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January 4, 2009

A curiously pro-life, pro-death movie

By Sister Helena Burns, FSP

CONTRIBUTOR

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a pro-death movie. Let me explain. We’re all terminal. We’re all dying. And “CCBB” says that’s OK. Death isn’t glorified or dressed up pretty (because, as one of the Fathers of the Church said, “death is a cosmic obscenity.”) Death is just is what it is, a member of the human family. Not banished, not locked up, not thrown in the river. Death has its place at the table of life and is mentioned, talked of, thought of, expected, accepted.

“CCBB” is also a pro-life fairy tale. The characters are in each other’s keep. They take care of each other whether they’re white or black, young or old, healthy or deformed. Irregular babies and messy old people all belong and are loved by someone.

This long (165 min.), ambitious, elaborate, seamless adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story was eyed by filmmakers for years, however it is only now that the technology has developed enough to be able to do it justice. The story’s premise is that a baby boy (Benjamin Button, played by Brad Pitt) is born as an old man who grows younger and younger. Software developers were able to use the real Brad Pitt for each lifestage (and the real Cate Blanchett who plays Daisy, Benjamin’s love-interest, who also ages, but normally).

Director David Fincher’s only other notable films were “Se7en,” “Fight Club” and “Panic Room,” and he comes from an impressive background of music videos. “CCBB” is a major leap forward for him. Screenwriter Eric Roth is more seasoned: “Forrest Gump,” “Horse Whisperer,” “The Insider,” “Munich.” This movie could well have been a huge mess, but it’s not. The filmmakers took the crumbs of Fitzgerald’s short story and worked marvels with it, even inventing the Daisy character.

We are beaten over the head with some obvious, trite themes (that perhaps we do need to hear over and over): “Be yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or can’t do or be.” “You can always change.”

But the real themes of “CCBB” are far more subtle and profound. “Time is precious. Time is all we have. Life is made up of fleeting moments. Nothing lasts forever but love. Love knows no age, time, place.” “You never know what’s coming for you (but you go out and meet it any way).” Benjamin’s mom — like many moms of disabled kids — teaches him to accept himself, be at peace and enjoy life. “CCBB” is an anti-self-pity film.

God is a character. The good folks in “CCBB” believe in him and pray to him and thank him. There is deep gratefulness for the honor of being alive. Or, as the alien-turned-Chinese-elder in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” says: “Even though human life is hard, I feel privileged to have lived it.”

“CCBB” is an antidote for our Botox culture of youth and earthly immortality. Even the lovely Julia Ormond is shown close-up in all her middle-aged splendor. “CCBB” is definitely a movie about forgiveness, moving on, letting go. The characters overlook, or rather get over, the injuries and insults of both enemy and friend, and go on living. “CCBB” is about the arts. Piano, opera, ballet, writing a diary, being the artist you are inside (even if that’s a tattoo artist).

Of course, there is a real disease where babies age super-rapidly and only live a few years (and look like they’re 80 when they’re 5). I wonder what the parents of these children think of this movie?

There should be more movies about old people. As Benjamin says of his old-folks home: “It was a great place to grow up in.” Old people have histories, secrets, points of view. They know what’s important now. (Check out the movie “Mrs. Brown.”)

Even in this world of new media, people will still always gather for a story. We’re desperately looking for help and wisdom and understanding and meaning and transcendence and something bigger than ourselves and something worth living for. The mostly young adults in my free screening were transfixed by “CCBB.” And what does it purport that we still desire to bring these “old” classics to the modern screen?

Although PG-13, what is portrayed is quite mature, and there is much, shall we say, “romancing,” including prostitution and affairs. I would’ve given this an R rating.

The USCCB rating for this movie is A-3, adults.