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12 Years a Slave - a critique

12 Years A Slave (2013, MA)
It is difficult to pen a critical review of the winner of the 2014 Academy Award for Best Picture, but I believe it is necessary to do, as the film's reception has been illustrative of the sometimes uncritical approach to films that focus on important issues. The issue of ‘historical' slavery in the USA is clearly one that people thought worthy to highlight for the issue itself, rather than the quality of the film.
The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a New York state born free African-American who is kidnapped and sold into slavery and forced to work in a Louisiana plantation. When freed in 1853 he wrote an account of his time and this memoir was rediscovered in the 1960s.
While there are some reasonable portrayals, the acting is woefully uneven with some parts amateurish and ungainly. The director's seeming attempt to provide an art-house film as well as mainstream picture conflict, causing at times an odd and sometimes jarring collection of music, dramatic scenes and visual camera techniques that I believe detract from the central elements of the story. A warning to potential viewers; there are some concentrated torture and beating scenes, which ironically could have the adverse effect of turning people off from the central story. The film is also at times boringly didactic, and yet there are quite moving parts as well. It is worth noting that the director, British born Steve McQueen did not receive the Oscar for Best Director.
While it is certainly worth considering for the story itself, it continues the history of Oscar winning films which were worth nominating to raise awareness of an issue, and ended up winning the main prize. Mind you, I could be quite mistaken; as most critics have been so effusive in praise one would think they had directed the film. Certainly I was the only one in the audience laughing at some of the pretentiousness and acting - a rarity for me, as I am usually so socially conformist I wouldn't dare to do so during a preview screening.
You will already know from the title that Solomon did not remain a slave, and thank God for that, but I hope that does not soothe our consciences. Let us reflect that slavery still continues today and the sexual slave industry is estimated alone to be about 21 million people.
Peter Bentley

Forgetting How to Blush

Forgetting How to Blush: United Methodism's Compromise with the Sexual Revolution 

(Bristol House, Fort Valley GA, 2012)

Karen Booth's book is a fascinating account of a major US denomination's journey in tandem with the sexual revolution within the wider society. The title is excellent and one that we could well use in parts of our society as well. It comes from Jeremiah (in several references but one will suffice: Jeremiah 6: 15 "Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush. So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when I punish them," says the LORD."
Karen is presently the director of Transforming Congregations, an organisation that aims to "help train and empower local church leaders so they can reach out with faithfulness and compassion to the sexually confused, broken and sinful in their midst." , based on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7: "Equipping the Church to model and minister sanctified sexuality."
Transforming Congregations is now an official Program of Good News, the largest and oldest renewal and reform ministry within the United Methodist Church (UMC).
This is a very helpful and detailed book as church events are related to the influence of societal and educational changes, especially through certain key leaders such as the now quite discredited so called sex ‘researcher' Kinsey. It was also illuminating to learn that for the UMC, one church figure in particular was clearly very influential - Rev. Dr Ted Mcllvenna, who has become a celebrated gay rights figure (though not homosexual himself). I even found an article on him entitled The Porn-Again Minister highlighting his extensive collection of pornography and involvement in liberal sexual education movements. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/4710272/The-porn-again-minister.html).
The book follows the major studies and programmes initiated by the UMC and shows how the liberal direction was started and developed. It provides helpful background to a denomination not dissimilar to the Uniting Church, though more complex due to its size and number of ministers, specialised ministries and range of congregations. There are simply many more people able to be involved in liberal and sexual experimentation and to press for change. It was sobering to read a more detailed analysis of the protests by various liberal groups and their supporters that have been conducted at the four yearly General Methodist Conferences since the early 1970s. UCA members would probably be amazed to learn about these quite strident protests about the UMC position on sexual practice for Christians, and the general lack of respect for the operation and arrangements of the Conference. Despite the protests, the General Conference of the UMC has continually affirmed a normative Christian sexual ethic, though this seems to engage libertarian activism among some UMC ministers and members even more, and as the website Juicy Ecumenism has pointed out, even over the last 12 months there have been a variety of practices and activities within the liberal leaning lobby organisations that need to be highlighted so people can be aware of the extent of the issues involved.(see: http://juicyecumenism.com/2013/10/04/19488/)
There is an important section at the end in the context of ‘remembering how to blush' that discusses the issues associated with the idea of the ‘third way' that I found very insightful. There is promoted in some quarters the idea that a third way will be found that will allow everyone to live in harmony and peace (my paraphrasing). This is a difficult area for all of us in the institutional church. I can appreciate the ideal of this if the person is sincere and genuinely though perhaps naively wanting to maintain denominational unity, but for those of us who have seen this debate over too many years in the wider church, you would understand that the third way often simply means that those who hold traditional and biblical understandings of sexual practice are helped to compromise even further by ‘well-meaning' liberals who are simply manipulating the arrangements to suit their own desired outcomes. I think Rod James's discussion of the two ways in relation to the UCA is illuminative of the issues here: Why' Gay Marriage' is not good for Australia (ACCatalyst September 2013).
Rod outlines that the slant road the UCA is on simply contains an increasing number of bridges to be crossed. The present dominant group wants to imply once you cross this bridge it will be all be okay again, but across the bridge there is another bridge. The narrow way has been far removed and the broad way with many bridges waits.
Other helpful features in the book are a timeline of events and developments; outlines of various organisations and detailed appendices. Though there is a tremendous amount of information, I found this book to be quite a pastoral journey as well, as it interweaves Karen's own story and her pastor's heart, with that of people called Methodist and the call to be holy among the broken and deluded world.
Peter Bentley
National Director of the ACC

