Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Reality Bites

Maverick Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky is back with his first movie in 20 years, The Dance of Reality. While he was recently seen on the silver screen as the subject of Jodorowsky’s Dune, about his failed attempt to film Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel in the mid-1970’s, it has been too long not having him behind the camera. His avant-garde, hallucinogenic, graphically violent and even scatological works such as The Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre and El Topo are definitely not for all tastes but they are also characterized by moments of profound beauty. Jodorowsky’s latest is his most autobiographical work but from all reports doesn’t lack his trademark, bizarre perspective. It is now in limited theatrical release across the US.

Several other new releases, most on DVD/VOD, offer biographical glimpses into some unique lives. The Jewish Cardinal (now availablefrom Film Movement) will be of particular interest to Catholic viewers, as it explores the rise of the late Jean-Marie Lustiger from parish priest to bishop and ultimately to serving as cardinal-archbishop of Paris. He also became one of Pope (now Saint) John Paul II’s closest friends and confidantes, and was considered one of the leading candidates to become pope following John Paul’s death in 2005.

Before all that, though, Lustiger was named Aaron at the time of his birth to Jewish parents. He converted to Catholicism in 1940 when he was 14 years old and took the name Jean-Marie for himself (although he kept Aaron as his middle name). His mother, who was arrested by the Nazis when she remained in Paris and soon after perished at Auschwitz, was tolerant of her son’s decision but Lustiger’s father later tried to have his baptism declared invalid. As a priest and bishop, Lustiger proudly proclaimed he was both Jewish and Christian, which didn’t go over well with either Jews or conservative Catholics. “I am God’s mixed child,” he declares in the film.

The Jewish Cardinal, which is very well-written by Ilan Duran Cohen (who also directs) and Chantal Derudder, primarily covers Lustiger’s episcopal period from 1979 to his death in 2007 but features occasional flashbacks to his youth. Laurent Lucas gives a powerhouse performance as the notoriously headstrong and temperamental cleric (Lustiger’s nicknames were “The Bulldozer” and the decidedly less fearsome “Lulu”), even if his later-years makeup is far from convincing. Also excellent is Aurelien Recoing, last seen in the lesbian-themed Blue is the Warmest Color, as John Paul II. Recoing is slyly nuanced as the beloved pontiff-turned-saint, and his scenes with Lucas are the highlights of the film. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in church history or Jewish-Catholic relations.

No less impressive and frequently heroic are the numerous, out LGBT politicians spotlighted in Cindy L. Abel’s Breaking Through. It is newly available on DVDand VOD courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures/QC Cinema. Subtitled The Struggle for Equality in the Nation’s Capital, the documentary was an Official Selection at several 2013 film festivals and won the Audience Award at QFest Fort Worth in Texas.

Abel interviews culture war veterans Barney Frank, Tammy Baldwin, Alex Wan and Kathy Webb as well as political rising stars including California’s John Perez, Todd Gloria and Toni Atkins about their personal and professional journeys. Also winningly featured is Texas judge Phyllis Frye, the first trans person to reach such legal heights. As San Diego City Councilmember Gloria states happily, “The American dream is alive and well,” and the film proves it hard to disagree with him while it reveals so clearly how far LGBT Americans have come since the 1970’s.

I feel Kansas’s publicity-seeking Westboro Baptist Church is featured too prominently and repeatedly in the movie as the epitome of anti-gay sentiment in the US. More effective at depicting the opposition are several of the politicos’ recollections of being condemned by some of their “normal,” everyday constituents. Even the pro-LGBT content in Breaking Through gets a little repetitious in the extended director’s cut on the DVD (the original theatrical version is also included and may be more effective). The tried and true Frank sums the film’s thesis up best when he says, “You can’t live half in and half out” of the closet. Good advice for not only politicians but all of us.

The most unique, even downright odd, life on display in new movies is surely that of Walter Potter. He is described in Ronni Thomas’s documentary short Walter Potter: The Man Who Married Kittens as “an unexceptional country taxidermist” who lived in 19th century England. The film will have its world premiere in Brooklyn, New York this Friday, June 6th at the city’s new Morbid Anatomy Library & Museum. I kid you not.

Potter devoted much of his adult life to the creation of anthropomorphic tableaux featuring stuffed toads, dogs, rats, monkeys, birds and, yes, kittens. He eventually opened the Bramber Museum in his home village to house his works, the most elaborate of which was a posed wedding involving 20 kittens in elaborate garb (hence the short’s title). Viewed as both an extension of “Victorian whimsy” and an abuse of God’s creation, Potter’s collection was eventually auctioned off to various buyers in 2003.

If anything, The Man Who Married Kittens is too short at 20 minutes and gives only the briefest overview of Potter and his unusual art. Within its exhibition context this weekend, though, it will probably serve very well. I thought the short was fascinating and I would sincerely like to know more about the subject, so maybe Thomas or another director can yet develop a feature film. Is it charming or disgusting? If you’ll be in the Brooklyn vicinity, check the short out and decide for your self.

Reverend’s Ratings:
The Jewish Cardinal: A-
Breaking Through: B
Walter Potter: The Man Who Married Kittens: B+

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

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