James T. Fisher February 15, 2007 - 7:59pm
Thanks to Jean for tip on Sisters of Selma which aired locally last Sunday evening. For teachers and students there is much to work with in this documentary starting with its re-affirmation of the powerful witness offered by members of women's religious communities during the struggles for liberation and human rights. But I still can't get Paul Cultrera's testimony from Hand of God out of my head (thanks Grant for this tip) and as I watched Sisters of Selma I kept thinking students should view these films together: one treats a dramatic historic event that while familiar has been only partly contextualized over the years and is appropriately told from the perspective of a wide range of participants; the other treats a terrible event that occurred very near in time to the incidents at the Edmund Pettis Bridge but has only emerged into 'history' in recent months.
Sisters of Selma offers viewers meaningful glimpses at issues that cannot be fully treated in a single film, from the role of the local African-American parish to the variegated racial-justice politics of the American hierarchy to the tensions exposed by the demonstration of nuns from a residentially and culturally segregated city (e.g. St. Louis) where blacks could vote in a southern city where they still could not (the spring 1965 Selma-Montgomery march capped a struggle that resulted in the Voting Rights Act).
. Hand of God presents the narrative of a lone individual whose abuse by Joseph Birmingham in the rectory of St. Mary's Italian Church in Salem, Mass. (among other places) was not, as Paul Cultrera calmly explains, "the story of my life. It's a thing that happened to me." Yet because this happened Paul's brother Joe--as an act of devotion--made a film that is partly about the church, in larger part about the Cultrera family but mostly about Paul's journey through the past four decades, a trip he shared in spirit with hundreds of thousands of women and men that grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in parishes like St. Mary's Italian. Paul told his parents about Birmingham's crimes shortly after the celebration of their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1995, but an even more intimate conversation between Paul and Joe and their parents is presented near the end of the film, a conversation about heaven and hell and the places where God is sought and found. That is a conversation which will provoke strong memories in many viewers of a certain age. There is so much to discuss from both these films: I'm grateful for having been pointed their way by fellow bloggers which reminds me in closing there is an invaluable scholarly work by friend and blogger John McGreevy that anticipated themes of spiritual and geographical mobility and freedom illustrated in the films. In Parish Boundaries John wrote: "By the 1960s two moral languages--an older, highly structured communalism and a new attempt to build a 'community without walls'--challenged each other for religious and cultural recognition." You can see it moving in these films.