Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
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The 10 best films of 2007; on the bookshelf, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’
by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register
(From the March 20, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
It has been a year of violent films. The best picture from the recent Academy Awards was one of the most violent of films. The series of films on the Iraq War generally failed at the box office. Since films from the year 2007 are sometimes late arriving in our area of Eastern Washington I am late on my list of the 10 best films for last year.
• The best film of the year, The Lives of Others, appeared in our area last spring after winning the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The German Catholic director Florian Henckel von Donners-marck gave the world a classic film about the life of a playwright during the Communist period in East Berlin. Gerd Wiesler, played brilliantly by the now-deceased Ulrich Muhe, is a Stasi Officer who is told to spy on the playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) because a high-level Communist official wants Georg’s girlfriend. For Gerd, the faithful, believing Stasi Officer, this action eventually pushes him over to identifying with Georg and helping him against the State. It is a thriller with lots of meaning. The ending is unforgettable. This film is excellent for parish film festivals for older viewers.
• Although There Will Be Blood contains two extraordinarily violent scenes, I am still won over by the breadth of its epic style that tells the story of one man’s descent into the evil of total greed. The acting by Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, oil man in California at the turn of the 20th century, is as good as it gets. It is an incredible performance. Thomas Anderson directs a heart-breaking movie in the tradition of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. The visuals of West Texas standing in for California are stunning. The supporting cast lead by Paul Dano is perfect. There Will Be Blood is at times a difficult movie to watch, but it is well worth the effort.
• La Vie en Rose is the French film based on the life of the great singer Edith Piaf. Marion Cotillard, who won the best actress role at the Oscars, is incredible as she ages dramatically because of Piaf’s difficult life and misuse of drugs. The story of France’s great singer of the 1940s and ’50s approaches melodrama at times but stays with you. The songs as sung are recordings from Edith Piaf although we know from the press conference at the Academy Awards that Ms. Cotillard is a fine singer in her own right. The subtext on Piaf’s emphasis on St. Therese of Lisieux at difficult times in her life is touching.
• Julie Christie’s portrayal of a woman losing her memory and seeking to go to a care facility is mesmerizing. Her husband, played by Gordon Pinsent, has not gotten the acclaim he should have received. The moving love story of a couple after 40-plus years of marriage is told in the film Away from Her. The film, by 29-year-old director Sarah Polley, is haunting. To my knowledge it never played in theaters in our area. It failed at the box office. And yet this is film to be seen by anyone who realizes we are all very mortal. Olympia Dukakis is excellent in a supporting role.
• The screenplay by Diablo Cody together with impeccable acting by Ellen Page and wonderful supporting cast make Juno a very enjoyable film. Sure, teenage pregnancy is a serious issue, but somehow Cody has us laughing almost non-stop until the film takes a few twists and turns that surprise. J. K. Simmons and Allison Janney play parents that are present to their daughter and help to give her direction. Juno is the little film that surprised everyone and became a very big hit.
• Atonement, based on the novel by Ian McEwan, is the big British epic that asks the question: How do we know that what we see is really what happened? It begins on a large British estate in the very hot summer of 1935. A younger sister (Saoirse Romane) sees several events between her older sister (Keira Knightley) and a servant’s son (James McAvoy). Her testimony leads to the separation of the two lovers and a long prison stay for the servant’s son until he volunteers to fight in World War II and ends up at the Battle of Dunkirk. How does the younger sister ever atone for what she has done? The long tracking shot at Dunkirk is unforgettable. There are a twist or two at the end that some will find less than satisfying.
• The Italian is a Russian film about a Russian six-year-old orphan who is scheduled to be adopted by an upscale Italian couple. But before the paperwork is finished he escapes to wander through nearby towns and cities, looking for his birth mother. This is an irresistible film that you won’t forget. The orphan is played by Kolya Spiridonov. He is one of the best child actors you will ever see.
