Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
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
A memoir of faith, a film about the Holocaust, and Christmas music from Spokane Valley
by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register
(From the Dec. 18, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
It is unusual to suggest that a spiritual book might be R-rated. But the new memoir by famed Hollywood script
writer Joe Eszterhas tells the journey of a man who rejected the Catholic Church for years. He made millions of dollars
writing scripts that emphasized libertine sex and violence. But along came cancer and a permanent marriage that brought
about four younger children. With a move to his original home in Ohio, Eszterhas gives us a sometimes moving story of his
return to his faith of so many years ago and his efforts to live it out with hope and love.
Crossbearer: A Memoir of Faith is published in
hardcover by St. Martin’s Press of New York (2008) at $24.95.
Eszterhas believes his illness is a way for God to get even with him for the way he lived his life. I would hope God doesn’t act that way. But it is his story. He returns to Sunday Mass at his local Ohio parish where each Sunday he carries the cross held high in the procession at the beginning and end of Mass in his jeans and a Rolling Stones T-shirt reminiscent of the 1960s.
He prays often and finds the rosary a potent prayer. He does have trouble believing in angels. He is angry at times with the Catholic hierarchy. For a while he and his family attend a nearby mega-church. But he misses the Eucharist and he and his family return to their local parish.
There is a thought-provoking section where the author critiques the advertising efforts of the National Basketball Association and Nike using religious terms like “The Chosen One,” “Savior,” and “Witness” to publicize a particular player.
Poignant sections include Eszterhas’s inability to build bridges to his older daughter by a first marriage, and a daughter, adopted out years ago, who discovers that Joe is her father and is able to begin a good relationship with him. One of the saddest sections of the book is when Eszterhas fails to go to his dying 95-year-old father. Their relationship became ruptured when Joe’s father confessed late in life that he had been an active Nazi when the family lived in Hungry. After his father’s death the son feels filled with sorrow for not seeking some form of reconciliation while his Dad was alive.
Toward the end of the memoir Joe Jr., a 14-year-old son, asks his father if he can become a crossbearer at a Sunday Mass. For the father, this is one of the greatest gifts a son could give him.
Crossbearer is a revealing journey of faith for a man who is willing to expose all of his woundedness to the reader. And yet he is able to show how with the grace of God, faith can well return with new vigor.
This winter season is scheduled to be filled with movies that have a Holocaust theme. From Tom Cruise in
Valkyrie to Daniel Craig in Defiance and Kate Winslet in The Reader, there are many major stars in
important films that draw us back to the uncertain and dark times of the 1940s.
An early film out in theaters without big stars, titled The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, has brought strong
words of praise by some critics and devastating pans by others. Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly rates the
film a D- and says, “As a Holocaust-for-kids fable, this appalling, jaw-dropping movie will cause serious nightmares.”
Although the two main characters of this film are eight-year-old children, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
is definitely not for children. But in a relatively short time in a fable-style it presents one of the darkest moments of
history. I can’t help but think for older teens, Striped Pajamas may be a very good educational experience.
The story begins with 8-year-old Bruno (Asa Buterfield) pretending he is an airplane, running with friends down the
swastika-bedecked streets of Berlin. Soon we meet his loving mother (Vera Farmiga) and apparently caring soldier father
(David Thewlis) and an older sister named Gretel (Amber Beattie). Bruno is told by his parents that the family will leave
Berlin for a place in the country where Dad will be in charge of an important government facility.
After the family moves into their new home, a bored young Bruno sneaks out the back of his home and hikes through
the woods, where he finds a young boy his age sitting on the other side of barbed wire. Bruno thinks the place is some kind
of farm where the farmers wear pajamas. He slowly sees Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) as a friend who he comes to visit many times
as the weeks go by.
Yes, from a realistic point of view it is very far-fetched to believe a guard would not have seen the repeated
visits between the son of the Commandant of a Death Camp and a young Jewish prisoner. But from a fable point of view it may
well pass muster.
Bruno’s Dad seems to become an over-the-top Nazi as the movie goes on, as do some of the other characters. Mom is
angry and depressed as she realizes where she is and what is happening. The movie centers on the two boys’ growing
friendship that leads up to the haunting and deeply tragic conclusion.
The movie is based on a John Boyne novel and the writer-director is Mark Herman. It is a flawed film, but there is
something about the relationship of the boys which includes wonder, denial of knowing each other on the part of Bruno,
reconciliation, and love, that allows the film to stick with you long after you have seen it. I’d rate it closer to a B.
The Motion Picture Association of America rates the film PG-13 because of some mature material involving the
Holocaust. The USCCB Office for Film and Broadcasting rates the film A-II – for adults and adolescents.
I admit to being an easy mark for a movie thriller that is at least partially set on a train. Alfred Hitchcock’s
early English films, The Lady Vanishes and 39 Steps, and his later American film North by Northwest,
showed how exciting the meshing of train travel and mystery could be.
The new European film Transsiberian centers on a train trip from Beijing to Moscow by a young Iowan couple,
Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimor) who have being doing volunteer Church work in China’s capital for several
weeks. The husband is an enthusiastic American small-town hardware store owner and the wife has a troubled past. Jessie is
also a fine amateur photographer.
When the Chinese train merges with a Russian train in Siberia we meet a somewhat mysterious young couple, Carlos
(Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara). They are coming from the Pacific coast of Russia. We later meet a Russian detective
named Grinko (Ben Kingsley) who is working on a major drug case.
The plot thickens as Roy disappears from the train, evidently left behind at the last stop. Jessie and the
now-helpful young couple get off at the next town and wait for the American husband to catch up.
Suddenly the movie gets very complicated as the anxiety-level of the viewer increases. There is sexual and physical
violence before the Americans are reunited on the train.
Near the end of this intriguing film the story sadly moves into a more horror-torture genre as the movie stampedes
towards its conclusion. There are several double-crosses and surprises.
The film written, partially and directed by Brad Anderson raises in the midst of its realistic violence all kinds
of ethical and moral questions. You can’t help but want to scream at the Emily Mortimer character, “Why don’t you just
tell the truth?” But then there wouldn’t be much of a movie.
The Motion Picture Association of America rates Transsiberian R-Restricted, because of graphic violence and
profanity. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting has not rated the film.
Cheryl Branz, a cantor at St. Mary Parish in the Spokane
Valley, has a new Christmas CD out, titled The Christmas Gift. It is available at her web site, www.cherylbranz.com,
for $14.95. I particularly enjoyed her rendition of “Ave Maria.” Several of the songs could well be used for prayer.
(Father Caswell is archivist and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane, and a frequent
contributor to this publication.)
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