinished Life, The Cider House Rules), Hallström explores facets of humanity with a character-driven story. Here he creates a warm-hearted tale that examines love, tolerance and acceptance. Against a backdrop of the simple pleasure of chocolate, indeed using chocolate as a metaphor, he contrasts religion and law with freedom and grace.

As Molina and the church are a metaphor for religion and rigid morality, so Vianne and chocolate are a metaphor for relationships and freedom. The church here is all about appearance, externals. Sensual indulgence, eating chocolate, is forbidden; sensual repression is the norm. As one character says, "Don't worry so much about not supposed to." Too much time is wasted in rule-keeping.

When Vianne helps Josephine escape an abusive marriage, and points out the wounds to the mayor, he responds, "Your husband will be made to repent for this." That is what the town and the church is all about. Repentance for them is forced, and is more for the church than for the individual. Repentance, true repentance can never be forced. It is inward, a turning away from sin. Only by a contrite heart and willing spirit can a person repent. A person can never be made to repent.

The rigid morality of the mayor is offended by the presence of a single, never-married mother. The contrast is flexible immorality, and this is on display in the immediate attraction and sexual indulgence of Vianna with Roux. This is wrong biblically, yet the film rises above this to present a deeper message of acceptance.

Vianne has a knack for going below the surface, for drawing people out to find their pain and deal with it. As she gets to know her landlady, Voizin (Judi Dench), she enables Voizin to see her grandson again. Where the rigid sensibilities of the townsfolk have driven relatives apart, Vianne's love heals their wounds and brings them back together.

http://us.movies1.yimg.com/movies.yahoo.com/images/hv/photo/movie_pix/miramax_films/chocolat/_group_photos/alfred_molina6.jpgThe beauty of Chocolat is due in large part to the accomplished cast. Binoche, an Oscar-winner for The English Patient, is cast to perfection here, and offers a role that recalls her brilliance in Kieslowski's Blue (rather than her by-the-numbers role in the 2007 Dan in Real Life). Her warmth and charm exude and she has wonderful chemistry with Depp, here using an Irish accent. Molina is believable as a buttoned-down, stodgy moralist, who is the puppet-master behind the young Catholic priest. Dench is gruff and real as an old woman estranged from her daughter, played by Carrie-Ann Moss (Trinity in The Matrix).

In a telling scene near the end, Père Henri, the young parish priest, finally frees himself from the repressive restriction of the mayor to preach his own sermon, not one handed to him. Rarely do we find a movie using a pastor's sermon to deliver its own message. Yet this is what Hallström does. And he does so effectively:

Do I want to speak of the miracle of our Lord's divine transformation? Not really, no. I don't want to talk about his divinity. I'd rather talk about his humanity. I mean, you know, how he lived his life, here on Earth. His kindness, his tolerance... Listen, here's what I think. I think that we
can't go around... measuring our goodness by what we don't do. By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think... we've got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create... and who we include.

So Chocolat is really a movie about incusivism vs exclusivism. And a beautiful and moving film it is. Though there are some questionable moments, and it veers towards too clear a black/white delineation (evil conservatism vs good liberalism), it is a reminder that life is better when shared. It is better when we enjoy it, when we include others, when we tear up our rules and our lists of "shoulds" and throw away our masks. It is time to embrace others who are different from us. It is time to do the things we can do. It is time to love, laugh, and liberate . . . ourselves and others!

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Fountain -- Quest for Eternal Life


Director: Darren Aranofsky, 2006.

The Fountain is a visually stunning but ambiguous, even sometimes confusing, fantasy that brings to mind comparisons to Stanley Kubrick's 1968 sci-fi dazzler 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both deal with deep issues of human life. Both span centuries. Both are focused on a few individuals. Both are visionary and futuristic. Both feel risky and experimental. Both are transcendent and mysterious. Both have been dismissed as weird or strange, even boring. Both are more than simple Hollywood eye candy, though a little tough to follow in places. Both are open to viewer interpretation. But both offer serious food for some deeper theological digestion.

The Fountain weaves together three stories, from the past, present and future. It never completely defines their inter-relatedness, but each has a love story of its own that is paralleled in the others. All three stories feature Hugh Jackman pursuing a relationship of sorts with Rachel Weisz. All three are linked by the tree of life. And all three are connected by a ring.

http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film2/DVDReviews30/a%20the%20fountain%20hugh%20jackman/the%20fountain%20PDVD_007.jpgThe historical storyline has Tomas, a Spanish conquistador sent on a quest by his beloved Queen Isabella to find the tree of life that brings immortality. This tree is in a Mayan temple in South America, and promises eternal life. Whether this is history or fictional fantasy from the present is unclear.

