Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch:
Jones’s ‘Three Burials’ is ‘a deeply religious movie’

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the March 16, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

Take some of the themes of the film Crash and add a journey through purgatory in the tradition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, plus the visuals of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, and you have the memorable new film with the very long title: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

The actor Tommy Lee Jones directs his first film with skill and determination. The harsh desolation and beauty of the borderlands of Texas and Mexico tell us something about the painful journey of two men to a small isolated village in Mexico to bury the body of the above titled Melquiades Estrada. One man, Pete Perkins (Jones), is the dear friend of the deceased, and the other, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a young racist Border patrolman, is Mel Estrada’s accidental killer.

Jones’s iconic Western is about our sinfulness and the journey each of us makes toward redemption. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a thoughtful movie that goes to the depths of what it means to be a human being. It is a deeply religious movie.

As the film begins, two hunters find the decomposed body of Mel Estrada being eaten by a coyote in a shallow grave. Through a series of flashbacks we begin to know the noble cowboy Estrada, who is the dearest friend of rancher Pete Perkins. The story continues in mystery and with the growing realization that the authorities will not pursue the killer of an undocumented ranch hand.

Then we see two versions of the killing of Estrada by the cruel racist border patrolman Norton. We realize that this is an accidental killing that will never be pursued. But Perkins eventually finds out who the killer is and takes the law into his own hands. He forces Norton at gunpoint to dig up the body of Mel and go with him to the Mexican village where Mel wanted to be buried.

I must admit I did identify and pull for Perkins as he exercises vengeance over Norton while they travel through thick and thin to Mexico. But I also believe that in the end, the just and righteous man also lets go of his anger at the unnecessary death of his beloved friend. Redemption is for the one holding the gun over another just as it is for the man who misused his gun to kill an innocent person.

Similar to the film Crash, there are several improbable connections between characters that may seem forced. But the script by Guillermo Arriaga is always surprising as it brings home dramatically the journey toward resurrection all of us are on.

Tommy Lee Jones is terrific as the loyal and good Texan who will do anything for his friend. It is interesting to note that the more Jones’s bilingual character gets deeper in Mexico, the less he is able to speak Spanish.

Barry Pepper is perfect as the unlikable border guard who treats those crossing the border with cruel sadism. But aren’t his final words at the end of the movie the key to the film?

Melissa Leo as the cafe waitress wonderfully portrays the loneliness of a small Texan village. As the title character, Julio Cesar Cedilio is shyly magnificent.

Great acting in a wonderful story is the sign of a great movie. Your memory will be touched deeply by The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

The film is rated R – restricted (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) because of language, violence and sexuality. The Office for Film and Broadcasting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) rates the film L – limited adult audience; films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling.

Short Takes and Observations

• Some years ago I thoroughly enjoyed Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes, the story of his early life in Ireland. Recently I heard several radio interviews with McCourt on his new book, Teacher Man. He made it sound like an extraordinary story.

Sadly, I am here to report that Teacher Man is a big disappointment. Maybe McCourt had only one book in him.

Teacher Man rehashes some of the stories of his earlier work. McCourt continually puts himself down throughout the book. And the innovative teaching techniques he developed in the high schools of New York City are not that interesting when you read them. It looks like an editor and a publisher felt McCourt could play on his fame and story telling skills. His stories work better on the radio. Teacher Man is published by Scribner at $26.

• Recently I was visiting the Library at Whitman College in Walla Walla. In the Reading Room I found the January-February 2006 issue of The Atlantic magazine. The 22-page cover story by Paul Elie was titled “The Year of Two Popes: How Joseph Ratzinger Stepped into the Shoes of John Paul II – and What It Means for the Catholic Church.” I found the article, which took around an hour to read, was the best piece I had read on the transition to a new pope in April of last year.

• As an introduction to the closing night of the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, NBC presented a 40-minute piece on the heroic story of St. Maries, Idaho resident Vernon Baker. This African-American man, who was raised by his grandfather in Wyoming, finally received The Medal of Honor in the late ‘90s for his incredible leadership in making the Allied advance through German lines in Italy possible in World War II. His story, beautifully told by Tom Brokow, is the story of a humble man rising above virulent racism in the military of the time to serve his nation beyond the call of duty. When television is good, it is very good.

• In the Feb. 6, 2006 issue of The New Yorker Timothy W. Ryback of the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation at the Salzburg Seminar raises striking questions centering on the issue of forgiveness. The title of the article is “Forgiveness – The Pope and the War.” The discussion centers on the spring of 2004 visit of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to a German cemetery near the Normandy beaches of D-Day. The question becomes, should we forgive the Nazi S.S. soldiers who committed horrendous acts of violence during the World War II period?

• Last September I was riding the Broadway local subway from Times Square to the Upper West Side. As I looked across the car I noticed several Guatemalans who could well have been from our sister diocese of Sololá. I was struck by the fact that they were listening to music on their very own I-Pods.

• Enriqueta Cartagena Mayuga M.D., a parishioner at St. Patrick Parish, Pasco, has a new book of accessible poetry published, titled Outspoken and Mute: American Life – Poems of Political satire and Commentary.

I was struck by her elegiac poem “New York Revisited,” in which she remembers her life as an immigrant in the city 40 years ago. At the same time, she reflects on the people in the subway car she recently rode with her son who lives in New York. Other poems tell of the journeys through the stages of life that we all can identify with. The book is available through Airleaf Publishing ( at $16.95.

(Father Caswell is archivist and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane, as well as a frequent contributor to this publication.)

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