The Corner

St. Mary the Virgin, and a New Movie

The high-church Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin is a brilliant jewel right off Manhattan’s Times Square. On Saturday evening it played host to a packed-to-the-rafters concert by early-music veterans the Tallis Scholars, performing works by Orlande de Lassus and other Renaissance composers, along with a couple of modern songs by Arvo Pärt. It was inspiring to see such a huge crowd of New Yorkers so moved by this religious repertoire, in such a lovely venue.

On Friday night, coincidentally, I saw a new movie called Certainty, a romantic comedy-drama about a couple of twentysomethings who get engaged and decide to participate in what Catholics call the “pre-Cana” process: a period of discernment in which couples examine themselves as they prepare for marriage, under the guidance of a priest and of couples who are already married. The movie works as a comedy and as a drama, with solid performances all around. But what’s especially remarkable is the seriousness with which the film takes religion, and Catholicism specifically. The male lead character is a lapsed Catholic who is kind-hearted but very angry at the Church; his fiancée is a sweet but somewhat insecure young woman who is reconnecting with the Catholicism of her childhood. Both perspectives are presented intelligently and respectfully. Think about how unusual that is: a film that is neither anti-Catholic propaganda nor shameless Catholic salesmanship. On the anti-Catholic meter, I counted only one and a half pedophile-priest jokes, which is surely a record low number for the past decade of films about Catholicism (just enough to avoid the charge of ignoring the “elephant in the room”). And on the Catholic-boosterism scale, I note that unmarried characters in the film are depicted as having normal, healthy sex lives that do not end up ruining their relationships — a plot point that would surely not have been permitted if the film had been a product of U.S. Catholic officialdom.

To come full circle: At one point, the Catholic fiancée is walking in Midtown Manhattan, and is possessed by the urge to go into a church and quietly meditate. The church she goes into is unmistakably . . . the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. You can always trust the high-church Anglicans to give you a church that looks convincingly Catholic. (I was recounting to one of my older colleagues a few years ago a Mass at St. Mary’s in honor of the Blessed Virgin on one of her traditional feasts, and noted that on their procession into the nave, the ministers paused to bow to a statue of the B.V.M. My senior colleague said, “That’s how you knew it wasn’t a Catholic church.” A lot of sagacity about the post-Vatican II changes, in that rueful comment . . .)

So should you see Certainty? If you want to see a lighthearted movie about relationship issues and the faith struggles of ordinary modern folks, yes. I admit I was skeptical that a movie about pre-Cana conferences could be interesting, but there are not that many scenes at the actual conferences, and the ones that exist worked effectively to forward the plot.

I note that the New York Times reviewer panned the movie, with the following revealing comment: “There’s an appealing maturity to [the lead actor’s] performance that makes it clear to everyone except the filmmakers — and [the lead’s] dippy mother  (Valerie Harper) — that he should be running as fast as he can from his exasperating, emotionally stunted fiancée.” In fact, the fiancée is no more exasperating or emotionally stunted than the typical person one gets to know in the city. (I mentioned above that she is somewhat insecure, but one of my favorite observations about life is that if you aren’t insecure, it’s probably because you haven’t fully grasped your situation.) I think the film shows a significantly higher level of openmindedness toward religious differences than that reviewer does, and should be praised for it.

The movie is now playing at the Quad in the West Village, and deserves broader distribution. But if it sounds interesting to you, you don’t have to wait for a wider release; you can watch it on Amazon Instant Video here.

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