April 17, 2017


Here it is, folks. My long-awaited review.

-thin story -bad music -mean-spirited -minimal sets -useless men -unfunny snowperson -underdeveloped relationships

April 3, 2017


The new film, "Bitter Harvest," is a long overdue depiction of the "Holodomor"--the starvation of 7-10 million Ukrainians (1932-1933) at the order of the communist Soviet Union's Jozef Stalin. Does it succeed as a film? Not exactly, but it should still be viewed in order to raise awareness and get a quick history lesson (so many films today neatly serve this vital purpose). Why did Stalin do this? Ukrainian opposition to Soviet confiscation of their lands, and other harsh, imposed policies. And even more astonishingly: HOW did Stalin do this? He closed the borders (so there was no escape nor news of the horror abroad) and sent henchmen to wrest every last grain of wheat, every last bit of food from the populace.


Before the Nazi Holocaust, there was the Holodomor. Mass-scale slaughter is the fruit of atheistic, anti-human ideologies that see persons as disposable "problems"--standing in the way of "progress."

The film begins by showing us the pre-Soviet Ukraine ("breadbasket of Russia") dreaming of freedom from the long reach of the Russian czar, but living the peasant life of hard work and simple pleasures. Family life is strong, farm workers pause to pray in the fields. There is quick exposition and the story really moves along (it could actually have taken more time here to invest us in the characters). Actually, some of the action is happening so fast (with all the "beats" of the film of equal length) that "Bitter Harvest" could be called the pejorative "episodic." Yuri (Max Irons)--the grandson of a famous Ukrainian warrior--falls in love with a girl of his age when he's still a young boy, and we follow him and his lady love, Natalka (Samantha Barks, who was Eponine in "Les Miserables"), for the rest of the film. Happy times are not to last in the Ukrainian countryside. The Bolshevik Revolution is headed straight for them.


Yuri was raised to be fiercely patriotic and is told: "No one can ever break your spirit or take away your freedom."  Yuri develops into an artist, marries Natalka and goes to Kiev, even as the Russian noose is tightening around his peoples' neck, including his own family's. Natalka does not go to Kiev, but stays behind to care for their parents and help on the farm. (Stalin's predecessor, Lenin, dies, and Stalin calls him "soft." Stalin will now show no mercy, and he will use the Communist propaganda machine to cover up his hideous plans. Deportations to Siberia begin. "Push them, crush them.")
There are a few scenes that give us an idea of the heroism and suffering endured. The Soviets begin collecting valuables (and eradicating religion). A Ukrainian priest hides gold icons. The Soviet operative demands he hand them over: "There is not God, evil, sin or hell." The priest answers: "Hell is the inability to love," for which he is slain.


Yuri's young artist friend, who also went to Kiev, believes in Communist ideals and believes they will be good for the Ukraine and make it a great nation--until he realizes that controlling, enslaving, murderous ways are part and parcel of the system. Suddenly, artists may no longer express themselves freely. They must create highly-stylized, conformist, promotional, Soviet-art posters. Yuri's friend kills himself and Yuri winds up in prison where firing squads are a daily event. Our film finally slows down a bit as Yuri manages to escape and head back to his wife and family in the country. The rest of the film is a long trek to this effect, wherein Yuri encounters homeless and starving people (who don't really look in too bad a shape), and there are minor uprisings. The rest of the film really drags as Yuri reunites with Natalka and they try to escape the Ukraine.


The cataclysmic, intentional, sinister, raw, mind-boggling evil and the staggering proportions of the Holodomor are not captured in "Bitter Harvest." I kept waiting for it, but that movie is still to be made. The filmmakers had to make the story personal (the story of Yuri and Natalka), but what transpires is highly improbable--or, perhaps, portrayed improbably. Perhaps an engaging "based on a true story" will emerge from this piece of history, and that will become a great film. Toward the end of this film (the entire drawn out escape sequence) the soundtrack becomes an awful, generically heroic, churning, grinding loop that really grates on the nerves.


The Ukraine's struggle never really ended, even after the dissolution of the former U.S.S.R. Through the years, my Ukrainian friends told me that KGB-types continued to hunt down and assassinate those who were Soviet-resisters. Some of my friends won't even use their actual surnames.
Mandatory follow-up viewing: "Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom" (2015) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4908644/videoplayer/vi3224023833?ref_=tt_ov_vi , Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary. 6,000 Ukrainians have already died in the Euromaidan-protests-that-became-a-battle-that-has-now-expanded-to-include-the-conflict-over-the-annexation-of-Crimea-by-Russia/pro-Russian separatists.
This lovely and winning sentiment bookends the movie:

"Before I grew up
and realized that dragons were real
and evil roamed the world,
I fell in love."

--Another good follow-up film, "The Desert of Forbidden Art" http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1536458/videoplayer/vi2827590681?ref_=tt_ov_vi

--Read history correctly: STALIN WAS AN EVIL BEAST.

--Thankfully, word did eventually get out about the false, manufactured "famine," as well as photographs.

--"Holodomor" literally means: death by starvation. The full horror of what transpired was only revealed after the Soviet Union fell, circa 1991.

--In 2003, Russia signed a U.N. Declaration admitting to the Holodomor.

--I'm wondering if--even when the word got out (see news item below)--the rest of the world at the time just didn't believe such a feat/catastrophe was possible. Compounded by denial on the part of the U.S.S.R., perhaps the Holodomor was just dismissed from our collective consciousness?

--Wassyl Slipak, a Ukrainian opera singer, a singer with the opera in Paris, died in 2016 fighting for Ukraine.

March 3, 2017


This event is for men and women.

For young women discerning the Sisterhood, there will be a combined vocation discernment component to the day. If you are interested also in the vocation segment, please RSVP to: srhelenaburns@gmail.com

March 2, 2017


New feature of mah blog. Tiny reviews.

COP CAR -- Kevin Bacon (the sheriff) and two pre-teen boys who steal his car.
Great fun. I thought the cop would find the kids right away, but he doesn't.
Delightful tween dudes. Funny, but not really a comedy. So much suspense just waiting for the FIRST shoe to drop. Kind of a modern day "The Ransom of Red Chief." Kind of.
There is NO back story.
There is NO exposition.
We cut in so deep we have no idea who these people really are or what their intentions really are and it totally works without being postmodern or "just the middle of the story" or "just an Act 2."
Brilliant filmmaking.
Kevin Bacon and the boys are a revelation.
6 stars out of a possible 5.

GET OUT -- Race relations in the U.S. are complicated. This psychological suspense thriller is a woke, meta, savvy commentary on how crazy (northern?) white people (not ALL white people are crazy, of course) simultaneously despise, fear and envy black people. With an hilarious, unlikely hero: a TSA agent.
5 stars out of a possible 5.

UNDER SUSPICION -- (Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Monica Bellucci) While pretending to be shocked and outraged by the rape and murder of young girls, this film is a chic, well-acted and sophisticated defense of adult men's interest in underage girls. Pathetic. If Hollywood is the playground for pedophiles that it's rumored to be, this film is evidence.

SLEEPLESS --  (Jamie Foxx, Michelle Monaghan) Well acted and well filmed with all the state-of-the-art everything (only sore thumb is the repeated use of "dirty cop"), this tense and plot-twisty action flick of big-time crime alongside intimate family drama is just more of the over-the-top graphic and sadistic treatment of the human person that is par for "entertainment" today. Even 10 to 20 years ago, these multiple scenes of creative torture would have been reserved for one small debased scene in a Scorcese film. I can't imagine what a steady fare of this evil is doing to the children of today who are allowed to watch R rated films, let alone the adults.
Oh, and skinny, hi-heeled women in mano a mano fighting with huge male bodyguards? ONLY in the movies.
5 stars for unrealistic: human bodies are not made of rubber. One does not walk away and continue fighting and shooting after crashing through a plate glass window. One does not miss a human target after 5 minutes of shooting an automatic weapon. "Sleepless" is obscene.


