Thursday, January 29, 2015

Review: The Island (Ostrov)

By John O'Brien, S.J.

2006, Director: Pavel Lungin. 112 min.
Actors: Pyotr Mamonov, Viktor Sukhorukov, Dmitriy Dyuzhev
Music: Vladimir Martynov

During World War Two, a worker on a Russian coal barge, Anatoly (Mamonov), is given the choice by Nazi boarders to either shoot his captain, Tikhon, and have the chance to live, or be shot alongside him. Anatoly chooses the first option, and then falls overboard as the Germans scuttle the boat. Three decades later (in 1976), Anatoly is living an ascetic life at a monastery on an island. He lives in a boiler house, and spends his time wheeling coal from the wrecked boat to feed the furnaces that warm the monastic houses. He walks the island saying The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner”) and asking Tikhon to pray for his soul. The monks tolerate his presence, despite his habit of pulling “pranks”, unpredictable acts that unnerve them. Anatoly, it is clear, is something of a “holy fool”, and also appears to have gifts, such as the ability to heal, predict the future, and exorcise demons; diverse people come to the island seeking him out. Some of the monks, such as Father Job (Dyuzhev), struggle with envy, and resentment at Anatoly’s antics, while the superior, Father Filaret (Sukhorukov), though bewildered, is inspired to try to overcome his own inordinate attachments.

Film History 
Winner: Best Film, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematographer at the Nika Awards (the "Russian Oscars") in 2007. Also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, 2007. Closed the Venice Film Festival in 2007.

The Island can justifiably be compared to any work by Tarkovsky or Bergman.

Spiritual Reflection
The Island is a strange movie with a surprising capacity to arrest us in spiritual ways. It lingers on in the imagination long after the closing credits. This is usually a sign that a film has inner depths that may not be available to us entirely at the conscious level, but has nonetheless managed to speak to our spirit. Russian filmmakers are particularly good at this.

What is the point of this story of a guilt-laden Orthodox brother who apparently “wastes” his life atoning and mourning an ancient mistake? The sorrow and penance seems disproportionate to the crime. Surely he has confessed his “sin”, committed under extreme wartime pressure, and found redemption, especially at a holy place like the monastery? To our modern sensibility, Anatoly seems obsessed in an unhealthy way with his sin. Get over it! God is merciful! You have confessed your sin: go, and sin no more!

But The Island does not offer this scenario. Instead, we have a man who has embraced a life of atonement, “whose sin”, as the psalm says, “is always before him.” He does not wish to simply let it go. He does not reject God’s mercy, but nor does he presume he has received it. Rather, he continuously begs for it, both for himself and for others. He is, indeed, a strange sort of Christian. We get the sense that he has a role to play in the world, perhaps bearing an odd vocation, an unusual prophetic mission, but it’s hard to get a handle on it. He reminds us of the more outlandish of the Old Testament prophets, like locust and honey-eating John the Baptist, a wild-man clothed in camel-skin, who by his very strangeness and urgency, has a message that rings as loud and pure as a clarion call.

Moreover, he might remind us of Ezekiel, whose mission of calling Israel to return to God went unheeded, forcing him to make ever more exagerated signs. The Lord asks Ezekiel to lie on his side in full view of the people for more than a year. During that time he has a dietary prescription: “And you, take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt, and put them into a single vessel, and make bread of them” (Ez 4:9). So far, not so bad. Whole grains are healthy, aren’t they? But wait, the Lord continues: “And you shall eat it as a barley cake, baking it in their sight on human dung.” Human dung. For over a year, Ezekiel must cook his food on burning human feces. Perhaps Ezekiel was crazy for agreeing to be God’s prophet. But God was so exasperated by his people, we infer, that he was desperate to get their attention (although, we should note, God relents somewhat about the human feces bit, and allows Ezekiel to burn cow dung).

To understand Anatoly in The Island, we might see his calling in the same prophetic vein, like certain saints such as Francis of Assisi, whose countrymen also thought him out of his mind. And, in a certain sense, Francis was. He embraced contagious lepers, talked to animals, danced and sang like a madman. Yet he also performs miraculous deeds, founds the largest religious order ever seen, reforms the papacy, nearly reconverts the world of Islam, and reboots the Christian world. Francis was God-intoxicated, saturated with God, and had a powerful effect on nearly all of western civilization.

