Friday, March 30, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Faithful & True

I spent six years in a Roman Catholic seminary in the early 1990's and was pleased to find it surprisingly tolerant of the more homosexually-inclined among us. We were expected to embrace celibacy and live chastely, but we could otherwise be quite openly gay. That has sadly changed more recently in the wake of the Vatican's 2005 ban on openly-gay men entering seminary and, presumably, the priesthood. Good luck with that!

While the new DVDrelease The Seminarian (available now from Breaking Glass Pictures' QC Cinema) is set in a Protestant educational environment, much of it reminded me of my own seminary experience. The attendant struggle between spiritual ideals and worldly desires -- i.e. "the spirit" and "the flesh" -- is explored respectfully (though not without some nudity and non-graphic gay sex) by talented young filmmaker Joshua Lim, who is the product of a conservative Christian university that partly inspired his latest work.

"It's really hard to pinpoint where the story came from," Lim told me during a recent phone conversation. "It's very instinctive, but it basically came from a group of friends who I met with for dinner once a week" while he was a student at Southern California's Fuller University & Theological Seminary. Lim wasn't on a ministry track, electing to study the arts instead, but was essentially surrounded by ministry-minded students.

The Seminarian similarly centers its revealing plot on Ryan (The Big Gay Musical's Mark Cirillo), a gay but closeted student in his final semester of studies. Self-aware but understandably conflicted at times, Ryan is hardly alone. He has two close gay friends at the seminary: Anthony (Javier Montoya), who has an on again-off again relationship with another male student, and Gerald (Matthew Hannon), who harbors an initially-unspoken crush on Ryan. All of them are compelled to keep such inclinations secret from their predominantly heterosexual classmates, who tend to interpret scripture literally and are therefore far from accepting of homosexuality.


"It was very much 'Don't ask, Don't tell' at Fuller regarding homosexuality," Lim said. While his movie is reality-based but not autobiographical, Lim uses it and Ryan's thesis on "The Divine Gift of Love" to intelligently explore a question that has long dogged theologians: "How can love be a gift from God when it causes so much pain?" For Ryan, a first-hand lesson in this paradox comes via his relationship with a troubled man, Bradley (Eric Parker Bingham), whom he meets through the Internet.

Lim, who hails originally from Singapore, was surprised to learn that the most generous contributors toward his budget for The Seminarian were supporters of California's anti-gay marriage Proposition 8. One such donor, though, told Lim that they were interested in the dialogue they thought his film would inspire. The finished project got a generally positive reaction from film festival audiences but Lim reported some were unhappy with its mix of Christianity and homosexuality. Curiously, The Seminarian was accepted into more mainstream than GLBT fests.

"I couldn't make it too theological or people would fall asleep," according to Lim, "but I did want to make a serious film." Indeed, while not without some humorously observant lines and moments, The Seminarian is a serious piece of work. I admire the reflective pace and visual style Lim employs. The camera lingers on settings, faces and bodies longer than most movies. Director of Photography Lawson Deming is one to watch for his stately, color-saturated work here.

While the cast member's performances aren't the most professional, everyone gets props for their honest, heartfelt approach to their characters and Lim's screenplay. Of course, any contemporary movie that strives to illustrate how "love is an action that reflects the divine" is likely to get kudos in my book. Spiritually-adventurous viewers, gay and straight, should definitely check The Seminarian out.


Former Jesuit priest John J. McNeill is known for being the first openly gay Catholic priest (he came out on the Today show in the 1970's, during one of Tom Brokaw's first interviews on the program) as well as the author of several bestselling books on the topic of GLBT people's role in the Church. The documentary Taking a Chance on God, which will be making film festival rounds this year, is a remarkable expose of McNeill's unusual upbringing, his life-changing time as a prisoner of war during World War II, and his eventual emergence as a global spokesman for the full inclusion of GLBT persons in religious life. McNeill became so influential that his views were ultimately condemned by the Vatican and he was forced out of the Jesuits. Of course, as one observer states in the film, "The Vatican wanting to shut him up really opened his mouth." Watch for it.

Another noteworthy, religious-minded documentary now out on DVDcourtesy of First Run Features is Monsenor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero. Romero served as the archbishop of San Salvador in the 1970's and spoke out forcefully on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised against El Salvador's corrupt government. He was subsequently assassinated in 1980 while celebrating Mass. Raul Julia memorably brought the martyr to life in the 1989 film Romero, but Monsenor uses never-before-seen archival footage and audio recordings to present a truly first-hand account of Romero's last three years. It makes for great viewing during Holy Week (April 1st-8th this year) or any other time.

Reverend's Ratings:
The Seminarian: B
Taking a Chance on God: A-
Monsenor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero: B+

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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