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The Phoenix in Oxford is officially in the middle of a Hitchcock season at the moment (Psycho this coming Sunday, Vertigo the week after that), but if one didn’t know better one might suspect that the cinema’s film booker was quietly running another, unofficial season at the same time: this week the place is showing not two but three films with a religious theme to them. (I enjoy a revival as much as anyone else, but not usually in this sense of the word.)

Yes, this week, currently showing at a cinema near – well, likely not you, but certainly me – is First Reformed (previously discussed hereabouts), Apostasy (a British drama about life in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses), and finally Xavier Giannoli’s The Apparition (titre Francais: L’Apparition), which will be our main focus on this occasion.

Vincent Lindon plays Jacques Mayano, who as the film opens is a deeply traumatised figure: we first find him hunched in a hotel bedroom, somewhere in the Middle East, clutching a battered and bloody camera. The situation soon becomes clear: Mayano is a war reporter, and his photographer colleague has recently been killed in action. Mayano is consumed by grief and guilt, and upon his return home to France shows every sign of being in the throes of some kind of psychological breakdown.

Then a message comes, from the Vatican no less. He is invited for a confidential meeting with one of the cardinals there. The Catholic Church has a job for Mayano, if he is prepared to take it on: a young girl in rural France claims to have been visited by an apparition of the Virgin Mary, and has attracted a dedicated following of pilgrims and other believers as a result. The girl is named Anna (she is played by Galatea Belugi) and she is a novice in the local convent. Her local priest (Patrick D’Assumcao) is a rebellious type and not being especially cooperative with the Holy Office, who generally like to keep a lid on this sort of thing, at least until it can be authenticated (Mayano is told that the Church would prefer to let a genuine case of a supernatural manifestation languish in obscurity than give publicity to something that might be fraudulent).

And authentication, or not, is what is on the cards for this particular phenomenon. How does this involve Mayano? Well, the Church would like him to participate in the process, essentially being lead investigator for the assessment panel (which also includes a psychiatrist, a priest from the local diocese, a theologian, and so on). More out of curiosity than anything else (or so it is implied), Mayano takes the job – but as he gets to know Anna and the other principals in the case, he finds himself being more deeply affected than he had anticipated – especially when it seems there may be a connection between Anna’s supposed visions and his own recent trauma…

I saw Xavier Giannoli’s previous film, Marguerite, a couple of years ago, and was rather blown away by it: a very subtle and impressive piece of work, especially in the understated shifts in tone which see a film that begins as a smart comedy end as a genuinely moving and rather tragic drama. His name rang a vague bell when I saw it on the poster for The Apparition, but I didn’t put two and two together until after seeing the film – I have to say this is probably just as well, as it would only have raised my expectations for the new movie.

As it is, The Apparition gets off to a notably assured and compelling start, detailing Mayano’s personal situation and then his summons to Rome. This all plays rather like a more naturalistic and credible version of something that Dan Brown might write, with the understated way that various church officials discuss extraordinary phenomena only adding to the impression that the film makes. You are left genuinely wrong-footed and unsure of just which way the film is going to go as it proceeds – is this going to be a slightly arty drama about Mayano’s own personal issues? Some kind of paranormal mystery, with a touch of the theological about it? Or a more conventional thriller, exploring some of the murky backstory of Anna’s visions of the Virgin?

Well, if I say that even at the end of the film, I wasn’t entirely sure which way the film had gone, you may get some idea of the problems with which The Apparition is saddled: it has a great opening, to be sure, but by about halfway through it has lost most of its momentum and cuts back and forth between a number of plotlines, with no great sense of this being a film which is in a hurry to go anywhere in a hurry. Indeed, ‘hurry’ is definitely not the word, for The Apparition is knocking on the door of being two and a half hours’ long, and this is frankly just too much. The story wanders off on odd tangents and explores obscure subplots, but there’s not much sense of anyone being in command of the narrative. When I say that by the end of the film I still wasn’t entirely clear if anyone had genuinely seen the Virgin Mary or not, and what this might mean, you may get some idea of how impenetrable the film becomes – not because it’s difficult to follow what’s going on from scene to scene, but because it’s clearly all supposed to mean something but it’s very difficult to tell what. You’re in no doubt as to Mayano’s mental state as the film concludes, but you have no real sense of it yourself, nor any real understanding of why he’s feeling this way.

Now, it would be remiss of me to suggest that there’s nothing of interest going on here at all: Giannoli takes a balanced view of the Church, comparing the genuine faith and decency of some adherents and members of the hierarchy with the willingness of others to exploit Anna for her visions, and puts this across with a light touch. The film also benefits enormously from two tremendous performances from the two leads – Lindon does just enough to suggest that beneath the surface of his world-weary journalist is a man who may actually want to believe in something greater, while Galatea Belugi is astonishingly self-assured in a very demanding role as the young devotee: I suspect she may very well be going places.

However, if so it will almost certainly be in vehicles which are better assembled than The Apparition. There is enough good stuff here for me to put it in the pile marked ‘Creditable Misfire’, and one certainly gets the impression that Giannoli managed to get reasonably close to the subtle and thoughtful film he was clearly aiming for. Nevertheless, it still looks to me like he fell some way short of his target, with the result that this is an ultimately disappointing movie on many levels.

