George Bailey and Mary Hatch's charming "Buffalo Gals" duet, or the impromptu choir-like renditions of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "Auld Lang Syne" at the end constitute more than a soundtrack, Fr. Blake says. They reflect Capra's appreciation for music's role in building community, a legacy of his boyhood years spent singing with his family in the Catholic church choir in his native Sicily.
This facet of Capra's childhood experience helps imbue "Wonderful Life" - like many of his other films - with a religious dimension, especially its celebrated musical finale, said Fr. Blake, who is film critic for America magazine.
"'Auld Lang Syne' is an affirmation of the community's renewal through the suffering and triumph of George, their inspirational leader," he said. "Capra is suggesting a rebirth, the start of a new era in the life of George Bailey and the people of Bedford Falls."
Capra is one of six prominent American directors whose use of Catholic symbolism and imagery Fr. Blake explores in his new book AfterImage . Sub-titled The Indelible Catholic Imagination of Six American Filmmakers, the book also examines the films of Martin Scorsese, John Ford, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma and Alfred Hitchcock.
Prof. Richard Blake, SJ (Fine Arts)
Fr. Blake uses the concept of the afterimage - the image that remains in the mind's eye after a stimulus ceases or is removed - as the metaphor for these filmmakers' Catholic imaginations, as well as the book's title.
"At some point in their lives, and in varying degrees, these six found themselves distanced from the original stimulus of their childhood religious experiences," he explained. "But the stimulus was so strong that, like a photographer's flashbulb, it left an afterimage on the artistic imagination long afterward.
"In fact, even though each of them might shut his eyes and turn away to other, non-Catholic stimuli," Fr. Blake continued, "the afterimage intrudes and adds a halo of meaning to the object of their conscious attention."
Fr. Blake selected the six not only for their stature in film history but because they represent different kinds of Catholics, from Scorsese and De Palma's contrasting experiences as Italian-Americans to Ford's upbringing in a Maine Irish-Catholic setting, as well as the English-born Hitchcock's eventual metamorphosis as an American Catholic.
"For all these differences, their films show an unmistakable and identifiable spiritual kinship," Fr. Blake said. "Almost without exception, they display a Catholic sense of sin, guilt, atonement and redemption. Their most virtuous heroes struggle with grace as members of a communion of sinners. They seek redemption within a community rather than as individuals, and often salvation is mediated by a loving, self-sacrificing savior."
In an introductory chapter, Fr. Blake examines movie critics' general reluctance to utilize religion as an analytical tool. He also identifies major characteristics of the Catholic imagination - sacramentality, mediation and communion - and, building on an article by moral theologian James Keenan, SJ, lists familiar traits of the Catholic imagination as represented in movies: Catholics' love of saints, devotional activities, mentoring, narratives of moral growth, for example, and their regard for hierarchies.
Fr. Blake then devotes a chapter to each filmmaker, offering a brief biographical sketch with particular attention to the director's Catholic background.
In his section on Coppola, Fr. Blake identifies "The Conversation" as the director's most Catholic film and describes the protagonist's failed attempt at salvation through good works, ending with his isolation from the redemption of love. The film exemplifies a central tenet of many Coppola films, the conflict between public morality and private life.
Ford's work is characterized by Fr. Blake as a "Journey to an Everlasting Kingdom," as seen in films like "Stagecoach," where the main characters endure an ordeal of purification and, at the end, are free to seek a promised land together. While it is unlikely Ford intended the film as a religious allegory, Fr. Blake says, his notions of community, salvation, conscience and life as a journey to a homeland in the hereafter reflect a Catholic imagination.
"I look upon religious tradition rather like DNA in the bone marrow," Fr. Blake said. "It influences the way a person thinks and imagines, and if that person is an artist then that tradition is sure to be found in the products of his or her imagination."
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