A Starring Role for St. Joseph

St. Joseph may not have speaking parts in Scripture, but his role in the life of Jesus—and ours—is hardly a bit part. A film reviewer explores characters that showcase Joseph’s virtues.

In his apostolic letter proclaiming 2021 as the Year of St. Joseph, Pope Francis details many of St. Joseph’s virtues as the husband of Mary and foster father of Jesus: He was a loving and tender caregiver; a protector and defender of his family; a dignified and honest worker; noble of heart, trustworthy, and mature.

Joseph taught Jesus to make his own decisions as any father should. He confronted crisis after crisis and creatively found a way to resolve them. Trusting in divine providence, Joseph knew that God acts through events and people.

As a film reviewer, it occurred to me that St. Joseph’s virtues, or “habits of being,” are often seen in characters in television and films—some directly and others indirectly. As Catholics, these characters may especially resonate with us as the Year of St. Joseph concludes December 8.

Of course, myriad films and television shows that tell the Christmas story feature St. Joseph as an essential character. Recent films delve into Joseph’s personality and develop an actual character arc. Examples include Catherine Hardwicke’s The Nativity Story (2006), Christopher Spencer’s Son of God (2014), and Cyrus Nowrasteh’s The Young Messiah (2016).

Beyond these more biographical treatments, we also can see glimpses of St. Joseph’s virtues in memorable father figures featured on the big and small screen. These characters are all flawed to some degree and do not reach the heroic height we attribute to St. Joseph. Yet, even though some may seem improbable as role models, their virtues resemble those of the saint, and their stories can inspire us.

The Challenges and Joys of Fatherhood

Dads is a 2020 documentary by Bryce Dallas Howard, Ron Howard’s daughter. The film features reflections on the joys and challenges of fatherhood from Ron Howard, other celebrities, and dads from around the world. Among all the fathers featured, almost every virtue of St. Joseph is showcased.

One father from Japan, after suffering a kind of breakdown, decides with his wife to become a stay-at-home dad to their son. This is not very acceptable in Japanese society, and it was a courageous, countercultural decision. St. Joseph had to make a countercultural decision, too, when he accepted Mary as his wife even though she was with child.

Reflection Questions: As a parent, when have you had to make decisions that go against the prevailing culture? What can St. Joseph teach us about trusting in God when we face challenges?

Scene from The Way with Martin Sheen

A Father Walks a Hard Road

The Way (2011), directed by and starring Emilio Est évez as Daniel, features his real-life dad, Martin Sheen, as his screen father, Tom. Tom is an ophthalmologist who must travel to Spain to retrieve Daniel’s ashes after he died in an accident on the first day of walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Tom and Daniel had argued on the way to the airport because Daniel told him he was dropping out of a doctoral program. Tom was angry, disappointed, and concerned that his only son had left everything to find himself.

Rather impetuously Tom decides to walk the Camino himself, taking his son’s ashes with him. Tom is a lapsed Catholic, and this journey with three others he meets along the way renews him in soul and body. Tom has provided for his family, made sacrifices for them, and taught Daniel to make his own decisions—and when he does, Tom struggles to accept this new reality. At this crisis point in his life, Tom finds a creative way to resolve his inner turmoil and reconcile with his son’s memory and with God.

Reflection Questions: On the Camino, Tom made peace with his son as he walked with others in his grief. When have we had to let go of the dreams we had for our children? What can we learn from St. Joseph about the value of respecting our children’s freedom?

Scene from the movie The Pursuit of Happyness with Will Smith

The Dignity of Work

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) stars Will Smith as the real-life Chris Gardner, a bone-density-scanner salesman in San Francisco. In 1981, he was in the process of losing everything—wife, son, job, and apartment. At one point he and his son, Christopher, spend the night in the bathroom of the subway because they have nowhere else to go.

While sharing a taxi ride with a stockbroker, Chris solves a Rubik’s cube in amazing time. The stockbroker is so impressed, he invites Chris to apply for an internship at his firm. Chris is a generous man and stalwart dad who never gives up. This is a heartbreaking, tense story about a man who perseveres against all odds and cares for and protects Christopher at all costs. Eventually, his talents and hard work are greatly rewarded, and he makes a home for his son.