Should you see the film? Yes.

Now for my review. Wow. Where do I begin? "The Shack," the book, is a New York Times bestseller, first published in 2007. It was written by Canadian William P. Young, who experienced healing in his own life, and as a Christian, needed to wrestle with the perennial "problem of evil" question. That's what the whole film is about: one long Job-style interrogation of God. Now. I highly recommend you read the book first. If you will not, try to read the book after. I eagerly anticipated this film because I loved the book so much, but as I watched the film--reasonably well-done as it is--I began to wonder if this book should ever have been made into a film. A book is mysterious and haunting (as we use our own imagination), but a film is "on the nose," spelled out, flat,  and one-dimensional in comparison. This book in particular is mysterious and haunting as it deals with the Trinity and suffering!


First, the theology. I am hearing accusations of "The Shack" being New Age. No. This is thoroughly Christian and Trinitarian (which, of course, is redundant). The book and film boldly take on depicting the Trinity and somehow it works. This is not a literal: Here's exactly what God "looks like" (the First and Third Person of the Trinity did not become incarnate). It's rather a: what if I got to have a long conversation with God, face to face, about how I don't like how He "set things up" (forgetting that we keep rejecting His original plan of how He set things up), how the world is, how my life is? What if I got to go to the Source to ask why? Certainly, we can do that in prayer. Certainly, we can read the Bible (it's all in there, germinally, at least). "The Shack" is quite a feat, really. Although lots of answers are creatively given for the problem of evil, we don't get trite, cliché answers. And it's not cerebral. The answers all come about relationally. There are no answers outside of relationship. In fact, there exists nothing in God's Creation outside of relationship. God Himself is pure relationship.


Without giving too much away, I will tell you that Mack, the troubled husband and father of three, is summoned by "Papa" (God the Father) to meet Him and Jesus and the Holy Spirit in a shack in the woods. Sound corny? It really isn't. Especially if you read the book first. Actually, if you read the book first, anything potentially corny or even offensive will have its edge taken off. So much of the filmic "Shack" is pretty much exactly as I pictured it. But the visuals really aren't that important. It's the heart. It's the essentials that the visuals should never distract us from (and here I'm not denigrating corporeality at all, only saying that "The Shack" deals primarily with the spiritual matters that explain and manifest themselves in and through the physical). If we don't understand spiritual matters, how will we ever understand physical matters?


If you come at "The Shack" assuming it fits into orthodox Judaeo-Catholic-Christian theology, I think you will find that it fits. If you come at it with suspicion, ready to attack, to nitpick, you could probably twist almost anything from the film into cannon fodder. My one (big) reservation is about hell. There is no mention of hell, only of love and forgiveness. God does say that "no one gets away with anything," and that His will is salvific (as it certainly is!), but hell exists, and there is the possibility that any one of us will choose it. (God doesn't send anyone to hell. Heaven is a gift and a gift can be refused.) This might simply be a glaring omission of the film, but a strange one since the film deals with the problem of evil, punishment, redemption, forgiveness and the afterlife. One of the explanations in the film for the evil people do is: they are just a product of their environment (Jean Jacques Rousseau!). Father beats son because he was beaten by his father, all the way back to Adam. Where is personal responsibility? However, the film suggests that personal responsibility involves forgiving those who have hurt you (Jesus' mandate and the words of the "Our Father.") "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay" (Deuteronomy 32:35/Romans 12:19).

Hell is even more on my mind at the moment since Jesus is preachin' about it in today's readings as I write this review: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/022317.cfm


At one point, a separate Wisdom figure (a woman) demands that Mack judge God and judge the world because he seems to be so good at that. She helps him see the logic of and need for mercy.


The Trinity was well cast. Yikes. I know this all sounds so blasphemous and sacrilegious, but it is not. There is nothing glib about "The Shack," and it's coming from a very good place. I've spoken to faithful, orthodox Catholics who have endured terrible losses who found the book very helpful. God the Father is played by Octavia Spencer (there were rumours that Oprah would be in the part, and she would have done a great job, but Oprah always portrays such strength. Octavia exudes the warmth and gentility needed for the role.) Why is "Papa" shown (initially) as a woman (but still called "Papa")? Because Mack  had a drunken, abusive father who beat him and his mother. "Papa" tells Mack: "I didn't think you could handle seeing a father just now." It's not a statement that God is not Father, or has not revealed Himself to us as the "masculine principle" of Father and Son, or that He is some kind of androgynous, amorphous Being. Mini-spoiler: Eventually, He will appear to Mack as Father (Graham Greene!) at a stage of Mack's healing where God says: "for this next part, you will need a father."

God in His divinity “transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman, He is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood...: no one is Father as God is Father." --CCC #239

I kneel before the Father,
from whom every family in heaven
and on earth derives its name.
                                   Ephesians 3:14-15

Jesus is a Jewish carpenter (played by Israeli Avraham Aviv Alush). The Holy Spirit is an Oriental woman (Japanese actress Sumire Matsubara). Again, this is not a statement that the Holy Spirit is female. If I recall, in the book, she is shimmery and constantly appearing and disappearing--not so in the film. The three actors do marvels with these larger-than-life (what else could we call them?) thespian tasks.


Rather than try to dialogue with every bit of this jam-packed yet not over-stuffed exploration of the problem of suffering and evil coinciding with a good God, I would just like to applaud and second its explanations. My one criticism might be that it feels a little mild, a little tame. Where is the passion? Where is the rage? Sam Worthington (whom I really enjoy as an actor) is terribly miscast (and he's the main character). He doesn't seem to know what to do with the part. He is not believable, and he adopts a strange, husky, whispery tone for most of the film. He has a non-typical Australian accent that almost sounds like a speech impediment (I'm not being mean or facetious here). His pronunciation of words sounds almost like a thick Welsh accent--lots of "th" sounds where there are none in English--so between the low, mumbling tones and the accent, it's often very difficult to catch his words, and it makes him unrelatable. He doesn't seem like your average Joe. He doesn't seem like he has suffered (like Casey Affleck in "Manchester By The Sea"!) He seems like a deer-in-the-headlights actor who is making us work hard to understand what he's saying.

Like Jacob, we are called to wrestle with God. But there must come a time when we move on, marked by the struggle. As the saying goes: suffering can make us bitter or better.


The film has the look and feel of a Hallmark film. The soundtrack is as vanilla, beige and generic as you can get. It really, really, really could have benefited from a sparse modern soundtrack rather than the full-blown, sappy treatment at all moments. It would have given it a whole different feel that would have been more appealing to a younger crowd and given it some gravitas. (Full disclosure: I also loved the young boy God figure in Ridley Scott's "Exodus." I think I go for gritty when it comes to God in cinema. This does not mean that I personally want to suffer.  I know God is reading this review, so I just wanted to state that for the record.)

The Southern twangy voiceover at the beginning, coupled with the tired, recycled Muzak soundtrack sets the tone as "Southern Christian Movie." I have spoken of this flaw repeatedly in my reviews of "Christian" films. And I deeply respect Southern Christian culture! I have been a recipient of its goodness! Nevertheless. Dear Southern Christian filmmakers: If you want to appeal to a wider audience--even though the film may actually be set in the South--there must be more to Southern culture than a lulling, milquetoast approach to God.

Also, advice for ALL movies: We needn't see the "old world" in Act One as perfectly shiny, giddy and blissful. It can be happy, but nuanced. There will still be a healthy contrast when the bomb drops.