Key Writing on the Trinity

Church of the Triune God.

Edited by Michael Jensen, Aquilla Press, Sydney First published 2013 pp.224. ISBN 978-1-922000-85-9. Price $19.95

This book is written by a group of students of Dr Robert Doyle, who taught at the Anglican Moore Theological College in Sydney from 1982-2012. Their essays are intended to celebrate his ministry. It is thus in the form of the traditional Festschrift (book in someone's honour), which focuses on two of the main themes of Dr Doyle's teaching. They are the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity from the Church Fathers Athanasius, Augustine to Karl Barth and T.F. & J.B. Torrance, and the implication of the Trinity for the church's life and mission. Dr Doyle prepared his doctoral thesis under the supervision of Professor J.B. Torrance of Aberdeen, Scotland. Members of the ACC will recall a number of visits to Australia by Professor J.B. Torrance, through his close friendship and fellow teacher at Aberdeen, Professor George Yule. Many will have appreciated the lectures he gave on these visits.
There are 12 contributors and the papers cover the two themes of the Festschrift. One may be tempted to describe the contents as something like the curate's egg, ‘something that is at least partly bad, but has some arguably redeeming features'. This would be somewhat churlish as there is some excellent material in some of these essays. In particular, though lacking reference to Athanasius' major works against Nestorius and the Arians, which furnish the basis of his Trinitarian and Christological teaching, the writer, though concentrating on his Festal Letters, expounds some key aspects of Athanasius' understanding of the Trinity and the relationship of the church and the Trinity. One important conclusion he draws from Athanasius' teaching relates to the contemporary church's preoccupation with ‘ministry structures' in fulfilling its mission.
"So much of church life is niche-oriented rather than common - student ministries, men's ministries, women's ministries, children's, youth, seniors, marrieds ... (Athanasius') observation of the infinitely sufficient grace that we have in common in the life of the church ... suggests (that) by our practices, the grace of salvation is insufficient to meet the diverse needs of our congregation."
This observation follows an analysis of Athanasius' understanding of God's ‘accommodation' of himself to our needs, manifest above all in the incarnation of God in Christ for our salvation.
The essay on T.F. Torrance shows an appreciation of the depths of Torrance's teaching on the Christian doctrine of God as holy Trinity whilst providing some important information about his spiritual formation and motivation as a Christian teacher. It should be noted that Torrance did not teach courses on the Trinity, although the writer observes the oxymoron involved in the situation because Torrance was Professor of Christian Dogmatics at Edinburgh University.,. It was not until he retired that his magnum opus on the Trinity (The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons) was published. This strange state of affairs came about because the laws of the Faculty of Divinity reserved teaching of the Trinity to the faculty of Divinity not Dogmatics! This was and is a prime example of the contradiction to which Karl Rahner draws attention, that in western theology the doctrine of the one God, as distinct from the Trinity, assumed primary importance. The Trinity in the West has become locked in splendid isolation. He observes that Western theologians speak,
"of the necessary metaphysical properties of God, but not of God as experienced in salvation history in his free relations to his creatures. For should one make use of salvation history, it would soon become apparent that one speaks of him whom Scripture and Jesus calls Father, Jesus' Father, who sends the Son and who gives himself to us in the Spirit." (Rahner, K. The Trinity. London: Burns & Oates, 1970, p.18.)
It is precisely this malaise in Western theology, beginning with Augustine that this book, The Church of the Triune God, seeks to address. Though it does not do so directly, the book does it by means of the practical orientation of the theological teaching of the one it seeks to honour. This endeavour, though concentrating on the experience of the Anglican Church of Australia and in particular the Sydney Diocese, is the critical task confronting the theological traditions of all Christian churches. It is obvious that the Sydney Anglicans at least know what the real problems are that confront the church in contemporary culture and attempt to offer an important clue as to where answers may be found. This is of no little importance and the authors are to be thanked for the offerings they have made.
Dr W. Gordon Watson, Port Macquarie NSW

