Faith and Film Criticism: The Challenge of the Catholic Critic

From a National Catholic Register article

By Steven D. Greydanus

Last Sunday, of the two painstakingly crafted but dark, violent pictures at the top of the Oscar nomination heap, the Academy chose — as I see it — the nihilistic, amoral one over the hollow, misanthropic one. No Country for Old Men won a total of four awards, including picture and director, while There Will Be Blood won two, including actor. The two had been tied in the nomination race with eight categories apiece.

Other best-picture nominees included the ironically named Atonement, in which an attempted act of reparation is exposed as narcissistic self-deception, and the handsome but shallow Michael Clayton. Rounding out the five was the only one I liked, the dark horse Juno, a crass but life-affirming comedy about a pregnant teen who changes her mind about aborting her baby and decides to give it up for adoption instead.

There was some good news. Ratatouille won animated film (and was nominated for more awards than any cartoon in history). Juno won original screenplay, and The Bourne Ultimatum won three awards. Those three were among the films I most admired last year. Still, many of the top awards and nominations went to films that underscore the moral distance between Hollywood and my own perspective.

In spite of the Academy’s choices, 2007 remains a generally strong movie year for me, with one notable caveat: There wasn’t much high-quality family fare, other than Ratatouille and In the Shadow of the Moon. (Of course there was no problematic content in Into Great Silence, my favorite film of the year, but I wouldn’t call it a family film.) On the other hand, for mature viewers there were profoundly moral outlooks in films like Juno, The Devil Came on Horseback and The Lives of Others, and I was pleased to include them in my 2007 top 10.

At least, that’s my take. Not all adult Catholics or other Christians agree. Even among devout, committed Catholics, my opinions are sometimes found too harsh, other times too lax. On the one hand, I’ve heard from those who felt I was too critical of R-rated films like 3:10 to Yuma and Apocalypto, which some feel are deeply moral films (a claim I partly accept as regards Apocalypto, and at least respect as regards 3:10, though I strongly disagree). On the other hand, equally committed Catholics have objected to my recommending anything but the most innocuous family fare, even for adult audiences.

A few have doubted whether my reviews are substantially informed by Christian thinking at all. The following is from a letter prompted by my 2007 top 10 (and honorable mentions):

We feel as though there is a disconnect in the reviews and what we believe as Catholics. Many of the promoted movies are largely flawed with some minor redeeming quality. It seems as though you are saying it’s okay to watch if any part of it has some sort of value, no matter how insignificant. An example is Bella … It received an honorable mention when many other movies that don’t encourage our Catholic faith are promoted more strongly. If we are to look at everything through the lens of our faith should we not critique movies in the same way? We strongly feel that the movies are reviewed on their artistic presentation versus any sort of Christian values.

I couldn’t agree more with the writers about the crucial importance of keeping the Faith paramount in all areas of life, including watching and evaluating movies. I don’t insist on absolute perfection, but a good movie must be at least basically wholesome. That’s why, given my reading of the film, I can’t share the Academy’s enthusiasm for No Country, well-made as it is.

Artistic merit can never trump moral and spiritual considerations — a principle I think can easily be seen in my reviews of well-made and acclaimed but morally problematic films like 3:10 to Yuma, Match Point, Brokeback Mountain and The Magdalene Sisters. Moral critique of films like these, as well as less critically successful films like The Golden Compass and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, is an important part of what I see as my calling. Recent controversy among Catholics, covered in the National Catholic Register, over positive reviews of one or two of the above-mentioned films from a Catholic source highlights the problem of critics overlooking or minimizing important moral issues in films.

Then there’s the approach of a Catholic-run DVD rental service, also recently featured in the Register, which rents only what they deem family-friendly fare, a service for which I hope there is a substantial market. I wish them every success, though I think we disagree about whether there is a place for movies for mature audiences. (Speaking on the phone a while ago with one of the founders, I suggested that they might want to think about carrying some films for older audiences; he replied, “We really want to keep it pure.”)

Perusing their website, it turns out that The Passion of the Christ — a magnificent film for mature viewers, in my view, though not perfect — counts as family-friendly fare, despite its violent and bloody as well as horrifying satanic imagery. On the other hand, Amazing Grace — a Christian-produced, PG-rated biopic about Christian abolitionist William Wilberforce — was judged to (in their words) “fail the dog poop test” (not really a “test,” just a vivid metaphor for how a bit of grossness can ruin otherwise worthy fare, like dog poop mixed into cookie dough).

