Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

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


Media Watch
In books, a complex portrait of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; spectacle abounds in ‘Les Miserables,’ ‘Anna Karenina’

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the January 17, 2013 edition of the Inland Register)

Book Review

I have been slow since August reading Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. I was surprised at the blurbs on the $19.99 large-size paper back published by Thomas Nelson of Nashville. There didn’t seem to be any Lutherans quoted and the others tended to be on the conservative political side. For example, among those quoted: Charles Colson, Mike Huckabee, “Human Events,” and Glenn Beck.

I am no expert on the history and theology of the great Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I enjoyed the book and found it edifying and inspirational. Some readers might want more of a discussion of Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the various plots to kill Hitler. He seemed convinced such evil had to be responded to with violent means.

In the Stuauffenberg plot of July 20, 1944, while Bonhoeffer was in prison, we learn: “They stopped at a Catholic chapel where Stauffenberg went to pray. Father Wehrle let him in, since the chapel was locked at that hour. Ten days earlier, Stauffenberg had asked him the question that had been on his mind: ‘Can the Church grant absolution to a murderer who has taken the life of a tyrant?’ Father Wehrle said that only the pope could grant absolution in such a case, but he would look into it. Haeften had broached the question with Bonhoeffer 18 months before.”

I think the book does help today’s understanding of Bonhoeffer’s greatness even unto death just a few weeks before the end of World War II. It certainly can be used for spiritual reading.

But does Metzxas overemphasize the daily spiritual side of Bonhoeffer while underemphasizing his historical-critical theological side? There is lots of discussion of this in print and on the internet. Two fascinating critiques of the book that I discovered were Clifford Green’s, in the Oct. 5, 2010 issue of The Christian Century, and Victoria J. Barnett’s in the September 2010 issue of Contemporary Church History Quarterly.

Part of the time Bonhoeffer was a double agent spy he spent at the Ettal monastery in the Alps. He felt very comfortable and proud that the monks trusted him with a key to the library. The monastery was located just two-and-a-half miles from Oberammergau, the site of the famous passion play. He enjoyed the monastic routine. Metaxas states that Bonhoeffer’s long conversations with the abbot and other priests gave him a renewed appreciation for Catholicism and influenced the writing of his Ethics.

Bonhoefter is a towering saint of our time. Whatever the weaknesses of Metaxas’s biography, he still gives us a man of the 20th century who faced incredible odds and whom we all should know about.

Movie Reviews

The film version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables was packing local theaters Christmas week. The roughly 25-year-old musical has been one of the most successful plays of all time.

If you know you liked the original musical, either having seen the play or heard the music, you will not be disappointed with the movie version. Director Tom Hooper has opened up a number of scenes to the full force of the film medium. He also has kept an intimacy with many close-ups of the principal actors.

The actors’ singing is done with microphones, live on camera. The movie has very little regular dialogue. Most everything is sung in the tradition of an opera. Standouts among the singers are Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, the key character of the story; Anne Hathaway as Fantine, with her show-stopping number “I Dreamed a Dream”; and Eddie Redmayne as the young student Marius and love of Cosette.

The movie version makes the epic story of Les Miserables easy to follow. Jean Valjean has been in virtual slavery for 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread, persecuted by the prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe). Upon his parole he steals silver pieces from a kindly bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean in London in 1985). The bishop does not prosecute him when he is captured and even gives him two candlesticks that he says Valjean forgot. The story continues as Valjean takes on a new identity as a kindly mayor who promises to raise the child Cosette (Amanda Seyfried as an adult), the daughter of Fantine. The story eventually moves to Paris in 1832 where students rise up against the corrupt government. There the conflict between Jean Valjean and Javert comes to a conclusion, as does the love story between Marius and Cosette.

Hugh Jackman, who comes from a musical comedy background in Australia and on Broadway, does an incredible job in a mammoth role. Russell Crowe is menacing as Javert. Anne Hathaway is outstanding in her relatively short part as Fantine. The final rousing revolutionary scene is much better than the more constrained battle sequences that are confined to a relatively small area.

Tom Hooper’s version of Les Miserables does more than justice to the famed musical.

The Motion Picture Association of America rates the film PG-13, and Catholic News Service rates it A-III – for Adults.

Director Joe Wright gives us a new vision of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina in his film of the same name. This vision of the director is certainly new and thought-provoking as most of the film takes places as if it were a stage drama in an old dilapidated theater. But the stretch from traditional realism will put some viewers off in its artificiality that has the staging of a grand opera. Several times in the film the camera goes outside the closed high society of 19th century Russia to the beautiful steppes of the countryside which remind the viewer of scenes from the classic Dr. Zhivago.

The theater set, on a single sound stage of England’s Shepperton Studios, has the seats on the main floor taken out for the formal balls of the movie and even the setup for a horse race.

The traditional story of a love triangle involves Anna (Keira Knightly) married to Alexei Karenin (Jude Law, who plays against type as the wronged husband), and the elegant young Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor Johnson). All the emotions come out explosively as Anna publically flaunts her affair in the closed society of her world.

