Friday, February 23, 2007

Amazing Grace the Movie


To say that February 23, 2007 marked an important anniversary in world history and in human progress would be a great understatement. Two hundred years ago, largely through the efforts of a frail man consumed by his conviction of the inhumanity and evil of slavery, the British Parliament voted to end the slave trade within its empire. The man was William Wilberforce, and director Michael Apted’s new film, Amazing Grace, is his story.


The Story

             In the film William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd; Horatio Hornblower)story is told in a series of flashbacks as he recounts the story of his life to his future wife, Barbara Romola Garai; Scoop, Nicholas Nickleby).


            As a child Wilberforce had lived for a time with an aunt and uncle who introduced him to a former captain of a slave ship turned minister, John Newton (Albert Finney). Newton impressed the young Wilberforce and wrote one of the greatest Christian hymns ever, Amazing Grace during the years 1760 and 1770. After obtaining his degree at Cambridge, William decided to stand for Parliament and at the age of twenty-one was elected to the House of Commons, as was his good friend William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch; The Other Boleyn Girl). Pitt would go on, at age twenty-four, to be the youngest man ever elected as Prime Minister of England. About the same time Wilberforce underwent a conversion experience and entered a difficult time of discernment: should he now live for God alone andbecome a clergyman or continue in politics? He consults the Reverend John Newton and tells Pitt of his quandary.


            Then some strangers approach him led by a woman, Hannah More (Georgie Glen; Shakespeare in Love). They convince Wilberforce that he can combine his faith and politics to help change the world by taking up the cause of abolition. Wilberforce researches the issue thoroughly. He meets with Oloudah Equiano (Youssou N’Dour) who was captured as a child from Nigeria, and now a freed slave; Quakers and political radicals such as Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell; The Illusionist) speak with him. He visits the holds of slave ships first hand. Finally, Wilberforce becomes an informed and passionate abolitionist and agrees to support this cause in Parliament.


            After almost twenty years of every kind of political obstacle and adversary, notably Lord Tarleton (Ciaran Hinds) who held that the economy of the Empire would collapse without slavery, and the political machinations of Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon; Professor Dumbledore in several Harry Potter films) who eventually supports the abolition of the slave trade, and the Duke of Clarence (Tony Jones; Finding Neverland; The Painted Veil), a pro-slavery marginal member of the Royal Family, Wilberforce’s bill passes.



After 1807

             Although the slave trade was abolished in the British Empire by Wilberforce’s bill, slavery continued. It wasnot until 1833 that a bill was passed to actually free the slaves. Slaves under the age of six were freed immediately and those older were to be paid for part of each week’s work. By 1837, all slaves in the British Empire were freed after the Crown paid slave owners a whopping £20 million for their “property” (which was only about half their “value”.)Wilberforce had added his name to the emancipation bill shortly before his death, but he did not live to see it passed.


            William Wilberforce was not a well man and seems to have been a victim of colitis from a young age. As the film shows, he was treated with laudanum, an opiate, for almost his entire life. This led to his quasi-blindness and stooped stature which the film does not show us - perhaps because it would have just been too much information in a story that was already a challenge to tell because of the political complexities of the issue and the times.


            Wilberforce was also sympathetic to the issue of Catholic emancipation in England and was one of the founders of the Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty to Animals.


            William and Barbara had six children, two of whom began to write his biography soon after his death. William gave away enormous amounts of money during his life, as the heir to a merchant family, but died almost penniless when one of his sons borrowed money for a dairy farm that failed.


            There is much about Wilberforce’s career and his commitment to living his faith in action as well as the history of slavery that are only alluded to in the film; after all, its running time is just under two hours. For audiences interested in finding out more about William Wilberforce, Eric Metaxas’ new biography (Harper San Francisco, 2007), Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery is an excellent and accessible read.


Modern Slavery

            Although slavery was abolished in the British Empire in the 1830’s, and the slaves freed in the United States on January 1, 1863, slavery continues throughout the world today in the form of human trafficking for economic gain (factory work) or for sex. In a new book Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade – and How We can Fight It (Harper San Francisco, 2007) author David Batstone documents facts and stories that are both horrific and heroic about victims, survivors, and contemporary abolitionists. Human trafficking generates $31 billion a year while moving 27 million people, half of whom are under the age of eighteen, from country to country. The U.S. Government believes that over 50,000 people are trafficked into the United States each year. For more information, read the annual report from the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at (also visit;  the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops;  and Amnesty International,


Amazing Grace: The Film

         Amazing Grace is an inspiring epic with fine, believable performances from the to-be-expected predominantly male cast ensemble. Director Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, the World is Not Enough) and writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) balance the spiritual and practical aspects of Christianity with sensitivity so that Wilberforce seems authentic rather than a fanatic. In Apted’s film, he remains a responsible citizen of his world, with a social awareness that transcended political ambition and sometimes friendship. Pitt and Wilberforce were great friends until Pitt’s early death; at times almost too easy, at other times, strained to the point of breaking.