Reports are that people are weeping in cinemas. Tears of healing. I'm so glad that the film has managed to connect, especially with a new audience or an audience that never will read the book. I felt that the book preserved and honored the horror of the tragedy better than the film, but perhaps that's just my perspective. Perhaps today in our literal, visual society, people DO need things spelled out for them, perhaps they need to SEE a little something in order to believe--and that's OK, too. May this film do much good to people who need family/relationship/tragedy healing to get over their frozen anger at God and others, and gain a better understanding of reality.


--Theology of the Body? Right on, as far as masculinity-fatherhood, femininity-motherhood goes. Really shows how the father-relationship, the father-wound either orders or disorders individual, family and societal lives.

--However, the wife is near-perfect. She is perfectly supportive and hardly has an emotion of her own. Some of the reactions and dialogue are not realistic, under these or any circumstances. People just don't talk like that. And I'm not even referring to the Godtalk. In screenwriting, there's something called "the writer's objective" (what the writer is trying to say/get across--and this must be absolutely invisible). "The character's objective" is what the character is trying to say/get across--which should be the only thing we hear. We hear the writer's objective all over "The Shack." It shows the screenwriter's lack of patience and/or craft in burying the need to give the audience information and move the story ahead deep inside the character's objective.

--Bizarre Indian princess story at the beginning, almost intimating a bizarre and necessary sacrifice. Can't remember if that was in the book. I sure hope not.

--Possible film heresy: The Holy Spirit is not Jesus' soul/spirit. Jesus has/is His own human soul.

--Some REALLY great lines and nuggets and quotes. The Holy Spirit brilliantly (of course!) condemns moral relativism and being our own arbiters or right and wrong (what the tree of knowledge of good and evil is really about).

--I like Graham Greene (Canadian!) better than Morgan Freeman as God. :)

--Read the fascinating story of how "The Shack" came to be: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shack. This Wikipedia entry also includes Protestant objections to its theology, including an accusation of "modalism." Read about William P. Young: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_P._Young.
Beautiful "Shack" website: www.theshackbook.com

February 23, 2017


Is the fĂȘted "La La Land" really so great? Yes, if you like sheer escapist  films and golden-era Hollywood films. Also, it's pretty much a quasi-musical. It doesn't try too hard, and is very tongue-in-cheek about what it purports to be, so it's an overall light and uplifting experience. Definitely the "feel-good" film of the year. However, there are some challenging conversations toward the end, and it will be imperative that you decide what YOU would do in Mia's (the ever-effervescent Emma Stone) and Sebastian's (Ryan "Hey Girl" Gosling) place. The writer-director is Damien Chazelle ("Whiplash").


Hollywood loves films about Hollywood and the whole process of filmmaking (remember "The Artist" and, more recently, "Birdman"? Both Best Picture winners in their respective Oscar years). But why do most people enjoy dreaming with the silver screen? Ah, this is one of the great draws of story and film. Just for a moment, just for a minute, we imagine and enter wonderful worlds and trip the light fantastic. As Berthold Auerbach said of music: "Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life." The music in question here is jazz (which I, for one, am wildly fond of). Sebastian is a classic jazz piano player who dreams of opening his own club. But classic jazz is dying. Mia dreams of being a successful actress, but she's in the company of thousands and thousands. What are her chances of standing out?

After having lived in L.A. for five years, I understood the drill: actors can't keep jobs because they have to keep going to auditions at odd hours. Actors are treated brutally and summarily dismissed with no explanation. (We screenwriters were told at UCLA that when our work is rejected, it's just our ideas, so get over it. Actors have their whole being picked over and rejected: looks, voice, walk, personality, etc.)


The soundtrack, which is critical to many plot points, helps lend an old-timey feel to the whole film--jazz, 40's romantic ballads, magical Fantasia-esque orchestra with a generous helping of chimes, oboes, plucked strings and flutes. The music and the visuals carefully play with various Hollywood decades and we float seamlessly in and out of them, even though this is firmly a present-day setting. Dancing weaves effortlessly in at opportune moments: tap, ballroom and little bit of honky tonk. The music and dancing are not overused. The camera is having lots of whimsical fun, too, sashaying and spinning about. An  element of nostalgia combined with unexpected story-turns is always lurking. LLL evokes the kind of celluloid daydreaming and stargazing people used to "live for" and "live off of." We are even transported to the Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood Hills--first in a film within the film, and then to the Observatory itself where Sebastian and Mia dance among the stars.

"La La Land" is a straightforward linear romance with no flashbacks or B stories--which is a bit of a relief in today's "Memento," toying-with-chronology-and-point-of-view" storytelling culture. LLL is a film about hope and wonder (the last film I saw about wonder was "Tree of Life." Wonder is a bit of a rarity as a film-subject, maybe it always was?) If you're like me, you'll smile frequently during this unusual film.


Sebastian and Mia meet in infamous L.A. traffic on a backed-up freeway on-ramp, and the movie starts off with a bang as people get out of their cars and begin dancing on them --synchronized and singing, of course--like so many commercials we've seen. Pure "fun" is the word that came to mind over and over. And charming. Definitely charming. Just as I was feeling like this was really a lovely throwback to a sweeter time (single girls living all together in an all-girl apartment! Girl roommates giggling over dates coming to pick them up!)--the filmmakers had to slip in a modern-day requisite, a fly in the ointment, a snake in the garden: hooking up and living together. Sigh. As though it were nothing. Sigh. Hooking up and co-habitation is really a blight on the whole enterprise with its terrible message of CONDITIONAL LOVE.


Will you agree with the ending? That it's a good ending, a "just" ending? At first I didn't totally agree, but then I realized it might have been a kind of "altruistic love" ending, almost an O. Henry "Gift of the Magi" type ending, but I mustn't say more than this, except that there's also a very clever alterna-ending.

I would love to discuss the ending more, but it would be a big spoiler. One thing I think we have to ask ourselves in general is this: When do we have to "give up" dreams? We only get one life. Best we make it real and good and beautiful as it is. How? By rolling it all up in a unified ball of faithful glory.

Best Picture at the Oscars? Only if it was a slow year for films, but it wasn't. We had "Hacksaw Ridge."


--This film is much better, more enjoyable than "The Artist."

--A lot of thought, planning and meticulosity went into this film, but the feel is so free-flowing--something that perhaps can only come about when discipline is employed. LLL is frothy, but you're forced to examine your own hopes and dreams and what you've done or not done about them.

--Tapdancing on the sunhorizon.

--An example of LLL's film-era mash-up: some of Sebastian's dialogue is of the "hard-boiled" variety.

--Lots of L.A. jokes, but not all insider jokes. Anyone can get them.

--Emma and Ryan have decent, complementary singing voices.

--Funny snatches of Mia's auditions.

--Watts Towers!

--A few great theme songs/melodies.

--Mia gets schooled on what jazz is all about.

--It seems Sebastian's music is emphasized and explored more than Mia's acting.

--The Griffith Observatory makes an appearance.

--Great build-up to their first kiss.

--Good lyrics, good movement, a good quasi-musical.

--The 1930's bungalow style apartment with the colored-and-black tiles in the bathroom.

--"L.A. worships everything and values nothing." However, I met plenty of film-historian types in L.A. within and without "the industry" who care deeply about Hollywood's past. Not L.A., mind you, Hollywood. L.A. is kind of ahistorical, continually erasing its past. So many transients! I heard it said that 1,000 people come to L.A. every day seeking fame and fortune and 1,000 leave daily. It's the "City of Broken Dreams." I remember once seeing a well-groomed woman walking down Hollywood Blvd., sobbing uncontrollably (and histrionically).

