When Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" took the Oscar as 1992's Best Picture at the 65th Academy Awards Monday night, among those applauding was the Rev. Edward McNulty, a full-time pastor who also serves a wider flock as a film critic with an eye for movies' theological messages.
As early as last August, when "Unforgiven" first appeared, the minister from Dayton, Ohio, was spreading the word that the dark Western drama was something worth studying.
To McNulty, who edits Visual Parables, an illustrated newsletter about current movies, "Unforgiven" resonates with profound religious themes -- the desire to atone for wrongdoing, the possibility of finding grace and the danger of losing one's soul by relapsing into sin.
Despite scenes of bloody gunplay, it "is not a violence-affirming film, but shows the terrible cost" of violence, said McNulty, minister at Dayton's Northminster Presbyterian Church.
"Unforgiven," which also won Eastwood the Best Director award, tells the story of a struggling farmer named William Munny, a former killer who is persuaded to take up his guns again to hunt down a pair of cowboys. One of the cowboys has brutally slashed a prostitute; other prostitutes offer a reward to have both men shot. Munny, a widower still grieving for the wife who turned him from a life of extreme violence, joins the hunt to collect the reward and provide for his two small children.
McNulty, 56, launched Visual Parables three years ago. Although his subscribers number only a few hundred, many are churches and church agencies, which reprint his reviews for distribution among their members, he said.
Why does he call the newsletter Visual Parables? McNulty believes deep religious meaning often can be found within a secular art form such as movies. And, he said, a "parable that Jesus told was basically a nonreligious story with a religious message. Most of them were about muggings, runaway sons, lost coins, lost sheep, a labor dispute. Jesus was trying to connect the kingdom of God, which is beyond our sight, with something we can see."
A graduate of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, McNulty wrote his doctoral dissertation on the images of Jesus in film and artwork. For five years, he also has run a Sunday afternoon "Lenten film festival" at a downtown Dayton theater, in collaboration with the cinema's manager. Screenings always are followed by group discussions.
When "Unforgiven" came out, McNulty was so pleased by the film that he included a one-page study guide within that month's newsletter, suggesting ways to discuss the issues of violence and vengeance it raises.
Another who found the film theologically significant was James M. Wall, editor of the Christian Century, a national weekly magazine. But Wall, who often writes about current films in his magazine, said he would not have focused as much as McNulty has on the anti-violence message in the film.
Instead, Wall said, the most moving element in "Unforgiven" is Munny's inability to free himself psychologically from his past as a killer, despite the acceptance shown to him by his late wife. "He can't forgive himself," Wall said. " . . . And by not being able to forgive himself, he can't accept God's forgiveness of him."