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Let's make a show of Lent.

Christmas films reinforce the values often overlooked in the consumer clutter. Easter has sweeping epics worthy of the Resurrection. Even Groundhog Day has its own movie. Patrick McCormick suggests that we give the holiest season of the year its cinematic due, creating do-it-yourself Lenten film festivals--we could even pop some purple popcorn, too.

Lent, it seems to me, is cinematically challenged. Easter has Ben-Hur, The King of Kings, and The Wizard of Oz. The summer has its usual array of blockbusters, and Christmas--with everything from It's a Wonderful Life to Scrooged--has more movies than you can shake a candy cane at. Even Groundhog Day has a cute little comedy named after it. But Lent, alas, is a desert.

So here's a thought. What about sponsoring your own do-it-yourself Lenten film festival? Why not call up a couple of friends and invite them and your family to get together for a few Friday nights in Lent to watch and discuss some great flicks? You could even serve purple popcorn.

A silly thought? Maybe. But Lent after all is our season to remember and recount the stories that make us Christian. During these 40 days we immerse ourselves once again in the central narratives of the Passion, death, and Resurrection of Christ, and in this season of catechumens we welcome new members by sharing with them these precious stories. So maybe a little Lenten film festival could provide us with an opportunity to sit down on a couple of evenings and reflect.

Host a Lenten filmfest

How to go about it? Well, first, find a small handful of folks who you think might be interested in spending an enjoyable evening watching a great movie with some friends, and who wouldn't be averse to talking about it afterward, perhaps over a takeout pizza. I recommend that you pick a Friday. That will allow folks to stay up later without having to worry about work the next morning. It's also a traditional day for Lenten practices, even if it means the pizza needs to be meatless.

Tell your guests that the evening will be sort of like a book-club meeting, except that they won't need to read a book beforehand--although the previous Sunday they might possibly think about paying special attention to the readings at Mass.

Then--alone or with others--come up with a short list of possible films available at the video store or library. If you're like me, your initial temptation (a nice Lenten theme) may be to go with a couple of foreign films, the sorts of artistic movies that most of us admire but don't always look forward to seeing.

I suggest, however, skipping right over movies with subtitles and moving in the direction of something decidedly American, popular, and--if possible--riveting. In other words, get a great Hollywood movie, an entertaining flick that you and others would enjoy watching under almost any circumstances. Remember, watching the movie should not constitute a Lenten penance, although listening to some other people's opinions about it might turn out to be one.

Why pick a great Hollywood film? Because if you're going to have a conversation about the stories that shape our lives, you need to be sure you're talking about the sorts of movies whose scenes and lines have become part of our national consciousness. Now, Babette's Feast was a terrific film, as were Il Postino, Jean de Florette, and Raise the Red Lantern, but for most of us these are not the movies we flock to week after week, or the ones we watch over and over on cable. Nor are there 50 copies of these movies at the video store.

So let's take a look at some Hollywood movies and ask just what these stories have to say about things like sin, grace, conversion, redemption, compassion, and forgiveness. After all, if the movies are popular, more people will come to your festival, and that may mean a better conversation.

Where to start looking for a short list of movies? I suggest a couple of options. You might get a copy of the American Film Institute's list of America's 100 Greatest Movies. It's available at most video stores, or you could look at the top 250 films listed on the Internet Movie Database's Website ( If neither of these attract you, you could always get a list of Oscar winners. This should give you plenty of interesting options.

The next step is to try to prepare for the conversation. To begin, ask folks to pay special attention to the Sunday readings during Lent or to read one of the various Passion accounts heard during Holy Week. Either of these options would provide your guests with background stories to be compared with the movie's narrative. For example, what are some similarities and differences between the seduction and fall of Citizen Kane and Genesis' account of the sin of our first parents? Or you might look up an old review of the film and distribute it to folks beforehand. The local library probably has The New York Times, The New Yorker, or a number of other resources on microfilm.

On the actual night of the movie, consider giving folks a short set (four to six) of discussion questions before showing the film. Also provide everyone with a pad and pencil and suggest that they jot down any thoughts, lines, or scenes that strike them as particularly powerful.

The questions could vary each week, or they might remain fairly constant. My own list of recommendations is based on some suggestions offered by the Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas in his book Truthfulness and Tragedy (University of Notre Dame Press, 1977). They go as follows:

1. What does this movie reveal or hide about the humanity of others? What does it tell me about people who are different from me? About people who are powerless, strangers, or foes?

