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
‘12 Years a Slave’ gives realistic, harrowing depiction of pre-Civil War South

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the December 19, 2013 edition of the Inland Register)

Book Review

Last June I did a review of Elizabeth Strout’s new book, The Burgess Boys. On the basis of that book, I couldn’t understand how she could have won the Pulitzer Prize for her previous book, Olive Kitteridge, which I had not read.

A Holy Names Sister at the Convent passed on to me the original prize-winning book. And what a wonderful book Olive Kitteridge is. It is well deserving of any prizes it won.

Published in 2008 by Random House for a trade paperback list price of $14, Olive Kitteridge is made up of stand-alone short stories dating back to 1992. The stories appeared in magazines such as The New Yorker, Ms., and South Carolina Review. Each of the stories in some way directly or indirectly connects with the main character, Olive Kitteridge.

Olive Kitteridge is not a particularly likable character. She is controlling, demanding and opinionated. And yet she is an extremely interesting character as we walk with her through her adult life. Her husband Henry is a pharmacist who has a drug store in a nearby town on the rugged coast of Maine. He is portrayed as one of the nicest guys you would ever meet. Sadly, he eventually sells the drug store to one of the giant national chains as he retires.

The Kitteridges deal with the ordinary daily events, along with death and suicide, sickness and a feeling of isolation amidst sorrow. There are happy moments, too, among ordinary people living ordinary lives. Henry seems to love Olive with all her foibles. Christopher, their son, has to struggle as an adult to move away from Olive. Olive teaches math to junior-high students. Some of them fear her.

On the other hand, in one story, a young woman remembers a phrase of Olive’s about following your passion and it seems to free her from a painful situation.

Another story is filled with humor as Olive has to stop at the local hospital to go to the bathroom and suddenly finds herself being checked in by a nurse. All of a sudden, the hospital, in an over-the-top way, is taken over by guys in ski masks with rifles. In this event Olive and Henry say harsh words to each other that will be very difficult to forget.

Olive’s visit to her son Christopher in New York City is worth the price of admission on its own. Christopher has moved from California with a second wife, who has two children of her own. She is pregnant with Christopher’s child and they invite Olive down to the big city to help during a difficult time for a week or so. Olive demands to leave early because they did not tell her she had some drippings of an ice cream sundae on her blouse, like she was some kind of really old aunt. And we learn of someone named Jim O’Casey that Olive was attracted to years ago and who died when he drove into a tree. Olive had been devastated.

Olive Kitteridge is a book that hits home with the ups and downs of life. It is layered with all kinds of interconnections and surprises. It is a character study with enough plot to pull the reader in time and time again. The Pulitzer Committee certainly knew what they were doing when they honored this fine book.

Movie Reviews

Forty-plus years ago, when I taught American History at the old Mater Cleri Seminary near Colbert, the textbook referred to the Civil War as “the War Between the States.” The text had a Gone With the Wind approach, with the wonderful plantation life and happy slaves. I may be being a little unfair, but it certainly did not give a view of slavery that was realistic.

But now we have a very difficult film to watch, titled 12 Years a Slave, based on a book written by the main character, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), before the Civil War. This movie could certainly become a classic as it blasts away the Gone With the Wind myth.

While his family is gone for a few weeks in 1841, Solomon, a free man, is tricked to come play his fiddle in Washington D.C., where he is set up to be sold into slavery for what became 12 years.

The traffickers have him sent to Louisiana, where we see him actually sold into slavery, and he must pretend not to read or write, as he bears treatment as property and is whipped.

Several times in the story we see the cruel slave owners leading the Bible readings at Sunday service. And yet these slaves could compose and sing such moving spirituals that speak deeply to us today.

Solomon’s first slave owner is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, with a few humane sides to his personality. But after a fight with one of the overseers, Solomon is sold to the cruel slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who seeks to break and destroy Solomon.

Edwin repeatedly rapes Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who picks the extraordinary figure of 500 pounds of cotton a day. Edwin’s wife (Sarah Paulson) does all in her power to have Patsey whipped and her humanity destroyed.

The direction by Steve McQueen is heartbreaking as extraordinary actors play the dregs and the heights of the human person.

12 Years a Slave is an historic movie that deserves to be seen and remembered by American adults. But be warned: This is not entertainment. Sadly, it is a retelling of a major part of our history.

The Motion Picture Association of America rates the film R-Restricted for extreme violence and sexual scenes. The Catholic News Service classification is L – limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling.

*****

What makes the new film Enough Said stand out from the crowd is the gem-like performance of the late actor James Gandolfini. He acts in the tradition of the Award-winning performance by Ernest Borgnine in the 1950s film Marty. Gandolfini show what he can do miles away from his iconic performance as Tony in The Sopranos.

Albert, played by Gandolfini, meets Eva, played by Julia Louis Dreyfus, at a cocktail party. Eva is a masseuse who takes her heavy table to clients’ homes. One of her main clients is Marianne, who is a poet and becomes a friend. Pretty much all the adults in the film are divorced. The three principals all have an adult child leaving soon for college. So the film is partially a story that shows some of the pain that results from divorce in both the parents and the children.

There is a major complication in the plot that sets events on end, particularly for Albert and Eva. Their initial courtship is sensitive and sweet in a good sense of that word. There is electricity between Albert and Eva. But Eva does make some bad decisions that have all kinds of ramifications for everyone involved.

Watching James Gandolfini in his final film performance is a powerful event. He is so likable and alive that it is difficult to imagine that he is dead.

The writer-director ofEnough Said is Nicole Holofcener, who once was a film editor for Woody Allen. She brings much of her own experience with divorce to the film. She has made an entertaining, thoughtful film that many adults would enjoy.

Enough Said is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America because of sexual content and brief strong language.

*****

Recently a parishioner from St. Mary Presentation Parish in Deer Park sent me a DVD of the 2011 Lebanese film Where Do We Go Now? The film is by the director Nadine Labaki, who also plays one of the main women characters of the film.

The film seems a bit choppy to me and at times I didn’t quite get all that was happening. As I understand it, Where Do We Go Now? is a fable with lots of humor, some of which I didn’t quite get.

The time is the present and we are in a small village that is half Christian and half Muslim. The mosque and the church are within a block of each other. The priest and the imam are friends but are ineffectual in curbing the lurking violence. The town is surrounded by land mines with one way in and out that is at least semi-safe.

The women of both religious communities are sick of the violence and death all around them. They seem to get along with each other very well. The men are portrayed as goof-balls who fly off the handle at a moment’s notice and could start a war within the village at the slightest provocation.

The woman shut down the town TV to keep news of violence away from the men. They set up a ruse of importing a Ukrainian dance group whose bus has supposedly broken down near the village. But the biggest event comes after a tragedy that really could ignite violence, where the women respond by baking hashish in sweet deserts that all the men devour. The ending after this is quite a surprise and probably way over-the-top in the real world.

My guess is that women are going to enjoy this film more than men. But it does try to take the sad realities of the Middle East and religious violence, and adds humor and hope.

Where Do We Go Now? is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America because of mild violence and sexual innuendo. It is not yet rated by Catholic News Service.

(Father Caswell is Inland Register archivist.)


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