L.A. sometimes feeling like a non-existent place. The Pentecostal Movement started there among "people of every nation," led by the humble and prayerful William Seymour, and Los Angeles became known as another "Jerusalem." The buildings where it all transpired have been leveled. The downtown isn't really anything, but other scattered city-centers are where things happen: Century City, Culver City, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Venice, Malibu. The cardboard city of Skid Row is a tragic mini-metropolis of the homeless and crippled and cast off (hospitals were caught dumping John and Jane Doe patients, including the elderly in its streets when I lived in L.A. from 2000-2005). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skid_Row,_Los_Angeles

Incidentally, L.A. is known for its LACK of jazz and support of jazz. I heard Carmen Lundy (singer) and Regina Carter (jazz violin) at "The Jazz Bakery" in Culver City, and Carmen was bemoaning the fact!

--Ryan Gosling is better than Ryan Reynolds (both Canadians).

--Different people are getting different meanings out of the ending. :)

February 13, 2017


Denzel Washington's Oscar-nominated "Fences," is an adaptation from a Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1983 August Wilson play. Denzel both directs and acts in this quotidian, small town, seemingly small stuff character study. Set in 1950's Pittsburgh, Denzel's character, Troy, is a garbage man. He's a complicated mix of a gifted raconteur, a complaining curmudgeon, and a would-have-been baseball player. We learn about the sad circumstances of his upbringing midway through the film--bringing us further back to 1918. Troy is married to the lovely Rose (the splendid Viola Davis), his second wife.


I feel that a play/film of this nature, quality, sensibility couldn't be written today (Wilson was born in 1945). We have lost so much of the meaning of man/woman, husband/wife, the indissolubility of marriage--as well as the project of modernity and the American Dream. Although "Fences" is ostensibly about a subpar family life--due to Troy's bitterness and blaming everyone but himself, it is also hopeful--if we "take the crookeds with the straights," if we accept what life pitches at us and make the absolute best of it. However, is there a subtle apologia here for men not holding up their end of--not a bargain or a deal or a contract--but a relationship: namely, marriage? Or is this the playwright's forgiveness paean to his own father?

The period lingo, manners and mannerisms could all be researched for a story like this, but today's PC assumptions, agendas and dogmas would simply not allow for an unbiased, clear-eyed look-back into the inner sanctum of this hard-working, blue collar African-American Christian family. And even with all the good will in the world, I think the mentality and milieu of yesteryear would be almost incomprehensible to today's dramatist. Yes, I believe that that much has changed that much.

Change itself is an ever-present theme in "Fences." Troy will not believe that white attitudes toward blacks will ever change (even when faced with proof). Troy chooses to hold himself and everyone around him back, or rather "fence them in."


Although we can sympathize with Troy, at a certain point there are no excuses for his excuses. How he treats his wife and his two sons isn't right, but sadly typical and realistic, too. Women, wives and mothers are portrayed as the long-suffering, saintly creatures they are (or rather, were): the glue, the mortar holding everything together. I couldn't help thinking that in a few short years, that would all come crashing down and the Women's Movement would declare: Enough! (Of course, these dysfunctional male-female double standard behavioral patterns are not completely erased even today--where the woman is expected to and does hold the moral high ground while the man is his own arbiter of rectitude.)


In "Fences," like many other plays-cum-films, the screen adaptation has not changed the hyper-real dialogue much, and it downplays the visual--except for faces and verbal interaction. Instead, it showcases Denzel, the stage actor. The question simply is: Are you OK with plays turned into films pretty much as they are? The mini-speeches are long. The settings are few and almost entirely domestic. However, the camera angles do make it feel like more of a cinematic experience. In my humble opinion, good plays will make good film-plays--even if not given the full film treatment. Bad plays...well, you get the picture. "Fences" is a good play.

Plays--like television--are a talking medium: a series of monologues. rich, crafted dialogue and storytelling linked together by subtle action-shifts (often occurring offstage). When "Fences" begins, we are treated to Troy at the top of his game, chattering up a storm, with frequent references to the inequities "Negroes" routinely endure from "the white man." We feel there may be some confrontation, some terrible injustice around the corner. We feel a tension boiling. But nothing so easy is in the cards. Troy must confront himself. Troy must have the honesty and courage to confront himself. Will he ever?

"Fences" is definitely a father-son film, "How Not To Father," perhaps. How cycles repeat themselves. But right alongside this primordial relationship is the dynamic of husband-wife (the mother-son relationship is so overshadowed by the male-to-male dynamic of father-son that Rose is not "allowed" to exercise her feminine influence on either side of the equation, even though she tries).


And yet, Rose's impassioned and accurate "marriage diatribe" blows time-bound thinking and mores out of the water. She brilliantly, viscerally outlines the eternal, "perennial gift" (JP2) that marriage is and has always been. She skeletally describes its elevated dignity that will elevate all who fully participate in it. Not only does Rose comprehend--through experience and the practice of virtue--what the heart of matrimony is (love, duty, sacrifice, keeping one's word, modifying dreams and expectations, self-donation, honoring vows, cleaving to one person, giving one's best, meeting life's demands), she also understands what children need, what children are, and how our personal identities are formed: "We can't be other than what we are," meaning the raw material, our parentage, our childhoods, our families, our siblings, our formative experiences. But Rose also knew that these defining touchstones are not meant to fatalistically limit us. We can always reach for the more that's right in front of us.


--Lovely, transcendent character of "Gabriel," Troy's brain-damaged-from-war brother who lives in readiness for the next life, trumpet at the ready, fighting hell-hounds and communicating with St. Peter at the pearly gates.

--One of Troy's many excuses for his attitude and actions is a sad reduction of his marital/parental/family duties to money. He provides money and shelter, and that's all that should be required of him.

--The whole film is a negative Theology of the Body lesson.

--"Everything that boy does, he does for you. He needs to hear 'Good job, son. I'm proud of you.'"

--Marriage is becoming one. Pursuing hopes and dreams together (no matter how modest): not separately, not as individuals, living what is essentially a fantasy-double-life.

--Read more about the play (one in a series of 10): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fences_(play)

--Read about August Wilson: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_Wilson

February 7, 2017


The Oscar-nominated sci-fi film "Arrival" is a vacuous, insipid waste of time, in my humble opinion. I can't stand alien movies, but everyone assured me this wasn't an alien movie, or not your typical alien movie. (It is.) "E.T." and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" are so much better than "Arrival," even though they may not totally stand the test of time. Speaking of time, the theme of "Arrival" is majorly about time. But in a really bad, stupid, fictional way that doesn't translate into anything in science, physics or reality that might be even slightly helpful and useful to us human beings. "Inception" is a much better exercise of the moral imagination on the subject of time and a better use of your time.


I forced myself to watch this film on the recommendation of a theology-savvy, pop-culture-maven priest friend who absolutely loves "Arrival" and is (incredibly) mining its "depths" and finding gold there. I wonder if he has heard of "fool's gold." I began watching this slow-moving, boring movie with a grating, irritating, looping "other worldly" soundtrack--waiting for it to get good. But that never happened. Amy Adams does her earnest best to play a language expert who is called on by the U.S. government/military to decipher the aliens' language. Jeremy Renner might as well not have had a part at all (except for the weak, confusing ending). He is less ornamental than space debris. I like both of these actors very much and felt sad and embarrassed for them. "Arrival" was beneath their skill sets. This film could have used unknowns.

My movie reviewing skills were also squandered on this film, and I took fewer notes on this film than any film in recent memory because there was nothing to write about. The story unimaginatively commences like a sequence from a low-budget TV show: We find out what's happening through various news broadcasts: scenes of hysteria, panic and states of emergency. Twelve huge pods suddenly appear on earth, hovering in disparate locations around the world (Montana, USA--where we spend most of our time, Russia, Pakistan, China, Sudan, Greenland). No one knows what these vessels are, what they mean, why these locations were chosen.


