Prairie Messenger Header

Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

12/09/2015

The Letters
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — As the elaborate procedures that precede the Catholic Church’s decision to declare someone a saint amply demonstrate, genuine holiness can be difficult to pin down or identify in real life.

When it comes to capturing sanctity on screen, the elusiveness of a person’s interior union with God becomes even more apparent, even when that bond is testified to by extraordinary outward achievements.

There’s also a significant aesthetic challenge to consider: As every reader of poet John Milton’s Bible-based epic Paradise Lost soon realizes, evil is — on the face of things, at least — far more interesting than goodness.

Partly that has to do with the disordered mindset resulting from original sin. But it’s also undeniable that wickedness often expresses itself in dramatic events and gestures whereas persevering fidelity to God’s will — although it can be inspired by a sudden, even sensational, moment of conversion — is a lifelong process to be pursued day in and day out.

The launching of wars, the trampling down of enemies, the liquidation of vast numbers of innocents; all these deeds have the built-in quality of spectacle. Hours of solitary prayer, the patient acquisition and perfection of the virtues; although admirable in themselves, these activities, by contrast, are likely to strike even a well-disposed observer as yawn-inducing.

So the filmmakers behind The Letters (Freestyle), a biography of Blessed Teresa of Kolkata (1910-1997), have set themselves a daunting task. All the more so, since the posthumous publication of their subject’s correspondence — the documents from which the movie takes its title — startlingly revealed to the world that she suffered for decades from a potentially paralyzing sense of God’s complete absence.

The woman born Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Macedonia (in what was then the Ottoman Empire), thus found herself in a paradoxical position. As the world’s most saintly celebrity, she was a figure committed to — and acclaimed for — spiritually inspired works of mercy, many of which made no sense whatever from a purely worldly perspective. Yet within her own soul, her faith had become almost entirely a matter of abstract theory.

How she carried on in the face of such desolation might provide a rich subject for the most psychologically perceptive of novelists. Expressing her dilemma in a compelling way for moviegoers, however, proves too much for writer-director William Riead — and for his film’s star, Juliet Stevenson.

Riead frames his story via a retrospective conversation between Fathers Celeste van Exem (Max von Sydow), the famed nun’s spiritual director, and Benjamin Praagh (Rutger Hauer), the church official charged with investigating her life with a view to her possible canonization.

But Riead uses this narrative device awkwardly, with the result that the facts surrounding Mother Teresa’s courageous ministry — as well as her tenacious spiritual struggle — are alternately spoon-fed to the audience through dialogue and dramatized in a way that fails to spark interest.

Riead focuses primarily on Teresa’s momentous decision to leave the Sisters of Loreto, the cloistered teaching order in which she began religious life, and dedicate herself instead to the work of serving the most afflicted of her adopted city’s slum dwellers.

He successfully conveys the obedience with which she submitted her personal convictions about her altered vocation to the judgment of the church — her patience being further tried by the persistent but ultimately futile opposition of her former superior, played by Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal. Yet Riead otherwise fails to delve below the surface.

Given its inspiring subject matter, and the absence of any really problematic content, this appreciative but poorly handled profile makes suitable fare for all but the youngest viewers.

The film contains some tense scenes of conflict and potentially disturbing medical situations. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
- — -
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

- — -

Krampus
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — Holiday horror reigns in Krampus (Universal), the story of how one suburban family’s strident quarreling not only quashes the true spirit of Christmas, but unleashes Santa’s evil counterpart as well. 

As this mythical monster, drawn from Alpine folklore, pursues his goal of annihilating the naughty, mature viewers will be drawn into a nightmarish world of chaotic logic from which they’ll emerge with only scanty rewards.

That’s not to say that in crafting his script with co-writers Todd Casey and Zach Shields, director Michael Dougherty didn’t have his heart in the right place. While avoiding any direct reference to Christianity, he successfully skewers the materialism that mars the season and promotes unity and self-sacrifice in the face of danger.

But such values seem to be checked off by rote. Partly that’s a consequence of sloppy characterizations and the shorthand portrayal of relationships. But the screenplay also suffers from the obvious limits of Hollywood’s generic, and therefore insubstantial, substitute for religion.

We’re shown the disastrous consequences of abandoning belief and surrendering hope. But belief in — and hope for — what, exactly?

Only those willing to see the presence of the real St. Nicholas in the background of this often haphazard frightfest as a tenuous lifeline connecting moviegoers to a genuine, if half-forgotten, form of faith may grope their way along toward solid footing.

Some shadowy version of the fourth-century bishop of Myra does seem to inhabit the imagination of the film’s protagonist, innocent preteen Max (Emjay Anthony). His trust in St. Nick — inherited from and shared with his good-hearted but melancholy German granny (Krista Stadler) — is a source of comfort for the lad as he copes with the unsettling dysfunction that surrounds him.

Max’s parents, Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette), have allowed the demands of daily life to drain away their love for each other. His older sister, Beth (Stefania Lavie Owen), prefers the company of her stoner boyfriend to that of her relatives. And the Advent-tide arrival of houseguests on the doorstep in the form of more distant kin only makes things worse.

Max’s Uncle Howard (David Koechner) is a gun-loving red-state lout straight from central casting, while Howard’s wife, Linda (Allison Tolman), is the ineffectual matriarch of a brood of nasty kids (Lolo Owen, Queenie Samuel and Maverick Flack). Another aunt, Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), seems never to have met a cocktail she didn’t like — or a person she did.

Mocked by his odious cousins, and frustrated by his family’s disarray, Max is driven to renounce his faith in Santa by tearing up his annual letter to the gift giver. The result is a blizzard of epic proportions in which Beth soon becomes lost — and that traps the remainder of the ensemble inside. There they make easy prey for the marauding Anticlaus and his minions, the latter typified by a host of malignant gingerbread men.

Max’s trashed note can be read as a sort of prayer in which he requests good for all around him: reconciliation for his parents, restored closeness between him and Beth, even better things for cash-strapped Howard and Linda. And there’s more than a little theological insight in his grandmother’s remark that “St. Nick is what you make of him.”

In fact, Catholic moviegoers of a certain bent may be tempted to see in Stadler’s character — who’s known to one and all by the Teutonic diminutive Omi — a kind of homespun, female version of retired Pope Benedict XVI. Omi, who blesses herself at one scary turn, just to let us know she’s Catholic, watches with forlorn dismay as the misguided people around her enable evil and bring their world to ruin.

Whether the former pontiff would indulge in the same twinkling of the eye by which Omi appears to say, “I told you so,” however, is another matter.

Such exalted musings can’t entirely make up for the fact that the picture’s good intentions are largely lost once the title fiend’s retribution begins to be distributed in a loud and lurid manner. By then, viewers may begin to empathize with some of the characters who eventually try to escape the death house, only to find themselves trudging knee-deep through resistant snow.

The film contains brief gory images, considerable stylized violence, a visual drug reference, about a half-dozen uses of profanity, a single rough term and occasional crude and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

Copyright (c) 2015 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops