Mystery, miracle, morality and mirthful movies for a children's film library: Part 2

Theatrical poster for John Huston's "The Bible: In the Beginning" (1966). (Wikimedia Commons)

In this era of podcasts and streaming services, vigilant Catholic parents will want to search for cinematic productions that tell absorbing stories without descending into standard societal sinkholes: needless profanity, permissive drug use, cheerless nudity, sympathetic portrayals of sexual depravity, and smirking dismissals of the existence of God.

This is the second part of my review of Mystery, Miracle, Morality and Mirthful movies. Read the first part here.

Your Humble Scribe must amend his earlier definition about medieval Mystery plays as concerning only episodes in the life of Christ. The category included plays based on incidents found throughout the Bible. We therefore begin with Genesis.

NOTE: Wright’s Wrating system is based on nothing other than my own opinion. Your Humble Scribe encourages parents to preview my selections so as to ascertain whether my choices coincide with your own.

Mystery movie: The Bible: In the Beginning (1966)

The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) was to be the first in an ambitious series of films encompassing the entire Old Testament. The project was ill-timed, however. The ’60s had struck. Christian morals and mores were taking a beating throughout popular culture, and the film’s box office receipts were disappointing. The Bible effectively ended the cinematic cycle of stupendously produced biblical/religious/historical epics begun in 1947 with Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah.

Director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon; The African Queen), composed a sweeping overview of the first 22 chapters of Genesis — from Adam and Eve to Abraham and Sarah. To his credit, the movie tastefully avoids being boring or vulgar, even providing welcome humor to the story of the Deluge, as Huston himself takes on the role of Noah.

Several noted actors took part, with George C. Scott as Abraham; Ava Gardner as Sarah; Stephen Boyd as Nimrod; Richard Harris as Cain, while Peter O’Toole is properly enigmatic as all Three Angels, often taken to symbolize the Triune God, who share Abraham’s hospitality.

Wright’s Wrating: suitable for all ages

SUGGESTED DISCUSSION TOPICS

  • Genesis contains history and what may be metaphorical incidents. Ask which incidents seem to be literal history and which may be more like parables?
  • The story about the Tower of Babel shows how humanity scattered into other cultures and languages. Show how Pentecost is often considered as reversing this dispersion.

Miracle movie: Bakhita: From Slave to Saint (2009)

Bakhita: From Slave to Saint (2009) was a miniseries made for Italian TV. As much as Your Humble Scribe enjoys a long cinematic wallow while enjoying his popcorn, Bakhita spends an inordinate amount of time covering a small portion of her life. This is not to take away from the performances, especially that of Fatou Kine Boye as St. Josephine Bakhita. Her beatific smile well conveys the unconditional love demonstrated by the slave. As noted by Philip Kosloski: “She had a difficult life, but later, when she encountered Christianity, she was able to have a profound sense of hope that overcame any suffering she experienced.”

Bakhita, an African child sold into slavery in the mid-1800s, ends up in the home of an Italian vice-consul and his daughter, Aurora. The story, told in flashback to her children by the adult Aurora, shows how a loving relationship grew up between the two, the slave gaining respect and affection from the family’s Italian servants and townsfolk.

In his encyclical, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI extolled St. Josephine Bakhita as an example of constant hope, encountering Jesus as “the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that … this master had Himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now He was waiting for her ‘at the Father’s right hand.’”

Violent incidents show Bakhita’s village being overrun by native slavers; a slave suffering crucifixion; the beatings and implied mutilation Bakhita endured from her owners. There is some non-exploitative, National Geographic-type tribal nudity, along with two subdued examples of sexual innuendo and suggestive language. Bahita can be found online, running 3 hours and 20 minutes. The story is better assimilated if shown in three installments.

Wright’s Wrating: suitable for teens and mature preteens.

