Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Brother Cadfael Mysteries: The Holy Thief, The Pilgrim of Hate

CADFAEL It’s probably hard for even the most devout modern American or British Catholic to comprehend the importance that medieval worshipers placed on saints’ relics – let alone for an unregenerate Protestant such as me. But Ellis Peters’ first Brother Cadfael novel, A Morbid Taste for Bones, centered on the acquisition of the bones of St. Winifred for the abbey of Shrewsbury. In The Holy Thief (1998) , the first of two Brother Cadfael episodes I watched recently, St. Winifred’s bones are again at issue. Another abbey has been burned down in the civil war between the forces of Stephen and Matilda, and its abbot has come to Shrewsbury with a novice who has had a vision – a vision that seems to require Shrewsbury to give up its most prized possession to aid in the rebuilding of the other abbey. Shrewsbury doesn’t want to let St. Winifred go, but its abbot is a truly holy man who tries to believe the best of others. But there are some monks who will stop at nothing to keep or gain possession of St. Winifred’s relics. When a death and a kidnapping occur, Cadfael must sort out truth from falsehood.

In The Pilgrim of Hate (also 1998), Cadfael encounters a young man who is on a barefoot pilgrimage to Wales, shepherded by his judgmental brother. Cadfael is himself Welsh, and invites the young pilgrim to the abbey so that he can treat his bleeding feet. The abbey is full of pilgrims come to receive blessings from St. Winifred’s relics, and when the body of an old man is found stuffed in a bag among the pilgrims’ luggage, Cadfael must investigate. He discovers that the young pilgrim’s brother, who is preaching a harsh doctrine of sin and repentance through mortification of the flesh, is not all he seems to be.

Both these stories had in common not only the relics but the concept of doing penance by punishing one’s body. The novice in The Holy Thief, it is suggested in one scene, receives altogether too much flogging from his covetous abbot, and in one of the tales Cadfael’s own apprentice is shown flagellating himself because he has confessed some slight wrongdoing. Cadfael doesn’t seem to think much of such activity, not surprising for a healer. I can’t recall whether the books made so much of this theme, but I’ll be looking for it in other episodes I watch.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Festen (The Celebration) 1998

200px-The_Celebration_DVD_Cover Festen (The Celebration) is a Danish film listed also as “Dogme #1.” (Go here for more information on the Dogme 95 film movement.)

Three adult children, one with a family, return home to the hotel-restaurant their father owns to celebrate his 60th birthday with a crowd of guests. It soon becomes evident that there are stresses in the family – one brother finds there’s no room reserved for him because he misbehaved on a previous occasion; the other brother is asked to speak about his twin sister, who is dead; and when the remaining sister discovers that she’s been given her dead sister’s room, we learn that the dead sister was a suicide. Before the film ends, the family will be cracked and broken, and no one more so than the father, as one son reveals a shocking secret and the other children, at first resistant, come to believe him.

Having married into a Danish-American family made the film’s setting and characters seem quite familiar to me. Some of the songs the guests sing were songs we too have sung at birthdays; the faces and names of the characters looked and sounded like people who might be part of our extended family. This made the shocking and terrible parts of the film even worse for me (my daughter had a similar reaction).

Festen (The Celebration) was made under the strictures of Dogme 95, but I can’t say that I noticed much different from other films or that this made it difficult to see the film. I of course watched with subtitles (annoyingly, they were cut off a bit at the bottom by my television or just by the DVD). I left the sound audible and did not notice any problems with that either. After looking at the “rules” of Dogme, I did realize that the songs that were sung at the party were the only music, but it wasn’t a glaring omission that I noticed during the film. This was a very good film, well-acted and photographed, and though it’s obviously not one for children or young teenagers, I’d recommend it to others.

A History of Britain, Discs 4 and 5

Now I’ve finished watching Simon Schama’s BBC series, A History of Britain. The episodes on Disc 4 cover the years from William and Mary to the Regency, George IV and William IV. (The latter get short shrift.) In the earlier part of the century, the Jacobite rebellion which attempted to install Bonnie Prince Charlie as King in lieu of the Hanoverian George I is shown, with the conclusion that its failure may actually have ended up improving the lot of the Scots. The American and French Revolutions, and how Britain dealt with the former and avoided a replay of the latter figure largely in the history of the later part of the 18th century. Schama discusses William Wordsworth’s journey from radical to Romantic at some length, and of course, also deals with the Napoleonic Wars.

The final disc contains three episodes which take Schama’s history from Victoria through Winston Churchill. As in the preceding episodes, we see Schama’s belief that an excessive emphasis on trade and business compromised British ideals of liberty, particularly during the glory days of Empire. Heartrending photographs of Indians who starved to death as Victoria was being made Empress of India illustrate his point all too well. Oddly, he seems to skim over both the Boer War and World War I with very little discussion.

In some ways I felt that the final episode, The Two Winstons, was the best of all. One of the strengths of Schama’s work is its interdisciplinary focus, and in The Two Winstons he allows himself to emphasize that focus. The first Winston is, of course, Winston Churchill; the second is Winston Smith, the hero of George Orwell’s 1984, and by extension, Orwell (Eric Blair) himself. Comparing Churchill’s life and that of Blair/Orwell gives Schama an opportunity to tell the history of Britain in the first half of the 20th century in a fresh new way. (Churchill’s participation as first a cabinet member and then an officer in the trenches of France is pretty much the only mention of WWI). I also learned something that I don’t think I’d heard before – that when Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, the members of the Cabinet were very close to trying to negotiate some kind of peace with Hitler – a terrifying thought. As usual with television histories of this type, my appetite for reading a bit more history has been whetted; I own at least the first volume of Schama’s companion history and will probably be dipping into it before long.