Back Home and Thankful

Back home, and no real time to write. I will have to get caught up later. But I have managed to solve the spam problem — I hope — with the introduction of a filter that will require potential posters to type the letters from an image of a word before they can post, something that “spambots” can’t do. It’s been tested for a few days and seems to work just fine.

In the meantime, here is a corrected version of a letter I sent to my friends at Act One a couple of weeks ago.

Hello, friends,

My family and I just returned, filled with joy and gratitude, from two unforgettable weeks in Rome, which included successful shooting of a total of seven interviews for a documentary on St. Elizabeth of Hungary. In fact, the shooting went so miraculously well that I can only attribute it to the direct heavenly supervision of a quite wonderful lady, St. Elizabeth herself, and not least to the prayers offered up by Act One members. Thanks so much, all of you!

A few more details that I didn’t have time for before. A little over a year ago, I was asked by the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular to speak on St. Elizabeth at a historical conference they were organizing to take place in Rome in February 2007 for the eighth centenary of her birth. I began planning my talk a whole year in advance. Then they asked me to translate the sources for Elizabeth’s life for her centenary, as well as revise my dissertation on her, a work in which I was aided by a grant from the friars. Then I was asked to go to Rome last September, to help write a formation program for the centenary for the Secular Franciscans, the order to which I belong. Then I returned to Rome on November 17 for the kickoff of the centenary year (the actual anniversary of Elizabeth’s birth is November 17, 2007).

The friars had also graciously offered my family their guest appartment at the basilica and convent of Sts. Cosmas and Damian for two weeks at the time of the actual conference on February 23. My mother, two sisters and my brother Nick and his wife and daughter, were excited about joining me. Then, as if I didn’t have enough to do already, I decided to try to realize my dream of a documentary on Elizabeth; I knew it was the opportunity I’d been waiting for because my brother is a professional videographer. When I asked him to participate, he was very excited. He managed to get a very good rental deal on an HDV video camera. We went over there with little more than a month’s preparation, and money for the camera raised by donations.

I wanted the documentary to be a chronicle of the centenary as well as a look at Elizabeth’s life. We began by interviewing members of the International Secular Franciscan Council from all over the world, who were having their chapter meeting in Rome that same week. These members from Canada, Venezuela and the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, are men and women living in he world who are devoted to realizing the ideals of St. Francis in their daily lives.

In the interviews we shot on the grounds of the convent belonging to the Angeline Franciscan sisters, they told us how they were inspired by St. Elizabeth, one of the earliest Franciscan penitents, who was herself a wife and mother living in the world, and who became known as the “mother of the poor” in the Thuringian territory in Germany where her husband ruled. After his death, Elizabeth put on the religious habit and made her life a holocaust of service to the sick, poor and lepers, until she died in 1231. Amazingly, she was only twenty-four years old at the time of her death. Our interviewees spoke of the example of Elizabeth’s marriage and her commitment to social justice; they proved beyond a doubt that her example is still vital in today’s world.

My brother also shot video of the historical conference. (I only wish he could have missed the moment when I tripped and almost fell off the podium at the end of my talk). The day after the conference was the inauguration of a traveling art exhibit on St. Elizabeth at the basilica.

On that Saturday and the following days, the friars generously closed the basilica to visitors and allowed us to film our interviews with the scholars inside. When I say basilica, I mean a fifteen-hundred year-old church built from the ruins of a first-century A.D. Roman temple with a magnificent sixth-century mosaic of Cosmas and Damian with Christ and the Apostles in the apse. We also shot one interview in the sacristy, against a wall that once belonged to the Roman Forum. Talk about a colorful background!

We interviewed Matthias Werner, Professor of the University of Jena, near Eisenach, where Elizabeth lived, who has written a number of studies on her life. We also interviewed Fr. Salvador Cabot, TOR from Spain; Fr. Fernando Scocca, TOR, who helped organize the conference, and Fr. Lino Temperini, TOR, who teaches at the Franciscan University in Rome, the Antonianum. They told us how Elizabeth inspired them and discussed the historical controversies surrounding her life. Later, we also taped some of the visitors to the art exhibit, and some other footage inside and outside the basilica.