Anatoly's life, by contrast, is more hidden. And there may be another dimension to his life than just "holy tomfoolery". He carries his guilt through it all, as if he has glimpsed, in a profound way, his own sinfulness as an objective fact, grasped how much he and he alone owns his sinfulness, and perhaps has even seen his place among the eternally lost. He may have realized – in the final analysis – that he does not then “deserve” anything, has no inherent “right” to anything, other than his sin. In fact, his sense of sin, extreme as it may seem, could actually be part of his spiritual mission. As we see, his gifts of clairvoyance and healing, which are linked to his humility, bring about great good in the lives of others.

The film director, Pavel Lungin, has said he doesn't regard Anatoly as being clever or spiritual, but blessed “in the sense that he is an exposed nerve, which connects to the pains of this world. His absolute power is a reaction to the pain of those people who come to it.”

Yet, “typically, when the miracle happens, the lay people asking for a miracle are always dissatisfied” because “the world does not tolerate domestic miracles.” They want a magical result, while God is just asking for simple faith, which is confounding. Dmitry Sobolev, the screenwriter, explains: “When a person asks for something from God, he is often wrong because God has a better understanding of what a person wants at that moment.” God wants us to ask for things, but he also wants us to trust him. We have to be ready to accept the answer.

This casts light on the unusual role that Anatoly’s poor and apparently wasted life may have played in the grander scheme. His brand of sanctity may consist in allowing the pain of his guilt to meet the pain of others in a direct and salvific way. Since his guilt is imbued with faith in God’s saving power and goodness, it is elevated beyond the level of meaninglessness and neurosis, and becomes a power based on a deep awareness of his own smallness. He sees what very few see clearly: that we are truly children. The consequence of this awareness of spiritual childhood is nothing short of revolutionary: the awakening of the spiritual senses, and the possible transformation of the world.

It is not likely that many are called to be one of the yurodivy, or “holy fools” that are part of the Russian spiritual tradition. Nor should we confuse their “prophetic insanity” with real mental illness. But their example, when they occasionally flash across the horizon of normal human community, points to something important: They show us Christ. They teach us much about living a right-ordered life, and model for us the way of radical trust, of humility, and of forgiveness. Thus they are islands of sanity and healing in the sea of the world.

Be sure to read the speech of actor Pyotr Mamonov at the premiere of The Island.

Prayer Questions
1) Was there something about the spiritual attitude of Anatoly that challenges me, whether positively or negatively. Ask myself why this is so, and ask God the same question.

2) Pick one or two spoken lines from the film that you remember and meditate on them. Chew them over, taste them, and extract their deeper meaning. Try to do this without “over-analyzing”. Let the words themselves speak to you as you consider them.

3) Pick one or two visual images from the film that stand out most vividly, and meditate on them, in the same way as (no. 2). Gaze on the image and let the image gaze on you. Let your meditations turn, finally, into prayer.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Review: Pushing Tin

By John O'Brien, S.J.

1999. Director: Mike Newell.
Actors: John Cusack, Billy Bob Thorton, Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie.
Music: Anne Dudley.   (Rated R for language and mild sexuality)

"O what tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."
–  Sir Walter Scott

Pushing Tin opens in the control room at the New York's Terminal Radar Approach Center (TRAC), where a team of air traffic controllers coordinate some 7,000 flights a day that zip in and out of Kennedy, La Guardia, and Newark airports. It’s a hectic and high-pressure work-place. When a tour of kids comes through the facility they are told: “Air controllers are responsible for more lives in a single shift than a surgeon in a lifetime.” Nick Falzone (Cusack), known as “the Zone”, is the hotshot controller of the group, who owns his reputation of being top of the game. Nick relates to his suburbanite wife Connie (Blanchette) with the same short attention span that enables him to land planes in split-second time frames. His status is challenged when a mysterious new transfer, Russell Bell (Thorton), arrives to work at the Center. Russell is the opposite of Nick – he’s restrained, calm, and of few words – but shares with Nick a reputation for daring and a perfect safety record for landing planes. Russell’s demeanor provokes Nick into challenging him to little male-ego contests that progressively intensify. Nick is also intrigued by Russell’s voluptuous young wife Mary (Jolie), who turns heads at a backyard BBQ party. The rivalry between the men soon gets out of hand, and regrettable things happen. Before Nick knows it, he has lost his cool, his ability to “push tin” and maintain slick control of his life.

