Mercy and movies: Lenten viewing for the Year of Mercy

SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

For this Jubilee Year of Mercy, in his Lenten message, Pope Francis reminded the faithful of his call, in the papal bull declaring the Year of Mercy, for this Lent to “be lived more intensely as a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God’s mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus, 17).

Perhaps it’s fitting that Lent comes so early this particular year, to better prepare us to live the rest of the Jubilee with greater zeal. (For me it’s a special gift as I prepare for diaconal ordination in June.)

For the last two years on Ash Wednesday, celebrating Mass at the Basilica of Santa Sabina, Pope Francis reminded the faithful, as his predecessors Benedict XVI and John Paul II had often done, of the three pillars of the Lenten journey: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

For most Western Catholics today, alas, these three pillars are almost vestigial relics; even during Lent we can go for days without so much as thinking of them. On Lenten Fridays we avoid meat — something our grandparents did every week of the year. (Catholics in England and Wales recently returned to this practice five years ago; perhaps we Americans can learn from their example.)

During Lent, meanwhile, our grandparents abstained from meat all week long. To this day Eastern Catholics and Orthodox Christians observe a Lenten regimen includes (but is not limited to) completely eschewing meat and all animal products (eggs, dairy, etc.) through all of Lent.

I have to admit I find that dauntingly rigorous, but every year I try to get a little closer to that austere practice — to add one thing more to the list. Whatever you do, however you observe Lent, I encourage you to go beyond the low bar set by current official discipline and the timid, unimaginative norms of our culture (chocolate, desserts, etc.). Next year, try to do even more.

Like Benedict XVI before him, Francis has particularly stressed almsgiving, a theme suited to the Year of Mercy. At the same time, the three disciplines are inseparable; almsgiving without prayer may help our neighbor, but it won’t help us, any more than prayer without almsgiving, or fasting without prayer.

One way to observe the spirit of Lent is to withdraw by degrees or even completely from mass communications media: Internet, radio, television, movies. Another way is by limiting and altering one’s media use in keeping with the spirit of the season — say, listening to Gregorian chant rather than Adele.

Spiritual reading is another valuable Lenten activity. In that spirit, partly because my work as a critic won’t let me give up movies for six weeks, I find it helpful to make a practice of spiritual viewing.

Six years ago I put together a list of movie recommendations for Lenten viewing, six titles for the six weeks of Lent. This year, for the Year of Mercy, here’s a new list: one that puts particular emphasis on mercy, charity, and active concern for one’s neighbor.

For example, most years my No. 1 recommendation for Lenten viewing is the monastic documentary Into Great Silence. But the Carthusians of the Grand Chartreuse, one of the most austere monastic communities in the Christian world, are also among the most eremitic (hermit-like) and cut off from the world. So this year’s list begins with a film about monks very much involved in the lives of others around them.

  • Week 1: Of Gods and Men (2010). Based on the true story of the Trappists of Notre-Dame de l’Atlas during the Algerian Civil War in the 1990s, Xavier Beauvoir’s brilliant drama depicts the monks’ sacrificial service to their (Muslim) neighbors, offering them everything from free medical care and help filling out government forms to moral support in a time of terror and jihad.
  • Week 2: The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978). Ermanno Olmi’s luminous portrait of rural Italian life at the turn of the 20th century offers both an idyllic depiction of community and family life as it ought to be lived, with the Church as a supportive presence, and also a bitter critique of the expoitation and oppression of the poor by the wealthy.
  • Week 3: Romero (1989). Raul Julia stars as Blessed Óscar Romero of El Salvador, a zealous pastor and defender of his flock whose evolution is not unlike the transformation some observers have described in Pope Francis, another Latin American prelate noted early in his career as a theological conservative, but later considered a social-justice crusader.
  • Week 4: Monsieur Vincent (1947). St. Vincent de Paul is the father of organized charity; every soup kitchen and homeless shelter carries on the work he began. Directed by Maurice Cloche and starring Pierre Fresnay, this film is a beautiful tribute to his work and spirituality.
  • Week 5: Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2006). Marc Rothemund’s riveting drama of the last days of anti-Nazi resistance activist Sophie Scholl and her fellow conspirators highlights the dignity of every human life; it is also a rare film that makes heroic goodness not just admirable, but interesting and attractive.
  • Holy Week: The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). Dedicated to Pope John XXIII and greeted with applause by the council fathers of Vatican II, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s neorealist-inflected Jesus film highlights the urgency of Jesus’ message and his concern for the poor.

P.S. Each of these films is suitable for teens and up; all but Romero are foreign-language films. If you’re allergic to subtitles, English-language films worth considering include Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story (1996); The Hiding Place (1975); Longford (2006); and The Scarlet and the Black (1982).

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Many Catholics observe Lent with a discipline of withdrawal, in whole or in part, from mass communications media: movies, television, Internet, radio, music, newspapers. This is an admirable discipline … I find it helpful to make a practice of spiritual viewing during Lent, just as many make a practice of spiritual reading. For those inclined to consider this practice, here are six film suggestions for the six weeks of Lent.