 

 

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By one of those weird little resonant coincidences which might almost make a person believe in stuff beyond the humdrum quotidian, we currently have a situation where two films on release feature an uncanny degree of similarity in one element of the script. Were you to mosey down to your local UK cinema and say ‘I want a ticket for the film… I can’t quite remember the title… it’s the one where Amanda Seyfried has recently become pregnant but is having trouble in her marriage… can you help?’ you would be basically be taking a gamble. While this is essentially a large chunk of the premise to Mamma Mia! Oh No Not Again, currently occupying an unfeasibly large number of screens in the UK, it is also an essentially accurate description of the set-up to First Reformed.

I would say it is a very good idea to get your pregnant Amanda Seyfried films sorted out before heading to the cinema, because they are in other respects cut from slightly different cloth. The Mamma Mia! sequel is a fluffy, glittery, feel-good piece of froth that doesn’t make many demands of the brain from anywhere much higher than the medulla oblongata; its sole intent is to distract and delight. First Reformed, on the other hand… well, I’m reminded of a Stephen King quote about the literary style of James Herbert – who, according to King, performed the equivalent of grabbing you by the collar and screaming in your face.

This should not come as much surprise once one learns that the writer-director of First Reformed is Paul Schrader, a veteran film-maker long renowned as the grim observer of a certain kind of damaged masculinity: he wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, not to mention The Last Temptation of Christ. You don’t go to a Paul Schrader film for a cheery Swedish power-pop singalong. You go there to have the harsh realities of modern life scraped across your face like a handful of broken glass, and First Reformed really delivers on this score.

Ethan Hawke plays Ernst Toller, pastor in charge of the small, little-attended ‘tourist church’ First Reformed, in upstate New York. Toller has a broken marriage and an intense personal tragedy behind him; he is a lonely man, not in the best of health either physically or mentally, perhaps actually very sick indeed. As the film begins he has just begun keeping a journal of his private thoughts, primarily (it seems) to justify the voice-over which Hawke delivers throughout the movie.

The church is about to reopen for its 250th anniversary, the renovation having been bankrolled by various wealthy local businessmen. Toller is more preoccupied with the lot of one of his flock, a young woman named Mary (Seyfried). She is with child, but concerned by her husband’s response to this news. He is an environmental campaigner, though one who has now fallen somewhat into despondency, and feels it is a fundamentally selfish act to bring a new life into a world which will soon be ravaged by the consequences of human-caused climate change.

Well, this has a big impact on Toller, but how should he respond to it? The very men his church is so reliant on are industrialists and polluters on a massive scale. His superiors in the church do not seem very sympathetic either. It’s almost enough to make a man, even a priest, contemplate the darkest of notions…

So, and I’m not sure I even need to reiterate this again but let’s be on the safe side, not a great many laughs in this one. The trailer for First Reformed looked interesting, and the 94% approval rating it enjoys on a popular solanaceous review aggregator site also suggested it might be worth a look, but I was especially intrigued when a couple of people from work went to see it and came back grumbling loudly. ‘Awful. I fell asleep. It’s so slow. Not what you’d call entertainment,’ was the capsule version of their collective opinion.

Well, I can kind of see where they’re coming from, as even at the viewing I attended, someone behind me stood up at the end and announced with a huge grin ‘It was even bleaker than I’d hoped!’ You would have to be some kind of sociopath to come out of First Reformed skipping and whistling: this is a film which will test you and attempt to shred your soul. Not in any particularly explicit, horrific way – this is first and foremost a personal drama. But it is about as heavy a drama as I can remember seeing at a UK cinema, recently at least.

Initially the film seems content to deal in a sort of non-specific gloominess, as various scenes of Toller drinking too much, peeing blood and sitting in darkened rooms with his head in his hands are intercut with gloomy pronouncements about the state of environment and the theological ramifications and aspects of this. You do wonder where it is going and, indeed, what it’s actually about.

Eventually things acquire a little clarity, and it seems to me that while the film does have some interesting and perhaps challenging things to say about environmentalism and how society deals with this issue, it is really about hope and despair. How does a sensible person fend off despair these days? How can you maintain any sense of hope in the era of Trump, Brexit, accelerating climatic disaster, the collapse of western civilisation as we have known it, and the prospect of any number of apocalyptic futures?

It is, to say the least, a very considerable challenge – or so the film seems to suggest. Unsympathetic viewers might say that First Reformed goes off the deep end in the sheer scale of its darkness and willingness to toy with disturbing notions and imagery. If it were made with less commitment and focus, and had a less impressive performance than Hawke’s at its heart, it might become risible and preposterous, not to mention extremely tasteless, towards the end. The film still often feels like a calculated act of provocation against normal standards of good and bad taste, and it does make unusual demands of the viewer – there’s a sequence towards the end which had me going ‘What the hell…?’ so abruptly and thoroughly surreal is it.

The fact remains, though, that this is still clearly a highly intelligent film, the product of a distinctive directorial vision, and lifted by a superb performance from Ethan Hawke. There are big questions about faith and society being asked here, even if the answers that are given seem provisional at best. First Reformed is absolutely not for everyone, and contains material likely to disturb and perhaps even offend – but if you like some slightly more demanding, chewy material in your cinematic intake, then this is a film with the potential to satisfy you.

