Artistic vision

The dilemma this one posed was not the treatment of Vincent Van Gogh’s outlook on life, but his outlook on Jesus in history, which, however, I can sort-of forgive as his Dutch liberal viewpoint. It makes a small part of the film, but a noticeable one. In At Eternity’s Gate (2018), post-impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh wants to follow his artistic instincts and ‘follow the light’. It’s a noble quest that seeks beauty in the world. So, mild mannered Van Gogh goes to Arles, in the South of France (a lovely place!), on the suggestion of fellow artist Gaugin (played intense by Oscar Isaac). It was Van Gogh’s description of his faith that caused me to question how he saw the history of Jesus, rather than question his artistic vision. In this film, Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) says Christ was only really known in the late first century, and earlier than that he was obscure. But to say Christ was obscure earlier is false. The records in the Acts of the Apostles show the beginnings and rapid growth of the Church and Christ’s message in the early and middle first century. But the film’s better points are what makes it rise above this historical flaw.

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Slice of life

Places in the Heart (1984) is a pleasingly leisurely and ultimately worthwhile slice of life drama set in the 1930’s—if one can manage sitting through the slow troughs. Memorably, as people are sitting in a church to remember, through a communion service, the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made 2000 years ago, there, a young black man, who had been lynched because he shot the sheriff, are both present. The young man and the sheriff, though dead, share communion (wine and bread), and the scene resolves the relationship between the young man and the sheriff in the best way possible: they experience reconciliation through the symbols of communion. Before this, an older African American, Moses (Danny Glover), comes into the life of the widow of the sheriff, Edna Spalding (Sally Field) although it’s through a sense of “luck”. However unlikely, Edna Spalding is kind and gives Moses work. In the 1930’s in America, this would be unusual. Moses encourages Edna to pay off what she owes the bank by using his cotton-picking knowledge. For one season, he helps her raise a cotton harvest. Even if Moses must go, because of the Klu Klux Klan around the neighborhood – one of which, a businessman, feels threatened by Moses’ skills at negotiating cotton prices – Edna will know how to pick cotton next season. Moses, like the Moses of the Bible, is her deliverer. Places in the Heart unfolds beautifully, is worthwhile, well-meaning, sincere, and features a vivid cast of characters. Very well acted. Beautifully filmed.

Published 2020,

Hard places

President of the United States John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, in Dallas, Texas. Jackie (2016) focuses on the grief of Kennedy’s wife, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman). Jackie is interviewed by a journalist to get beneath the story of her grief over the assassination. It’s an uncomfortable interview as far as Jackie is concerned, but the journalist is sensitive enough to accommodate much of Jackie’s concerns, who is jaded by much of what’s been written already. The interview scenes are juxtaposed with her reactions immediately after the assassination. Mostly filmed in indoor settings, at a replica of the White House and Jackie’s home, and some of it outdoors, such as a cemetery. The film has the look of budget constraints. Natalie Portman gets under the grief of the former first lady and is so natural in conveying the mannerisms and emotional hurt of Jackie, that she morphs seamlessly into the role. She is ably supported by Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, Richard E Grant as Bill Walton, and John Hurt as the Catholic priest Jackie confides in about her God issues over the untimely death. It is here that there’s a great spiritual moment in the film, when the priest retells Jesus’ parable of the blind beggar to comfort Jackie. The parable becomes a spiritual lesson for her and elevates her as a kind of symbol for the nation and the world, as she’s here to now glorify God.

Published 2020,

Human dignity

The Elephant Man (1980) weaves a tapestry of skilled storytelling, and beautiful film-making, to show us how life was for John Merrick, the man who was called ‘The Elephant Man’. Based on the book “The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences” by Sir Frederick Treves and Ashley Montagu’s “The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity”, the adapters of this material (Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, and David Lynch) fashion a seamless story. Set in Victorian England, and shot in black and white to evoke the period, it follows Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a surgeon at London Hospital, as he moves his way through a circus crowd and into the tent of John Merrick (an unrecognizable John Hurt), who is displayed as a ‘freak’, The Elephant Man, one of life’s many surprises his cruel owner Bytes (Freddie Jones) announces. Treves wants to study and protect Merrick and does a bargain with Bytes. Later in the film, Treves doubts that his taking Merrick did any good, as it made Merrick a curiosity again, to the medical doctors at the Philanthropic Society and in the higher echelons of the Victorian world, but Treves’ intentions are not limited to scientific curiosity. He is genuinely engrossed in the man’s welfare and treatment. Treves believes he should be given a safe place to live, away from those who might react cruelly or with fear to the severe deformities and abnormalities that cover his body, head, and face. Treves become Merrick’s reason to believe in himself. The Elephant Man is profound, moving, powerful story, humanely Christian, and thought provoking. It seems to say that if people with disadvantages are treated normally, they will get along better, but this may take a wise and understanding person. A memorable film.

Published 2020,