Leave it to a couple of Jewish brothers from middle America to make one of my favorite films about Jesus Christ in a long time. Hail, Caesar! expertly balances a few seemingly antithetical Americanisms here - the cult of Hollywood, and American religious moxie. (Spoiler - they’re not antithetical, turns out!) Plus, Hail, Caesar! is just a lot of fun for anyone who loves movies, was nourished on Rogers and Hammerstein, Busby Berkeley numbers, or who as a young child secretly wished she’d be kidnapped by one of seven husky brothers and carried on horseback to a snowed-in cabin where she’d soon become a bride. Bless your beautiful hiiiidddde!
So yeah, I guess this isn’t going to so much be a review as much as an ovation for some refreshingly religious American filmmaking. It’s the Coens at their most controlled and fine-tuned, and earns a solid second place after No Country For Old Men, which is, if you ask me, perfect.
Hail, Caesar! is a movie about Movies & God - so if you’re a God-lovin-Mormon whose media diet consists largely of film, and is married to a filmmaker, what’s not to love.
Christ is the “reason for the season” here, as the backdrop of the film is set during production for the sandals epic “Hail, Caesar!” - a movie about a Roman general’s conversion to Jesus Christ.
There’s a big dog and pony show happening during the production of the Jesus Christ movie that involves a lot of set work and hundreds of extras, but the real Christ stuff is happening with studio head Eddie Mannix. (Coen regular Josh Brolin, who just gets better as he ages).
Mannix is by day and night the studio “fixer,” solving the problems of the Hollywood “circus” that he oversees. But he is really the symbolic Christ figure, sorting out the mottled lives of the imperfectly perfect stars he oversees. He is enmeshed in the messy mortality of his characters lives, but he loves them, mess and all.
From the opening scene, the Coens set up this Christ allegory as we see the Son communing with the Father during confession. It’s continued throughout the duration of the film. Mannix talks to his father constantly, for guidance, for advice, to absolve himself of worldly temptations (firstly, nicotine; secondly, job offer).
There are other God moments happening, too. Notably: Mannix literally ransoming a Hollywood golden boy, Mannix chastising an actor for taking the Big Man’s name in vain, the Coens dialogue of not depicting deity on screen, and then intentionally never showing the actor playing Christ, faith in imperfect systems (studio system, communism). There’s more, and it’s purposeful, and many times comical.
The more I’ve thought about Hail, Caesar! since I saw it on opening weekend, the more one thing has come to the forefront.
The Satan scenes.
Satan here is sly, a business exec with a job offer - quit your creative pursuits, and take the easy way out. Pick the path of least resistance. Pick comfort over passion and disquiet. I haven’t seen such an authentic Satan archetype since maybe Ned Beatty in Network.
The adversary is a tricky concept and character to depict without heading into caricature land, but I think the Coens nailed it. As Mannix’s world seems to be spinning into a wild chaotic hurricane, Satan shows up and offers a way out. A job. One that sounds stable, easy, and riskless. Mannix’s temptation here is tense. It seems like a no-brainer, a ticket out of the mess and into stability.
It perfectly aligned with a thought I had a few years ago: If the devil can’t convince you to be bad, he’ll convince you to be mediocre.
I’ve felt this temptation, too. There are lots of easy way outs in the way I’ve chosen to live my life. There are lots of career choices, child-related choices, etc. that would seem to make everything easier. However, they’d be wrong choices. They’d omit the passion and the work that’s necessary for me to grow and creatively and spiritual function and even thrive.
And I too, like Mannix, like Christ, and like the Coens, love the mess. I love the make believe of creativity, and I love the utter truth of it. I love the belief in it all. I love believing. Which is why I can’t ultimately be tempted by a slick salesman who’s schilling a life of ease.
And the next time I’m tempted with security and mediocrity, I’m going to look back at those scenes of Satan drinking Mai Tais and symbolically throw that cocktail in his face.
Thanks, Coen bros, for that image and that reminder. And thanks for making one pretty fun, fantastic picture.
My sons, 2 and 3, like to pretend they are in a nest. They routinely gather their blankets, haul them downstairs, and sit in these elaborate blanket-nest constructions on the living room floor. From this, I’ve learned two truths: 1) Kids will do anythingto get out of making their beds 2) Parenting is about making safe spaces for your kids—they need to feel comforted, protected, and safe.
I often think of the Christ-hen metaphor found both in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon wherein Christ compares himself to a mother hen. He wants to gather us under his wings, he wants us in his nest.
In 3rd Nephi 3-6 he chastises the people for falling into wickedness, and he pleads with them: “How oft have I gathered you...how oft would I have gathered you...how oft will I gather you, as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, if ye will repent and return unto me with full purpose of heart.”
He laments our straying, while continuing to still offer the safety and refuge of himself—the mother hen. Of all the accounts of Christ in the scriptures, this is the most vivid image for me of Christ as a parent figure—even a mother figure.
