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Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: The Bells of St. Mary’s (Dir. Leo McCarey, 1945)

It was the film listed on the marquee of the local cinema as George Bailey (James Stewart) ran through a snow-covered Bedford Falls, and back into the bosom of his family. It was also the picture that Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) took Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) to see at Radio City Music Hall on their first date. Aside from being dearly beloved by filmmakers named Francis, The Bells of St Mary’s does what very few films have been able to do, and that is out-charm its cinematic predecessor (despite Bosley Crowther’s 1946 claims in The New York Times).

Father ‘Chuck’ O’Malley (Bing Crosby) was first seen in Leo McCarey’s 1944 hit Going My Way and is reintroduced here – wearing his straw boater on a jaunty angle – arriving at St. Mary’s in order to help Sister Superior Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman). She, who is fighting to keep the Parochial school open and out of local businessman Horace P. Bogardus’ hands. Bogardus (Henry Travers) has already purchased the adjacent building to St. Mary’s but is determined to secure the school grounds for his parking lot.

In the beginning, Father and Sister clash – albeit with a twinkle of the eye and a sly smile on the face, alongside quips like: “Did anyone ever tell you, you have a dishonest face? For a Priest, I mean.” Somewhat predictably, they – the American Priest and European Nun – realise they must come together to fight a common goal. Sound familiar? Okay, so it’s not fascism per se but the film was released in December of 1945 so it’s hardly a stretch to see its themes set against the war effort.

Director McCarey had a somewhat varied career, dabbling in slapstick (Duck Soup, 1933), melodrama (Make Way For Tomorrow, 1937), screwball comedy (The Awful Truth, 1937) and romance (An Affair to Remember, 1957). He would make four Priest-led films (Going My Way…St. Mary’sMy Son John in ’53 and The Devil Never Sleeps in ’62), which for a devout Catholic is hardly surprising, but in all and especially in this film he managed to humanise both Priests and Nuns, depicting them as flawed individuals and, crooner Crosby and the radiant Bergman take Dudley Nicholls’ script and run with it.

There are no villains of this piece – Travers best known for playing angel Clarence in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is probably the most antagonistic, however, manages to convey sincerity and humour all the while attempting to chuck the Sisters and their young wards out of their school. While this is the overarching plot, there are minor, almost irrelevant arcs which provide the gentle comedy and at times offer the most laughs, which go to the heart of the film and viewer alike. Like, flunking student Patsy Gallagher (Joan Carroll) who leans on Father Chuck to help her pass the school year.

Patsy is left at St. Mary’s while her mother Mary (Martha Sleeper) weighs up giving caddish pianist Joe (William Gargan) – who left her pregnant and alone – another chance. Or, bullied Eddie Breen (Richard Tyler) who has been “turning the other cheek” as per Sister Superior’s advice until she decides to teach him, in one memorable and hilarious scene, to box. Even when Chuck and Mary Benedict do have a difference of opinion, it is all decidedly good natured.

It is these threads, and elements within the mise-en-scène, which show the passing of time as the seasons change and the school year progresses, culminating in the most adorable Nativity performance, in the history of Nativities. McCarey was all about improvisation and naturalism in his actors’ performances, and it is no more apparent than in the recreation of “Jesus’s birthday”. It was reportedly shot in just one take with the children encouraged to ignore the camera and crew, and approach their material as they saw fit.

This is an aspect of McCarey’s work ethic which admirer Yasujirō Ozu emulated in Tokyo Story – the 1953 retelling of Make Way For Tomorrow. It is a characteristic which make this film so utterly charming. There are of course – given Crosby’s presence – musical numbers, courtesy of composer Robert Emmett Dolan, such as the delightful “Aren’t You Glad You’re You?” and even Bergman stretches her vocal chords in her native Swedish for “Varvindar Friska” (Spring Breezes) and while musicals are not everybody’s cup of tea (I know, who doesn’t love a bit of Bing?) there are ample numbers to enhance the narrative yet few enough not to put people off completely.

Drill deeper and there are interesting depictions of the gendered approach to conflict which one may argue are outdated, however, some still ring true even today. Yes, it may offer an idealised, even sweet depiction of Catholic schooling but this assertion of patriarchal power is more than still relative especially in the institution of the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed, as discussed by Revd Steve Nolan’s analysis in the disc extras – the notion of paternalism. Made obvious in the way Dr. McKay (Rhys Williams) decides to withhold vital information of and from a (female) patient but discusses freely with ‘a man of the cloth’.

Although not necessarily a Christmas film, you can do a whole lot worse than including this film on your festive watchlist (if not before). It’s the perfect addition containing humour, charm and sincerity, and one which warms the cockles in much the same way as The Shop Around the Corner or Remember the Night. It may not be regarded as McCarey’s most cinematically satisfying film but its popularity is evident and understandable.

