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
Novel, ‘National Geographic’ provide insights into Russian history, religious culture

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the April 30, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)

Book Review

Debra Dean, a graduate of Whitman College in Walla Walla who now lives in Seattle, has written an interesting book about art, history, Alzheimer’s, and family love. The book, titled The Madonnas of Leningrad, first published in 2006, is available in softcover from Harper Perennial for $13.95.

Without having traveled to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia, until after she finished her novel, Dean gives a moving fictional account of a young Russian woman named Marina who gives tours through the famous Hermitage Museum as the Nazi armies draw closer to Leningrad. She loves to show people the incredible art work, especially all the beautiful madonnas on display.

The museum takes almost all of its valuable collection to safekeeping. The frames are left hanging on the walls as the bombs begin to fall during the 900-day siege of the city. Marina stands on the roof many a night to see where the bombs fall and to try to protect the museum by forwarding the correct information to fire officials. With roughly 2,000 other people, Marina lives deep in the basements of the museum as the siege continues. Many die, including her own relatives.

To keep her sanity, with the help of a cleaning lady Marina envisions the paintings that would be in the empty frames.

After the war she marries her beloved, who was in the military and also survived. They eventually end up in the Seattle area and raise their family.

The novel goes back and forth between the events in the early 1940s in Leningrad and the aged Marina, suffering from Alzheimer’s, attending the wedding of a grandchild on one of the islands in the San Juans. As she loses more and more of her memory, Marina seems to remember key parts of the important part she played in the defense of her beloved museum and its people.

In a relatively short novel, Dean gives us an emotional connection to a woman who was present at one of the key moments of history and responded heroically to her call. At the same time, Dean enables us to walk with family members as they confront the reality of a debilitating disease in someone they love so much.

Movie Review

The French film The Class (“Entre Les Murs”) slipped into Spokane finally after winning the fanned “Palme d’Or” at last May’s Cannes Film Festival. The Class was the first French film in 21 years to win the famed film festival’s main award. Spokane residents could easily miss the fact that the movie was in town because for some reason the AMC Theaters, where it is playing, are no longer advertising in the local press. I hope the movie has also come to Walla Walla and the Tri-Cities.

The film is based on the autobiographical novel of Francois Begaudeau, who plays the main character, Francois, in the film. The Class is directed by Laurent Cantet, whose parents were teachers.

The students in the Paris school of a multicultural neighborhood are ordinary students who for the most part have the same names in real life that they portray on the screen.

The story centers on a good and kind teacher who has a sense for an organized class as he teaches French. At first he does have a struggle getting the students to accept his authority. He draws the students out through a school year as he gets them to slowly trust in telling more about their own lives.

And yet Francois can have a bad day and can lose it in the heat of a discussion, and then be sorry that he cannot withdraw his words that appear to be a cruel slur.

The challenge of teaching a very diverse group of students whose homelands ranging from China to Mali is well presented, with all its joys and pains.

Anyone who has ever taught students of any age would find this film fulfilling. Both the students and the teacher appear real. Too, anyone who has even a little background in the French language would find The Class thought-provoking. The subtitles are clear, but in the back-and-forth of a classroom setting they do move fast. In one scene the English translation of a subjunctive declension sounds over the top. But it may well be that way in the original French.

The Class does not have a fast-moving plot. It is more a character study of teens and teacher in a challenging situation. Some of the shots of the film are very slow, a technique typically not seen in a Hollywood movie today.

For the right person who loves or has loved teaching, The Class is a beautiful movie.

The Motion Picture Association of America rates The Class PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned, some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.) The Office for Film and Broadcasting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops rates the film A-III – for adults.

National Geographic Article

The April 2009 issue of National Geographic has a very interesting article titled “New Faith in Russia,” describing the Russian Orthodox Church’s rise in membership in Russia.

Sometime in the late 1980s, when I was at Sacred Heart Parish in Pullman, an exchange delegation came from the Soviet Union. One of the members of the group was an official of the Russian Orthodox Church concerned with religious education of youth. He told us that he had virtually no print materials to use for religious education at home. He welcomed booklets that we had, even if they were designed for Roman Catholic religious education.

As I took him up to St. Thomas More Chapel and Newman Center near the Washington State University campus, I remember he was surprised by two things. Even though I explained that the religious facility was several blocks off the official campus, he was shocked that, from his viewpoint, the chapel and religious center were “on campus.” He also expressed great surprise that the American flag was displayed in the chapel. I knew that Roman Catholic churches in Europe did not display the flag of their country in worship areas. This fact had indeed been a blessing during the expansion of Nazism in the 1930s and ‘40s. But I will always remember him shaking his head in surprise.

Serge Schmemann, the son of the well-known priest, scholar, and writer Alexander Schmemann, is the writer of the fascinating Geographic article on the rise of the Russian Orthodox Church after 75 years of being underground.

A few facts give an idea of the changes that have taken place since I visited with my Russian guest. In 1987 there were three monasteries in Russia; today there are 478. Then there were two seminaries; now there are 25. The number of churches has grown from 2,000 to 13,000 today. And today the church is a vast institution, with dozens of publishing houses and hundreds of magazines, newspapers and websites.

Author Schmemann gives the pros and cons of the vast and rapid expansion of the Orthodox religion. Millions of Russians have been baptized since the end of the Soviet period. Nearly two-thirds of the population now say they are Orthodox. During the Communist period, 50,000 clergy were executed. Today, so many Russians have come to be priests there is a worry among some of their lack of spiritual seasoning.

As one would expect with a Geographic article, the pictures are great. This is an article that deserves a trip to the public library.

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

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