03 April 2012

A Few Religious Biographies

A Trio of Religious Treats
By Kristin Battestella

Even during Holy Week ahead of Easter and Passover, it seems increasingly tougher to find quality religious documentaries, debates, and films on television anymore.  Here’s a quick trio of Christian biographies to tide the spiritual over this April.

Billy Graham: God’s Ambassador – I thought this would be a little 45-minute biography with all the evangelist fixtures and staple speakers, but no.  This 2-hour 2006 special hosted by David Frost begins with Graham’s humble childhood- full of baseball, Tarzan, and a lack of academics- and continues through his early ministry along with the romance with his late wife Ruth Bell Graham. The founding principles of The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association are discussed as well, as are later massive revivals and the ups and downs of global politics.  Great archival photographs and footage anchor the narration along with interviews with family, George Beverly Shea, Cliff Barrows, and the famed such as George H.W. Bush.  Wow, it is so surprising to see early color video of Graham, and the subtitles go far for those who can’t quite understand those thick North Carolina sounds.  There’s also a lovely score throughout the piece that I must say adds a very bittersweet, rousing little touch. Though long, the show is divided into chapters, presenting a streamlined approach useful for a classroom or study group discussion.  New interviews with the titular man himself would have added a more personal or insightful angle, and some sensitive politics with US presidents aren’t too heavily touched upon either. However, with such a vast life and religious issues to discuss, God’s Ambassador balances the individual faith, the missions against communism, and evangelism in foreign lands through the decades quite well.  Lengthy bonus features from Bill Gaither, Frost, and Franklin Graham are also included on the video, offering more great music, crusade footage, and insightful interviews to cap off the set.

Joan of Arc – Looking more lovely than ever, Oscar Winner Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca, Spellbound, Anastasia) battled for this 1948 biopic with director Victor Fleming (Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind) and co-star Jose Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac)- only to have her personal scandals overshadow the finely spiritual here.  Along for the spectacle ride is a huge ensemble including John Ireland (Red River), Ward Bond (Wagon Train), and Gene Lockhart (Miracle on 34th Street).  Although the colorful sets are a touch towards forties fakery, angelic choirs, lofty candles, big church art, fancy scrolls, and Cecil B.- esque narration add to the grandiose scope. The costumes are also a little plain, with lots of veils and hennins, and some sequences are too slow and dry with a windblown feeling to it all. And let’s not forget, a 33 year old Bergman is just a bit too old to play a teenage saint.  Thankfully, she’s in Best Actress nominee form of course.  The battle scenes are also well played and paced, and the newly released unedited version is a must for the full appreciation of the picture.  I wouldn’t normally applaud the poorly chopped up 100 minute edition, but this shorter version might also be worthy for a classroom analysis. Now, one might notice similarities to 1999’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. We have the same person of interest, sure, and there’s a modern, fast-paced gore and action vibe tying the latter all together- unlike the reverent and somber feeling here. However, some of the scenes from Milla Jovovich and Luc Besson’s recent biopic seem more than just homage.  I’ve researched, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of a connection or any official or unintentional remaking of the Joan of Lorraine source play.  Bergman fans or Joan enthusiasts, however, might enjoy a study or comparison and revisit.  

The Song of Bernadette – Best Actress winner Jennifer Jones (Duel in the Sun) leads this inspirational 1943 tale alongside Charles Bickford (The Big Country), Anne Revere (A Place in the Sun), and Vincent Price (The Pit and the Pendulum).  My Mom swears by this movie, and despite my ongoing dislike of Jones, this is indeed her best work.  Youthful and innocent, Jones holds her own against the young suave and skeptical legalese of Imperial Prosecutor Price and more nasty adults with her soft honesty and subtle words. Even if Jones is also too old and doe eyed, we believe in Bernadette’s purity- and it’s ironic Jones had a behind the scenes’ scandal as well.  We’re slow to start with repetitive dialogue and it all feels overlong at just over two and a half hours, but the lovely little story here is well filmed with beautiful somber music to accent it all. Yes, it’s obviously pro Catholic and lays on the bias and sentiment- but what’s wrong with having a little faith?  The Victorian strict attitudes and poor tough times are also laid on thick against Bernadette- only the fine Priest Bickford supports her- and the period French touches succumb to liberties taken with the forties Americanization.  Fortunately, the miracle portrayals are perfectly done with abstract Lady Linda Darnell (The Mark of Zorro and another scandalous woman!) None of the reverence is hokey at all in comparison to the snotty family and disbelieving folk.  The Lourdes events are handled with respect as natural and realistic, believable and yet still divine without being a fantastic spectacle.  Wow! It’s all still special as miracles obviously are, and yet audiences today might find it somewhat strange that Bernadette’s elders would think her an insane or bad child.  Again, this adaptation is fine for a mature CCD debate or Sunday School classroom.  We have religious controversies, sure, but the sincerity and truth onscreen is evident here.

As to Passover, you can read a quick review of my favorite The Ten Commandments here – and look for our new analysis on the blu-ray edition soon!


Jeremy [Retro] said...

Gave you all a shout on the main HBA page and
have given you a HBA Gold Member status...


Thank you all again!

Jeremy [Retro-Zombie]
HBA Curator

Kristin Battestella said...

Ooo, how cool!! Thanks Jeremy! I'm confusing myself now watching horror and Easter stuff at the same time.