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Movie Redemption

Since there has been some discussion in recent posts about the New York Times, and in particular its Christmas editorial (sans reference to the origin of the holiday), I can't resist offering you this little tidbit.In a review of Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu's new film Biutiful, critic A.O. Scott (!) notes that the protagonist of the story, played by Javier Bardem, is a fairly obvious Christ figure.But Scott is unimpressed by Gonzlez Irritu's theology. He contrasts the gritty naturalism of the film's visual style with a sentimentalized version of redemption that reminds him of a Nicholas Sparks novel. The result being "a feel-bad art film with an uplifting message for everyone."Here's the paragraph that caught my eye:

Mr. Gonzlez Irritu does not have the stomach for the stringent moral and spiritual vision of authentically (or even experimentally) religious filmmakers like Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson or the Dardenne brothers. Instead he traffics in a vague theology of uplift, wherein the road to an entirely abstract heaven is paved with noble instincts.

I don't think that needs any comment. But I did find it refreshing. Coming, as it does, from the New York Times. ;-)


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Not to mention the lovely essay on God's grace in the new True Grit, by Stanley Fish, in the space gracefully given over to that good thinker by the Times:

James --Yes, indeed Fish is talking about the grace of God, but his view is not exactly orthodox, as I understand it. He says that God's grace is "capricious" as if it's not fairly offered or only randomly offered. But doesn't the Church teach that everyone one of us is provided with at least enough grace for us to be saved. That some get lots more than enough is another matter.But you're right. The review is about in-depth religion.

The Christmas editorial actually did include a "reference" to the "origin of the holiday." If we're going to keep mentioning it, let's try to keep that clear.I'm not sure what the (!) after A.O. Scott's name is supposed to suggest, but he was similarly perceptive regarding the "lazy, complacent" film version of Brideshead Revisited in 2008, as I noted here.

Ann, I agree but took Prof. Fish to be exploring the theology of the Coen movie and Portis novel. I havent read the novel (and avoided the original movie out of callow and foolish antipathy to John Wayne) but the new version does come close to endorsing the view that the grace of God, if it exists at all, is capriciously distributed. But there is a beautiful sequence toward the end of the movie where the stars themselves do seem to shine and smile upon human heroism and love -- in a way unlike anything I can remember from prior Coen movies. And then the ending itself I dont want to spoil it -- seemed to me to be back in familiar Coen nihilistic territory. Deeply disturbing. But still a very fine movie.

Yes, God bless the Coen brothers for at least taking religious themes seriously. I wonder sometimes how many Americans have ever even heard about the Christian teaching of the grace of God. Is it ignored as a central part of Christian teaching simply because it is one of those irrational dogmas that rational people are supposed to scorn? Sure, everybody learns about the baby Jesus, His parables that preach justice and love, and about His crucifixion and purported resurrection. But what else do people know of Christianity or any other major faith these days?Surely the lack of a theological dimension in the general culture has had its effects on our major arts.

Perhaps a fuller context of Fish's statement would clarify:"You cannot earn that [grace] or deserve it. In short, there is no relationship between the bestowing or withholding of grace and the actions of those to whom it is either accorded or denied. You cant add up a persons deeds so many good one and so many bad ones and on the basis of the column totals put him on the grace-receiving side (you cant earn it); and you cant reason from what happens to someone to how he stands in Gods eyes (you cant deserve it)."[Unmerited grace: so far, so good.]"What this means is that there are two registers of existence: the worldly one in which rewards and punishment are meted out on the basis of what people visibly do; and another one, inaccessible to mortal vision, in which damnation and/or salvation are distributed, as far as we can see, randomly and even capriciously."I think with the qualifying phrase "as far as we can see" Fish is perhaps referring to mortal man's incapacity to see into the mind of God. Not that God indeed DOES act capriciously, but that it appears that way because that register is "inaccessible to mortal vision".

Interesting piece by Mr. Fish. I saw the movie but did not read the book. Perhaps the book is able to draw out the theological meanings that are submerged beneath the narrative more effectively than the movie did. Mr. Fish writes:This and other pieces of scripture dont emerge from the story as a moral kernel emerges from a parable; they hang over the narrative (Mattie just sprays them), never quite touching its events and certainly not generated by them. There are no easy homiletics here, no direct line drawing from the way things seem to have turned out to the way they ultimately are. While worldly outcomes and the universes moral structure no doubt come together in the perspective of eternity, in the eyes of mortals they are entirely disjunct.This last sentence of Fish's is, I think, the perspective that the Coen brother took in this adaptation of the book.If a theological theme is present, I think the film is less about Gods grace (in the sola gratia sense) and more about human discernment of grace and the human movement to cooperate with it in the fullest sense of the word at least as it can be understood dimly in this world.There is no question that Mattie is clearly the hero of the film and it is her discernment that I found very, very compelling and interesting. She really did have to steer events in a manner that she wanted them to turn. But even there events did not always turn out as she expected. In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Mattie confides to LaBeouf played by Damon that she misjudged him (LaBeouf) and chose the wrong man. Yet, in the end, her basic intuition about Roosters character is vindicatedThe ultimate theological question that has been wrestled with since Augustine is the question of whether Gods grace is resistible. Mattie seems closest to embodying how grace operates through her to move events.But Fish might be on to something because one criticism I had of the movie was that it was not evident to me how the relationship between Mattie and Rooster could be so deep given their interaction. But maybe there was something deeper at play. From a psychological point of view, Mattie is actually similar to Rooster in that they are both loner types but Mattie is clearly morally stronger. I think Rooster did in fact see this and Bridges is effective in portraying this recognition when Mattie crosses the river on her pony.