Although the movie opens with a direct quote from Genesis 3 regarding the tree of life, there is little overt reference to biblical theology or spirituality. Indeed, apart from the obvious Catholic themes from the Spanish storyline, there is more pagan religion present than Christianity. God is noticeably absent. (And since when was the garden of Eden located in South America?)

http://blogs.indiewire.com/twhalliii/the%20fountain.jpgThe present shows Tom Creo, a workaholic scientist trying to find the cure for brain cancer by experimenting with new drugs and treatments. His wife, Izzi, is dying of this disease and Tom feels the weight of impending loss as an anchor dragging him down to the abyss. His quest is to save his wife.

The third plot line is set 500 years in the future, with an astronaut, the eternal Tom, traveling through space in a spaceship that resembles a giant snow-globe. His constant companion is a dying tree. But it is the tree that has given him eternal life. He is on a quest to save the tree, and somehow be reunited to his lost wife.

http://www.etonline.com/photo/2006/11/9875/320_thefountain_hjackman_061116_warnerbrothers.jpgThrough all three stories, director Aronofsky uses light to communicate awe and hope. Just as K-Pax explored light as an active part of the plot, so The Fountain plays with bright visuals and long upward glances to the stars to portray the human quest, this search for life.

Aronofsky also uses the ring symbolically. Given to Tomas by the queen, it is his hope for love, carried close to his heart. Then there is Tom's wedding ring, a symbol of his relationship. But this gets lost, perhaps symbolizing loss of this relationship to death. In the third story, the ring is replaced by a set of rings, tattooed on his arms, commemorating the years since his wife's death. The ring, used in weddings as a symbol of the undying love between husband and wife, is used here effectively as a symbol of eternal life together ("Together we will live forever").

http://www.worstpreviews.com/images/photos/thefountain/thefountain5.gifAll three intersecting stories deal with the concept of life and death. In particular, the spotlight is on eternal life, with the shadow of death being ever-present. The innate desire for eternal life is clear in all three stories. The initial biblical reference to eating from the "tree of life" (Gen. 3:22-24) forms the metaphorical center to the film. If Tomas/Tom can find the tree and eat from it, he can live eternally. He can save his queen. And he can save his dying wife.

Biblically, the nature of humanity is such that we do desire life. We despise death. But life is not found any longer by searching for a tree in the garden of Eden. Life, eternal life, is found by discovering the life-giver himself, Jesus (John 10:10). Only in "eating" from this tree, can we experience and enjoy eternal life (John 6:53).

If The Fountain highlights the quest for life, it also presents some interesting thoughts on death. From the Mayan story, death is said to lead to the creation of life and to awe. But death is not a form of creation. Theologically, death is a separation. With several forms of death, all involve separation. There is the spiritual death that we all experience due to our sinfulness: we are separated from our maker and creator (Gen. 3:23, Rom. 6:23). There is also the physical death that separates body and soul (Matt. 10:28). This is an inescapable part of life, though one that is rarely discussed. And there is the third kind of death: eternal death or second death (Rev. 21:14-15). This is the destiny of all who die physically apart from faith in Jesus. This is a separation for eternity from the Lord himself.

At one point in The Fountain, the Grand Inquisitor says, "Death turns all to ash. And thus, death frees every soul." Death does free the soul, but only temporarily. We will be re-embodied for our future everlasting existence.

Tom, the scientist, says, "Death is a disease, it's like any other. And there's a cure. A cure -- and I will find it." You can hear his desperate plea for his wife. You can sense his drive to save her. Death itself is not a disease in the ordinary sense. Indeed, disease itself often leads to death, and both are results of the Fall documented in Genesis 3. There is a cure, but for spiritual and eternal death, not for physical death. The cure is faith in Jesus who took death into his body on the cross. Yet, life is not simply about the here and now. We can prolong it. We can enjoy it. And we should. But there is more, there is the existence beyond this one. We can only get to that through the gateway of death itself. And death does lead to awe, in the sense that we come into the presence of Jesus who is holy and awe-inspiring.

