‘First Reformed’ – Film Review and Analysis

Man’s struggle with God can almost be as endearing yet painful as his struggle against man. If there is one way to sum up the excellent film, ‘First Reformed’, that would be it. First Reformed (2017) focuses on the environment, one’s faith, and the struggle to find hope when things seem rather bleak. “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to the world?”, a troubled environmental activist asks Pastor Ernst Toller and the Pastor replies to his congregant, “Who can know the mind of God?”

While this movie did not receive any Oscar awards, the acting by Ethan Hawke (Pastor Ernst Toller) and also by Amanda Seyfried (Mary) is excellent as well as the cinematography, the adapted screenplay by Director Paul Schrader which helps this film earn its critical acclaim and some Independent Spirit award nominations as well as one Academy Award nomination. I still believe Mr. Hawke was snubbed from getting an Oscar nomination since this film’s performance was one of the best he has ever done and deserved more praise. In many of his films, I find him to be one of the best actors of his generation and able to produce genuine emotion regardless of the situation his character finds himself in.

In ‘First Reformed’, Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) finds himself faced with difficult questions surrounding his faith, morality, the environment in 2017, and what lies ahead in the future for humanity. These are weighty questions for anyone to deal with let alone a pillar of a community like Toller finds himself to be in Snowbridge, New York as the head pastor for the colonial era First Reformed church that dates back to the time of British colonization and the underground railroad movement later on.

This historical church is seen to be losing its membership and interest and Pastor Toller has to resort to touristic gimmicks and a small gift shop to help make ends meet to keep the church going. There is a noticeable parallel to the decline of Christianity in terms of active members of the Christian church in the United States so a fictional movie such as this one has some real-life parallels that seem plausible. The crisis of faith in churches in certain communities has a coinciding similarity with Toller’s own faith in God and in himself. He is an alcoholic struggling to find meaning and purpose in his life at the beginning of the film.

While making the church more touristy, he has also made the church more spiritual as well instead of its Calvinist origins. He sticks more to sermons than to scriptures and has enlisted the financial backing and ownership of an evangelical megachurch in nearby Albany, New York, which is likely to take over the church in the near future much to Toller’s apprehension. As we go through the film, we peel back the curtain on who this pastor is and like any of us, he has his own personal flaws and past sins but has also suffered for them and wishes to make amends in some way.

We find out that Pastor Toller lost his son, Joseph, recently while serving in the Iraq War and feels guilt for having told him to enlist having come from a military background himself as a chaplain. During that difficult time, he committed adultery and started drinking but also found his faith again to then become a pastor at First Reformed after going through grieving his son’s loss. However, a chance encounter with one of his congregants and his wife puts his faith in God and humanity to the ultimate test.

Mary, a devout congregant and believer in God and her skeptical husband, Michael, a stern environmentalist and becoming increasingly radical meet with Pastor Toller separately in their house. Mary has concerns about Michael’s well-being and tells the Pastor they expect to have a child soon. Michael is sincerely struggling with the fact that he will be a father soon when the world’s ecosystems are steadily collapsing, sea levels are rising, and the effects of global climate change are to be felt beginning in the next few decades. For any of us watching this pivotal scene including Pastor Toller himself, there are no easy answers from God or from man either regarding the future of humanity. Ernest finds it difficult to comfort Michael but asks to keep seeing him and to look out for Mary and the unborn child.

This particular scene leads to the rest of the film’s deeper dive into the effects of capitalism and greed on the environment as well as the relationship between big industry and religious institutions. Pastor Toller’s awakening from meeting with Mary and Michael leads him to questioning why the environmental situation is so dire, who is responsible for it, what can be done to stop it, and how far should measures be taken. Because the Pastor has no easy answers for Michael, he starts looking for them and is obviously dismayed by what he finds out regarding the local environmental situation in his community and how greed, industry, and the lack of stewardship for his community have led humanity down towards an unsustainable path.

