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Road Trips!

Los Angeles

Amid photos of the glitzy icons of the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles -- pictures of the likes of Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick -- a prayer revealed the focus of the eight feature films about to be screened.

Los Angeles archdiocese communications specialist Fr. Anthony Scannell prayed that viewers’ eyes would open to “the mysterious ways the spirit hitchhikes with us.” Scannell’s words were a segue to “Roadtrip! Moving with the Spirit,” the theme of the seventh-annual City of the Angels Film Festival held here Nov. 10-12.

An exploration of the spiritual dimensions of Hollywood and international film, the festival constructively engages an entertainment medium some would dismiss as modern culture’s Great Satan. City of the Angels combines an insider appreciation of Hollywood art with a passionate commitment to the movies’ ability to illuminate human spirituality.

The year’s festival explored the road-trip genre with eight films: “Run, Lola, Run,” “The Searchers,” “Central Station,” “Paris, Texas,” “The Wages of Fear,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and “Badlands.”

Festival chairperson the Rev. Scott Young said the road-trip genre spans thematic poles from “the outlaw on the run” to “the saint on a pilgrimage.” But both the extremes allow glimpses of the divine. People flee “to find some freedom,” Young said. Their “journeys of escape are interrupted,” he explained, by “an encounter ... with the spiritual.”

Such was Young’s spin on the 1998 film “Run, Lola, Run,” screened on opening night. Reminiscent of famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 “Rashomon,” German director-writer Tom Twyker tells the same story over and over. Protagonist Lola scurries to try to save her lover Manni, who loses a bag of money and is about to give account for his bumbled courier job to his gangster bosses.

To the relentless pounding of its techno-pop sound track, the film replays Lola’s desperate attempts to rescue Manni with differences in timing and outcome each time. During the first version, Lola ends up helping Manni with a store heist to regain the lost loot, but dies in the process. On the second attempt, it’s Manni who dies. On try No. 3, Lola prays.

And she gets an answer. Entering a casino with the clock clicking the minutes to Manni’s pay-up time, Lola wins the money she needs to save her lover. We then discover Manni himself has recovered the lost funds, so the young lovers now can enjoy the windfall of Lola’s lucky bust.

Where, in the split-screen postmodern images of Lola’s frantic attempts for live-in Manni, do people of faith see their own journey?

City of the Angels co-chair and executive producer Cecilia González-Andrieu singled out “Run, Lola, Run” as “full of theological images.” Impressive for González-Andrieu was Lola’s cry for help before the big casino win. Her turn toward what seemed God was “as close to a mystical prayer as you get,” said González-Andrieu.

Though not stopping her run, Lola seems to be saying, “I’m emptying myself enough that you can fill me, that you can lead me,” believes González-Andrieu. “It was almost Benedictine.”

Lola is “learning from thinking of what … the possibilities are” each time the story repeats, González-Andrieu said. And film itself offers the chance to profit from other people’s journeys, even those as morally fuzzy as Lola’s. Faith “is how do you make a decision at this particular moment,” said González-Andrieu. “Faith is to be lived,” she added, “and film lets you kind of live through an experience and examine yourself.”

The organizers and sponsors of City of the Angels lend an ecumenical breadth to the festival’s search for cinematic spirituality. The 14 members of the 2000 festival coalition include prominent evangelical groups such as Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., as well as the Los Angeles archdiocese.

The Rev. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller, values the Catholic-evangelical connection. “One of the things that we have lacked … is credibility in the film business,” Mouw said of evangelicals, often dismissed by Hollywood because of their critical stance. “There are many evangelicals and Roman Catholics who are very serious about bringing their faith to bear on the industry,” he said.

Mouw was instrumental in the genesis of the festival, which also grew out of Cardinal Roger Mahony’s 1992 pastoral letter, “Film Makers, Film Viewers: Their Challenges and Opportunities,” Young wrote in his introductory essay to the festival program.

The screening of the 1956 John Ford classic, “The Searchers,” demonstrated how City of the Angels’ unique readings of film could detect the voice of the prophet in such a venerable icon of Western bravado as John Wayne, who plays lead character Ethan Edwards.

Returning to Texas after the Civil War, Edwards embarks on a five-year search for his young niece, Debbie, captured by Comanche Indians at the story’s start. Debbie’s growing into womanhood in the tribe taints her for Edwards, who decides to kill her. But, despite the hatred, Edwards spares his niece in the end.

“We know that Ethan is a racist,” said screenwriter John Hancock during a panel discussion following the screening. “But there’s a part of us that’s hoping for redemption.”

Hancock added that delaying Edward’s transformation to the very end would scare away today’s politically correct filmmakers. It is the ambiguity, however, that paves the way for the character’s profound moral journey, the panel commented.

“You don’t just have the good guys and the bad guys, you’ve got a blurring of those things,” said panelist William Romanowsky, professor of communications arts and sciences at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. As the Rev. James Wall of the mainline Protestant Christian Century pointed out in his introduction to the movie, the film is about the protagonist Edward’s search for “his own life understanding.”

Closing the festival, the 1998 Brazilian film “Central Station” dotted its characters’ journey with explicit religious images, including a candlelight procession. The film tells the story of a Brazilian boy, Josué, and the professional letter-writer, Dora, he encounters in the Rio de Janeiro train station where the action begins.

After a bus kills the boy’s mother, Dora reluctantly accompanies Josué on a protracted search for the estranged father, whom the boy’s mother had paid Dora to write on her behalf.

“This is one film that … there’s no possibility we could be erring on the side of reading too much theology,” said González-Andrieu, participating on the festival’s closing panel. “It’s so profoundly religious.”

Panelist Michael Mata, assistant professor of urban ministry at Claremont School of Theology, added, “it’s a very spiritual landscape we’re looking at.”

Nominated for the 1999 Oscar for Foreign Language film, the movie’s emotional and spiritual impact wasn’t lost on Kelly Giles, a Los Angeles immigration attorney who watched the film. An orphan himself, Giles said, he saw in the movie not only a “universal longing for the father” in earthly terms, but as a “reflection of a universal longing for heavenly father.”

In the words of González-Andrieu, “We bring people … to this experience of art and theology one person at a time.”

Ted Parks writes from Malibu, Calif. He may be reached at tparks5560@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000