No time to tell you about the rest of our wonderful two weeks: about the sightseeing we did, our delicious meals at the trattorie on the Via Cavour; our visit to St. Peter’s basilica for one of the Pope’s Wednesday audiences; or my first visit to the catacombs and my re-acquaintance with their inspiring story of faith. But you can be sure we had a wonderful time.

I can’t wait to have the footage edited into a teaser trailer so we can continue our fundraising and put together the material on
Elizabeth’s life. I will continue to give updates, and once again, please remember us in your prayers.

Roma Eterna – Part III

I’m off to Rome again tomorrow for my participation in the historical conference on St. Elizabeth. I’ve had no time to write for the last few weeks, not even about the upcoming Oscars, partly because of yet another St. Elizabeth project I’m very excited about — I’m going to be shooting some video for a documentary on her! My brother Nick will be the cameraman. In fact, because of our schedule, we may miss the Oscar telecast altogether, but I don’t mind — this will be my first flm, and I’m very excited!

Also, because of the trip, lack of time, and overwhelming amount of spam, all comments will be collected and personally monitored for the time being, which means most likely nothing will post until I get back from Rome.

Until later, then — ciao!

Random Oscar Nomination Thoughts

I’ve been working at home all day, listening to commentary about the Oscar nominations. A few brief thoughts of my own.

I’m thrilled that there are no less than six nominations for The Queen, including all the top categories — acting, directing, writing, and Best Picture. Before, it wasn’t certain the film would even any nods beyond Helen Mirren’s performance. Does it now have a chance for Best Picture? Stay tuned.

The Dreamgirls snub wasn’t a surprise for me. Not because the Academy generally privileges serious dramas over comedies or musicials, though this is true (Chicago is among the exceptions). I think the Academy members showed good judgment here: Dreamgirls wasn’t that great a film. I had been looking forward to it because I adore musicals, and there aren’t enough of them on the big screen. I had never heard any of the music and knew little about the story beyond the fact that it was a backstage story about a “girl group” based on the Supremes, but there was the promise of show business rise and fall, romance, betrayal, heartbreak – what’s not to like?

The problems with the film begin with the music which isn’t very memorable, and scarcely varies from one number to another. This is a problem since much is the story revolves around the attempt to adapt a “black” sound” — soul and R&B music — to the white mainstream. But the music the Dreams and the soul singer they sing backup for, Jimmy Early (Eddie Murphy), perform before their rise and their later mainstream hits all sounds pretty much the same. The movie also lacks a coherent screeplay. Not only were the characters never developed beyond what we learn about them in the first few minutes, most of the important dramatic scenes seem to have never been written or to have been left on the cutting room floor. If the theme of the film, as it seems, is redemption and forgiveness after a betrayal, it never resonates, because the scenes of the actual betrayal (Deena falling in love with Effie’s lover Curtis, and beginning an affair with him) aren’t there. When a character goes into a decline from a drug habit, the jump from the beginning of this development to its ending is too abrupt. And so on and on. Most of the dramatic scenes are not staged credibly, and the attempts to relate the story to the social and political happenings of the fifties and sixties are unconvincing. But the acting was good throughout — Jennifer Hudson (Effie) and Eddie Murphy deserved their supporting actor and actress nominations. And their singing is amazing. Who knew that Eddie Murphy could sing? And Jennifer has a great career ahead of her.

Is Meryl Streep’s nomination for Best Actress a bit much for a performance that doesn’t take up much screen time? Who cares? She’s the great acting goddess in Hollywood and pure delight in her Devil Wears Prada role (And would the Academy dare to nominate Streep for supporting anything?).

