Friday, May 29, 2015

Catholics: A Fable (1973) - a dismal film

I've long heard about this film but just haven't been interested enough to see it. Watched it today in two separate bits of time. Not sure I can recommend it. It has a premise that sounds like it could be interesting, and some good actors; but, well ...

It's supposedly set in "the near future" in Ireland, although Martin Sheen is styling very 1970s hair, sideburns, and clothes. The film is set in the wake of a hypothetical "Vatican IV," and the Catholic church has joined with other western religions in an "ecumenical" movement that has washed out much of the original message of the Catholic Faith. A group of Irish monks in a remote island of Ireland, have reverted to celebrating the Latin Mass and have garnered an international following. A boyish-faced Fr. Kinsella (Martin Sheen) is sent from Rome by the head of their religious order to bring them into line, because they have begun drawing too much international attention, especially on the eve of a conference with a Buddhist group. Hence, Fr. Kinsella's job is to bring the religious group "into line" and get them to give up their old ways. Kinsella tells the abbot of the order (played by Trevor Howard) that Rome no longer requires belief in the Real Presence; and a further twist in the plot comes when we learn that the abbot of the religious order has been having doubts about his faith and has ceased praying for the past three years. The story ends abruptly, however, with the abbot leading a distraught group of his monks in the Our Father, just after having informed them that they must cease celebrating the traditional Mass in obedience to their superiors. The question as to what is truly essential to their faith and worship and what is not is left unresolved, reflecting, perhaps, some of the ambivalence characteristic of the times in which the film was made, and even our own times.

[The entire film can be found on YouTube HERE.]

Here is a surprisingly positive review, entitled "Decline and Fall of the Mother Church," by a professed agnostic, who calls it "brilliant":
My visceral reaction to the plight of a group of traditionalist monks on a lonely Irish island is rather ironic because I am a card-carrying agnostic, the quintessential "fallen Catholic." I found myself rooting for the monks who want to keep the church focused on the fight against spiritual evil (and the obvious saving of souls) and against the perfect example of modernity, Martin Sheen, as the epitome of "Liberation Theology," the liberal emissary from Rome who arrives to stomp down the monks' celebration of the Mass in Latin.

Catholics (or The Conflict as it appears in the cheapo DVD version from Digiview) lacks much of what makes movies entertaining for most folks--there are no drive-by shootings, exploding spaceships, bouncing breasts, or language to, as Stephen King says so well, "make a twenty-year Navy man blush," but it does have superb performances by Sheen, Trevor Howard, Cyril Cusack, and a number of fine British and Irish actors. It is an intellectual's movie with a smidgen of scifi--it was made in 1973, but it's set in the near future, maybe ten years later, when the Church has been so modernized that bread and wine are just that, not the body and blood of Christ and confession is not between a parishioner and his or her priest.

By rejecting the miracle of the Mass, by denying the personal interactions between the priest and the public, and by refocusing the Church on liberation theology and not the battle between good and evil in a spiritual sense, Catholics shows a congregation lost in the modern world. Sheen is on the island to crush a conservative rebellion and I found myself feeling as sick and as angry at him as many of the monks.

Finally, I have to congratulate the cinematographer and the art director for creating and using locales that are so bleak and cold that the viewer must concentrate on the human drama. The flesh and the blood of the actors are the miracle here (including the tears flowing from the faithful monks and from Howard's abbot who has lost his faith and must live an excruciating lie for his men), even if Rome wants it stopped right now.

Catholics is brilliant, but it certainly isn't popular entertainment. For a buck, I found a gem in the Wal-Mart DVD dumpster.

Sounds like a miracle to me!


RFGA, Ph.D. said...

I'm going to trust your judgment PP concerning the whole film, having only viewed excerpts on Youtube. (I have been planning on viewing it for some time and recently finally found a copy, so your warning was timely.) However I must say, based on those excerpts, that the Sheen character is instructive as to the mind-set of our modernist enemies and the abbot's depictions of the TLM and NO are also spot on. And then there is that disheveled young man (Donald) crying out in the final scene 'No, no; that is blasphemy ... sacrilege'- that gets to me every time. RFGA, Ph.D.

Pertinacious Papist said...

The film had some promising elements, doubtless; and the Sheen character and his relationship with the abbot had, in the first half of the film, a certain pregnant depth. My quarrel is with the insipid and indecisive ending. You find out the abbot had lost his faith some years prior; and then, when he's compelled to give up their traditional ways (not only the traditional Mass, which is one thing, but their beliefs in the importance of saving souls, the reality of the Real Presence, etc.), he does so; AND there's a gesture of irrational "conversion" at the end where he leads the community in the Our Father, amidst the abandonment of the other traditional elements of the Faith. Crazy.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to buy this film a while ago and read some reviews on Amazon to get an idea what the film was about. If memory serves some were complaining that the only versions available were those that had a revised ending and warned against buying this one. I could never find one with the original ending, but this might explain why the ending seemed insipid and indecisive.


Pertinacious Papist said...

Hi Mary,

I see that the same film "Catholics" (1973) was also released under the title of "Conflict"; but I'm not sure as to any difference in content. It would be nice to know if there was a more coherent ending. I COULD be a good film!