I found Casablanca to be the better film - although both are excellent - but Christ and the Chocolaterie, by Hilary Brand, is by far the better Lent course.
The film Chocolat has an obvious relevance to Lent, being the story of a young woman, Vianne Rocher, and her daughter, Anouk, opening up a chocolaterie in a small village in early-60's France - during Lent! The village has a rigid social structure and an inflexible morality hiding a range of troubles. Vianne talks to people and asks questions, gradually bringing change and freedom to the village, although not without conflict.
Casablanca is also a good Lent film: starting from exile in the wilderness and ending with sacrifice, it tells a story of love and renewal, of hope lost and found. It also has some of the most memorable dialogue in movie history, wonderful acting, and a fascinating back-story.
The trouble with A Beautiful Friendship, by Paul Kerensa and Zoe Young, is that it is essentially inward looking. There is an early link between Casablanca's wartime refugees and today's refugees:
"In 2013 the world saw more refugees than at any time since Casablanca's release."But that is in the introduction and the rest of the course focuses relentlessly on God/Jesus in the Bible and on individual personal feelings and morality, for example:
"Have you ever felt 'abandoned at the station' like Rick? You may have felt wronged by love, by life or by God. Did you express anger or frustration to God, or are you still keeping it inside?"There's nothing wrong with looking to Jesus in the pages of the Bible, of course, but the Christian calling is to take him out to the wider world. The Bible can be a light helping us to see, but it can also be a box for keeping Jesus safely out of the way. Likewise, our feelings are important to God, but endless self-examination is looking in the wrong direction: we are to follow Jesus as he walks his world, not sit and obsess about how we are doing.
The great thing about Christ and the Chocolaterie is its outward focus. The film's setting may be similarly confined and claustrophobic, but this Lent course's vision is very much toward our neighbourhoods.
Vianne, like Jesus, brings change to a rigid community; the mayor and much of the community resists change and growth, ultimately with violence, much like the scribes and Pharisees. The message of the course is about how we can bring healing and change, not just within ourselves but amongst family, friends and neighbours.
There is self-reflection, too, but often as a step along the way to changing how we can help others.
"'If you lived in this village, you understood what was expected of you, you knew your place in the scheme of things.' In the film, who controls and who allows themselves to be controlled? ... In the film, how do those who refuse to be intimidated demonstrate their defiance? Are there other useful ways you have learned to stand up to bullies?"Brand too uses the Bible extensively throughout the course, in parallel with the film. In the context of John 8:1-11, the woman caught in adultery, she asks (after some preamble):
"How have you reacted when someone you knew admitted his or her failure or weakness to you? Has it strengthened or weakened your relationship? Has it strengthened or weakened your respect for him or her?"Note the openness of her questions: they are designed to encourage us to think about people and about meaning, not just to have right or wrong answers.
Not that A Beautiful Friendship is a bad Lent course, far from it. Compared with much housegroup material available it is well written, works hard, asks reasonable questions, and has some interesting exercises for participants to do. I am a member of another Lent group this year, which is essentially listening to talking heads then wittering: roughly par for the (Lent) course in my experience. Kerensa'a book is far more than that.
But, for any Lent group which wants to have relevance for those outside the circle of committed church-goers, 'the usual suspects', Christ and the Chocolaterie is by far the better course. It also includes recipes for a chocolate feast!
A final quote:
"Do you spend enough time having fun with others? When was the last time you had a good laugh? Does your church community as a whole spend enough time doing social things (whether formal organised activities or informal ones)?"