"Blaga's Lessons" wins the Ecumenical Jury's prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2023
The Ecumenical Jury awarded "Juniors" by Hugo Thomas at the 2023 Zlín Film Festival
The Ecumenical Jury: Celebrating Artistic Excellence and Human Values at the Cannes Film Festival
London, July 29, 2008 (Peter Malone) - If this ‘stand-alone' film deriving from the extremely popular TV series which ran for nine years were simply a reasonably entertaining murder thriller with psychic overtones, it would merit an average size review - which will be offered. However, the word ‘Catholic' is used many times over and the film has a number of Catholic characters and themes as well as an amount of God-talk. But, more of this in due course after the review.
Needless to say (but still saying it), fans of the series will want to see this story no matter what. Whether they will be happy that, while Mulder and Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) are centre-screen, this is not a film about FBI or government paranoia and mysterious aliens. It is a here-on-earth investigation of disappearances and a grim conspiracy that has to do with medical practice and malpractice.
Scully is now a doctor at a Catholic hospital and concerned about a young boy with a rare and deteriorating brain disease and whether he should be permitted to die or to undergo a number of radical and untested surgical procedures. Mulder, by contrast, is living, more or less, as a hermit. Scully is asked to bring him back for an FBI investigation which involves a former priest (Billy Connolly) who claims to have visions about the case. Mulder, with his keen intuitions about intuitions becomes interested. Scully is the rationalist, the sceptic. The FBI (Amanda Peet and Alvin ‘Xzibit' Joiner) are on the side of the sceptics but keep getting drawn into the search for the missing women.
The surgery issue (and stem cell research) is intercut with the investigation, making the two issues closely connected in themes, especially about the efforts to prolong life. Mulder pursues the hunches and leads to a final confrontation. Scully has to question her presuppositions and the possibilities that there could be more realities than those that science allows. This centres on the truth or fakery of what psychics say and do. The film takes great interest in what advertising says is ‘supernatural' (which it is not because that is the area of grace) but which, to be technical, is ‘preternatural', experiences beyond the normal.
Set in a wintry West Virginia (though filmed in Canadian mountain locations), the film has action and chases but it also has a great deal of discussion about issues.
Catholic hospital and prolonging of life
Now for the Catholic issues. Already mentioned is the fact that Scully works at a Catholic hospital where the Board is headed by Fr Ybarra (Adam Godley). The film makes him a very serious character and, from Scully's point of view, quite unsympathetic, especially in discussing the decision about whether to go ahead with the boy's surgery. In fact, he is proposing normal teaching, ordinary Catholic teaching, that life of the terminally ill is to be prolonged by ordinary means rather than by extraordinary means. There have been many cases where Catholic parents or spouses have asked that life support not be turned off - which has a powerful emotional impact. This is dramatised in Scully's discussions with Fr Ybarra, with the boy's parents and their decision not to go ahead with the operations as well as in her impassioned speeches at the Board meeting where the hospital management support the decision against the surgery.
The screenplay introduces stem cell research since the surgery requires results from such research. In fact, the screenplay does not speak about stem cells from embryos or adult stem cells. And, in further fact, when the malpractice at the centre of the mystery and experimentation with dogs and with humans is exposed, the audience's emotional response is against what is, as expected, characterised as the work of a ‘modern Dr Frankenstein'.
It can be added that nuns appear in the hospital but the producers have not checked out what contemporary nuns in hospitals actually do, whether they walk in solemn pairs down corridors or what they wear in terms of habits modified from older days - this presentation of nuns is over thirty years out of date.
Faith and scepticism
Writer-director Chris Carter, who created the original series, is on record as saying that the film raises issues of struggles with faith by both Mulder and Scully. He says that his story ‘involves the difficulties in mediating faith and science'. This involves talk about belief in God or non-belief, Scully ‘cursing God' for allowing children to be born with fatal diseases. Mulder, somewhat off-handedly but seriously, asks her whether she thinks God is unable to sleep because of this. Mulder is open to faith beyond the senses, at least. The title of the film, taken from a poster used in the series and shown here in his room, states in capital letters, ‘I WANT TO BELIEVE'. When the psychic priest, whom she detests, urges Scully ‘not to give up', it disturbs her and she visits him, despite herself, to find out what he really means (and whether this comes from his psychic powers). She really seems to want to believe - and this will also depend on whether his visions have been authentic and have led the investigators to the truth.
However, the main issue has been kept till last in this review. The priest, Fr Joe, played by Billy Connolly with quite some restraint instead of his sometime over-the-top style, is a convicted paedophile priest, guilty of penetration of 37 of his altar boys. These days that is enough for many people to shake their heads and think, ‘there you are again'. Many Catholics will react immediately with some feeling against the inclusion of this kind of character. However, the realities of sexual abuse by clergy have been aired constantly in the media and highlighted in 2008 by Pope Benedict's expressions of sorrow and regret, his apologies and his having meetings in the US and in Australia with victims. On a realistical level, most Catholics would have by now had some connection with victims and perpetrators. The issue cannot be hidden. As with so many of the films which include such abuse, the Church is called to, challenged to, examine its conscience.
Derogatory remarks are made about Fr Joe. Scully is particularly antagonistic and judgmental and Mulder makes a few of his offhand sardonic remarks about the priest. But the screenplay is actually leading its audiences into some more serious reflection on these issues and the consequences.
Fr Joe has been suspended from his priestly functions and lives in an institution for offenders. He acknowledges his guilt and responsibility and prays ‘for the salvation of my soul'. He reads and quotes from the scriptures. As regards his ‘visions', he states that he did not ask for them but that God had given them to him. It seems to be an opportunity for him to make some kind of atonement for what he has done. At one stage, his tears are, literally, tears of blood. He tells Scully that all the men in this institution hate each other and hate the inner drives that they did not want but which have led them to the devastating abuse. The question of what attitudes people should take towards offenders is a key one. By the end of the film, with some complications about the identity of the central criminal in terms of being one of Fr Joe's victims - and some ‘mystical' connections made between deaths and the saving of lives - this introduction of a paedophile priest is not a mere opportunistic device but something more substantial.
Billy Connolly really gives a fine performance and the screenplay does not shirk realities but, without preaching, draws the complexities into the narrative of the film. As Chris Carter might have said, his story could involve the difficulties in mediating between clerical crime and possibilities for repentance, redemption and atonement.
A reflective footnote
A Jewish film distributor friend brought the film Our Fathers (2005) to Britain for release. This is a film about some of the abuse in the archdiocese of Boston, victims, predatory priests, Fr Geoghan and Fr Birmingham, and Cardinal Bernard Law's handling of the issues and of the priests and their ministry. My Jewish friend, who was not up on the details of Catholic abuse crises, told me that there was a particular scene that he found most moving, a scene where one of the victims, now an adult, visits his abuser who is dying in hospital. The victim asks his abuser's forgiveness. My friend found this overwhelming. In the Catholic church most of us are not near that kind of behaviour and emotion - which raises an important challenge about the future. This led to a further reflection on South Africans' experience of injustice and atrocities under Apartheid. It is invidious to make comparisons about the suffering victims have endured. But, after cruel, violent and vicious decades, South Africa took what seems to be an extraordinary decision: to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to air the ugly realities, to uncover the truth, though never for vindictive purposes. Rather, the goal was forgiveness and reconciliation. Is this the kind of challenge the Church must respond to once the truth is out, trials held and sentences handed out?
It seems that underlying the character of Fr Joe in an X Files story we can find some of these deep issues.