The military of each country is, of course, assessing the threat level, veering toward extreme caution, suspicion, taking no chances and assuming hostility. Communications with the beings in the pod are difficult because they use a very unusual form of language (both sounds and script). Do they come in peace? Do they come with a message? Are they offering technology? Do they know something we don't know? How much time are they giving us before they attack? Are we angering them by our miscommunication? Are we misunderstanding them completely? Oh, and the "aliens" are laughable and ridiculous looking. Sorry.

There is a thin, thin A story and no B or C story, except for continuous flashbacks involving Amy Adam's character's daughter, whom she lost to cancer. The love story is Disney princess overly romanticized. The grandiose idea/choice of war vs. peace is simplistically trotted out and simplistically dealt with. The U.S. military are stereotypically impatient, trigger-happy and ready to declare war, putting a time lock on the language-scientists to accurately decipher the aliens' intentions. But nothing feels urgent because the story, acting, tropes and visuals are so trite and tired and unengaging--and we've seen it all before on the small screen. There is nothing fresh and new here. There is abundant use of voiceover (a big no-no at my film school, UCLA), but it comes across (in Amy Adams' ethereal voice) as desperately trying to be profound and spiritual and contemplative and say something IMPORTANT. It fulfilled none of these objectives for me. I did not feel one iota reflective watching this film--many of the sentiments expressed fell on my ears like a sappy greeting card: "Don't take anything for granted." "Every day is a gift." "I embrace the journey now, every minute of it" [but it's a non-linear journey, folks, see the rest of this review]. And the ending--which plays with time--kinda sorta angered me, not because it was some impossible twist or disjointed from the rest of the film, but because it trashes reality while wanting us to believe this trashing is an actual possibility that can help us in some way examine on our own experience.


So here's what got me totally irked. What was presented, in the end, was a totally non-Judaeo-Christian worldview. Which is fine, because there are other worldviews out there! However, I guess what really irks me is not just a poorly-made film with a strong non-Judaeo-Christian worldview, but that Jews and Christians do not even realize how "alien" films like these are to their worldview. They embrace these films as though they contain some amazing meta-wisdom for us when they do not. (Not that we can't learn some truth, beauty and goodness contained in other worldviews, but overall? Nope.)

In "Arrival," Amy Adams' character (who has "secret knowledge" because she has "been here before," and "lived this already") clearly states: "I don't know if I believe in beginnings and endings anymore." This is a classic pagan* worldview: matter is eternal, everything just repeats itself over and over again in a never-ending cyclical pattern. Reincarnation. Time and history are non-linear. This is not the Judaeo-Christian understanding at all, and also not what cosmology and the Big Bang Theory tell us. Time, history, salvation history and each of our lives are linear. There is a beginning and an end to the story of Creation, of the world, and each of our precious life-stories. Jesus Christ is the Alpha and the Omega.
*pagan--not a derogatory term--means literally "from the countryside," those who do not follow one of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam


--Some who love this film are telling me that the Amy Adams character is able to "see as God sees." I presume they mean that she has been given the "grace" to be able look backwards over her life, or lead her life in reverse, or know in advance why certain things happen or something like that. Um, no one gets that "grace." Is that even a grace? Isn't that what people go to fortune tellers for and why it's forbidden? No one sees life exactly as God sees it or understands the totality of the tapestry, and if we did, there would be no purpose for faith or hope. I would think this would be more of a curse, especially because we have free will and this "time travel" would allow us to alter the future, etc., etc. There's a reason there are no crystal balls.

Also, folks are saying "Arrival" is so pro-life. I have no idea what they're talking about. "The Girl on the Train" is pro-life. Yes--I thought that film was going to be as bludgeoningly bad as "Gone Girl," but it's actually not bad. (My "micro-review" coming soon.)

FURTHERMORE: God is not even intimated. There are just aliens--who, although butt-ugly--are more peaceful and better at time-twisting or understanding the "true nature of time" than we are or something like that because they're "highly evolved" beings that don't have to care what they look like. Rubbish. I guess I'm just fed up with God being left out. But I shouldn't let myself be fed up (even though "The Young Pope" spoiled me with the amazing overt God-talk and God as a character), because, as Charles Williams once said: "Shakespeare expressed supernatural values in natural forms," as does any good art.

If you struggle with issues of "free will" and "is man truly free"? Read David Foster Wallace's defense of free will vis-a-vis determinism and fatalism: https://cup.columbia.edu/book/fate-time-and-language/9780231151573

--I'm just re-reading my sparse notes from the film. I spy "hokey," "cheesy," "ham-handed," and "schmaltzy" scribbled in the margins.

--One good Theology of the Body aspect: Adams' character clearly represents the feminine principle of "intuitive" knowledge while Renner's character represents the masculine principle of "analytical" knowledge. Both are indispensable. Adams is pretty much the only female surrounded by male scientists and military. Obviously a message here.

--I think I read once that the physical form that aliens take in sci-fi movies is irrelevant. They're even made to be uninteresting because we're supposed to focus on something else. But still.

--Those circles drove me NUTS. I kept waiting for a different shape, a squiggle, anything!

--One interesting language theory is put forth.

--Supposedly a big revelation: "There are different ways to interpret that statement [from the aliens]." (DUH.)

--I was left with HUGE plot questions that I can't put here without totally spoiling this "film."

--Some say our obsession with aliens and alien movies is an attempt to make sense of the mystery in our own lives. Some say it's an attempt to deal with our worst fears of invasion and aggression and all-out war and annihilation. Others say it's an escape from God: the "I'll believe in anything but God" stance. I haven't quite figured it out yet. (And maybe all these explanations are true.)

         "It is appointed for man to die once, and after this, judgment." --Hebrews  9:27

February 3, 2017



Why keep up with "Catholic news" from (trusted, authentic) Catholic sources? Why also get "secular" news from a (trusted, authentic) Catholic perspective? (If you're reading a Catholic blog, I'm probably LITERALLY preaching to the choir, but here goes.)

1. There's a lot going on in the Church and in the world today, good and bad. We just can't afford not to know. Ignorance is not bliss, it's blindness. It's not knowing where we're going or why. Lack of knowledge leaves us open to be easily manipulated, misled, disillusioned.

2. There's a lot going on in the intersection of the Church and the world today, good and bad.

3. If we don't keep up, we'll drift from our Faith and suddenly be surprised by developments and not comprehend them. Because we weren't keeping up. If we love something, we want to know it always better and keep pace with it. If we love Jesus' Church, we'll do the same.

4. We need knowledge first and then wisdom to understand the times we're living in and the challenges and opportunities for the Faith.

"The sons of Issachar, who were men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do...." 1 Chronicles 12:32

5. Jesus admonished those who couldn't "read the signs of the times."

What are some top sources for Catholic news? Here are my picks in order of my preference. (I checked with two mainstream Catholic news radio personalities, a Catholic newspaper editor and young adult Catholic journalist to get their input as well.)

These are not just websites, but can be followed/subscribed to on both Twitter and Facebook (you can usually just go to the site and sign up from there, as well as follow by email: they'll send updates into your email inbox).

www.Twitter.com is my #1 source of breaking Catholic news. Wanna get started on Twitter? It's pathetically simple to sign up. Then just "follow" me: @SrHelenaBurns and click on "Tweets" and then "Lists" at the top of my Twitter page. I only have one list: "news-secular-and-Catholic." Click on it and voila! You are instantly following 150 top Catholic (and secular news sites), as well as some very informed individual Catholics (including bloggers) who will keep YOU informed. I don't agree with ALL the sources/folks on that list, just so you know. I personally read "everything."