            According to Metaxas’ biography, Hannah More played a much larger part in Wilberforce’s life and social conversion and I wish we could have seen more of this in the film.


            I admit that I was ready to like this film even before seeing it, and I was not disappointed. One beautifully rendered scene, and later reference that I especially enjoyed was how Wilberforce found God in the spider-web in his garden. We often respond to the emotions of relationships in movies, but in Amazing Grace, the emotional component is in the horror and heartbreak of slavery, and in the joy of the passage of the 1807 abolition bill that February day in parliament - that small, mighty, significant step in the ongoing history of the anti-slavery movement that we see from our vantage point two hundred years later – and human slavery still alive, though largely invisible.


            I thought the film would reveal more facts about the hymn “Amazing Grace”; instead it gives us insight into the heart and mind of the repentant John Newton, as played by the inimitable Albert Finney. Newton estimated that he was responsible for transporting 20,000 souls into slavery from Africa to the Americas; the film shows that although he never got over what he had done to his fellow human beings, he lived a life of faith and worked for abolition.


            A new edition of William Willberforce’s classic Real Christianity has been released, revised, and updated in contemporary English by Bob Beltz (Regal, 2007). Wilberforce confronted what he saw as “cultural” Christianity with what he felt was “authentic” Christianity. His words infuse the film Amazing Grace: “Get going. Be useful, generous, moderate, and self-denying in your manner of life. Treat the lack of positive action on your part as sin…. Seek to form friendships with men and women of other denominations who hold to the essentials of the faith, even if they differ in the non-essentials. Work together with them on this great task ….”


            I hope people remember Amazing Grace when next year’s award season begins; it is truly an amazing experience.


Sr. Rose's Oscar Picks 2007





Friday, February 23, 2007
Oscar-nominated films shed light on the human condition
By Sister Rose Pacatte, FSP
text only version

According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science web site, the goal of the organization is to honor "outstanding achievements, thus encouraging higher levels of quality in all facets of motion picture production." (

Of the 53 nominated films this year, I have seen 29 and almost all have achieved an admirable level of quality. Indeed, many can be considered art because they tell stories that matter. Some of them disturb us as they call us to reflection and action. They tap into conscience, humanity and the spiritual. Encounters with these films are what Sister Wendy Beckett calls "life enhancing moments" ("Joy Lasts: The Spiritual in Art," The J.P. Getty Museum, 2006).

It is with this idea in mind that I cast my votes for the best of the year and hopes for Oscar wins on Feb. 25.

Best Picture
Between "Babel," "The Departed," "Letters from Iwo Jima," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "The Queen," I hope "Babel" will win. It is this year's "Crash" on a global scale. It highlights the essential need for communication between people. I was particularly struck by the power of one hunting rifle as a means of communication and the sequence of events it set off.

Hands down, I vote for Martin Scorsese ("The Departed") whose brilliant crime caper and social commentary observed the rotted underbelly of a criminal organization that passed for family to its members. When the mob meets the family of law enforcement, characters we care about die, and the cycle of violence and systematic corruption continues in a complex dynamic that calls for good people to pay attention and do something.

Although I didn't see "Half Nelson" (and have not met anyone who has) I vote for Leonardo DiCaprio's performance in "Blood Diamond." His performance as a young, white African mercenary was intense, authentic, and moving. However, my guess is that Forest Whitaker will win rightfully for "The Last King of Scotland." One actor missing from this category, however, is Oscar Isaac, who played Joseph in "The Nativity Story."

My bet is that Helen Mirren will win for her role as Queen Elizabeth II in "The Queen" (though Judy Dench is just as deserving among the British acting royalty for "Notes on a Scandal"), but I hope that Penelope Cruz wins for "Volver." Cruz is simply amazing as a young mother who must deal with the spirits of the past in what is a touching, human, commedia as Dante might describe it; sorrow with a good ending.