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The business of proper big-screen revivals of classic movies can be a funny old thing sometimes. It’s quite normal for the two slightly art-housey cinemas in my area to regularly show something like The Graduate or West Side Story of a Sunday afternoon, the main selection criterion seeming to be that the film is just old and good. In terms of an old movie getting a more general showing, well, having a major anniversary certainly seems to help. Even so, things are often not quite as one would expect: if you’d asked me which blockbuster Hugo-nominated fantasy film would be getting a spruced-up revival for its fortieth birthday in 2017, my first guess would not have been Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

(Then again – and I hope you will forgive the digression – there is always something slightly nostalgic about a revival, and I get the impression that nostalgia is only allowed near the stellar conflict franchise nowadays under strictly controlled conditions. To do otherwise might end up suggesting that there was something genuinely magical and innovative about those first couple of films, while the current sequence are just machine-tooled product. Other opinions are, of course, available.)

Close Encounters, directed and (in theory – many hands were involved) written by Steven Spielberg, is one of those movies which has shifted into the cultural background somewhat over the years, no doubt as a result of its ideas, themes, and images being so extensively reworked in other venues. Long before seeing the actual movie, I remember watching the parody of it on The Goodies (Bill Oddie, in a Superman costume, playing a trombone duet with an alien spacecraft), and not being at all confused by the various references. Hard to imagine The X-Files without Close Encounters; impossible to imagine E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial at all, for obvious reasons.

The film opens on a black screen, over which an unsettling wail of white noise rises, before a smash cut to the heart of a sandstorm. One group of the film’s protagonists emerges from this: Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), a French scientist, who meets a group of American colleagues. Together they make a disturbing discovery: a flight of torpedo-bombers has been deposited in the Mexican desert. The planes seem to be a squadron that disappeared off the coast of Florida in 1945, but they appear to be brand new, as though thirty years has not happened. A witness speaks of the sun rising in the middle of the night and singing.

More strange phenomena occur over Indiana: strange lights in the sky are reported by airline pilots. A blackout spreads across the countryside. Electrical engineer Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) leaves the domestic chaos of his home in an attempt to track down the source of the power cut – he is an ordinary guy, a little harassed, but generally happy in his life. Then something happens to him on a lonely country road in the middle of the night that changes everything. He encounters a UFO, which wreaks havoc with his truck and gives him severe sunburn before heading off. Neary goes in pursuit, encountering others who have had similar experiences. Amongst these are Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and her infant son, who were visited in their home by an unseen presence. A flight of several UFOs swoops by, hotly pursued by the cops. Neary’s world has been transformed.

From here the movie follows both Lacombe and Neary. Lacombe is a scientist, following a trail of evidence: long-since-disappeared ships return, in rather improbable locations. From India there come reports of strange noises from the sky. Signals are received from deep space, providing map co-ordinates. Government preparations are made. Something is coming to Earth.

Meanwhile, Roy and the other eye-witnesses are struggling to make sense of their own experiences. They find themselves compelled to draw or sculpt a particular mountain. A particular five-note sequence of music has mysteriously lodged itself in their brains. Roy’s newfound obsessions cost him his job, and eventually drive his family away. He is irresistibly drawn to the mountain from his dream – as Lacombe observes, Roy has been invited to a very special occasion…

Close Encounters is part of that sequence of early movies which established Spielberg as probably the most famous and financially successful director in the world – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.. (Rather more obscure is his 1979 knockabout comedy film 1941, which was less successful but which I find very hard to dislike. Apparently the experience burned Spielberg when it came to doing pure comedy, which is a shame, as legend has it his next project was going to be, almost unbelievably, a big-screen blockbuster movie version of The Goodies. Strange how all these things link up together in different combinations.) Of all of them, Close Encounters is the one which has slipped furthest from the public consciousness, perhaps in part because it hasn’t been sequelised or exploited to death, and also because it has to some extent been eclipsed by E.T..

The similarities between the two are obvious – the relationship between Neary and Lacombe clearly parallels that of Elliot and Keys in the latter film, which had its earliest origins as a Close Encounters follow-up – but it seems to me that Close Encounters is a rather subtler and more thoughtful film, in addition to being less sentimental and cutesy. It feels much more of a piece with other films being made in America in the mid-to-late 1970s, when the country was still trying to process the tarnishing of the government in the Watergate affair and the implications of the conclusion of the Vietnam War. People were looking for something that would allow them a chance to escape, and perhaps even give them something to believe in, and it seems significant to me that so many of these late 70s and early 80s films conclude with an explicit act of faith on the part of the protagonist – switching off a targeting computer and relying on instinct, or averting their eyes from the wrath of God. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is perhaps the fullest realisation of this theme of all of these films, for it is surely primarily about the finding and following of faith.

I find it now a little ironic that my parents are fond of declaring that E.T. is actually some form of Christian allegory (they said the same about the first stellar conflict movie for a while, if memory serves) – for one thing, Spielberg is not exactly noted for his Christian background. But Close Encounters does have that spine-tingling sense of human beings coming into contact with the deeper mysteries of the universe, and so often the imagery used is religious: there are signs and portents in the sky. A ship appears, ark-like, in the middle of dry land. When John Williams’ famous five-note motif first appears, it is as a mantra, endlessly chanted by what appears to be a choir of Indian mystics. At one point Roy Neary demands of the sky what all of this means.

