My wife and I grabbed this film from Redbox some weeks ago and found it a fascinating movie. It has the same cinematographer as The New World (2005), Emmanuel Lubezki. The movie is unique in that there is very little dialogue and what there is is not quite conclusive, leaving the viewer to decide what is going on. It becomes like a piece of art in a museum about which one asks, what was the intent?
There seemed to be many issues covered, but those who reviewed the movie came to very few of the same conclusions about the issues, or even the storyline, as my wife and I or, I might add, each other. There are issues of Environmental responsibility and Capitalism, issues of Male/Female relationships, Faith. One of the more striking possibilities is whether an abortion destroys the relationship between Neil (Ben Affleck) and Jane (Rachel McAdams). Leading up to Neil and Jane’s immoral relationship, there is a noticeable attempt on Jane’s part to get Neil to take the lead in the relationship. Jane tries to get Neil to pray with her, read the Bible with her, but all that they seem to do is fall headlong into bed with each other. Neil also has notably modern-guy issues taking the lead with his live-in girlfriend, Marina. He can’t seem to speak the words, “please stay”. In fact, the realities of a contraceptive, infertile and immoral world might be the shortfall of many a person's happiness in this movie.
Aside from Neil’s faith, which seems to do better under the tutelage of Fr. Quintana (Javier Bardem) later in the movie, Fr. Quintana appears to have some issues with his faith, but they aren’t quite as much of a crisis as the various critics (or those trying to sell the movie) wish to advertise. No, actually, Fr. Quintana’s interior-dialogue is really profoundly that of a parish priest who is doing a good job.
Fr. Quintana does have difficulties with parish life and remarks how dry and empty he feels in a prayer of the heart that is almost ceaseless; a sort of kenotic response to the graces of the Priesthood. You see him hesitate at homes trying to determine whether or not to knock, but the crisis-like hesitation is just as likely the Holy Spirit telling him not to knock. He interacts with Pentecostals who try to teach him about speaking in tongues or how to be joyful. He interacts with jailbirds and jail-bound criminals who want to pretend to be repentant or are - God knows. All the way through, any priest is able to relate to almost every incident. On his way out of the parish, having been transferred to another church, an apparently-autistic man says to him, “but who is going to preach the Gospel?” and that tells you of his success. In fact, his success is apparent in the mesmerizing and insightful snippets of sermons that he preaches to a sparsely-filled nave.
The basic lesson here, I think, is the fundamentally segmented story of Man or a man. Whether in the various “McMansions” on the Oklahoma prairie or the almost-dead downtown of an Oklahoma “city” or the snippets in the life of the priest or the tourist-filled and monk-abandoned Abbey of Mont St. Michel, in all of this, the significance is segmented into almost-clearly-defined moments of influence, decision and of grace - much the same as that interior autobiography of St. Augustine, his Confessions: Those segmented decisions are almost predetermined by the character formed by other decisions. Maybe that is what the Director of this film is trying to portray.
But what the Director stumbled onto, intentionally or inadvertently, is the reality of the Priesthood: To be there for the snippets, the segments, in others’ lives while the endless tedium of insane chaos and mindless boredom (often in geographic locations where we feel estranged and awash) threaten to drive one mad and mask the moments of grace that God is showering upon His people and that when one feels empty and dry the grace of the Priesthood is still flowing out into the world; in fact, it may be flowing better the emptier you feel. To touch the World with the grace of the Priesthood is to feel “virtue” going out of one (Luke 8:46), but to be emptied is but to be filled again and again to be emptied. Indeed, the failure of any priesthood as a man is very likely God's victory through the Great High Priest, Jesus Christ (Col. 3:3; 2 Cor. 12:10; 2 Cor. 11:30).