What is missing in The Fountain is any mention of sin. A biblical theology of life and death must include sin. Genesis 3 describes the original sin of Adam and Eve. Sin is now ever-present. We can see this in a world that is filled with pain. We can see this in our own souls, that are so self-focused and narrow, caring little for others. Sin is a reality (Rom. 3:23, Eph. 2:1). Sin is what brought death into this world. Sin is what made it necessary for Jesus to come here as a human, to face death for us. Apart from sin, and its universal presence, the incarnation of Jesus in a fully human yet fully divine person really makes no sense.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Monday, September 22, 2008

New Side-bar Movie Resources

I have added a few more side-bar links to the "Movie Resources" and "Movie Blogs" sections in recent days which I want to highlight here. First, there is the link to "Film Movement". Recently promoted in Jeffrey Overstreet's "Through a Screen Darkly" column for Christianity Today Movies, this is a distribution company that looks for small, independent movies that got little screen-time in the USA. They scour the world for award-winning movies in a variety of genres. In their own words, from their web-site:
Many small but deserving films get squeezed out of theaters by Hollywood blockbusters and face skyrocketing marketing costs that make it impossible to reach appreciative audiences. We created Film Movement to address this problem. Film Movement’s mission is to put its films in front of the largest possible audience. To meet this challenge Film Movement aggressively pursues all channels of film distribution including theatrical, institutional, television, retail, rental, in flight, on demand, and our first of its kind DVD of the month club subscription service.

Second, I added a link to Rotten Tomatoes, the web-site that lets you know quickly and visually what's hot and what's not, by measuring the numbers of positive and negative critical reviews.

Third, I added a couple more blogs worth reading. For those of you that know Ryan Blue, my co-teacher of the "Film and Faith" class in 2007, he has started a blog focused on elements of story -- "The Life of My Story". Also, Stanley Williams has a blog focused around "The Moral Premise" which is also the title of his book on understanding the underlying moral premise of movies and stories. This book is a helpful resource.

Finally, under the title "Christian's Approach to Hollywood Movies" you can find a 3-page article I wrote. This was published in the September edition of Christian Video magazine, an on-line only publication. Check it out. (Note: shameless self-promotions are accepted on this blog.)

For those of you crazy enough to want to be a "follower" of this blog, a new feature of blogspot, you can now click on the link at the bottom of the right side-bar.

And on a different subject, we kicked off the Fall schedule of movies at Mosaic Church on Saturday September 20th. Bella was our first showing and generated great discussion. If you are in the Portland area and want to join us, check out the schedule on the top of the right side-bar. You are always welcome. Food, film, fun, friends . . . what more can you ask for!

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Deer Hunter -- Friendships and War


The Deer Hunter
is one of my all-time favorite films. A classic, it won 5 Oscars in 1978, including best picture, best director (Michael Cimino), and best supporting actor (Christopher Walken). Set in the Vietnam War, still a sour memory in the late 70s, it is a strong, if violent, story of a group of friends and how the war impacts them and their friendship.

Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) are three steel-workers in a small Pennsylvania town who are going to Nam. On the eve of their deployment, Steven gets married to pregnant Angela. The opening act is this marriage. It plays long, even overlong, and in today's cinema would be edited significantly to get to the "action." But this long sequence sets the scene by introducing the characters and showing us them in their natural habitat. Without this we would not know them or care for them as much.

http://images4.wikia.nocookie.net/godfather/images/thumb/e/eb/Cazale.jpg/250px-Cazale.jpgAfter the wedding, the three and two other buddies, including Stan (John Cazale), go into the mountains to hunt deer. This is where we see Michael as the leader of this group. These are regular guys, who joke, swear, and do stupid guy things.

The Deer Hunter benefits from a strong cast and a strong story. Along with Walken, both De Niro and Meryl Streep are Oscar-winners. De Niro is in his prime here, having won his first Oscar for Godfather 2 in 1975 with another win to come in his next film, Raging Bull. Streep, too, shows the talent that garnered her two statuettes in 80 and 83 for Kramer vs Kramer and Sophie's Choice respectively. Further, Cazales, the weaselly brother in The Godfather trilogy, acts here in his last movie. He was dying of cancer even as he shot The Deer Hunter and died shortly after filming was completed.http://img2.timeinc.net/ew/dynamic/imgs/060608/154840__deerhunter_l.jpg

With severe editing, the plot jumps from Pennsylvania to Vietnam with no explanation of what has happened. This minimalist method of segueing into new acts, leaves some plot development unanswered but allows Cimino to move the characters without explanation.

