Armchair Cinephile

Armchair Cinephile

John DeFore on DVD

Goin' to church

Who thought that 2004 would be the year Hollywood considered making religious epics again? For every group of execs reasonably declaring that The Passion's success is a one-time thing, there's one producer standing to the side and thinking, "but still ... "

As if to remind us of the genre's history - and of how much money these things can cost - Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 The Ten Commandments hit DVD recently. Starring that gun-nut prophet Charlton Heston and photographed way over in Egypt, it's the gold standard for Bible story movies, maybe the one movie that had the largest influence over the way generations envisioned Sunday School stories.

Getting as far away from DeMillean excess as is possible, Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest is a stripped-down vision of a single man's crisis of faith. A spiritual film instead of a literal interpretation of tales from the Good Book, it took a distinctly European approach to the Divine and cemented Bresson's reputation as a filmmaker with a completely distinctive approach to the medium.

A few decades later, reverence isn't the only option. Boy howdy, is it not: Pedro Almodóvar's comedic cult classic Dark Habits introduces a nunnery that hides heroin addiction, pornography, and Sapphic impulses - the natural refuge for a nightclub singer on the run from the law. The 1989 remake of We're No Angels also puts wanted criminals in a house of God, with unlikely comedians Robert De Niro and Sean Penn starring as runaway convicts who get mistaken for priests. It's not as funny as the Bogart-starring original, but it is a timely example of how David Mamet (whose fantastic Spartan is currently being shamefully ignored by moviegoers) is capable of hiding his distinctive voice when he's working for someone else (in this case, director Neil Jordan).

One of last year's most lauded dramas, The Magdalene Sisters, is a true story about nuns who weren't quite as accommodating as the ones above. Here, girls who showed a little too much interest in boys (or who were so brazen as to go out and get themselves raped) are locked up in a church-run laundry, sentenced to forced labor as a means to purify their souls.

(Redemption by way of bleach and detergent would make a natural target for Penn & Teller's Showtime series Bullshit!, the first season of which was just released on DVD. Here, the pair of renegade illusionists stop debunking David Copperfield and turn their sights on more harmful charlatans like psychics, pseudo-scientists, and con men. As a series of exposés, the series contains plenty of useful information. But Penn's stridency has gotten way out of hand, and the show contains little trace of the thrill-ride comedic genius that once made P&T the most exciting pair ever to pull a rabbit out of a hat.)

The Ten Commandments,
We're No Angels


Diary of a Country Priest

Dark Habits

The Magdalene Sisters,

(Buena Vista)


Schindler's List
Armchair Cinephile



But back to the movie that started this train of thought. Many critics have pointed out that Mel Gibson and martyrdom were on friendly terms long before the Jesus flick. The actor often seems to enjoy making himself suffer onscreen, heaping on the pain as if he had to atone for a sinful life. Witness Ransom, an effective thriller that works even though you might want to wring its protagonist's neck. In a scene that speaks volumes, Gibson's billionaire character goes on TV to make a plea to his child's kidnappers - he lays out a small mountain of cash, proving that he could pay for his son's return, then announces that just for spite, he's not going to give them the money. (Fans of Ransom director Ron Howard who long for his earlier, funnier movies can content themselves with Splash, a 20th Anniversary Edition of which also arrives in stores this week.)

Finally, since any discussion of The Passion involves more than Christianity: Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List has finally made its way to DVD. The long-anticipated release splits the three-hour-plus film into two sides of a disc, and adds a feature-length documentary about the real Holocaust survivors whose stories are told in the film. The most effective of Spielberg's "serious" movies (that is, if you don't consider man-eating sharks serious), Schindler's List is not-coincidentally the one for which the filmmaker had a real personal investment.

Which may be a given when your religious heritage is the backdrop for the tale you're telling. But as the examples above show, that personal background can manifest itself in a wide variety of ways. •

` John DeFore on DVD `