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Soul search

Movies | Nine illustrates the bankrupt results of a life of trivial pursuits

Issue: "News of the Year," Jan. 2, 2010

There is a scene in Nine (rated PG-13 for sexual content), the new movie directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago) based on the 1982 Tony-award­winning musical, that should be particularly instructive to Christians. Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a world-renowned Italian filmmaker in the midst of a personal and professional crisis. With shooting about to start on his latest film, he has his studio, his producers, and even his star (Nicole Kidman) demanding to know when they can see the script. The problem is he doesn't have one. Unable to come up with even an idea, he runs without forethought in every direction desperately searching for inspiration.

He first flees to a small coastal village, but finds that fame has followed him there and continues to disrupt his artistic process. He then arranges for his mistress (Penelope Cruz) to join him, hoping her sexual energy will get his creative juices flowing. When this fails, he appeals to his wife (Marion Cotillard), hoping that if he can reconcile with her, their renewed love will lead to a further renewing of his mind. None of it works. Finally, he reaches out to the church.

After running into Guido in the lobby of the seaside resort, a young priest reveals that he is accompanying a cardinal who is an "enormous fan" of Guido's work. "Publicly, of course, he must renounce your films, but privately we love them," the priest whispers, asking if Guido can arrange to deliver a signed photograph of Kidman's character to the cardinal. It's a funny and not the least bit disingenuous moment that speaks to both the power of good storytelling to draw in people regardless of creed, and to the power glamor has over even the most ascetic individuals. However, it is the following scene that reveals a painful failing Christians often have when responding to cinema.

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After arranging to meet the cardinal, Guido unburdens himself and asks the man of faith how he can recapture his previous greatness. Barely listening before asking more about the bombshell who stars in Guido's films, the cardinal offers the trite advice of including less swearing and sex, informing Guido that no one is interested in seeing such smut. The cardinal isn't wrong, of course, that such elements are rarely used to any worthy purpose in movie­making, but that he has so little to offer reveals a lack of depth and insight that are solely a shortcoming of the believer, not the One he believes in.

With no help from spiritual authority, Guido allows his imagination to drift aimlessly on a flotsam of lusty fantasies: visualizing the women in his present and past-from the prostitute he met as a boy (Fergie) to his elderly costume designer (a wonderful Judi Dench whose swagger puts many of the younger actresses to shame)-in an array of glitzy musical numbers. But it's not until he encounters a brazen American fashion journalist (Kate Hudson) that he is forced to confront the emptiness of his creations.

When she tells him that what she has learned from his films is that "style is the new content," Guido realizes the truth the cardinal should have been able to share with him: He has starved his soul with a life of trivial pleasure pursuits and it has left him artistically bankrupt. Other men may be able to work under that sorry condition, and indeed he has in the recent past, but he is too talented to believe that it will produce anything worthwhile.

The great Greek literary critic Longinus once noted, "It is not possible that men with mean and servile ideas and aims prevailing throughout their lives should produce anything that is admirable and worthy of immortality." That is the wisdom the cardinal should have shared with Guido-something much more than "don't include so much smut." And it is the wisdom that the church should both exemplify and recognize in an art form too often devoid of it.

Megan Basham
Megan Basham

Megan, a regular correspondent for WORLD News Group, is a writer and film critic living in Memphis, Tenn.. She is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All.

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