’s not often that Hollywood deals with any Christian themes in an intelligent or respectful way. In fact, it seems that often the only times that the mainstream movie industry deals with Christianity at all is to portray its believers as either hypocrites, simpletons or buffoons. On the rare occasions that they actually show a character in a church, it’s usually for a wedding or a funeral—despite the fact that even the most limited estimates have shown that at least half of America’s 300 million citizens attend church services fairly regularly.
As a Catholic, I’ve found that my church is portrayed both better and worse than other Christian faiths. Yes, we are spared the pain of seeing our spiritual leaders portrayed as sweaty, quaking, self-righteous, pulpit-pounding televangelists, but on the other hand the last few years have shown that Hollywood has no problem seizing the headlines and showing priests as either pedophiles or at least questionable. Either that, or priests are forever in question of their vows of celibacy and are standing on the brink of having a torrid affair with a woman.
So, imagine my surprise to find that this holiday movie season has offered up not one but two Oscar-worthy, thoughtful films that deal with matters of faith in an intelligent and exciting way: Gran Torino and Doubt. While these films tackle their issues from different angles, the results are grandly entertaining and provide plenty to talk about after viewing them. So get thee to a theater!
Gran Torino has been seen by many critics as a response by its star and director, Clint Eastwood, to his own lengthy career of playing hyper-violent urban vigilantes like Dirty Harry Callahan. In five “Dirty Harry” films, he chased, beat and shot up seemingly dozens if not hundreds of the worst criminal perps in San Francisco, but in Gran Torino, Eastwood is a 78-year-old Korean War vet named Walt who has watched his working-class Detroit neighborhood change to the point where he’s virtually a lone Caucasian surrounded by Asians.
And Walt hates them all, as well as any other ethnic group that isn’t his own—Polish. It’s here that the film walks a fine and fascinating line, addressing racial tensions in a way that few manage to pull off.
In Torino, the Catholic element comes into play right from the beginning, as Walt is seen at his wife’s funeral. He quickly makes it clear that he doesn’t respect his parish priest, whom he derides face-to-face as “a 27-year-old virgin” who doesn’t know anything about the real world’s problems and suffering. But that priest, played by Christopher Carley, refuses to back down because he promised Walt’s wife on her deathbed that he would persuade Walt to make a confession for the first time in decades.
As the story crystallizes around Walt’s determination to change by protecting his next-door neighbors’ kids from a street gang of their Asian peers, the priest keeps popping up, gradually winning Walt’s respect and forcing him to consider the moral implications of his urge to be a vigilante and perhaps go too far for his own legal and moral good. By the time the film is resolved through a series of clever, unforeseen twists, it’s clear that Walt has been transformed by the wisdom of this man whom he once saw as naïve. And Walt’s response is an affecting parallel to the audience’s own initially derisive perception of the priest, taking us along on his faith journey as well.
Meanwhile, Doubt—as its title might indicate—heads in the opposite direction while still giving viewers plenty to consider about matters of faith and trust. Set in a Bronx Catholic school in 1964, shortly after the massive changes ushered in by the modernizing Vatican II conference in Rome, the story quickly sets up a conflict between the old-school nun who serves as principal and runs the school like a prison (played by Meryl Streep) and the young, new priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who wants to shake things up by treating the students as fully rounded young people who deserve doses of freedom and respect as well.
Streep and Hoffman wind up in battle over a much more thorny subject, however: She comes to believe, through the tips of a naïve young nun played by Amy Adams, that Hoffman is engaged in an inappropriate relationship w ith the school’s first admitted black male student. While she has no direct evidence to support her belief, she rigidly sets out to destroy the priest anyway because she refuses to harbor doubt, considering it a weakness. Hanging in the balance are each of their reputations, as well as the well-being of the young boy, whom Hoffman claims he’s merely paying extra attention to in order to help him overcome the ill behavior shown him by his racist classmates.
Doubt cannily sets its dramatic fireworks—it’s written and directed by Oscar-winning screenwriter John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck) as an adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play—up in the early ‘60s, removing the film’s questions of inappropriate priestly behavior from the context of this decade’s earlier pedophilic scandals so that its larger questions of faith, morality, and yes, doubt can be dealt with without the distractions of wondering how close a fact-based film was hewing to reality.
A priest friend of mine dismissed Doubt without having seen it, saying that he felt the filmmakers caused damage to the public’s perception of the Church merely by portraying the film’s three leads in their clerical outfits next to the title word. But I believe that as much as we’d like to think all of life’s questions can be answered with black and white statements by our pastors or solely through interpreting the Scriptures, a stronger faith can be achieved through occasionally questioning things for ourselves.
And films like Gran Torino and Doubt give us a great place to start.