Meditating in Lent with cinema

Some proposals to go to the cinema with the eyes of the Spirit

by Luca Finatti

In the book of Spiritual Exercises[1] of St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), at no. 65, the practitioner is invited to contemplate Hell, even to imagine entering it, exciting the senses to give shape to an interior image of this place, which can push the believer to repent of the evil done and thus flee from sin. Basically, one is asked to meditate on one’s own death, in the presence of the eternal Judge, an extremely precious exercise in these days of Lent and torment for all the funeral images that overflow from the screens of all kinds and sometimes overwhelm our every ability to judgement.

In addition to prayer, art has always been able to help us to give meaning to the shapeless that assails us.

Cinema can also serve as an antidote to the bulimia of violent images that generate indifference, helping us to think and make sense to our deaththrough that of the characters told.

I therefore propose a quick overview of some films which, in terms of style and expressive intensity, could be a good viaticum to reflect and meditate. For example, still in the hall these days, there are two, distant in style and subject, but united by the same city in which the events take place: Belfast.

The most recent film, entitled precisely Belfast (2021), is shot in black and white and is inspired by some childhood memories of director Kenneth Branagh: in August 1969 the protagonist child, Buddy, from a Protestant family, suddenly discovers that he should have considered Catholic children with which he had played on the street until then.

Forced to witness the violence of Protestant loyalists, he is preserved from hatred thanks to the teaching of his parents and paternal grandparents, who do not share the attacks and who will decide to emigrate rather than be involved in religious feuds.

In reality, in history, politics is in the background, omnipresent is the casual gaze of the child who insinuates himself into the life of adults, tries to understand and above all learns to love.

A film that bursts with life from every shot, even if the conclusion is veiled with sadness due to the death of the grandfather. Loved and esteemed by his nephew, the final departure is narrated with the naturalness and hope of faith, while the child’s gaze on the coffin makes it clear that he is now stronger, as well as aware of the need to leave his homeland.

It was also filmed in Belfast Nowhere special – A love story (2020) by the Italian producer and director Uberto Pasolini, who has lived in England for decades, where, in 2017, he read on Daily Mail of a young single window cleaner, terminally ill with cancer, looking for a family to leave his four-year-old son up for adoption.

The news becomes the subject for a film gradually leavened with the wisdom of those who need to enter history delicately, finding the appropriate tone, which does not make the pain spectacular, but which allows us to ask ourselves some fundamental questions.

How do you choose the ‘right’ family to entrust your child to? How can you tell a child about your imminent death? How to learn the humility needed to ask for help instead of falling into despair?

The shocking beauty of this film also depends on the fact that the director tries to give answers, first of all with the dry style of the documentary maker who follows father and child in their search, without judging the imperfect families encountered, but then making the strength and strength soar. fatherly love, engaged in a cerebral yet passionate game of chess with death, waiting for the true answer to be revealed.

If in these two works above all the intimate and moral space of the protagonists is staged, there are two other films, quite recent, which, always representing the impending experience of death, can give us some interpretations of the daily funeral images that they come to us from the war in Ukraine, from a historical and spiritual perspective, not just a chronicle.

The shadow of Stalin (2019) by director Agnieszka Holland, despite having some flaws in script and rhythm, has the civil merit of remembering the horror ofholodomor[2]Ukrainian term for the genocide by starvation of over six million people, perpetrated by the Soviet regime, to the detriment of the Ukrainian population in the years 1932-1933, through the requisition of all agricultural production and foodstuffs to bend the inhabitants of the country to the policy of forced collectivization.

In this way, an agricultural country, known as the ‘granary of Europe’, was put in a position to no longer be able to feed even its inhabitants, who died from starvation, epidemics, cannibalism and suicides.