Without spoiling the film, The Pastor struggles with what he can do as one individual to counteract the forces aligned against good stewardship of the planet and what a person can do to draw attention to the problem. Not only is there a crisis of faith in God but in each other and what is being done to the only planet we have ever known. The Pastor, with certain health issues related to alcoholism, is reconciling with the fact that he is mortal and what kind of impact he wants to leave behind.

He is comforted by the fact that Mary is still a believer in the future and wants to have a child even with the future of the planet looking relatively bleak. Pastor Toller knows however that he has the responsibility now to hold those accountable for their actions whether it’s the Evangelical church, a big industrialist doing environmental damage, or even himself when he strays from helping those in his congregation who need it the most.

‘First Reformed’ poses a lot of weighty questions and it is an extremely timely film in terms of its messages and themes. It is bleak because it has to be and raises a lot of issues that we have neglected regarding the environment and now we may be finding that time to make a difference in this escalating problem is running out. ‘First Reformed’ asks us how an ordinary man of faith yet a pillar of the community so respond to those in his congregation who are in despair regarding environmental damage and destruction.

How far should he go and how radical should he be to get people to listen and understand what is being done? Can love and faith overcome the desire to do harm and take revenge against those who have sinned against the planet? Like any good film, there are no easy answers and the director does not condone or condemn the thoughts or possible actions that Pastor Toller weights leading up to the climax of the last scene.

What this film does an excellent job of is warning its viewers about the consequences of greed, ignorance, lack of stewardship, valuing profits over the health and well-being of people, and the unholy alliance of organized religion and big industries. There are numerous fingers to point at regarding the worsening state of climate change going on in the world currently but perhaps those who watch this excellent film will realize that the finger should be pointed at ourselves first about the damage being done. Perhaps that kind of introspective thinking is what it will take for massive external action to occur and for the worst of the consequences to be avoided.

Tulum

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Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico

What are we left with? (Our Memories)

I was asked a question recently that was very deep and thought-provoking. A friend asked me if I had to choose between an old age spent losing my physical abilities but keeping my mental faculties or an old age spent losing my mental faculties and keeping my physical abilities, which one would I choose? The question gave me pause because I normally do not focus a lot on my impending aging but it’s natural to think of what life will be like once you are an elderly person. My friend did not hesitate to say that he would choose having his physical abilities intact since he is a very active person and enjoys running, hiking, and exercising at the gym.

He thought that I would agree with him and I do like to keep active as well physically but I also thought of what would happen to my mind if I could no longer process and retain information about books I love, music I enjoy, and movies where I can recite a lot of lines of dialogue from. Perhaps most importantly, I thought of all the memories I have made up until this point of both friends and loved ones and how it would be anguishing to me if I succumb to a disease of the mind where I lose sight of who I am or who my family or friends are. I think that really is a fate worse than physical deterioration because I find that our physical abilities and our peak performance do not last and Father Time will have our way with all of us regardless of how much we exercise, take vitamins, and play sports. Eventually, your body will break down especially the older you get and there is only so much you can do to spot that.

However, I tend to believe that exercising our mind and our mental capabilities can be a lot easier and take a lot less work than it takes to maintain our physical body. We live in an age where you can learn anything you want about an unlimited number of subjects. Keeping our minds sharp by studying foreign languages, learning new subjects, reading good books, writing our thoughts down in a journal are all healthy activities to kind the mind sharp. I am not an expert in terms of how to keep our mental capacities up as we go through life but I would imagine that putting your brain to the test especially with puzzles, trivia games, and sudoku especially can help you preserve what is most important to you.

Unfortunately, I have seen firsthand how sad and tragic it is for others to slowly lose their mental capacities and that is what tipped me towards the idea of focusing as much, if not more so, on giving myself the best show to work on my concentration, my memory, and my ability to learn new things. I believe that we all have that same capacity to preserve our mental capacities although it does take consistent work that not only last years but lasts decades as well.

Part of the reason why it is good to be able to exercise your brain as much as possible is because I really believe it makes you a more well-rounded and thoughtful person. Learning new things is something you should never really give up on. Having a college degree or a law degree or a medical degree is not really an excuse to stop learning and stop exercising your mind to the most you can push it.