Neary’s story itself practically qualifies as a conversion narrative: he’s an Everyman, transformed into a true believer by a chance encounter. From this moment on he finds he has no other choice than to follow his new faith, despite the efforts of friends and the authorities to dissuade or convince him otherwise. He loses his job, and his wife and family leave him too (the movie is perhaps a little hard on Neary’s wife, played by Teri Garr). But he presses on, makes his pilgrimage, and in the end it appears to be him, the true believer, who is chosen ahead of all the government-approved candidates to be taken up into the heavens by otherworldly forces. (The sensation is presumably one of pure rapture.) Spielberg has said that he now finds it unimaginable that Neary could abandon his children and go off into space, but in the context of the movie, and given its theme, it would feel very strange if he didn’t: the movie is about shedding those kinds of Earthly connections in favour of the spiritual kind.

That said, it’s not a cosy or sentimental spirituality: Close Encounters‘ aliens may be otherworldly, but they are also enigmatic and strange, and often frightening as a result – the visitation of alien forces on Jillian in her home is a genuinely frightening sequence, rather at odds with the rest of the movie. (Almost enough to make one regret the fact that Spielberg hasn’t really directed a horror movie since Jaws; one imagines it would be utterly terrifying.) There is a real sense of the unknown and perhaps unknowable touching life on Earth.

Perhaps this is rather odd material for an SF movie, then: but then I suppose this is a case of a film being declared SF simply because it isn’t obviously anything else, and besides, it has aliens in it. (It’s noteworthy how rare in-the-flesh aliens are in ‘serious’ SF movies prior to 1977, also this movie’s role in creating the assumption of friendly alien life which would persist until Independence Day once again inverted the stereotype.) Science fiction and ufology are distant cousins, I suppose, but no more than that, simply because ufology is only marginally science (it’s still more respectable than Bermuda Triangle lore, which is also touched on in this movie). While there’s obviously something going on with the UFO phenomenon, I doubt it admits to a single, simple solution, and not the one suggested by Spielberg here – but as I’ve suggested, the UFO element of the story is simply a metaphor that allows Spielberg to talk about something else. (Slightly ironic, then, that the 40th anniversary showing I attended was followed by a serious talk by a couple of university professors about the prospects of intelligent life in the universe and our chances of communicating with it.)

Spielberg’s casual mastery of cinema is already well-developed in this movie, which includes several of his most memorable bits of legerdemain – the moment where the lights in Neary’s rear-view reveal themselves to be not headlights, but something rather more exotic, for one, and the one where a TV set in the foreground flashes up an image replicating the vast sculpture dominating the room behind it, for another. He also manages to keep a film which could easily have become a bit airy and earnest grounded and accessible, inserting many bits of humour and action. Not that he gets everything completely right – quite apart from the handling of Mrs Neary, one is struck by the sheer number of people (virtually all men) at the Devil’s Tower arena who seem to have nothing to do but stand around looking on in awe: spectacle trumps logic here, I suppose. Fairly prominent in the crowd is a young Lance Henriksen – there’s a guy with an interesting CV – and also J Allen Hynek, the formulator of the ‘close encounters’ scale (which never gets elaborated upon in the actual movie, oddly enough).

The late 1970s and early 1980s have left us with a lot of significant SF and fantasy movies, not all of which get the attention they deserve. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is probably the least action-adventure oriented of all of them, and the least escapist (as escapism is generally understood, anyway). It’s also much more obviously a film about personal themes, but one which handles them in a very accessible way. That it manages all this while still looking very much like a modern special-effects blockbuster is by no means the least of its achievements. Probably not Steven Spielberg’s best film, perhaps not even the best of his early films – but still a significant one, and worth remembering. Good to see it back on the big screen.

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One can’t help but feel a certain sympathy for Liam Neeson’s personal circumstances and desire to keep working, even as one regrets some of the mankier films this has resulted in him turning up in over the last six or seven years – Battleship probably marks the gloomiest nadir, though there’s a lot to choose from. Thankfully, however, there are signs that Neeson is making a comeback as an actor of substance, for this week alone saw the release of A Monster Calls, in which he voices the title character, and Martin Scorsese’s Silence, in which he gives probably one of the greatest performances of his career, albeit in a supporting role. This seems quite apposite, for Silence is a remarkable film of the kind which does not come along very often.

silence

Silence is many things, but primarily a very personal story, and so the details of its setting are not systematically laid out but allowed to emerge organically in the course of the story. The majority of it takes place in Japan in the 1640s. At this time the country was under the control of the Shogunate and was attempting to isolate itself from the rest of the world in order to preserve its autonomy (this would continue until the USA effectively forced the country open in the 1850s). One consequence of this was a programme of savage persecution directed against the thousands of Japanese converts to Christianity, whose allegiance to the Pope was perceived as being a threat to the authority of the Japanese ruling castes.

Neeson plays Ferreira, a Jesuit priest, resident in Japan for many years, caught up in the worst of the persecution. The Jesuits are obviously concerned for him, and also by dark and unsettling rumours as to his eventual fate – but simply entering Japan is incredibly hazardous for any priest. Nevertheless, keen to find their mentor is the crack spod squad of Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, young priests determined to do God’s work and minister to the needs of the Japanese Catholics, and also firm believers that the worst stories about Ferreira cannot be true.

What they encounter in Japan tests their faith to the utmost, in all kinds of ways. Many questions are raised by what they see and hear, questions which they can’t help thinking over and praying about – even when the answer to all of their prayers merely seems to be silence.

