Category Archives: Religion

Faith, hope and chainmail: Black Death ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 26, 2011)

Iron-deficient maiden: Carice van Houten in Black Death

When humans speak for God in terms of rejection or condemnation, we may rest assured that dangerously narrow minds are at work.

Rev. Webster “Kit” Howell

 Puritanism: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

H.L. Mencken

 Ah, the Dark Ages. A time of pestilence. A time of monarchs and serfs. A time of profound sociopolitical turmoil. And, most notably, a time of widespread ignorance and superstition, where one of the most oft-repeated declarations was “I’m not a witch.” No…I’m not talking about the 2010 midterms-I do mean, the actual Dark Ages.

For nitpicky academic types, I am more pointedly referring to the Late Middle Ages; specifically the Year of Our Lord (if you believe in that sort of thing) 1348, which is right about the time that the first wave of bubonic plague was sweeping across Europe. This is the cheery backdrop for a new film from the UK called Black Death, a dark period piece from up-and-coming horror/thriller director Christopher Smith. Visceral, moody and atmospheric, it plays like a medieval mash-up of Apocalypse Now and The Wicker Man.

The specter of apocalyptic doom hangs over the opening scenes of the film, where we join a young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) as he ventures out of his dank cloister and into the grim milieu of the surrounding city. Most of the traffic slogging across the cobblestones is composed of horse-drawn carts, piled high with the plague victims whose bodies litter the streets and alleyways. Not surprisingly, Osmund appears focused on whatever his errand is; apart from a perfunctory pit stop to absolve a dying man, he’s making a proverbial beeline for his destination.

When he gets there, we understand the reason for his haste. Her name is Averill (Kimberley Nixon), and she’s the kind of winsome lass who could (if I may paraphrase Raymond Chandler) “make a bishop kick a hole in a stain glass window.” Suffice it to say, Osmund may be breaking a vow or two on the side. After giving his lady love provisions that he’s “borrowed” from the church’s pantry, he urges her to flee quickly from the plague-ridden city and head for an arranged meeting place in a nearby forest, where he promises to join her posthaste.

Meanwhile, back at the monastery, Osmund struggles with his crisis of faith. Torn between devotion to the church and his desire to run off with Averill, he prays fervently for guidance, and for God to give him a Sign. No sooner does “amen” escape his lips, than his prayers get answered (in oblique fashion) by the appearance of a “man of God” of an altogether different stripe. He is a veteran knight named Ulric (Sean Bean, recycling his “Boromir” accoutrements from Middle Earth).

He has come to the monastery as an emissary of the local bishop, with a small yet formidable band of well-armed mercenaries in tow. He seeks a guide who can lead his team to a village that the Church has taken a keen interest in. It appears that they are the only settlement for miles around who have managed to escape the “black death”. As said Church is currently pushing a meme that posits this mysterious scourge as “God’s punishment” for mankind’s sins, this anomaly calls for closer scrutiny.

Obviously, the people of this sleepy and hitherto unsullied hamlet must be embroiled in some form of devilry, because they are simply not suffering as much as people living in the Dark Ages are supposed to be suffering. In fact, it is rumored that the people of the village are beholden to the spells of a resident “necromancer”, who has the power to raise the dead. Ulric’s mission (so he claims) is to sniff out evidence of any such sorcery and report back.

As luck has it, the route to this village runs through the forest where Osmund has promised to hook up with the lovely Averill. Discreetly keeping this part of the equation to himself, Osmund “selflessly” volunteers to act as guide for the mercenaries, much to the chagrin of his superior (David Warner). Reluctantly, the abbot gives Osmund his blessing, but not without first pulling him aside and cautioning him (and the audience) that this Ulric character, while undeniably a pious fellow, is the most “dangerous” kind.

Indeed, not long after the journey commences, Osmund does begin to notice a few things. Like a cartful of nasty-looking torture devices that Ulric’s crew has brought along, which includes a man-sized contraption that looks to be an early prototype of an iron maiden.

Then there’s the fellow with an ill-favored look who (in so many words) introduces himself to Osmund as the resident torturer. It’s becoming obvious that this expedition is more than a scouting mission; these guys are out to get Medieval on someone’s ass. Ulric fesses up. The Bishop wants the “necromancer” located and brought back alive, at which time he or she will be, shall we say, proactively “encouraged” to make a full confession.

After a series of trials and tribulations worthy of any “heart of darkness” excursion, the men finally arrive at the village, which is populated by a curiously happy-go-lucky bunch of folks (considering that this is, after all, a time of great pestilence and misery). There also seems to be a disproportionate number of pale young maidens among the populace.

