I come from a family of artists. My dad is an artist – he paints and, as a side job away from his podiatrist assistant’s 9-to-5, renovates old paintings. Clients bring him these monster-sized portraits, sometimes with holes in them, and he patches them up, refurbishes the paint, makes it look brand new. He also renovates statues. Once my father was redoing a statue of the Blessed Virgin from our parish in our basement – a huge statute, pretty much my height (5’1). I had no idea it was down there, and when I turned on the light, I screamed. Which is pretty much the reaction I think I would have if I ever saw the Blessed Virgin in real life.
My mom is a writer – she’s really poetic and writes letters like nobody’s business. She’s working on a side project right now as she’s going through her stuff, a piece about growing up in her neighborhood in New York, a place called Inwood. New York City in the 1960s seems just like Neverland, honestly – a magical land where kids weren’t allowed indoors when the sun was out – no adults anywhere, just kids roaming the street, chasing down Mr. Softee.
My brother E is an artist too – he writes and directs plays and short films. When we were in college he set the university’s record for most highly attended shows, and he’s always coming up with good ideas.
My brother J is a musician, and he composes his own work. He’s a crazy-good blues guitarist, as well – he taught himself how to play when he was a kid. He could just hear the notes and find them on the guitar like it was a game. My dad was like that too, just with cartoons on TV. He could just see them and draw them right in front of him. Never had one lesson.
I’m in artist in that I can’t do math and I don’t like science.
I read somewhere once that Catholic directors make better movies than directors of other Christian denominations because we’re not as literal towards Scripture – and, well, life – as they can be. It makes sense to me. I mean, looking at a movie that I would consider pretty heavy with Catholic themes – like The Mission, for example – has much more of a richness, or a fullness, to it, than, say, the Left Behind movie. And let’s face it: because Catholicism focuses so much on the idea of suffering and redemption, that arc makes for some pretty awesome films.
To that end, here are five of my favorite Catholic film characters:
5. Mary Clancy, The Trouble With Angels (1966)
I first watched The Trouble With Angels with my mother when I was in high school. Hilarious and touching, it’s a great family film about a pair of girls at a Catholic boarding school who will do anything to rebel against the Mother Superior (a fantastic Rosalind Russell). The film includes all the normal hijinks (goofily breaking stuff, sneaking cigarettes, that sort of thing) but it’s the transformation that Hayley Mills’ character, Mary, makes from disastrous girl to respectful young woman that makes it so great.
4. Jeanne d’Arc, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999)
Okay, not gonna lie: this was a trippy movie. Lots of blood, as you’d expect from a movie that took place during the Hundred Years’ War, but it’s really graphic and 80% of the movie is just…gross. But Jeanne’s character (played by a really good Milla Jovovich) turns most people’s idea of who Joan of Arc was on on its head: she’s completely stubborn, extremely tenacious, and gives a lot of flavor to the title of sainthood. Not to mention that I could totally see myself in this fun exchange, between Jeanne and one of her soldiers, Aulon, after she cuts her hair off in anger because no one will respect her on account of being a woman:
Aulon: Jeanne, stop it! (Snatching the scissors away from Jeanne)
Joan of Arc: How dare you stop me from doing God’s will?
Aulon: He didn’t tell you to cut all your hair.
Joan of Arc: How dare you tell me what God tells me to do?
Aulon: Whatever, but…(exasperated) since he’s not going to come down and do it himself – I mean – at least let someone cut it properly!
3. Sebastian Flyte, Brideshead Revisited (2008/1981)
The novel Brideshead Revisited holds a special place in my heart. We read it my first year of grad school and I completely fell in love with it. It’s one of the more controversial Catholic novels, presumably on account of all of the inherent (yet very blurry) homosexual overtones, but man, it’s great. It’s the story of Charles Ryder, an agnostic young man, and his relationship with Sebastian Flyte and his Catholic family. It devles into the messiness of Catholicism: the guilt, the honor, and the pageantry, bringing to light the tension that exists between knowing the truth and not being able to ever un-know it, no matter what you do. And Sebastian’s character is the height of that suffering/redemption arc I mentioned earlier. His ascent and descent through his guilt/alcoholism is much better expressed in the 1981 BBC version by Anthony Andrews than in the 2008 version by Ben Whishaw, although Whishaw is admittedly more fun to look at.
2. William Wallace, Braveheart (1995)
I think I first saw this in the theater, and it’s definitely the kind of film to see there: sweeping, epic, larger-than-life. Like The Messenger, this film doesn’t hold back from showing the gore-iness of war, but the mud-to-blood ratio is at least somewhat in balance, whereas in The Messenger it’s mostly just blood. Like Catholics tend to do, William Wallace (a pre-troubled Mel Gibson) fights for the underdog (the entire Scottish nation, to obtain its freedom from English rule), and in the process illuminates a Catholicism that a lot of people today shy away from: the troublemaker. It’s a lot easier to be a religious person who keeps to themselves, but to be one that stirs the pot is always needed. Wallace shows what happens when a person refuses to be compromised, and the result is a beautifully shot, really good film that still holds up when watched between long periods of time.
1. Maria Von Trapp, The Sound of Music (1965)
I know. It’s so cliche. So obvious. But I couldn’t help it. Maria Von Trapp (played by the incomparable Julie Andrews) was the original triple threat: she could sing, she could dance, and she could break all seven of the Von Trapp kids like a horse. She was a lot of fun, the kind of governess I wish I would have had, had my parents had that sort of money and/or believed in governesses. And The Sound of Music is one of those rare films that captures the loving side of Catholicism. Sure, the nuns are gossipy and exasperated, but they’re also loving, courageous, and could stare down the Nazis with the best of them. The Sound of Music is one of my favorites, and if you haven’t seen it, you probably don’t have a soul.
I’m sure I’ll do more of these soon, mainly because it’s an incomplete list. (In fact, I know I will, since there’s no way I’m mentioning Catholic movies without mentioning both The Godfather trilogy and every Martin Scorsese film ever made. They just seemed out of place for the first go-round.)
What are your faves?