Peter O’Toole’s nomination for Venus (which I haven’t seen): It’s his eighth, and he’s never won (though he has an honorary one). The Academy might want to show it’s love for him now; is it possible he’ll beat Will Smith or Forest Whitaker, who seem to be the front runners? On the other hand, when you think about it, Meryl Streep (one win out of every seven nominations) isn’t really doing that much better than he is.

Deserving potential nominees left out? I haven’t seen Babel and don’t know whether Brad Pitt was robbed, but I would have loved to see Michael Pena (the terrific young actor from Crash), receive a nomination for his role in World Trade Center. Or in fact, any of the other actors in that film. Unfortunately, the Academy ignored this film. And United 93, while it won a directing nomination for Paul Greengrass, was unfairly left out for Best Picture. The memory of 9/11 seems to be fading, at least in Hollywood.

More on this later, when I’ve seen more of the nominated films.

Long Live The Queen

This is the time when all the critics give their choices for the best films of the year. When I started this blog, I looked forward to doing that at the end of this year, but then I received my assignments in regard to St. Elizabeth, which took up almost all my spare time, so I have seen very few movies since March.

On the other hand, unlike most critics, who are basically required to see everything, no matter how stupid the concept, I usually choose movies that I think will be works of quality. So I usually end up seeing a number of films thought be be among the year’s best. I’m catching up a bit now, at the year’s end, when I don’t have any immediate deadlines. I had wanted to save Dreamgirls as a treat for the holidays, but it hasn’t yet come to Iowa, where I’m spending Christmas with my family. So it will have to wait until I get back to New York. Too many films to see, too little time.

All the same, I find that many critics are giving their highest praise to a film that I also found to be the best of the year. So I’ll review it here as my top pick (at least so far) of 2006. Later, before awards season heats up, I’ll talk about some other films and performances.

The Queen

I had never thought very much about the life of Queen Elizabeth II (just as I’m sure she’s never thought very much about mine). Nor did I think that the subject matter of The Queen, directed by Stephen Frears, sounded very promising. After all there have been so many tasteless tabloid treatments of Princess Diana’s death, and so many equally bad TV movies about the royal family. But it turned out to be an enormously entertaining as well as riveting drama, and contained the outstanding lead performance by a woman this year, Helen Mirren. There seems to be little doubt that she’s the Oscar front runner for Best Actress. The film is likely to get a Best Picture spot as well.

The story is about the personal reaction of the Queen to the hoopla surrounding Princess Diana’s death in 1997, and the reaction of the nation and the world to the royal family’s reaction. It deals with the “spin” put on the situation on all sides. But it is also a thoughtful treatment not of politics as such, but of leadership. Or if you will, rulership. Yes, there’s a difference, and not one too often thought about it just this way.

C. S. Lewis wrote: “Of a ruler one asks justice, incorruption, diligence and perhaps clemency; of a leader, dash, initiative, and (I suppose) what people call ‘magnetism’ or ‘personality.” (“De Descriptione Temporum,” in Selected Literary Essays). He indicated that this political change came about between between the nineteenth century and now. Lewis wrote before the real dawn of the TV age, but I can see its effects very clearly in public life today, and although Lewis probably identified the older “rulership” solely with monarchy, and the “leadership” with democratic governments like the U.S., I think the tendency occurs in all forms of government.

Today, TV, media and the internet have made image the most important, sometimes seemingly the only important aspect of a public figure. “Spin” is king. Leaders play on the emotions of people to rally them to a cause. The trouble is, the same emotional manipulation that can lead to good can also lead to evil. Leaders can induce us through emotions to support a bad cause — or they can “feel our pain” in public and get away with who knows what in private. (Put whatever recent politicians you want in those slots).

The Queen is about an old-fashioned ruler who refused to “spin” her image to suit the needs of the moment. Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth does cultivate an image, but not one of her own making. She has been required to act like a queen since her birth. Mirren herself has commented that while preparing for the part she decided that the best way to get to know what the queen was really like was to study her as a little girl before she became a public figure — only to find that she had melded with the insitutution at such an early age that there was no separating the two. For more than fifty years she has been the soul of her nation’s sense of duty. Her image is one of majesty, of propriety. She is very good at it: in the film’s first few moments, she uses the weight of her office to turn her brash young Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), into a nervous schoolboy in her presence.

