Theology at the movies: The Confirmation, The Bicycle Thieves and getting confession right

By James Tomek, Ph.D.
Watching on Netflix Bob Nelson’s 2016 “The Confirmation,” about a boy and his father looking for stolen tools, immediately makes me think of “The Bicycle Thieves,” a 1948 post war Italian film about a father and son’s search for a stolen bicycle, necessary for work. There is a theology lesson in the comparison. After a short discussion of the two films, I will focus on the treatment of sacrament in the Nelson film.

James Tomek, Ph.D.

The renown Vittorio De Sica movie is an example of neorealism, a genre that shows the real poverty of post-World War II Rome, where a bicycle is a precious tool to find and do work. With the help of his wife Maria, pawning her bed sheets, Antonio Ricci is able to unpawn his bicycle and leave the unemployment line as a poster hanger. The disparity of classes is shown when Ricci gives up and treats his son Bruno to a restaurant lunch with his remaining money. He tells his son that, with a job, they can eat every day, like at the adjourning table, where a well-off family casually dines. The film ends with Ricci and son wandering aimlessly on foot. In today’s society, Ricci and family belong to those most hurt by the COVID epidemic.
“The Confirmation” follows a similar movement, about a father and son searching for a stolen set of tools, but the frame here is slightly different, focusing on the boy’s growing awareness of the complexities of life, as he spends a weekend with his estranged father Walt, while his mother and new husband go off on a weekend Catholic marriage encounter. The film opens with 8-year-old Anthony at confession, where we learn that he will soon receive the Eucharist and then be confirmed. But, here the film seems to lose focus as it hesitates between critiquing the Catholic faith and focusing on a son’s awareness of his father’s troubled existence. Hollywood does not always handle confession very well. Here, Father Lyons corrects Anthony’s awkward confession in a rude abrupt manner. Not my experience. Priests, personally speaking, are very helpful with penitents, especially first-time ones. Then later, in a conversation with his father, when Anthony is worried about the cannibalistic idea of “eating” Jesus’s body, the father Walt demeaningly interjects that it is only crackers and grape juice. Walt does advise Anthony that these are subjects that he will have to deal with later on. Is this in fact, the Confirmation of the title? Cannibalism with an 8-year-old? Grape juice?
Bishop Joseph Kopacz, in a recent message to First Communion students, referred to Communion as a beautiful moment of coming close to Jesus who also wants to be with us intimately. Anthony’s mother Bonnie has superficial notions of the sacraments. The absolution she seeks is an imperfect contrition. The 8-year-old boy does seem older, and he does come of age discovering the weaknesses and strengths of his father, who is recovering from alcoholism. The movie does succeed in developing the understanding of father and son. The father is skilled in a smaller more “artistic” type of woodwork. His love of seeing doors mounted well is sacramental. We also see him putting brakes on his wife’s car – an ability requiring a deep sense of car mechanics. Anthony does witness true signs of friendship in Walt’s friend Otto who teaches Anthony about the effects of sobering up and the need to be patient. “The Bicycle Thieves” is very strong in showing the plight of the poor uneducated in postwar Rome, but it does not get into the specifics of Ricci and son. The Confirmation does succeed in getting into the souls of the characters. Relating the sacrament of Confirmation, with an anointing of true wisdom to the characters, is well enacted, but however, spoiled by a view of Catholicism seen in the superficial “get it done” attitude of the mother to the sacraments.
Paying attention to our faith is a characteristic of theology seen in the Jane Hirshfield poem “Theology.” “A border collie’s preference is to do anything entirely, with the whole attention. This Simone Weil called prayer. And almost always her prayers were successful.” Paying attention raises existence to a prayer/sacramental level. The carpenter reflecting on his trade is at the start of an understanding of creation. Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist are sacraments of initiation, given to adults in the early church. Confession or Reconciliation is a vital part of maintaining these sacraments. Maybe we should teach children the general notion of sacrament rather than splitting them up individually. In carpentry, when we just want to learn how to fix things, we have a “material” mental attitude. Just get the job done. When we give carpentry more attention on how it really is a co-creation of the world, we are becoming more “sacra” mental. We elevate our existence from a material mentality to a “sacra-mentality.” The father Walt is a gifted carpenter and mechanic. When his tools recovered, he will be able to continue his work or art as a carpenter. With a sacramental attitude one has the patience to give one’s vocation full attention. Our official church Sacraments help us develop this attention. We are baptized into a community that needs forgiving and needs to forgive. Confirmation anoints us with a Holy Spirit strengthening oil, but it is essentially baptismal. We finish the initiation by taking part in the Eucharistic meal. We are not eating just to ease our physical hunger. We are at the table to share our lives with others as we remember Jesus’s example. Do Baptism and Confirmation happen once? We constantly renew these sacraments just as we need to renew our vocations, especially when, at times, we get discouraged and want to quit. The Eucharist is our constant reminder to reconcile ourselves to a sacramental view.
In “The Bicycle Thieves,” Ricci and his son are in a society too poor to see the sacramental quality of life. He is a poster hanger – a job that, with a little patience and education, however, can take on sacramental vocational status. I remember, in my youth, when wall papering needed to be done, we had to wait until Aunt Mary was available. She had the patience to measure and prepare the paper and then hang it, thereby transforming rooms into beautiful places to live in.

(James Tomek is a retired language and literature professor at Delta State University who is currently a Lay Ecclesial Minister at Sacred Heart in Rosedale and also active in RCIA at Our Lady of Victories in Cleveland.)