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The Ethic of Life
By Sister Rose Pacatte, F.S.P.

Q U I C K S C A N

GRAN TORINO
SEVEN POUNDS
CHE: PARTS I & II
THE NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY
FILM CAPSULES
CATHOLIC CLASSIFICATIONS



Two films featuring two of America’s best male lead actors (Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino and Will Smith in Seven Pounds) are well-made and engrossing stories. (Spoiler alert: Reading these reviews will necessarily reveal the plots.) Both films deal with men who choose to die for others.

While Gran Torino has an urban-cowboy feel to it, Seven Pounds engages our deepest sympathy for a man who believes that, by literally giving his heart to another, he will redeem himself. Both films are morally problematic, one clearly so while the other is ambiguous.

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GRAN TORINO

GRAN TORINO (L, R): Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is an aging, grumpy, racist Korean War vet who lives in a changing neighborhood where Hmong families from Vietnam and Laos are moving. When Thao Lor (Bee Vang) is forced by Asian gang members to steal Walt’s treasured 1972 Gran Torino, Walt responds uncharacteristically by taking the boy under his wing.

When the gang lashes out at the Lor family, Walt runs them off with his shotgun. Thao’s sister, Sue (Ahney Her), invites Walt, a widower, to dinner as a way to thank him, and Walt realizes that some of the relatives are as wary of him as he is of them.

Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) pesters Walt to go to Confession. And Walt’s son and daughter-in-law (Brian Haley and Geraldine Hughes) want him to move into a retirement home so they can get his property.

When Thao and Sue are attacked by the gang, Walt makes an irrevocable decision so the young people may live in peace. Problem language and violence.

SEVEN POUNDS (L, PG-13): Ben Thomas (Will Smith) is an IRS agent who seeks out seven people he deems worthy to receive gifts that will change their lives. He meets and falls in love with Emily (Rosario Dawson), who needs a new heart.

A flashback reveals that Ben is giving away parts of himself (his house and his bodily organs) as a way to redeem himself for a fatal accident he caused. Suicide, problem sex and language.

In Gran Torino, Eastwood’s character evokes the Western hero who saves the townspeople. There is a mythic quality to Walt Kowalski, and we can almost overlook any moral dilemma at his deliberate choice to incite the gang to kill him. But was it right for him to take matters into his own hands, avoiding both God’s law and civil law?

The filmmakers of Seven Pounds play on our sympathy for Ben’s guilt. When he commits suicide so his heart can be donated to Emily, we may at first think this is a heroic act.

But throughout the film, Ben Thomas plays God: He interferes in people’s lives with good intentions and changes them without regard for the consequences. Although we love his character, his decisions come from such a lack of faith that it is heartbreaking because it is so wrong.

We Christians live the ultimate paradox: We choose life so that we, and others, may die in God’s good time. While it is heroic to give—to sacrifice—one’s life for another, this does not include suicide. Neither of these films reflect Catholic Christian teaching about authentic charity or life.

As we long to hear Walt snarl in grand Clint Eastwood tradition, “Go ahead, make my day,” and yearn for a way for Ben and Emily to be together, our enjoyment is tinged with disappointment for these heroes.

Just as a person would throw himself in front of a train to save someone, Walt drew enemy fire in a lawless urban war to save his friends. At best, the ending of Gran Torino is morally ambiguous. Ben Thomas is a good man whose choices are more unsettling because they are so misguided and wrong, born from his despair.

Gran Torino and Seven Pounds deserve to be explored because they can generate reflection and conversation about what really matters about life and death. But they are far more than “just entertainment.”

CHE: Parts I & II (not yet rated, R): Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928–1967) was a medical doctor, husband, father, Marxist revolutionary and intrepid diarist. His Notas de viaje became the 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries.

Now, Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) has released a five-hour film (divided into two parts) based on Che’s journals. Part I is based on Che’s Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and Part II is based on The Bolivian Diary of Ernesto Che Guevara.

This film makes this still-controversial icon of the Cuban revolution seem sympathetic, rather than romantic. Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman (Jurassic Park III) use the words of Che (Benecio Del Toro, 21 Grams) to present Che’s political ideology for changing the world through violence. But there is nothing romantic about hiding out in the jungles of Cuba and the brush forests of Bolivia.

