Judge David Johnson has a great joke for you! A priest, a nun, and a robot walk into the bar and...er...well, maybe this isn't the blurb for this joke.
Trifecta of faith-a.
Warner Brothers has packaged three classic films dealing with the Catholic Church for its "Films of Faith" three-pack. And here they are!
The Nun's Story
This Academy Award-nominated 1959 feature follows the life of Gabrielle van der Mal (Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's), the comely, stubborn daughter of a world-famous surgeon. Gabrielle has made the decision to join a convent, in hopes of combining her formidable nursing skills with her love of service and faith to become a missionary nun. The film details her experiences, beginning with the grueling training and purging of faults at the convent, pit-stopping at many disappointments where Gabrielle (now Sister Luke) finds her wishes squashed, then whisking her away to service in a sanitarium, her dream job in the Congo, and, finally, serving in Belgium as a nurse during World War II.
It is the Congo that has always been her service preference, and even there she is met with disappointment when she is assigned not to the natives' hospital, but in the white hospital, working alongside super-surgeon Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch). This locale proves to be Sister Luke's biggest testing ground, as her faith, her hopes, and her discipline are tested. Dr. Fortunati, a man outside of the church, grows to value Sister Luke and offers her an external prism from which to view her life—and through that she detects a conflict within that has plagued her since the beginning, which may in fact spell the end of her tenure underneath the habit.
If ever you could assign the label "epic" to a story about a nun, I think you could with director Fred Zinnemann's work here. Not only epic in length (a chunky 152 minutes), The Nun's Story covers so much ground—both geographically and emotionally—it is impossible to come away from the film without feeling profoundly (and appropriately) intimate with Sister Luke's life. While it certainly doesn't zip along at a blistering pace, the film is nevertheless crammed silly with content; the training itself lasts a good while, with Sister Luke not even taking her final vows until about an hour in! But it doesn't feel like a grind. It is a thoroughly detailed and realistic look behind the convent walls, and a meditation on the sacrifices that drive these women to commit themselves to lives of poverty, chastity, and extreme humility.
We see all this alongside Sister Luke as she experiences it, and the challenges and difficulties therein are made explicit through her narration, conversation and confession. This is a woman in conflict pretty much from day one, and because the life of a nun is so demanding, this inner turmoil is magnified—and provides the audience with an extremely effective portrait of what it takes to be a bride of Christ.
In no way does the film put down nuns or Catholicism. After minute 153 ticked by, I was left with an impression of awe, a feeling of respect that I had never had prior to viewing the film (not that I was ever anti-nun!) because of this exquisite peek inside the convent. It takes an extraordinary amount of constitution to commit one's life to servitude the way these nuns have and, for some like Sister Luke, the disposition and demands may in fact be too much.
Overall, The Nun's Story is an excellent treatment of a mysterious, cloistered segment of the God-fearing population, and an illustration at what hard-core humility really is.
The Shoes of the Fisherman
Anthony Quinn stars in this big-ass confluence of papal drama, geopolitical thriller, and religious meditation. "The Shoes of the Fisherman" refer to the footwear of St. Peter, the first pope, and it is these big shoes that Quinn's character, Kiril Lakota, must fill. We first meet Kiril, a former bishop, as he languishes in a Siberian prison camp, incarcerated for 20 years as a political prisoner. One day he is shocked to discover he's being released, though the conditions of his freedom are murky. An old adversary, Piotr Ilyich Kamenev (Sir Laurence Olivier), the premier of the Soviet Union, has pulled the strings to get Kiril out and back to the Vatican, where a seat as Cardinal awaits.
Tenuous world affairs have forced Kamenev's hand: China, faced with a staggering famine that is threatening to wipe out its populace, is on the brink of invading Southeast Asia to capture its food resources. Such a move would trigger nuclear mayhem from Russia and America, and there goes the ballgame. Kamenev's gambit is risky, as he hopes Kiril will be able to play a role in the white-knuckle diplomacy that looms.
Kiril is welcomed into the Church with open arms by his Holiness himself, though he is still unsure of why he's in Rome. He befriends a maverick Father name Telemond (Oskar Werner) who's under investigation for some contentious theological opinions. The two draw strength from each other, though their paths turn out to be radically different. When the Pope dies, the papal conclave meets and after some discussion, Kiril is elected to succeed as the next pontiff, an opportunity he resists at first, but, due to the excitement from his brethren, he eventually accepts. So now the former prisoner is wearing the titular shoes, and will soon be thrust into the middle of potential war, when he is asked by Kamenev to negotiate with the Chinese. But the end to which those negotiations lead, and what Kiril is prepared to do, will forever alter the Church's future.