Many great directors seem to wear a number of different hats in the course of their careers, and it’s no different with Martin Scorsese. There are the films he’s made as a director for hire, some of which are very fine in their own right, and then there are the ones he’s perhaps most famous for – hard-edged crime dramas and psychological thrillers, often very violent, frequently with Robert De Niro or Leonardo DiCaprio. But then there are a handful of films which reveal a deep concern with spirituality and religion – the most controversial of these is almost certainly The Last Temptation of Christ, but Kundun (about the Dalai Lama) also caused a bit of a stir. This is the same category into which Silence goes, although it doesn’t appear to have provoked much of reaction.

I’m a little surprised by this, not least because its presentation of the Japanese authorities is very far from sympathetic – perhaps this is the reason why the film was made in Taiwan rather than Japan itself. Then again, perhaps people simply aren’t that interested in a film about the Catholic Church any more. I suppose there remains the possibility that Silence will be adopted by those who believe that Christianity is somehow being persecuted in western society and that the film constitutes a metaphor for this – but that would be a considerable stretch.

As I said, the film is ultimately more personal than that, although it has an undeniably epic scope and deals with big concerns across its very lengthy running time. At this point you may be thinking ‘Hmmm, this sounds a bit heavy’ – and I can’t honestly argue with that. This is not the kind of film you go to simply to have a good time or be entertained – while watching it, you can of course appreciate the craftsmanship that has gone into the sets and costumes, the artistry of the editing, the skill of the camerawork, and the commitment of the performances, but in the end this is at heart a serious film about profound issues of belief and faith.

It is on one level a kind of adventure, with the two priests trying to survive in a hostile landscape, witnessing the awful persecution of their flock, searching for their mentor, and so on, but it is never far away from a thorny dilemma or serious moral or theological question – are the priests right to allow the villagers to sacrifice themselves to protect them? Is the faith that the Japanese Christians imperfectly observe really the same one that the priests themselves belong to? Can one ever be really certain what another person truly believes?

As a former student of philosophy with a strong interest in Japanese history and culture, I found Silence to be mesmerising from start to finish, but I suppose there are a few people dotted about who may not find long discussions on the subject of apostasy to be quite what they’re looking for in a film, which begs the question of whether there’s anything else here for them. Well, I would certainly say so, for while the trappings of the film are steeped in Catholicism and the work of the Jesuits, I think it is ultimately about the nature of faith itself – why does someone believe something? What sustains that belief through difficult periods? What drives a person to try and share his creed? It is about people at least as much as any religion.

And it works as well as it does because of some very notable performances. It’s good to see Liam Neeson back on top form, but we always knew he was a heavyweight given the right role; what’s perhaps more revelatory is Andrew Garfield’s performance. There were perhaps warning lights flashing over his career following his sacking as Spider-Man, but this film shows he is an actor of real power and range. Also making an impression as a sardonic and cruel interpreter is Tadanobu Asano, best known in Anglophone cinema for (inevitably) his work in Marvel Comics movies.

Lots of people get rather excited about Goodfellas and Raging Bull and Casino, but I must confess that these movies have never quite done it for me – all the machismo and/or Mafia chic kind of gets in the way of their undeniable quality. For good or ill, Silence is much more my type of film. I am certain it won’t be to all tastes, for the theme, tone, and graphic violence and cruelty will probably combine to put many people off. And that’s regrettable, for I think Silence is a truly magisterial and significant piece of work which people will be watching again and again for many years to come. It asks the most serious questions in an undeniably powerful and moving way, and perhaps even changes the way you think about the world – and if that’s not the definition of great art, I don’t know what is.

 

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Does this qualify as an actual confession? I was visiting my parents over the Christmas break and one evening my father was watching a documentary about the life and work of C.S. Lewis, the popular theologian and Oxbridge don best known today, probably, as the writer of the Narnia books. The presenter of the show made a passing reference to Lewis’ adult SF output of the 1930s and 1940s. Naturally, my father looked to me. ‘Have you read those?’ he asked. ‘Er, no,’ I was obliged to admit. Needless to say, when I’d polished off the book I was entrenched in at the time, my next stop was the Kindle store to pick up a copy of Lewis’ Space Trilogy. (To be perfectly honest, I think The Cosmic Trilogy is a slightly more evocative title, but it’s not the one on the cover. Hmmph.)

space trilogy

While the plots of the three volumes certainly link into one another very firmly, this is still a fairly episodic series of books (does that make any sense? Trust me on this). The first book, Out of the Silent Planet, opens with Ransom, a philologist on a walking holiday who stumbles across strange goings-on in a remote house. He is basically kidnapped by two caddish types, a scientist and a businessman, and when he recovers his senses finds himself aboard a secret, privately-built spacecraft, en route to another planet. Exactly where is kept from him, as his captors have intentions for him they refuse to reveal.

Eventually the spacecraft touches down on the strange world of Malacandra, where Ransom gives his persecutors the slip and gets to know the various inhabitants: the huge, philosophical Sorns, the poetic, lutrine Hrossa, and the squat, industrious Pfifltriggi. But there are still further inhabitants, disembodied intelligences known to the locals as Eldila. Up to this point, the book has read rather like a particularly refined and genteel planetary romance – not too dissimilar to similar works by the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Michael Moorcock – but the moment Ransom discovers the Eldila serve Maleldil the Young, the son of the Old One who made the universe, the jig starts to grind to a halt and it becomes very clear what Lewis is getting at.

