Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

11/02/2016

Inferno
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — While not exactly hellish, “Inferno” (Columbia), director Ron Howard’s screen version of Dan Brown’s 2013 novel, does produce some of the purgatorial tedium of sitting around in a dentist’s waiting room or standing at a bus stop.

On the up side, Catholic viewers will be glad to note that neither their faith nor the early history of their church is trampled on, as they both were so blatantly in Brown’s best-known work, “The Da Vinci Code.”

In fact, aside from a few scenes set in such famous locales as St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice and the baptistery of Florence’s cathedral, the church is entirely absent as “symbology” professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) embarks on another of his globetrotting cultural scavenger hunts.

The chase begins in confusion: Langdon wakes up in an Italian hospital afflicted with amnesia only to find himself, mere moments later, being shot at by an assassin (Ana Ularu) disguised as a police officer. He escapes, thanks in large measure to the help of British-bred emergency room physician Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones). An intellectual prodigy, Dr. Brooks has been a fan of Langdon’s books since childhood.

Hunkered down in Brooks’ apartment, Langdon fights off the effects of a head injury — Brooks tells him he was grazed by a bullet, but he has no memory of the circumstances — as he tries to piece together why he’s being pursued not only by a killer but by the World Health Organization.

Clues having to do with Dante’s Divine Comedy and various works of Renaissance art soon link Langdon’s plight to the nefarious scheming of billionaire bioengineer Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster). Zobrist’s paranoid views regarding overpopulation have led him to hatch a psychotic solution: He’s hidden away a pathogen that could kill off half the human race, and has fail-safe plans to unleash it. “Maybe pain can save us,” he winsomely observes.

Despite the high stakes and the unpredictable loyalties of the supporting cast — WHO officials Christoph Brouchard (Omar Sy) and Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the latter an old flame of Langdon’s, and Zobrist’s security agent, Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan), among them — the outcome of Langdon’s odyssey amounts to thin cinematic gruel.

Additionally, while it may be untainted by the theological and historical whoppers that have made Brown notorious, even as they have also made him rich, David Koepp’s script takes an ambivalent stand on Earth’s supposedly overcrowded future. Zobrist’s terrorism is obviously rejected; so too is an idea we’re told he presented to Sinskey for covertly putting sterilizing agents into drinking water.

Yet the widespread use of artificial contraception is at least implicitly offered as the proper preventative to the looming horror of a surfeit of humans.

The film contains action violence with some gore, skewed moral values, a suicide, cohabitation and non-marital sensuality, at least one use each of profane and rough language, a couple of mild oaths and a pair of crude terms. 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.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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Denial
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — A prominent attempt to erase one of history’s most notorious genocides — and the possible strategies for defeating that effort — are explored in “Denial” (Bleecker Street). 

Director Mick Jackson’s fact-based drama recounts the case for libel initiated in 1996 by English writer David Irving (Timothy Spall) against American historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz).

In her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” Lipstadt had labeled Irving a Holocaust denier. Following the appearance of a British edition of the work, Irving sued both Lipstadt and her U.K. publishers, Penguin Books.

Lipstadt believes that passionate testimony from survivors can prove the existence of the Holocaust and win a difficult trial in which, under British law, the burden of proof is on the defendant. Her expert lawyers are determined to bore in instead on the false theories espoused by Irving, a churlish self-taught historian of the Second World War who’s gone over to the dark side.

Sourced from Lipstadt’s 2005 memoir, “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier,” David Hare’s script mostly avoids courtroom histrionics in favour of delineating how the defence arguments were constructed. He also shows how Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish history at Emory University in Atlanta, misunderstood her legal team’s tactics nearly to the end of the trial.

The big break in the actual proceedings, held in London in 2000, was Irving’s misguided decision to serve as his own prosecutor, rather than use barristers to represent him. An additional advantage was gained when, in keeping with the rules of evidence, the defence was given access to Irving’s vast diaries, compiled over 20 years.

The film’s emotional heart is in quiet scenes filmed at the Auschwitz death camp in Poland, where Jackson takes care to show melting snow on barbed wire as if the fences are weeping. Here, too, Lipstadt recites El Maleh Rachamim, the traditional funeral prayer of Ashkenazi Jews.

The camp, of course, offers its own indisputable testimony in the form of its gas chambers. But lead barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), who’s been taking notes on how the executions operated, uses the setting to observe that the lack of a complete scientific investigation of the death machinery has given a foothold for cranks like Irving. They insist that Zyklon B, manufactured as a pesticide, was used only for delousing, not mass murder.

There’s no real question of how the trial will end. Spall plays Irving with bug-eyed malevolence. Irving even goes so far as to turn up at one of Lipstadt’s book readings to heckle her and announce that he’ll give $1,000 in cash to anyone who can prove that Hitler intended to slaughter Jews.

To keep control over the testimony and deny Irving a forum for grandstanding, Lipstadt’s lawyers refused to put either their client or any victims of the Holocaust on the stand. In response to Lipstadt’s pleas for a contrary approach, solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) admonishes her, “A trial, I’m afraid, is not therapy.”

“Denial” makes a powerful point about moral as well as intellectual truth. Gainsayers of the worst horrors will always be with us, but they must be fought at every turn.

The film contains detailed discussions of atrocities and a single rough term. 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.
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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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