You Won’t Be Alone (2022, Goran Stolveski)
“It’s a burning, breaking thing, this world. A biting, wretching thing.”
It’s only once the fullness of this story comes to fruition, conflicted as it is by the great tension of what it means to be human in largely uncaring and unconscious universe, that the horrific and the holy (to borrow a phrase from one of my favorite podcasts, the Fear of God) seem to finally come together in a way that gives rise to something rather profound, emotionally gripping, and quite beautiful behind the profane. Its a slow burn, and I’m not sure everyone will appreciate the meditative quality in the same way, especially in its more brutal moments. And yet for those willing to see the world from the perspective of these two outsiders I do think there is something powerful to experience here, something can teach us important truths about our world and our place in it.
Babette’s Feast (1987, Gabriel Axel)
A lovely, full bodied, good natured film about the war between flesh and spirit. It’s in a small Danish village where we meet our family, a Priest with two daughters growing up in the shadow of the Catholic-Protestant divide. These two daughters eventually catch the eye of two young men, and, following the death of the father, the arrival of Babette throws all of this set up into a bit of chaos and reflection, throwing something unexpected into the mix regarding how these two daughters make sense of the world and moral responsibility within it.
What Babette’s arrival does is take these characters and formulate them into questions about how to be pious, especially in situations that present us with a moral dilemma. The two sisters are constantly torn between the call to be charitable towards Babette’s requests, revolving as they do around the pleasure of food and service, and the temptations of the flesh (agreeing, at her request, to take her on as their servant, for example). If they deny her request then they are denying someone the charity God wants them to give. If they don’t then they are the recipients of that which satisfies their sinful desires. It’s a fascinating, and often humorous debacle and conundrum to watch unfold.
The film ultimately pushes and pull us towards an optimistic and largely celebratory conclusion, but it’s the way it establishes the path to get there that feels so completely satisfying here.
Vitalina Varela (2019, Pedro Costa)
Captures the art of slow cinema in all its intricate, intimate and immersive potential. Set larrgley at night, much of this story is told from the shadowy corners of our main character’s ever wandering and ever shifting context.
She is an older woman who travels to and through Lisbon in search of her dead husband’s secrets. It’s never quite certain whether we are meant to see the world and information she is uncovering or if this stuff is uncovering more of her. These two things are likely very much connected.
History plays a role here, as does the image of the ghost. It’s actually this lingering sense of the past following her and haunting her even as she searches for it that moves us between the world she is seeing the ways the world is uncovering her. The film requries patience, although it’s not the kind of film that demands a huge amount of mental energy. It has a meditative quality, one that you can almost slip in and out of as it goes and still be immersed in its story and it’s journey. Wherever it is one comes back into this story however rewards with a series of beautifully crafted scenes, be it framed by a face or in a room. And each crafted scene has much to appreciate in terms of detail.
A special kind of film, to be sure, and one that demonstrates a real control over the craft.
Aprile (1998, Nanni Moretti)
Which is probably the point of this endearing, infectious, and ridiculously manic natured film. We are essentially seeing the Directors life, or a particular time in his life when he was subsumed by a film about Italian politics while also distracted by the birth of his son, through a fusion of eclectic moments (including a grand 50s era musical about an Italian chef) with him and with others. It’s tempting to call this whole thing a grand experiment, but it never actually feels that way. It feels weirdly natural and even comforting. Like a tall glass of whatever makes you happy at a time when things are complicated
It’s the freedom, or permission he gives us to let go and let loose that is this films primary gift, be it with things we can and cannot control, undesirable outcomes or personal failures. And dang if my own 44 (reference to the film) didnt need that knock upside the head.
Imitation of Life (1959, Douglas Sirk)/Stalker (1979, Andrei Tarkovsky)
Two classics, one a meditation on matters of race and the challenges of living in its period as a woman, the second a brilliantly crafted apocalyptic that is as aware of it humanity as it is its spirituality. Both equally about a journey in trying times.
Honorable Mentions: Two new releases are contending for my current favorites of 2022; After Yang (2022, Kogonada), a spiritually centered quiet sci fi that explores the particular (the question of what it means to be Asian) and the universal (what it means to be human). Equally concerned with matters of the spirit, along with history, is Robert Eggers meticulously crafted and researched period piece The Northman. It’s as brutal as it is compelling in the way it brings the ancient world to life both in detail and in perspective. It immerses us in a worldview that sees reality as more than simply the material world, and challenges our relationship to the unseen realities of our present day as well.
Fight Like Jesus: How Jesus Waged Peace Throughout Holy Week by Jason Porterfield
Even if you are someone adamently adverse to the notion of pacificism, keep on reading past the intro. Porterfield is making a case for non-violence, however he makes one of the strongest and most cohesive arguments I have yet encountered (as someone geared towards pacificsm olready). This book also transformed my understanding of Holyweek. It is an easy read, but it is also incredibly well researched and is full of data to reinforce his claims for non-violence as the Christlike way to peace.