In contrast, Diana was someone who initially managed to attract public interest by being herself — “Shy Di” — and came to be able to use that interest to bring people’s attention to the causes that she loved. She received the type of public adulation that Elizabeth never had because she offered people what they wanted, rather than what the needed. She was a modern leader. A little of her seemed to rub off on the institution of the monarchy, now seen as old-fashioned. And then suddenly, Diana was gone.

Blair, a savvy, shirt-sleeved modern politician, who has just been swept into office on the Labor party landslide that ousted Margaret Thatcher, quickly understands what’s at stake when he learns of Diana’s death. With the help of his speechwriter, he turns out the proper statement of grief. He quails a bit at the suggested line “the people’s princess,” but uses it. The queen, on the other hand, refuses to participate in the emotional carnival surrounding Diana’s death. When the Prime Minister suggests she might want to make a public expression to let the people know she shares their grief, Elizabeth gasps in disbelief “Their grief?” For her, mourning was a private affair. Deep down, she may have been stubbornly refusing to admit to something she didn’t really feel — it is commonly thought that she and Diana never got along. Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), almost alone of the family, understands the need to give something of a show for the public, as he goes to Paris to claim Diana’s body. Prince Philip (James Cromwell) fumes uselessly and suggests getting away to Balmoral, the family’s estate in the Scottish Highlands. There they go, to try to come to grips with the situation, mourn privately, and protect Diana’s sons. This attitude sends a whole nation into an uproar when the queen refuses to to respond in the way people now expect. Blair knows that the queen is endangering the monarchy — now he has to convince her of that.

The great strengh of Mirren’s performance lies in her ability to portray the inner struggle of a woman who lets on to very little of what’s she’s thinking, either publicly or within her family. She has one truly luminous private moment watching a beautiful stag in the Highlands that tells us a great deal. But mostly she goes quiety about her routine. At one point, she and her family go on a picnic out on the moor, and she sets the table in old sweater and kerchief like any grandma — I believe I even caught a glimpse of Tupperware. (The Highland scenery is truly gorgeous, by the way). Or she watches Diana’s image on television, endlessly, as though searching for something. Perhaps she is searching for what she really does feel.

Michael Sheen is equally good as a modern politician trying to come to grips with the ancient institution of the monarchy and juggle the needs of popular sentiment with his reverence for the devotion to duty beyond private feelings that has has enabled the Queen to bear her office for so many years. At the same time he’s dealing with his wife Cheri (wonderfully played by Helen Mcrory) who things the monarchy is a completely outmoded institution, and doesn’t hesitate to say so. In fact, there is a great deal of wit in the film and frequent audience laughter for the most trenchant lines.

Throughout, the script (by Peter Morgan) and Frears’ direction, never really takes sides between rulership and leadership. Blair and the Queen, though, do somehow find their own common ground, and that makes the film’s final moments especially moving.

It might be argued that United 93 (my runner-up for best film), in bringing some emotional catharsis over the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the heroism of that day, is somehow more important than another rehash of the lives of the British royal family. But I think The Queen said some of the most important things said on film this year, things that politicians and public should all ponder.

Roma Eterna, Part II

I keep telling myself November is almost over and I haven’t written anything on my blog. So before too much time goes by, I’ll write something about my second trip to Rome! Yes, that’s right. While I was in Rome at the end of September, I spent a wonderful afternoon with the friars at the Basilica of Cosmas and Damian, and while I was talking with Fr. Fernando, he gave me an invitation to the opening of St. Elizabeth’s centenary year, with a Mass in the basilica on her feast day, November 17, to be presided over by the Cardinal Achbishop of Esztergom and Budapest, Hungary, Peter Erdo, with a reception and dinner afterwards. I spent a little time wondering whether I had time or would be able to afford this trip, but in the end I made my reservation, flew back to Italy on November 15, and spent five days in Rome. I’m not sorry I did!

