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by James Arnold

Classic Catholic Stories

Dorothy Day Film
Courage Under Fire
With God On Our Side
DAENS
A Time to Kill
Multiplicity
Commercials This Month


Dorothy Day Film
stars Moira Kelly as the feisty, street-smart servant of the poor who battles for justice in a nonviolent manner.
ENTERTAINING ANGELS: THE DOROTHY DAY STORY (unrated): In an era of extreme consciousness of the role of women, both in the Church and in popular culture, the time may be ripe for this semi-biography of the cofounder (with Peter Maurin) of The Catholic Worker newspaper and the movement. Yet Dorothy Day will always disturb the comfortable, and middle-class Catholics of the 1990's may find her as hard to live with as did their grandparents in the stormy days of the Depression.

Some saints are more countercultural than others, and Miss Day always was a little in advance of the popular and acceptable. In pursuit of social justice, she began on the Left as a Communist, and after her conversion remained committed to workers and the poor, against war and nuclear weapons and "the system." If she was a radical in her lifetime (she died at 83 in 1980), how irritating she might be to the "free market" Catholics of the 1990's. As she puts it in the movie: "If you feed the poor, you're a saint....If you ask why they're poor, you're a Communist."

Produced by Paulist Father Ellwood Kieser (Romero) and making huge demands on the supple talents of 27-year-old star Moira Kelly, Angels covers two central chapters in Day's extraordinary life. The first, slow and talky, describes her years as a socialist radical writer and activist in the New York of the 1920's, an attractive firebrand in bohemian literary circles.

It's still slow but more photogenic when she retreats to a cottage on the Staten Island shore, resolves to have the baby her lover (Lenny Von Dohlen as Forster Batterham) does not want, and (admittedly, always the toughest change to explain in conversion stories) finds God and her inner core of strength.

The second, more convincing part covers the 1930's and has more drama: the founding of the Worker and its crucial early years; her friendship with the gabby, witty, charismatic, uncompromising Frenchman Maurin (Martin Sheen); the horrific conditions of the poor and homeless; the predictable opposition within the Church and even within the staff itself (do they run a newspaper or a soup kitchen?); and final decisions on mission and direction.

The film covers nothing of the final half of Day's life, but suggests its essence with a framing device: Dorothy is shown behind bars in 1963 for civil disobedience in an anti-nuke protest comforting a frightened junkie. Dorothy holds her and croons "Amazing Grace"--it's another lovely use in movies of that extraordinary old hymn.

Kelly is easy to idealize. (Recall, she was the girl Chaplin never got over in Chaplin.) But caring for the poor and sick (these scenes are honestly grim, to the film's credit) while being constantly heckled by fellow Catholics and hierarchy (the cardinal here is Brian Keith) is probably going to inspire only those of us already inspired. Writer John Wells and director Michael Rhodes (a TV veteran who made the respectable pilot for the Christy series) never quite solve the perennial "religious movie" problems, like how to make "goodness" not only visible but also fresh, or how the heroine will pray (besides walking into a church and talking to statues).

Actor Sheen captures Maurin's cheerful and impractical holiness with considerable charm, and Heather Graham has a great scene as a combative alcoholic who lashes out at Day. In the end, Mike Gold, her old leftist friend, probably puts it best. "We Communists talk about helping the poor," he tells Dorothy, "but you did it....You made the world a little better. That's not bad for a Catholic!" A vital fragment of American Catholic history, respectfully told; recommended for youth and adults. (For more on the production of this film, visit Paulist.org. To read Jack Wintz's interview with Moira Kelly, see our September issue).

A TIME TO KILL (A-4, R): The filmmakers who adapted John Grisham's The Client return with another taut, deep-South courtroom thriller, enmeshed in relevant issues like race, the difficulty of achieving "justice," the complex meanings of "guilt." But when a black father preempts justice by shooting the trashy whites who raped his child, the film uses "extreme case" logic to justify it. Popular sentiment is indulged, not challenged. While the melodrama seems padded, the cast, led by Sandra Bullock and newcomer Matt McConaghey, is terrific. Shaky on message, but O.K. for adults.

COURAGE UNDER FIRE (A-3, R): A decorated Gulf War veteran (Denzel Washington) who knows his own heroism is a sham heads a posthumous Medal of Honor investigation of heroism by a medevac chopper pilot (Meg Ryan). He's determined this time to get it right, but the survivors tell wildly varying stories. Tough and sincere, a decent adult movie in a season of lightweights, but in this politically correct era the outcome can be no surprise. Probing drama about conscience; G.I. language; satisfactory for mature youth and adults.