When the three find themselves captured, they are in the hands of renegade enemy who use them and other captives for illegal gambling via Russian roulette. Though some have argued that Russian roulette was not employed by the Viet Cong, this is somewhat irrelevant to the movie's point, which is to display the effects of war on warriors and to show the depths of friendship.http://hddvd.highdefdigest.com/images/post/1/1481/original.jpeg

After the three escape, Nick eventually goes AWOL, and Steve and Michael return home. But Michael is unsettled. He feels a distance from his former steel-worker friends. He is changed. War has emotionally scarred him. And he cannot forget a promise he made to Nick to never leave him behind. Returning to Nam on the eve of the evacuation of Saigon, he searches for and finds Nick. But this is not the Nick he knew. This is Nick at night, a Nick who is a lost soul, sallow and withdrawn. He is spending his time gambling his life in big money games of Russian roulette. Even as Michael tries to get through to Nick, the flickers of recognition fade and are extinguished.
The scenes of Russian roulette are brutal and disturbing, but depict a mental torture that POWs often had to endure. Some handled them and came through tougher, though changed. Some broke down and were dehumanized. Others withdrew to find internal solace leaving an empty shell externally. As American Civil War General Sherman said, "War is hell." It cannot help but to change, even ruin, lives of those in its vice-like grip. Whether the war is just or unjust, it takes a toll on the warrior-soldiers.

http://www.mascinema.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/04/the-deer-hunter.jpgIn The Deer Hunter we see three different effects. On Michael, he becomes stronger and tougher on the outside, yet is distanced from those he knows and loves. His change is not apparent at first, but is there nonetheless. Steven is changed physically and emotionally. He cannot bear to be seen as he is now, and withdraws physically to protect his fragile ego. Nick, on the other hand, withdraws mentally and emotionally. He is a shell, who no longer cares for his own physical life. Together, these three provide a spectrum of the effects of war.

Yet, as much as this film portrays the brutal and negative impact of war, it also shows the depths of human friendship. When Michael returns to Saigon to find Nick, he pays a price. Not only does it cost him money, much of it, and time, it costs him emotionally as he puts himself back into the position of his captivity. But his love for Nick, a masculine (not gay) love between two friends, compels him to go to the edge of the abyss for Nick. Just as Jonathan, Saul's son, loved soon-to-be King David with a masculine-friendship kind of love (see 1 Samuel 18-20), and would do anything for him, so Michael demonstrated the same love. How far will we go for a friend? Are we prepared to spend all our money to rescue a friend imprisoned in some form of "captivity"? Are we willing to sacrifice all for the love of a friend? Jesus did. For you and me.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Love in the Time of Cholera -- Love and unfaithfulness


Taken from the novel of the same name by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera is a visually beautiful but sex-sodden exploration of love that spans half a century. Looking at young love, unrequited love, and elderly love, it raises three questions: 1) is there love at first sight, 2) can love remain over time if unrequited, and 3) can true love and unfaithfulness co-exist in the same heart?

Set in Columbia in the late 19th century, Javier Bardem (great in The Sea Inside, and an Oscar-winner for the cold-blooded killer in No Country for Old Men), plays Florentino Ariza, a telegraph boy with a romantic heart and warm-blooded lover's eyes. When he delivers a telegraph one day to a mule trader, he spots the beautiful daughter, Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). Florentino is smitten. He is in love with his first glance. He begins to pour out his heart to her in poetic letters, and is rewarded with her love letters in return. In a scene like that from "Romeo and Juliet" he proposes marriage and she agrees. But her father sees nothing in Florentina and relocates to put an end to this relationship.

http://thevoidmovies.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/cholera.jpgDirector Mike Newel (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Four Weddings and a Funeral) clearly portrays the reality of love at first sight in Florentino's experience. Further, he compares love-sickness with cholera, an epidemic prevalent at the time. As the disease claims so many in the city, the young Florentino appears to be a victim himself. But it is only his love-sickness, as he waits for the young Fermina to reply to his love letters. Love has taken such a hold that it affects his health. Both love and cholera lead here to physical distress.

Later, when they meet again, Fermina is a little older and more mature, and has taken on her father's characteristics. Instead of welcoming him, she pushes Florentina away. Rejected, he is crushed.

http://multimedia.heraldinteractive.com/images/abdb49f075_brat11132007.jpgCholera plays a key role in the film's development. When Fermina herself appears to have the disease, her father meets Dr Urbino (Benjamin Bratt). Urbano is the urbane and educated man he has been wanting his daughter to marry and she does. Over time, they have a family and grow old together.