However, the following sources ARE vetted, and I recommend 'em:

www.WordOnFire.org   Bishop Robert Barron instantly comments on current issues with solid Catholic guidance via short YouTubes (see also his YouTube channel). Fr. Barron's YouTubes are easily shareable and very popular among young adults. It seems even young atheists will watch his stuff because "at least this guy makes sense." Or as Brandon Vogt says: "Fr. Barron is on a mission to show that Catholicism is smart, and has one of the world's most brilliant intellectual traditions."

www.CatholicWorldReport.com (from Ignatius Press--thoughtful in-depth articles about stuff I promise you you didn't know and need to. They discontinued their fine, fine print magazine which was my all-time favorite Catholic periodical. *sob*)  (You can subscribe via email.) See also: www.IgnatiusInsight.com

www.RelevantRadio.com  (Listen online!) Hi-quality 24hr Catholic radio station mostly in Chicago & Midwest. Get their app for iPhone & Android: www.relevantradio.com/app. Constant secular and Catholic news updates as well as in-depth instruction, talk shows and news analysis from Emmy-winning journalist, Sheila Liaugminas (show: "A Closer Look"). Shows are also instantly archived and easy to find on their website.

www.ThePopeApp.com is the most pathetically simple way to keep with all things papal and Vatican. 

Support Catholic radio in your area (and online)! Radio apps for mobile technology means you can take it wherever you go, too.

From U.S. Bishops regarding religious liberty (free): text "FREEDOM" to 377377 (for Spanish: "LIBERTAD")


(get on their e-newsletter list) AND simply put "Theology of the Body" in Google alerts!

www.EWTN.com Global Catholic TV and radio network. Multimedia, tons of resources, streaming online. Also in Spanish. (Full disclosure: I'm on their Sonrise Morning Show once a month--radio.)

www.NCRegister.com  (Owned by EWTN) National Catholic Register (can subscribe via email) print edition also available. Simply the finest, most balanced, faithful-yet-super-contemporary take on Church and world news. Bravo.

www.Zenit.org (daily headlines from Vatican--unofficial, but quick & easy way to get Vatican news)

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/BadCatholic THE voice of faithful millennial Catholics. But are you hip enough to read it?

www.MarysAggies.blogspot.com The Catholic news blog of Texas A & M's amazing Catholic campus ministry, St. Mary's (a model for the nation). Young adult friendly.

www.News.VA/en  The new, revamped Vatican media site!!! Includes the official Vatican Newspaper (L'Osservatore Romano), Vatican Information Service, Fides New Agency, Vatican Radio, etc.

Blessed James Alberione reading his favorite newspaper:
L'Osservatore Romano (with Bro. Silvio de Blasio, SSP)
Below is L'Osservatore Romano (the official Vatican Newspaper, I believe it's weekly in English). Print edition is well worth the subscription price. It was printed in English in the USA (for USA and Canada) for a little while, but is now mailed directly from the Vatican. Full texts of Holy Father's talks and doings and other important stuff from the Vatican Offices.  
www.CatholicNewWorld.com  This is Chicago's Archdiocesan newspaper. Subscribe to your own diocese's! You'll get international, national and local Catholic news. (Full disclosure: I was the movie reviewer for Catholic New World for 6 years.)

www.CatholicRegister.org (Canada) Voted BEST North American diocesan newspaper (weekly). From Archdiocese of Toronto, but goes all over Canada. Canadians are just so classy and literary and in-depth on the issues and such. Especially read Fr. Raymond J. de Souza column: it's incisive like a Ninja. Digital subscription available.

www.OriginsOnline.com  Weekly news from the U.S. Bishops (important statements from Bishops individually and as a whole). Pricey, but worth it. Print or online.

www.CatholicNews.com  This is the user-friendly "CNS" news service of the U.S. Bishops. This website compiles a lot of news resources, including movie reviews (which are short, dry and focus mostly on what is appropriate for children or family viewing, don't look for an appreciation of artistry). It includes links to top news stories from Origins and international  Church news. See at bottom of website: www.InterMirifica.net --int'l Catholic multimedia directory!

www.LifeSiteNews.com A lot of my trusted Catholic sources think this site is a little radical, sensational and inaccurate (I disagree), but boy does LifeSiteNews crank out pro-life news in a constant, exciting fashion! They are not mean-spirited or confrontational, and they REALLY know how to use new media and graphic arts. I often hear about important life issues news from them first.

www.MarsHillAudio.org This is a high-brow, high-Christian, monthly NPR-style audio magazine (CD or mp3-download subscription, well worth the shekels, about $40 a year) that keeps you up on the latest books (often by Christians) examining our culture under many different aspects. Lots of interviews with authors and professors. MHA is not Catholic, but very Catholic friendly.

www.EnvoyMagazine.com Wicked fun, non-highbrow apologetics. Gorgeous graphic design. Patrick Madrid.

www.MercatorNet.com  Weird title, good info. Dedicated to any issue dealing with human dignity. In-depth and thoughtful digest.

www.LumenChristi.org  Like philosophy? Me, too!!! Watch world-class Catholic (and other) philosophers on video. This amazing Institute (set up by Cardinal George at the University of Chicago, his alma mater) is revitalizing Catholic philosophy. Kind of a think tank. If you live in Chicago you can go to these talks in person. FREE.

www.RelevantMagazine.com My hipster Catholic young adult friends swear by this Evangelical mag. Even the ones who never read. Please note the amazing layout/graphics.

www.BooksandCulture.com  Just like it says. It's a Christian review from www.IntervarsityPress.com Not high-brow, but definitely meant for ministry and often examining intersection of pop culture and faith. You can get their e-newsletter or print edition. Or both.

www.OSV.com (Our Sunday Visitor) Weekly online and print. Looking for a FUN, positive, family-oriented, EASY-READ-but-still-informative Catholic news source? Look no further. Best of its kind.

www.GetReligion.org  One of my consultants swears by this site. It's where religion journalists and editors go to vent. And analyze religious stories in the news.

www.CatholicCulture.org  (top stories) (I've never used it, by all 4 of my "consultants" do)

www.CatholicTV.com (out of Boston) 24 hr, streaming online.

www.NETTV.net  (out of Brooklyn) 24 hr, streaming online.


www.CardinalNewmanSociety.org What's going on on "Catholic" college campuses....

Oh yes, and a last-but-not-least reason to keep up with Catholic news:
Papa B asked us to be "an engaged, articulate and well-informed Catholic laity" 
specifically in the United States! He said this to a group of U.S. Bishops on their ad limina visit (Jan. 2012)
because of  how religious freedom was being threatened in this country. 

PUHLEEEEZE do not get your Church news from the New York Times. I was a long-time fan and reader of the Sunday NYT, but not any more. (Their embrace and incessant promotion of abortion is downright creepy.) When it comes to religion (especially Catholicism) they are intellectually dishonest (misrepresenting, withholding information, pretending they don't grasp the issues) and hostile.

As a matter of fact, why trust secular news to:
1. report accurately (it's just all that draconic mumbo-jumbo that doesn't make sense anyway, right?)
2. care
3. comprehend
4. be honest (see #1.)
5. interpret what it all means for us?

AND our dear Papa Francis can be seriously misunderstood by the secular press. I have recently been embarrassed by my fellow Catholics whose ignorance of what Jesus and their Catholic Faith say, coupled with blind trust of secular media has caused them to react in all kinds of unCatholic ways to statements of the pope (and sometimes faulty translations of his words, too). 

Stop it, people! Time to wise up, keep up, and get your Best Catholic News Sources on!

End rant.

