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Monthly Archives: April 2011
In March, Sister Pat Chaffee, OP (Racine) traveled to Afghanistan to represent the Racine Dominicans’ support of the Afghan Youth for Peace effort. The group planted trees as symbols of the young people’s desire to be rooted in peace. The full story, and a video with images from the tree planting and a poem written by the youth, is posted at www.racinedominicans.org. For more information about the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, and the Live Without Wars 2011 Project, visit www.livewithoutwars.org.
Source Code is what I call a “high concept” movie, like last year’s “Inception.” What I mean by this is that the viewer has to be able to understand and accept an implausible, difficult-to-understand concept. In the case of “Source Code,” the concept is, simply put, that the military possesses the ability to transport a man from his own body into that of another person for eight minutes at a time. I don’t think they ever explained why it was eight minutes, and not 10 or 20. In addition, this procedure can be repeated again and again. In “high concept” movies, the viewer either accepts the implausible high concept and enjoys them (e.g. “Avatar,” with a rather similar concept) or rejects them as too far-fetched and confusing (e.g. “Inception.”) For me, “Source Code” falls in the latter category.
In “Source Code,” our hero Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up to find himself on a commuter train heading into Chicago, not knowing who he is or why the woman sitting across from him calls him by another name. After eight minutes of confusion, an explosion rips through the train. Stevens re-awakens to find himself in some sort of pod, talking to Colleen Goodwyn, a worried-looking army officer on a TV monitor, who knows Stevens’ real name. Goodwyn explains that Fred has been transported from his mission in Afghanistan, to a new mission in the United States. She further explains that Stevens’ new mission is to continue to return to the train for eight minutes at a time until he can determine the identity of the bomber, who is currently threatening to set off more bombs in Chicago. This mission is urgent, and the sooner Stevens can determine the identity of the bomber, the better chance authorities will have to apprehend him or her before further damage can be done. She also tells Fred that everyone he meets on the train is already dead, so it does not matter what he does to them.
Stevens continues to travel back and forth in time, picking up clues and ruling out people each time. Goodwyn and her superior become more and more frustrated that Stevens hasn’t identified the bomber. Meanwhile Stevens wants to know more about his own situation, which Goodwyn and her superiors are unwilling to divulge. He is also beginning to care about his doomed fellow train passengers, especially Christina, the attractive girlfriend of the history teacher whose body Stevens inhabits.
All this goes along well for about half the movie. But after several more incidents of time travel, I began to become as frustrated as the characters with the movie. It becomes bogged down with plot developments. As was the case with “Inception,” there are dialogues between characters for the purpose of letting the audience know what is happening, so they won’t be totally confused. It is difficult to keep up the momentum and suspense with these interruptions. When the bomber is finally identified, it seems surprisingly anti-climactic.
Occasionally Stevens asks a doomed train passenger, “What would you do if you knew you only had one more minute to live?” This moral theme is the most interesting point of the movie. For him, it becomes the imperative to do what he can to save the passengers, especially Christina, despite repeated warnings from his superiors not to do so.
“Source Code’s” reflections on life and mortality raise it a level above routine thrillers. Unfortunately, it is unable to sustain its high concept and suspense for two hours.
Tom Condon, OP
What a profound experience I had watching this excellent new French film during Holy Week! I usually cringe when I hear about a new movie about religious life or priesthood. How will the filmmakers make us look either like idiots or predators or totally irrelevant people this time? I am very pleased to announce that the makers of “Of Gods and Men” have gotten religious life right, as much as any movie in memory has. Director Xavier Beauvois, who also co-wrote the film, along with Etienne Comar, deserve great praise for their accomplishment.
“Of Gods and Men” tells the remarkable true story of a small Trappist monastery of French monks in Algeria in 1996. The monks live in peace and harmony with their Moslem neighbors. The monks operate a health clinic for the area, and treat many every day with care and compassion. Abbot Christian is very knowledgeable and respectful of the Koran and the Moslem traditions.
In the mid-’90s, violence was exploding in the region. Extremist Moslem terrorists were creating havoc, targeting foreigners and non-Moslems. The film’s only violent moment shows the terrorists brutally attacking a group of Croatians. The repressive Algerian military cracks down on them. The Algerians still resent the presence of the French, their longtime colonizers. The monks find their very existence threatened. Both sides counsel them to leave the area and return to France.
In chapter, the nine monks discuss the situation among themselves. At first there is no consensus among them. Some are set on remaining, others believe they should leave. Still others feel that they have not made a decision. They need more time to think, discuss, and pray. Eventually the monks come to a consensus to remain where they are. They know that their decision to remain is a virtual death sentence. Even so, they believe that the presence of the monastery as a place of peace, prayer, and service to their neighbors, is a value that must be preserved. To leave would be a victory for those who advocate violence and force.
“Of Gods and Men” captures the rhythm of monastic life beautifully. The monks are often shown gathered in prayer and silence, chanting the psalms and celebrating the Eucharist. The soundtrack consists almost exclusively of chanted psalms, sung beautifully. The monks farm the land, go to market, cook and clean, and discuss the issues in their lives. They preach by the Gospel by the fidelity to their monastic life. The clinic treats anyone, even one of the wounded terrorists who is brought to the monastery. However, they refuse to give into the terrorists’ demands to give them all their medicines when they barge into the monastery on Christmas Eve.
One of the great accomplishments of the film is to make the monks so human. They laugh and cry and, even, in one scene, curse. They become angry and increasingly worry about their safety. They miss their families at home, and wonder if they will ever see them again. They can be cranky. Some are brave when threatened, others hide under their beds.
In one moving scene, the monks are praying in the chapel when they hear a military helicopter flying low over the monastery. Believing that this is their time to die, they join together physically, facing the window, singing and preparing to die. In another great scene, the monks have their final supper together. The camera shows them each as they eat and drink as they listen to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. They seem to know that it is their own Last Supper. The significance of the moment is not lost upon them, or the viewer.
As they live, so they prepare to die. They go about their lives as usual, but with an added intensity, knowing that every day, every moment, might be their last. Every noise, every knock at the door may be the end for them. They go about their lives with tremendous dignity. I thought about missionaries and early Christians whose very life together was a threat to the prevailing culture. I also thought how our lives can be “Holy Preaching,” when lived faithfully and intentionally. I know how easy it is to take my religious life for granted. After experiencing this film, I hope not take it for granted again.
After a successful run in Europe where it has won many awards, “Of Gods and Men” has been played in limited release in the United States for about two months. It is now beginning to go into wider release. I think everyone who reads this review would appreciate the profound experience of this film. I hope to see it again while during its theatrical run, and know that I’ll be adding it to my personal library when it becomes available on DVD. There is much food for reflection here on the theology and spirituality of religious life.
Tom Condon, OP