Seeds of the Gospel in cinema

by Rose Pacatte

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Ulrich Thomsen in "Adam's Apples"

The idea of cinema divina -- that is, sacred viewing -- first crossed my spiritual path in 1991, when I read an article in the Review for Religious by Benedictine Fr. Benedict Auer: “Video Divina: A Benedictine Approach to Spiritual Viewing.” He wrote, “Video divina requires a set disposition which says, ‘This evening, I wish to get closer to God, so I think I’m going to watch this film, which might give me better insights into myself or why my neighbor acts as she or he does.’ ”

Auer takes his cue from a fellow Benedictine, Matthias Neuman, who in 1977 in the Review for Religious expanded the meaning of lectio from the printed text to finding God in contemporary media stories: “Beyond the written word, the giant visual image of the modern movie screen may provide the impetus for an authentic lectio.”

In 2000, film producer Frank Frost and Fr. Michael Mannion of the Trenton, N.J., diocese were at a party in Washington and over drinks came up with the idea of the National Film Retreat. I was asked to be part of the retreat team, and for the next 10 years these thematic retreats drew dozens of people who love film, scripture and spirituality to “give the retreat” to one another through conversations held after each screening.

This year, for the first time in the history of the U.S./Toronto province of my congregation, the Daughters of St. Paul, we offered the sisters an opportunity for a directed, silent cinema divina retreat. Taking the Gospel of each day as the point of departure, we chose films with similar themes and followed the schema of the traditional lectio for personal reflection, prayer, direction and group sharing. The group dynamic aspect didn’t work for everyone, and some found the encounter with the director enough. Responses to the retreat were positive and we plan on doing this again.

Our iter is as follows:

  • Lectio: Reading the film we ask: What is the story? What words and images, characters, form, genre and structure does the filmmaker use to tell the story?

  • Meditatio: Meditation is a form of mental or unspoken prayer in which a person lets a scene or sequence from the film choose him or her; after quiet reflection, the person resolves to become more God-like. For a group, after some reflection time, each person shares the part of the film that chose him or her and why.

  • Oratio: Spontaneous prayer flows from reading and meditating on the film. For a group, allow some more quiet time and allow each one to share a prayer from the heart.

  • Contemplatio: To contemplate is an unspoken form of prayer in which a person rests with God and converses with God as the Spirit moves within. For a group, allow more quiet time to savor the moments. To contemplate means to rest with the film; to relish it; to savor the memory of the film as a spiritual experience, especially the part that “chose” me as it played back in my imagination, and to praise God for it.

  • Actio: To discern some course of action beyond oneself into the world is the fruit of the practice of cinema divina as prayer.

When we gathered to share God’s Word broken open in the film, we considered these questions: What moment in the film chose you? What is your emotional response? What are your observations, connections and spiritual questions?

Day four was a desert day. On the last day we gathered to speak about the strong moments of the retreat for each one as an opportunity for integration before a final liturgy and closing with dinner.

The seven films we programmed over eight days that offered us an authentic experience of cinema divina were:

  • “Adam’s Apples” (Matthew 14:13-21): This dark comedy is about a skinhead, Adam, who is released on parole to a kind pastor who lives in a state of denial in order to survive the tragedies of his life. Adam adds to his troubles until both confront truth in authentic charity. Themes: gathered in an out-of-the way place, desert experience; seeking solitude; elusive solitude; feeding the crowd, sacred food, Eucharist, community, grace, the absolute absurdity of unconditional love. Location: rural Denmark. In Danish with English subtitles.

  • “The End of the Spear” (Matthew 14:22-36): Based on the true story of five Christian ministers from the United States who wanted to save the Waodani tribe in the Amazon jungle from extinction in the 1950s. The government was bearing down on tribe members while they continued to attack foreign oil workers. The wives and children of these martyred missionaries approached the tribe and successfully convinced them to lay down their spears. Themes: do not fear, God’s power, faith, imagination, storytelling, evangelization. Location: Ecuador.

  • “Gran Torino” (Matthew 15:21-28): A grouchy and racist Korean War vet becomes friends with his Hmong neighbors and gives his life that they may live in peace. Themes: mercy, love, faith, community, grace, love of neighbor. Location: Detroit.

  • “The Diary of Anne Frank” (Matthew 16:24-28): A young Jewish girl writes of dreams, ideals and love in her diary during two years spent in hiding from the Nazis in World War II. Despite everything, she believes that people are really good at heart. Themes: bearing one’s burden, the doctrine of the cross, family, grace, love for one’s family and neighbor, life as participation. Location: Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

  • “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (Matthew 17:14-20): A French journalist is critically injured in a car accident that leaves him with “locked-in syndrome.” He learns to communicate by blinking his eyes and reveals his interior life and transformation. Themes: healing, faith as a mustard seed, inner life, grace. Location: France. In French with English subtitles.