All the villagers defer to a striking and enigmatic woman named Langiva (Carice van Houten), who warmly welcomes the strangers (despite their furtive demeanor and grungy appearance) and offers to put on a feast for them that evening. Ulric, while intuitively suspicious, is encouraged by the docile and unsuspecting behavior of the villagers and figures that this is going to be a cakewalk. Then again, appearances can be deceiving.

I liked this film; it’s a throwback to the halcyon days of those stylized Hammer Studios productions, with their foggy marshes, mist-shrouded villages and atmosphere of dread. The performances, particularly by Bean, Redmayne and van Houten, are solid and convincing.

Screenwriter Dario Poloni has some fun blurring the line between Christian dogma and the tenets of paganism, demonstrating that charlatanism and sleight of hand are no strangers to either camp. And perhaps he’s borrowing a page from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds with this message: whether one places their faith and hope into the graces of an omnipotent super-being or a bundle of twigs, it is very likely that it is the most simplest of single-celled organisms, the lowly bacteria, that wields the greatest power of them all.

Sinners and saints: Salvation Boulevard *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 30, 2011)

Salvation Boulevard is precisely the type of black comedy/social satire/noirish morality play that the Coen brothers excel at. Unfortunately, the Coen brothers didn’t direct it. Or write it. However, I will hand it to writer-director George Ratliff-it does take a special kind of skill to so effectively squander the potential of a cast that includes Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly, Marisa Tomei and Ed Harris.

Kinnear plays ex-Deadhead Carl, a member of a megachurch who has traded the tie-dye and Thai Stick of hippiedom for the sackcloth and ashes of born-again Christendom. Well, maybe not completely (is there really such a thing as an “ex”-Deadhead?), because you get the impression that his wife Gwen (Connelly) is the one who really wears the piety in the family.

Gwen is slavishly devoted to the edicts of the church’s charismatic leader, Pastor Dan (Brosnan), a slick hustler with ambitions to build his own “city on a hill” (more as a monument to himself, than to the Lord-one suspects). Their teen daughter (Isabelle Fuhrman) is apprehensive about Mom’s push to psych her up for taking her “vows” at an upcoming “purity ball”. Meanwhile, malleable Carl just goes with the flow.

One evening, following a televised debate at the megachurch between Pastor Dan and guest speaker Dr. Blaylock (Harris), a famous atheist writer, Carl ends up driving the pastor to the doctor’s home for a nightcap. In the midst of a conversation about the possibilities of the two men co-authoring a book, Pastor Dan accidentally shoots Dr. Blaylock in the head while handling an antique pistol (oops!), leaving the writer alive, but in a coma.

Carl, of course, wants to do the right thing and call the police immediately; but the silver-tongued pastor persuades him to hold off until they get back to the church. Yes, Carl is being set up to be the fall guy-and by the time he realizes it, Pastor Dan, with no shortage of worshipful toadies at his disposal, has the upper hand. No one believes Carl’s side of the story, even Gwen (she chalks it up as a “hallucination”-maybe a relapse to his druggie DFH past). He finally finds a sympathetic ear in a female church security guard (Tomei) who bonds with him as a fellow Deadhead.

Once the pair (seemingly the only two sane and likable characters in the story) hit the highway in a VW van, with the evil heavies from the church in hot pursuit, you would think that you are now in for a darkly amusing “road movie”, chockablock with wacky vignettes fueled by the colorful characters encountered along the way. You would think.

But it is at this point in the film that Ratliff (and his co-writer Douglas Stone) make a fatal mistake. Well, two. First, Tomei’s character gets dropped like a rock-which is too bad, because the only time the film really came alive for me was when she was onscreen. Secondly, from the moment Carl is abruptly kidnapped by a Mexican drug lord (don’t ask) the whole narrative gets hijacked as well, grinding the entire film to a thudding halt.

I’m not sure what happened here; but most of the cast (with the exception of Tomei) sleepwalk through the film (and these are usually reliable actors). Bad direction? Not enough direction? Weak script? All of the above? Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint.

Whatever the root cause, the end product is forced and flat; it’s like a lame network sitcom making a futile attempt to be as hip as, say, Weeds. I had also greatly anticipated the re-pairing of Brosnan and Kinnear, who made a perfect tag team in the 2005 black comedy, The Matador. But alas, it was not to be. Another unpardonable sin-the megachurch phenom is so ripe for a satirical takedown, and that opportunity is blown as well. So I am afraid I have to say: “Praise the Lord and pass the multiplex” on this one.

