Category: Film


AMDG

In an age of weak leadership, perhaps it shouldn’t be seen as a surprise that the UK seems a little bit obsessed with Winston Churchill at the moment.  Whether it be the scary future of Brexit or just the nostalgic wallowing in a glorious past, or a bit of both – this monumental and heroic character’s history is being rewritten and reinterpreted again and again.  At the weekend I enjoyed seeing the latest effort – ‘The Darkest Hour‘ – the Oscar-nominated work of Joe Wright (Atonement). I don’t think I watched a film that has so little action and is so dialogue-driven, yet also so absorbing.  Obviously, the stakes are high, its 1940 and Britain is alone in standing up to Hitler.  Churchill has just been elected leader and it is his toughest year – everything looks lost, a German invasion imminent and monumental pressure is put on him to enter some negotiations with Herr Hitler.  The film is cleverly ambiguous, Halifax & Chamberlain are given a fair showing in the film and peace talks seem very reasonable. To qualify as a ‘just-war’ it needs to be a war of last-resort and Thomists and just-war theorists may quibble about who was right, but I think the wonderful line of Churchill, ‘ You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth‘ wins the day.

For me its a great study in leadership – Churchill standing at the dispatch box, with his Tory peers sitting in silence behind him, seething in passive aggression.  In their eyes his failure in the Dardanelles in the First World War and his flip-flopping to the Liberals is unforgivable. When leaders are ‘stress tested’ like this, its make or break time.  Its at times like this when a leader finds out who has ‘got their back’.  The two outstanding supports for Churchill, as portrayed by the film, are his wife Clement and King George VI.  A turning point is when the King, suspicious of Churchill at first, eventually says to him that he has his unequivocal support as he was the only man who when elected as leader struck fear in the heart of Hitler.

There is something lonely about authentic leadership – having to make key decisions that have big impacts/effects on people and living with the consequences.  There is a powerful image of the leader who is edging out onto the ice with everyone cheering them on from the sidelines. This support is flattering but of no use when you fall through the ice and there’s no one there to pull you out!  Ronald Heifetz in his very interesting book on ‘Adaptive Leadership’ has a lot of wisdom to share  –

 

Don’t do it alone – Sounds easy and obvious, but we have seen over and over again how people who are trying to do the right thing end out on a limb all alone. It is not only lonely out there; it is dangerous.  Those who see your good works as a threat will find you a much easier target if you are out there by yourself …. your opponents will do whatever it takes to make you vulnerable…. a much more subtle danger comes from your friends, you enjoy the plaudits that comes from being on the front line… but they say to themselves, ‘if the ice is strong enough we will follow him’, they clap harder as you inch your way across the frozen lake so you think they are right behind you, but when you look back you see them still onshore, wiating to see what happens… to keep you motivated they say things like ‘you are indespensible‘ …. which makes you feel good all over… Want to hear it again? Just inch out further onto the ice…. to avoid making this mistake, when someone tells you how wonderful you are, listen for that little voice inside yourself that says ‘I know I am terrific, but I’m not that terrific’

The Crown Renews Itself

AMDG

If you are interested in how ancient institutions reform or renew themselves a fascinating case study is the British Monarchy. Currently the House of Windsor is being intriguingly interpreted in the Netflix series ‘ The Crown‘.  I have just enjoyed finishing the second series written as always by Benedictine-educated Peter Morgan. With each new series being released in December it seems to have become a Christmas tradition.  Just in case you don’t know, it follows the life of Elizabeth II, and how this unfolds alongside the history of the UK in the last century.  Written by one of the best screenplay writers in the business, beautifully shot including with some fine acting – it is fast becoming an annual treat.  Like all good drama, it touches on so many themes from our own lives, moral character, love, power, pride, hubris… etc – but essentially it shows the incredible capacity for this ancient institution to adapt to modern times, without giving too much ground (RC Church anyone?).  Morgan skillfully ensures that these explorations into the private lives of royalty never strays into sensationalism although he treads a very fine line at times.

As Santayana warns us about history repeating itself, the themes it deals with are surprisingly ‘contemporary’. In the first series, there is a fascinating programme that covers the Great Smog in London that killed thousands of people and led to the clean air act  …..  In the current series, Elizabeth’s uncle and former King, Edward,  is exposed as having a flirtation with Hitler and fascism that feels all too real in our volatile times.  Fascinatingly, this particular episode is inter-weaved with a story about Billy Grahams first visit to the UK.  The American evangelist is portrayed as making a big impression on the young Queen, his moral clarity giving her the strength to effectively banish her erstwhile uncle Edward.