The Shoes of the Fisherman is a massive film, clocking in at 162 minutes. It's actually long enough to encompass two feature-length films, even though, ironically enough, there seems to be two separate films at work here anyway. Film One is a political thriller, complete with scenes of clandestine Soviet high-tech bunkers tracking Chinese troop movements, vid-screens depicting potential nuclear devastation, and tons of shady back-room diplomatic dealings. Film Two is the religious exercise, where old dudes in robes talk theology and an upstart young priest rocks the boat with his challenging views. Both elements are kept apart from each other for the bulk of the film, with Kiril doing his thing as pope and Kamenev doing his thing as badass Soviet bureaucrat, until the final 15 minutes or so, when all the buildup of Kiril's involvement eventually leads to an anticlimax that's more or less a handout to a brutal regime.
The ending aside (and I know why it ended that way, as a commentary on the decadence of the Church, something I agree with by the way) the dual nature of this film brings with it some interesting aspects. On the thriller side, while the politics of 1968 date the tension significantly, the doomsday cloud of nuclear annihilation shrouds the film throughout its runtime, giving it a nice edge. On the religious side, I found the explicit detail of the conclave and the (fictionalized) back-and-forth between Cardinals about matters of theology and the Church's role in history fascinating. It's a hike, but the film is very well-done and extremely interesting in places.
Warner Brothers has given the movie a terrific 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, supported by a newly remastered 5.1 surround mix; it's an overall great technical presentation. A nine-minute vintage making-of featurette is a nice bonus.
The Miracle of Our Lady Fatima
Portugal, 1917. The nation is rebounding from a brutal socialistic coup that, until recently, had branded religion as criminal. In the tiny village of Fatima, three young children, Lucia (Susan Whitney), Jacinta (Sherry Jackson), and Francisco (Sammy Ogg) are walking through the fields when, with a loud thunderclap, they are brought to their knees and confronted by the ghostly apparition of a woman, who they believe to be the Virgin Mary. She delivers and prophecy and a mandate for the children to spread the word of God to all those who would hear it. The kids accept the responsibility and hurry home, hoping to keep the miraculous encounter to themselves. But the word gets out and the whole village is soon caught up in Marianic fever.
The children return to the same place a while later, this time accompanied by a few villagers, and again see the manifestation of the Holy Mother in the clouds. Despite the disbelief of the most of the villagers, as well as heaps of scorn and verbal abuse heaped on them, the children hold fast to what they saw. Slowly, most of the village gets on board with the miracle, and the news spreads beyond the town's borders. Christian pilgrims pour in from everywhere to catch sight of the miracle kids and maybe witness their own vision.
This revival does not click with the Portuguese authorities, and a squad of police enforcers is sent to dispatch the crowds and bring fear and control back to the population. The good Christians aren't having it and continue to flock to Fatima. One of the head-honchos then goes nuts and kidnaps the kids, hoping to force them to confess their fraud. They refuse. With an increasingly unmanageable mob, he gambles and lets the kids go to have their next meeting with their Heavenly Speaker, hoping the lack of a miracle will be evidence enough of the kids' imagination. If he only knew…
The Miracle of Our Lady Fatima is a light-hearted, family-friendly affair, seemingly geared towards kids, with a point-by-point educational voice-over and a peppy, inspiring score. It's a good story, made better because of the true infamy of the story that lies behind it, featuring lavish sets and earnest young actors with wide eyes and innocent, angelic expressions that supplement the primitive special effects very well. In short, I see it as an ideal entry into the library of Catholic Sunday School. If I were a Catholic I would probably be more invested in the story as the Fatima events are major deals in the 20th century history of the Church, but as a regular old Evangelical DVD-watching scrub, I can recognize it as a harmless little children's film that sorta inspires. What's lacking: those creepy images of the kids muttering with flashlights shined in their faces from the stock footage of the event. Yikes.
The video is full frame, and good enough, though easily the least impressive transfer of the three films in the set. A 2.0 mono mix does the sound and the theatrical trailer is it for extras.
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Scales of Justice, The Miracle Of Our Lady Fatima
Perp Profile, The Miracle Of Our Lady Fatima
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Miracle Of Our Lady Fatima
Scales of Justice, The Nun's Story
Perp Profile, The Nun's Story
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Nun's Story
Scales of Justice, The Shoes Of The Fisherman
Perp Profile, The Shoes Of The Fisherman
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Shoes Of The Fisherman
• Vintage Featurette
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