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Book review: Dear Movies

Richard Leonard SJ  |  22 September 2020

DEAR MOVIES
Peter Malone
https://coventrypress.com.au/dear-movies

Full disclosure: Peter Malone has been my friend and colleague since 1994.

I succeeded him as the Director of the Catholic Film Office in 1998 when he moved to the UK to become the President of SIGNIS (World Catholic Association for Communication). On his return to Australia in 2006 he became an associate of the newly titled Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

In 2018 when the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) marked his 50th anniversary as a Catholic film reviewer, the ACBC president, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, noted that, beginning with the To Sir With Love in 1968, “Fr Malone has seen some 6000 films, and his reviews have been published in every major Australian Catholic newspaper, as well as Compass and Annals, among several other journals. His love of the cinema has been combined with an active academic career, lecturing at Yarra Theological Union for 25 years, editing Compass theological journal from 1972–1998 and authoring more than 16 books, including Screen Jesus and Screen Priests. In 2008 the Melbourne College of Divinity conferred on him the Degree of Doctor of Sacred Theology (Honoris Causa) recognising Peter’s ‘outstanding contribution to theological learning and education, especially for his significant contribution to bringing a critical Christian perspective to the study, interpretation and enjoyment of the visual media.’”

Dear Movies starts 20 years earlier than his first film review, with his introduction to the cinema: Anna Karenina in 1948. What follows is not only a letter to 102 films, but the whole volume is a love-letter to the cinema as a window on the world. 

The letter device works well, each one about 1000 words. It is not a book recommending films that Christians should watch. There are some titles here that some people would baulk at: Bad Lieutenant; Salo; Django Unchained; Life of Brian; Godfather; and The Devils; while there other films we might expect a priest reviewer to include: Jesus; The Nun’s Story; The Mission; Of Gods and Men; Babette’s Feast; Bruce Almighty; Jesus of Montreal; Priest; Calvary; and Sister Act. The rest of the films are as individual and idiosyncratic as any personal selection is going to be. The choice has been made because of what they have evoked in Peter, meant to him at the time, or how they charted a shift in his take on the world.

I have seen 55 of the films Peter presents in Dear Movies. While he often fills in enough of the details of the films I had not seen for me to enjoy his engagement with them, I wonder if a short synopsis of each film would have enhanced the work even more. Even so, the capsules are easy to read, insightful and engaging. Appropriate for the device, the tone is conversational. I read the work from cover to cover, but it is also a book one can dip into and out of or one could refer to it time and again.

On a deeper level this work establishes a dialogue between faith and culture in an increasingly secular world. Dear Movies is a bridge between implicit and profound faith, and the work of visual artists over the past 72 years. 

Riffing on Jeremiah 20:7 it’s clear that the cinema has seduced Peter and he has let himself be seduced; for it was too strong for him, and it has prevailed; even, and often, finding God there. But in saying that Dear Movies is a love letter from the Peter to the cinema, then it’s clear the affection has been reciprocal and so this mystical marriage has been mutually patient, generous, trusting, respectful and faithful. 

Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of Movies That Matter: Reading Film Through the Lens of Faith; and The Mystical Gaze of the Cinema: the Films of Peter Weir.

 

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