January 25, 2017


HEAR YE! HEAR YE! CAVEAT! CAVEAT! For whatever effusive praise you may hear from me below about HBO's series "The Young Pope," be it known that it is FILLED with nudity and sex scenes in almost every episode. (I have watched the entire first season.) Genitals are never shown, but lots of female breasts, male and female posteriors, and nude or semi-nude sex scenes. Was the nudity pertinent to the story? Yes. But for artists, morality is always aesthetical: What do you show? How do you show it? How much do you show? I believe that probably 80% of the nudity/sex was unnecessary, even though I don't believe its intent was outright lasciviousness. True, Europeans have a different sensibility toward the naked human body, but there are also some universal principles when it comes to film (see John Paul II's guidance below). Nudity and sex scenes will still have their effect on the human body, psyche, imagination and memory of the viewer. So, sadly, very sadly, in my estimation, YP would not be for teens--or for adults struggling with porn issues. But for those who wish to glean the great good that can be had from experiencing YP (as I did), there is always the "look away" method or fast forward (if recorded) or hands-with-splayed-fingers-alternating-up-and-down-in-front-of-your-eyes-like-one-does-for-gore-and-horror.  I employed a combination of the first and third of these methods. I kept asking myself: "Does the good outweigh the bad (excessive nudity/sex scenes) of YP?" My conclusion (at least in my own case) was a resounding YES. If it didn't, I wouldn't even be doing a review.

Some words of wisdom from former actress LeeLee Sobieski (yes, descendant of Jan Sobieski) who left Hollywood to help her fashion designer hubby and raise her kids:

Back in 2012, Sobieski hinted that she was ready to leave Hollywood. “Ninety percent of acting roles involve so much sexual stuff with other people, and I don’t want to do that,” she explained to Vogue. “It’s such a strange fire to play with, and our relationship is surely strong enough to handle it, but if you’re going to walk through fire, there has to be something incredible on the other side.” --US Weekly

Please also check out this guidance from John Paul II on images of the body in art and media:


In case you already watched the trailer for "The Young Pope," some YouTube clips or even the first one or two episodes and wrote it off (as I did) as an easy, sleazy (and perhaps bizarre) pot shot at the Catholic Church, you may wish to give it a second chance. We were all misled. It's too bad that the first episode is not indicative of the series. Those who wanted to see pot shots? They're gonna be disappointed. Those who got offended (YP's real audience, I think)? You already lost 'em.
I was contacted by The Catholic Register (Toronto's Archdiocesan newspaper) to do an interview on it, and my first reaction was: Nope, not interested. Actually this was my exact email response:

The premise of "The Young Pope" seems to be rather meh, sophomoric, silly, juvenile:
"a cool, swinging, good-looking pope who (scandal!) breaks all the rules and makes
the Church 'progressive'! Wheee!"

I also thought that it might be about bureaucracy. Yawn. There is nothing, nothing, nothing more boring in a movie than bureaucracy--especially Church bureaucracy. This is why the film "The Third Miracle" is an utter failure and soul-crushingly boring. Someone thought that the internal legalities of the Catholic Church was entertainment.

But this is not at all what "The Young Pope" is about. To the contrary, the young pope (a fifty-year-old American played with aplomb by a New-York-accented Shakespearean Jude Law) is actually a  traditionalist. A big chunk of the first episode was the young pope's nightmare. The young pope is a disciplined, somewhat harsh, orthodox, somewhat arrogant, wet behind the ears, passionate, authoritative, reckless, faithful, prayerful, macho, flawed but with penetrating insight into humanity, unexpected and unpredictable, media savvy, walking contradiction (as is the series itself). YP is deep not cheap. It is not mean-spirited. YP is unlike anything I have ever seen. It is profound. It almost defies description. Only a Catholic, only an insider, only a man who cares about God (and the Church) would have undertaken "The Young Pope," such as it is. (It also really helps to be Catholic and have a thorough knowledge of your Catholic Faith--otherwise you might possibly get a little lost or confused: Does the Church really teach that? Is that really how Cardinals are?)


We always need to ask (as I was taught in film school): "Why was this project even made? What is the point? What difference does it make whether or not this project gets/got made?" And we were taught that the audience should always ask: "So what? Why should I watch your thing? Why should I care?" So why was YP made? I don't know. The interviews with the Oscar-winning writer-director, Paolo Sorrentino, have been distinctly, decidedly and disappointedly unenlightening. He even does injustice to his own character, accepting interviewers' superficial, politicized, polarized caricatures of him. Why does he go along with this? Is it possible he thinks he actually created such a thin character OR he's trying to go along with perceptions so that people will watch OR he allows his audience to see only what they are capable of seeing/interpreting OR his Italian was poorly translated/transcribed OR he didn't understand the question or others' explications of his work OR he subconsciously created a masterpiece and meanings he didn't even intend or wasn't even aware of? Um, I think NOT to all of the above.


One theme (among so many in YP) that Sorrentino says he was going for is "loneliness." Yes. Evidenced. But not just the loneliness of "the top," of the "ultimate" good guy in white in the palatial and secretive expanses of the Vatican, or the fated, celibate prelate. YP is about the existential loneliness of every person vis-a-vis one another and God. Not "the universe": GOD. (I can just hear "Lenny," the young Pope Pius XIII, say that last sentence with his inimitable determination and clarity. It's kind of scary that I almost think of him as a real person now. Yes, I got sucked in, I got hooked, I got dazzled by Sorrentino's breathtaking filmmaking.) Incidentally (or not), Sorrentino has the pope give us at least four of the most beautiful explanations for priestly celibacy I have ever encountered.

But are we really so lonely before God? Is God as "silent" as the hackneyed, hopeless, stuck, go-to popular image of God-Void would have us believe? Or is YP right that "God is closer to you than the pillow you lay your head on at night?"


You see, YP is all about God. Not those who follow Him or speak for Him. God is not just a breathing (though unseen) character in the series (a challenging film feat), He is the other half of Lenny's tightest relationship. And we feel Him and we experience Him with Lenny (a near impossible film feat). When Lenny prays, we are witness to one of the most beautiful sights on earth: a man who loves God who humbles himself and experiences a greater strength than he could ever have on his own. It reminded me of King David. Why is it so beautiful? Because we are never more powerful, never more ourselves, never more fully fulfilled and realized than when we turn to God-Love from Whom we came and to Whom we are returning. We were created BY God and FOR God, so we are totally in sync when we open ourselves and our lives and our desires and our doings up to Him. What is central to Lenny's life? God and God alone. "Is the world right about me? Am I cruel? I'm trying to do all for the love of God." --Lenny in Confession


Pius XIII is a "man's pope." He knows how to exercise male authority. He "stands in the breach" in a way only men do. As we say in Theology of the Body circles: the idea that women are more religious than men is pure bunk. Adam knew God first. Adam was alone with God first. Adam had his own unique relationship with God. If Adam was supposed to guard the Garden, how did the serpent get in? Adam didn't do what Jesus did (and what the young pope does), what every man needs to do when confronted with something bigger and stronger than himself: cry out to God for help. Acknowledge the source of his greatness and strength and the need for more of it from God.


His understanding of, perspective on and relationship with women is open, reverent and always appropriate, but never overly-deferential. He has unique relationships with each of the women in his life: the many, many nuns that dot the papal landscape; the Vatican PR woman who's as knowing and smart-alecky as he is (they could be twins); the infertile young wife of a Swiss guard; the duplicitous Sr. Antonia; his long-lost mother; his first and only teenage love. (However, the young wife of the Swiss guard is a highly unrealistic character. She's airheaded and childish and she thinks she's some kind of innocent--even while she conducts an affair with a priest. Hmmmmmm. But the pope is very merciful to her. She is the only super-annoying character.) In addition, "La Mama" looms large in Italian culture and Italian Catholicism, so, naturally, the Blessed Virgin Mary, talk of mothers and motherhood is organic in YP. The silent nuns in off-white (perpetually doing laundry outdoors) seem to be the innocence and peace and idealized feminine at the Vatican. They and the pope have a silent and joyful understanding.