 

The Railway Man

The Railway Man (2013, M)
While not an explicitly Christian film, the strong theme of forgiveness in The Railway Man will resonate for ACC readers. Colin Firth is Eric Lomax and Nicole Kidman plays his wife Patti Lomax. Some of you may have read his autobiography of the same name (published in 1995). The process of bringing it to film is a story in itself though the film does not deal with aspects of his family life prior to him meeting Patti whom he would marry in 1983.
During WWII British soldier Eric Lomax is captured by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore and ends up working on the Thai-Burma Railway. Apart from the general appalling conditions, Lomax (and many others) was tortured, with a particular incident providing the background to Lomax's torture.
The film weaves back and forth from the war times to the 1980s, illustrating his continuing psychological difficulties, particularly its impact on his second marriage. Eric eventually learns of a book published by one of his captors who is now running a tourist- type memorial (not exploiting the time but attempting to show remorse), and he eventually makes a journey to meet him. The former Japanese officer Takashi Nagase (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), from the prison camp was an interpreter during the torture sessions.
Laura Barnett in The Guardian Film News (24 January 2014 9:30 AM) writes: "'The torture scenes are terrifying - and completely realistic' ... . says torture rehabilitation expert Dr William Hopkins. I saw this film with a colleague who knew Eric Lomax, whose memoir it is based on. He had been a victim of torture, too.
" We both found it strikingly realistic: the torture scenes are terrifying without being remotely sensationalist, as can sometimes be the case with film and TV. Both Lomax's experience of torture in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and his ultimate reconciliation with his torturer are put across excellently."
Both men had become aware of the need for forgiveness, but as is often the case one person has to take the first step to reconciliation, and Eric knew he had to offer forgiveness as the only way to stop the hatred that had dominated his life and start to live again.

Peter Bentley 

Helping Families Stay Together

Review of All-In2night

Lynne Burgess

Published by Even Before Publishing/Wombat books. 140 pages

This volume is a sequel to this author’s earlier publication  All-In Night, in which Lynne Burgess promotes a regular night each week where the whole family stays home and participates in a special activity with a treat (usually a dessert) to follow.  The book is based on a concept that the author has actually put into practice with her own family of five children. In the dedication, Lynne Burgess writes that the “book is for parents who want their children to experience a relationship with Jesus so they can live a bold and victorious life, no matter what the circumstances”.

There are 40 activities involving an amazing array of what I would call psychological variables: self-esteem, courage, loneliness, patience, empathy, confidence, self-sabotaging, revenge, enthusiasm and so on. For each topic, the author provides a purpose so that the aim is clear to the parent who is leading the activity. These nights are not held in school holidays so that both the parents and the children have a break: hence, the 40 weeks. It is interesting to note that the author reports that her adult children who have left home still come back on Monday nights for All-in night.

For the topic courage, the purpose is “to help your child to develop courage so that they have the ability to face difficulties”; for priorities in life, the purpose is “to teach your child to understand priorities in their life and that priorities can change through different phases of life”; for pride, the purpose is “to explain what unhealthy pride is and to teach your children how to deal with it”. The purpose is generally followed by an explanation of the concept under consideration.

There is often a Scripture verse or verses to be shared with children to help them understand the biblical basis of the lesson. For self esteem, the verses are Psalm 139: 13-14; for eating healthy food, the verse is 1 Cor 6: 19; for patience, the verses are James 1: 2-5; for fear, Joshua 1: 9; for worry, Proverbs 12: 25. I was surprised at some of the topics that didn’t have a biblical verse, and was not sure why. Examples included ‘unhealthy pride’, ‘humility’, ‘jealousy’, ‘guilt and shame’, ‘criticism’ and ‘God has a unique purpose for your life’.  

