Romero and Sweet Schmaltz

Romero and Sweet Schmaltz March 26, 2012

A little more than halfway through the film Romero, the title character, played by Raul Julia, walks nervously into a church that’s been occupied by the Salvadoran National Guard and announces his intention to remove the Eucharist. Expressing the contempt felt by the Salvadoran military establishment for the Church, an insolent, gum-smacking goon of a first sergeant empties his assault rifle into the tabernacle. Struck mute, Romero can do nothing, for the moment, but gape.

It’s a wonderful scene. Unfortunately, it’s also one of very few surprises the film offers. Weighted down by the good intentions (and perhaps as well by the low budget) of the Congregation of St. Paul, which produced it, Romero plods. The dialogue is stilted; most characters exist in two dimensions at best. At times, Gabriel Yared’s soundtrack is simply bizarre — when Romero SOA-trained assassin creeps into the church where his target is celebrating Mass, it plays a bouncy tune apparently inspired by Bizet’s “Habanera.” Granted, Carmen ends badly, too, but still.

For all its faults, Romero ranks among my favorite faith movies. I re-watch it once a month, on average. By now, it’s become a Rocky Horror-like event: I enjoy reciting “YOU’RE NOT DEFENDING — YOU’RE ATTACKING!” and “Do you expect me to baptize my baby with a bunch of Indians?” along with the actors. Nevertheless, my appreciation is sincere. Throughout, the cast struggles valiantly, and sometimes successfully, against the script. Julia tackles the grueling and thankless feat of portraying a character who guards not only his words but also his facial expressions. For most of the film, he acts entirely with his eyes, and he does it well. In one gem of a mini-monologue, Claudio Brook, playing the conservative (and extremely suave) Bishop Flores, talks himself into supporting Romero to his own amusement. Ana-Alicia manages to make the snobbish, spoiled, featherheaded Arista Zelada likeable — you want to smack the character, but not that hard.

But Romero works first and foremost because it believes in itself. As far as the writers were concerned, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdanez, who ordered the death squads, “STOP THE REPRESSION!” was a saint. Anything that distracts from that message is noise. That sense of conviction adds life to the flattest characters. When Harold Gould, playing fat cat Francisco Galedo, sneers, “The Church is a whore who will spread her legs to the highest bidder,” I wince — but more at the ugliness of the conceit than the ham-handedness of the line.

Last year, a friend of mine dragged me kicking and screaming into the world of American Christian cinema. (She also got me to go to a Matt Maher concert.) To my chagrin, I was unable to master my tear ducts through Letters to God or The Blind Side. Both shot bolts straight into my gooey center in a way the far more complex, better-written Doubt simply didn’t. Though the cinematic equivalent of a Paula Deen dessert, Brother Sun, Sister Moon had me humming the Donovan Leitch soundtrack. Despite featuring Mickey Rourke, the object of a longstanding man-crush, in the title role, the dark and gritty Francesco made about the same impression as Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man.

It was only after joining the blogosphere that I first learned of the cult of Flannery O’Connor. Her fans toss out her quotes like party favors, and — this drives me insane — call her “Flannery,” as though she were the GOP front-runner. I suspect one reason for O’Connor’s popularity is her hipness. In her work, she was dark; in private life, she was always good for a snide one-liner. Although O’Connor admitted to identifying with some of her least likeable characters — with Hulga in “Good Country People,” for example — this needn’t prevent her readers from feeling superior to them. Read on a certain level, her work proves a Christian doesn’t have to be a drip. She can still feel, and traffic in, Hobbes’ “sudden glory.”

But the best schmaltz seduces by staring down whatever prejudices make consumers equate sophistication with darkness, flippancy, irony or moral ambiguity. “Listen,” a good schmaltzy script will tell viewers. “I know perfectly well part of you wants to believe in happy endings and teddy bears and rainbows and a merciful diety. And you know what? It’s okay. Everybody does. You’re normal, trust me.” Michael Landon once said his greatest gift was the the ability to make audiences cry. He should have said his gift was for making audiences cry without making them feel condescended to. What else could have made Little House into a cultural icon in the swinging 70s, or Highway to Heaven one in the coked-out 80s?

Maybe it’s no coincidence that Italy, which gave the world opera and Life is Beautiful, is creating religious-themed movies that are completely sentimental, and at least halfway intelligent. Assured of a robust domestic market, Italian production company Lux Vide has invested its Stories of the Saints series of made-for-RAI movies with staggeringly high production values. Jurgen Prochnow of Das Boot and The English Patient co-stars in Padre Pio. Ennio Morricone, who wrote the scores for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Fistful of Dollars, provided the soundtrack for Maria Goretti. To Romero’s earnestness, both films add a kind of self-confident snap. When Sergio Castellitto, playing Padre Pio, reports to a panel of Capuchin superiors who want to scrounge some of the donations he’s received toward a new hospital, he tosses them candy from his pocket to prove how broke he is. It’s a great moment.

In 2010, Lux Vide produced an English-language film on the career of no less controversial a candidate for sainthood than Pope Pius XII. (Full title: Pius XII: Under the Roman Sky.) Starring in the title role is veteran character actor James Cromwell, who, though a WASP, might be the only man in the world who could play Papa Pacelli without a prosthetic nose. In Italy, it did well enough: Part 1 claimed 4.894.000 viewers; Part 2, 5.727.000. But, though in English, and despite Pope Benedict’s own recommendation, the film doesn’t seem to have made much of a splash here in America. IMDb users gave the film 4.6 out of a possible 10 stars, and some complained about its inaccessibility. Uncritical, unironic faith movies may play to a niche market for quite some time to come.

When weighing the pros and cons of that fact, I can’t help reflecting on Napoleon Dynamite. It baffled many very intelligent people I know. “It’s about nothing,” they’d say, “but somehow, I couldn’t tear my eyes away.” Well, to me, it was quite obvious what the film was about: a dork who proves to himself he’s no loser. In this, it resembles the 1986 film Lucas. But whereas Lucas was unapologetically a tear-jerker, Napoleon Dynamite is more circumspect. Screenwriters Jared and Jerusha Hess weren’t sure they wanted viewers identifying too closely with their awkward hero. Better hedge their bets by leaving room to laugh at him (as, for example, when he asks a farmer whether his chickens have large talons). Very urbanely, they buried their schmaltz under snark.

The Hesses are Mormons, as — implicitly — were most of their characters. Maybe this was their Flannery O’Connor moment, their way of telling the world, “Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, we’re actually quite funky.” They’re right — they are funky, and their film is one of my favorites. But I sometimes wonder whether it might not have been bolder of them to plead sympathy for their characters a little more directly, and for that matter, to play up their Mormonism. Is it right or just that I had to learn about their faith through South Park and Angels in America?

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