What to Watch During Lent

What to Watch During Lent
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When I was in sixth grade, I was at my friend Gerry's home for a sleep-over on a Friday in Lent. His mother proposed that we go see Sleeping Beauty. We did.

My mother found out and was furious. Lent was a time for penance and self-denial.

Not long thereafter, and I think completely coincidentally, Vatican II happened and prayer and acts of charity joined abstention as the central activities of Lent. The main point of Lenten self-abnegation still strikes me as fundamental: To draw our attention to our sinfulness and to God's love and forgiveness and to the opportunity for redemption.

It is in this spirit that I would like to recommend five films to be viewed during Lent. They portray themes of penitence, forgiveness, and redemption and thus provide a catalyst to reflection on those realities. All are wonderful films, enjoyable to watch, and uplifting.

1.  Ben-Hur

In many ways, this movie epic, which won eleven Oscars in 1959 including Best Picture, does not hold up well. The special effects seem cheesy by comparison to the achievements of modern films. The acting is cheesy by any standards. The last half-hour, though, makes it worth the previous three-plus hours. Our hero, Judah Ben-Hur, has defeated his nemesis, his treacherous former friend Messala in a spectacular chariot race that culminates in a crash that takes Messala's life. Before he dies, Messala tells Judah that he can find his mother and sister in the leper colony. Judah returns from the colony vowing vengeance. The only way his land can be cleansed if with blood. He sets out across Jerusalem and comes upon Jesus carrying His cross. Judah follows him to Golgatha and sees experiences the earthquake and frightful storm that accompanies Jesus' death. The camera shows the base of the cross, the rain washing Jesus's blood into the soil, cleansing it.

2.  The Apostle

Robert Duvall plays a man who has killed another man on suspicion that the latter was having an affair with his wife. He flees his home state, Texas, for the bayous of Louisiana, where he invents for himself a new identity and establishes a new church. Through his preaching and good works, it is evident that God is working through him, despite his glaring failings.

3.  Tender Mercies

Duvall won an Academy Award for his portrayal of a dissolute former country music singer, Mac Sledge, who is taken in by a single mother, Tess, and her young son, Sonny. Sledge finds God, quits drinking, is reconciled with his estranged daughter and then is forced to cope with his grief when she dies in a car accident. What sustains him is Tess's love, which seems clearly to be God's love channeled through her.

4.  Places in the Heart

This drama is set in the cotton growing region of Texas in the 1930s. A young black man is lynched for accidentally killing the sheriff. The sheriff's widow, Edna Spalding, played by Sally Fields, must keep the farm out of bankruptcy. Her sister and her husband live with her. When it is discovered that the husband is having an adulterous affair, he is sent away. One element of the rest of the movie is his efforts to make amends, be forgiven and be allowed back into the family. The film ends powerfully with a communion service at the local church when we see the sheriff and the man who killed him sharing bread.

5.  The Mission

The Lenten theme in this complex, rich story is embodied in the character of Captain Rodrigo Mendoza, a soldier and slave trader played by Robert De Niro. In a fit of jealous rage, he kills his brother in a duel. Overcome with guilt, as penance, he drags his sword and armor through the jungle on his way to join the Jesuit mission. The film ends tragically with Mendoza and some of the priests getting killed in battle attempting to save the natives from a band of slavers while other Jesuits are murdered attempting to resist the aggression non-violently.

Patrick Callahan is an emeritus professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.

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