I think this book could be very useful for families of primary-school children, combining as it does, fun and serious learning about oneself and others.  It is important to remember that these characteristics are produced in young people over years of stable, loving parenting and not in a single session focusing on a particular characteristic.  

Patricia Noller                                                         

Emeritus Professor, School of Pyschology at the University of Queensland

 

 

The Letter Writer

How long has it been since you received a postal letter? This film revolves around the endangered species known as the personal handwritten letter. In an age when short bursts dominate our increasingly social media oriented world, this film provides a ‘time out' for reflection and consideration.
Aley Underwood plays Maggie Fuller, a generally good, but pretty normal teenager and aspiring singer raised by her single-parent mother who has her own struggles. Maggie is trying to find a purpose in her life as she considers the world of music, her relationships, health issues, ageing, and many simply normal events. She is an unusual heroine, but certainly fits the role as she seeks to help others.
Bernie Diamond is ‘The Letter Writer' Sam, an elderly man who sends letters of encouragement and affirmation by post, choosing names from the telephone book. He also hand delivers letters to people he meets in his day to day walks or visits.
After receiving a letter, Maggie is so intrigued she tracks Bernie down and begins a journey of friendship and contact with others she would never have known, unless someone had taken the opportunity to encourage her (and the way this comes about is taken as God-provided).
There are some poignant elements to this film, and certainly those involved with Kairos and Emmaus will know the power of receiving an actual letter and words of encouragement, as opposed to hearing words of abuse or degradation.

In their initial exchange upon meeting, Sam asks Maggie:
Sam Worthingtom: Didn't you like your letter?
Maggie Fuller: Yeah, but you don't even know me.
Sam Worthingtom: If I'm the one person that has something nice to say about you, I know you better than anyone else.

A central theme to the story is ‘finding your role in life'. What are you meant to do on this earth? Sam puts it this way "Within every human being there is a God given ability that if you find it and nurture it you'll be able to bless the lives of others."
This is a gentle and intriguing film. I believe that it could be a film that will resonate with grandparents and parents - perhaps a good one for grandparents and grandchildren (not too young) to view together?
Peter Bentley

Showing in the Faith on Film programme at selected Cinemas in July - August 2013: Click here

Blue Like Jazz (M, 2012)

While this initially seems a conventional Christian film, one is drawn into a far broader picture once the main character chooses the "broad path". The movie is based on a very popular semi-autobiographical novel by Donald Miller, and is set in a USA college. Real-life Texan Marshall Allman plays Don, the Texas student from a Southern Baptist background who chooses to go to a liberal arts college, rather than a bible college. For Don, the college is an eye-opener in all of the traditional ways as he is involved in various forms of experimentation, though always with a little hesitation. It contrasts the Christian foundation he received as a child (and his application of it) with his inability to understand, let alone resist involvement in the new lifestyle, and then through a series of issues and relationships a new contrast with the beginnings of his re-considering of faith and understanding of grace and mercy.
The movie is directed by Steve Taylor, who has had a well-established music and video career. Initially he struggled to secure funding, but the film is now something of an icon in terms of fundraising on ‘KickStarter', a website-based arrangement where individuals from anywhere can contribute to a project they believe is worth supporting.
This is a more ‘adult' Christian film for its themes and approach, but will certainly raise some issues for people to consider, and may well lead to helpful and probably pastoral conversations among those who have found similar bewilderment when their ‘infant' faith is challenged. There is also the honest depiction of the developing conflict that arises from lifestyles that promise much, but in reality do not provide hope grounded in love.
Blue Like Jazz was showing as part of the Hoyts Faith on Film Sunday programme and is available on DVD.
Peter Bentley

Les Miserables (M, 2012)

