Welcome to Reagan’s Recs. As you may have noticed, based on the title, things are a tiny bit different this time around. That’s because this is our first-ever guest spot! Before the first edition of Reagan’s Recs was even published back in April, I’ve wanted to have guests talk about movies they love and think more people should see. A big part of why I want more voices involved in this is because I firmly believe that there should be no one person who decides what is and isn’t worth watching. I am not the only voice in film criticism, and I definitely shouldn’t be. After all, I have blind spots both due to who I am and what I enjoy watching. That’s where guests come in. On the second Tuesday of each month, we’ll have a guest come on to recommend five(ish) movies based on a theme of their choosing. This way, a more diverse selection of films will be recommended than if it were only me picking the film.
So, without further ado, I would like to introduce the first guest. Robert Secundus is someone for whom I have an immense amount of respect. His writing has been a massive influence on mine, and if not for his work at ComicsXF, I wouldn’t even be writing in the first place. Rob is someone whose work is always incredible and fresh, and I was absolutely ecstatic when he agreed to take the first guest spot because his taste in movies is fantastic. So rather than bore you with more housekeeping, let’s get right into it. Here’s Rob!
Hi! I’m Robert Secundus. I write mostly about comics, but I love movies too. I’ve really enjoyed the work Reagan has been doing on GateCrashers, and so I was honored and delighted to be asked to guest host Reagan’s Recs. I’m going to repeat her disclaimer that these aren’t necessarily going to be new or obscure recs—I’m a relatively normie cinephile, with tastes shaped by stuff like film twitter and the Criterion Collection. But I hope I can add an unusual perspective here.
In my offline life, I’ve spent most of my professional career studying religious literature, and so I have a lot of thoughts on religious films. When you hear a phrase like “Christian Film” you probably think about atrocities like God’s Not Dead, or saccharine oldies like The Bells of St. Mary’s, but the truth is there’s a rich Christian tradition (or, really, traditions) in cinema that grapple with the glories and failings, the struggles and scandals, the creeds and the devotions of Christianity. There are Dantes and Miltons in cinema just as there are LeHayes. If that sort of thing sounds interesting to you, what follows is where I’d recommend you begin exploring. A lot of my favorite religious films didn’t make the list— you won’t find Doubt, Ida, Les Innocentes, In Bruges, or any of a great number of other Catholic movies, because even though Catholic literature/art is my focus, my guiding principle here was to ensure I addressed a variety of Christian aesthetic traditions.
Andrei Rublev (1966), dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
We’re beginning with the tradition (and the director) I understand least: Eastern Orthodoxy. The Protestants/Catholic split I can wrap my head around, because it’s centered in very clear doctrinal debates, but the Orthodox, as I understand them, don’t even conceive of the concept of “doctrine” in the same way I do. It’s a lot less catechetical and a lot more mysterious over there. Add the further complications of a religious film directed under the USSR, and you’ve got a product that I’ve got no chance whatsoever of understanding. I just know this—this biography of a medieval iconographer is intensely, incredibly beautiful.
Note: the first time I saw this movie, I was teaching at an extremely conservative institution. I wanted to give the kids a break, and we were reading some real dense Russian lit, so I thought, why not spend a class just watching some scenes from classic Russian cinema? And what better movie than the Tarkovsky flick about a monk? I watched the first half hour, picked a few scenes I definitely wanted to show them, a few to skip, and headed to class. I figured if I needed to fill time, I could just let the movie keep going. Reader: as I learned later when I finally saw the whole thing, it’s a good thing I did not do this, as I stopped the disk exactly two minutes before the appearance of an orgy of very naked witches. I was very close to losing that job. I tell this story not just because it’s funny, but because you need to know that one of the most beloved examples of religious cinema does include naked witches.