The performances are natural, subtle and nuanced especially Bergman who was rarely seen onscreen less than glamorous, and was loaned by David O. Selznick as part of a deal he struck with McCarey. Here she shines, quite literally, from the glow of her unmade-up face to the luminosity of her smile and the clever use of lighting which flawlessly renders her, hitting the eyes perfectly within her wimple. Made all the more noticeable here thanks Paramount’s restoration process which still contains some grain but which creates a beautiful monochromatic sheen to each frame, set within a 1:37:1 aspect ratio.

The Bells of St. Mary’s will charm your socks off – and it’s a well-known fact that this writer watches it every Christmas Eve without fail. It just ain’t Noël without that little boy, Bobby (Dolan Jr), knocking on a curtain introducing himself in one breath, “This is Mary and I’m Joseph, and we came to Bethlehem to find a place to stay.”

Special Features

It’s almost a given now that if it’s an Arrow Films release, the Academy label in this instance, there are always a few extras to enjoy after the credits have rolled… and only then.

Up to His Neck in Nuns (22 mins) – This visual essay by David Cairns is entertaining and informative as the writer dips into Leo McCarey’s filmmaking history, his early life, Catholicism and heavy drinking. It switches from film clips, stills, photos, archival interview quotes, and Cairns’ lovely Scottish lilt ensures it’s never boring.

Analysing O’Malley (19:48) – This appreciation by the Chaplain of Princess Alice Hospice, film academic, and author of Film, Lacan and the subject of Religions: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Religious Film Analysis, Revd Dr. Steve Nolan is a little dry in comparison to the previous essay. Nolan sits to the right of the frame and narrates; reading an essay from an autocue. It’s a fascinating analysis but one which would have worked just as well as a commentary (surprisingly lacking here).

You Change the World (32:07) – This short religious propaganda film was shot by Director McCarey in 1949 and features appearances by Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Irene Dunne, William Holden, Loretta Young, and Jack Benny – all regarded at the time as ‘super Catholics’. It’s arguably some of the best acting any of them have ever done, and they’re playing themselves! It’s preachy, condescending, cringeworthy hypocrisy at its finest (and I say this as a Catholic). The purpose of the film was to persuade “good, decent, normal people” to join The Christophers. I stopped counting how often “The Declaration of Independence” is mentioned when I reached ten.

Two Screen Guild Theater Radio Adaptations: One from August 26th, 1946 (29:52) and the other recorded October 6th, 1947 (28:59). Both star Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman reprising their roles as Fr. Chuck O’Malley and Sister Superior Mary Benedict. The radio programmes are played over a slide show of film stills.

Musical Score Featurette produced by RKO Radio (22:28) – This was made to promote the film’s original release in December 1945, and is played over the same film stills as the radio adaptations.

Theatrical Trailer (1:51) – A perfect way to compare the film against this trailer and see the amount of work that has gone into the restoration process.

Image Gallery – This is slideshow of 35 images. There are gorgeous chiaroscuro snaps, candids, as well as magazine covers, set images and colour posters.

First pressing only: Fully illustrated booklet containing new writing on the film by Ronald Bergen.

Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jennifer Dionisio.

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Review

Review: Deliver Us (Dir. Federica Di Giacomo, 2016)

Cinematically, films featuring possession and the subsequent exorcism are ten-a-penny yet Federica Di Giacomo’s award-winning documentary Deliver Us [Liberami] deems to show how the ancient ritual is performed in a contemporary world. In the opening scene, which is chilling, a woman sits with her back to camera as a Priest anoints her with holy water. After he places his vestments on her head she wails and screams for the “bastard” to leave her alone and an almost secondary voice chuckles “she’s mine now.” Even if you stumbled across this documentary with little to no knowledge, it’s safe to say, this incapsulates the subject matter succinctly and effectively.

Father Cataldo Migliazzo is a sought-after Priest (and exorcist) in Palermo, people travel 150-200 km to attend his tiny Church and receive a blessing. Disturbingly, a lot seem to think they’re possessed – a child who refuses to go to school has parents who believe “a devil is inside of him”. A woman begins to cough and have, what appears to be, a panic attack and is taken into confession and, delivered from evil, and this is all before mass even begins. When it does, the “possessed” within the congregation hiss, spit and speak in tongues.

There is little doubt to these people’s beliefs, yet as they discuss what symptoms they present with, it becomes apparent that a lot can be explained away via human biology or medical tests. These vary from swearing, masturbation, seizures, drug addiction and depression to memories of child abuse. One even lists cervical pains, dizziness and exhaustion, another an unhappy marriage while one mentions schizophrenic episodes, and what could be epilepsy in a teenage girl. Yet, at no point are they directed to a medical professional – in shepherding their flock you would think that there is a duty of care. This is made all the more ridiculous (and hypocritical) when we see Cataldo’s medication spread across a table top for various ailments, right after he exorcises by telephone no less.