I can’t talk about teaching our children to be examples and to love serving others without invoking the words of some pretty great exemplars of parenthood, of motherhood—and I’m absolutely including Christ on that list.
It’s good there are so many examples of motherhood to pick from because I don’t feel qualified to discuss on teaching children to serve. Motherhood is one giant improv game to me. I have read exactly 0 parenting books. I’m still trying to teach them that the Primary song is called “Scripture Power,” not what they’ve sometimes heard me singing, “Pizza Power.”
When it comes to learning about successful motherhood I would love to talk about beaming examples, like our Primordial parent, Mother in Heaven. Or Eve, the Mother of all Living. As the “mother of all living,” she was a wise steward in a few senses of the word, and of the living things she had responsibility over surely that included burgeoning faith and testimonies of her children and descendents.
As her daughters, we modern mothers are also responsible for fertilizing these living testimonies of our children by example of our own faith.
Then of course there is Mary, the mother of Christ. Bruce R. McConkie said of Mary “We cannot doubt that the greatest of all female spirits was the one chosen and foreordained to be the mother of the son of God.”
There are also many scriptural examples in the Book of Mormon of mothers who lead by righteous example:
Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives; yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them. And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it.
Yea, and they did obey and observe to perform every word of command with exactness; yea, and even according to their faith it was done unto them; and I did remember the words which they said unto me that their mothers had taught them.
- Alma 57:21
However, of all these exemplary mothers, the one I feel impressed to really focus on is Christ. This is a bit challenging because Christ, though symbolically a mother and imbued with many nurturing traits, is male. There are actually quite a few apocryphal accounts on this idea of Christ as a mother figure, poetic and exciting, but there exist less concrete examples in our own core cannon.
However, there is plenty about Christlike mothering. As we’re teaching our children to be examples in the world, we as parents, and as mothers should follow the example of the Savior. I’m not aware of any prophetic or scriptural account of Christ having mortal children, but I would submit it’s Christ who can teach us more about parenting and even mothering than any book or website in the world.
In this last October General Conference, Jeffrey R. Holland compared Christ’s mortal destiny with motherhood:
“Bear, borne, carry, deliver. These are powerful, heartening messianic words. They convey help and hope for safe movement from where we are to where we need to be—but cannot get without assistance. These words also connote burden, struggle, and fatigue—words most appropriate in describing the mission of Him who, at unspeakable cost, lifts us up when we have fallen, carries us forward when strength is gone, delivers us safely home when safety seems far beyond our reach. “My Father sent me,” He said, “that I might be lifted up upon the cross; … that as I have been lifted up … even so should men be lifted up … to … me.”
But can you hear in this language another arena of human endeavor in which we use words like bear and borne, carry and lift, labor and deliver? As Jesus said to John while in the very act of Atonement, so He says to us all, “Behold thy mother!”
Today I declare from this pulpit what has been said here before: that no love in mortality comes closer to approximating the pure love of Jesus Christ than the selfless love a devoted mother has for her child. When Isaiah, speaking messianically, wanted to convey Jehovah’s love, he invoked the image of a mother’s devotion. “Can a woman forget her sucking child?” he asks. How absurd, he implies, though not as absurd as thinking Christ will ever forget us."
So yes, Christ did of course “mother.” But how? How did he teach those he had stewardship over to love service? To be an example?
Christ taught in the moment
The bulk of his teaching moments—the parables—more often resemble bedtime stories than doctrinal treatises.
We as mothers, and as humans, tend to compartmentalize.
This is service, and this is housework, and these are church calling duties, these are my parental duties and so forth.
As we think about how we can teach our children to love serving, we might not need to modify, more times we might just need to re-categorize.
For the Savior, there was no menial task. Everything was marked by love. Even something like washing the feet of his apostles became a significant teaching moment.
“After that he poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet. Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.” John 13:5
Isn’t that something we’ve all thought when doing basic service for our kids? (“What I do thou knowest not”) Kiddo, you don’t even know how many dishes I wash because I love you. “But you shall know hereafter.” Oh boy, you’ll know. You’ll know someday.
“After he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you?
Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am.
If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.
For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.
As mothers we wash feet (and other less desirable parts) and this is Christlike service. It’s not just a bath! They smell better, and we’re demonstrating service to our children by example! All the boring stuff is good!
Christ taught sometimes in formal instruction, but more often than not, wove in teaching opportunites to daily living.
I was visiting my hometown this last week and I found a true gem in my mother’s kitchen. The 1976 First Presbyterian cookbook from Morrison, IL, belonging to my grandmother, a sturdy midwestern woman. In between such tempting recipes as Spicy Peach Mold and Eggnog Flan Salad, and I found this poem from a woman named Edna Reynolds who I’m sure is either dead or 150 years old, so I’m using without permission. Forgive me, Edna.
Busy with pots and pans and things
it seems I’ve no time to be
always doing lovely things
or watching late with thee
or dreaming in the dawn light
or storming heaven's gates
so bless me while I’m getting meals
and washing up the plates.