Supporting Actor
I want Djimon Hounsou to win for his heart-wrenching role as the kidnapped father searching for his child-soldier son in "Blood Diamond," but I am going to bet that Eddie Murphy may claim this prize for his refreshing and revelation of a role in "Dreamgirls."

Supporting Actress
A popular surprise of a vote might single out Abilgail Breslin who charmed her way to our hearts in "Little Miss Sunshine," but the real winner in this category is Rinko Kikuchi as the young, deaf, isolated Japanese student in "Babel." Her performance was difficult and nuanced by an understanding of human suffering in ways usually only seen in small art-house movies. I would not be disappointed if Jennifer Hudson ("Dreamgirls") or Cate Blanchett ("Notes on a Scandal") were to win, either.

Foreign Language Film
I saw only two in this category: "Water" and "Pan's Labyrinth." Both were excellent but my vote goes to "Water" for its ability to enlarge our awareness of human reality beyond our borders and bring us into the heartbreaking, corrupt, noble, and courageous experience of widows in late-colonial and pre-Gandhi India.

Original Screenplay
I vote for "Pan's Labyrinth," by far the more difficult, complex and original of all the nominees, blending fantasy, faith, family, and humanity in a time and place when the innocent were betrayed for the sake of power.

Documentary Feature
Although my review of "An Inconvenient Truth" elicited the most negative feedback I have ever received for my reviews, I think it is the most deserving in this category. It is a glorified lecture, but it has global importance.

Live Action Short Film
Thanks to being a member of this jury at the Newport Beach International Film Festival last year when we gave "Binta and the Great Idea" our prize in this category, I was able to see this film and happy to see it nominated. Binta, a young African girl in a remote village, has an idea for peace and gets her father to set it in motion. If this film becomes available in DVD, every catechist will want to get a copy. I do hope it wins.

Visual Effects
I am a fan of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, but it's hard to beat the image of Superman catching a commercial airplane in a ballpark to prevent it from crashing. So "Superman Returns" gets my vote in this category.

Art Direction
This is a hard call but I am going with "Pan's Labyrinth." The art direction integrated all the dimensions of this film and created a landscape that perfectly reflected the film's emotional tenor, letting the hope that was within it to emerge to a new day.

"The Departed" gets my vote. The slick editing made the final ending as strong and completely surprising as the first.

Sound Editing
Just thinking of the essential role that sound plays in the emotional effectiveness of a film, my vote goes to "Flags of Our Fathers."

Costume Design
Because I visited the Motown Records Museum a few years ago and saw some of the original outfits on display, I am voting for "Dreamgirls." The costumes were authentic and helped create the ethos of the story.

Original Score
"Pan's Labyrinth" is the most memorable to me, so it gets my vote.

Original Song
My vote goes to "An Inconvenient Truth's" "I Need to Wake Up" by Melissa Etheridge, but all the songs are great in this category.

Animated Feature
I loved "Cars" for its imagination, humor, characters, and sense of community.

This Sunday, Feb. 25, the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will hold the 79th annual Academy Awards recognizing films, filmmakers, and actors from 2006.

The first Academy Awards were held in 1929 at Hollywood's historic Roosevelt Hotel; 250 people attended. The next year, the awards were broadcast by radio, and in 1953 the awards were seen on television for the first time. In 1966 the awards were broadcast in color and currently people in 100 countries can watch as the 8 ½ pound, 13-1/3 inch high golden statuette ispresented to stars and filmmakers. The Scientific and Technical Awards were given at a separate event Feb. 10 at the Regent Beverly Wilshire.

Among other faith-related film awards:
---Catholics in Media Awards for film are given annually in November ( by Catholics In Media Associates of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

---The Gabriel Awards are ( are given by the Academy for Communication Arts Professionals, a national Catholic communications organization.

---SIGNIS, the international, Vatican-approved organization for communication ( participates in many international film juries around the world and awards many deserving films each year.



Astronaut Farmer Movie

Charlie Farmer (Billy Bob Thorton; Sling Blade, Monster’s Ball)is a former pilot on track to fulfill his dream as an astronaut for NASA. When his father dies tragically, he quits the program to return home and save the family farm. He marries Audie (Virginia Madsen; Sideways) and they have three children, all of whom support Charlie’s dream of going into space. Charlie becomes tired of waiting, however, and he and his son, Shep (Max Theriot; The Pacifier, Nancy Drew) start to build a spaceship in the barn. When Charlie orders several thousand pounds of rocket fuel, however, the FBI takes notice. At the same time, the bank calls his loan on the farm. 

     Audie’s dad Hal (Bruce Dern) comes to visit and he notices how the family works together. He tells Charlie, “I could never get my kids to eat together, and you have your family dreaming together.” When Audie finds out how bad their finances are, she draws the line and things become tense. Charlie even calls one of his friends from NASA (played by an un-credited Bruce Willis in a kind of nod to Armageddon, a film about space in which he and Thorton starred) to see if he thinks Charlie’s plan to take off will work. Even though few continue to believe in him, Charlie presses on.


     When I was invited to a screening of The Astronaut Farmer I was told it was a “small film” as if not to expect very much. But early on in the film, when the judge sends Charlie to the nurse at the local school to be evaluated after he tosses a brick through the bank window to protest the immanent foreclosure on the farm, he and a student share a moment of misery that just made me smile. Thorton gives an excellent performance, as does Madsen when Charlie’s dreams and her need to preserve her family collide in the kitchen accompanied by flying saucers (dinner plates) as punctuation.


      By the end, I was very moved, and thought, “This is a movie you just have to like.”

    Made on a shoestring by Michael and Mark Polish (Twin Falls Idaho, North Fork), The Astronaut Farmer is about daring to dream. As Mark Polish told a group of journalists, the film is not about science, but about family. It’s full of heart and charm and it will make you smile.


Friday, February 16, 2007

Upcoming films reveal stories of slavery and human trafficking

Upcoming films reveal stories of slavery and human trafficking
text only version

With an estimated 28 million people worldwide living today as slaves, the Los Angeles-based Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) hosted an eighth anniversary celebration Feb. 11 designed to bring awareness to two new films that highlight both the abolition of slavery and the state of slavery and human trafficking today.

The event in Brentwood also honored Oscar-award winning actress Mira Sorvino, star of the Lifetime Channel's Emmy-nominated miniseries, "Human Trafficking," with the CAST Global Vision Award for her efforts to raise awareness about the plight of the 50,000 men, women and children who are trafficked into the United States every year, according to CIA estimates --- one person every ten minutes.

Slavery, Sorvino told guests in her acceptance speech, has never gone away --- and U.S. citizens don't understand this. "We as a nation are turning a blind eye to the situation," she said. "Somehow the suffering of others goes right on beneath our noses and we either don't recognize its signs, or we have been so inured to the marginalization of the poor and their sometimes squalid existence at the outskirts of our communities that we simply ignore the existence of old-fashioned slavery and the utter denial of human rights in our midst."

Sex and factory slaves are told by their captors that in the United States dogs have more rights than they do, noted Sorvino. She challenged members of the entertainment industry to consider how the Animal Planet network reality series "Animal Precinct," which documents the real life adventures ofpolice investigating animal cruelty around the country, "has experienced several seasons worth of success.

"Certainly it has raised awareness to the inhumane treatment of animals; it relies on cases that are generally reported by neighbors for its weekly content of busting malevolent animal owners and the rescue of their miserable pets. What about the idea of a true crime show --- based on the real life reporting, rescue and rehabilitation of trafficking survivors?"

The films highlighted at the event were "Amazing Grace" (to be released Feb. 23 and reviewed in the Feb. 23 Tidings) and "Trade" (set for a late August release). "Amazing Grace," directed by Michael Apted and made by Bristol Bay (a company owned by Denver businessman Philip Anshutz who also owns Walden Media), is the story of William Wilberforce whose direct efforts as a member of the British House of Commons led to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1807.

"Trade" follows the human trafficking tunnel from Mexico City to New Jersey. It stars Kevin Kline who plays a father who, while searching for his missing daughter in Juarez, Mexico, encounters the brother of a kidnapped victim. According to Heather Somani, a spokesperson for Lionsgate, the film received a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Also receiving awards from CAST were Los Angeles City Council president Eric Garcetti and Amy Elaine Weakland, the Community Partners Award recognizing their human rights activism; and attorney Michael Gennaco, the Founder's Award. As chief of the Civil Rights Section for the U.S. Attorney's office, Gennaco was the lead prosecutor in the El Monte slave case in 1995 when 70 Thai nationals were released from several years' bondage in a sewing factory.

CAST was founded in 1998 "to assist persons trafficked for the purpose of forced labor and slavery-like practices and to work toward ending all instances of such human rights violations." The Los Angeles-based communities of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary are active partner-sponsors of CAST as well.

For more information about human trafficking, visit CAST's website,; the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; and Amnesty International,

Actress Mira Sorvino was honored Feb. 11 for her efforts to promote awareness of human trafficking.