Religion and incarceration: Sunday at the Mill Valley Film Festival

For my second day at the Mill Valley Film Festival, I actually went to Mill Valley. I only saw two films, but they were both worth the trip.

That meant a longer drive from the East Bay. It was also that I spent my time in the Sequoia Theatre. The cupholders are much better than the ones at the Rafael.

Okay, now the movies.

The Reformer. Zwingli: A Life’s Portrait

Yes, the title is as clumsy as an elephant tapdancing on a snake. Outside the theater, people were asking if this was the line for The Reformer or the line for Zwingli. I suppose the title was a problem with the translation from the original German.

This medieval epic tells the story of Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss contemporary of Martin Luther; the two had similar beliefs but didn’t like each other. Stefan Haupt’s film follows Zwingli as he sets out to replace Catholicism with a Christianity based on the Gospels, emphasizing charity and love. Of course, this is all very dangerous in a time when there is no wall between church and state. Set against a probably accurate view of early 16th-century middle Europe, the movie shows Zwingli as a decent, faulty, and sometimes fanatical man.

I give The Reformer an A-.

After the screening, director Haupt answered questions. As usual, these highlights are edited for brevity and clarity:

  • I come from Zurich. Even if I left church at 20, these are still my roots
  • I found out they were planning a film about Zwingli. I called them, so they picked me.
  • I’m still surprised how modern the story is.
  • we know very little about his wife’s life. The good thing was that we had a lot of liberty.
  • Why isn’t he as well-known as Luther? I think it’s a side our Swiss character. We’re not so good at putting ourselves out front. There are dozens of paintings of Luther made during his lifetime. There’s not a single one of Zwingli.
  • He has an image of being all work and austere, but that’s not the truth.
  • I was interested in making the movie come to live. It’s so difficult because none of us have been there.
  • Costumes are much more expensive if you want them to look dirty.

You have one more chance to see The Reformer at the Festival. Today, Monday, at 2:30, at the Rafael. It’s sold out, but there may be tickets on rush.


This is the second film I saw this Festival about capital punishment. And while I very much liked Just Mercy, Clemency blew that one away. This was more than a screening, but also a celebration of actress Alfre Woodard.

This emotionally powerful film follows good people who don’t always do good things. Clemency starts with a botched execution, and it was one of the most intense experiences I’ve seen on the screen. Alfie Woodward plays the Warren. She’s good at her job, but the executions are ruining her life. She drinks to much. She’s remote to her husband (Wendell Pierce). She’s emotionally closer to a younger man who works for her. Meanwhile, a man who may or may not have committed murder, is heading for his execution after 15 years on death row.

I give Clemency a very well-earned A.

After the screening, Woodward and writer/director Chinonye Chukwu answered questions. These highlights are edited for brevity and clarity.

  • On learning to act: I trained in a very conservative, classic conservatory. You learn everything and then you throw it all away. Whatever sticks is what you need.
  • On picking a role: When I read a script, if my stomach catches, then I know I have something. By page 50 I’m praying that it will continue to be good.
  • On finding a character: You start to pepper your own speech with the character’s dialect.
  • I met Bob Altman when I was very young. He said I didn’t look like an African American, but like an African.
  • Director Chukwu: I had to get over the initial oh-my-god-I’m-directing-Alfie-Woodward feeling.
  • Nobody is born addicted. Nobody is born an asshole.
  • Screenwriting is empathy. You’re trying not to see the worst in people, but their humanity.
  • When you sit with people who are condemned, there’s a real sadness. What you see is boys. They may be 40 or 50 years old, but you see the boy.

You have another chance to see Clemency, today, Monday, 4:00, at the Rafael. I’m also pretty sure it will get a theatrical release.