• In an understated way, George Clooney plays powerfully the title role in Michael Clayton, the story of a burned-out lawyer in a large New York firm who is the “fix-it” man whenever associates or clients are in trouble. His personal life is falling all around him. But when the chips are down, he surprises. He discovers that his firm is directly involved in another company’s malfeasance that involves the death and illness of ordinary people. Tilda Swinton, who won the Academy Award for best supporting actress, is terrific as the chief counsel for the corrupt company. She falls deeper and deeper into darkness. Michael Clayton is a dark movie that has some hope and redemption.
• Amazing Grace is the inspiring story of William Wilberforce who, after years of effort, brought to an end the British Slave Trade, about 200 years ago. Ioan Gruffudd as Wilberforce struggles with a religious conversion that leads him to his position as a member of Parliament as a vocation. The journey he takes with the help of his former pastor, John Newton (Albert Finney), is a journey well worth taking. In a year with a number of nihilistic films, it is refreshing to find this gem. Here is a film perfect for a high school religious education or youth program.
• Some Critics found Denzel Washington’s new film The Great Debaters too much like Rocky or an ABC After-School Special on TV. Well, yes – it is a feel-good film. But it is also the story of life in Jim Crow Texas in the 1930s, with violence and lynchings. Washington is the debate coach of a small all-Black college in Texas. His debate team eventually gets to debate Ivy League Harvard, which is a very big deal in this time frame. The Great Debaters shows us dark times in our history while showing how the human spirit rises unto greatness.
The second Sunday of February I was having one of the wonderful breakfasts after Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lad of Lourdes. Several women at the table were talking about Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love. The book club to which I belong decided about the same time to read Gilbert’s book. One reality of a book club is that it does get you to read books that you yourself probably would not pick out to read.
The Feb. 27 edition U.S.A Today points out that her book has 4.8 million copies in print. Since the average memoir has a first printing between 10,000 and 30,000 Gilbert has produced a major publishing blockbuster.
Eat, Pray, Love is the story of a 35-year-old woman hurting from a divorce and a romantic relationship that followed soon after. She seeks meaning by traveling for four months in each of the following countries: Italy, India, and Indonesia. It is part tell-all life story and part fascinating travel book.
Gilbert focuses on the wonders of food in Italy, interspersed with lots of interesting stories about the people she meets on her trip.
In India she spends her whole time in an ashram a few hours from Mumbai. Here she seeks to learn how to pray in the Eastern tradition. Just like any of us she has good days and bad days as she seeks to find silence and oneness with God. She does connect Eastern prayer with St. Teresa of Avila.
Again she meets fascinating people from all over the world, especially Richard from Texas, who always addresses her as “Groceries” for a name. There must be something in the water in Texas that causes people to use nicknames.
Traveling to Indonesia, she has few contacts initially, except for a Balinese medicine man. But here too she meets memorable characters and falls romantically in love with an older man from Brazil. What happens with their life together after she returns to New York is not entirely clear.
I found the second section, in India, the most interesting. The teaching on prayer seem somewhat similar to the writings of Thomas Keating or John Main.
Elizabeth Gilbert is a wonderful story teller. She is very fortunate to have a publisher who would finance her year-long adventure. She has the ability to find humor in lots of her stories and she often tugs at the heart. Some may find her revelations of self too much or more than a little self-centered. Others will find her openness about her life and her search for meaning very helpful. The third, romantic section comes close to the tone of a romance novel, which may well divide readers. Obviously, the reader can skip over passages. If it were a movie, Eat, Pray, Love would be rated R for language and sexual situations.
Obviously, Elizabeth Gilbert has connected with many readers. For the Christian (although she doesn’t say it directly), she seems to be saying we need to continually bring out of our tradition ways of prayer and meaning for ourselves and the many people who today seek those ways to a gracious God.
Eat, Pray, Love is published by Penguin Books. The Quality Paperback version sells for $15.
(Father Caswell is archivist and Ecumenical Relations Office for the Diocese of Spokane, and a frequent contributor to this publication.)