  • “The Lives of Others” (Luke 12:32-48): A Stasi agent in East Germany spies on a playwright to find a pretext to arrest him so a government minister can have his girlfriend. By listening to their conversations, music and writings, the agent comes to understand what makes a “good man,” and he himself makes, a courageous choice. Themes: The last things, happiness, divine providence, attentiveness, listening, being ready, courage, human dignity, grace, art. Location: East Berlin. In German with English subtitles.

  • “Three Colors Trilogy: Blue” (Matthew 17:22-27): A woman’s musician husband and young daughter are killed in a car accident. The woman decides to sell everything and disappear from life, to be alone, so as to be completely free. But she has a change of heart and gives her home to her husband’s mistress and the child she is carrying. The woman then rejoins the world. Themes: human freedom, life as participation, living in relationship to God and others, faith, hope, love, freedom. Location: Paris. In French with English subtitles.

I believe that many films touch our humanity and this creates a spiritual connection. People may not agree, of course. Intelligent people can and do disagree on what makes for a “good” film and a film that works on a spiritual level.

A few years ago someone at a retreat brought up the John Patrick Shanley film “Joe Versus the Volcano.” She loved the quirky story, but the retreat director vehemently disagreed. It is the story of a world-weary man (played by Tom Hanks) who is a hypochondriac. An exasperated doctor finally tells him he has a brain cloud, that it was terminal, and that all he could do was live the rest of his life to the fullest. The man ends up dancing on the rim of a volcano with the love of his life.

Some time later I was speaking at a religious education convention and told this story about how people can interpret films very differently. A young woman shared that for her and her husband, “Joe Versus the Volcano” was their favorite movie. She explained that when her husband was 9 years old, he tried to kill himself. He got help. A couple of years later he and his mother went to see this film together. As they came out, he turned to her and said, “See, Mom? That was me. I had a brain cloud. And I don’t have to die.”

I would love to be the screenwriter who saved the life of even one child. The story of Joe and his brain cloud connected with this child on so many levels, but not necessarily with others.

On the whole, I believe that there are seeds of the Gospel in a significant percentage of mainstream film releases. And if we approach films in anticipation of authentic lectio, they can create a spiritual experience -- cinema divina indeed.

[Sr. Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles.]

Other films to consider for cinema divina:

  • “The Secret Life of Bees”: A family and community of African-American women in South Carolina preserve a Marian tradition and inspire a lonely child.

  • “The Soloist”: A Los Angeles journalist befriends a homeless musical genius who is mentally ill.

  • “Julie & Julia”: A young woman cooks her way through Julia Child’s cookbooks and learns life lessons.

  • “Where the Wild Things Are”: A lonely boy’s fantasy about community, leadership, love and family.

  • “The Wrestler” and “Crazy Heart”: Two films about men approaching 60, their regrets and their next decisions, which will determine the rest of their lives.

  • “The Visitor”: A widower befriends two immigrants and they him. The question is: Who is a visitor in America?

  • “Good-bye Solo”: An African immigrant cab driver accepts a fare to drive a man to a forest to kill himself. Over two weeks, Solo shows him every reason to live and shows the audience the gifts that immigrants bring to the United States.

  • “Erin Brockovich”: A flawed single mother without skills is a Good Shepherd figure to hundreds of people harmed by a major corporation.

  • “Children of Heaven”: A young boy in Iran loses his sister’s shoes and they must share his in order to go to school. They hide the loss from their parents because they are poor and don’t want them to worry. Excellent for children as young as 10 for a first foreign film experience.

  • “Departures”: A young Japanese musician loses his job and unwittingly becomes a mortician, learning respect for the dead and the living.

  • “Bagdad Cafe”: A German woman fights with her husband while on vacation in Arizona and stomps off down the highway, taking refuge at a ragtag motel, becoming an agent of change in the life of the irritable African-American owner.

  • “Life as a House”: A divorced architect decides to rebuild his house, life and family when he is diagnosed with cancer.

  • “Changing Lanes”: Two headstrong men collide on the Brooklyn Bridge. Their Good Friday journey ends in reconciliation and restitution.

Here are some of my personal favorites:

“Crash,” “March of the Penguins,” “Spider Man 2,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “The Village,” “Spanglish,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Shall We Dance,” “Tortilla Soup,” “Mostly Martha,” “Enchanted April,” “In Good Company,” “Volver,” “Sunshine Cleaners,” “Bruce Almighty,” “The Spitfire Grill,” “Amazing Grace,” “21 Grams,” “The Station Agent,” “About Schmidt,” “Antwone Fisher,” “A Day Without a Mexican,” “The Constant Gardener,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Truman Show.”

What are your favorite spiritual cinema divina films? How did aspects of the film choose you? Let us know in the comments below.

--Rose Pacatte

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