It is my pleasure to review three superior Christian films this week. From a Baptist policeman/fatherhood drama (Courageous), to a true tale of unfathomable forgiveness (Amish Grace), and a bittersweet recounting of Catholics peacefully coexisting with Muslims amidst civil war (Of Gods and Men), all are worth your time and contemplation.
COURAGEOUS REVIEW (Grade: B+)
Courageous is the latest film from Sherwood Pictures, the Christian film studio responsible for uplifting faith-based fare such as Facing the Giants and Fireproof. It is in many ways the most accomplished film yet from the Baptist filmmakers out of Georgia, though it shares the same weaknesses as their previous efforts. As in those movies, moments of genuine dramatic power are diluted somewhat by distracting melodrama and broad humor. In the case of the latter, there's some very funny stuff here, but it occasionally causes abrupt tonal shifts that undermine the emotional impact of preceding scenes, giving the sense that one is watching an entirely separate movie. In the case of the former, the decision to use church members and pastors instead of professional actors is a double-edged sword; they possess great sincerity and down-to-earth relatability but sometimes lack polish.
That said, there's some terrific stuff here. Director/star Alex Kendrick shoots his action scenes with just the right mixture of hand-held camerawork and spatial awareness, nailing the balance of upping the adrenaline while never losing the audience (a skill that far too many Hollywood action directors haven't yet mastered). Many dramatic moments hit their mark. What's more, this is probably the most important film, spiritually speaking, of the past year. It addresses with refreshing clarity truths that are both timely and timeless. Kendrick uses the genre of the police thriller to thoroughly and poignantly explore the need for strong, loving, and faithful fathers, as well as devoted husbands. The virtues of integrity, altruism, love, and bravery are portrayed in a manner that makes them attainable and practical. As a call to action and as an invitation to come unto Christ, Courageous packs plenty of spiritual firepower against the forces of error that are dragging men, and their families, down into despair and sin. As a drama, I'd give it a solid "B." As a spiritual allegory, rich in meaning and wisdom, it receives an "A." Courageous is available on DVD Tuesday, January 17 2012.
CONTENT OVERVIEW: Courageous is rated PG-13, but it's a very mild PG-13. The police engage in shootouts and fistfights with criminals, but the emphasis is on heroism, bravery, and protecting the innocent, not on glorifying violence. It feels more like a PG-rated film, with no foul language, gore, or sexuality. The rating comes simply from the presence of drugs in criminal possession, but in this regard, and all others, evil is portrayed only to contrast it with good.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: "The powerful effect of righteous fathers in setting an example, disciplining and training, nurturing and loving is vital to the spiritual welfare of their children" (President Ezra Taft Benson, 'To the Fathers in Israel.') The Lord would have us serve Him by visiting and helping those who are sick, naked, hungry, or in prison (Matthew 25: 34-40). "By the way you love her mother, you will teach your daughter about tenderness, loyalty, respect, compassion, and devotion. She will learn from your example what to expect from young men and what qualities to seek in a future spouse. You can show your daughter...that she should never settle for less. Your example will teach your daughter to value womanhood. You are showing her that she is a daughter of our Heavenly Father, who loves her" (Elaine S. Dalton, 'Love Her Mother'). Teach your children about Christ and lead them to rejoice in Him, so they may know how to have their sins washed away through His grace (2 Nephi 25: 23,26). "Fatherhood is leadership, the most important kind of leadership. It has always been so; it always will be so...The title 'father' is sacred and eternal. It is significant that of all the titles of respect and honor and admiration given to Deity, he has asked us to address him as Father" (Father, Consider Your Ways).
AMISH GRACE REVIEW (GRADE: B)
Despite its status as a Lifetime movie and criticisms that it takes artistic liberties with actual events, Amish Grace emerges as a poignant and inspiring little movie. It tells the story of the 2006 massacre of Amish schoolchildren by a mentally unstable gunman, that religious community's subsequent forgiveness of the murderer, and their outreach to his widow. Due largely to acting and screenwriting that are far better than expected, the film transcends its made-for-TV cinematography, editing, and musical score. It's true, some of the peripheral characters aren't well-developed and come across as caricatures, but the lead performances by Kimberly Williams-Paisley (Father of the Bride), Matt Letscher (The Mask of Zorro), Tammy Blanchard (Bella), and Amy Sloan (The Day After Tomorrow) are all captivating, each giving wholly credible explorations of pain, loss, redemption, and healing. The screenplay intelligently makes a case for forgiveness, love, and faith without any trace of condescension or criticism. The paradox of the Amish shunning those who've left their faith while forgiving the greater sin of murder is brought up, but sadly left unexplored; still, this is a minor issue for a film this well-performed and moving.
Historical fiction has always created characters who are composites of actual people in order to streamline the narrative or to give the audience someone to relate to. Films like Titanic, Glory, and The Testaments have done this to memorable effect, but rarely has this been attempted with events that are so recent. One may question the choice to focus on a fictional couple rather than actual people whose stories are certainly inspiring. However, by having protagonists who struggle and doubt more than the almost superhuman real-life Amish seemed to, the filmmakers have given the audience someone to relate to, a choice that debatably has some merit in conveying to mainstream audiences the value of forgiveness. Amish Grace, therefore, should be taken as very good historical fiction, not as history itself, though it will hopefully motivate viewers to learn more about the actual events.Side note: I cannot recommend highly enough President James E.