The Ideal Movie
by Fr. Scott A. Haynes
Fiat lux. "Let there be light" (Gen. 1:3). In an instant, what scenery filled the screen! And the characters, what a motley crew! Just as in the Bible, one often finds the good and bad shoulder to shoulder. Scoundrels, villains, and misfits flank the heroes and heroines of film. Movie connoisseurs find an endless variety of symbolism in the cinematic art form, because movies portray the forces of good and evil in every venue possible.
Catholics Behind the Camera
Catholics have always sought to master creation, and our artisans have traditionally filled our churches with their handiwork, including the stained glass of Chartres, Michelangeloís David, and the Bernini baldachin of St. Peterís. The Church teaches that our senses and emotions, as faculties given to us by God, should be elevated and perfected, not perverted or destroyed.
The Church recognizes that film is a popular medium of art and entertainment today, and she encourages filmmaking that promotes a Catholic perspective of the world. As Catholics, we see the world through the lens of the Incarnation: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (Jn. 1:14). All of Godís creation, as a consequence, can and should be redeemed. "The world is charged with the grandeur of God," wrote the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Of course, films do not need to be restricted to religious subject matter. Just as a Palestrina can write a reverent polyphonic Mass, a Mozart can compose an inspiring piano concerto that makes the human heart soar. Catholics have never sequestered themselves in church. We also rightly enjoy the concert hall, the workplace, and every arena of life. St. Paul exhorts Christians to be in the world but not of the world (cf. Rom. 12:12).
Holy Fathers and Holy Films
Various popes have addressed the immensely important topic of film and its relationship to Christian morality. Pope Pius XI, in his encyclical "On the Motion Picture" (Vigilanti Cura), remarked that the cinema "must be elevated to conformity with the aims of a Christian conscience and saved from depraving and demoralizing effects."
Pope Paul VI exhorted moviemakers to avoid "anything that could harm the family in its existence, its stability, its balance and its happiness," including "eroticism or violence, the defense of divorce or of antisocial attitudes among young people" (Message for the Third World Communications Day, no. 2).
Moviemakers have a serious responsibility not to further erode the Judeo-Christian morality that is the foundation of Western civilization. Speaking about the television industry, Pope John Paul II said that they "should develop and observe a code of ethics which includes a commitment to serving the needs of families and to promoting values supportive of family life" (Message for the 28thWorld Communications Day). The current movie rating system bungles this, as the standards of the review-boards are ever-changing, subjective, and largely degenerate.
Pope Pius XII noted that the primary power of attraction in the movie emanates from its technical aspects, which serve as bait to lure the viewer into a world of pretense that titillates the imagination ("Address to Representatives of the Italian Film Industry," June 21,1955). Psychology can persuade the onlooker to "transfer . . . to the person of the actor his own ego, with its psychic tendencies, its personal experiences, and its hidden and ill-defined desires" (ibid.).The actors, the director, and the producer maintain a tremendous power of suggestion, as the viewer mentally takes on the role of the character, even visualizing the characterís next action.
Pius XII observed that film directors, fully conscious of the power of psychological suggestion, must not manipulate their audiences, but must govern this power with care. The director can guide the "internal dynamisms of the spectatorís ego" toward the noble, thus elevating the human mind, or, conversely, into the very depths of "depravation . . . and uncontrolled instincts" (ibid.).
While movies do have a powerful psychological force, for good or ill, the viewer remains at liberty to interpret the movie for himself and to anticipate the "subsequent development" (ibid.). Filmmakers know that clever acting and stage-movements like "the gesture of a hand, a shrug of the shoulders, a half-open door," can render compelling effects upon the audience (ibid.).
Filmmakers can express iconic film themes in sound, light, costume, or scenery and use them as potent symbols. Movie audiences naturally think of New Yearís Day when they hear "Auld Lang Syne." A smoking gun remains a classic clichť in a murder flick. Like a painter, the filmmaker desires to create his masterpiece, too. If a filmmaker wishes to succeed, he must use the colors of his palette-at one point, subtle reserve, and at other times, exuberance.
Signs and Symbols
Film companies have successfully produced films based on Christian themes, a Bible story (The Passion of the Christ), or the life of a saint (Therese). Some films portray priests or Christian laity (The Mission, Babette's Feast). Other movies uphold strong Christian moral themes (Bella) or a theme of good triumphing over evil (Casablanca, Chariots of Fire).