In Film History 

This film has gone almost unnoticed, despite British director Mike Newell’s reputation for acclaimed odd-ball films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Into the West, and Enchanted April. This is most likely because it doesn't fit neatly into any genre, which usually dampers popularity and box office success. Is it a comedy, a romance or a drama? It's a comedy, at any rate, in the classical sense.

Spiritual Reflection

"But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'"
–    2 Corinthians 12:9
The character of Nick Falzone in Pushing Tin is an “everyman”. He represents all of us, citizens of the modern age, for whom life can be fast-paced, excessively busy, and demanding to be “managed” so as not to get out of control. We tend to fear the prospect of our lives being “out of the control” as if some primordial chaos lies waiting to surge and snatch us up, or that we might find ourselves disintegrating into a thousand pieces. We have a particular tendency to micro-manage ourselves and the people around us. It’s safer to be in control.

Control is not necessarily a bad thing. There is a certain level of “control” that we need in our lives in order to be responsible peoples: mothers, fathers, workers, students, and so on. If I never set my alarm clock and just woke up “whenever”, I would probably be late for a great many appointments, causing inconvenience to a great many people. If I didn’t control the amount of food or drink I consume I might end up with a stomach-ache, or worse. If I didn’t think before speaking I would, no doubt, say a lot of silly things I’ll regret (sadly, I still do this from time to time!). Exercising responsibility over my thoughts, words and actions is part of living an ordered life, and is a habit that is quite conducive to happiness.

But there is another kind of control that Pushing Tin is hinting at, ever so subtly – or perhaps not so subtly, given the great obvious metaphor of the movie (hint: in the title). Our “control” is not a real freedom, unless we’re free to give it up when higher laws, such as love, require it. Otherwise it becomes a bondage, just another idol. If fear is what motivates our need to plan and direct, then we are not really liberated people, and that’s the kind of control we should seek to give up or surrender.

There are a many other good reasons to consider embracing the “surrender” we are talking about.

First, consider that we can’t really control our lives. Control is mostly an illusion we adopt, a conceit that we indulge. Even John Lennon noted that “life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.” Aside from the obvious and necessary planning that practical living requires, if we obsess about ensuring a seamless day, that day is sure to become unraveled. Micromanagement is a recipe for frustration.

Second, when we leave room for the freedom of other people in our life to breathe, we find that we have happier and healthier relationships. Friendships begin to flourish and family members bond more closely. It’s one of the great paradoxes of life that we only really have love when we set it free, that is, not be possessive about it (or him or her).

Third, and most importantly, we need to leave room in our lives for the spontaneity of grace, to allow God room to enter and inspire. It may take courage to “let go and let God”, since we have all kinds of irrational resistances to the idea. But again, a true Father has only the best interests of his child in mind. We should not be afraid of giving God some ear. His still, small voice may be the best thing we hear all day.

So, surrendering control is ultimately an act of genuine humility. It takes humility to say “I’m sorry” and admit that I have been wrong. But humility is only another way of acknowledging “reality”, and thus it is freedom. When I am humble, I’ve shed illusions, and I know exactly who I am, both my strengths and my weaknesses – and that God loves me for who I am. So both responsibility and “surrender” go hand-in-hand; they are like complementary friends who walk together.

A good day is one in which I have offered everything to be “fructified” – made holy and fruitful – by God himself. It always astounds me how positively different my day is when I have begun it in prayer, compared with days in which I have launched willy-nilly without entrusting the day to God. St. Ignatius of Loyola, in the Spiritual Exercises, recommends praying for a particular grace in this way: “that all my thoughts, intentions and operations be directed purely to the praise and service of his Divine Majesty.” This powerful morning prayer means that everything I do and say in a day can be made fruitful for God. It evokes both responsibility and surrender.