At first Florentino sets his heart on remaining pure and faithful, though his love is unrequited. Yet, after an incident in which he loses his virginity, he jumps into sexual affairs with a wild abandon. Logging his conquests in his diary, this would-be Don Juan is simply using sex to medicate and dampen the pain of his lost love. His love for Fermina remains strong even as he beds anything in a skirt. He is willing to wait years (decades even), like Joseph did in his engagement to Rebekah, for his true love. Love answers the second question with an affirmative, although it begs the third question.

So, can a person remain faithful in his heart to another while commiting sexual unfaithfulness in his body? Love says yes, but is this really true love? Can we really separate the emotional from the physical? In the sermon on the mount, Jesus said "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt. 5:28). The internal thought, the lustful thought, is equated with the actual physical action. Inner life and outer life are interconnected.

But can we say we love someone if we jump into bed with someone else? Even in a latin culture where passion and emotion abound, it seems clear that this is antithetical to love. To love someone is to seek after their best interest, to care for them. How is satisfying our own sexual desires helping the person we love? As much as Florentino is a romantic South American, writing love poetry and wooing women, he is not a model for those striving to follow Jesus in authentic living and true loving.

http://www.criticsrant.com/Images/criticsrant_com/Movie_Love%20In%20The%20Time%20Of%20Cholera/2007_love_in_the_time_of_cholera_020.jpgLove in the Time of Cholera offers some thoughts on aging and love, a partnership that is often downplayed in our youth-focused culture. "I discovered to my joy, that it is love and not death that has no limits," says Florentino. Even at the end of his life, his love for Giovanna burns fiercely. In a monologue that unwittingly overflows with religious significance, he says, "Age has no reality except in the physical world. The essence of a human being is resistant to the passage of time. Our inner lives are eternal, which is to say that our spirits remain as youthful and vigorous as when we were in full bloom. Think of love as a state of grace, not the means to anything, but the alpha and omega. An end in itself." Age does not prevent him from loving the love of his youth. Love, indeed, has no limits. Love, in fact, transposes time. Whatever our physical age, we can experience eternal love, a love from the Father (John 3:16), and we can express love as we have known it from our youth.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Half Nelson -- Friendships and addictions


Half nelson is a wrestling move where an opponent forces a person to the ground by using an arm lock around the neck. In some sense it resembles a form of strangulation and is difficult to get out of without a real fight. This represents Dan Dunne's (Ryan Gosling) situation where his drug addiction is slowly strangling him.

Dunne is a middle-school history teacher in inner-city Brooklyn. A free spirit, he eschews the curriculum and creates his own material off-the-cuff. His heart-felt teaching on civil rights engages and challenges the kids but defies the principal's edicts to use the standard curriculum. He is alone.

http://www.dvdrama.com/imagescrit2/h/a/l/half_nelson_10.jpgWhen we first see Dunne, at the start of Half Nelson, he is leaning on walls or mostly hiding behind walls in the school. And he wears huge sunglasses. He has something to hide. That something is his addiction.

Dunne is also the girls' basketball coach. After a loss and all the players have gone home, Dunne smokes a crack joint and collapses to the floor. When Drey (Shareeka Epps) finds him on the flhttp://www.teignmouthfilm.org/images/Halfnelson.jpgoor, semi-incapacitated, his secret is out in the open. But Drey is also a lonely soul, being raised by an overworked single mother who is barely home because of her job. This shared secret leads to the beginnings of a friendship.

Half Nelson is a gritty, unsentimental story of addiction, loneliness and friendship. The grainy photography used for most of the film (except for the bright and clear shots in the classroom) communicates the confusion and complexity of Dunne's solitary existence. Though a little slow, the film is carried by the two leads. Gosling is a hugely talented actor (check out Lars and the Real Girl) and was nominated for an Oscar here for this powerful portrayal. And Epps, stands her ground in her scenes where the two are verbally sparring.

http://i137.photobucket.com/albums/q203/cumaswebmaster/CUMaS%20Movies/060811_mov_halfNelsonEX.jpgAs Dunne lectures his students, he is unknowingly sharing a window into his soul. "Change moves in spirals, not circles. . . We're always changing. And it's important to know that there are some changes you can't control and that there are others you can." He is changing, and it is a spiral but a downward spiral. Like many addicts, he fools himself into thinking he is control: "For the most part, I do it now to get by, but I can handle it." Drugs are a crutch for him, a weak crutch. They are not supporting but bringing him further and further down toward the abyss.

