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John DoughertyJune 09, 2023
Photo of a girl watching a film in a movie theaterPhoto: iStock

Going to the movies always felt like something sacred.

For me as a kid, the theater was a ritualistic space: standing in line for tickets and snacks (which would then be parceled out carefully, so they lasted at least halfway through the show); the hush that fell as the lights went down; the appetite-whetting trailers; the thrill as a studio fanfare announced the main event; and finally, when the end credits began to scroll, the score providing a recessional as we filed through the exits and out to the parking lot. And before those credits rolled, an hour or two of total immersion. The screen wasn’t a flat surface, but a doorway to another place. Movies were stories you got to live inside for a little while.

This summer, I’ll reflect on films for America each week, with an eye toward pulling out spiritual themes.

All of this to say: Movies mean a lot to me. When I was younger, it was about the fantasy of imagining myself in another, more exciting life: a superhero, a secret agent, a Jedi. As I grew up, movies helped me to think about what was important to me in this life. I remember watching Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” (2002) on opening night as a 15-year-old, and walking away with the marrow-deep certainty that whatever I did in life, it had to be about helping people. And when I began to take ownership of my faith as a young adult, movies helped me to reflect on what it meant to navigate sin, grace and redemption in a fallen world.

It’s the same today, even though I’m more likely now to watch movies in my living room after the kids are asleep than in an actual theater. Movies help me to make sense of the world around me and my place in it, to process my hopes and fears. They inspire me to meditate on the meaning of life, which is another way of saying that they’ve brought me into deeper conversation with God.

This summer, I’ll reflect on films for America each week, with an eye toward pulling out spiritual themes. The Jesuits talk about finding God in all things, and my goal is similar: to find God in all films. Sometimes these films will deal explicitly with religion and/or Catholicism; more often, they will not. I want this series to be both Catholic and catholic: rooted in our faith, but also universal in terms of the films with which we’ll engage, unbounded by genre and topic.

We will cover dramas, comedies, action, horror and at least one documentary. If you’re a parent, there will be some movies for the whole family (and others you will definitely want to save until the kids are in bed). Sometimes I’ll choose movies according to a theme (next week’s film was chosen to celebrate Juneteenth, and in July we’ll focus on big summer blockbusters from across the decades), and other times I’ll just choose movies I think you’ll find interesting.

As a disclaimer, I’m not an expert—just a Catholic, like you, who loves watching and thinking about movies. They were my lifeline during the Covid-19 lockdown, when I watched a film nearly every day and shared my thoughts on the Letterboxd movie logging platform. I use them in my full-time job as a campus minister at a Jesuit high school, as well: to start conversations with students, as reflection aids on retreat; and I once team-taught a class called “Finding God in All Films,” where we used movies to explore the movements of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. I’ll approach this series, and offer my takes on these films, in this same spirit: as a means of inspiring conversation and reflection.

Speaking of: feel free to join us each week in America’s Catholic Movie Club Facebook group, where we will create a space to discuss these films. One of my favorite things about movies is that they resonate differently for each person, based on our experiences, cultural perspective and faith journeys. I would love to hear your thoughts!

I’m not an expert—just a Catholic, like you, who loves watching and thinking about movies.

Finally, while we’ll all probably watch these movies on our TVs or a personal device, I would encourage you to try to recreate the ritual of the theater as much as possible. Turn off the lights, grab a snack or a drink (or both). Tuck your phone away somewhere you won’t be tempted to reach for it. It’s easy for movies to become one more empty piece of content to consume, especially in this era of streaming. Instead, let’s try to make watching a spiritual practice, similar to lectiodivina: the intentional, prayerful reading of a text.

Pay attention not only to the plot, but how the story is told through camerawork, shot composition, performances, music and color. Just as important: Pay attention to what’s moving inside of you. Which characters and moments do you respond to? What fills you with joy, what troubles you? And once the credits roll, take time to reflect (alone or with friends) on how God might be speaking to you through this film and the reactions it inspires.

The series begins this week with one of my all-time favorites, “The Princess Bride”(Reiner, 1987). I’m looking forward to sharing this summer, and these films, with you. Happy watching!

I hope to see you in the America Catholic Movie Club Facebook group! Also, feel free to follow me on Twitter and Letterboxd

‘The Princess Bride’

“This is true love. You think this happens everyday?”

“The Princess Bride” is many things: a fairy tale adventure, a romantic comedy, and both a clever send-up and loving pastiche of both genres. It’s also one of my favorite movies of all time.

Directed by Rob Reiner and adapted by William Goldman from his novel of the same name, “The Princess Bride” follows Buttercup (Robin Wright) and Westley (Carey Elwes), peasant sweethearts torn apart when Westley is seemingly killed by pirates. But when Buttercup becomes engaged to the deceptively charming Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) and embroiled in a plot to set two kingdoms at war, Westley reappears to rescue her. Along the way, he earns the friendship of Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), a swordsman on a quest for revenge, and Fezzik (André the Giant), an amiable giant. As a framing device, we see a grandfather (Peter Falk) reading the tale to his skeptical grandson (Fred Savage), which is its own kind of love story.

In “The Princess Bride,” love isn’t an empty sentiment or a poetic flourish; it lives in action. We learn early on that Westley, a farmhand working for Buttercup, expresses his love for her by replying “As you wish” to her every request. Later, departing on a journey, he assures her, “I will always come for you.”

This is a romance where neither lover ever says “I love you”—they act it out. Love inspires Westley to superhuman feats of heroism and sees them through the treacherous Fire Swamp. It gives Buttercup the selflessness to surrender to a life of unhappiness in order to save Westley. This active love stands in contrast to Humperdinck’s empty courtesy or the Impressive Clergyman’s (Peter Cook – one of my favorite on-screen priests) airy platitudes about “twue wuv.” It’s the love we’re called to as Christians, a love that, in the words of St. Ignatius Loyola, “ought to show itself in deeds more than in words.” Or, as John the Evangelist puts it, “Let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth” (1 Jn 3:18).

Love in “The Princess Bride” is also transcendent. “Death cannot stop true love,” Westley says. “All it can do is delay it for a while.” Throughout the film, characters do the impossible again and again when love is driving them. In a lesser film this might feel saccharine, but it’s “The Princess Bride”’s wry, often cynical sense of humor that makes its claims about true love so compelling. The film does not take place in an idyllic fairytale world; murder, war and torture all exist there. True love is rare, but all the more powerful because of its rarity. It achieves the impossible: everything from resurrections to a self-serious tween bonding with his grandfather.

“The Princess Bride” reminds us of the power of love in our own fallen world. Amid all the terrors and the wonders, love is the only thing truly capable of working miracles.

“The Princess Bride” is now streaming on Disney+.

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