Malacandra is such a haven of peace and unity because it is still under the rule of a benevolent, angelic being called an Oyarsa. The generally rotten and corrupt nature of life on Earth is all due to the local Oyarsa having gone bad and corrupted the human race. I would call this a fairly unsophisticated subtext, but for the fact that it isn’t really subtext at all: it’s what the story is fundamentally about.

Still, alongside all the Christian allegory the book has some interesting ideas: about what Lewis clearly perceived as the false distinctions people make between different types of life (animal, human, and supra-human) and experience (‘normal’, religious/supernatural, and scientific). Rather atypically for what is still, after all, an SF book, the book isn’t afraid to come out and argue that the human race shouldn’t be leaving its home planet, shouldn’t fight to extend its longevity, and so on. (This sort of submission to the greater truths of the universe becomes a sort of theme of the trilogy.)

In the end not very much happens and Ransom finds himself back on Earth with some remarkable tales to tell. The book is quite brief, but full of interesting ideas, and Malacandra is vividly described. It’s also easily the most SF-y of the three books.

Perelandra is much more of a slog, and opens with (we are invited to infer) Lewis himself trekking through the wartime blackout to meet Ransom. Great things are afoot, and – having learned the language of the angels on Malacandra – he is being sent off to the planet Perelandra on a mission of great importance.

Perelandra is a subtropical paradise, a waterworld where much of the life exists on floating islands of vegetation. On his arrival Ransom finds it even more idyllic than Malacandra was, but it transpires this is because it is a young world. The local analogues of Adam and Eve – no, really – are still existing in a state of grace, living in obedience to the higher powers. But not long after Ransom turns up, another spacecraft makes a landing, this one also hailing from Earth. The forces of darkness have sent their own emissary, introducing a new serpent into this extraterrestrial Eden, and it’s up to Ransom to prevent the Fall from happening again.

Once again, that isn’t subtext, it’s the actual plot of the book. There is subtlety in Perelandra, but it is very upfront about its nature as a piece of, if not Christian writing, then writing with strong and entirely positive Christian themes. There is, again, implicit and explicit criticism of life on Earth, where the word of God has been disobeyed – Lewis starts talking about God and angels quite openly about halfway through, and the story very quickly turns into not much more than a vehicle for him to express his theological ideas.

I suspect even most committed Christians would find Perelandra quite heavy going, but the quality of Lewis’ writing was high enough to keep me reading, even if I was broadly sceptical about his premises in general and some of the turns of the plot in particular – Ransom does turn out to be portentously-named, as I’d suspected all along, while the real subtext of the climax of the book, which seems to be that sometimes you’ve just got to abandon reasoned argument and batter someone’s head in, struck me as rather unsound.

Hey ho. Ransom gets back to Earth for the final (and much longer) volume, That Hideous Strength, although he has more of a supporting role in this book. It is really the story of a young couple, Mark and Jane Studdock. He is an ambitious young don at a small university, she is a housewife; their marriage is unhappy. Jane has odd dreams she can’t make sense of, but Mark is much more concerned with university politics. This involves him attempting to inveigle his way into the good books of an institute known as the NICE, which wants to reorganise Britain and the world along more efficient, rational lines.

Needless to say, the NICE is really an instrument of the forces of darkness, and quite horrific experiments are going on in secret at its HQ. It essentially represents a baleful, soulless Technocracy (Lewis even refers to it as such), intent on reducing the human race to a state of materialistic submission. (I can’t help thinking, having read this book, that C.S. Lewis would have made a great GM for a game of Mage: The Ascension, although I suspect everyone would have been obliged to play Celestial Choristers.) The NICE is populated by a gallery of hissable grotesques, including a proto-Rosa Klebb villainess and a vague Sir Humphrey type.

Set against them is a small company of decent, proper types, including Ransom – not referred to by name until well into the book – and, eventually, Jane. The actual story is an extraordinary mash-up of black comedy, thriller elements, conversion literature, horror, and full-on fantasy – the mythology is far from exclusively Christian, making heavy use of Arthurian imagery, but also Greek mythology, too. A distant cousin of one of Olaf Stapledon’s Fourth Men appears (Lewis himself acknowledges the similarity in his preface), but perhaps most interesting for many people will be references to Atlantis, which Lewis calls Numinor. Yes, that’s a reference to Tolkien’s imaginarium, and much of the book feels like an expanded-upon version of Saruman’s corruption of the Shire at the end of The Lord of the Rings (kids, go and read the book). There’s the same sense of insensate gears and wheels and human pettiness crushing everything that’s natural and decent and right in the world.

Lewis is such a good writer that you do find yourself giving his ideas headspace, even some of the really dubious ones. He does come across as a bit of a reactionary, to be honest, but on the other hand there is such a sense of decency and morality about this book that it’s very difficult to actually dislike (although I suspect someone like Philip Pullman could probably manage it quite easily). This even extends to the prefaces and afterwords – Tolkien is fulsome in his praise for Lewis, and Lewis returns the favour to quite the same extent, even adding a few commendatory words with respect to Olaf Stapledon (although I suspect he would have strongly objected to the conception of God Stapledon lays out in his extraordinary Star-Maker).

The Christian themes are less dominant in That Hideous Strength, though still strongly present, and the nature of the story means that this Earth-bound instalment is probably the most readable of the three, even if it is longer than the first two combined. The ending is somewhat abrupt and unexpectedly low-key: a cosmic battle may have been fought, with incomprehensible forces descending from Deep Heaven to lay waste the enemies of humanity, but equally important is the fact that a marriage seems to have been saved and two young people have found their way back into the light. I suspect this was very far from being accidental.