Part of my conscience does sting a little bit when I think of a 91-year-old Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor sitting at home surrounded by corgies in front of the TV,  whilst her life is being interpreted and distributed around the world.   In an age of self-promotion and carefully curated public images, it takes an impressive detachment from her, not to publically comment on these things, or resist the temptation to set the record right. However, I think it is essentially a compassionate portrayal of Elizabeth.  Morgan himself takes the line that the series is always accurate even if it is impossible to be ‘truthful’. His point is that no-one knows what was said between Elizabeth and Philip on this day at this time, but with his team of historical researchers, he believes they can produce an accurate representation. That leads to another moral discussion, certainly, the BBC would never be able to make a series like The Crown.

It is also interesting hearing Peter Morgan talk about how it is a golden-age for writers…. with companies like Netflix generously investing in such projects and not interfering too much with the creativity of the writers.  I suppose the streaming model is another example of a ‘disruptive technology’ getting rid of all the vested interests of producers, cinemas etc.  They might get booed by the old-guard at Cannes, but it means that for talent such as Morgan – the creative process seems to have become much cleaner.

AMDG

360946-jpg-c_215_290_x-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxx‘This is a spiritual & cultural artefact’ – was how a producer at the BBC described Scorsese’s recent adaptation of the Shusako Endo novel ‘Silence‘.   A work of historical fiction, i.e based on real characters, about the Jesuits in Japan.  Having seen the film about a month ago, I tend to agree, although the cinema was fairly empty and I notice there is no ‘awards buzz’ about it – I think it will grow in stature and popularity.  I hope it will slowly acquire cult status, it doesn’t have the feel-good, crowd pleasing appeal that LaLa Land has ( and surely people need that in our fragmented times) …. but it has a depth and leaves a ‘haunting’ imprint that will mature over time. Like an artefact it will stand the test of time.

If you think about explicitly Christian films that have gone mainstream, all have differing levels of depth. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, in its own way a masterpiece – has the force of a sledgehammer and I would place it in the Key Stage 3 RE category.  Roland Joffe’s The Mission, slightly more complex interweaving of theology / politics/ ecclesiology maybe would be GCSE, (Key Stage 4) Level.  But Scorsese’s Silence – is certainly A Level (KS5) material – with all its glorious and infuriating ambiguities. Leaving scope for discussion and meditation.

landscape-1482951700-martin-scorsese-silence-religion-on-filmHere in Manchester – many of the students are divided by it, and fascinating discussions ensue.  Some get hung up on the priests apostasy and a sense of betrayal from that, without taking into fact the incredible commitment and self-offering that have got the missionaries their in the first place. In a similar way many of the reviews are polarised.  The more secularised, the less they ‘get it’ – including one absurd review accusing it of ‘torture porn’ (I actually thought the film wasn’t as harrowing as I was expecting). It is as though the sheer fact that you can believe in something enough that you are prepared to die for it. is inconceivable to the more superficial reviews.  Many people (even the usually prescient Robert Barron)  seem to fixated on the ‘apostasy’ element. Which I think misses the point of the film (and the novel).  For me Kichijiro is the main character in the film – and it is God’s Mercy for him , through sacramental confession, this is the most powerful aspect for me.

silence-00977A former student sent me a wonderful email which expresses it like this, “I found myself really focusing on more in the film was the mercy of God, which I think is and should be the big focus within the film and book. The question: How much should I forgive my brother? Seventy seven.  Is something I often thought about when watching this film especially when witnessing Kichijiro continuously plead for confession. For me Fr. Rodriguez and Fr Ferreira are insignificant as for me really the true Christian is perfectly embodied in Kichijiro. As he is what a christian really is: a sinful and weak creature totally dependent on God’s mercy. Interestingly Kichijiro does not really seem to care about human respect or his reputation as seen by his continuous grovelling and humiliating display of weakness before the priest. To me I think the book and film do a great job in showing this about Kichijiro and the mercy of God; but seem to overlook it and get a bit too obsessed with somehow trying to justify someone’s apostasy.    The real question I think is how much are we willing to accept our weakness and plead for forgiveness

Maybe this is echoing Scorsese own life – as revealed in this fascinating interview with the America Jesuit James Martin,  his sense of rejection at a crucial age when he wanted to be a Maryknoll Missionary. He was asked to leave the seminary, and ‘crushed’ in his own words,  and then his ‘pilgrimage’ slowly and painfully from the outside and back to God (?) . Jim has also written a very good  reflective piece on common questions people struggle with after Silence.   So is Silence really about about the Silence of God or the Deafness of Man? .