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ON FAITH & MEDIA View Comments

Magic in the Moonlight

By
Joseph McAleer
Source: Catholic News Service


Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in a scene from the movie "Magic in the Moonlight."
Within the enchanting French Riviera setting of "Magic in the Moonlight" (Sony Pictures Classics), an age-old debate simmers between faith and reason, between a strictly rationalist standpoint and openness to divine providence.

Writer-director Woody Allen has always preferred nihilism to optimism, and this, his 44th film, does not vary in outlook. It's a pity, as his deeply cynical view toward matters spiritual sours what is otherwise a lovely travelogue with entertaining, if not particularly amusing, performances.

It's the Roaring Twenties in Berlin, and Stanley (Colin Firth) is a master illusionist. Posing as Wei Ling Soo, a Chinese magician, he wows audiences by sawing women in half and making a live elephant disappear.

Behind the scenes, Stanley is a nasty misanthrope, described by his friend and fellow conjurer, Howard (Simon McBurney), as "a genius with all the charm of a typhus epidemic."

Stanley has a sideline: debunker of spiritualists, charlatans who claim to communicate with the dead, defrauding innocent people in the process.

To Stanley, the world is only understood through science and logic. Anything to do with God, faith, or the afterlife is, he claims, "all phony, from the seance table to the Vatican and beyond."

It's no wonder he channels the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in stating, "If we are to get through life, we must delude ourselves." That's ironic, for a man who makes his living tricking audiences into believing anything is possible.

Howard persuades Stanley to accompany him to the south of France, where Grace (Jacki Weaver), a rich American widow, has become enchanted by her fellow countryman, comely clairvoyant Sophie (Emma Stone).

Arms flailing and shivering from "mental vibrations," the wide-eyed Sophie is a wonder to behold. After she "contacts" Grace's dead husband, Grace is ready to hand over the family fortune, and her smitten son, Brice (Hamish Linklater), proposes marriage.

This is all too much for Brice's sister, Caroline (Erica Leerhsen), and her psychiatrist husband, George (Jeremy Shamos). They bring in Howard and Stanley to expose Sophie as a trickster and fraud.

Predictably, Stanley's eyes are opened and his hard heart is melted by Sophie's charms and her rather convincing supernatural powers which, she insists, give hope to those who despair.

Mystified and lovesick, Stanley finds himself questioning his own narrow worldview, especially on matters of faith.

With his dearly loved Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins) lying gravely ill in the hospital, Stanley turns to God -- that "benevolent father figure out there" -- for help.

"I don't have all the answers," he prays. "It is possible that we are here by design, and you could be real."

It's a startling turnaround for an atheist. But as this is a Woody Allen film, there are twists in store. Suffice it to say that believing moviegoers will soon realize they've been led down an attractive but dead-end garden path.

The film contains a cynical view of faith and religion, brief sexual humor and mature references. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under

*****
Joseph McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.



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Jacopone da Todi: Jacomo, or James, was born a noble member of the Benedetti family in the northern Italian city of Todi. He became a successful lawyer and married a pious, generous lady named Vanna. 
<p>His young wife took it upon herself to do penance for the worldly excesses of her husband. One day Vanna, at the insistence of Jacomo, attended a public tournament. She was sitting in the stands with the other noble ladies when the stands collapsed. Vanna was killed. Her shaken husband was even more disturbed when he realized that the penitential girdle she wore was for his sinfulness. On the spot, he vowed to radically change his life. </p><p>He divided his possessions among the poor and entered the Secular Franciscan Order (once known as the Third Order). Often dressed in penitential rags, he was mocked as a fool and called Jacopone, or "Crazy Jim," by his former associates. The name became dear to him. </p><p>After 10 years of such humiliation, Jacopone asked to be a member of the Order of Friars Minor(First Order). Because of his reputation, his request was initially refused. He composed a beautiful poem on the vanities of the world, an act that eventually led to his admission into the Order in 1278. He continued to lead a life of strict penance, declining to be ordained a priest. Meanwhile he was writing popular hymns in the vernacular. </p><p>Jacopone suddenly found himself a leader in a disturbing religious movement among the Franciscans. The Spirituals, as they were called, wanted a return to the strict poverty of Francis. They had on their side two cardinals of the Church and Pope Celestine V. These two cardinals, though, opposed Celestine’s successor, Boniface VIII. At the age of 68, Jacopone was excommunicated and imprisoned. Although he acknowledged his mistake, Jacopone was not absolved and released until Benedict XI became pope five years later. He had accepted his imprisonment as penance. He spent the final three years of his life more spiritual than ever, weeping "because Love is not loved." During this time he wrote the famous Latin hymn, <i>Stabat Mater</i>. </p><p>On Christmas Eve in 1306 Jacopone felt that his end was near. He was in a convent of the Poor Clares with his friend, Blessed John of La Verna. Like Francis, Jacopone welcomed "Sister Death" with one of his favorite songs. It is said that he finished the song and died as the priest intoned the Gloria from the midnight Mass at Christmas. From the time of his death, Brother Jacopone has been venerated as a saint.</p> American Catholic Blog By immersing our lives in the rhythm of the season, charity can flood our souls and fill us with the happiness for which we were created. We awake Christmas morning prepared to celebrate the birth of our Savior not as a memory but as a profound experience of God’s redemptive love.

 
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