We do not know what old age will hold, what will it be like, what abilities or faculties we will be left with but what we have control over is today and what we focus on whether that is mental or physical exercise. What I do know is how meaningful it is to remember what has happened over the course of your life and to be aware of those special memories that are yours and yours alone. In the end, what are we left with? We are left with our memories and hopefully it is more of an endless ocean than a single drop of water.

To focus today on making those memories with the people we care about and the things we enjoy doing will make old age that much sweeter. If your body one day gives out but your mind is still sharp, I think that is the better side of the deal. Obviously, it would be great to be fit as a fiddle and sharp as a tack until your last day, but I find that to be wishful thinking. I hope to remember who I am, what I’ve done, who I met, and most importantly who I loved when that time comes to reminisce and there aren’t many more memories to make.

Having memories in your mind that are fresh and seemed like they happened yesterday is the best you should hope for and what you can strive for by working today to strengthen your mental capacities as much as possible.  Your body at 70 is unlikely to be as good as your body at 70 but I’m a believer in the capacity of your mind at 70 to be as sharp as your mind at 20 within reason.

There are definitely outside factors to contend for in terms of your ability to retain your memories such as your genetic predisposition, your family history, and your own mind’s chemistry, but you can control a lot today through your own actions what memories you will be left with 50 years later. It also does not hurt to start writing down in a journal or diary on a daily basis or at least a weekly basis what happened in your life. This is especially the case if you live an exciting or an eventful life.

In addition, having photographs of yourself at different ages and in different places will jumpstart your memories and remind you of where you have been and what you did. Towards the end of your life, think of what you will have left. Yes, you will have your money, your possessions, and hopefully good physical health but I wish you also to remember deeply the memories you have made from different parts of your life and they are as vivid as possible. Your life towards the end of it should be like a cinematic movie of many parts, one as distinct from the other, and I hope you can look upon those memories you have made with great enjoyment and great fondness for what was and what it meant to you.

Chichen Itza

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Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Chichén Itzá, Yucatan, Mexico

“Tudo Bem?”

Tudo bem? or Tudo bom? is a simple yet intriguing greeting that has been one of the most culturally interesting aspects of living in Brazil. You might be thinking what is so interesting about these two words but the greeting itself when you translate it has much more of a significance than what you would think. I find it fascinating for a number of reasons, which I will divulge during this article and it is important to keep in mind that languages including English have different ways in which people can address each other from the very neutral to the very positive.

To give some background first, I have studied a few foreign languages thus far and one of the first things you learn in any language are the greetings / salutations. The way you greet someone in another language can teach you a lot about the culture and also about the country. No one greeting is the same although the meaning is usually quite similar. What has thrown me off about ‘Tudo bem?’ is not just the brevity of it but the significance regarding its inherent positivity. I did not expect this greeting to be so prevalent, but I am fundamentally glad that it is used so regularly.

Let us start by breaking ‘Tudo bem?’ or ‘Tudo bom?’ down in terms of trying to translate it into English, which is not so easy on the surface. You would think it means ‘How are you?’, ‘How is everything going?’ but that is not the right translation. If we are to translate it into English, it would be more like, ‘All is well?’ or ‘Everything good?’. Instead of saying ‘Como vai voce?’ (How are you doing?) or ‘Como voce esta?’ (How are you?), I have been surprised to learn that these greetings are not as popular while ‘Tudo bom?’ or ‘Tudo bem?’ are used frequently in polite greetings whether it is with a shop keeper, bank teller, a cashier, or your neighbor from next door.

What I really like about ‘Tudo bem?’ or ‘Tudo bom?’ is that you are being positive and outgoing right from the start. Even if everything is just okay or you might be having a bad day, it is almost expected to say in response ‘Tudo bem!’ or ‘Tudo bom!’ to indicate that everything is going well and you’re doing fine even if that might be the case. To me, this represents something very unique about Brazilian culture in terms of airing on the side of being positive and upbeat. Even if you are going through some tough times or don’t think everything is alright, you are unconsciously drawn to saying that it is and to stay positive.