Although I must have Martha’s hands,
I have a Mary’s mind;
and when I black the boots and shoes
Thy sandals, Lord I find
I think of how they trod the earth
Each time I scrub the floor;
Accept this meditation, Lord
I haven’t time for more.
As our children witness us doing these monotonous tasks, they’re learning how to serve. I’m amazed at how much my 3-year old son Milo gets it. When he chooses to serve his brother rather than fight with him, I have to believe it’s because of behavior he’s seen modeled.
Christ was an example of how to serve out of pure love, not earthy praise
Elder Ballard was pretty prescient in 1988 when he said (I’m paraphrasing for brevity) “Some of you very likely are striving to be “super-moms.” You feel a need to spend time with your husband and children. You want to be sure to have family prayer, read the scriptures, and have family home evening. You also feel the need help children with homework and music lessons; keep your home presentable; prepare nutritious meals; keep clothes clean and mended; chauffeur children and possibly their friends to school and to a variety of lessons, practices, and games; and keep everyone in the family on schedule. And that is all within your family and home. It makes me weary just reviewing all of this!
To you who feel harried and overwhelmed and who wonder whether you ever will be able to run fast enough to catch the departing train you think you should be on, I suggest that you learn to deal with each day as it comes, doing the best you can, without feelings of guilt or inadequacy. I saw a bumper sticker the other day, sisters, that may say it all:
‘God put me on earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right now I am so far behind, I will never die!’’’
Christ didn’t serve as vanity or showiness—he was not there to glorify himself, but the Father. In this Pinterest-y world, we’d do good to remember the reasons we should serve—for love, not accolade.
Christ was an example of praying always
He was constantly communing with his Father. As we model our own expressions of prayer after the Savior, our children will learn how to do this. Milo, my three-year old, on his second Sunday as a Sunbeam was asked to give the prayer in Sharing Time. I walked up with him to the pulpit prepared to whisper phrases to him. To my surprise, he started his prayer and ended it all by himself, using some phrases I’d never heard come out of his mouth. A few months ago, when he burned his arm on a hot pan, he ran to me crying and said “Mom, say a prayer!” He got it. The wisdom of babes.
Christ was an example of owning his divine identity
He knew who he was. He was confident in telling others who He was. There are many examples of Christ unapologetically acknowledging his divinity, and here’s one from John Chapter 4, we learn about the Christ and the woman at the well.
25 The woman saith unto him, I know that Messiah cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things.
26 Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he.
Wouldn’t it be great if we also owned our divinity—vocally, often, in front of our children?
My own mother is unflappable, maybe one of the most confident women I know. And her confidence has absolutely shaped mine. I never heard her tear herself down, complain about her pant-size, or do anything other than talk about herself in accordance with her true identity—a beloved spirit child of loving Heavenly Parents.
So I know, from her example, the way we talk about ourselves influences our children.
Mothers—you are daughters of God. I don’t think anywhere in the Young Women theme it says “We are daughters of our Heavenly Father who loves us, but only really if we have small thighs.”
We must always remember that being a Christlike mother doesn’t mean being perfect. It means becoming dependent upon the only One who is. It means acknowledging our eternal identity.
Let me circle back to the Christ-mother hen metaphor just for a minute. Parenthood, motherhood, is exquisitely difficult. I hope I haven’t glossed over how challenging it is. All our duties can leave us feeling depleted and asking the Lord for help because we feel like we just can’t do it all.
The following story was published in Meridian Magazine.
“A group of young college students were helping measure range damage after a wildfire raged across the prairie outside their university town. As they walked over the expanse of blackened earth, they noticed a cluster of small smoldering mounds. One of the volunteers was particularly interested in the unidentifiable heaps and asked one of the more experienced range managers what they were.
“This veteran of many range fires replied that he had seen this phenomenon on a few occasions and suggested that the young man turn over one of the piles. He did. To his great surprise several sage grouse chicks ran out from under the upturned mound. He was fascinated. How incredible, he thought, that these little chicks had known to find and run underneath this mysterious shelter.
“The young man asked what the mound was and how the chicks knew to take refuge there. To his amazement, he was told that the smoldering heap was the remains of their mother. When there is danger the mother hen instinctively calls out to her young ones and stretches out her wings for them to run under and find protection in her embrace. The young man was profoundly moved by this symbol of a mother’s innate love and protection.”
I have had days in the mothering of young, completely dependent children where I felt like the remains of myself. I felt like the burnt-out chicken. When I had two kids under two—one of whom was a newborn, after a particularly exhausting and hazy day I remember having the thought, If this was a job, I would quit.
But here’s where the mother hen parable gets really interesting. As we apply it to ourselves, we are clearly the mother hen, but, we are also the chicks. Christ is the hen. Christ can save us, when we feel like the most exhausted, most impatient versions of ourselves. He beckons us to come unto Him to be saved under His wing. When we feel like we have little left to give as mothers, we can give it to him and he will multiply our joy. That is the story of the atonement. That is also the story of Christlike motherhood.