Are these books still worth reading today? Well, that depends on why you read them, I suspect. As examples of mid-20th century SF, I suspect not, because well-written as they are, they are only ever really secondarily SF: Lewis’ theological concerns always take precedence, occasionally wearyingly so. If you want to enjoy fiction by a great Christian thinker and apologist, on the other hand, you’ll probably find them much more engaging, although they are still (obviously) very dated in terms of their style and setting. I enjoyed them quite a lot (well, the middle part less so), but I would still say they were religious fantasy much more than actual science fiction.

 

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For a while I was slightly aware that this year was looking a bit lightweight, both in terms of the number of films I’d been to see, and their overall quality – I was a good half-dozen behind where I’d been at the same point in 2013. However, having seen five films in the last fortnight, with at least two more coming in the next week, these concerns feel less pressing. It has also helped that most of these movies have been pretty good in one way or another: certainly, none of them has been a total disaster.

Particularly outstanding, in many respects, was John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary. The McDonagh brothers (John Michael’s sibling is Martin, writer-director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) are rapidly establishing themselves as film-makers of real stature, and Calvary may be the best film one of them has yet produced.

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Brendan Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle, a Catholic priest in the Republic of Ireland. While hearing confessions one day, an unidentified parishioner reveals that he was abused as a child by another priest, now dead. As an act of retribution, the man now intends to kill Lavelle, reasoning that no-one will bat an eyelid at the death of a guilty priest, but the murder of a good and innocent man as punishment for the sins of another will attract everybody’s attention. The would-be killer thoughtfully gives Lavelle a week to set his affairs in order.

That Lavelle does not immediately consider if he is justified in calling in the police, or contemplate skipping town entirely, tells you something of the tone of Calvary, which is measured and thoughtful throughout. The film follows the priest through the week and observes his interactions with various members of his flock, who are a colourful bunch, as well as his troubled daughter (Kelly Reilly) – she is the product of a marriage which ended prior to Lavelle’s taking the cloth. All the time the viewer is aware that a clock is ticking, but Lavelle concerns himself with a troubled marriage, or a prison visit, or giving solace to a recently-widowed woman: simply with being a priest, in other words.

And it seems to me that this is what Calvary is actually about: the question of the place of religion in the modern world. The setting of the film is clearly contemporary – this is an Ireland ravaged by the wake of the financial crisis, where the church is under siege from accusations of corruption and much worse. As a source of moral authority, Lavelle finds himself constantly challenged and mocked, both by nominal Catholics and atheists, while even his decision to follow his vocation and join the priesthood is criticised by his daughter. ‘Your time has gone,’ he is explicitly told at one point.

This of course feeds into the idea of the film as an allegory for the story of Christ, which it is obviously intended to be (the title and the premise make this clear) – but it’s also a character study of Lavelle, and the question of exactly what motivates him. By potentially risking death, is the priest simply trying to justify his own existence? Does some part of him actively seek martyrdom? The film is intelligent enough not to offer easy answers (nor, indeed, does it entirely resolve its own plot, which some people may grumble about).

The last film from Gleeson and McDonagh was The Guard, to which Calvary bears something of a resemblance – community figure in rural Ireland with troubled female relative, literate script, various oddball supporting characters, somewhat offbeat conclusion – but this is a much more serious and thoughtful film that isn’t afraid to deal with some difficult subject matter. It’s by no means totally gloomy, but it’s certainly not a comedy either.

This is despite the presence of a few actors best-known for comic work: Dylan Moran and Chris O’Dowd both appear, along with Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, and various people who were also in The Guard (Gleeson Junior is issued with an unflattering brown wig to reduce his resemblance to his dad). All the performances are good, but dominating the film with a monumental portrayal of simple humanity and decency is Brendan Gleeson. In Lavelle, he and McDonagh have created another richly three-dimensional human being: I fear that the decision to release Calvary at Easter may mean the film is forgotten about when it comes to next year’s awards season, for once again Gleeson is deserving of some sort of recognition for his work here.

But, on the other hand, many people may just regard this as a child-abuse drama about the Catholic church in Ireland, and stay away on principle. This would be a great shame, for Calvary is much more than that. It’s as complete and as satisfying a film as any I’ve seen this year, and managed to be thought-provoking, moving, funny, and occasionally upsetting to watch. Well worth seeking out.

 

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So, truth be told, I enjoyed Ron Howard’s 2009 movie Angels & Demons much more than I was expecting to, and on a greater number of levels – which is another way of saying this is an unironically fun movie as well as a crazed piece of unbelievable nonsense. Bearing this in mind, the sensible thing to do was obviously to check out the other film from the same team, The Da Vinci Code.

This was music to the ears of my landlady, who was very resistant to letting me view Angels & Demons anyway, complaining that ‘it’s the sequel, you should watch the other one first’. I riposted that the two books the films are based on take place in reverse order, so it wasn’t likely to make a lot of difference, and following an interesting and heated discussion resulting in only a small rent hike I settled down to watch the movie of The Da Vinci Code, from 2006.

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Tom Hanks again plays maverick symbologist Robert Langdon, who, in time-honoured movie style, proves his academic credentials by giving a thematically-relevant public lecture at the top of the film. One of the pitfalls of doing this kind of thing is that someone always turns up intent on sending you off on an adventure of some kind. In this case it is the French police (Hanks is visiting Paris, not that he seems much inclined to parley the old Fronsay), who are principally embodied by the marvellous Jean Reno (giving another masterclass in ambiguity).

