“Silent Night” is said to be the most popular Christmas hymn around the world, and the story of how that hymn was written is portrayed in the new film Silent Night, written and directed by Christian Vuissa (One Good Man, The Errand of Angels, Joseph Smith: Plates of Gold). Silent Night is currently available on DVD, and for online streaming at BYUtv.
When young Joseph Mohr walks into the small town of Oberndorf, Austria in 1818 to serve as the assistant priest, he finds a town bound by old traditions and with clearly defined social classes. As an illegitimate child raised by a single mom himself, Mohr finds it easy to empathize with the poor and downtrodden even while some of his religious peers reject and despise them. Mohr goes to work among the local underclass immediately, easing their burdens and striving to revitalize attendance at Sunday services. However, he soon finds his compassion and inclusiveness bring him into conflict with local traditions.
Those traditions dictate that songs and sermons be in Latin rather than German, despite the obvious obstacle for the non-Latin-speaking populace. Women are not allowed to sing in church choirs at all. Mohr’s aspiration to be inclusive (as the Savior was) arises the ire of “old school” congregation members, including his superior who informs him that he should not be “associating with sinners”. As he prepares for what he hopes is an inspiring Christmas musical performance of his new hymn, Mohr struggles to change hearts and provide hope to those who need it.
Like Christian Vuissa’s other films, Silent Night is well-produced with some beautiful scenery (shot on location in Vuissa’s native Austria). The writing is basic and there’s little energy or action — also in common with Vuissa’s other films. Like his previous movie The Letter Writer, though, the material here is simple enough not to require anything more than what Vuissa gives it. Silent Night is a solid if unexceptional film, and succeeds mostly on the strength of its lead character with some good music thrown in as well.
The heart of the film, Joseph Mohr works tirelessly to include everyone in God’s embrace regardless of current or past circumstances. He is not portrayed as perfect – his micromanagement of the music process tends to alienate his writing partner, and his deepening feelings for a local woman and her son provides familial temptations away from his vows as a clergyman. However, his goodness and Christ-like love for everyone around him makes him an inspiring character. It’s unfortunate that the supporting characters are broadly drawn and not well-written — especially Mohr’s hard-lined superior, who from his first sentence of spoken dialogue sneers at the idea of “helping the poor” and views the fact that the Latin sermons exclude them to be a feature of the Church, not a bug. (When Mohr quotes scripture to the contrary, he gets another sneer: “Quoting scripture? Is that what they teach in seminary these days?”)
As with any film by an LDS writer or director, it’s natural to look for any kind of Mormon subtext, even in a fact-based story featuring Catholic characters. Mohr’s primary goal to get more people to “attend church” is more of an obvious nod to LDS philosophy rather than Catholic philosophy. And certainly Mohr’s “forbidden” attraction to a local woman and her son would draw a different response from an LDS context (where marriage is encouraged if not required for Church leaders) than a Catholic one.
When Mohr shares with his friend his complaints that the (Catholic) Church “is not doing enough to alleviate the suffering of the people”, and that they don’t work to “offer hope and compassion, only to protect its authority”, it’s hard to tell if Vuissa is saying this (a) innocently, without any intention of linking these comments to the LDS Church today, (b) a direct attempt to remind current LDS that they should be heeding this same advice, or (c) an “apologetic” response to LDS critics who say the above, with Mohr’s friend’s response being “YOU [the individual] are the church; YOU are the message of hope and compassion”. Or perhaps (d) none of the above, where Vuissa has no direct motive in mind and has allowed viewers to interpret it however they prefer.
It’s ironic (in a circumstantial sense) that I happened to view Silent Night the same weekend as the “Wear Pants To Church” controversy, along with the accompanying discussions of What It All Means. A film featuring women being blocked from singing in church because “that’s just not how things are done here” forms an interesting juxtaposition in broader LDS Church history where women have only been in recent decades allowed to pray in church or speak in General Conference — or current women being told by conservative members they can ‘kinda sorta wear pants to church services but if you loved the Savior you wouldn’t’.
Certainly there are many parallels in Catholic and Mormon history where “old-school” traditions clashed with new progressive thought, and Vuissa may not have intended Silent Night to try to invoke or resolve those debates. Possibly Vuissa simply found the story of Joseph Mohr — a good man doing his best to bring the love of God to his fellow man regardless of circumstance — compelling and wanted to bring his story to the screen. To that extent, he has succeeded, and the fact that there’s also good music involved is just a bonus.
Final Grade: B