The Common Good
March-April 2000

Strange Bedfellows

by Ted Parks | March-April 2000

Mixing the spiritual and the cinematic.

It had the marks of a standard Hollywood gala: People jostling glasses of white wine as they elbowed through the crowd, hors d’oeuvre trays bulging with cheese and colorful slices of fruit.

But then the voice of Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, sounded over the gathering as he welcomed guests who had come not to laud the entertainment industry’s latest box-office triumph, but to ask how film can help Christians understand "the story we have to tell."

Fuller is one of the key sponsors of the six-year-old City of the Angels Film Festival, which was held in Los Angeles in November. With the appropriately titled theme "Embracing Apocalypse: Visions of Faith and Fear," the event showcased eight feature films and screened eight shorts and documentaries. Other sponsors included Catholics in Media Associates, Showtime, and the Odyssey Television Network.

By bringing together theologians and media professionals who "see the arts as a way to communicate our most transcendent longings," said festival chair and independent television producer Cecilia González, organizers want to promote dialogue about cinema’s power to inspire spiritual and social reflection. "Great films deal with great questions," she said.

The festival opened with director Frank Capra’s 1937 classic Lost Horizon, which probes the nature and possibility of an ideal society through the story of crash survivors in the Himalayas who take refuge in the paradisiacal "Shangri-La."

After three days of screenings, the festival wrapped up with Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove, the unnerving and darkly comic vision of a wildcard U.S. Air Force general who single-handedly initiates an American nuclear attack and sets in motion an irreversible Soviet "doomsday" machine.

Sandwiched between Capra and Kubrick were films ranging from the 1951 sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 The Birds and Wim Wender’s 1997 The End of Violence. Additional offerings included Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973), Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), and Lamerica, a 1994 film by Italian director Gianni Amelio about the disastrous flight of Albanians after the fall of the Hoxha regime. Though widely divergent in time and setting, the films ask similar questions about how people of faith should live and shape society in light of their own finitude.

THE PORTRAYAL OF political apocalypse in Lamerica skillfully intertwines the personal and social dimensions of cataclysm.

The film tells the story of a young Italian entrepreneur, Gino (Enrico Lo Verso), who joins with a senior partner to exploit post-communist Albania. The team sets up a phony shoe factory, then searches for an easily controlled Albanian to manage the company. When the figurehead executive, a seemingly irrational prisoner named Spiro (Carmelo di Mazzarelli), escapes, Gino pursues him.

Eventually forsaken by his business partner, Gino himself winds up in prison. Released from jail but with his papers confiscated, he joins the masses desperately fleeing Albania’s economic and political chaos. Gino encounters Spiro again aboard Lamerica, a ship bound, Spiro thinks, for America. The audience knows the destination is Italy, where the door will slam shut to the refugees and, presumably, Gino and Spiro.

During the panel discussion after the film, Rabbi Susan Laemmle commented on the movie’s portrayal of the "individual" at dangerous odds with "the social order." As an audience member pointed out, the proud capitalist Gino "enters a social apocalpyse and goes through a personal apocalypse."

With its unusual blend of the cinematic and the spiritual, the City of the Angels festival sparked conversation about the fragility of life and the necessity of redemption even at the dawn of a new age. —Ted Parks

TED PARKS is associate professor of Spanish at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. For more information, visit www.cityofangelsfilmfest.org.

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