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John DoughertyMarch 01, 2024
Cher and Nicholas Cage in ‘Moonstruck’ (CNS photo from MGM)Cher and Nicholas Cage in ‘Moonstruck’ (CNS photo from MGM)

The Catholic Movie Club is a short weekly essay pulling out spiritual themes in our favorite films. You can discuss the movies with other readers in the comments on this page or in our Facebook group. Find past Catholic Movie Club selections here.

In “Moonstruck” (1987), a wife tells her husband: “No matter what you do, you’re gonna die, just like everybody else.” That’s the unavoidable truth at the core of this classic, and very Catholic, romantic comedy. In response, some characters flail for a sort of immortality, others find peace in accepting their lives as they are and still others take it as reason to live life to the fullest. It’s also a great film to watch during Lent, as we reflect on our finitude and what we should do with the time we’re given. Everyone dies; so how are you going to live?

The film’s director, Norman Jewison, and writer, John Patrick Shanley, are no strangers to this sort of existential wrangling. Shanley wrote the play “Doubt: A Parable” about clerical sexual abuse (and the screenplay for the 2008 film adaptation), among other searching and complicated works for stage and screen; he recently spoke with America about his Catholic upbringing and its influence on his writing. Jewison, who passed away this January, made many films about social issues such as “In the Heat of the Night” (1967) and “The Hurricane” (1999), but also wrestled with questions of faith and meaning in films like “Agnes of God” (1986) and the screen adaptations of “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971) and “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973). Shanley won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “Moonstruck,” his first screenplay, and Jewison was nominated for Best Director.

‘Moonstruck’ is a great film to watch during Lent, as we reflect on our finitude and what we should do with the time we’re given.

All of the characters in “Moonstruck” are haunted by death. Loretta Castorini (Cher) accepts a marriage proposal from Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) because it seems safe and sensible. She was married before to a man she loved, but they “didn’t do it right” (for the Italian-Catholic Loretta this, at least partially, means that they weren’t married in the church) and he was killed in an accident. The loss has made her cautious and superstitious, more concerned with checking the right boxes in a relationship than anything as ephemeral as passion. Johnny, on the other hand, is such a milquetoast that he nearly doesn’t kneel down to propose, worried about ruining his suit. (“I helped you pick it out,” Loretta says, telling you everything you need to know about their relationship. “It came with two pairs of pants!”) When Johnny leaves for Sicily to be with his dying mother, he asks Loretta to reach out to his estranged brother, Ronnie (Nicolas Cage), and invite him to the wedding.

Ronnie is as hot blooded as Johnny is anemic. We meet him in an infernal basement under a bakery, lit by oven flames, rangy muscles slick with sweat. Within moments he’s bellowing about how Johnny ruined his life (indirectly causing an accident that cost Ronnie a hand and, even more indirectly, his fiancée) and offering to kill himself on the spot to prove his point. It’s only when he and Loretta ascend to his apartment that their shared stubbornness and regret turns into passion. Afterwards, a guilt-stricken Loretta goes to confession. The priest tells her, affably but seriously, “reflect on your life,” and gives her two rosaries as penance. She’ll have to say them fast: The wedding’s in a month.

“Moonstruck” is not about perfect Catholics or perfect people; we should all be able to relate. During Lent we reflect honestly on our limitations, especially that ultimate limitation: Everybody dies. Our fear of death can lead us to make some rash and harmful decisions. Loretta keeps her heart locked away, Ronnie nurses his grudge and Loretta’s father Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia) has affairs. But there’s only one way to live forever, and it’s not by desperately grasping onto the things of this world. As Jesus warns the disciples: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:25).

A good memento mori—remembering that you will die—can clarify things and help us to shake free from fear and resentment. When we aren’t blinded by a desperate desire to cheat death, maybe we have the courage to embrace love when we find it. “We aren’t here to make things perfect,” Ronnie tells Loretta. “We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die.” No matter what you do, you’re going die, just like everybody else. So how are you going to live?

“Moonstruck” is streaming on Showtime and for free with ads on the Roku Channel and Tubi.

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