Thursday, December 3, 2009

SCN: Helena Taberna's THE GOOD NEWS opens Spanish fest with history & feeling

The combination of Fascism and the Catholic Church that runs through Helena Taberna's rich and moving film THE GOOD NEWS (La Buena nueva) should make the blood of any Progressive run cold. And yet her story is full of natural beauty and kindness, set in a time -- the Spanish Civil War -- when neither had much currency.

The film tells the story -- based on real people and events that took place during this time -- of a young, though not particularly naive priest, sent off to take over the parish in a small and lovely mountain town with a decidedly leftist population. Because Franco's forces are making headway through Spain, things will soon change, and the priest (a star-making performance from Unax Ugalde, at left) will find himself trying to uphold genuine Christian teachings and values, while protecting the citizenry from, first, the invading army and finally a Church that folds all too easily into the power-hungry, you're-with-us-or-against-us mindset of Franco's increasingly popular fascism.

The look of the film, above, is wonderfully right, without pushing its visuals or spending too much time drenching us in nostalgia. Everything -- from the haircuts to the church candles, the clothes and the uniforms -- seems correct. Except the peculiar combination of church vestments and rifles, shown below, which is precisely the point. I didn't realize that Jesus of Nazareth was so pro-military. If the Italian Church under Mussolini was cowardly and craven, the Spanish Church under Franco was all that and more: arrogant, brutish and nasty. The movie makes clear that, for the clergy, even more than for the general populace, there was no middle ground.

Our hero, played with a fine combination of amusement and rigor by Ugalde, is drawn to a young widow (the lovely Bárbara Goenaga, shown below) but Ms Taberna is too smart to turn this into soap opera. It's clear where her heart and mind are but she takes her priest through treacherous territory with his eyes open and his brain alert. Though his parishioners are more atheists than believers, they'll have their children "christened" in a heartbeat, once the Fascists gain control, and our man is happy to perform the christening, while reminding his higher-ups that Jesus tended to forgive the sinner and care for the poor.

Speaking to our own time, The Good News makes it clear how dangerous is a country in which Church and State combine. And while this particular atheist is no lover of religious sermon, I must admit how happy I was to hear again Jesus' Beatitudes from his Sermon of on the Mount, spoken by our priest as he leads the women of the town in a memorial service for their husbands, father and sons -- all executed by Franco's army, in collusion with those right-leaning townspeople -- and the Church. In a time when fundamentalist Christianity preaches hatred and divisiveness along with greater material gain, and our most popular and successful religious film celebrates torture porn, how wonderful to hear a sermon of kindness and caring again, which, after all, was what Jesus actually taught. (Mel Gibson should only see this movie.) Lest we forget, Ms Taberna (pictured below, flanked by her two stars), with pain and grace, allows us to remember.

The Good News open this years Spanish Cinema Now fest and plays at the Walter Reade Theater this Friday, December 4, at 2:15; Sunday, December 6, at 3; and Friday, December 11, at 8:50. Click here for schedule and ticket information.

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