Reflection Questions: Pope Francis points to St. Joseph as a patron of dignified work. What can we learn from St. Joseph about the meaning of our work? How as a society can we ensure that all have an opportunity for work and a fair wage?

A scene from the movie Life Is Beautiful

Creativity and Courage

Roberto Benigni cowrote, directed, and starred in Life Is Beautiful (1997), a tragicomedy about the Nazi occupation of Italy in 1944. He is Guido, a Jew, who has married Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), a gentile. Guido is very funny and cares for his family with antics and good, often over-the-top humor. They have a son, Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini), who is the light of their lives. Though Italy is at war, they work hard at running a bookstore in their northern Italian city, and things are peaceful enough, though anti-Semitism is rife.

On Giosué’s fifth birthday, Guido, his uncle, and Giosu é are rounded up by the Nazis and put on a train for a concentration camp. Dora joins them, but at the camp they are separated. Guido, knowing the danger they are in, nevertheless exhibits humor, optimism, and hope before losing his life to the Nazi death machine.

Guido is a Joseph figure in so many ways. He sacrifices everything he can to save the lives of his family. His good humor and creativity to make sure his son survives the biggest human crisis of the 20th century make him one of the most beloved screen fathers ever.

Reflection Questions: Pope Francis calls St. Joseph a “creatively courageous father.” How have our parents been creative and courageous when faced with a crisis? How can we exhibit those characteristics?

A scene from Disney Pixar's Finding Nemo

Learning to Let Go

Finding Nemo (2003) might seem like a stretch: Can a fish exhibit the qualities of a saint? Think of the angst that Mary and Joseph felt when Jesus stayed behind after making the customary Passover pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Joseph must have felt responsible in a way only fathers can, and the fear of tragedy must have been almost unbearable as he and Mary rushed back to the Temple searching for 12-year-old Jesus (Lk 2:41-52).

In Pixar/Disney’s Finding Nemo, Marlin, a clownfish, is father to young Nemo whose mother, Coral, was lost in a barracuda attack. Father and son live rather happily on the Great Barrier Reef. Nemo wants to explore the reef and far beyond into the ocean, and Marlin is terrified that something may happen to his son if he goes off on his own. He is overprotective and neurotic. Marlin embarrasses Nemo on his first day at school and Nemo swims away. A couple of scuba divers capture him.

As Marlin gives chase, he meets Dory, a blue tang with limited short-term memory. Together they set out to find Nemo and bring him home. Marlin is caught up in his own inner chaos but must come up with a way to track his son, whom he loves to distraction. As a father, he must teach Nemo how to make some of his own decisions as he grows. At some point, Marlin will have to let Nemo go. While Marlin is flawed and has a lot to learn, his love for Nemo is strong and powerful. It brings out courage he never knew he had.

Reflection Question: What does St. Joseph teach us about the courage to “let go” as our children begin to mature?

The cast of Schitt's Creek

Fortitude in the Face of Chaos

Over its six seasons now streaming on Netflix, Schitt’s Creek has slowly gathered a gigantic and devoted following because of its great heart. The Roses—dad and businessman Johnny (Eugene Levy), mother and actress Moira (Catherine O’Hara), gallery-owner son David (Daniel Levy, real-life son of Eugene), and globe-trotting daughter Alexis (Annie Murphy)—once very wealthy, have lost everything after being defrauded by their business manager. The government, however, lets them keep a rundown town in the Canadian outback that Johnny once bought for David as a joke. They are also allowed to take whatever personal possessions they can carry in a few suitcases.

Schitt’s Creek becomes their new home, and the quirky mayor, Roland Schitt (Chris Elliott), gives them a place to live in the town’s motel, run by a snarky young woman, Stevie Budd (Emily Hampshire). When their lives are in chaos, Johnny is the calm in the storm, the noble head of the family. He shows fortitude in the face of life’s “frustrations, contradictions, and disappointments,” as Pope Francis describes St. Joseph. He is also a tender and loving father to his almost-middle-aged kids.