Del Toro is striking as Che, whose strong face is hidden by so much hair we seldom see his face to get a sense of what he is feeling. To be part of the struggle, he often told his soldiers, “You have to believe you are already dead.”

In The Motorcycle Diaries, Che undergoes a social and political awakening to the oppression of the poor in Latin America. But in Part I of Che, the storytelling is sparse, as if written on the run. Che mobilizes and trains soldiers opposing the U.S.-backed Batista government in Cuba and supports Castro without question.

Che is kind to people, often tending to them as a doctor. But he is ruthless to traitors or those who pillage and oppress peasants in the name of the revolution. His visit to the United Nations in 1964 is fascinating. The documentary style of Part I gives it an ambivalent authenticity.

In Part II, Che arrives in Bolivia in disguise. His time in the Congo and the years he spent as a member of Castro’s government are given short shrift. The peasants, though victims of government oppression, don’t want to risk what little they have, and some resent that foreigners have come to their country. The Bolivian government suspects Che is behind the skirmishes and asks the U.S. government for help.

Che was killed by a firing squad. The film makes it clear that his reading of Marx convinced him that violence was the only way to fight oppression. Che received moral and financial support from European philosophers such as Sarte and Bertrand Russell.

Che is a difficult film to review because there isn’t much to tell: One day follows another; we can’t keep track of the people who come and go. Part I was interesting, but I wanted to know more. Part II was tedious.

When I left the theater after Part II, I asked a young woman what she thought of the film. She replied that it was like a documentary. I disagreed, because there was not enough information about the man or his soul to be a true documentary. The woman responded, “That’s what books are for.” Touché.

Students of history may appreciate what has to be Soderbergh’s commentary on U.S. government and military involvement in other countries as told through Che. Though Che believed completely in violence, the film’s foundational subtext is that the use of violence to fight the violence of oppression is not the answer. But what is? Problem violence and language.

THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY (HBO, debuts March 29): Grammy Award-winning singer Jill Scott plays Precious Ramotswe in the late Anthony Minghella’s (The English Patient) final directorial project. Based on the beloved novels of Alexander McCall Smith, the two-hour pilot debuted on BBC in 2008. The series was filmed in Botswana.

Mma Ramotswe is a “woman of traditional build” who wants “to do good with the time God has given her.” Thus, she opens Botswana’s first ladies’ detective agency, assisted by her quirky secretary, Mma Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose, Dreamgirls). Lucian Msamati plays J.L.B. Matekoni, Mma Ramotswe’s love interest.

The premiere is faithful to the spirit and story line of Smith’s novels. It’s enjoyable, gentle and good-hearted, with strong performances—a film that lets you savor life and art.

LAST CHANCE HARVEY (A-3, PG-13): At his daughter’s wedding, Harvey (Dustin Hoffman) meets lonely Kate (Emma Thompson). This gentle romance is from relative newcomer writer/director Joel Hopkins. Problem language and implied sex.

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (A-3, R): Sally Hawkins plays Poppy, an irrepressible teacher determined to choose happiness, no matter what. This film by British director Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies) is one of my favorites from 2008. Problem language and implied sex.

MARLEY & ME (A-2, PG) is an ordinary film about a family and the world’s worst dog. I expected it to be funnier, but it was a good watch nonetheless, with strong themes about persevering in marriage, even when it is challenging. Some crass language.

THE READER (L, R): Kate Winslet excels as a former Nazi guard at a women’s camp who years later has an affair with a teenage boy who reads to her. Based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink, the film attempts to deal with German guilt over the Holocaust. It’s difficult viewing because of the explicit sex (director Stephen Daldry could have been more subtle). Explicit underage sex and nudity.

A-1 General patronage
A-2 Adults and adolescents
A-3 Adults
L Limited adult audience
O Morally offensive

The USCCB’s Office for Film and Broadcasting gives these ratings. See www.usccb.org/movies/index.htm.

Find reviews by Sister Rose and others at www.CatholicMovieReviews.org.

 


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