(SPOILER ALERT) In Word on Fire's first blog post of the new year, Father Steve tackles two very disparate films, finding a beating Catholic heart in one, and a cast of characters that could use a little saintly grace in the other.
“Hugo” is the latest offering from the American cinematic master, Martin Scorcese. Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” the story follows its main character, an orphan named Hugo (Asa Butterfield), in desperate attempts to keep the clockwork of the Montparnasse Train Station in Paris operational, while at the same time evading the attention of the station’s inspector, Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen).
Caught absconding with merchandise from a toy shop, the proprietor (Ben Kingsley) confiscates a journal from the boy in which there are the schematics for an automaton, a creation that Hugo has been laboring to fix. The automaton belonged to Hugo’s deceased father who perished in a terrible fire and it is the boy’s last link to last person that he knew loved him. After his father’s death, Hugo had been taken in by an uncle (Ray Winstone), a drunk and the man charged with the task of keeping the train station’s clocks in working order. He disappeared, leaving Hugo alone and caring for the clocks. The discovery of his uncle’s disappearance could lead to his placement in an orphanage.
Life seems pretty rough in the train station for the poor boy so I suppose his preference to stay there rather than seek refuge in an orphanage is a case of preferring the devil you know to one that you don’t. Hugo is beside himself as a result of the loss of the journal and he follows the proprietor of the toy shop to his house. There he captures the attention of the proprietor’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). The two later forge a friendship and seek to solve the mystery of the automaton, which reveals that the gruff owner of the toy shop is not all that he seems.
The film "Hugo" is a movie about the movies, an imaginative telling of the story of cinema's earliest days and one of its first practitioners, George Melies. But it is more than an homage to film and its history, it is a presentation of a contrast between two visions of human life—one that is teleological and the other that is mechanistic. The characters in "Hugo" begin the film either anguished because they have lost their purpose, or drifting because they have yet to discover their purpose. And they do not begin to flourish until the purpose of their lives is realized and accepted.
Without this teleology, they might as well be cogs turning in some great machine, unaware of the reason for their existence. Their purpose is revealed through the willingness of someone to love them, even when they are seemingly undeserving, hurt or unwilling to believe that love is possible. Some in the movie know their purpose but have abandoned it, the result of which is that their lives are inherently sad. Hugo and Isabelle find their purpose in helping others to find their true identities in relation to others. It is only through the revelation of the characters' purposes that the mechanical world in which they are immersed is humanized and redeemed.
All this is symbolized in the automaton, a mechanical man, which at first sits inert but is later brought to life with the insertion of a heart shaped key. Without the willingness to love, to accept the risk of communion with others, with all its joys and sorrows, we are reduced to heartless automatons, grimly keeping watch over clocks, mere mechanisms in a mechanical universe. With its emphasis on the relationship of teleology to love and communion, “Hugo” might just be the most Catholic of all of Scorcese’s cinematic creations.
“The Descendants” is a film about blood and soil. The blood being the lineage of the story’s main protagonist, Matt King (George Clooney), which can be traced back to a union between Hawaiian royalty and an American entrepreneur. The soil being one last tract of unsullied land that is the family’s legacy, the sale of which has the potential to make King and the other descendants very rich. Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, “The Descendants” was directed by Alexander Payne, who brought us the wonderful study of flawed human character in the movie “Sideways”.
Matt King has no need of money, as he is himself a self made man. His problem is not made of real estate or money anyway. His wife (Patricia Hastie) has been rendered comatose by head trauma suffered in a boating accident and he now has to assume responsibility for parenting his precocious daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller), who are at all stages of awkward and difficult. Discovering that his wife was in the throes of a torrid affair at the time of her accident, Mike and his daughters, accompanied by sidekick, Sid (Nick Krause), embark on a mission to find the man (Matthew Lillard) with whom his wife was so enamored. Finding him becomes an occasion of revelation for everyone.
The gravitational force that is pulling all the characters together in the movie is a woman who lies motionless in a hospital bed, Matt King's wife, Elizabeth. As the story progresses it becomes clear that despite any moral deficiencies displayed by any of the characters, her self-absorbtion was perhaps the worst, and at the climax when she is the recipient of sincere gestures of forgiveness from everyone she has hurt, there is a sense that this grace is a dish that has been served cold. She receives mercy, but there is no real reconciliation, no firm purpose of amendment, no awareness of contrition. The offer of grace becomes itself a kind of rebuke, or even worse, her last laugh at them all. They are left with the havoc her selfishness has wrought and she leaves the world with their absolution.
In the wake of Elizabeth's death, Mike King decides to reject the offer of millions for the land that is the last remnant of his family's legacy. The final scene has the family depositing their wife/mother's ashes into the sea and then returning home to stare silently at the TV, consoling themselves with bowls of ice cream. The family that was dissolving at the beginning has been restored and in the absence of Elizabeth at least they have blood and soil to keep them together, which I suppose is good because the story left the impression that there wasn't much of anything else left.
I saw this film on the same day it was announced that Blessed Marianne Cope would be canonized. The soon-to-be-saint boarded the SS Mariposa in 1883 for the Hawaiian Islands with six sisters on a mission of mercy to alleviate the miseries of people suffering from the affliction of Hanson’s Disease. An advocate of those deemed by others to be outcasts, she took up residence among the afflicted, even following them into exile to the island of Molokai in 1887.
I thought about the contrast between Blessed Marianne and the character of Matt King’s wife in the movie. Blessed Marianne saw life as a grace to be given away—and gave her own life to those for whom the gift of life had become a kind of curse. She became a blessing and sought to transform their suffering (and her own) through love. This necessitated fidelity on her part, to her mission and her vows. Blood and soil were merely the vehicles for a transcendent grace that made her life and the lives of others—even those deemed unlovable by worldly standards—a Sacrament, rather than an end in itself. Her life was not at the end consumed by the land or the sea, but was transfigured by admission into the Communion of Saints. The impact of her life is still being felt and one wonders if her real story is the story about Hawaii and its peoples that all that creativity in Hollywood should be concerned with telling.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.