2015 Update: This week, my coworkers threw a party for those of us — including me — who have autumn birthdays. They asked me to recommend a movie that would fit our 90-minute party time span. I recommended The Secret of Kells. So we had an Irish-themed party, with bowls of excellent Irish stew, mugs of spiced cider, enough green decorations for a St. Patrick’s Day party, and we all put on temporary shamrock tattoos.

The movie proved to be every bit as good as I remember it. I find more to appreciate with each viewing, and I’ve seen it about a dozen times now.

Since October marked the fifth anniversary of The Secret of Kells “wide release” via DVD in America, it seems like a good time to add my reviews (plural) of the movie here at Looking Closer. My first two formal reviews of the film were originally published in the October 2010 issue of Christianity Today, and in the Autumn 2010 issue of Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine.

My third publication was an informal conversation with film critic Steven Greydanus, originally published in two parts at Good Letters, the Image blog, here: Part One and Part Two.

In preparing to re-publish that Good Letters conversation here at Looking Closer, I’ve discovered that the original 2-part post was missing some of the conversation, and because of that, the flow was disrupted, attributing things that Steven said to me. So I’m glad to finally represent our conversation accurately, giving Steven his wisdom back.

Note: The first three comments you’ll find attached to this post are carrying over from when I first posted a review several years ago.

Revealing The Secret of Kells, Part One

Have you ever seen The Book of Kells? I mean, really seen it with your own eyes?

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more breathtaking work of art. Photographs can’t capture the way light plays across the vibrant, reflective ink. Nineteen years ago I stood in Dublin’s Trinity College and leaned over a glass shield to study a couple of those exquisitely inked pages, and yet I remember it like it was an hour ago.

What would move Celtic monks to illustrate a Latin text so lavishly? I suspect the effort was inspired by something more than the desire to show off. It had something, I’m sure, to do with a sense of the sacred in that text. The Book of Kells is, after all, an illustrated version of the four gospels.

And now, more than a thousand years later, we have a lavishly illustrated movie about the making of that book.

At the 2010 Academy Awards, the Best Animated Feature nominees included the typical entries from Pixar and Dreamworks. But it also included a shocker. Where most moviegoers expected to see a nomination for Hayao Miyazaki’s extraordinary feature Ponyo, instead they were introduced to a title that most of them had not yet had an opportunity to see: The Secret of Kells.

After seeing it, I did what I often do when I come home from a thrilling motion picture — I wrote to my friend Steven D. Greydanus, film critic at Decent Films, The National Catholic Register, and Christianity Today. But I was interested in doing more than just singing the film’s praises. Something was bothering me: Had I just watched a film about The Book of Kells that never once acknowledged what is written on the book’s pages?

(Please note: Our conversation does contain spoilers, so you might want to see the movie before you read this.)

Overstreet:

I finally saw The Secret of Kells. Wow. I haven’t been so hypnotized and enthralled by animation in a very long time.

It’s remarkable how, in this era of increasingly lifelike digital animation and 3D, something that seems handmade can still work the most powerful magic.

What did you think of the film’s style? I’m having a hard time thinking of any other film that serves as a helpful reference point. Maybe Watership Down—especially its stylized, mythological prologue.

Greydanus:

Jeff, I’m delighted that you saw The Secret of Kells, and that you found it as compelling and memorable as I did!

“Handmade” is a good word for the look of The Secret of Kells, although some of the effects, like the lovely dappled sunlight in the forest and a lot of the design work, are so intricate that many viewers assume it’s computerized, and are amazed to learn that in fact the animators made virtually no use of computers. Like The Book of Kells itself, it’s a painstakingly hand-crafted labor of love that seems at times almost miraculous. Admirers of The Book of Kells sometimes attributed it to angels; admirers of the film attribute it to computers.

The stylized figures and simplified movements reminded me at times of “Samurai Jack” or the “Clone Wars” series. The Insular influence, reflecting the Celtic design tradition, is a really unique factor, though. Watership Down is a very creative point of comparison, one I’ve not seen elsewhere. Good call!

Overstreet:

There is a trend in recent films — probably inspired by conversations about the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan — to emphasize the search for a common bond between cultures. Cultural respect and diplomacy are celebrated. The fight-or-flight mentality is shown as naïve at best, villainous at worst.

But The Secret of Kells portrays the approaching enemy as irredeemable — a brutal, ferocious, inhuman force. The invaders have no human eyes for eye contact. They’re like orcs, or Hellboy’s Golden Army. And so the vulnerable heroes see only two choices: To build a wall and hope to withstand the onslaught, or to flee.

Normally, I’m aggravated when “the enemy” is portrayed as something “other” — mere monsters, unworthy of curiosity or compassion. But here it didn’t bother me and I’m not sure why. What did you think of the film’s portrayal of the cultural conflict?

Greydanus:

I can think of two possible reasons why the faceless evil of the Northmen doesn’t aggravate you the way that the typical Hollywood demonization of the enemy does.

First, they’re so faceless and generic that there’s clearly no political axe to be ground here.

Second, there’s no triumphalism, no celebratory rout of the enemy. Does that make any sense?

Overstreet:

All through the film, I was increasingly excited by the fact that The Book of Kells is reconciling all of these pagan mythologies and artistic motifs into a unified whole — at the center of which is The Gospel.

It’s a profound illustration of the Gospel’s function as what Lewis called “the true myth,” which fulfills the longings and questions and themes manifested in mythologies through the ages.

But then the movie ended without ever giving the audience a clue about what was actually in the book. How can you celebrate The Book of Kells without ever acknowledging what the book actually says? It seemed to settle, instead, for something along the lines of “Beauty will save the world.” I don’t have an argument with that, since I think beauty is God’s territory. And it’s a rare and wonderful thing for a movie — especially a movie for all ages — to celebrate the value of artistic vision and aesthetic excellence.