Calvary (2014), dir. John Michael McDonagh
(CW: Sexual abuse and trauma; graphic violence; violence done to animals)
This is probably the movie I understand the most of these; it’s not just the one Catholic film I’ve picked, but it’s also, specifically, a grotesque, darkly comedic Irish Catholic flick, which is extremely in my wheelhouse. The weird thing about Catholicism is that it’s, unlike the Orthodox Churches, very easy to break down doctrinally, but looking through that doctrine doesn’t really give you a good sense of what the religion is. Instead of a catechism, I’d hand someone a stack of books by Evelyn Waugh, Louise Erdritch, James Joyce, Kirsten Valdez Quade, and Toni Morrison if I wanted to give them a real sense of the actual religion as it’s lived rather than just what creed adherents claim to profess. Or maybe I’d just show them Calvary.
Calvary is directed by the far less famous brother of Martin McDonagh, John McDonagh. It’s about a priest who is told in the confessional that he’s going to be shot in seven days. It’s about how he spends those last seven days of his life. And it’s about his congregation, his community. Every single person in this movie is deeply traumatized; every person is suffering immensely. They’ve been harmed by poverty, by capitalism, by colonialism, by physical and sexual abuse. They’ve been harmed by the Catholic church, or by forces associated with it. They’ve been harmed by living in this fallen world. And they’re also all terrible people.
It’s a weird experience, watching this movie; often you don’t know if you’re supposed to laugh or if you’re supposed to feel bad for laughing. It’s funny and horrifying. The characters are often sympathetic and often revolting. Monstrous things are done— and yet there’s also hope. There’s also beauty. The thing about Catholics is that their typical home decor isn’t the empty cross, signifying the resurrection, but statues of Jesus being tortured to death, and this is taken as cheery. Humor and horror, grace and suffering, hope and despair are all tied together in Catholicism. Calvary is the best movie I’ve seen that captures how that feels.
Winter Light (1963), dir. Ingmar Bergman
The first of our Protestants, Winter Light is the second movie in Bergman’s God Trilogy. All three are worth a watch, but Winter Light is my favorite because it’s the most exact. It’s about a few hours in the life of a Lutheran pastor as he fails to dissuade a member of his congregation from committing suicide. The title of the final movie in the trilogy, The Silence, is just as applicable to this one, as that’s what it’s really about: God’s Silence.
The thing that’s hard to convey about Christianity in this post-evangelical world is that it’s just as much a troubling thing to its devout adherents as it is a solace. There’s so much uncertainty; why does it seem like God has abandoned this world? Each of us? Why did Revelation come to an end? Why did Jesus not yet return? And Winter Light foregrounds the question that persists even if, in an act of faith, a believer is able to somehow move past the problem of God’s Silence and look still to eternity; it asks when we suffer, and when we inflict suffering, and when we sin.
First Reformed (2017), dir. Paul Schrader
(CW: Suicide, Blood, Pain)
This is the central question of my fourth pick, in which Paul Schrader sort of reimagines Winter Light in the modern day, through his Calvinist rather than Lutheran lens (and through his reaction against Catholicism, and more specifically against the kind of grotesque Catholic art that we find in Calvary; I can’t get into details without severely spoiling the film, but he picks up one of Flannery O’Connor’s most disturbing images and critiques it). The Reformed tradition really heightens the central anxieties in this Protestant artistic tradition, given the emphasis on predestination, on whether you are a member of the elect or the reprobate, on whether you from eternity are saved or damned.
Schrader’s great insight is that this very personal, individual anxiety is an extremely useful metaphor for the apocalyptic anxiety we all feel. The first three movies are all works of art that give you an idea of what it feels like to practice that faith tradition, but First Reformed finds that no matter what you believe, you know what it’s like to experience this kind of anxiety, because it’s what we all feel in this world of climate change and environmental destruction. We have broken our world.
Again: Will God Forgive Us?