You do not have to always respond with ‘Tudo bem’ or ‘Tudo bom’ but during my time here, I have not really heard any answers in Portuguese with the equivalent of ‘I’m doing alright’, or ‘I’m doing okay’, or ‘I’m fine.’ Even rarer would be to say that you are not doing well, or you are sick, or you are tired. ‘Tudo bem?’ is a very casual greeting and it is usually only common to respond with the same reply or with a ‘bem’ (good), ‘bom’ (good), or even ‘tudo certo’ (all right). You don’t really say that you are doing amazing, fantastic, wonderful, or any other exuberant English equivalent when asked about ‘Tudo bem?’ but this kind of greeting in Portuguese is much more positive, and warm than I have encountered with another languages.

Greetings tend to be neutral at the outside when the person asking expects a positive answer, but the response can also be neutral or negative depending on the language used. However, I have found that Portuguese among the languages I know or have studied is the only one which leaves very little room for a neutral or negative response. I do believe that is a good thing although it can be a bit difficult to express those emotions right away. It is kind of expected to start out any interaction on a positive note by saying ‘all is well?’ and ‘all is good?’. Unless you are with a family member or a close friend, it can be tough to really express how you truly feel because they are likely not asking how you really are but just trying to be polite at the outset.

Regardless, when you compare Brazilian Portuguese to English or to Spanish, the initial greeting is much more positive in terms of the translation. While you can say ‘All is well?’ or ‘Everything good?’ in English, these are not really the initial greetings that you would use when you are talking to someone for the first time. It is much more common to say, ‘How are you?’ or ‘How are you doing?’ instead. Saying ‘Hello, all is well?’ or ‘Hello, everything fine?’ at the outside to an English speaker would be a bit strange at first whereas ‘How are you?’ is much more of a common occurrence.

In my opinion, the same could be said with Spanish where you would address someone you have never met before with ‘Como estas?’ or ‘Como vas?’, which is a very similar translation from the English of ‘How are you?’ or ‘How are you doing?’ Now, you could do something similar in Spanish with a greeting of ‘Todo bien?’ which is similar to the meaning of ‘Tudo bem?’ in Portuguese. However, from my own experience, while ‘Todo bien?’ is more acceptable and can be heard from time to time, a more proper greeting in a first interaction with a native Spanish speaker is ‘Como estas?’ rather than ‘Todo bien?’ An exception would be if you had met that person before or a few times previously and consider them to be more than a stranger. That is when ‘Todo bien?’ would be used but not really when you meet someone for the first time.

Lastly, even with Turkish, the last language I have learned, you would say to somebody new: ‘Merhaba, Nasilsin?’ (Hello, how are you?) similarly to English or Spanish but there is no formal greeting used in the Turkish language where you would ask if everything is well right off the bat. In English, Spanish, or Turkish, it seems that the greeting to ask how someone is starts off as being very neutral in its meaning whereas with Brazilian Portuguese, it is fundamentally a different story. Out of all the languages that I have learned and studied, the greeting of ‘Tudo Bem?’ is fundamentally the most optimistic and positive out of all of them.

I have to say that it took me back at first when I arrived in Brazil how common it is and how it is customary to reply with a ‘Tudo bem!’ or ‘Tudo bom!’ in reply, usually with a smile. It is a testament to the positive and upbeat culture where even if you are having a bad day and things aren’t going well, people here try to have a happy outlook on life and to boost their spirits with a ‘Tudo bem?’ and a thumbs up. I am not a psychologist, but I can imagine seeing someone smiling and wishing you a ‘Tudo bem?’ will do wonders for your day and for your overall mood.

If you can learn any two words in Brazilian Portuguese, I would recommend that you first use ‘Tudo bem(?)’ because it is probably the most important words in the language and can both be a great question and a great answer to have under your belt as you navigate this fascinating and unique culture.