Monkey gone to heaven: Creation ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 27, 2010)

The story so far:

In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.

-Douglas Adams

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.

-Charles Darwin

I cannot persuade myself that it has been 50 years since anyone has bothered to make a film in which naturalist Charles Darwin’s seminal treatise on the theory of evolution, On the Origin of the Species, plays a significant role; but five long decades have elapsed between Stanley Kramer’s intelligently designed (no pun intended) 1960 courtroom drama, Inherit the Wind (based on the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial”) and the new Darwin biopic, Creation. Perhaps this indicates that Hollywood itself has not evolved much, nu?

Perhaps I judge too harshly. After all, “Hollywood” has little to do with this particular film, as it was developed by BBC Films and the UK Film Council. The problem stems from U.S. distributors, none of whom initially appeared willing to touch the movie with a 10-foot pole following its debut at the Toronto International Festival last year. Maybe it had something (everything?) to do with that peculiarly ‘murcan mindset that trucks with reviews like one recently posted on, which states (among other things):

Manure, nicely wrapped with a bow, is still manure. A lie that there is no God and that somehow we have randomly shown up here on Earth as an accident is still a lie, even if it’s well written and acted.

Minds like steel traps. Okay, I do realize they are a staunchly Christian-oriented website, and are certainly entitled to their own opinions. At any rate…thank Ardi that someone eventually picked it up, because the film has now found limited release here in the states.

Although Jon Amiel’s film (written by John Colee and Randal Keynes) leans more toward drawing-room costume melodrama, focusing on Darwin’s family life-as opposed to, say, an adventure of discovery recounting the five-year mission of the HMS Beagle to boldly go where no God-fearing Christian had gone before in the interest of advancing earth and animal science, those who appreciate (to paraphrase my  brethren over at thoughtful writing and fine acting…should not be disappointed.

Real-life married couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly play husband Charles and wife Emma Darwin. The story covers Darwin’s mid-life; from several years after his voyage on the Beagle and culminating on the eve of the publication of his most famous book.

Darwin is not in a healthy state when we are introduced to him; he suffers from a variety of stress-related maladies. Aside from the pressure he is under from peers like botanist/explorer Joseph Hooker (Benedict Cumberbatch) to organize 20 years worth of scientific notes and journals into his soon to be legendary tome (especially after Alfred Russell Wallace beats him to the punch with his brief 1858 essay on natural selection), he is literally sick with grief over the death of his beloved daughter Anna, who died at age 10 from illness.

He is tortured with guilt over her death; he suspects Anna’s weak immune system to be the result of inbreeding (his wife was also his first cousin). Indeed, this was a tragic and ironic epiphany for the man whose name would become synonymous with groundbreaking theories on evolution and natural selection.

Darwin also wrestles with a two-pronged crisis of faith. On the one hand, his inconsolable grief over the cosmic cruelty of a ten year old dying of complications from what should only have been a simple summer chill has distanced him even further from the idea of a benevolent creator (a confirmation in his heart of what the cool logic of his scientific mind has already been telling him).

Then, there is the matter of the philosophical chasm between his science-based understanding of all creatures great and small, and the religious views held by his wife (whom he loves dearly). He continues his work, but hovers on the verge of a nervous breakdown, which distances him further from Emma and his surviving children (the Darwins eventually had ten, although only five are depicted in the film).

He rejects counseling from long time family minister and friend Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam), alienating him as well. Darwin’s subsequent journey to recovering his well-being and finding the balance between commitment to his scientific life’s work and loving devotion to his wife and children is very movingly told.

Bettany had a “warm-up” for this role in 2003, when he played ship surgeon and naturalist Dr. Stephen Maturin, in Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. He delivers a strong performance, and if you look at the Daguerreotype portraits of Darwin, even bears a striking physical resemblance.

Connelly is in essence reprising her character in A Beautiful Mindl; intelligent, strong-willed, compassionate, and sensitive. Toby Jones is memorable as Thomas Huxley (who once famously exalted “You’ve killed God, sir!” to Darwin in reaction to his breakthrough paper). Young Martha West steals all her scenes as Anna (her dad is actor Dominic West). There are nice directorial flourishes; as in a  “bug-cam” cruise through the wondrous microcosmic universe in the Darwin’s back yard.

Despite what knee-jerk reactions from the wingnut blogosphere might infer about what I’m sure they consider as godless blasphemy permeating every frame of the movie, I thought the film makers were even-handed on the Science vs. Dogma angle. This is ultimately a portrait of Darwin the human being, not Darwin the bible-burning God-killer (or however the “intelligent” designers prefer to view him). Genius that he was, he is shown to be just as flawed and full of contradictions as any of us. After all, we bipedal mammals with opposable thumbs are an ongoing “design in progress”, aren’t we?