It is only as his friendship with Drey develops, inappropriate though it may be, that he begins to see his life for what it is. As their lives intersect and she faces a decision, hope and redemption surface.

http://msnbcmedia3.msn.com/j/msnbc/Components/Photos/070212/070212_half_nelson_hmed.hmedium.jpgHalf Nelson shows the destructiveness and deceitfulness of addictions. Once they have their hooks in you, they rarely let go. Like a wrestler locking you in a half-nelson, it is tough to escape. There are many types of addiction, but they all have this in common. Even when we think we are in control, when we think we have it licked, we are often deceiving ourselves. What may have started as a crutch, a way to handle the pain of life, takes over.

Sometimes loneliness is the root of the pain, sometimes it is something else. But it is hard to fight the half-nelson of addiction on our own. We need a friend, someone who can show us our true selves when we would hide behind the sunglasses or the mask.

In Half Nelson, the friendship of Drey and Dunne proves to be mutually beneficial. As she helps him to see his own problems, he can help her to see the potential consequences of bad decisions. Friendships are important. Not only do they add joy to life and bring love (Prov. 17:17), but they provide insight and counsel often needed (Prov. 27:6). We can too easily be blind to our own sins and addictions. A friend who tells us the truth, who can hold us accountable is a friend indeed! Like Dunne, we all need such a friend.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Black Book -- Espionage and Faith


Black Book is the story of Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a Dutch Jew who is trying to survive the war in September 1944. Separated from her family, who are also in hiding, Rachel is being hidden by a Christian family. When their home is destroyed by allied bombers, she has nowhere to go. Unexpectedly, a dutch resistance man offers to help her escape to liberated Europe. Going to her family friend and lawyer, she gets money and diamonds for survival. When he gives the money to her and she doesn't count it, he tells her she must trust no one. And trust/betrayal is a key theme developed by director Paul Verhoeven in this English-subtitled Dutch movie.

When Rachel shows up at the rendezvous, she is surprised to see her parents and brother, along with a number of other Jews seeking escape. Boarded onto a barge, they sail under cover of darkness. To their horror, not long after departure a nazi boat appears and guns them all down. Only Rachel survives.

http://www.newyorker.com/images/2007/04/09/p465/070409_r16096_p465.jpgWith the help of Gerben Kuipers, a key figure in the Dutch resistance, Rachel becomes Ellis de Vries, a worker in the underground movement, seeking vengeance for her family's murder. On a mission, she meets SS officer Ludwig Muntze (Sebastian Koch, from The Lives of Others), who is obviously attracted to her. When Kuipers son is arrested by the SS, this attraction proves to be opportunistic. What will Ellis do for the resistance effort? Will she seduce an enemy? Will she become one of them to fight against them.

http://www.independentcritics.com/images/black%20book%20SPLASH6.jpgAs Black Book develops, not only does Muntze discover her duplicity, but he keeps it secret. Both have lost too much to the war, and as two lost-souls they find their humanity superseding their nationality. Love moves them, even changes them, where vengeance cannot.

Yet even in the midst of spying for the underground there are others who are wearing masks of deception. There is a traitor in the resistance movement. Walking a minefield of deception and espionage, Ellis and Muntze play a dangerous game that offers no room for error.
Verhoeven, better known in America for his English action/thriller movies (Basic Instinct, Total Recall, Robocop), creates a film that is not typical Hollywood. Despite some obvious plot contrivances and a little too much sex, Verhoeven explores the complexities of human nature and offers a film that does not paint its picture in terms of black and white. Instead of the stark contrasts of good and evil, the main characters have elements of both. No one is completely good. And van Houten is up to the task of carrying the film on her shoulders, as the main character.

Black Book raises some interesting moral and ethical questions. Can a person of faith be a spy? In this case a Jew, if her religion says it is wrong to lie, should she do this to survive? Is it different in war-time with your country occupied by the enemy? In the Old Testament God said to the Hewbrew nation: "Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another." (Lev 19:11). Clearly Rachel was violating the scriptures of her faith. What would we have done? For Christians, the New Testament echoes this prohibition on lying (Col. 3:9). So, how would we respond today in a similar situation?

Space does not permit a complete answer to this complex question, but it seems difficult to reconcile the practice of espionage with the practice of religion or faith. Espionage requires that the self be compartmentalized to avoid slipping up. That seems counter to a true faith, that seeks to be holistic and fully integrated into one's identity.