MULTIPLICITY (A-3, PG-13): The possibilities of cloning are milked in this comedy by Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day), but despite the seamless digital technology and crafty performance by Michael Keaton (playing himself and three copies), it never gets much beyond the traditional "twin" or "mistaken identity" comedy popular for 2,500 years. That includes the sequence where attractive wife (Andie MacDowell) comes on strong to each of the sworn-to-be-celibate clones. Few moral scholars could untangle this mess, and an innocent attitude provides some consolation. High potential idea goes almost nowhere; O.K. for mature viewers.


WITH GOD ON OUR SIDE: THE RISE OF THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT IN AMERICA (PBS): This six-hour series, running on Fridays through October, sails courageously into stormy waters. Thoroughly professional, funded by sources from all points on the philosophical spectrum, it gets the best fix I've seen yet on the hugely significant political relevance of conservative evangelicals.

Is it balanced? Well, few TV series other than this one are capable, depending on your viewpoint, of scaring you or inspiring you. Then again, you can just enjoy the preaching and the music. (The old hymn "How Great Thou Art" is the theme.)

With nicely rounded symbolism, it begins with the postwar Youth for Christ rallies and Billy Graham calling for "a spiritual awakening." It ends six hours later with Graham's prayer at the Clinton inauguration and the statement of Ralph Reed, director of the Christian Coalition, that Christian political activism is a permanent fixture--"We'll be there as long as it takes."

En route, with some of the reportorial style of the classic Eyes on the Prize civil-rights series, the key events are explored from every angle, using archival footage, interviews with major figures, clergy, scholars and typical activists on many sides, and narration by Cliff Robertson. The result is insight and understanding never provided reliably before in one place.

Among many aspects memorably covered, in the first and final episodes: the fear of Communism, the fear of John Kennedy ("My friend was fairly sure he would rise from his coffin as the Antichrist"), the 1960's collapse of morality, the Supreme Court's decisions on school prayer and abortion, the sex-education hassle in Anaheim, the anti-gay-rights and Promise Keeper movements.

At the end, the only questionable interpretation by producers Cal Skaggs (American Masters, American Playhouse) and David Van Taylor is perhaps to contrast the affable Ralph Reed and the confrontational, abrasive Randall Terry (Operation Rescue) as the two leaders fighting for the soul of Christian activism. Informative and surprisingly riveting, a must-see series.

COMMERCIALS THIS MONTH: The current Nissan ads are strange but creative. Having spent half my life chasing a dog with a ball in his mouth, I responded to the one where the boy pursues the playful terrier, then falls down a shaft into a magical showroom of classic cars. The kind Asian tour guide has the right message: "Life is a journey....Enjoy the ride!"

On the other hand, another commercial (Advantage flea treatment) involving dogs and cats doesn't cut it. That's the one where the pets cutely bark and whine along to Handel's Messiah, which somebody (hopefully) forgot is for many people sacred music.

DAENS (1991, available for video rental): In every movie that aspires to greatness, there has to be at least one great moment--something you didn't expect and can never forget. In Daens, it happens late in this film about Father Adolph Daens. A starving boy has been admiring the priest-hero from afar and is especially impressed by his sermon on the loaves and fishes. The boy takes a few bits of crust and water and prays over them, in hopes of multiplying them and satisfying his desperate hunger.

This Belgian/French/Dutch coproduction, directed by Stijn Coninx and nominated for an Oscar in 1992 for best foreign film, belongs on the short list of outstanding movies about priests. It never played in U.S. theaters and doesn't have the right audience clamoring to see it. But it's on video and now can be rented (one source is Facets: 800-331-6197).

Although set in Aalst, Belgium, at the turn of the century, it has many similarities to Dorothy Day. It may be the classic Catholic story, since the hero takes literally not only the gospel but also Pope Leo XIII's then-new 1891 encyclical on social justice, Rerum Novarum. That gets him, of course, in all kinds of trouble inside the Church--with wealthy laymen and politicians, fellow clerics and pragmatic bishops and cardinals.

Many of us simply don't know enough social history. The horrors of child labor that now haunt the Third World were then rife in Europe. (The factory directors worked women and children under unbelievable conditions to save money.) Nearly all the arguments that now divide Catholics on social issues raged then, when the Church, always organized to resist change, found itself tested by both atheistic socialism and laissez-faire capitalism.

Father Adolph Daens (played by the bluff Depardieu-like Jan Decleir) was an obscure priest and advocate of the Catholic Workers Party. He foreshadowed Father Pierre Cardijn in his compassion for workers and managed to serve two terms in Parliament. He's presented not as a saint, but as a brave idealist who loses just about everything in the fight but his soul. It's done in Flemish and French with English subtitles. Beautiful and sad in its re-creation of a nasty era; hard and cynical about the hierarchy of the time, but overall quite inspiring.

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