A Dark Song (2016), dir. Liam Gavin
(CW: Violence, Gore, Sexual Manipulation)
I knew when I sat down to write this list that I needed to talk about at least one horror movie (though First Reformed is arguably Calvinist Climate Horror), and I knew that I needed to talk about at least one movie about angels. A Dark Song is a movie about esoteric Christianity. Alongside all those different doctrinal traditions and feuding institutions are spiritual, mystical, and ritual traditions. A Dark Song follows two people practicing a real ritual (well, you know what I mean; a ritual that people do in our own real world) that is supposed to manifest an angel whom you can consult or ask for favors. The ritual requires total isolation, and it takes months to complete, so mostly this movie is watching two actors alone in a house draw marks of sacred geometry over and over again. It’s a slow and quiet movie; an early scare is from the distant barking of a dog. Is the ritual hokum, and is that just the outside world that they continue to ignore? Or is it real, and have they entered some spiritual plane? Is that really the sound of a dog, or is it a hound of hell?
If First Reformed escalates the divine silence in Winter Light to apocalyptic horror, A Dark Song shifts it to psychological horror. It’s the movie that has best captured for me the feeling of dread and of hope that accompanies prayer and liturgy.
The Tree of Life (2011), dir. Terrence Malick
(CW: Child abuse)
I was tempted to cheat twice on this list: above with Bergman, and again here with Malick. In both cases, the impulse was to recommend whole trilogies. While I like Malick’s other movies about spirituality and sin and virtue and grace and life and death and twirling around in the golden light while music plays over a voice whispering strange and comforting things, this is the Big One. This is the one, infamously, with the dinosaurs.
I couldn’t include so many films that attempt to grapple with the dread of silence without also offering at least one that tries to capture the feeling of presence. There’s a character in one Graham Green novel, Brighton Rock, that’s asked if he believes in hell, and he responds, thinking of all the horror and suffering he has caused and experienced, that of course he does. There isn’t a question for him that hell exists. And then he’s asked if he believes in heaven, and he stops. You get the sense that it’s not something he’s even really considered before. After a long pause, he admits that maybe. Maybe there’s such a thing. It’s possible.
It’s hard to imagine heaven. It’s hard to imagine grace. It’s hard to capture feelings of hope or joy in the face of pain and trauma. I think Malick succeeds in that, though.
This isn’t a very linear movie. You’re not going to be able to latch onto a compelling plot or arc. Treat it like you would an extremely dumb action movie. Turn off your brain. Don’t try to make sense of it. It follows one guy as he reflects back on his childhood, on his loving mother, on his abusive father, on all the comfort and pain that his memories can bear. It’s scored as a funeral mass. And in the middle, there are, again, dinosaurs. But there are dinosaurs because, like First Reformed, this is a movie that wants to expand a personal spiritual experience to something cosmic. Instead of the end of the world, it turns to the beginning, and it finds there the same questions we are confronted with today: is our world naturally a world of suffering and horror? Or is there grace to be found there? Is it the creation of a benevolent being? If so, does it reflect His image? Or is it meaningless? Or can we fill it with meaning?
I’ve presented this whole list in a kind of amateur-anthropologist sort of way, framing each movie as a work of art that can tell you something about a cultural and aesthetic tradition you might not be all too familiar with, but I hope this last entry, in particular, shows that you don’t need to approach religious art (or at least, you don’t need to approach good religious art) from this outsider’s perspective. Put away the doctrine, the dogma, the institution, and you’ll find that, though it uses unusual tools, the religious film still asks the important questions, presents the important problems, engages with the important paradoxes and mysteries that we all encounter. The God’s Not Deads of the world are designed to heighten barriers, signal to in-groups, and increase conformity, but the First Reformeds and the Trees of Life of cinema honestly (though devoutly) acknowledge the problems and failings of their own religions while proceeding to an art that, though grounded in their very particular traditions, captures something universal.
I hope you find a movie here that moves you, or troubles you, or brings you some measure of joy.
— Rob Secundus