One might expect a website called decentfilms.com to be a worthy if tedious exercise, but Steven D. Greydanus’ criticism has long been one of the jewels of the Catholic internet.
Demonstrating a deep knowledge and understanding of both cinema and the Faith, the New Jersey diaconal candidate and film critic for The National Catholic Register has long been an obvious go-to for any Catholics wondering whether any films, new or old, might be worth their time.
Among Greydanus’ more appealing qualities is his humility, his willingness to revisit old reviews, admitting when he’s been wrong or when he’s simply changed his mind.
Reviewing the current Star Wars blockbuster, J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens, for instance, he prefaces his reservations by saying: “Let me admit, first of all, that I’m the last person anyone need take seriously about this movie. I loved and defended the Star Wars prequels for years before their weaknesses finally sank in, and to this day I remain fond of them. I was bowled over by Abrams’ Star Trek reboot for months.
“There are,” he concludes his caveat, “any number of reasons to consider me the least reliable critic in the world regarding this film.”
Far from limiting himself to such mainstream fare, Greydanus’ cinematic tastes are as catholic as they are Catholic, allowing him to explore just what this art form can bring to us.
Among the films he’s recently reviewed, for instance, is the 2014 German film Kreuzweg, released in the US as ‘Stations of the Cross’, describing this as “among the most insightful and devastating cross-examinations of religious fundamentalism that I have ever seen, certainly in a Catholic context”. Maintaining that the film is not an attack on faith or religion, he says it is, rather, “an examination of how faith goes wrong”.
The variety of fundamentalism depicted in the film is “toxic”, he says, largely because it embraces a totalising explanation of life, denying that anything can be learned from scientists, nurses, philosophers or poets, and offers “a binary outlook on the world in terms of sacred or profane, with everything on the profane side of human experience under a cloud of suspicion”.
Greydanus’ reviews and essays typically appear elsewhere before being given permanent homes on his site, with one especially fascinating one, currently at cruxnow.com, exploring how Hollywood’s presentation of Catholic clergy has changed over the decades.
The differing portrayals of clergy in Spotlight and Brooklyn provide a hook for the piece, which opens by contrasting a smooth-talking Boston bishop from the former film reminding a family, shocked by a priest’s arrest, about the good work done by the Church, with a compelling depiction by Jim Broadbent of that good work on the ground in 1950s New York.
For much of Hollywood’s history, Greydanus said, Catholic priests were regularly shown in films like Boys Town and Angels with Dirty Faces in a mould much like that of Broadbent’s Fr Flood. Taking in such diverse films as The Bells of St Mary’s, On the Waterfront and The Exorcist, his survey ends by looking forward to Martin Scorcese’s forthcoming Silence, about Jesuit missionaries in 17th-Century Japan.
While expressing the hope that the film, even if wrenching and downbeat, could affirm a distinctly Christian vision, he wonders whether sympathetic priests or religious are likely to reappear in Hollywood films with contemporary settings anytime soon.
- Jesuits in Ireland and Britain may face challenges less dramatic today than those endured by Fr Sebastião Rodrigues, the Jesuit hero of the Shūsaku Endō novel on which Silence is based, but their solutions are no less creative.
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