Nick “the Zone” Falzone believed that he could control his life, including the acts that he wished to keep hidden. But in the end these acts find their own way to reveal themselves, bringing about their own cosmic justice. Non-Christians might call this karma. Christ said “nothing is hidden that shall not be revealed, nor anything secret that shall not be made known and come to the light” (Luke 8:17). Nick learns this the hard way, but in the end, realizes that the great revealing of his real self is a great mercy.

While the characters in Pushing Tin are fallen human beings, and the director explores the nuances of their egotism with unrelenting attention, he also does so with a great overlying sympathy, as the periodic doses of humour indicate. What is true comedy but the ability to laugh at our human folly as it realigns with right living? In this way, the director shows us a pathway to inner freedom, through the spiritual practice of letting go.

Questions for personal reflection

1. How does the title “Pushing Tin”, the central metaphor of this film, point to a deeper meaning about human life?
2. What does “surrendering to God” mean to me, and what area of my life might need “surrendering”?
3. How have I experienced both forgiving and being forgiven, and what was the freedom like that followed that spiritual act?

“Through prayer we succeed in being with God. Anyone who is with God is far from the enemy. Prayer is a support and protection of charity, a brake on anger, an appeasement and the control of pride. Prayer is the custody of virginity, the protection of fidelity in marriage, the hope for those who are watching."  
— Gregory of Nyssa, De Oratione Dominica

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Review: On the Waterfront

By John O'Brien, S.J.

Director: Elia Kazan, 1954.
Actors: Marlon Brando, Eva Marie-Saint, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, Lee Cobb.
Music: Leonard Bernstein.

“Conscience... that stuff can drive you nuts!”
– Terry Molloy, On the Waterfront

Terry Molloy (Brando) is a young ex-prizefighter who is now a longshoreman, given easy jobs on the New Jersey waterfront because his older brother Charley (Steiger) is the right-hand man of the corrupt union boss, Johnny Friendly (Cobb). After Terry unwittingly allows himself to be used to set up the murder of a dockworker named Joey, he starts to question the basic assumptions of his life, including his loyalty to Charley and Johnny, who, after all, had ordered him to take a dive in his big fight in Madison Square Garden several years before. When he meets the murdered man’s sister Edie (Saint) and Father Barry (Malden), he is challenged even more to see the underlying corruption in the dockyards and his own complicity in it.

Place in History 

Near sweep of the Academy Awards in 1955, winning 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Writing, and Editing.
In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked it as the #19 Greatest Movie of All Time.

When On the Waterfront was released in 1954, it was 23 years after Pope Pius XI had issued his social encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931). The encyclical was written on the ethical implications of the social and economic order, similar to its predecessor Rerum Novarum (1891), Leo XIII’s seminal social encyclical 40 years prior. Pius XI described the major dangers to human freedom from both unrestrained capitalism and totalitarian communism.

Pius XI called for a social order based on the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, especially between employers and employees through new forms of cooperation and communication. He condemned communism but also the social conditions which nourished it. The encyclical called for a new social structure in which government, industry, and labor work together in a kind of third way between capitalism and communism. With this in mind, we can see in this film how the harmonious relationship between labour and capital can go astray, and that corruption is possible in any sector of society, wherever human beings do not respect the fundamental human dignity and rights of their fellows. Going a little deeper, the film also shows how any reform of a “system” must begin with a reform of the human heart. Terry Molloy’s moral awakening represents the personal “metanoia”, or conversion, that must precede the workers’ collective “metanoia” – which here means gaining the courage to end a corrupt system of domination, cronyism and kickbacks (enforced by violence), and the restoration of a more just system of union representation.

In the 1950s, in America, new worker and urban apostolic movements were active in the Church, the best known being those by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, founders of the Catholic Worker movement, and Catherine Doherty, who founded the Madonna House Apostolate. The character of Father Barry in On the Waterfront is based on the Jesuit priest, Fr. John Corridan, who fought corruption and organized crime on the New York City waterfront in the 1940s and 50s. He was one of many men and women who prayed and worked hard for justice in impoverished sectors of North American society. Their work continues today.

“ Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. Well, they better wise up!”
– Father Barry, On the Waterfront

Spiritual Reflection

For those of us alive today, the economic situation has changed dramatically since that of the 1950s.  North American economy is no longer primarily industrial, but has evolved into a faster, wealthier digital culture, the so-called information economy. This film, however, reminds us that some things never change: there is still conflict between the “hawks and pigeons” (notice this motif throughout the film!) today just as in every age. Souls are still damaged especially by the various forms of abandonment and neglect (as happened to Terry in this film). The exclusive pursuit of profit still drives many lives. Conscience – the still small voice of God written on our hearts – still speaks to each of us and calls us to metanoia.

Edmund Burke famously said, “All it takes for evil to prosper, is for good men to do nothing.” Sometimes conscience calls us to break out of a certain basic complacency, to crack our “comfort zones” as this complacency is often called today. Conscience can call us to make a greater witness to Truth, Goodness or Beauty than what we are accustomed to, even at personal cost. Our faith, too, requires of us an active form of listening, of paying attention to God’s voice in the world around us, and then acting. While there is, on the one hand, the risk of becoming “busybodies for Christ”, the extreme of activism, there is also the opposite risk of quietism, of letting things slide because the effort could cost too much. St. Ignatius of Loyola notes that the evil spirit loves the tactic of “proposing obstacles” and fears to our interior ear. These fears are often just illusions, “false reasonings”, and comprise 99% of the enemy’s tool-kit. But the answer is not a “golden mean” between activism and quietism, a kind of mushy-middle ground. Instead, Jesus invites to “Be not afraid!”, to take heart – for love will cast out all fear and empower us to do the impossible.

So how might we free ourselves from our own, personal forms of quietism and discover anew our freedom as sons and daughters of God? There are two powerful moments in the film that depict a particular turning point in the lives of the protagonists. We might call them “confessional moments”, scenes in which, having been touched by love, the characters admit they have been complicit in error. We will notice how these scenes are catalysts for the spiritual liberation that follows, although there is some cost. Without giving too much away, we can identify the first such scene as when Terry decides he will accept the risk of losing Edie, and admit to her his role in her brother’s murder. What we witness is certainly an imperfect confession, limited by outside interference, but it frees him spiritually to do what he must do.

The second is one of the most famous scenes in film history, the “I coulda been a contender” speech Terry gives his brother Charley in the taxicab. Here one brother must speak a hard truth to another, and, as director Elia Kazan later said about Brando: “Who else could read ‘Oh, Charley!’ in a tone of reproach that is so loving and so melancholy and suggests the terrific depth of pain?” Terry’s moment of truth-speaking to his older brother causes Charley “to convert” from the task he had set out to do, and make his own act of selfless sacrifice. In a sense, Terry had to “confess” Charley’s sins to and for Charley, by the very act of his gentle but powerful admonishment. This truth-telling, of naming what needed naming, is only possible because there is a shrunken but still living love between them.

In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius reminds us vividly that “the enemy behaves like a false lover who wishes to remain hidden and does not want to be revealed.” (Sp. Ex. 326), that the seducer loves to operate in the shadows. But by speaking and acting “confessionally”, that is, by living in the light and bringing things to the light, evil can be defeated and love can begin its road to restoration and full flourishing. Indeed, the light is already there, in the hearts of Terry, Charley, Edie and Father Barry. As this film shows, that light will shine in the darkness. And the darkness does not overcome it.

The theme of this film series is “The Hidden Roots of Love”. Somehow, in this classic, noir-like film we see only the beginnings of love taking form and standing on its own two feet. It invites us to consider how love requires a letting go of some voices, and of following others. Love means listening, above all, to an inner voice. Love will probably require of us a sacrifice, but it will, in the end, provide the one reliable pathway to inner freedom. On the Waterfront shows us the subtle and poignant manifestations of human and divine love in an otherwise grim and gritty world. In doing so, it gives us a little glimpse of heaven.


1) Is this film primarily about love or justice? How are they related?
2) As we see in the film, fear is a paralyzer. How do the characters overcome fear? 
Does fear play a role in my life that limits my ability to live and love more fully?
3) In every human drama, in one form or another, the drama of the Pascal Mystery (Christ’s passion, death and resurrection) is present in the lives of the characters. Is this the case in this film?