Too much heaven on their minds: Religulous ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 4, 2008)

Did you make mankind after we made you?
And the devil too!
-Andy Partridge

 “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic. -Douglas Adams

 I’ve always been a bit of a fence-sitter when it comes to religion. Undoubtedly, this is due to the fact that I was begat by a Jewish woman from Brooklyn and a Protestant man from Ohio (I can hear long-time readers now: “That explains a lot“).

Thank the deity du jour that my folks never endeavored to push me into one belief system or the other. To me, the conundrum of “Torah or Bible?” holds about the same academic import as pondering “Paper or plastic?” I’m not an atheist, nor an agnostic. If pressed, I might admit that I’m a cautiously optimistic pan-spiritualist.

I believe robots are stealing my luggage. –Jack Handey

I just believe in me. Yoko and me. –John Lennon

And I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. –Ron Shelton

“Logic” is the antithesis to any manner of fundamentalist belief. Setting off on a quest to deconstruct fundamental religious belief, armed solely with logic and convincing yourself that you are going to somehow make sense of it all, ironically seems like some kind of nutty fundamentalist belief in and of itself. But that’s exactly what star Bill Maher and director Larry Charles have set out to accomplish in their new documentary, Religulous.

Maher’s “spiritual journey” begins in America’s southeastern Bible belt, highlighted by a round-table discussion with several burly, Cat-hatted worshipers at a roadside truck stop chapel (you couldn’t make shit like this up). Maher gets his first walkout from one of the drivers, who takes major umbrage that Maher is “…disputin’ my God.” Fair enough. But as Maher says with a shrug after the fellow stalks out, “I’m just asking questions.”

Another highlight is a visit to a Christian theme park in Orlando Florida, where Maher trade a few good-natured jibes with Jesus. Well, a Jesus impersonator, who is the star of what appears to be some kind of Bronco Billy road show-style reenactment of the crucifixion.

My favorite scene occurs in London’s Hyde Park. Maher disguises himself in Ignatius J. Reilly garb (complete with ear flaps) and begins spouting a hodgepodge of tenets that are lifted verbatim from Scientology, Mormonism and the Witnesses. This gathers a crowd of bemused onlookers, naturally, who all seem convinced that Maher is just another crazy street person railing nonsensically at an unfeeling universe. Juvenile methodology, perhaps, but one can’t dispute that it seems to back up Maher’s frequently voiced assertion that unquestioning, dogmatic belief is a form of mental illness.

The journey culminates in Jerusalem, where Maher grills Orthodox Jews and Muslims. Perhaps not so surprisingly, Maher quite noticeably tones down his customary smug mode, particularly when visiting a sacred mosque (well, can you blame him?).

 Maher is no stranger to controversy. In his various guises as actor, comedian, political satirist, author, and talk show host, he has managed to push a lot of buttons, proving himself to be a full spectrum, equal opportunity offender. It’s his special power. But what I found most interesting about the film is that Maher himself is not necessarily “mocking” religion here, although I know that he and Charles will be accused of doing so and roundly vilified by the self-righteously pious and the small-minded.

To be sure, some of the fringe interviewees and their belief systems are milked for laughs; but Maher’s roots are in stand-up comedy, so naturally he’s not going to pass up an opening. It’s reflexive. These people make themselves look ridiculous, so mocking them is redundant. I think Maher and Charles are smart enough to figure that out. A similarly perceptive grasp of the state of the American idiocracy was what made Borat (Charles’ collaboration with comic genius Sacha Baron Cohen) such a brilliantly incisive satire.

The film is timely. Maher brought up a good point on The Daily Show earlier this week. When he mentioned Sarah Palin’s staunch Christian stance, Jon Stewart countered that Barack Obama claims to be deeply religious as well, to which Maher replied, “I hope he’s lying.” My sentiments exactly. Because, as Maher went on to point out, when anyone runs for president in the “United States of Stupid” (Maher’s words) they have to trawl votes by toeing the spiritual line.

It’s a given that McCain is paying lip service to piety, and I’d like to assume Obama isn’t some kind of secret crazy fundamentalist. But Palin? She is dangerous. I know that Digby, Dday and Tristero have been warning us about this from the get-go, but it is encouraging to hear someone saying it on a high profile television talk show. It can’t be said enough. All I can say is- go see this film, and then come November 4, everybody grab their hose and socks…and pray.