There is a subplot involving Levin (Oomhnall Gleason) who fights for equality on his large farm in the countryside where he eventually marries Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander) in an idealized view of marriage and love. It is said that Tolstoy himself identified with Levin in his own life.

My guess is that this movie will be seen by as similar to the half-empty glass which some will see as half-full and others as half-empty.

The acting is good but the artificial settings at times remind one of the Carol Burnett Show sketch where Carol does her take on Gone With The Wind when she comes down the impressive staircase dressed in curtains draped from a curtain rod.

Also in Russia dramas, does every major actor have to come from Ireland or Great Britain? Among the smaller parts we have Michelle Dockery from Downton Abbey, Kelly MacDonald from Boardwalk Empire, and Emily Watson from numerous films.

The adapted script is by the famous British playwright Tom Stoppard. And certainly Costume Designer Jacqueline Durran and Production Designer Sarah Greenwood will be nominated for Academy Awards in their respective fields.

If you like a film that is adventurous and breaks the rules of film realism, Anna Karenina is the film for you.

Anna Karenina is rated R-restricted by the Motion Picture Association of America, for sexual sequences. Catholic News Service rates the film A-III – for adults.

*****

A small movie played to small audiences recently in Spokane. The film, A Late Quartet, involves the story of a famous string quartet titled “The Fugue” who are beginning their 26th season together traveling across the world. One of the four musicians finds out that he is in the early stages of Parkinson’s. So this will be their last time together as a group as they prepare for their final concert.

With the illness of the founder of the group, Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), all kinds of struggles that have been below the surface come out in drama that approaches soap opera. But the acting of the four principals of the quartet is of extraordinary quality. It is some of the best acting of the year which makes this movie one to see.

Christopher Walken, who normally plays troubled characters who are often the bad guys, plays a heroic figure like he has been doing it all of his career. You really like him. The other actors are excellent. Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Robert Gelbart, is married to his wife Juliette (Catherine Keener). In the midst of the crisis he wants to move up to first violin or become a solo artist. Juliette believes that Daniel Lernor (Mark Ivanir) should continue being first violin. All kinds of anger arise that unleash passions leading to adultery with a great deal of hurt flowing forth.

Some of the story may be a little hard to believe. But the actors go beyond the call of duty to make it believable. In this area it is best not to reveal too much of the story.

As one who knows very little about music, I learned that horse hair is used to form a bow. Also that Beethoven’s Quartet in C sharp minor with seven movements and without a pause is the most difficult piece a string quartet can play. The film ends with the quartet playing the Beethoven piece in front of sold out house as it is Peter Mitchell’s last concert.

I’m told musicians can see weaknesses in the actors attempting to play the piece. But as a non-knowledgeable person on this one, they looked real to me. The actual musical recording is by the Brentano String Quartet.

The screenplay is by Seth Grossman and Yaron Zilberman who also directed the movie. The scene in which the Christopher Walken character teaches a class to young musicians at what looks like the Julliard, and tells the story of his meeting Pablo Cassals and playing for him, is memorable. The scenes of Central Park and the upper West Side of New York are beautifully photographed.

A Late Quartet is a movie for anyone who enjoys fine acting and beautiful classical music.

The Motion Picture Association of America rates the film PG-13 for sexual situations and strong language. Catholic News Service rates the film A-III – for adults.

*****

Roughly 50 years ago I was visiting college seminarian classmates in Billings, Mont. That summer day we went to a large, old-fashioned movie theater with a large balcony. The film was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. We knew you had to arrive on time for the start of the film and not tell anyone about the ending. I had never experienced smoking in a theater in Washington State, but in that Montana theater, the balcony was open for smoking. When the now-famous shower scene first appeared, one of my classmates was smoking a pipe. During the scene he actually bit through the stem of the pipe.

The new movie Hitchcock is a failure as a film. It tries to tell the story of the filming of the movie Psycho. Anthony Hopkins, layered in skin prosthetics, attempts to play Hitch. Helen Mirren does a better job of playing a very tall Alwa Reville, Hitch’s wife and close collaborator.

The film has a strange reappearing murderer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) whose story was the basis for the original novel. At different times Hitchcock has visions of Ed.

In the end the movie is basically a love story between the principals as Alwa, frustrated with Hitch and his fantasies, begins a working relationship with a half-baked writer who is using her talent for his own purposes.

The actors include Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles.

Mention is made of how Paramount does not want to finance Psycho because Hitchcock’s previous film, Vertigo, was a flop in theaters. Just this year among the powers that be, Vertigo knocked off Citizen Kane and became the best film for all time.

In the end, instead of seeing Hitchcock, the viewer would be better off re-watching the original Psycho.

The Motion Picture Association of America rates the film PG-13 for sexual situations; Catholic News Service rates the film A-III – for adults.

(Father Caswell is Inland Register archivist.)


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