Lent is beginning to creep up upon us again. In the Orthodox Church we are in the middle of what is called the Triodion, a period of preparation for Lent which is, in itself, a preparation for Pascha. There are, aptly, three Sundays in the Triodion, all of which bring repentance front and center; last week was Zacchaeus Sunday, tomorrow is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee followed by a week free of fasting. Next Sunday is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, and the Triodion will be complete. After that is Meatfare Sunday and Cheesefare week, where dairy is allowed but meat prescribed. This completes the gradual descent into the full rigors of an Orthodox Lent.
Last year, I asked for suggestions about movies that might be appropriate viewing for the Lenten season. I got a lot of recommendations. Some were classics; Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Some were wonderful surprises; The Island, Godspell, In Bruges, Italian For Beginners, Tokyo Godfathers
There were some which were recommended for which I couldn’t discern any connection to the season; Au Hasard Baltasar, Ordet, Seventh Seal. There were some that even interfered with my celebration of the season, although they are excellent films otherwise; Gran Torino, Facing The Giants, The Blind Side. I found Fireproof unwatchable.
Of all the films I watched during Lent last year, there are three in particular I want to take with me into Lent this year as being particularly reflective of three major virtues I am going to try to cultivate; Repentance, Simplicity, Gratitude.
Repentance: Flywheel (2003).
Before culture-war Christianity there was just plain Christianity. This comes out clearly in this first film by Sherwood Productions, a production company which has since gone on to release lucrative releases for the Evangelical market such as Fireproof and Courageous. Flywheel was their first attempt, and it shgows, especially in the acting and in the production values. The spiritual value of the film, however, is head and shoulders above its successors.
The protagonist is the church-going owner of a used car lot. He takes pride in being able to milk more profit out of each transactions than any of his other salespeople. His marriage is falling apart, but that doesn’t particularly concern him. I don’t remember offhand what the crisis was that led to his repentance, but at one point he came face to face with the teachings of Christ. He had to make a decision to cease his dishonest dealings and make costly restitution. The struggles he faces while attempting to reorder his business in a way that would not be unfaithful to his faith are believable This modern-day Zacchaeus re-emerges as a business leader in a way that is neither hokey or predictable.
Simplicity Amal (2007)
Truth be told, we Orthodox are proudly semi-Pelagian. Inasmuch the whole nature vs grace distinction that so preoccupied the Blessed Augustine makes any sense in our context at all, we are not so uncomfortable with nature as are many other Christian traditions (Forgive me if appear as though I am speaking for the whole Orthodox Church here. I am a layman, and not a very good one at that). Natural human goodness was God’s original plan. There is more of it than we have a right to expect, and wherever it is encountered, it should be encouraged.
This film is the story of Dostoyevsky’s Prince Mishkin on the crowded streets of New Delhi. Amal is a rickshaw driver, who never complains when others abuse him, never charges more than his due, and who is honest to a fault. Indeed, like Mishkin, he is thought to be a little bit simple. However, one day he gives a rich man a ride who is in the throes of an existential crisis. Amal so impresses the rich man that the rich man determines to leave his entire fortune to the rickshaw driver to the despite of his dissolute and violent children. Amal’s character illuminates the flaws of the other, more self-centered characters in the film, and many of them come to, if not repentance, at least a greater self-knowledge a lessening of their egoism.
Gratitude Babette’s Feast (1987)
Two sisters, spinster daughters of the founder of an austere Protestant sect, take in as a cook/servant a worldly Parisian woman who is in some political trouble. Despite the hard-scrabble lifestyle of the sisters and the barrenness of their physical surroundings, the Frenchwoman does not complain and earns the respect and even the love of the two sisters over the years.
The Frenchwoman wins a sum of money in a lottery, and everyone expects her to return to Paris and resume her life. Instead, she spends the bulk of her winnings on a single night’s dinner for the sisters and surviving members of their sect. Indeed, the major part of the film is food porn at its most lascivious – the Frenchwoman is a master chef and she lavishes all her considerable skill on this single meal.
When the food and drink finally arrives at the table, it works an almost Eucharistic spell; old wrongs are forgiven, lapsed friendships are renewed, paths not taken are reopened and cherished for what might have ensued. Briefly, earthly food and drink becomes the transmitter of grace, and the barrier between the sensuous and the spiritual dissolves.