I believe many of our members may have seen this film at the cinema, but if you did not, or indeed want to sing along again, you can readily find it now on DVD (and often at an amazing price). The book and the stage and film versions were incredibly popular in the late 20th century and now this continues in the new century. A new generation of people have been exposed to the Christian context and underlying message and through DVD and download, more people will also see this in the future. If people missed some of the underlying Christian references in this film, they were either asleep or so secularised that the heritage of our Christian foundation is now not able to be perceived.
Prisoner 24601 (Jean Valjean) is played by Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe is Javert his nemesis who doggedly pursues him to the end, and an end that Javert simply cannot accept. Javert cannot understand the mercy that is offered by the one who has become his obsession. It appears he would rather have been shot, or at least rejected, rather than actually understood. The film version is a spectacle by itself, and follows on from other period works by director Tom Hooper who made The King's Speech. The period in this case is the first half of the 19th century, focusing on the turbulent ‘back and forth' history of France following the end of the Napoleonic era and a period of social unrest and quasi-revolution. The era is well-captured in the costuming, the set buildings and occasional images of the vulgar and hedonistic lifestyles that had developed.
Musicals sometimes have a little difficulty being translated from the intimacy of the stage to the large screen format, but overall this one is done well and the special effects enable some scenes to be more dramatised than before. Some aspects of the acting are slightly melodramatic and parts of the singing are limited, but Anne Hathaway's stunning turn as Fantine, especially for her version of ‘I Dreamed a Dream' makes the film worthwhile by itself. She certainly deserved her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and she seemed to win every other similar award in this year.
Valjean's story of a man so touched by the mercy of another that he becomes a man who also shows mercy is a wonderful theme to consider. Les Miserables won the Epiphany Prize from MovieGuide for most inspiring film (2013). Watching this film with a group of friends at your home (perhaps with an intermission as it is a long film) could provide a gentle way into reflecting on the Christian story of forgiveness and hope.

Peter Bentley

Faith in Foreign Films

 

This short piece considers five foreign films that have created interest among critic and discussion groups that consider religion and film.

Babette's Feast (Denmark, 1987, G)

Set in 19th century Denmark, this somewhat disarmingly simple story is based on a story by Karen Blixen, who became well-known for her book Out of Africa. Babette's Feast is the story of a meal organised by Babette, a ‘refugee' from France, who is the housekeeper and cook for two sisters who live in a puritan community in a remote setting in Jutland. The sisters have the oversight of the religious community founded by their father and he is often referred to in glowing and saintly terms, but the community is struggling with ageing and health issues. The community keeps a fairly rigid lifestyle, including usually avoiding enjoyment of any food - it is just ‘fuel' to keep going. After coming into some money, Babette decides to provide a meal for the community in appreciation for their taking her in. The movie is also a story about a different era of perhaps unrequited love, and following what you believe God has called you to do. A gentle film, though one that is often considered to mark the beginnings of new interest in exploring the use of film in church circles.

Jesus of Montreal (Canada, 1989, M)

This is a film based around a group of actors putting on a passion play which achieves controversy, due to its more radical interpretation of the life of Christ and its confrontation with the authorities of the modern time (part of the official church). This has some famous analogous scenes as the life of one of the actors Daniel begins to mirror elements of the life of Christ. There is an especially contemporary scene related to the temptation of Christ by the devil. While the film has a theologically liberal base, adult viewers can certainly use this to look at biblical themes, and one can have a vibrant discussion about who Jesus really is.

As It Is In Heaven (2004, Sweden, M)

This movie struck a chord with Western audiences and in Australia ran in one small Sydney theatre for nearly two years. It is a simple story of a famous conductor coming 'home' to rest and recover, who then becomes caught up in helping a church choir learn to sing. This could have been a bit like Sister Act, but instead of a comedic foundation, it focuses on some real and sometimes disturbing issues in the not-so pious and fragile community. It should be noted that while religious, the theological premise is essentially humanist, as it focuses mainly on the people's responses in terms of finding their own way and even the conclusion reached while ‘spiritual' is more aptly centred around the idea of earthly nostalgia than ‘as it in heaven', that is to the glory of God.

Adam's Apples (Denmark, 2005, MA)

This poignant story features the now well-known Danish actor Mads Dittmann Mikkelsen (the villain in Casino Royale) as Ivan Fjeldsted, a pastor in a remote area who takes in former prisoners who are required to spend a certain amount of time following the conclusion of their sentence in community service. The latest arrival is Adam Pedersen, a former leader of a neo-Nazi leader gang. Each person at the church community has to choose a goal or task to undertake that will help with their rehabilitation. In an attempt to get the meddlesome pastor off his case, Adam finally resolves that he will bake an apple pie (there is an apple tree in the churchyard). While a seemingly simple task, it becomes fraught with difficulty and also issues arise with other prisoners, Adam's past connection and also Ivan's own tragic past. One book of the Old Testament features firmly in the discussions and also theme, but I will leave this to you consider. This is an adult film for its themes, but can richly reward a discussion about God's grace, providence and questions about good and evil.