Unsurprisingly, almost all of those exhibiting signs of oppression are women. The patriarchal domination and control of women within the Catholic Church has almost become sacrosanct and this unspoken insinuation that women are weaker and the only ones susceptible to mental health issues leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Made all the more galling by a Father Carmine who tells a recently exorcised woman to laugh more, so to prevent another episode of oppression.

While Di Giacomo brings a neutrality to proceeding, there’s little judgement one way or the other and her film never strays into questioning faith or belief, there’s humour without ridicule and a melancholy as we follow these lost souls desperate to “cure” themselves. It is all too easy to condemn what is not understood, as ancient tradition and modern habits collide, which further plays on unnerving fear and delusion; the sacred and the profane, psychic and spiritual, disturbing and ludicrous.

However, it is in those last closing statistics which turns the fascinating (and somewhat infuriating) Liberami into a real-life horror – the increase of Priests who are now qualified to perform exorcisms within Dioceses across the world is staggering, and the indication that these numbers will continue to grow is absolutely terrifying. Federica Di Giacomo has produced a a stark work which fuses real-life with the absurd, proves that reality is more far more powerful than fiction, and leaves you with hope that all those lost souls are delivered from whatever ails them.

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Review

Review: Spotlight (Dir. Tom McCarthy, 2015)

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There have been a number of films which have dealt with the subject of abuse within the Roman Catholic Church. Most memorable is Alex Gibney’s damning documentary Mea Maxima Culpa (2012) and Pablo Larrain’s The Club (2015). While the latter is a dark work of fiction based upon an overwhelming truth, Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer chose the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by The Boston Globe as the basis for their screenplay, Spotlight.

In 2001, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) took over as Editor of the Globe and immediately suggested that a group of journalists: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian D’arcy James), led by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) look into the case of Father John Geoghan and the accusations of child abuse that were levelled at him. Although the events of 9/11 delayed their investigation until 2002, the Spotlight journalists joined forces with lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) to expose the lengthy cover-up by the Church and how this Priest and the 86 others, within the State of Boston, were deemed above the law.

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Hollywood has a way of sanitising; it is why, I would argue, European cinema hits harder. Spotlight is the exception to the rule. It recounts those tireless, investigative months with dignity, anger and drama and only for the intertitles and events detailing 9/11, it is timeless, and reminiscent of that last great newsroom -based drama, All the President’s Men (1976) by way of something as emotionally-charged as Philomena (2013).

We know the characters names and there are obvious hints to their marital statuses and even the faith within which they were raised but no unnecessary character development deviates from the point of this low-key yet impacting film. The Globe’s involvement is two-fold; selling newspapers but also making amends by detailing a story they had access to five years previously. This is about facts and exposing the truth, while making an audience engage with what they are seeing.

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It also throws up some infuriating questions – for the audience, and the characters onscreen – does the ‘good’ work of the Catholic Church cancel out the heinous and systematic abuse? (This is rhetorical.) Upsetting the cart for a few bad apples is an analogy best suited for this horror. When all is said and done, it wasn’t/isn’t all Priests but some 6% of any one discretion, according to former-Father and psychiatrist Robert Sipe. The incredulity of the reporters, when they think they are dealing with only one Priest, triples as realisation hits (remember what that felt like); just how many “fool around” with children? These predators targeted a specific type of child – poor, working class; those who would take whatever pay-off they were offered and keep their “shame” to themselves. The Church has money and they turned child abuse into a cottage industry while putting more children in danger by not dealing with the problem but merely reassigning Priests to other parishes for the cycle to begin all over again.

Oh, and I’m not just “another lapsed Catholic pissed off at the Church”, as John Slattery in his guise as Ben Bradlee Jr flippantly states. I’m a furious, lapsed Roman Catholic who cannot comprehend the immoral and criminal way in which men (and women) of my faith behave(d). Anybody, regardless of creed, who harms a child is evil and the rationalisations which, seemingly, members of the Church place upon that level of abuse are horrifying. Apparently, there is a distinction between abuse, rape and sexual gratification and a pederast can walk out of a police station without charge as long as he is wearing clerical dress. Guilt, according to Spotlight, also lies outside of the abuser. How many people, including men of power, knew and did nothing? Mitch Garabedian/Stanley Tucci says it best, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

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Spotlight is a tremendous piece of work. It makes for a riveting watch and is incredibly moving and thrilling. Everything within the mise-en-scène is very subtle, even downplayed including McCarthy’s direction; Howard Shore’s score is sombre, restrained and emotive without ever feeling manipulative, and the cast? Every single one of them is outstanding and it is the best ensemble piece seen in a long while; from a very passionate Rezendes/Ruffalo to the staid and calming force of Baron/Schreiber. This is one of those flawless films you don’t want to miss and more importantly, shouldn’t.