The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Mitosz
A fascinating journey through the well worn soil of Eastern Europe beginning with world world 2 and leading to the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s about the place of the artist and the nature of creating art in a time and place deifned by totalitarianism. It offers some fascinating insight into tensions East and West, musings on creating art in a world where religion had lost it power (culturally, politically), and reflections on the sort of idealism that sees the role of the artist as creating meaning where the live regardless of circumstance. One gets the sense in reading this that you cannot idealize problems away, nor can you modernize problems away. Things aren’t so black and white, especially when seeing things in light of the East/West divide.
Wildwood (Wildwood Chronicles #1) by Colin Meloy
Penned by the voice behind the band The Decemberists, this is a debut novel delving into fantasy for children. It has a few rough patches in terms of the writing, but I really enjoyed the vision and the world building. The message is on point, to be sure, but its simplicity contrasts with the poential depth of the wider context of Wildwood.
We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O’ Toole
I don’t agree with some of Toole’s conclusions (mainly his inability to see Ireland’s spiritual heritage and religious past in a more objective light), which filter in to the historical context as he goes. But the information he offers, particularly from an Irish perspective, along with his basic thesis- that Ireland became a place of intentional uknowing, caught between the preservation of its distinct identity and the push towards modernization- is an intriguing one. Lots to take away. and to consider.
Faith Improvised (Episodes 57-71: Romans)
I hate binging, but academic Tim Gombis’ recent deep dive into Romans proved not only timely for my own personal foray into the text, but formative. He engages the scholarship, offers new ideas based on his own work, and spends time unpacking the themes and the context.
Mere Fidelity (Episode 270, Abrahams Silence with Dr. J. Richard Middleton)
Mere Fidelity tends to pose topics and conversations that wade into potential debate. They aren’t debating here as much as probing some interesting theories around the famed story of Abraham’s potential sacrifice, not only in what it means but how it fits in the larger biblical narrative as an intentional literary movement desiring to say something about the relationship between God and humanity.
BEMA Podcast (Episode 276: John- Who is Your Father?)
I cite the BEMA podcast quite often, but every so often an episode truly deserves to be singled out. The way they exposit the text of the Gospel of John here and the insights they offer was profound. Took me straight to Church.
The Next Chapter (Episode 178: Kim Fu and A. Gregor Frankson)
Known monsters and Africanthology. Great stuff.
The Great Books (Episodes 226-228: C.S. Lewis; Episode 220: The Book of Common Prayer)
A great walk through of a selection of C.S. Lewis’ popular works along with a very interesting episode on the Book of Common Prayer.
On Script (Episode 217: Old Testament Theology, Isaiah’s Metaphors, and Canaanite Genocide)
Loved the notes on Isaiah presented here. Offers a way into the Old Testament narrative with some of its difficult ancient context and realities in view.
On Being with Krista Tipptett (Episode 907: Avivah Zornberg and Human Becoming Between Biblical Lines; Episode 905: Eugene Peterson and Answering God)
I have already picked up and finished Zornbergs Moses: A Human Life based on hearing her speak in this podcast. Can’t wait to dive in to her books on Genesis and Exodus. The way she blends the text with the midrash with a focus on what that text has to say about humanity, life, God, holiness, wisdom and knowledge, among other things is really amazing. Brings it to light and life in a way that feels faithful to the history and tradition and attentive to the lessons of recontextualization.
Bad Suns- Apocalypse Whenever
Optimistic, uplifting, upbeat- perfect for the summer with its energetic form of pop.
Tenille Townes- Masquerades
A talented Canadian country artist, Townes is the kind of musician that can use genre conventions to her advantage. Masquerades is a bit darker than her previous efforts, but it has moments of optimism with great compositions that compliment the more introspective nature of the album. Definitley one of stronger country albums I’ve heard in a good while.
The Head and the Heart- Every Shade of Blue
The Head and the Hearts previous album was one that I could easily get lost in (and have gotten lost in) many times over. Soaring melodies with inspiring lyrics and lovely arrangements. This latest one feels, which fits with the albums lyrical approach, different and altogether new. It demands a bit more attention, which is not a bad thing, just a defining mark of the albums approach. It seems interested in reestablishing themselves, perhaps inspired by the pandemic, and reinventing. The melodies are still present but the arrangements are more densely layered and not as immediately accessible. For those willing to dig though this is definitely a gem.
Adam Again- Dig
A classic album that someone turned me on to again after years of neglecting it. There is a reason its considered one of their best. Gene’s lyrics along with the instrumentation and songwriting stand the test of time, proving genuinely timeless.
Cross Gray- In All That Concerns It
For something more specifically spiritually driven, this new EP (from 2021) by Christian artist Cross Gray is not only smartly done, its genuinely inspired, especially for those days in the valleys.
Coin- Uncanny Valley
Inventive and eclectic, this mix of styles and technologically driven musical approaches (perhaps qualifying as techno-pop is a creative effort worth checking out
Semler- Stages of a Breakdown
Semler has always been gifted at both showing vulnerability and composing compelling narratives that speak to his personal life in ways that transcend and translate. This album is no different, detailing a journey through a difficult time. It’s a great album with lots to ponder.