Letters to Pastor Jaakob (Finland, 2009, PG)

In a similar theme to Adam's Apples, Pastor Jaakob finds himself with Leila, a recent though unwilling paroled prisoner, who now has to undertake long-term community service. Jaakob has a unique ministry for today - no technology here. He is blind and receives mail from people asking for advice and prayer. He needs an assistant to read the letters and write a response. His responses are typically scriptural references and a blessing. Needless to say some issues arise for Leila who finds the whole situation frustrating and odd, but God's love abounds. This is an amiable and reflective film, which helps the viewer to consider the mercy and grace of God.

Peter Bentley

For more reviews by Peter see the ACCatalyst magazine and the Culture Connections section of the website.

 

Pastors in Film

Billy: The Early Years (2008, M)

While made a few years back, this film has only recently made it to DVD in Australia. I should note (as the credits also record), this film was not made by the Billy Graham Organisation and is not endorsed by it, though one of Billy's daughters, Virginia, has spoken fondly about it.
It is nostalgic in a good way for a different era, though sometimes the abundant sentimentality does not allow deep critical reflection. It is also a romantic drama with a key focus on the development of the relationship between Billy and Ruth Bell.
Billy is brought to life by Armie Hammer, who had a significant role as the Winklevoss twins in the recent film about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg The Social Network. He is perhaps sometimes a little too ‘nerdy' or earnest, but that may be an attempt to reflect the idea that this was a gentler and idealistic American Christian period. The film helpfully illustrates some of the important characteristics of Billy Graham and the ministry he founded, and contrasts the call on his life as an evangelist with that of his former colleague Charles Templeton, an evangelist who eventually left his calling after having co-founded Youth for Christ International with Torrey Johnston. Templeton continued to speak highly of Billy though he viewed his faith as too simple. The film ends with a striking scene illustrating the important setting of the Los Angeles Crusade in 1949 and leaving a foundation for the significant growth in the 1950s, with Billy Graham continuing to preach the ‘simple' message of faith in Christ.

The Holy Roller (2010 PG)

This romantic Christian comedy with a touch of drama has many homage elements. It is based on a story by Australian actor Angus Benfield, who plays the lead role and was made in New Zealand just before the Christchurch earthquake. The story revolves around struggling Pastor Luke who heads for the big city, and finds a range of sinners and temptation, and yet also miracles. He inadvertently helps the owner of a nightclub aptly named Temple and then sets up a church. Issues abound as he attracts many similar people Christ did in his ministry. Some scenes are reminiscent of the well-used discussion film Jesus of Montreal (1989) and also Pray TV, the 1982 John Ritter film, which contrasts the personal style of pastoral connection with the tele-evangelist role so often seen in the USA, and in this movie through the appropriately named Reverend Shoebuck. The Da Vinci Last Supper image is also worth considering. A strength in the film is the music, led by the other major character Kate (Victoria Abbott), and also promoted as a key element in the development of the church. While the ‘nerdy' pastor is sometimes a little perhaps too deliberately cringe-worthy, this is a warm-hearted film exploring some of the essentials of the Christian faith in belief and practice and helps Christians to consider their motives and actions.

The Sessions (2012, MA)

This film doing the rounds in some religious and secular religious circles is one to consider with caution. Most of its interest has been because of the priest character and his seeming liberal attitudes regarding sexual practice. I found it less than heart-warming and mystifying as to why many film critics have lauded it, except for the way it tries to tug the heart-strings and promotes our individualistic culture. The film centres around the true story of American writer and poet Mark O'Brien, who due to polio breathed with an iron lung for most of his life. Mark has a desire to lose his virginity before his life (his life is remarkably precarious) and seeks a "sexual surrogate". One of the main persons he consults about this is a priest Father Brendan (played by William H. Macy) who portrays one of the most awkward figures I have seen in films. Many critics have praised his seeming humanness and accessible character, while I saw him simply as a priest who was not sure of his own role, the faith of his church and a theology of the body, let alone common sensibilities. Even if there are physical limitations, his confidential counselling with Mark in common areas of the church where other people are listening in, and in one case comment via their looks, is profoundly disturbing and I certainly did not find it provided the light relief it probably intended. The film needed a more robust depiction or perhaps cutting the character out completely.
Two other aspects stood out for me. Its focus on the contemporary idea that the sex act is a pinnacle of achievement, and central to being (not withstanding this person is disabled and the issues this raises for sexual expression), and secondly the intriguing bonding that occurs in a very short space of time with Mark's sexual surrogate, played by Oscar winning actress Helen Hunt. What does this actually say about the theology of the body-the bonding provided by sex and what was the film trying to say overall? Anyway, a film to note when you see reference, but I recommend avoid viewing.

Peter Bentley (ACC Executive Consultant)