Abby Olcese (@abbyolcese) has been many things — a campus ministry leader at the University of Kansas, an English teacher in Prague, and an advertising assistant at Sojourners. These days, she’s a freelance writer based in Kansas.
Raised on a diet of Narnia, Bob Dylan records and Terry Gilliam movies, Abby is drawn to the weird, the nerdy, and the profoundly artsy corners of popular culture. She loves sharing this knowledge with others by writing about interesting new releases as well as lesser-known gems.
Abby is also passionate about the intersection of faith, social responsibility, and culture. She believes in the power of art to spark important conversations, inspire social change, and help people to better understand life in the kingdom of God.
When she’s not watching movies or writing things down, you can usually find Abby reading comic books or perusing the selection at her local record store.
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‘The Worst Person in the World,’ Despite Its Title, Never Judges
IN A 2001 lecture titled “Devotional Cinema,” filmmaker and film editor Nathaniel Dorsky broadly described devotional practice as “the interruption that allows us to experience what is hidden and to accept with our hearts our given situation.” Dorsky connected this definition to the experience of watching a movie, claiming, “It is alive as a devotional form,” allowing viewers to uncover truths about themselves and the world by watching someone else’s story. A movie doesn’t have to be experimental art, a heavy drama, or a religious epic to be a devotional experience. Often, the most profound stories are about the subtle changes of the soul over time and the experiences and relationships that define a person. We relate to them because, like a devotional practice, they help us reflect on our own lives and consider how we live in relation to others.
Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World is one such film, following its protagonist, Julie (Renate Reinsve), from her late 20s to her early 30s. Trier places Julie as the main character of her own story, narrated to us as she lives it, changing careers, falling in love, breaking up, experiencing loss, and becoming wiser and more comfortable with herself as a result.
Survivors of Catholic Clergy Abuse Turn to Acting to Process Trauma
IN WHISTLING IN the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary, Frederick Buechner writes of the power of art, “If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes ... like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces.” All art can be a sacred space to share an artist’s experiences and needs. At its very best, it can generate empathy and healing.
In the new Netflix documentary Procession, filmmaker Robert Greene works with adult survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, as well as trauma-trained advocates and therapists. The six men featured in the film collaboratively create dramatic scenes to process physical, emotional, and spiritual traumas. Their journey highlights the value of supportive communities, and the restorative potential of creative expression.
Though directed by Greene, Procession is credited as “a film by” everyone involved. Top billing goes to the men whose stories the film highlights: Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, Michael Sandridge, and Tom Viviano. While Greene may be the one behind the camera, ownership of the film belongs to the subjects.
Home to Our Hallowed Memories
OVER THE LAST year we’ve had to reconsider our definition of what makes a “sacred space.” When churches and temples closed due to the pandemic, our homes became places of worship for many of us.
This cemented what’s always been true: Sacred space is a fluid thing. It can be a place of deep personal meaning or shared memories with people we care about. A sacred space doesn’t even need to be a physical location. It could also be the spiritual space created whenever we’re with those we love or remember people we’ve lost.
Céline Sciamma’s tender film Petite Maman speaks to this. A little girl, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), grieve the death of Marion’s mother and clean out Marion’s childhood home. Sciamma’s movie becomes a meditation on everyday sacred spaces, including those that can exist within mother-daughter relationships.
‘Midnight Mass’ Shows the Horrors of Co-Opted Faith
Midnight Mass is the latest from horror filmmaker Mike Flanagan (creator of The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor), who excels in slow-creeping, character-based horror. It’s also a project through which Flanagan, a former Catholic, processes his feelings about scripture, religion, and the church. As an artistic representation of someone deconstructing their faith, Midnight Mass employs horror tropes to explore the ways religion responds to pain, both in ways that heal and ways that destroy.
Jessica Chastain Has Wanted to Portray Tammy Faye for Years
A biopic about Tammy Faye Messner, better known as Tammy Faye Bakker, is ripe for caricature. That face, covered with a rainbow of lipstick, eyeliner, and mascara. That voice, with its exaggerated Upper Midwest accent. Those televangelism broadcasts, where puppet shows and hymns were followed by direct pleas for money from Tammy Faye and her first husband, Jim Bakker. She’s an easy figure to ridicule. But The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a new biopic that shares its name with Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s 2000 documentary, blessedly avoids this trap.
