Observations: At the Movies

There are a lot of first-run movies in my bottleneck of the woods these days—New York City—and three deal with questions regarding women and women’s roles, about sex and sexuality, and, in large or small measure, with religion. One of them is being picketed, one is being applauded, and one is being ignored.

The pickets are over at 57th and 5th, in front of the theatre showing Jean-Luc Goddard’s Je Vous Salue, Marie, the slow motion artsy explanation of the Annunciation in modern terms which includes language and nudity bordering (but not quite) on the irreverent and the lewd. I saw it twice.

I went in mindful of the teachings of my pope and of my bishop; with them, I will not sanction “any treatment of the fundamental themes of our faith which distorts and scorns their spiritual significance and historical values.” I think I was also fully prepared to tear the building down; little is more maddening than the high-brow, down-the-nose, look at us poor “Cultural Catholics” who believe it all, hook, line and sanctuary.

In the film, the twentieth-century Swiss Marie has just dumped Joseph, who is reading a novel in his airport cab when Gabriel and his assistant angel get in. They demand to be driven, it turns out, to the gas station Marie minds for her father.

Seventy somewhat boring high art minutes later I was reeling in belief and gratitude for the real Blessed Mother whom I’d somehow not before recognized as a woman, a real woman. She had to contend with life, with love, and with a not-fully-comprehending man in order to retain her consecrated commitment, to God. I didn’t want to like the movie, and I didn’t. But I liked Marie. And I liked Joseph. And I liked Gabriel, especially Gabriel.

It was all very neat: lots of point-counterpoint. A little Holderlin. A little Heidegger. And, suddenly, the naming of the holy.

None of the picketers outside had seen the flick.

The building is still standing.

Further east, on Third Avenue, they’re running Agnes of God, in which Anne Bancroft is the Mother Superior foil to Jane Fonda’s ex-Catholic psychiatrist, court-appointed to investigate the birth and immediate murder of a child in a northwoods cloistered convent. This is the movie version of a powerful stage play I saw twice, but, rather than focus on the interplay among the three women, as did the play, the camera pulls back. We are gratuitously treated to one obnoxious scene after another: from “Sister Milks a Cow” to “Sister Prays in Chapel” to the very big “See The Sisters Skating on the Pond.”

These are what I believe were treated irreverently or blasphemously in this movie: stigmata, virginity, the virgin birth, religious life, angels, saints, and Catholic education. I may have forgotten a few things, but the list will do.

There are no pickets in front of the theatre, in which every two hours rolls the psychiatric claptrap about hysterical stigmata along with a very heavy message that believing it all is foolish and best left to wackos like Agnes—who entered religious life, you will recall, after the death of her alcoholic mother, who kept her from school, and abused and molested her until she died.

Over on First Avenue, Sweetheart Theatre is running the world premier of Squalor Motel (“The sex is bizarre… the action is hot”) from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. This Kim Christy Film (video distribution by Essex Video) plays with four-channel Dolby Stereo sound, for reasons I’d rather not think about. No pickets here, either, and the whole block is a monument to low life. I think I’ll pass on seeing it.

The money I’ve spent on these films wouldn’t buy dinner at anyplace chic enough to care about Je Vous Salue, Marie, or anyplace “in” enough to cater to the Agnes of God crowd, or anyplace sleazy enough to even recognize the star of Squalor Motel. It wouldn’t pay for the printing of the handouts distributed by the Fifth Avenue picketing corps from “Our Lady of the Roses, Mary Help of Mothers Shrine,” or for the very elegant black tuxedos worn by the Agnes of God ushers. Maybe for a palm reading two doors down from Squalor Motel, but not much more, even on that street.

Yet I still feel ripped off. A believing Catholic should have done Je Vous Salue, Marie. Tell it, tell it again. Tell it to the 15-year-old girl on the other side of the tracks. She needs to hear it, and even if she will probably hear it in Godard’s words, in Godard’s terms, that is only because her mind echoes the present. Let her believe it. Let her know it. She will come to terms with it and with herself in her own time and in her own way. Don’t put her under a bushel basket; let her see that the choices are much broader than either Agnes or the lead role in Squalor Motel.

But first she has to understand what it means to be a woman, and she needs a model who it neither plaster of Paris nor out of a “French film.”


  • Phyllis Zagano

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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