The Mass was beautiful. It was concelebrated by about 30 priests, including the Ministers General of the branches of the Franciscan Order. Three of the other Secular Franciscan Commissioners were there: Francesco and Antonella Mattioco (who live in Rome), and Tibor Kauser, who is from Hungary. I also met for the first time the Minister General of the SFO, Encarnacion del Pozo, who I had only corresponded with by e-mail. Francesco, who is a deacon, assisted at the altar. The Cardinal gave a beautiful homily in Italian. Several hundred people attended.

Mass for St. Elizabeth

The music, chanting by a male choir, was gorgeous. At the end, some relics of St. Elizabeth set out on their grand “pilgrimage” for the coming year among the various regions of the Secular Franciscans in Italy, starting with the region around Rome, Lazio.

Relics of St. Elizabeth

This picture of St. Elizabeth giving alms to the poor, which is the pride of the motherhouse of the TOR friars, and is housed at Cosmas and Damian, is from the nineteenth century, and was put on prominent display for the Mass.

Picture of St. Elizabeth

I met the Cardinal at the reception for about 50 special guests, and Father Higgins, the Franciscan TOR Vicar General, who introduced us, told him I had written “the best work in the world on St. Elizabeth”! The cardinal doesn’t speak a lot of English, but I know a little Italian, so we could understand each other.

We had a regular Roman banquet afterwards in the friars’ refectory, which had to have about a dozen extra tables added for all the guests. There was an incredible amount of food, including veal, roast beef and lamb for entrees. I also had the deligthful experience of sitting next to a very charming Irishman, Msgr. Liam Bergin, the rector of the Irish College in Rome, who is an old friend of Fr. Higgins, so he gets invited to all their dinners. Msgr. Bergin amused me no end by saying apropos of the large, jovial superior of the Franciscan community, Fr. Milan: “He looks exactly like Friar Tuck!” (He does, too). He pronounced it, of course, in that inimitable Irish way, “Friar Took.”

The next day the Commission members and Fr. Higgins had another big Italian dinner at Francesco and Antonella’s house with two of their sons. The third is studying in the seminary. It started with drinks and antepasto, went through pasta, a couple of meat courses, salad, fruit, cheese, pastry dessert, wine. . . what wonderful hospitality!

I stayed in the guest house, which is where we will be staying in February, which is really beautiful. There are actually two floors with a marble staircase; none of the rooms are that big, but the are beautifully decorated, with all the pots, pans, dishes and other kitchen equipment you could want — and a TV with satellite reception. So the rest of my time there I spent visiting the Forum and Colisseum and at the apartment working on my translations for work at night.

The Colisseum

At the Colisseum, I took a tour. Our guide, a cute blond girl named Paola, spoke quite good English, but with what I can only describe as an emphatic pronunciation. She described for us the bloody spectacles of gladiatorial combats and condemned criminals thrown to the wild beasts; she was fond of tossing in from time to time. “They were ter-r-r-r-rible, those Romans.” and “those cr-r-r-razy Romans.” Nothing beats a rolled Italian “r” for drama. In the end, while it was fun, I decided that she didn’t provide much information I didn’t have already. The main advantage of the tour (which costs ten extra euros) was that you can skip the long lines to pay at the entrance, as tours have their own entrance.

I’m planning to study up and give my family my own tour with commentary when I go back. In fact, what I’ve learned so far indicates that much of what tour guides (printed or live) say is often exaggerated for effect. Paola did admit that the primary image that most Christians have of the Colisseum – the martyrs thrown to the lions — was a bit of an exaggeration. In fact there are very few if any credible accounts from ancient times that indicate that many martyrs met their deaths that way. All the same, since the seventeenth century, the Colisseum has been honored as a site of martyrdom, and a cross has been set up there.

The Cross in the Colisseum

This would be a really fascinating subject to go into another time.

I’ve been back more than a week and am missing Rome already. But my third trip is coming up soon!