Oscar Goes to Church


(I write a blog featuring how churches and clergy are presented in movies called “Movie Churches.” The following is this week’s post. And it just so happens that the movie with the best church will probably get Best Picture on Sunday.)

The Academy Awards are this Sunday. I’ve seen all the nominees for the 2020 Best Picture Oscar and must say there is very little church or clergy in any of the films. This is quite thoughtless of the Academy to give so little thought to the needs of this site. If a film like Just Mercy or A Hidden Life had been nominated I’d have a little more to work with, but no…

A majority of the nine films nominated (five: Ford vs. Ferrari, Joker, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, Jojo Rabbit, and Marriage Story) have no direct reference to churches or clergy. But the remaining four have minor ecclesiastical references. 

Parasite (my favorite film from last year) had a passing church reference. The poor family in the film makes money folding boxes for a local pizza parlor. And that pizza parlor gets a major order from The Love of God Church. And that’s it. (For what its worth, I tend to be more favorable to churches that serve pizza.)

Little Women has a prominent clergy character, but they try to keep that on the down-low. The film is based on Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel (released in two parts in 1868 and 1869.) The story tells of a mother and her daughters, the Marches, struggling to get by while Father March serves in the Civil War. In the book, it states quite plainly that the father serves as a chaplain with the Union Army. In Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the novel, the word “chaplain” is never used. One of the daughters, Jo (Saoirse Ronan) talks about her father (Bob Odenkirk) going off to serve the Union Army and wishing she could join him, certainly giving the impression that he is serving as a soldier. The only clues we have of Father March’s profession is when he officiates over the wedding of one daughter and the funeral of another. We really get no indication of the quality of Father March’s ministry. There also is a church in the family’s town that is featured prominently in a number of shots, but we never see the Marches (or anyone else) step inside it.

The Irishman is the only of this year’s Best Picture nominees that makes prominent references to the church and clergy. This isn’t too surprising considering it was directed by Martin Scorsese who often works with religious themes (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun) and more specifically, Catholicism (The Silence). This is the story of mobsters, particularly Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) and Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their involvement in the killing of labor leader Jimmy Hoffa. These vicious, cold-blooded men are active in the Catholic Church. In the film, we see several baptisms and a wedding in Catholic Churches (Christian statuary and iconography are featured throughout the film).

The film follows these mobsters as they age, and near the end of Russell’s life, he begins to attend church regularly. Frank teases him for this, but Russell says, “Don’t laugh, you’ll see.” And Frank does eventually find himself in a Catholic nursing home being visited by priests. Frank doesn’t seem to feel much guilt for his past, even for the people he killed. But a priest encourages him, “I think we can be sorry even when we don’t feel sorry, it’s a decision of the will.”

1917 doesn’t have a formal church or clergyperson. But it does have the most moving worship service I saw in a film from last year. The film tells the story of two soldiers given the assignment of taking a message to the front lines. One soldier reaches a troop about to go to battle. It is quite evident that the men are scared. One of the men stands before them and sings a folk/gospel song, “The Wayfaring Stranger.” The song tells of a journey of God’s redeemed across the Jordan to see their loved ones, “I’m only going over home.” We do see war-torn churches and hear church bells in the film, but this moment of worship is true church. If I was giving steeple this week, that service would get four steeples out of four.

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  1. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator

    One of the reasons I thought the Little House on the Prairie TV series should be banned is because of what it did to the Rev. Brown character. In the books he is a fiery character, said (rumored?) to be a relative of the John Brown of Harper’s Ferry fame.  In the TV series he was made into an insipid character who wouldn’t disturb anyone.

    • #1
  2. John A Peabody Inactive
    John A Peabody

    “Movie Churches”, eh?  A very nice idea. Allow me to toss in my great surprise at “Titanic”, which showed an (unidentified) clergyman comforting people by reading the 23rd Psalm as the ship was in its last throes. This man was portrayed as doing the exact correct actions for the moment. After seeing so many low-intellect images of movie clergy, I was incredibly moved.

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  3. Arahant Member

    I was hoping for Oscar the Grouch.

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  4. Paul Erickson Inactive
    Paul Erickson

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I was hoping for Oscar the Grouch.

    Me too.  He sang in our choir.

    • #4
  5. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller

    On a related note:

    • #5
  6. T-Fiks Member

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    On a related note:

    Listening to Nicolosi describe her pagan encounters in a post-post-Christian world brought a great book to mind, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church

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  7. MichaelKennedy Inactive

    Somehow, I did not expect to see “Un planned” nominated and I was not disappointed.  It is excellent, by the way.

    The Clarence Thomas documentary, which we will see this afternoon, will not be nominated for next year

    • #7