Cancun Sunset

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Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Cancun, Mexico

English Corner – An Introduction to Rhetorical Techniques

Rhetorical techniques are used in English writing to convey a meaning or a sentiment that the reader understands and is able to relate to emotionally or otherwise. A technique like a metaphor or a simile is used to persuade a reader to consider the topic being addressed from a different point of view(s).

There are numerous techniques out there, but I would like to focus on the most important ones that come up the most in English writing. Out of the dozens of rhetorical techniques in the English language, I will highlight the most commonly used and the most popular ones that you should know of as a writer.

The first rhetorical techniques I would like to introduce focus on the type of ideas you use in your writing, the emotions and feelings that you are describing, the characterization of the people you are referencing as well as their credibility, and the strength of your argument. These particular techniques are known as Logos, Pathos, Ethos, and Kairos, which are all likely to come up during your writing exercises. You should keep each of them in mind when you are writing and to know which rhetorical technique is which when you use them in your writing.

  • Logos – Logical and Consistent Ideas
  • Pathos – Emotions and Feelings
  • Ethos – Plausibility and Credibility, characterization of the person(s) involved
  • Kairos – Timeliness and relevance of your argument

Here are some additional and commonly used rhetorical techniques as well as some examples of each of them in action when used in a normal sentence.

  • Metaphor – a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action that is not literally applicable.

Example: He is suffering from a broken heart.

  • Cliché – Not an original thought, an opinion or a sentence that has been used many times before.

Example: They really lost track of time when they were studying for the test.

  • Pun – A joke that plays on the possible meanings of a word or a fact.

Example: “I asked my French friend if she wanted to play video games. She said Wii.”  (Oui)

  • Euphemism – A polite or indirect word, expression that is a substitute for something more blunt or severe.

Example: My grandfather passed away last year sadly. (died)

  • Alliteration – The occurrence of the same letter and/or sound at the beginning of closely connected words.

Example: Alice’s aunt ate apples and almonds.

  • Simile – A different figure of speech in which two different, unlikely things are compared to one another.

Example: Her smile is like the shining sun.

  • Analogy – Making a similarity between the features of two things or people and which a comparison can be made.

Example: “Just as a sword is the weapon of a warrior, a pen is the weapon of a writer.”

  • Allegory – A story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to have a hidden meaning.

Example: “When Jack finally finished climbing up the beanstalk even when his Father told him not to, he found an unwelcome surprise at the summit that reminded him of his father’s warning…”

  • Irony – A state of events that seem deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing or bewildering as a result.

Example: Even though John had overslept for the exam and ran all the way to the school to take the exam, his teacher belatedly told him that it was tomorrow, and that today was Sunday.

  • Sarcasm – The use of irony to mock someone or show contempt.

Example: “Tina asked her mother how much her purse had cost her when she bought it. Her mother responded playfully that it was about $20,000 and she had to use Tina’s college savings fund to help pay for it. Tina was upset about her mother’s joke and that she wasn’t being serious with her.”

Here are some of the last major rhetorical techniques to consider during your English grammar studies for writing purposes:

  • Synonyms – Similar in meaning and context with Vocabulary words.
  • Antonyms – Opposite in meaning and Context with Vocabulary words.

Strong – Weak (Antonym)                         Intelligent – Smart (Synonym)

Big – Small (Antonym)                              Caring – Kind (Synonym)

Tall – Short (Antonym)                              Sad – Unhappy (Synonym)

Fat – Thin (Antonym)                                Funny – Humorous (Synonym)

Remember to keep your sentences short and concise as a beginner. As you improve and use correct punctuation, your sentences can become longer and more detailed. Please be sure to focus on the rhetorical techniques that are used the most. There are more than a dozen techniques that you should now be familiar with so try to memorize how, when, and where you use each of them.

Don’t try to memorize all of them but try to become more and more knowledgeable of a few that you recognize that keep coming up again and again. Lastly, do not forget TOP or “Techniques, Order, and Punctuation”, which are the three main concepts that form the basis for correct English writing structure.