Toward the end of the series, Lenny and his mentor, Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell) conduct a convoluted conversation about abortion (early in his pontificate, Pius XIII has withdrawn the ability of ordinary priests to give absolution in Confession to women who have had abortions, in order to send a message about the seriousness of abortion--I missed whether they now have to go to a bishop or how they get absolution). This super-silly exchange never once mentions or questions abortion as the taking of a human life. Only that it's breaking some kind of arcane Church rules and arcane Scripture passages. Arcane! The writer-director even has the intellectual dishonesty and gall to quote Aquinas (whose 13th century, pre-scientific era teachings on biology, especially with regard to when and how life begins, were notoriously way off the mark).

At some level, it feels that Sorrentino is overreaching trying to show that he is a "friend" of women. That he's hip to their "concerns," that he's "listening." He even has an array of "FEMEN" style women protestors (topless, of course) pop up in the Vatican Gardens. Sigh. So misguided.


Many who know Lenny call him "a saint," including someone who knows him best, who raised him at the orphanage: Sr. Mary (a winning Diane Keaton in a lovely, authentic-looking habit)--who has been called to Rome to be Pope Pius XIII's private assistant. And we scratch our heads at this accolade because Lenny is also a bit of a jerk. But we shall see later why this is said of him. However! Be it known that the Church does not accept any kind of personal gifts or miracles (performed before death) as signs of sanctity. They are simply gifts of God. A "saint" is one who, first and foremost, practices heroic virtue, which, perhaps, the shrewd and unconventionally wise and periodically kind, chain-smoking Lenny does also. (Sr. Mary is also a chain smoker. The smoking is a bit of a flippant gimmick, but you get used to it. Certainly a vice, not a virtue.)


"The Young Pope" is an incredible blend of the human and the divine, with all the human warts on full display (and moles: a huge, humorous mole protrudes from an Italian Cardinal's visage). If you can't handle warts and the grittiness of life unvarnished, the foibles of human beings (including human beings "of the cloth")--YP may not be for you. But remember these words of JP2G: "The Church is divine and human. If it weren't human, there'd be no place for us in it." Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, used to encourage us nuns to "Get in touch with your humanity. Don't be afraid of it. It's the only thing God can actually use." Why do people run from their own and others' humanity? Why do people want life (or certain realms of life) to be pollyanna, and insist that they be so?  I believe it's mainly because they flee from suffering. Or are in denial that they suffer. Or haven't really suffered yet in life! Anyone who has let themselves acknowledge their own suffering is not scandalized at the imperfections of others.

"There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried. " --Archbishop Oscar Romero


"The Young Pope" is a tour de force. It's a fine display of the Catholic imagination at its best. There is so much more to say about it that time and space will not permit. I seriously considered commentating on each episode of the 10 episodes in the first season. YP deals with a pedophile bishop in NYC. A kangaroo who is the pope's alter ego. Vatican intrigue gone haywire at the conclave that elected him--due to the interference of the Holy Spirit. A weasel-y politico Italian Cardinal (a hilarious, magnificent and spot-on Silvio Orlando) for whom Pius XIII is his worst nightmare--but who also lovingly cares for a severely disabled, nonverbal young man who serves as his confidante. I could go on and on.

At any rate, YP has upped the ante for religious "films." (It's shot like a film and plays out like a film and Sorrentino says he enjoys blurring the lines between cinema and TV because it's all the same to him.) All my favorite religious films are quickly paling in comparison--because of God. What if we actually took God seriously like the young pope? Sought God earnestly and with all our heart like the young pope? Perhaps I am so enamoured of YP because it "goes there" in so many ways. It is only halfway typically "European." The other half feels North American, and the cast and locales are delightfully international. It uses silence and facial expressions unbelievably well. And the lighting! Ecstatic! The soundtrack is a brilliant mix of the contemporary, the whimsical, the classical and the ethereal.

Somewhere deep in Sorrentino's soul, he must get it. He must get God. And God's Church. To create something so beautiful, so filled with beauty, so aware and understanding of beauty, a writer-director-cinematographer must have a lot of beauty in their soul. You can't just pull "The Young Pope" out of a hat. Even if you're Italian.

Binge watching is recommended.


--"We have forgotten God!" --the young pope's inaugural address

--"Priests give God weight." "Priests must TRY till the very end." --an ancient Cardinal

--"The Confessional is our operating room. We're not afraid of sin and scandal, the way surgeons are not afraid of blood." --the young pope

--"Think about all the things you like. That's God." --the young pope in answer to a child's letter: "What is God like?"

--To an African country at war: "Give me peace and I will give you God." --the young pope

--"Only the scent of goodness will remain on earth." --Blessed Juana (a fictional young saint from Guatamala)

--I believe that Italians are obsessed with beauty unlike any other nationality. But they also know, create and understand beauty.

--Every artist exposes their own autobiography in their art.

--There are minor technical Church-y inaccuracies in YP. But they are inconsequential compared with the story and the beauty and God.

--We've never seen a screen figure anything like the young pope before. And we desperately needed to. Brava.

--"The Young Pope" is God NOT at a distance. God is nigh.

--"The Young Pope" is brilliant.

--The lengthy conversations in Italian (and one in Spanish) have NO subtitles.

--The true, the good and the beautiful come together in YP. They are shown to be absolutely connected.

--When asked: how do priests live without women? "Stupid priests go to women on the side. The smart ones know that sexual pleasure is overrated in our society." --the young pope

--When the young pope asks one of the ever-smiling Latino Cardinals about his vocation story: "Life is so short. I decided to opt for eternity."

--"I don't see God because I don't see my mother and father." --Lenny

--"I want great love stories and fanatics for God. Lovers are fanatics. The last papacy was popular. Lots of friendship. Crowds are distractible but indifferent: their hearts have been emptied of God. You can only measure love in terms of intensity, not numbers." --Pope Pius XIII

--SOME INCREDIBLE THEOLOGY OF THE BODY MOMENTS. A high-priced call girl: "My clients say I am proof of God, but it's not true. They just can't see far." This is a perfect illustration of turning the body into an idol instead of an icon (with icons, we acknowledge beauty but let it lead us to God in the right way: not by use, lust, fornication, adultery and indulgence--which is not the way to God, or even a good way to enjoy the finer things in life).

ICONOCLASM--denies the gift
ICON--goes through gift to God
IDOL--stops at the gift, turns it into God

--"You know, I got involved simply because I wanted to work with this wonderful director and writer.... I think his visual storytelling is incredibly grand and beautiful and mysterious, and I love his humanity of his subject matter and his writing, and the wit. So for me, stepping into costume and on set everyday was a thrill because I knew I was being photographed in the hands of a real master."

"Paolo said it's really a piece about solitude, something we all have and something that can be incredibly enlightening, but also incredibly painful."

"We weren't setting out to poke fun at anyone. We weren't setting out to scandalize." --Jude Law

--A holy gentleman asked me (in a challenging tone): "Sister, how has 'The Young Pope' helped your holiness?" I had to think about that (besides all the great insights from YP). But then I got back to him: "It has made my prayer bolder." (And I was pretty bold already.)

--One reviewer called YP "the gutsiest thing you'll see on TV all year." And it is. But not because it took on the papacy and the Church. Because it took on God. As God. And got God right.

"You will seek Me and you will find Me
when you seek Me with your whole heart."
--Jeremiah 29:13