Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Movie Review: The Christmas Candle

A couple nights ago I was invited to a special pre-screening of The Christmas Candle, the film adaptations of Max Lucado's book. I briefly met Rick Santorum, the former presidential candidate and current CEO of EchoLight Studios, which made the movie. It is coming out in theaters November 22. I will refrain from spoilers.

My first thought of the whole experience was, "I've seen this movie before." Not the movie itself, but the message. I saw it when The Passion of the Christ came out. The Passion was a huge commercial success, both domestically and worldwide. It was a well done film. It did not, however, have a major cultural impact. There are two reasons, one of them obvious enough: It is very difficult and rare for a single film to have a major cultural impact. The other is less obvious but Christians should bear it in mind as they are exhorted to flood the theaters in support of The Christmas Candle. Everyone knew that Christians thought it a matter of Christian duty to go see The Passion, and because of that, there will always be an asterisk beside The Passion's success in the culture. In other words, The Passion's success didn't "count" to most people because the church-going public came out in droves to see it and then promptly disappeared, never to be heard from again. The movie industry knows that a similar but not identical audience shows up in droves regularly for animated family films from studios like Pixar, and that has made a major cultural impact for sure. Pixar and other companies know they will make bank on movies like this, and so they keep making them, one after the other. Parents know that several times a year they can take the whole family out to the movies for a good time without worrying about giving their kids nightmares, and the movie industry knows how to make can't miss blockbusters. There is no evidence of a similar relationship between the movie industry and Christian movie buffs. That permanent place in the film industry appears to be the goal of EchoLight Studios and they are banking on The Christmas Candle to kick it off.

And then the movie started, and all of that went away. The Christmas Candle is a genuinely heartwarming fairy tale about a town with a special Christmas tradition, and a brand new pastor who tries to change it. His efforts have both positive and negative results, and even though the film is set in 1890s England, it feels not just relevant, but intensely relevant to today. There is a new technology called "electricity" that is changing the world and making everyone's lives better, but those resisting it see some of their worst fears realized and their most cherished traditions and beliefs threatened.

The major themes of the movie are faith, doubt and prayer, and the primary doubting figure, again realistic and relevant to today, is the pastor himself. The new pastor goes on a mission to show his congregation what he believes in: helping each other. Instead of hoping, praying and waiting for a miracle, the pastor inspires the church to help each other in their every day lives, and thus wins their hearts. But he also goes a bit overboard in challenging their beliefs, and as the movie progresses, we eventually come to understand the source of his disbelief, and it is very human indeed. The interplay of faith and doubt in the story is beautifully done, and it is not diminished by the fairy tale aspects of the movie. At all times the audience is invited to understand the allusions being made. This process is gentle, inviting and beautiful. It is not preachy, and I can't see any non-believer being made uncomfortable by the movie itself. Rather, I see them being drawn into hope that the faith of the townspeople is rewarded.

That's the movie, and I encourage the reader to go see it. It remains to be seen whether Christians promoting the film will be true to its spirit. The film is very gentle in handling virtually all aspects of faith and doubt. There are characters on every part of the spectrum here. There is the doubting Thomas who has trouble believing but never quite stops believing either. There is the one who never had faith and comes to it. There are the simple believers, who seem incapable of disbelief and are at times comic in their simplicity, but have a strength which cannot be denied or overcome. There is the one for whom faith and tradition is his birthright, and he forsakes it, even after having seen a miracle with his own eyes. There were several moments like this in the film where I could clearly identify lessons from Scripture, but the film barely even registers on the Richter scale of preachiness. Mr. Santorum and EchoLight are marketing the movie, at least to Christians, by asking us to name a film we've seen in theaters around Christmastime that is actually about the Christmas story like this one is, but halfway through the movie I suddenly realized not only had there been almost nothing about the Christmas story, I had not even heard the name of Jesus Christ mentioned even once. As if on queue, there was a montage of the pastor reading Bible stories to a bedridden man diagnosed with "consumption". (I love the historical accuracy here. We now know the most of the time "consumption" diagnoses were in fact tuberculosis, a disease virtually unknown in modern first world countries due to widespread childhood vaccination.) The pastor reads these stories, and as far as I could tell, that was the only time in the entire movie I even heard Jesus' name despite several scenes of sermons in church. But the story is chock full of Scriptural allusions that are clearly to be seen by those who know it, yet are an organic part of the story for those who may not. In the end, the Christmas story emerges as a surprise, a relief and a victory, much like the original.

It is important that Christians do not overdo this. It is important we do not think of this as our only chance. Christians are starved for movies like this, and like all starving people there is a temptation to partake more than is healthy. Rest assured, Rick Santorum and the obviously competent, sensitive and good people at EchoLight Studios are in this for the long haul. The Christmas Candle is only opening in four hundred theaters, and it may never break a thousand.  It's release date of November 22nd puts it into direct competition with the second Hunger Games movie. Obviously if the evangelical community gets behind this film, it will be successful, but an independent film that opens in four hundred theaters is successful if it makes a profit and exceeds expectations, even if it marks Susan Boyle's acting debut. It doesn't have to move mountains, and it probably won't. The goal here is not to make the life or death of this movie the final battle on which all depends. It ignores Hollywood; it doesn't try to defeat it. It portrays real people with real faith and real prayer. It is not the end, regardless of what happens at the box office. It's the beginning. I'm happy to say this beginning is very good, much like the original.  

Now that's whack.