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:
In time for Christmas: ‘The Nativity Story’

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Dec. 21, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

Book Review

A book club I am a participant in recently suggested reading the Nigerian author Chi-mamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new epic novel Half of a Yellow Sun. It took me a month to navigate the book’s 435 pages. But I have to tell you, it is one of the most moving books I have read in many a month.

The book begins in the early 1960s in Nigeria and leads up to the Biafran war in the late ‘60s. Along the way we meet a family of characters that we grow to know and love. On the opening page we meet the delightful Ugwu, a poor 13-year-old who is employed as a houseboy by a university professor named Odenigbo.

Two upper-class sisters Olanna and Kainene are the key protagonists of the story. Olanna is the intellectual who falls in love with Odenigbo. Kainene is the hard-charging business woman who is in love with Richard, a British citizen who is planning to write a book on the art of Nigeria.

As the story moves towards war, Odenigbo is one of those who argue for the independence of Biafra. We feel comfortable listening to the professor-types arguing issues of independence over drinks each night. We see the life of relative privilege in the midst of widespread poverty.

The author goes back a second time over the pre-war period after the war has already started to reveal all kinds of secrets we missed the first time around. The second time we come to the war we experience the suffering and agony of people in the towns and villages behind front lines. Ms. Adichie has written an anti-war book that resonates across the years of history.

But the key to the narrative is the inter-relationships of the principals. We see, portrayed as tragically as possible, the damage of adultery to marriage and loving relationships. We also see the destruction that rape can do – to the person raped, but also to the rapist. And remember: these are characters you care about.

And throughout, we have people like Ugwu who have worked against all odds to become literate, who care about words and ideas.

The recent Apocalyptic readings at the end and the beginning of the Church’s year are played out in the real Biafran War as envisioned by Ms. Adichie. She gives us all the Shakespearian tragedy of life with glimpses of hope. An African culture miles from our homes speaks to us in another part of the world with challenge and universality.

Half of a Yellow Sun is published in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006, at $24.95.

Movie Reviews

Some years ago, a parishioner told me that she came into the Church because of the influence of the movie Song of Bernadette. So I do know the power of a film or book to change our lives.

The new film The Nativity Story, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, may well affect some viewers in a life-changing way. It is a familiar story to many of us. The result for some of us is that the film is fairly slow going. It is reverential to its Biblical sources almost to a fault. It often appears as an overblown Christmas pageant.

All that being said, I was strongly affected by its portrayal of Mary and Joseph’s life as agricultural workers in First Century Palestine. You get a feel for how difficult life was for ordinary people. In Mary’s family, 10 or more family members were jammed into one room to sleep at night.

Also, when the community finds out that Mary is pregnant, you get the sense of what it must have felt like to be ostracized by your friends and neighbors. This excommunication, if you will, shows how difficult Joseph’s decision to receive Mary as his wife with child would have been.

The 110-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem is beautifully filmed, using scenery from Morocco and Southern Italy that may be more dramatic than the route of the original passage. I particularly was touched by the dialogue between Mary and Joseph after Mary has fallen off the donkey as they crossed a major river. Mary told Joseph that the angel had said to her; “Do not be afraid.” Joseph mentioned to Mary that the angel in the dream had told him also: “Do not be afraid.” And Mary said to Joseph, “But I am afraid.” Joseph then responded that he, too, was afraid.

The story of the Magi and Shepherds are combined as happening at the same time. The Magi are played for some over-the-top humor.

Because we get the external vision of the sacred events, we don’t know much of the deeper character traits of the principals. This reality from the script by Mike Rich makes it hard for the actors to go deeper. Keisha Castle-Hughes, who is 16, plays the young Mary at the age she probably was. Joseph, played by Oscar Isaac, is younger than the Joseph of traditional statues. He could well be in his 20s, which may be much closer to reality, also.

Cinematographer Elliot Davis has beautifully filmed The Nativity Story.

For some moviegoers, The Nativity Story will be a spiritual experience. For others, it will be an educational experience.

The Nativity Story is rated by the Motion Picture Association of America as PG (Parental guidance suggested). There is some implied violence. The USCCB Office for Film and Broadcasting rates the film as A-I – general patronage.


When I saw Emilio Estevez’s new film Bobby, which takes place on the last day of Robert Kennedy’s life at the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. on June 4, 1968, I thought sitting through the assassination would be excruciatingly painful. But the tragic scenes in the kitchen of the hotel were memorable because above the din and chaos you heard the measured words of Robert Kennedy speaking at the time of the death of Martin Luther King,

Yes, Bobby is melodramatic, but I enjoyed it so much that I saw it twice. It is obviously a labor of love by Emilio Estevez. He was six years old at the time of the Robert Kennedy assassination. I believe it took Estevez years to finally get this film made. Kudos to him for this gift to us all.

We are present on that fateful June morning as we pass through the hotel and mingle with the stories going on of workers, guests and managerial personnel. It is the Grand Hotel style of storytelling that has been done before. Some of the characters we grow to like very much. Others we feel sorry for. Many of those fictional characters are present in the ballroom and kitchen the night Robert Kennedy wins the California primary.

I thought the give-and-take of the Hispanic and African-American kitchen staff were particularly appealing. Freddy Rodriguez as Jose Rojas and Jacob Vargas as Miquel are outstanding as two Hispanics who banter back and forth about racism and baseball. The kitchen staff eating dinner with the chef (Laurence Fishburne) is a delight. When Jose later gives two prized tickets to an LA Dodgers game that night to the chef because he has a double shift, you are filled with joy at the generosity. A gift freely given from an “Arthurian king.”

There are wonderful older women characters played without a concern for movie star looks. Helen Hunt plays a happily married wife to a very kind and understanding Martin Sheen. Demi Moore acts her heart out as the drunken song stylist Virginia Fallen. She has quite an interpretation of “Louie, Louie.” But the surprise for me was Sharon Stone, whom I did not recognize as the hair stylist to Virginia Fallon and wife to the adulterous hotel manager Paul Ebbers (William H. Macy).

Ashton Kutcher as a drug dealer, high on LSD with two campaign workers playing hooky on the last day of the campaign, is heavily exaggerated for comic effect. Ever since three young people overdosed on LSD and landed in the hospital after a high school youth dance in a parish back in 1970, I have trouble finding misuse of drugs funny.

Bobby has some weak moments, but the good ones so outweigh the bad that this is a film that even in the midst of overwhelming tragedy gives hope. Thanks Emilio Estevez for taking lots of risks and giving us a film that touches the heart.

The MPAA rates Bobby R – restricted (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). There is strong language and suggestive sexual situations and drug use. The USCCB Office for Film and Broadcasting rates the film A-III – for adults.

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

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