There is a movie that has brief Catholic elements in it, sometimes troubling ones, but is unintentionally a great lesson for the faithful. It is 40 Days and 40 Nights (2002). Since this is Lent (and hopefully I get this posted during this time), it is also a handy movie to watch. The film is all about sex, or more accurately, the struggles with attempting to avoid it. There are many Catholics that go into the Lenten season with grand designs on what they are going to give up during this time of repentance. A large portion of them simply do so because that is what is expected of them, and give little thought to the purpose behind it. I can say this because I have been on both sides of this divide. Every liturgical season, including Advent, I go into them believing that they are going to be weeks of veritable cloistered mysticism, where I will see the face of God Himself. Other times, my promises have been mere lip-service, and forgotten when the daily struggles of any period on the calendar make you forget about the spirit of the season. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. It does not lie where this film ends, but we will get to that matter.
40 Days and 40 Nights focuses on Matt Sullivan (Josh Hartnett), who lives in San Francisco and works at one of those dot-com companies that burst decades ago when the internet was still a somewhat crazy idea. He has recently been dumped by his girlfriend, Nicole Besser (Vinessa Shaw), and this causes him some problems with intimacy when he tries to go on other dates. He pours out his frustrations in a Confessional to his seminarian brother John (Adam Trese), even though John reminds him that he cannot actually hears confessions and is slightly annoyed by his brother’s problems. In the midst of his rantings, Matt comes up with what he believes to be a brilliant solution: he shall give up not only sexual intercourse, but any kind of related stimulation. Against John’s advice, who recounts how even members of religious orders have trouble with this concept, he emerges into the light of day with a sense of calm and purpose. The first one to notice this new state is Matt’s roommate Ryan (Paulo Constanzo), who cannot understand why anyone would make such a “drastic” decision. The same is true for Matt’s co-workers, who do not believe that he can make through the entire forty days without slipping. So much do they believe that Matt will fail that they begin a betting pool, picking which day his fall from grace will occur. Along the way, many of them attempt to get him to do something sexual in nature, particularly the women he works with because they believe he is upsetting the natural order. Though it gets more difficult for him as he goes along, particularly as he notices the weaknesses of others around him, he manages to find enough other things to do to keep himself occupied. What complicates his Zen is Erica Sutton (Shannyn Sossamon). They meet in a laundromat, and they strike up a conversation. Ironically, she works for another dot-com, this one an online monitoring service for parents to keep their children from looking at internet pornography. Still, after their first date, she leans in for the well-deserved kiss, and comes up empty. This is when Matt reveals his vow, and explains why he has made the decision to do so. Though she is confused initially, and frustrated at other times, she goes along with it despite her friends telling her that he is not worth it. Still, they find other ways to, er, please each other (there is a strange sequence involving flowers), all with the understanding that they will consummate their relationship when Matt’s vow is over. As he reaches the final days, the pressures to give in from all his associates increases, including Viagra-spiked drinks. A few days later, a, let us just say, “condition that will not go away” results in Matt being sent home from work. That is somewhat of a blessing in disguise until he later goes to John to talk about all that is tormenting him. When Matt walks into John’s office, he finds him kissing a nun, and John admits that he is taking a leave from his studies. Feeling that he is about to crack, Matt has Ryan handcuff him to the bed so that he cannot go anywhere on the final night. He has given the key to Erica, and she plans on going there the following day. Unfortunately, Erica has learned about the pool, and thinking that all she has to do is, er, jump on him to get him back after her fiancé dumped her, she slips into his room and has sex with him. Erica follows shortly after this, and is understandably displeased. What she does not understand is that Matt has essentially been raped. Nonetheless, Matt is able to track Erica down at the laundromat where they first met. He gives her a memento of their relationship to that point, and they finally kiss. The next day they are still apparently making love, and that is where our tale ends.
What is great about 40 Days and 40 Nights is that Matt picks something to give up for Lent and sticks to it. What I do not like as a practicing Catholic is that he does not really care about this vow in regards to his relationship with God. He deserves credit for the fortitude he shows, but given that the film is a romantic comedy, the struggles he goes through are played in an over-the-top fashion. This is what is supposed to be funny, and when I was a young idiot I laughed at the sex jokes. I see it differently these days, naturally. While I have never made a vow of celibacy, I have made similar promises for Lent and have not experienced the fever-like state that Matt endures towards the end of Lent. No matter how it is done, I understand the struggle. Our society is awash in sexual material and it is hard to escape from these ideas and images. And it is clear that the characters do not care about the sinfulness of pre-marital sex, nor does the movie in general. It would have been great had Matt emerged from his, for lack of a better word, ordeal with a newfound sense of the gift that is sexual intimacy. Modern society would argue with me, saying that Erica is special, and that they had waited long enough to hop into bed together and do the kinds of things that God reserved for us as being a part of the creation process through marriage. Then that leads to a debate over the so-called “reproductive rights” issue, and it becomes one sad, angry mess of a conversation. Look, this film is interesting for us Catholics because it deals with Lent, and giving up something that is hard for anyone to cease indulging in, including the most ardent daily Mass attendee. The sex scandals that have rocked the Church in recent decades are a testament to the difficulty of maintaining celibacy in a world that makes it seem like it is easy to pleasure yourself whenever the inclination should arise. The film attests to the ease of access, which should be a warning to anyone considering practicing self-control. It is wishful thinking on my part that it would end on a stronger moral lesson, but this Catholic will dream nonetheless.
There is something good to be said about 40 Days and 40 Nights in regards to Matt’s struggles. There is something bad, too, in him simply giving way once what his friends would call his self-imposed madness came to an end. Chastity is a gift that we are all too eager to spoil, and it is not solely about bedroom activities. When one understands reality in this manner, you can have a moment like Matt when he comes out of the church after talking to John early in the movie, when the world seemed brighter and full of possibilities. In the meantime, I do not recommend this movie, particularly if you are weak in certain areas of your life.