Joseph had to work hard to support his family too. Though with few possessions, Joseph and his family thrived because he was a virtuous, principled man, who loved and sacrificed all to be the foster father of Jesus.

Reflection Question: When have you or your family faced a sudden change or reversal of fortune?

From demonstrating a strong work ethic to embracing masculine sensitivity, these father figures reflect aspects of one of our faith’s strongest paternal role models in Joseph. In fathers and St. Joseph, we seek guidance and strength. As Pope Francis writes in his apostolic letter “Patris Corde“:

“Each of us can discover in Joseph—the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet, and hidden presence—an intercessor, a support, and a guide in times of trouble. St. Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation.”

St. Joseph on the Screen: A Protestant Minister’s View

The presence of St. Joseph in a key role in film is more accurately a conspicuous absence, except in Jesus movies. Even then, St. Joseph is often represented as the odd man out. The scarcity in film can be explained, in part, by the preoccupation with Mary and Jesus, and scant information from biblical texts.

The sainthood of Joseph suggests there are important aspects or features to his life demanding attention. Given the paucity of material for literal depiction, we are left with a few clues and an open-ended invitation to the vivid imagination.

Cinematic portrayals of Joseph are ones of inference and creative representations. I have selected two movies in which to excavate the spirit and characteristics of St. Joseph: First, in Boyz n the Hood, the Joseph figure is Jason “Furious” Styles (Laurence Fishburne). Released in 1991, Boyz n the Hood was written and directed by John Singleton and received widespread critical praise.

A scene from the movie Boyz N the Hood

Boyz n the Hood

The narrative, set in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles, involves Furious Styles and his son, Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr.). The story unfolds as a series of encounters common to neighborhoods infested with gang association and violence.

Furious Styles is the conscience, protector, and prophetic voice in the drama. He is both a guardian and mentor to his son, Tre. Here is a quote on the Joseph-like qualities from a review of the film: “His mix of Black smarts and book smarts earns him enough credits to get a degree in legalized survival. Mr. Styles manages to teach Tre about everything he needs to learn to navigate his neighborhood, from racial profiling to gentrification.”

One can imagine that Joseph played a major role in the life of his son, Jesus. I encourage readers to view the film and think of Joseph as one “badass” father who is also a lover of life.

Scene from Children of Men

Children of Men

Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is a Joseph figure, in my theological-cinematic imagination, embedded in the postapocalyptic film Children of Men.

The movie was directed by Alfonso Cuarón and released in 2006 to critical acclaim. It was voted 13th among 100 top films in the 21st century by numerous critics around the world.

The plot is complicated, but a quick summation is that women worldwide are suffering from infertility, so the future of human life on earth is in jeopardy. The political turmoil and threatened collapse have led to massive asylum-seeking. Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), who is pregnant, is desperate for documentation as she seeks sanctuary in the United Kingdom. Theo is hired to procure the papers and then escort her through a series of disasters to safety so the baby can be delivered, and the human race can gain a new lease on continued life.

Theo, as a Joseph symbol, is a former activist who rises to the calling of the moment. He is the “archetypal everyman,” who reluctantly becomes a savior. His courage, creativity, persistence, deft handling of danger, and acuity in life-threatening situations to ensure continuity of salvation are prototypical St. Joseph.

Joseph will likely never be in a starring role: Mary and Jesus will continue to dominate the lead roles. The revealing roles played by “archetypal” Josephs in films such as Boyz n the Hood and Children of Men spotlight St. Joseph’s virtues, however. I additionally recommend watching the following characters in these movies: Da Mayor in Do the Right Thing, Father Brendan Flynn in Doubt, and Jose Sanchez in Gregory Nava’s Mi Familia. A leap of the imagination may be required to recognize the Joseph figures, but stalwart, good, and noble men are there if we look.

Scott D. Young is an ordained minister, the cofounder of Culture Connection, and the program director for Wesley Foundation Ministries in San Diego, California. His blog is the Culture Vulture Report.

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