Mel Gibsonís The Passion of the Christ (2004) layers Christian symbols over a Christian story. Several symbols serve as windows into Catholic spirituality. At the opening of the film, in Gethsemaneís Garden, Gibson shows a snake approaching Christ, the Second Adam. The viewer naturally compares this snake to the snake that tempted our first parents in Edenís Garden. Later, at the scourging of Christ, Satan lurks in the background. He appears as a womanly figure, holding a demonic child (perhaps the Antichrist) dressed in swaddling clothes. In this scene, we seethe Devilís mockery of the Nativity. And Gibsonís scene of the Pharisees riding donkeys highlights their stubbornness of heart and contrasts the meekness of Christ, who enters Jerusalem "just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass" (Zech. 9:9).
The Chronicles of Narnia - The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) has Christian themes and scriptural allusions. Far from getting in the way of the story, they are at its heart. One example is the scene in which the White Witch bribes Edmund with the promise of Turkish delight. This scene reminds us of the Gospel scene wherein the Chief Priest of the Sanhedrin pays off Judas Iscariot to betray Christ. Here, Edmund is like Judas, the evil witch is similar to the Chief Priest, and the Turkish delight is akin to the30 silver pieces-an ultimately revolting temptation. The success of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (as well as Prince Caspian) shows that film does not need to glorify violence or sensuality to achieve success.
No themes are more powerful or relevant in film today than those in Sacred Scripture, which are "faithful mirrors of real life"(Pope Pius XII, "To the Representatives of the International Union of Cinema Theatre Managers and of the International Federation of Film Distributors," October 28, 1955).
An Ideal Movie
What, then, is the ideal kind of movie for Catholics? The Church teaches that the overriding principle of respect for man must inform all films. Because mankind is created in the image and likeness of God, film companies share a grave responsibility to produce movies that elevate the souls of their viewers. The unwavering standard must be respect for the dignity of the human person. Film, therefore, should help man to increase "his knowledge and love of the lofty natural position conferred on him by his Creator," so that he may more readily practice the virtuous life (Pope Pius XII, "Address to Representatives of the Italian Film Industry").
Fireproof (2008) is one film that respects the dignity of the human person and shows how a Christian married couple can work past their addictions and temptations and be faithful to their marriage covenant. In contrast to the snickering at infidelity and the casual portrayal of divorce and remarriage that much of Hollywood offers, Fireproof gives spouses a springboard to discuss the trials of married life.
Fireproof will not win any awards for cinematography. No member of the cast should expect to be nominated for best actor or actress. The soundtrack is mediocre. Yet, despite its demerits and imperfections, Fireproof excels in conforming itself to the Christian conscience. It reminds its viewers that Godís grace can change people for the good when they are open to it and when they put forth a little effort.
Hollywood sometimes creates films that address difficult subject matter and ask profound questions. Blood Diamond
(2006) reveals a powerful story about the devastating human brutality related to the illegal trafficking of diamonds. It is a violent and upsetting movie. But it does ask the viewers some important questions about human dignity.
In the course of the film, one character asks, "What has happened to Africa?" Another replies, "It seems as if God has abandoned Africa." The question is legitimate, but the answer reveals the pessimism and despair of men who do not know the Incarnate God. The Catholic perspective of the world recognizes suffering, but also hope. As a people of faith in Jesus Christ, we have hope that all suffering can be redemptive. God has not forsaken Africa, as the writers of Blood Diamond suggest. Sadly, it is mankind who has turned its back on God.
Because people who are spiritually blind cannot recognize Godís presence in the innocence of a childís face or in the awesome beauty of nature, Catholics, by virtue of our baptism, must witness the dignity of the human person from the moment of his or her conception until natural death. The clarity of this spiritual vision must guide every area of our lives.
Itís worth noting, too, that if the saying "money talks" is really true, Hollywood should realize that there is a large audience for movies that have a Christian ethic. Facing the Giants, for example, drew $10 million-plus at the box office and remains a best selling DVD today. People are spending their money to see movies that present a Gospel message and that the whole family can attend. Moviemakers, therefore, must be convinced not to leave God at the door by bowing to the god of the quick dollar, filling their films with the junk food of moral decay on which our culture so often feasts.
If Hollywood will only give us well scripted movies, movies that have a good moral, real dialogue, and an interesting plot, then they can uplift and entertain the human spirit. An ideal movie-a movie that respects the dignity of the human person-gives a sense of hope, reawakening the soul to practice charity. Let Christians today inspire new films that raise heart and soul and teach us to recognize the true, the beautiful, and the good.
E-mail this article to a friend
Fr. Scott A. Haynes, S.J.C., is a member of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius. For more information about this order and its ministries, visit www.cantius.org, www.societycantius.org, or www.sanctamissa.org . This article first published in the Mar/Apr 2009 Lay Witness Magazine and reproduced with permission of Catholics United for the Faith. All rights reserved.