In 2003, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the sad events ofholodomor, Saint John Paul II (1920-2005) sent a message to the Ukrainian church: “millions of people have suffered a terrible death due to the disastrous effectiveness of an ideology which, throughout the 20th century, has caused suffering and grief in many parts of the world. For this reason […] I intend to make myself spiritually present at the celebrations that will be held in memory of the countless victims of the great famine caused in Ukraine during the communist regime. It was an inhuman design carried out with cold determination by the holders of power at that time.[…] The planned celebrations, intended to reinforce the just love for the homeland in the memory of the sacrifice of its children, are not directed against other nations, but rather intend to revive in the soul of each the sense of the dignity of each person, to whatever people they belong.“.

The film is inspired by the life of the Welsh journalist Gareth Richard Vaughan Jones (1905-1935) who, first, understood and denounced the criminal political project, after having managed to arrive in a daring way in Ukraine in 1933 and have seen what was happening.

The sequences of the tragic famine are particularly effective in describing the omnipresent death in every aspect of the human and natural landscape, while the only hope lies in the protagonist’s desire to reveal the truth to the world, so that an ideology in those years still little is condemned. known in its most perverse roots.

I conclude this journey with a Russian film from 2006, The island[3] by Pavel Lungin, a director who became famous at the beginning of the millennium thanks to some interesting films that described the breakup of post-Soviet society and the rise of the oligarchs.

In this work Lungin completely changes the stylistic register and composes a fascinating portrait of the life of Father Anatolij, a lay monk of an Orthodox monastery located on an unspecified island.

The first sequence takes place in 1942: a Russian sailor, captured by the Nazis, is forced to kill his captain because he is threatened with death by the Germans.

The rest of the story, on the other hand, is set thirty years later, in 1976, when it is discovered that the sailor, after that episode, spent his entire life in a monastery, in a very poor house, away from his brothers, with the essential task to check the operation of the coal boiler.

Father Anatolij has a reputation for holiness, people flock to it because it is said to perform miracles; he is tormented by the sense of guilt for the murder of the past and behaves like a ‘fool of God’, that is, with an apocalyptic and sometimes violent frankness, necessary so that those who seek him become aware of his own sin and he himself does not fall into the temptation of pride.

In one of the most beautiful scenes of the film, the monk meditates and awaits death, lying down inside the chest used as a coffin, because he does not consider himself worthy to have a burial like the others.

We are faced with a work of art in which the representation of the Russian soul, in its contradictions and mystical fury, is not so much nationalist or ethnic rhetoric, but an authentic search for Christ, in self-sacrifice and in prayer, through a refined contemplative direction and a screenplay inspired by a true story.

In fact the leading actor, Pyotr Mamonov (1951-2021), a former famous musician at the time of his rock group Zvuki mu, also interpreter of Lungin’s first film, Taxi Bluesin 1996 he converted to Orthodox Christianity and decided to live as a hermit in the village of Reviakino.

When Lungin learned of this, he went to him to propose that they write together the screenplay for a film that, according to the director, should have been the testimony of the fact that God exists.

In one of the rare interviews he granted, he said to those who asked him the meaning of the protagonist’s much suffered atonement, a story evidently with autobiographical features: “I answer you with a quote. Ephrem the Syrian said in the fourth century: “The church is an assembly of sinners who repent.” That’s what the church is. All our sins in an ocean of divine mercy make a grain of sand. The Lord welcomes everyone and forgives everyone: the murderers, the most frightening people, if only our heart turns totally to him. In life this happens often and very close to us. It happened to me, to the one who is in front of her. This is the reason for my certainty when I talk about it. I did a lot of nonsense and then my heart turned completely to God. The Lord forgave me everything and showered me with his love for him. Then, disarmed, astonished, I stopped[4].

Saturday, March 26, 2022

[1] See Pietro Cantoni, The journey of the soul. Theological – spiritual commentary on the book of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, D’Ettoris Editori, Crotone, 2018, pp. 110-137.

[2] cf. Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek and Jean-Louis Margolin, The black book of communism. Crimes, terror and repression, trad. it., Mondadori, Milan 2000, pp. 147-156.

[3] The film is visible for free herepage accessed on 3/19/2022.

[4] The full interview is located herepage accessed on 3/19/2022.

Meditating in Lent with cinema – Alleanza Cattolica