Films are an important feature of popular culture, but can they also be a vehicle for theological enquiry? Veritas thinks they can! Every month during the Year of Faith, we offer a Film of the Month,which we invite you to watch, reflect on and discuss. As an initiative for the Year of Faith, you might like to start a Year of Faith Film Club in your work, school or parish community where these films can be discussed and shared. Film reviews are kindly written by Rev. Dr John-Paul Sheridan, PhD.
Film of the Month for December: It’s a Wonderful Life!
This is a film which many people have seen the beginning of, the end of or clips of, but have not sat down to watch from start to finish. Traditionally shown during the Christmas season, its uplifting message is still as pertinent today as it was when it was released in 1946. It explores some valuable themes and is worthy of close attention and study. At a time in the year when we often celebrate excess, it reminds the viewer of the true and important things in life. Ultimately it reminds us of the impact we have on one anothers’ lives and that if we have friends, then we have riches far more lasting and valuable than monetary wealth.
The film was produced and directed by Frank Capra, one of the most popular directors of the 1930s and 40s. During the Great Depression his films were seen to be inspiring and uplifting.
It’s a Wonderful Life was not initially well received by the public, an indication to some that the popularity of Capra’s style was on the wane. It was nominated for five Oscars but won none. Capra always said that it was his favourite film, and over time it became a family favourite for many people. It was listed eleventh among the top one hundred American films ever made.
The film was based on a short story, The Greatest Gift, written by Philip Van Doren Stern. Van Doren Stern couldn’t get a publisher for the story and had it printed as a Christmas card instead, whereupon it came to the attention of a film producer. Capra eventually bought the rights to the story in 1945, and it cost over $3 million to make – a substantial amount at that time.
James Stewart plays the part of George Bailey, and Donna Reed plays his wife Mary. The part of his nemesis is played by Lionel Barrymore, one of the three Barrymore siblings, legends of the silver screen. Stewart was reluctant to do the picture so quickly after the end of World War II. He was persuaded by Barrymore.
An enduring theme in a number of Capra’s films was the ability of one person to triumph over a corrupt system. In his biography, The Name Above the Title, he states:
It was my film for my kind of people. A film to tell the weary, disheartened, and the disillusioned; the wino, the junkie, those behind prison walls and those behind Iron Curtains, that no man is a failure! To show those born slow of foot or slow of mind, those oldest sisters condemned to spinsterhood, and those oldest sons condemned to unschooled toil, that each man’s life touches so many other lives. And that if he isn’t around it would leave an awful hole.
A film that said to the downtrodden, the pushed-around, the pauper, ‘Heads up, fella. No man is poor who has one friend. Three friends and you’re filthy rich.’ A film that expressed its love for the homeless and the loveless; for her whose cross is heavy and him whose touch is ashes; for the Magdalenes stoned by hypocrites and the afflicted Lazaruses with only dogs to lick their sores. I wanted it to shout to the abandoned grandfathers staring vacantly in nursing homes, to the always-interviewed but seldom adopted half-breed orphans, to the paupers who refuse to die while medical vultures wait to snatch their hearts and livers, and to those who take cobalt treatments and whistle – I wanted to shout, “You are the salt of the earth. And It’s a Wonderful Life is my memorial to you!”
- Community versus the will of the individual - What is of value versus what is of worth - Our impact on others - David versus Goliath - Personal ambition and dreams versus the reality of life’s obligations - Sacrifice - Redemption
For a film synopsis and questions for reflection, please click here.