Manic street preacher: What Would Jesus Buy? ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2007)


Deck the halls with advertising, Fa la la la la la la la la

‘Tis the time for merchandising, Fa la la la la la la la la

Profit never needs a reason, Fa la la la la la la la la

Get the money, it’s the season, Fa la la la la la la la la

-Stan Freberg, from “Green Chri$tma$”

Joy to the world!

In the form of goods.

Consume! Consume! Consume!

-Rev. Billy and his choir

This week I thought we’d take a respite from holiday shopping to check out a new documentary called What Would Jesus Buy? Produced by Morgan Super Size Me Spurlock (who I like to refer to as “Michael Moore Lite”) and directed by Rob VanAlkemade, the film documents the public antics of improv performer/anti-consumerism activist Bill Talen, better-known as his alter-ego, Reverend Billy, the “spiritual” leader of the “Church of Stop Shopping”.

Talen honed his act in San Francisco, originally creating the stage persona of “Reverend Billy”, a flashy, big-haired TV evangelist who performs with the fearless, in-your-face conviction of a sidewalk preacher. The Reverend doesn’t preach traditional gospel, however. His “mission” is to rail against the evils of corporate retail giants. Talen calls attention to corporate sanctioned sweat shops, abused and underpaid store employees, and the cradle-to-grave brainwashing of American consumers by the advertising media-to anyone who will listen. His favorite targets include Disney (Rev. Billy considers Mickey Mouse “the Antichrist”), Starbucks and Wal-Mart.

In 2005, Talen and his troupe left their New York City home base to embark on a nationwide bus tour to spread the good word: “Stop shopping!” VanAlkemade and his film crew tagged along, as they executed their blend of street theater and social activism. The traveling church members stake out malls and retail chain stores, treating unsuspecting shoppers to impromptu sermons and Weird Al-style rewording of well-known hymns and Christmas carols. They also rent local public halls, where they stage “church services” and “revivals”. In one particularly inspired  church service, Rev. Billy exhorts attendees to come forward and have their credit cards exorcised; he collapses on cue for his  grand finale.

As the group treks across the fruited plains, they make stops at the likes of the behemoth Mall of America . We watch the performers repeat the same drill several times: Billy, armed with a megaphone and backed by his singing, hand-clapping choir members, plants himself squarely in center court and proceeds to call for an immediate cessation to mindless spending. Groups of shoppers, at first a little puzzled, eventually begin to gather, some clapping along and getting into the spirit of the performance, others watching but still blinking uncomprehendingly. By the time a crowd gathers, the ubiquitous teams of beer-gutted, walkie-talkie wielding mall security personnel converge to unceremoniously escort the group from the premises. The audience disperses, chuckling and shaking their heads on their way to the Orange Julius.

The final whistle stop is Anaheim, where the reverend and his flock descend on Disneyland. Just before he is (inevitably) escorted out by the Disney brown shirts (seriously-they are disturbingly fascistic in dress and demeanor), Billy delivers the best line in the film through his megaphone: “People! Main Street, U.S.A. is made in China!”

Mission accomplished? Hardly, but you do find yourself admiring Talen’s conviction and dedication to his activist principles, despite the fact that his message is apparently falling on deaf ears. When he is filmed making a purchase, it’s at an independently-owned, small town clothing store where he first checks labels to make sure his new sweater is “Made in the U.S.A.” You get a vibe that it isn’t a grandstanding gesture for the cameras, but a sincere effort on Talen’s part to literally practice what he preaches.

To my observation, Talen is the heir apparent to a style of guerrilla theater popularized by the likes of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Diggers in the 1960s, with a pinch of Abbie Hoffman. One scene in particular, where Billy and his flock perform an “exorcism” on a Wal-Mart store, reminded me of Hoffman’s crowning moment of political theater in 1967, when he joined forces with Allen Ginsberg and thousands of anti-war protesters in an attempt to “levitate” the Pentagon.

The film’s “Stop the presses! Christmas is crassly commercial!” revelation is as hoary as Miracle on 34th Street or A Charlie Brown Christmas. Also, there have already been several documentaries produced that frankly do a much better job covering the “corporate exploitation of workers” angle (Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and The Big One come to mind).  That said, I still admire Talen’s adherence to his “mission”, and it’s refreshing to see a Christmas holiday-themed film that might actually make people snap out of their Return of the Living Dead mall stupor. One immediate epiphany as I walked out of the theater: for two hours (counting previews) I didn’t charge one thing to my credit card. And that’s a good thing.