Crossing Cultural and Religious Barriers in ‘We Are Lady Parts'
NO MATTER YOUR racial, ethnic, spiritual, or geographic background, or where you fall on the gender spectrum, a vital part of adulthood is determining your identity—particularly in relationship to the community you grew up in. At some point, we all diverge from others’ opinions of us. Hopefully, we also find people who help us in our quest to define ourselves.
The Peacock series We Are Lady Parts, about an all-female, Muslim punk band, shows a group of characters who support each other on their individual journeys of identity, with their religion and larger community playing central roles. The series, created and written by Nida Manzoor, presents a diverse look at modern-day Muslim womanhood. Its themes also carry over into the broader experience of maturing alongside your faith, and what happens when your expression of belief conflicts with cultural expectations.
Lady Parts is fronted by the fierce feminist Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey). Earthy mom Bisma (Faith Omole) plays bass, and aggressive Ayesha (Juliette Motamed) is on drums. Momtaz (Lucie Shorthouse), often shown vaping through her niqab, is their manager. Saira decides the band needs a lead guitarist, eventually selecting Amina (Anjana Vasan), a painfully shy, tightly wound Ph.D. student.
Viewing the ‘Alien’ Franchise Through a Feminist Theology Lens
WHEN AUTHOR AND film critic Sarah Welch-Larson was growing up, she wasn’t a horror movie fan. That started to change when, as a teenager, she had a fateful encounter with the James Cameron film Aliens on cable TV.
The movie’s hero, Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, “looked a lot like my mom and had a lot of the attitudes my mom has about some things,” Welch-Larson, who writes about faith and popular culture for the online publications Think Christian and Bright Wall/Dark Room, told Sojourners. “I was captivated by that character.” Two weeks later, Welch-Larson watched the first 1979 Alien movie, directed by Ridley Scott. It frightened her and she couldn’t get it out of her head.
Eventually Welch-Larson’s interest grew into a fascination with the series as a whole. Her new book, Becoming Alien: The Beginning and End of Evil in Science Fiction’s Most Idiosyncratic Film Franchise, looks at recurring themes of evil, greed, and destruction in the Alien films through the lens of theologian Catherine Keller’s 2002 book, The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming, in which Keller examines the first two verses of Genesis.
“She writes a lot about God setting everything into relationship with each other. God’s saying there’s a relationship you have with the rest of the world and with other created beings around you,” Welch-Larson explains. “Once you start to deny those relationships, you’re saying they’re not as important as what God has created you to be, and Keller says that’s the source of evil.”
The Sin of Shape-Shifting Supremacists
IN 2016, RAOUL PECK'S documentary I Am Not Your Negro used the life and work of James Baldwin to explore the underlying truths of racism in U.S. society. Peck said that after making that film, “Baldwin had firebombed every known field of bigotry I knew and annihilated any attempt at deniability of the racist monster that lurks in corners of our societies.”
Processing that experience led Peck to his new, ambitious HBO documentary series Exterminate All the Brutes. In it, Peck expands on the themes of ignorance and resistance in our modern-day understanding of racism and on how our flawed historical understanding feeds those attitudes. Exterminate All the Brutes is also an essay film, with Peck, a Haitian immigrant, reflecting on his identity as a Black man who has lived in a variety of cultures and how that’s influenced his own art.
The series weaves voiceover and scripted dramatic scenes with information from groundbreaking works on European colonialism, Indigenous peoples, and racism—including Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past, and Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate All the Brutes.
Hospitality Isn't Always About Sharing a Table
THE LAST CHAPTER of Hebrews in the New Testament begins with a reminder of how to serve God and build a healthy community: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2). Biblical hospitality takes many forms, but it consistently involves selfless sharing of space, resources, and—perhaps most importantly—attention. To share part of your life with another person, and allow them to share in return, is to show that they matter.
Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s contemporary American road film, is full of biblical hospitality. By turning a documentary-style eye on a real community of nomads who otherwise slip through the cracks of society, writer and director Zhao’s film—which won 2021 Golden Globes for best motion picture and best director—provides its actors/subjects with space to be seen, heard, and known.
Like The Rider, Zhao’s previous film, Nomadland combines elements of narrative and documentary filmmaking by crafting a story around the lived experiences of real people. Our guide, Fern (Frances McDormand), leaves her home in Empire, Nev., to live on the road. Fern is part of a subculture of older adults who, left in dire financial straits by the 2008 recession, live in vans as modern-day nomads, picking up gig work across the country. As Fern travels, she makes friends with several fellow nomads (most of them real people playing themselves) who share their stories with her.