2. What does this film reveal or hide about my own humanity, about my gifts and flaws? What does it tell me about my human capacity for grace and compassion or for deception and violence?

3. What are the least attractive characters in this film telling me about myself? What parts of my own character are the villains in this story holding up to the light?

4. What sort of God reigns in the world where this movie tells its story? What "tracks" of grace are evident or missing in the story of this film?

You might also ask other questions. What does this film tell us about human sinfulness? What do we learn in this movie about conversion, redemption, reconciliation, and forgiveness? What sorts of understandings of grace, the end time, or the reign of God are embedded in this film? What does this movie have to say about the meaning of suffering, the origin and shape of moral evil?

After the movie and an appropriate break, take some time to share initial impressions, dialogue about powerful scenes and lines (which you might review with the VCR), and explore your various responses to the evening's discussion questions. If you like, compare the film's treatment of themes with particular biblical narratives and Lenten readings. Then, when everybody has had a chance to speak, wrap up with a prayer.

My picks of Lenten flicks

Most of us know how hard it is to decide on a video rental when there are four folks waiting at home, each with decidedly different tastes.

So I won't dare to tell you just which film to select for your festival. After all, you could get to the video store and find it checked out. Instead, let me suggest a number of good-to-great movies dealing with the sorts of questions and themes addressed in the Lenten season.

Lent begins with a tale about temptation, about the seductive power of our demons--and Hollywood has made some of its best films wrestling with this particular theme. Citizen Kane, All the King's Men, and All About Eve tell dark, unsettling versions of the Horatio Alger story, showing the corrosive underbelly of our ambitions for success, power, and fame, letting us see just what it is we become when we seek to be like gods. So too, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, A Touch of Evil, and Amadeus paint frightening pictures of the sorts of people we are capable of becoming when our demons gain control.

Still, not all our temptations are about power, wealth, or fame. Sometimes the dog arching in the doorway is bidding us to other sins. In two of what I think are Alfred Hitchcock's best films, the protagonists--played by Jimmy Stewart in both--are seduced by smaller, more personal obsessions. In Vertigo Stewart plays a man so fixated on a past relationship that he cannot see the person in front of him and just let her live. And in Rear Window he is a crippled photographer prying into the lives of his neighbors with a ghoulish--and frighteningly modern--fascination. Still, my personal favorite is John Ford's The Searchers, with John Wayne portraying the darkest side of our appetite for vengeance.

Lent is also a time when we reflect on the divisive, alienating power of sin, on the ways in which our sins tear us apart and build walls of stony, unforgiving silence. Ordinary People offers what I have often thought is one of the starkest representations of an unforgivable sin, or an unforgiving person, and of the deadly aloneness that produces. Here it's all the more frightening because it seems so ordinary. Sunset Boulevard, Rebel Without a Cause, and The Country Girl likewise offer haunting visions of the isolation of our sinfulness, as do The Subject Was Roses and Come Back, Little Sheba.

Conversion, also a Lenten theme, can be seen in Schindler's List (which may be a little long to be seen and discussed in an evening), The Color Purple, Shirley Valentine, Tootsie, Groundhog Day, Pinocchio, and On the Waterfront. These films offer powerful and sometimes funny stories of the transformation of a human heart and of the various signs of grace that help bring it about. So too does the 1935 version of Les Miserables and John Sayles' Passion Fish: both tell stories of characters with whom God is not yet finished. A personal favorite is Tender Mercies, a film in which Robert Duvall plays a recovering alcoholic who, in the end, like Blanche Dubois, "relied on the kindness of strangers."

And, finally, Lent is also about redemption and deliverance. Some terrific films dealing with these themes are The Grapes of Wrath, A Trip to Bountiful, As Good as It Gets, and--in its own way--The Wizard of Oz. These are tales of deliverance, stories of people on a journey to the place they hope will be home, to the place where they pray they will be redeemed, saved, or forgiven. Sometimes this deliverance calls for some repentance or redemptive sacrifice, as in The Fisher King, Rain Man, or In the Name of the Father; sometimes it demands an act of faith, as in Field of Dreams or My Left Foot; and sometimes it depends on our capacity to recognize the humanity of those around us, as in Driving Miss Daisy, Philadelphia, and The Elephant Man.

Well, whatever films you choose and whatever questions you end up asking, best wishes with your Lenten film festival. And remember to rewind for the next penitent.

By Patrick McCormick, an assistant professor of ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Title Annotation:movies about Lent
Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Mar 1, 1999
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