An impressive spiritual epic.
With relative quiet, the religious film has been a force in the 21st century. The Passion of the Christ is the most visible part of this phenomenon, but the continued success of Tyler Perry is there if you’re looking for it. And that doesn’t even count the innumerable direct-to-video or short-run theatrical films that don’t light up the box office nationally, but still prove hugely profitable (God’s Not Dead). What unites all these religious successes, however, is that all were produced outside the Hollywood mainstream. Though some of them feature well-known actors and earned a spot in theaters, they didn’t come from a traditional studio. This is a serious about-face from decades of precedent, where Hollywood raided the Bible on the regular to produce epic after epic. But somewhere around the New Hollywood era, the kids stopped wanting to see religion on screen. Before that, however, Hollywood didn’t shy away from religious subjects, and 1944’s Keys of the Kingdom is a perfect example. It’s a so-so religious drama with strong performances but a lackluster narrative. Fans of the film will appreciate this Blu-ray release, but non-believers won’t find much to tempt them.
Told primarily in flashback, Keys of the Kingdom is the story of Father Francis (Gregory Peck, Moby Dick). Raised an orphan after his parents were killed by an anti-Catholic mob, Francis decides to join the seminary despite his misgivings with Church teaching and his love of a young woman from his village. Despite his misgivings, he becomes a priest and is sent to rural China, where the mission is struggling from a lack of support by wealthy Chinese merchants. Father Francis perseveres in the face of these setbacks, winning the locals with his courage and humility. When he’s faced with difficult choices, Francis must rely on God.
One of the dangers with stories about religion is that there is almost no room for surprise. If we sit through a Biblical re-telling, the element of surprise is lost from the countless repetitions that preceeded it (unless you’re Darren Aronofsky making Noah). But for more contemporary stories of religious faith, the very element of faith precludes surprise. If the main character has faith, then the audience knows pretty much everything is going to work out. If it doesn’t, the audience feels (rightly) betrayed by the implicit promise of the religious film, which is to offer a visible affirmation of invisible spirituality.
Here, of course, I’m generalizing (and speaking largely of American as opposed to European films), but the basic plot is omnipresent. Keys of the Kingdom conforms to this pattern. Aside from some doubt in the film’s opening moments (quickly taken off-screen with a death), Father Francis finds his faith rewarded time and again. He can’t get the villagers interested in his sermons. Just then a local villager stumbles by and helps him make in-roads with the other villagers. He needs some medical supplies and an old friend from back home happens to be a doctor with some extras. And etc. I’m sure it’s terribly comforting if you’re already a believer, but there’s nothing to shake the feeling that you know exactly how everything is going to work out.
Part of the reasons stories like this can be successful is when they tell stories of real-life faith rewarded. Keys of the Kingdom isn’t based on a real-life priest, but a novel by a Scottish doctor who returned to religion later in his life. His novel The Citadal helped to revolutionize medical ethics, and it feels like Keys to the Kingdom wants to have the same success in revolutionizing our approach to religion. It doesn’t achieve that goal, but it’s an honest effort.
The real reason to sit through all the unsurprising religious material is to get a first-rate cast acting their hearts out. Gregory Peck has a breakout role in Father Francis. The quiet dignity and homespun charm he would immortalize in To Kill a Mockingbird and Roman Holiday are already apparent here. Thomas Mitchell is perfect as Francis’ childhood friend-turned-doctor. It’s always great to see Mitchell sink his teeth into a role. Vincent Price gets to step out of the macabre shadow of his horror films and act as Francis’ friend from seminary, the one who rises through the Church’s ranks to act as a foil for the more down-to-earth Francis. Roddy McDowell is fun as a young Francis. The rest of the cast includes luminaries as well – including Sir Cedrick Hardwicke in the film’s framing story. The film is worth watching for anyone who misses the days when even so-so movies could be filled with recognizable names.
Keys of the Kingdom gets a release worthy of its cast. The 1.33:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is gorgeous. Detail is strong throughout, with plenty of well-resolved grain that gives a nice film-like appearance. Despite the detail, damage isn’t a significant problem. Contrast stays rock solid, and black levels are pretty deep. The film’s DTS-HD 2.0 master audio track is similarly impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear, and the balance between dialogue and the Oscar-nominated score is well-maintained. It’s not a staggering track, but given the age of the film this is good stuff.
Extras start with a commentary by Chris Mankiewicz (son of screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz) and biographer Kenneth Grant. The pair were recorded separately and their comments are interspersed throughout the movie. There are some good stories in there, but too much silence to be a stellar track. Alfred Newman’s score is also present as an isolated audio track. The film’s trailer is included, and a booklet features an essay by historian Julie Kirgo along with photos.
It’s difficult to imagine a more wholesome film than Keys of the Kingdom, but wholesome in this case also means kinda boring. It’s got a great cast serving a lackluster narrative, so viewer mileage may vary. What doesn’t vary is the quality of the audiovisual presentation on this excellent Blu-ray.