The curator of the Louvre has turned up dead, his body arranged in the manner of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man and with a strange arcane sigil inscribed on his chest in his own blood. Hanks believes he has been summoned to lend his professional assistance, but passing police cryptographer Sophie (Audrey Tatou), who also happens to be the dead man’s grand-daughter (yup, we’re only just setting up the plot and already everything is creaking like hell), reveals he has actually been framed for the killing.

So, obviously Hanks and Tatou go on the run from the cops, trying to work out why the murder victim was trying to attract Hank’s attention and who actually did the dirty deed. The audience is several steps ahead at this point, as we already know who the killer is. I had hopes for The Da Vinci Code being just as uproariously daft as its sequel, and the early appearance of the ever-watchable Paul Bettany as a (deep breath) self-flagellating albino assassin monk named Silas promised great things in this department. Hanks has already figured out the death is connected to an heretical secret society known as the Prieure de Sion, and Bettany is attached to a militant chamber of the Catholic Church which is intent on wiping this group out and destroying their greatest secret: the Holy Grail itself…

Well, there’s a lot of running and driving and flying around to various places, not to mention the doing of lots of anagrams and other word puzzles. Alfred Molina pops up as a morally-compromised Cardinal, while the veteran Grail-hunter Hanks and Tatou turn to for help is played by Ian McKellen, who appears to be having a quite inordinate amount of fun. So the performances all round are actually pretty good.

And – and my antipathy towards the original book and scepticism towards its sources make this slightly tough to admit to – this seemed to me to be, in many ways, a much better and more classy film than Angels & Demons. (Not having antimatter bombs exploding in the Roman sky and free-falling pontiffs is always a help in the credibility department, I suppose.)

This is, of course, only my opinion, and it’s true that on one level this is every bit as implausible a movie, and equally as much an Indiana Jones pastiche with a very thin veneer of erudition brushed over the top of it. Indeed, the resemblance to the third Indiana Jones is very striking indeed, given both films concern a search for the Holy Grail, and both scripts talk about this mythic artefact using very similar language.

The two films’ takes as to what the Holy Grail actually is vary somewhat, of course, with The Da Vinci Code opting for a less traditional concept. This element of the film is famously derived from the blockbuster ‘conspiracy’-expose The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which proposed that… you know, I think that would probably constitute a spoiler. (By the way, you should not let your opinion of this theory be affected by the fact that one of its authors used to write scripts for Doctor Who.) One of the rather impressive things about this movie is the way in which it seizes upon this rather complex and convoluted theory and serves it up for mass consumption in an accessible and cinematic way.

On the other hand, you could equally argue that this is a rather strange Hollywood thriller, in that the spaces which would normally be filled by high-octane action sequences are here occupied by lengthy and lavish flashbacks – some of them to the personal lives of the characters, others to key moments in church history (whether real or apocryphal). Making these as interesting and engaging as they are is a bit of an achievement. Personally, I’m interested in philosophy, theology, and history, and so a big movie largely revolving around these things was always going to appeal to me on some level – if, on the other hand, you’re more in the market for car-chases, things going bang, and end-of-second-act whoh-ho-ho you may find this particular film more wearing.

But, as I say, I enjoyed it much more than I expected to, and in a mostly non-ironic way. Bettany doesn’t really get a huge amount to do as the self-flagellating albino assassin monk, and in any case the whole action-thriller-innocents-on-the-run aspect of the plot gets resolved a surprisingly long time before the climax. At this point the film really does become more about ideas and philosophies, and ancient secrets being revealed – and on these terms it’s surprisingly effective. Given this is a film which is explicitly about symbols and symbolism, it seems to be working on an almost symbolic level itself, as the characters descend into ancient vaults, decode musty old manuscripts, and generally seek for truth in chaos and darkness. You could quite easily argue that the movie itself is heretical, or anti-Christian – especially anti-Catholic –  and I suppose this is to some extent quite true. Here, however, we find ourselves at one of those fault lines, or barriers, which is in a very real sense impermeable – either you treat the Bible as, er, Holy Scripture, or you don’t, and rational discussion isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about that. You will either be willing to consider the central thesis of The Da Vinci Code (and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail before it), even if just as a thought experiment, or you won’t. Personally I didn’t find this aspect of the movie risible or offensive – and the almost-subliminal fantasy elements it brought to the story just added to its appeal – but I’m well aware others may strongly disagree.

Here again, though, we’re in slightly odd territory in that this film, more than the vast majority of mainstream Hollywood output, treats the existence of God – or belief in this  – as an important fact in the world, and central to its story. And yet, arguably for this very same reason, the film has been criticised and boycotted by Christian groups worldwide. Sometimes the converted don’t want to be preached to, I suppose. It may well be that my own tendency to view the likes of The Da Vinci Code as not much more than barnstorming escapist entertainment, with perhaps a little intellectual meat to add flavour, is just another sign that I have an appointment in the Sixth Circle of Hell when I eventually shuffle off there. Fine, as long as they don’t show a non-stop series of Paul W.S. Anderson movies in that section of the afterlife. In the meantime, a movie like The Da Vinci Code eases the suspense until I find out very pleasantly: it’s slick and it’s fun and it’s just a bit silly, but it also has a surprising amount of soul and intelligence to it, too.

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