A Drummer Reckons With Silence
IN HIS BOOK Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another, Rowan Williams writes, “We are easily persuaded that the problem of growing up in the life of the spirit can be located outside ourselves.” In other words, we like to think if only it weren’t for a health problem or professional situation, our lives would be better. If we put off becoming the person we are called to be because we’re waiting for the “right” circumstance, then we won’t learn and grow. Even when circumstances need to change, we must find joy in the present.
This same lesson powers Darius Marder’s drama Sound of Metal, about a drummer, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), who’s suddenly affected with permanent hearing loss. Ruben’s journey underlines the importance of presence and its potential to foster spiritual growth. He must learn that the situation he is in presents an opportunity to embrace a new community and a more intentional life.
Alone Together: Watching the Films of 2020
FOR A YEAR defined by isolation, 2020 has been fascinatingly full of stories about relationship. It feels oddly appropriate that during a time when we’re constantly confronting our divisions—ideological and physical—we’ve been surrounded by cinematic reminders of the importance of community and the various ways we find it. Films of 2020 have come out largely through streaming platforms, and we’ve watched them in our homes, by ourselves. They’ve still managed, however, to inspire connection.
Kirsten Johnson’s documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead chronicled her father’s dementia by celebrating her dad’s life, while Natalie Erika James’ horror film Relic addressed the real-life existential terror of watching a loved one’s mind fade to the same disease. Other films such as Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods and Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks examined how adult children relate to their parents’ flaws. Of course, family doesn’t have to mean the people we share our genes with. Movies this year addressed found families too, from Crip Camp’s community of disability activists to The Old Guard’s fiercely devoted group of immortal warriors. Even popcorn fare such as Bill & Ted Face the Music celebrated the way long-standing bonds support us throughout our lives and help us in turn to love others.
A Spy Walks Into a Nursing Home
ONE OF THE MOST important things art—especially narrative art—can do is inspire us to show empathy for others by making us see the world through someone else’s eyes. Stories of kindness and compassion are stories of the gospel in action. Right now, in a time of extreme division, conflict, and isolation, we need stories that remind us what that looks and feels like, and the ways in which we can show it to others.
Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi’s documentary The Mole Agent is a heartwarming testament to this type of kindness. Alberdi’s film follows 83-year-old Sergio, hired by a private detective to go undercover at a nursing home and report on the treatment of its residents. Sergio’s loving interactions with everyone he meets and Alberdi’s observational filmmaking together provide an example of love through serving others.
‘Fury Road’ Reveals Our Potential for Good
WE OFTEN THINK the word “apocalypse” refers to an “end of days” scenario. While that is one usage, it’s incomplete. The Greek root, apokálypsis, is defined as revelation, or an unveiling. It’s often used in prophetic terms, as in the biblical book of Revelation. An apocalypse doesn’t mean destruction so much as laying bare humanity’s underlying truths.
This year, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, one of the best post-apocalyptic films in a series that helped define the genre, turns 5. Miller’s Mad Max movies are fascinating not just because of their creativity and economical storytelling, but also for how they address the revelatory nature of apocalypse, both in humanity’s sinful nature and its capacity for selflessness.
The Mad Max films happen in a violent wasteland that Miller shows as the direct result of humanity’s greed and recklessness. Fury Road advances that revelation, altering the series’ attitude from cynicism to hope. Fury Road’s message of renewal, and prophetic undertones, makes it a perfect movie for uncertain times.
‘Dick Johnson Is Dead’...Well, Sort Of
THE HYMN “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” is one of my favorites in the Episcopal tradition, usually sung on All Saints Day. It concludes with the line, “For the saints of God are just folk like me / And I mean to be one, too.” It’s a reminder of the people in our lives—living and otherwise—who are everyday saints, not canonized but important in our formation.
In Dick Johnson Is Dead, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson celebrates her father, one such everyday saint. Dick isn’t actually dead, but he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. How much of his life remains isn’t certain, but Johnson is determined to show him just how well he’s loved by trying to rid him of some of his fear of death.
Johnson does this in a darkly funny way that’s true to her dad’s mischievous streak: She collaborates with him on a series of staged scenes depicting his death from a variety of accidents. Dick is crushed by an air conditioner, falls down stairs, is hit by a construction worker’s nail-filled board, and more. “Everyone dies,” Johnson reminds us, even the people we love the most.