SUGGESTED DISCUSSION TOPICS

  • Explain how slavery, although illegal in most civilized nations, continues. Ask your children to pray for all those today who endure kidnapping and forced labor.
  • Show how St. Josephine Bakhita’s courage when facing beatings and undeserved hatred exemplifies Jesus’ admonition to bless those who curse you and, if struck, turn the other cheek (Luke 6:28, 29).

Morality movie: The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) is based on Irving Stone’s novel recounting the struggle between Julius II (Rex Harrison), pope and sovereign of the Papal States in continual warfare to maintain Church lands, and Michelangelo Buonarotti (Charlton Heston), the sculptor Julius chose to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The actors have a field day playing off each other as viewers are left to ponder the morality displayed by two strong-willed personalities.

The film garnered five Oscar nominations and won Italy’s David di Donatello Award as Best Foreign Production. It takes artistic license here and there, but Julius’ parsimony and delayed payments, one of the film’s continuing themes, is well attested. Some 20 years ago a display of historic papal items toured the U.S. One exhibit was a letter Michelangelo wrote his brother complaining about the pope’s payment being in arrears.

Wright’s Wratings: suitable for teens and mature preteens

SUGGESTED DISCUSSION TOPICS

  • Show the purpose of art in church as a kind of family album of saints. Describe the heresy of iconoclasm in the 800s and the mid-1900s. Mention how the Seventh Ecumenical Council explained ecclesiastical art.
  • Consider papal administrative idiosyncrasies that took place during the Renaissance, such as making cardinals out of boys, the sons of wealthy Catholics who’ve made hefty donations. Could this be considered an example of simony? (See the next entry.)

Mirthful movie: The Silver Chalice (1954)

The Silver Chalice (1954) is based on the bestselling novel by historian Thomas B. Costain, weaving together incidents set down by Eusebius, and Sts. Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, among others. The centerpiece of the story is a large-bowled silver chalice found in 1910 at Antioch. Within, a metal framework holds a small silver cup, identified as the Holy Grail when displayed at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933.

Basil, a handsome young Greek done out of his inheritance and sold as a slave, becomes a famed silversmith. Jospeh of Arimathea sends Luke the evangelist to buy Basil and free him so he can construct a fitting shrine for the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper. Joseph wants Basil to create portraits of Jesus and the apostles for future generations to see. Little do they know that Simon, the Samarian magician who clashed with Peter (Acts 8:9-24), seeks the cup to destroy it.

Set designer Rolf Gerard of the New York Metropolitan Opera intended the sets to be impressionistic, but they look merely unfinished. The “silver” chalice suspiciously resembles stainless steel or highly polished aluminum. In his film debut, reviewers dismissed Paul Newman as “the poor man’s Marlon Brando.”

Alexander Scourby is strikingly personable as St. Luke, the best performance in this claptrap. The teenaged Natalie Wood grows up to become the luscious Virginia Mayo — the actress soon after would be brought into the Church by the Venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen.

Helena has become the mistress of Simon the Magician. As portrayed by Jack Palance, Simon is a psychotic fraud posing as a new Christ. Palance’s scenery chewing is astonishing. So much so, my son DeForeest has described it as being “Like dinner on Easter Sunday — hammy, corny, cheesy, and thoroughly enjoyable.” Do try to keep your jaw from dropping.

Newman detested the movie. It premiered in 1961 on Los Angeles TV station KHJ, channel 9’s “Million Dollar Movie,” which showed the same film Monday through Friday. He famously took out a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter reaqding: “Paul Newman apologizes every night this week — Channel 9.”

Wright’s Wratings: suitable for all ages

SUGGESTED DISCUSSION TOPICS

  • Use The Silver Chalice, with all its faults, as an effective contrast with well-made, better-researched biblical and religious movies.
  • Compare this movie with the incident in Acts of the Apostles featuring Simon Magus. The sin of “simony,” the buying and selling of spiritual gifts, took its name from Simon. Jesus, recall, told the Twelve, “Freely you have been given, so freely give” (Matthew 10:8).

Sean M. Wright, MA, award-winning journalist, Emmy-nominated television writer and Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita. He responds to comments sent to [email protected].



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