Beyond this, the film poses the question, who can we trust? Indeed, who is our enemy? As Rachel/Ellis did not know who the traitor was, who she was fighting against, do we know and understand who is against us? It is trite to say that we can trust God (Psa 26:1, Prov 3:5) but it is a truism. And it seems trite, too, to say that our enemy is the devil (1 Pet 5:8), but it, too is true. Our fundamental enemy is Satan, although we also face internal enemies that are of our own making, related to our sinful nature (our "flesh"), such as our addictions and selfish desires. Too often, though, we see evil men as our enemies. They may seek to do us harm, yet Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for them (Matt. 5:44). They are, after all, human with the possibility of redemption. As Muntze displayed to Ellis, even a Nazi has a humanity that is capable of being reached and loved. Ultimately, we must trust God, resist the devil, and love humanity, even those who might persecute and oppose us. Easy to say, difficult to do!

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Saturday, September 6, 2008

We are Marshall -- Is winning everything?


In November 1970, after losing an away game, the 37 players of the Marshall University Thundering Herd football team, along with their coaches and a number of boosters, boarded a charter plane bound for home. They never got there. Amidst a lightning storm, the plane crashed; there were no survivors. The team was decimated. Only four players remained -- those who did not make the trip.

We are Marshall tries to answer two questions in this true story. First, at a time of such great tragedy, with the team gone, the town in mourning, how do you honor the dead? Is it better to drop a program, the football program, or to try to continue knowing winning is virtually impossible?

The second question comes from the mouth of the head coach. After the defeat, and before the flight, he tells his beaten team, "Winning is everything!" So, the bigger, more fundamental, question raised by Marshall becomes is winning really everything? In sports even in life, is winning the most important thing?

http://www.canmag.com/images/front/movies20063/marshall4.jpgWith the school board determined to honor their dead by disbanding the program, the students rally together to persuade them to let it continue. But who will be their coach? President Dedmon (David Strathairn) leads the search. After all prospective candidates turn him down, Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) calls and applies for the job. A charming father of three, he wins the head coaching position. But that is the only beginning of his obstacles.
http://img5.allocine.fr/acmedia/rsz/434/x/x/x/medias/nmedia/18/62/98/40/18712314.jpgWith no team, recruiting is tough indeed. But Jack's optimism and hopeful attitude is contagious. He persuades assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox, seen recently in Vantage Point), to come back for one year to assist. Jack perseveres when others give up. He sees possibilities where others see dead ends. He creates his own possibilities, asking the "impossible." Jack's perseverance and approach to life is exemplary of how a Christ-follower should live -- with joy and hope and faith in the God of the impossible!

As the season opens, Marshall has a team, but one that is young and inexperienced. Before the second game, Jack takes the team to the cemetery where the six bodies (the only remains from the crash) were buried. Giving a strong motivational pre-game pep-talk. Jack says, "When you take that field today, you've got to lay that heart on the line, men. From the souls of your feet, with every ounce of blood you've got in your body, lay it on the line until the final whistle blows. And if you do that, if you do that, we cannot lose. We may be behind on the scoreboard at the end of the game but if you play like that we cannot be defeated."

In this inspiring speech, Jack answers the second question. Winning is not everything. Sometimes being there, just playing, is victory enough. If all you can do is show up, then giving your best is a winning effort. And that's all that should be expected of you. When you walk off the field of life and you've done all that you can, given every last ounce of effort and shown you have a mighty heart, you are a winner. That is not only Hollywood, it's biblical. As a follower of the Lord, if you do this in the strength of the Spirit, you will hear Jesus say, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

We are Marshall is as predictable as Portland rain in winter. It moves into the sentimental stratosphere. And yet. It's a fun and inspiring movie, a heart-warming movie, an against-all-odds movie. A key reason is McConaughey's portrayal of Jack Lengyel. At first he seems to be a country hick, full of odd and quirky sayings. But Jack is actually a smart character. A good listener, he connects with people. Then, instead of telling them what to do, he tells stories and lets them come to their own understanding. This is a key characteristic of a keen motivator. And a key characteristic of a good coach is the ability to motivate his players. This reminds us of the greatest teacher and motivator-coach of all time: Jesus. Jesus told many stories and left his hearers to come to their own understanding, often using parables (confer Matthew 13). If we want to be better motivators, even better parents, perhaps we need to learn to listen and then tell stories instead of simply giving commandments.

