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March 27, 2008
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Catholic-Lit Revival: A Review of 'The Mystery of Things',by Matthew Lickona
It’s a love story, a murder thriller, and a religious drama all wrapped into one. Is Debra Murphy’s 'The Mystery of Things' the next great work of Catholic literature?

Desperate Episcopalians A Review of The Book of Daniel, by Matthew Lickona
If you need proof that liberal religion is completely exhausted, tune in to ‘The Book of Daniel’. Despite all the hype, NBC’s controversial new series violates television’s most important taboo: It makes sin boring.

Father Matrix, by Matthew Lickona
The recruiting poster showed a young Catholic priest in cassock and sunglasses, doing his best impression of Neo from ‘The Matrix.’ The priest as hero. Is there a problem with that?

Swimming with Scapulars: Lent and Its Discontents, by Matthew Lickona
When I was confirmed at age fifteen, I took St. John the Baptist as my confirmation saint. ‘A voice crying out in the wilderness,’ I thought, full of adolescent pride. By Lent of 2003 I was a little older and a little more humble—if only as a result of years of sin and failure to do much crying out... An excerpt from the new spiritual memoir, ‘Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic.’

True Confessions of a Young Catholic: An Interview with Matthew Lickona, by Angelo Matera
In his spiritual memoir, ‘Swimming with Scapulars,’ 30-year-old Matthew Lickona lays bare the soul of a young traditional Catholic. We spoke to him recently about his book, his faith, and what it’s like to be the literary envoy for the ‘New Faithful’ Catholic revival.

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Non Serviam: Martin Scorcese's 'The Departed'

If you look past the brutal violence, the harsh language, and the stark portrayal of evil (hey, it’s a Scorcese movie), you’ll find that in ‘The Departed’ goodness is worthwhile for reasons deeper than earthly success or happiness.

Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon

The Departed
is director Martin Scorsese’s rather long-winded return to the crime drama (as a man gets older, his stories tend to get longer, if not necessarily gentler), and it’s very much a men’s movie. In some ways, this is a deeply obvious observation—just take a look at the marquee: Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg. Not mentioned, but very much present: Martin Sheen, and Alec Baldwin (who has thickened into a truly great character actor).

...besides the ruminations on truth and fatherhood, you get a lot of bracingly blunt dialogue, men being men around men.
Yeah, there’s a woman: Vera Farmiga as Madolyn, a lady psychiatrist-for-cops who gets flustered way too easily in the face of both Damon’s roguish charm and DiCaprio’s earnest-aggressive emoting. But she’s less of a character than a mirror, a chance for us to see new aspects of Damon and DiCaprio in the way they’re reflected off of her. 

Of course, there’s a point to the reflection—The Departed deals heavily in deception, and our feminine mirror gives some answer to mob boss Frank Costello (Nicholson) when he says, “The Church told us we could be cops or criminals, but when you’re looking down the barrel of a loaded gun, what’s the difference?” It’s cops vs. gangsters (Irish this time) in Boston, and each side has an agent in the other’s operationBilly Costigan (DiCaprio) infiltrating the gang and Colin Sullivan (Damon) rising through the ranks of the force.

Naturally, both moles fall in love with the same woman, and what ensues shows us that there is a difference: it matters whom you’re lying for. Sullivan lies for the bad guys, and therefore, to Madolyn. He’s sleeping with her, but he can’t tell her the truth, and it becomes clearer and clearer that his life of deception has severed him from the possibility of genuine human connection. Everybody around you is somebody to fool. That makes it harder to see them as peopleeven if you want to love them. (Madolyn, for her part, gets a lesson in the futility of “lying to keep an even keel.”)

Costigan, on the other hand, wants searing honesty with Madolynboth for her and from her. His conferences with her also make the case that it matters what lies you’re telling. Never mind the dangers inherent in being a cop among gangsters; Costigan is going nuts from cozying up to evil and pretending to like it. (But even so, he pleads with Costellothe very man he’s deceivingto get out for his own good, and while the speech has a cover-your-ass aspect to it, there’s a sincere streak as well.) The tension between who he is and who he’s pretending to be is too much for him; it’s why he ends up taking drugs, despite his deceptive past.

We’re about as far from Mary’s 'Let it be done unto me' as we can get.
Ah, the past. It’s where The Departed opens, and it’s where that “men’s movie” thing gains a little depth. Right off the bat, we get a (younger) Costello dispensing wisdom about getting along in the world: “Nobody gives it to you; you have to take it.” That’s a man’s mantra if ever there was one; we’re about as far from Mary’s “Let it be done unto me” as we can get. And it’s not even true on a natural level: start with your first home in the wombgiven to you, through no action of your own, by Mom. 

Moms have a reputation for giving ‘til it hurts, living refutations of Costello’s claim. Perhaps that’s why there are almost no mothers in The Departed, only fatherslots of ‘em. Even a throwaway scene between Sheen’s Officer Queenan and Costello includes traded barbs about dadsQueenan’s “wasn’t around.” But it starts with Costello and Sullivan, way back whenCostello doing a nice turn for the boy whose father has died, buying him groceries and tossing in a couple of comic books. Costello giving the boy a chance to earn some money, and explaining to him why the Church has it wrongtelling you what to do, keeping you in line, setting boundaries. (And for that matter, making you dependent on a heavenly Father and His grace, hardly a notion in keeping with the autonomy of “you have to take it.”) Twenty-odd years later, when Sullivan calls his boss the mobster, he calls him Dad.

