In his 1956 masterpiece The Searchers, the director John Ford depicts a brutal struggle for survival between the Comanche people and European settlers. Set in West Texas of the late 1860s, The Searchers is also, at its heart, a story about families and their patriarchs. The two great men in the film are Uncle Ethan (powerfully depicted by John Wayne) and the Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon). Uncle Ethan and Scar are essentially the same man; both are embittered and hardened by war, and both men are capable of tremendous violence in defense of their peoples. After Uncle Ethan rescues his niece Debbie from Scar, he brings her home to the newly established Texan civilization.
However, in the famous “doorway scene,” Ethan remains outside of the house and home that welcomes Debbie as the door shuts. The message is that while Ethan’s violence and hardness make him a great bounty-hunter, they also keep him outside civilization. John Wayne’s Ethan is essentially a pagan hero, capable of brute force but lacking civilization and true Christian qualities. Uncle Ethan’s brutal pathos has come back in vogue in post millennial.
The “Wild West” of Montana has been in vogue recently with the popular—but, like much of twenty-first century television, full of morally objectionable material—Yellowstone series (2018-), as well as its spinoff series 1923 and 1883. However, these works often depict the West as a place of brutal slaughter and un-redemptive nihilistic bleakness.
Such a depiction of the “unchurched” West, with its strong streak of libertarianism, is not without accuracy or justification. However, the West was also a place of great Catholic missionary work undertaken by figures such as Fr. Pierre-Jean De Smet SJ, the Benedictines, and the Sisters of Charity, who spread the Gospel amid the bleakness of the West, founding numerous churches, hospitals, schools, and universities.
In his recent film Sanctified, the Catholic filmmaker Daniel Bielinski creates a deeply moving tale of redemption and sacrifice amidst the cruel beauty of the North Dakota Badlands in the 1890s. Echoing the sober and cruel realism of the American Western, Sanctified (which is sub-titled “A North Dakota Western”) provides bleak and honest but ultimately edifying portrait of the West of a place of suffering but also of redemption.
Bielinski—who is Chair of Dramatic Arts at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota—plays Weston, an orphan who was raised by a gang of outlaws headed by the brutal Shaw (Andrew E. Wheeler). Weston and his brother Emmett (Carl Swanson) encounter a nun (Tiffany Cornwell) traveling to Williston, North Dakota, through the badlands. What initially appears to be an impending brutal robbery and possibly a murder is thwarted when the nun pleads with Weston for her life. Weston, who is thought of as the more brutal of the two brothers, relents in attacking the nun, who reveals her name is Sr. Hildegard.
Throughout the course of the film, it is revealed that Weston, despite his roguishness, is searching for something more than a life of crime and violence. And the same magnanimity, or greatness of spirit, that makes him a talented bandit also enables him, by the end of the film, to be a hero.
The film deals with the central theme of human suffering and the question of how an all-loving God can allow such violence and cruelty in the world. As the film unfolds, we learn that Sr. Hildegard herself has a tragic past. At the same time, we see acts of simple kindness that demonstrate even amidst the roughness of the world, humans are capable of great love and sacrifice.
Moreover, the notion of God’s presence in the sacraments and the profound work of charity performed by Catholic religious throughout the American West is highlighted in the film—especially at the end. At the same time, Bielinski avoids giving a “Hallmark Christmas movie” ending, pointing to the fact that the “happy ending” to human life is often found in heaven and not in this world.
This is perhaps the film’s strongest point. Bielinski, like Catholic novelists Graham Greene and Shusaku Endo, demonstrates that in this world suffering and joy are often intertwined. The human heart is a battleground for good and evil; there are no cardboard figures or comic book heroes in Sanctified.
Sanctified is, thankfully, a clean film with a couple of moments of rough language, as well as an awkward conversion between Sr. Hildegard and Weston.
The film is another sign that Catholic filmmakers are making works of art that are intelligent and well-crafted, as well as theologically sound and morally edifying, providing both entertainment and hope for us living amidst the Badlands of this world.
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Charity covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). “We see acts of simple kindness that demonstrate even amidst the roughness of the world, humans are capable of great love and sacrifice”.
An anomaly of our human nature is the frequently seen marked good, compassion and great effort by those of us who live a life distant from religious folks. Bishop Fulton Sheen, Life is Worth Living spoke about the down and out alcoholic who is honest about his weakness and simply deals with life as well as can be lived, and who is in Sheen’s eyes more worthy of redemption than the self righteous righteous.
It seems Sheen was on to something real about our nature, and what matters to God, honesty and humility like the back row publican beating his breast in compunction. Example given us by Christ. There’s a peace in that realization that subverts presumption. Catherine of Siena realized her failures, at least as accused by her conscientious tormentor Satan. When he accused her of something or other, she would own it. Place herself in his wounds. Love and humility. That, according to her manuscript The Dialogues frustrated him, foiled in his attempt to discourage her.