My (Jesuit) Life in Five Films

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Movies, more specifically movie-watching, has taken up an inordinate amount of time in my life. Because I teach and study films, I’m often asked to reflect on how movies impact real life. And so, below are five films, which are not (necessarily) my “favorites,” nor do I consider them to be the “best” of any particular category. Rather these are five films which, for better or worse, have stayed with me and continue to remind me of distinct moments in my life.

“The Empire Strikes Back” (Irvin Kershner, 1980)

While not my first cinematic experience (that honor goes to the low-budget “Jaws” rip-off “Piranha” (Joe Dante, 1978), “The Empire Strikes Back” is the most entrenched in memories of my early development movie going. I was too young to see the original “Star Wars” in the movie theater, so this was my introduction to Luke, Leia, Han, et al. — and I was all in. I had all the merch: an X-wing fighter; the Millennium Falcon; a case in the shape of Darth Vader’s head where I kept all my Star Wars figures; and, my favorite: a miniature version of Cloud City, where, after a pretty awesome lightsaber dual with Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker discovered the identity of his father.

But it was Yoda who stood out. Something about his kind, gentle nature in the midst of all the chaos and violence of the “Star Wars” world appealed to me, supported no doubt by his voice’s suspicious resemblance to my favorite Muppet, Fozzie Bear. The film was released in the summer of 1980 which coincided with the period of time when my father was dying of Hodgkin’s disease. In some way, Yoda’s gentle guidance of the orphaned, frequently rage-filled young Luke Skywalker appealed to me as my world began to spin out of control.

Yoda, seated on Luke’s shoulder as he walked through the dark, unknown swamp of Dagobah, was a consoling image to my six-year-old self, who found the world of guardian angels a bit too elevated and abstract. Yoda on my shoulder made sense to me and provided a calming image as I began to enter a very dark period in my young life.

“Heathers” (Michael Lehmann, 1988)

A dark, dark film that coincided with my “atheist phase,” as I like to call the roughly 15-year period of disbelief spanning my early teens to late 20s. For a not-so-popular teenager growing up in the Midwest, this high school revenge fantasy starring Gen X “it” girl and boy, Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, was a necessary relief from the relentlessly Machiavellian social structure of American high school life.

Screenwriter Daniel Waters’ cleverly profane word craft coupled with the movie’s entry-level art film mise-en-scène, made for a pseudo-sophisticated high school movie snob’s (that was me!) cinematic dream. The film was the prototype for the much lighter and more mainstream high school films “Clueless” (Amy Heckerling, 1995) and “Mean Girls” (Mark Waters, 2004), though perhaps its appeal to disaffected adolescence and the discomfort it evoked in older audiences speaks more to divisive media output like the HBO series “Euphoria” (2019- ).

“Waiting for Guffman” (Christopher Guest, 1996)

When I was finishing my undergraduate degree and attempting to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, an improvisor friend of mine casually recommended Christopher Guest’s mockumentary about a community theater in the Midwest. This was the first in Guest’s collection of mockumentary films and established his ensemble of actors who would appear in a succession of similarly developed all-improvised movies, including Second City veterans Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy.

After hundreds of viewings of “Waiting for Guffman,” I decided to give improvisation a try, if for no other reason than that I could quote the film front to back. (Nothing says “improvisation” more than memorizing an entire film script word for word.) Alas, improv comedy became my first love and really the only one that hasn’t broken my heart … yet.

“The Exorcist” (William Friedkin, 1973)

My first film studies course happened by accident or Providence, depending on your theology — I was enrolled in the required first-year English research paper class that happened to focus on film. In addition to introducing me to the field of academic study to which I would ultimately devote my life, the class also introduced me to the Jesuits.

For our final paper, our professor informed us that we could write on the film of our choice. I knew immediately I was going to write about “The Exorcist.” I had never been able to sit through it in its entirety before. Whenever it was shown on television during my childhood, I would vow to watch the whole thing. However, the minute the little girl, Regan (Linda Blair) urinated on the floor at the party and told the astronaut (Dick Callinan), “You’re going to die up there,” I’d be halfway out of the room. 

Watching “The Exorcist” became a rite of passage, a way of proving to myself that I had conquered the fears of childhood. Like a good film scholar, I watched it multiple times, and in doing so drained the film of any power it had over me. But perhaps my greatest takeaway from the film was that the exorcists were Jesuit priests. Having not attended any Jesuit-run institutions, I was not familiar with the order. Some 10 years later when discerning a vocation to the priesthood, somebody mentioned I might be interested in looking at the Jesuits. My mind immediately turned to this film, and I though to myself: “I could totally be an exorcist!”

“Calvary” (John Michael McDonagh, 2014)

And so I found myself a middle-aged priest in Ireland in the wake of the clerical abuse crisis writing about a film about a middle-aged priest in Ireland in the wake of the abuse crisis. Spending the better part of five years poring over “Calvary” and similarly less-than-uplifting cinematic fare was a rather surreal experience. I would pass my days as a doctoral candidate at Trinity College Dublin researching depictions of the priest in modern Irish films and in my spare time would be acting as a priest, working part-time at the Jesuit parish in north Dublin.

Calvary” tells the story of Fr. James (Brendan Gleeson), a cleric in a rural community in the West of Ireland. An unknown man in the confessional booth tells Fr. James that he will murder him in one week’s time. The unknown man reveals that he is a survivor of clerical sexual abuse and that he will kill Fr. James precisely because he is a “good” priest.

The film then follows Fr. James over the course of the week as he attempts to continue to minister to his parish community, an assemblage of broken individuals, all attempting, through various unhealthy ways, to survive in the aftermath of economic collapse, revelations of government corruption and continual public disclosures of clerical abuse.

The film is an overstuffed, yet very accurate, depiction of an Ireland living in the wake of years of oppression and abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church. While rejecting this past, in the character of Fr. James, the film acknowledges the many well-intentioned, Christ-loving people working in and with the church. “Calvary” presents no easy answers about the future of the Church in Ireland or the world. And while I can’t offer any myself, I can say, like Fr. James, I will remain to the end, in spite of it all.

Contributed by:

Fr. Jake Martin, SJ, is an assistant professor of film studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He received his Ph.D. in Film Studies from Trinity College Dublin in 2023.