Jack Nicholson does a grand impression of Herod, rotting in his own flesh.
Sullivan takes Costello’s lesson about how “you’ve got to take it” to heart; besides police work, he’s attending law school, and he takes an apartment with a view of the State House’s golden dome. He’s a striver, humble roots be damned. But it’s got to be tough on a guy when everyone at his job is telling him he’s a rising star, and he’s still got to go home and kiss ass with his surrogate father. How poignant is it, how pathetic, when our golden-boy cop meets up with Costello in a porn theater and begs for “Dad” to trust him, to let him do things his way? He might be 18, telling his blue-collar father that he wants to be a painter. Small wonder that Sullivan, lying in bed with Madolyn, starts musing about finishing law school, leaving police work, and moving to another city. Never mind the dangers inherent in being a dirty cop; he’s gotta get out from under the old man’s shadow. And then, when Sullivan has to grow up and realize that Costello may not be everything he thought he was, what then? He starts to wonder if “Dad” is just as lousy as he knows himself to be, if the only person he’s honest with hasn’t been straight with him. “You have to take it,” indeed.

Costigan had, and has, the better time of it, Dad-wise. Dad worked at the airporta menial job, handling other people’s stuffbut he stayed clean. He never used his family connections to get a piece of Costello’s action. (That model of integrity may be why Costigan bids adieu to the moneyed side of his family and signs up with the Staties.) Initially, Costello expresses contempt for the man who spurned him. But his respect leaks out, to the point where he offers Costigan a way out, and sneers when Costigan plays tough and declines. (A telling detail in the same sceneCostello walks over to a couple of priests and taunts them about altar boys. Irish lapso that he is, he delights in thumbing his nose at their moral authority: “Dad”or in this case, Father“can’t tell me I’m doing wrong, because he’s just as bad as I am.”)

And if Costello is Sullivan’s surrogate father, then Queenan, the head of the undercover operation, is Costigan’s. When things get tight, he acts very much like the best sort of Dad. He’ll ask his son to take risks and face serious dangeryou’ve got to grow up sometime, boyobut he won’t abandon his boy, not even to protect himself.

I admired Scorsese for taking me into a decadent world without splashing the decadence onscreen.
There’s a lot to like about The Departedbesides the ruminations on truth and fatherhood, you get a lot of bracingly blunt dialogue, men being men around men. You get some fun performancesJack Nicholson doing a grand impression of Herod, ostentatiously rotting in his own flesh—and some surprising onesLeonardo DiCaprio as a compelling grown-up. Cell phones play an integral and interesting role in the proceedings, setting up a marvelous shot of DiCaprio watching his cell vibrate its way across a table as he decides whether or not to answer it. Despite the deception and violence, you get a clear vision of Costigan’s goodness in the midst of it all, and the sense that goodness is worthwhile, not because it guarantees happiness or success, but for some deeperand perhaps more humanreason. Put simply: Costigan is a man; Sullivan is not. And I hope I may say, without sounding too terribly scrupulous, that I admired Scorsese for taking me into a decadent world without splashing the decadence onscreen. Yes, there’s a shot of Costello wielding a strap-on, but we’re spared T&A in even the easiest of contexts: a coke-dusted three-way and a lesbian porn flick.

Even so, when you take a movie to two-and-a-half hours, it can get difficult to maintain momentum. Somewhere along the way, I started thinking, “this movie is long”—never a good sign. Some of the man-talk crosses the line into indulgent posturing. And I’ll be dipped if the final act doesn’t feature a pretty glaring Diablo ex machina. But I’ll put up with a lot from a film that includes the following bit, as fine a condemnation of Costello’s chosen life as you could wish for:

Costello [confronted by Sullivan]: You are like a…
Sullivan: Like a son? That right? All that f-ing and no kids!

November 8, 2006

MATTHEW LICKONA is the author of 'Swimming With Scapulars: Confessions of a Young Catholic' (Loyola). A staff writer and sometime cartoonist for the weekly 'San Diego Reader,' Matthew was born and raised in upstate New York, and attended Thomas Aquinas College in California. He lives in La Mesa, California, with his wife Deirdre and their four children.

© Copyright 2006, GodSpy. All rights reserved.

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12.06.06   fierceblackhat says:
Seeing "The Departed" reminded me of what Flannery O'Connor said, commenting on the typical response to her writing: "All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal." Scorcese has told a story that is hard and brutal but there is hope and the thrust of grace within. I was particularly moved by DiCaprio's performance, especially when he says "You know who I am, you know who I am." Just as Fight Club is a man's movie, so, too, is The Departed. See it and then see it again.

12.05.06   tojesusthrumary says:
While I enjoying engaging culture as much as anyone (I am a youth minister), If you look at the opening line of the article, "If you look past the brutal violence, the harsh language, and the stark portrayal of evil," I think one can see a non sequitur. His opening line is like saying, "Hey, this is a great cookie, with alot of great taste, you just have to endure some bites of manure that have been baked into the cookie." While I also enjoy cookies, I tend to avoid those with manure, or on the contrary, those that are simply sugar with no real taste content. I think we can find a message in just about anything if we are looking hard enough, but we must consider what we have to wade through in order to obtain it.

11.09.06   Godspy says:
If you look past the brutal violence, the harsh language, and the stark portrayal of evil (hey, it’s a Scorcese movie), you’ll find that in ‘The Departed’ goodness is worthwhile for reasons deeper than success or happiness.

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