Praying for the Earth in a 1991 Sci-Fi Odyssey
MIDWAY THROUGH THE second half of Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World, the movie’s narrator, Eugene (Sam Neill), plays music with a group of characters in an Australian village. Eugene is on piano, his friend David (David Gulpilil) plays the didgeridoo, a German private investigator (Rüdiger Vogler) wails on a harmonica, and a French bank robber (Chick Ortega) plays drums while they wait anxiously for news about the destruction of a nuclear satellite, which, we’re told, would bring about Armageddon.
Eugene reflects on the journey that’s led the group here and realizes this communal moment of joy in the face of fear is its apex. He calls it “a prayer for the wounded earth.” In many ways, this 1991 global sci-fi odyssey, recently released in a director’s cut by the Criterion Collection, feels like exactly that. It’s a prayer for not only its fictional future earth but the self-involved world we live in now, a world drunk on idealized images of ourselves.
‘Knives Out’ Offers a Merciless Skewering of White Privilege
RIAN JOHNSON'S FILM Knives Out wastes no time setting up the murder mystery that powers its plot. In the very first scene, famed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found in the library of his mansion, his throat cut. Harlan’s family is shocked. His Latina caretaker, Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s closest confidant, is devastated. The police think it’s a suicide. Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) thinks otherwise.
The mystery of Harlan’s death may be the plot of Knives Out, but as the story progresses, it’s clear that the film is actually about something else.
Bootstrapping—the idea that one can achieve success purely through hard work and determination—is touted in most areas of public life, from business to education to politics. White Americans particularly love to claim that we’ve risen from tough circumstances while making it harder for less-advantaged populations to do just that.
In Knives Out, the bootstrapping myth is everywhere. Harlan’s children are proud that their dad built a publishing empire. Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) tells Blanc that she, too, created her own business from the ground up. But, of course, those stories aren’t the whole truth. Linda would be nowhere without the hefty loan she got from her father. Harlan himself may have worked hard for his success, but as a white man, there’s no doubt his path was easier than it would have been for others.
How to Be Christian in a Time of Bigotry
TERRENCE MALICK HAS long been associated with spirituality. The director’s philosophy background, poetic style, and love of nature results in art that urges viewers to engage deeply with the world: Ask difficult questions, doubt, and believe.
But A Hidden Life, Malick’s latest, may be the most faith-oriented film yet from the director of The Tree of Life and The Thin Red Line. Through the story of World War II-era martyr Franz Jägerstätter, Malick explores what it means to wrestle with Christian conscience during rising xenophobia and violence. Jägerstätter (played by August Diehl) was an Austrian farmer executed for refusing to swear loyalty to Hitler. For Malick’s purposes, he becomes an audience surrogate as he encounters his community’s reactions to the Third Reich, and later a Christ figure.
Malick spends significant time establishing the beauty of Jägerstätter’s life before the war. We’re given glimpses of his village and farm, witness romantic moments with his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner), and fall in love with them and their home.
'Just Mercy' Brings Criminal Justice Reform to the Big Screen
To Kill a Mockingbird and Just Mercy have notable parallels and important divergences: Like Atticus, Stevenson is defending a wrongfully accused black man from a racist community. But this time, there’s no white savior, and Stevenson isn’t going to lose the case.
'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' Is a Parable on Love
The new film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood thankfully avoids giving us a Fred Rogers biopic, one that hits rote beats that show us how Rogers grew into the saintly human we welcomed into our homes. Instead, it provides a kind of parable of the love and forgiveness and empathy that Rogers preached, one in which Rogers himself happens to feature significantly.
Horror is a Smarter, More Diverse Genre Than You Think
“I love the truth I find in dark films.”
In a 2003 speech titled “A Filmmaker’s Progress,” Sinister and Doctor Strange filmmaker Scott Derrickson, a Christian, made this statement in reference to spiritual and moral themes in his work. It’s an interesting idea to consider, not only because tales of terror get more popular this time of year, but also because Derrickson does most of his work in horror, a genre that doesn’t often get positive associations with faith.
Horror is typically considered exploitative, good for nothing more than the basest forms of gratuitousness that cinema can offer. But in fact horror is a smarter, more diverse genre than it’s given credit for. It is one of the best cinematic vehicles for social commentary.