So I’m conflicted about their decision. On the one hand, if they’d been explicit about the real content of The Book of Kells, they’d have been accused of making a “Christian propaganda” film — exactly what critic Michael Sicinski expected the movie to be. On the other hand, since they didn’t make it explicit, it seems odd… and even cowardly.

How did that strike you?

Greydanus:

I agree that “beauty will save the world” is a valid message as far as it goes, but I don’t think allowing the monks to talk about the actual content of their faith would have turned it into the “propaganda film” Sicinski feared. That the Chi-Rho page in particular is made so much of, but its meaning is never even hinted at, is really inexcusable.

I think the filmmakers could have gone a lot further in allowing Christianity and paganism to exist in tension without tipping the narrative one way or the other. Here’s a film in which we meet supernatural representatives of the pagan world, both good and bad. If there were also angels and saintly miracles, wouldn’t that be equally reflective of the Irish patrimony? How would that make the film “propaganda” for one side or the other? To say nothing of the monks merely expressing their faith in a positive way, as opposed to Abbot Cellach’s mere rejection of paganism.

secret of kells1

Revealing The Secret of Kells, Part 2

Overstreet:

In your review, you wrote, “It must be admitted that The Secret of Kells somewhat short-changes Brendan’s Christian world in relation to Ireland’s lingering paganism. The Faerie world is matter-of-factly depicted as living, magical and powerful; Christianity is mundane and limited.”

I’m not sure I entirely agree.

Don’t you think that “Brendan’s Christian world” has injured itself by cutting itself off from the natural world and other cultures?

By surrendering to the abbot’s overpowering fears, the people of Brendan’s Christian world have cut themselves off from natural revelation, for starters. And nature — represented here by Aisling — is one of the places where God does extraordinary, mysterious work. I’m inclined to say that, yes, Christianity is limited in the film, but only insofar as fearful Christians have limited it.

Greydanus:

But what about Brother Aidan? He’s meant to embody the more winsome face of faith, but his Christianity, while more fun and humane than Abbot Cellach’s, is just as mundane and limited. There’s nothing truly mysterious, miraculous, or even spiritual about his experiences or ideas. It’s all demythologized and aestheticized — and again, they don’t do this to the pagan world, at least explicitly.

Critically speaking, you could choose to regard Brendan’s encounters with Aisling and Crom Cruach as a fantasy sequences, although the wolves that drive away the Northmen in the end seem real enough. Minimally, the film presents Aisling and Crom as seemingly real, and the viewer can easily regard them as such. Whereas the fanciful tales of St. Columcille are not only not seen onscreen, but are implied to have a naturalistic basis, at least insofar as Columcille’s “third eye” turns out to be a crystal — although his acquisition of the crystal is explicitly connected with a confrontation with dark forces in exactly the way that we see Brendan himself do, so that’s really the one hint of anything like mystery or power on the Christian side of the equation.

Overstreet:

It’s interesting to me — and you noted something about this in your review — that St. Brendan becomes the film’s best example of bold Christianity, in that Brendan is willing to engage with the whole world. He doesn’t just run away from evil, as Aidan does. Nor does he build a wall against it, as the abbot does. He faces the monster, Crom Cruach. In fact, he seeks to capture its crystalline eye.

Isn’t that what Christianity claims — that what is true and “clear-eyed” in the distorted and incomplete religions and myths of the world is, in fact, the property of the One True Vision? Ultimately, false religions are left with nothing but their lie, destroying themselves. Evil implodes, while what was true and beautiful within its lie is reclaimed by Christ. In fact, the true and the beautiful were Christ’s property to begin with.

And yet there I go again: Interpreting a film by reaching into a deeper place than the film really seems interested in taking us.

It’s almost as if the filmmakers are unaware of the profundity of their own story.

Greydanus: 

That’s a really good way of putting it. I think I may see that confrontation between Brendan and Crom in a deeper light than the filmmakers too, although the explicit connection between Brendan and St. Columcille in confronting the powers of darkness does suggest that there’s some actual spiritual warfare motif here. I think too of the connection to the famous legend of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland. We might be reaching a bit here, but I don’t think it’s too terribly much of a reach!

The other aspect of the scene that I think begs for a deeper reading is the way Brendan defeats the serpent by literally circumscribing his power — and then leaves him, in an image borrowed from Insular art and other sources, devouring his own tail. The self-devouring serpent, the Ouroboros motif, is found in many cultures, sometimes with a more positive spin (so to speak), other times more negative. Here, clearly, Crom devours himself in impotent rage and fury, suggesting the self-destructive nature of evil, especially evil defeated.

Overstreet: 

What films do you think best represent medieval Christianity?

It’s regarded now as just a silly ’80s action flick, but I’ve always been rather fond of Ladyhawke, in part for its representation of faith. The bishop in the film is wicked to the core, but like The Book of Kells, the film suggests that the “good magic” of nature can be reconciled with the church of nature’s creator.

Greydanus:

I wish I could mention The Seventh Seal here, but as thoughtful about spiritual matters as that film is, the Christian elements are a pretty hollow facade.

Andrei Rublev offers an aptly messy depiction of the medieval world that includes positive and negative sides of Christian experience.

Becket includes some lavish medieval religious pageantry.

Oh, and Eric Rohmer’s charming Perceval, one of the most genuinely medieval-minded films I’ve ever seen, ends with a remarkable Passion play as redolent of medieval spirituality as anything I can think of.

Pin It on Pinterest

Shares
Share This