As Marshall comes to its conclusion, it answers its first question. If they had dropped the football program it may have remained dropped, never to return. Despite the losses and defeats experienced during the necessary rebuilding following the tragedy, like the mythical phoenix the Thundering Herd rose from the ashes to attain glory. Eventually, they won a national championship. Did the losing team bring honor to the dead team and coaches? Perhaps not initially, but eventually they brought immense glory to the memory of those lost in the crash. Sometimes we have to look to the long-term understanding it will take time, effort and perseverance to attain. The grief of the town did transform into glory, a glory that would not have happened if the program had been shut down.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Mighty Heart -- Dying for truth


Movies don't always have happy endings. And when the movie is based on a true story, and we know the ending is tragic, is that movie a fun experience? A Mighty Heart is just such a movie. Not fun in the light-hearted sense, but it certainly is informative and educational.

This is the story of the kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) that shocked America and the world. After reporting on the war in Pakistan, Danny and his French wife Mariane (Angeline Jolie) decided to remain in Karachi. But in 2002 ready to return home, Danny has one interview to do on the eve of their departure: this is with Sheik Gilani, a jihadi. He goes to the rendezvous but never returns.

http://www.mtv.com/movies/photos/m/a_mighty_heart_070503/flip-e.jpgPregnant Mariane begins the unfathomable inner journey of waiting. Never giving up hope, with the help of US officials, Pakistani police, and her friend Asra (Archie Panjabi, the older sister in Bend it Like Beckham, and the love interest in the new terrorist movie Traitor), she seeks to understand why he is kidnapped and how he can be rescued.

The movie is slow, even boring in stretches, and sometimes confusing. Mariane's flashbacks occur without introduction, so at times it appears that Danny is safe and well and with her again. As much as this is needless, on the flip side the graininess of the night footage and the moving camera with the police activities add positively to the confusion. They portray the sense of impotence that the searchers must have been feeling. Further, with so much chaos in the city, with so many people, and not knowing who is a jihadi and who is a friend, these choppy sequences communicate a feeling of loss and helplessness.

http://blogs.indiewire.com/reverseshot/archives/mighty.jpgThough the movie has a melancholic plot narrative, Jolie portrays a woman with a sense of hope and a strong heart. Is the "mighty heart" of the title a reference to Danny, as a courageous journalist who sought the truth and never lied in his articles, or his wife, who faced up to circumstances with inner fortitude? The book written by Mariane refers to her husband's courage. But perhaps here it is a nuanced reference to both husband and wife. Regardless, Jolie displays a level of acting not seen since she won an Oscar for her role in Girl Interrupted. And this carries the film.

http://angelinajolie.celebden.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/06/Angelina-a-mighty-heart.jpgWhy was Daniel Pearl kidnapped and subsequently murdered? The movie does not answer these questions. Although it is first reported that he was a spy, this is rescinded. Was it because of his Jewish faith? Or was he simply in the wrong place at the wrong time? He went seeking truth from a terrorist and was willing to put his life on the line as a journalist to bring this truth to the public. A Mighty Heart is as much as message of remembrance as it as a call to recognize the dangers that journalists face in going to war-torn and third-world countries.

Two issues stand out in A Mighty Heart. First, how do we deal with the difficulties of life? Most of our troubles pale compared to this horrifying experience that Mariane had to face. Yet, she plumbed the depths of her heart and found courage and hope. Even when facing television interviewers, she carried herself with grace and patience. If our trials are less consequential, can we not also bear under them with grace and patience, with a mighty heart of our own?

Second, if Danny Pearl was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for truth, how far are we willing to go for that same virtue? Are we driven to discover truth? How much of our own lives are transparent and truth-filled? Each step we take on the path of truth, speaking the truth and searching for the truth, is a step forward on the narrative path of our own character arc.

Ultimately, A Mighty Heart reminds us of the sacrifice Jesus gave for the truth. Standing in front of another political 'terrorist', Pilate, Jesus said "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." But Pilate ignored the words of Jesus, and spat out cynically, "What is truth!" (John 18:37-38). Terrorists tend to ignore truth, killing the innocent to hide it. We may not be a Danny Pearl, but all we face the question of what to do with Jesus Christ. The one who said, "I am the way and the truth and the life," (John 14:6) expects us to give a response. Will we accept this truth, or will we bury it and kill it as Danny was killed? The choice is a personal one, and calls for decision of our own mighty heart.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs