Compelling Films on Crime and Idealism
Two top picks to see at Portland Film Festival
10/26/2021, 11:34 a.m.
“The Berrigans: Devout and Dangerous” offers a compelling portrait of two priests and a nun who married one of them; all three of whom were among the most radical voices against the Vietnam War and many other causes for more than 50 years.
Daniel Berrigan and Phillip Berrigan grew up in a Catholic family of six sons. Though both were critical of the church from a young age, they were also devout—and they shared a prophetic inclination to name hypocrisy and corruption in the church and in American culture while engaging the truth they saw at great personal cost. Both became priests, but also became radicals.
The zenith of their fame occurred in the 1960s; both had become pacifists (Phillip after serving in World War II) and both were deeply critical of the Vietnam War. Phillip also spoke out quite eloquently against war, racism, and poverty as inseparable strands of a corrupt economic system, and of how certain communities were consistently treated as expendable, in language that was clear and would still read radical to many today. Daniel was teaching and writing openly against the war and in conflict with church authorities. In 1967, Phillip and three friends broke into the Baltimore Customs house and methodically defaced Selective Service records with a red liquid made partly from their own blood. The following year, Philip, Daniel, and seven others removed hundreds of files from the draft board office and burned them with homemade napalm.
Both brothers were convicted of federal crimes and both were in and out of jail and federal prison for various efforts to interfere with government operations. During a term in prison, Phillip fell in love with a nun, Elizabeth McAlister, and the two of them eventually married and were excommunicated from the Catholic Church. They had three children and remained committed activists throughout their 29-year marriage (Phillip died in 2002); they spent 11 of those years separated by prison for various acts of civil disobedience. Daniel wrote 50 books and continued a life of protest until his death in 2016.
The picture of these three activists presented in the film is offered largely through the voices of Phillip and Elizabeth’s three children and also various people whom they inspired and influenced, including actor Martin Sheen and Daniel Ellsberg, who speaks of how their example influenced his decision to release the Pentagon Papers. What emerges is a picture of profound faith and unusually clear commitment; the Berrigans had a way of acting freely in the face of authority, with a remarkable lack of any inclination toward deference. A quintessential image of Daniel, handcuffed with his hand offering a peace sign, calmly smiling, captures an implacable determination that he shared with his brother and sister-in-law.
The activism of the Berrigans was much more consistent than their fame; they protested various wars and the implements of war long after public support for such protests had waned, and expressed consistent indictments of secular and ecclesiastic authorities, often with little support. Daniel, the more prolific public voice, wrote of discouragement, and of the challenges of speaking up for the truth when no one was listening. Yet they all persisted—as Phillip’s and Elizabeth’s children describe them, they were never caught up in the stream of American life, but rather functioned as rocks in the stream, always checking themselves against the gospel.
The partnership depicted in “The Falconer,” the first feature film to be shot entirely in Oman, draws from a true story of two teenagers whose friendship traverses differences in class. Tariq, the son of a poor beekeeper, and Cai, a privileged Westerner who has spent many years living in Tariq’s home village, share a companionship that feels lived in. But Tariq, more than Cai, is painfully aware of how their class differences impact how they experience the world. Cai can and does leave the village to travel from time to time, and is making plans to attend college in Canada and to nurture his passion for endangered animals.
Tariq’s more precarious life hits a crisis point when his sister Alia needs help to escape from an abusive marriage. Tariq devises a plan to steal animals from the zoo where he and Cai work and to sell them on the black market in order to raise the considerable sum necessary for Alia to obtain a divorce—and though Cai is reluctant at first, he goes along to help his friend, imposing his own ethical reasoning to which animals they can steal. Cai has himself already stolen a falcon, which he aims to train and, ultimately, to free, and the discussions between the two subtly highlight how Cai’s seemingly more complex approach to moral choices actually mostly reflects his privilege; Tariq may be less concerned about justifying his choices, but is keenly aware of the lack of choices available to his sister and the far-more-than-theoretical stakes that drive him to high stakes options that Cai would reject. Ultimately, their friendship is rocked and Cai’s dedication to his stolen falcon becomes a catalyst for a collaboration that ever-so-slightly shifts the power dynamics between the two friends. The freedom of the falcon and freedom for Alia become connected.
The film is beautifully shot, and feels like an intimate view of life in a part of the world that Americans rarely see. And this is a film with little exposition; it mostly depicts, with sensitivity, dynamics of power that impact moral choices in ways we tend not to reckon with.
Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie and theater review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her review blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.