By Ian Gualtiere ’27
This past Thursday, Sept. 14, a group of freshmen had the ability to step into a world of Homeric epics, southern folk music, and Depression Era Mississippi, all from the comfort of Guzman Hall. In an extra credit assignment for DWC 101, Father Dominic Verner, O.P., held a showing of the 2001 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, the film is a loose retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. In a recent email exchange, Fr. Dominic explained, “some of its major characters and central themes place it in an entirely different world [the Christian world of 1930’s rural Mississippi].” With a star-studded cast including George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson, the audience watches on as they start an adventure with an escape from a deep south penal colony. In the process of running away, they run into problems and characters that are reminiscent of the ancient epic. Odysseus, for example, has been turned into the protagonist Ulysses Everett McGill who tries to get home to his wife before she marries another man, mirroring one of Odysseus’ concerns as he tries to get home to Ithaca.
Fr. Dominic continued to explain why he showed such a film to the class, stating that “One of the challenges in teaching an ancient epic is helping students see how the text remains influential in the present. I think that film adaptations of ancient works can help show something of the staying power and continued importance of the works.” A growing disconnect between modern audiences and ancient themes is a problem that faces many forms of ancient literature, and a problem that only continues with time. It’s a duty for some to continue the tradition of telling these stories, and a firm belief of Fr. Dominic, “For a story to survive, it has to be constantly retold in new times, new places, and new contexts. This is the way that the wisdom of the past comes down to us. Portraying ancient epics in new media can help bring the epics into living contact with the present.” Stories are what make humanity; they are a fundamental tradition that has been passed down for hundreds of generations.
Then again, stories are meant to be appreciated. Regardless of what ideals, themes, or politics are employed to tell a story, one of the basic understandings of storytelling is to entertain the audience. In a film that shows three men overcoming supernatural sirens, a one-eyed traveling Bible salesman, and a faceless sheriff who tries to bring them to justice at all costs, Fr. Dominic explains his favorite moment. “My favorite scene has to be the climactic scene where Ulysses Everett (“Ulysses” is the latinized version of Odysseus), Delmar, and Pete reveal their identity as the Soggy Bottom Boys, winning back Everett’s estranged wife Penny. The music in general is one of my favorite aspects of the film!” When asked which other Coen Brothers films he would recommend and are his favorites, Fr. Dominic states, “I’m a big fan, and it’s really hard to pick favorites. I’d say that the short-film anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is one of my all-time favorites—a great reflection on how we all grapple with our
mortality in different ways. True Grit, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men all rank high for me for different reasons.” In a reflection of what it means to be human, to enjoy life, and to continue tradition, we must continue telling these ancient stories. Whether it be through film, music, or art, there is a lesson for everyone to learn, and a character who we can all relate to. And maybe in the process, we will all have our so-called homecoming.