Why did Amazing Grace fail? Apparently, according to one founder, the sticky point is not language (which I read includes several instances apiece of “God,” “hell” and “ass” as well as a “damn” and a couple of n‑words) or references to the harsh conditions of slave ships, including rape. Rather, it seems to be: “Cleavage Appropriate to the Times.” (In spite of this, the founder was open to overturning the “dog poop” verdict and offering Amazing Grace with the rating “Parents Decide” — a phrase I personally would avoid, since parents should always decide.)

I point this out, not by way of critique, but simply to highlight that sensibilities among committed Catholics and other Christians as to what is appropriate for both children and adults differ greatly, and the same people can find one another too rigorous in some respects and too lax in others.

This doesn’t mean we are completely at sea. For Catholics, the truths of Church’s teaching on moral and spiritual matters as well as art, culture, entertainment and the whole truth of man offer essential and certain reference points in engaging movies and other forms of culture, art and entertainment. Below are some important principles drawn from Church teaching that are crucial for Catholics in a mass media culture.

Movies have potential for both good and evil. As early as 1929, Pius XI praised efforts to make worthy films available, while also calling for vigilance regarding immoral films (Divini illius Magistri 90–91). Seven years later, in the first encyclical devoted to film, Pope Pius noted that while bad films are occasions of sin and instill false attitudes toward love, marriage and the family, good films exert a “profoundly moral influence” on viewers and society (Vigilanti Cura 28–29). This has been reiterated by Vatican  (Inter Mirifica 2) and elsewhere.

Moral considerations are paramount in all areas of life, including art and entertainment. Vatican II ringingly affirmed “the absolute primacy of the objective moral order,” which “surpasses and fittingly coordinates all other spheres of human affairs — the arts not excepted — even though they be endowed with notable dignity” (6). The attitude which divorces moral considerations from areas of life such as art and entertainment is incompatible with Catholic faith.

Art and culture — as well as entertainment and diversion — are important human goods in their own right. I can only scratch the surface here. Pius XII praised cinema as both “part of the great gift of art” (VC 6) and a salutary form of diversion and recreation (VC 21–22). Vatican  declared that media like movies “greatly contribute to men’s entertainment” among other things, named “culture and the fine arts” as well as spiritual values among the goods served by the media (IM 2, 12), and encouraged efforts to promote “production and showing of films that have value as decent entertainment, humane culture or art” (IM 14).

The attitude which sees entertainment, diversion, culture and art as distractions from “more important things” — as if we should spend all our time in spiritual pursuits — is inconsistent with authentic Catholic anthropology. Those who live in the world are not called to be monastic wanna-bes.

Artistic and technical excellence, as well as moral value, demand the favor of Catholics. Pius XII began his “Discourse on the Ideal Film” with open admiration for the technical and artistic achievements made in the first six decades of cinema. Vatican  taught that “a proper choice demands that [Catholics who use the media] fully favor those presentations that are outstanding for their moral goodness, their knowledge and their artistic or technical merit” (IM 9, italics added).

The correspondent above objected that Bella placed only among my honorable mentions, not on my top 10. I appreciate Bella very much, but it is a good film, not a great one. Juno, another of 2007’s crop of life-affirming unborn-baby movies, placed on my top 10 over Bella — for both artistic and for moral reasons.

Of the two, Juno is bolder and more challenging in its pro-life resonances. Also, while Bella is warmly pro-family, Juno vividly depicts the failure of a marriage as a tragedy caused in part by narcissism and immaturity, a stark corrective in our age of no-fault divorce. But artistic reasons are also a factor. Without in any way putting down Bella, Juno is the better film.

Good art and entertainment must always be morally sound — but morally sound doesn’t always mean family-friendly or uplifting. Church documents bespeak special concern for youth, who “need a press and entertainment that offer them decent amusement and cultural uplift” (IM 11), but must also be safeguarded from what “may be harmful to them at their age” (IM 12). Yet in making age a factor at all, the council decree implicitly distinguishes between what is harmful, period, and “what may be harmful to [children] at their age” but would not be harmful to adults.

Decent films may deal with disturbing themes and immoral behavior. In his “Letter to Artists” Pope John Paul II observed, “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption” (10). Vatican II declared that “the narration, description or portrayal of moral evil” can ”serve to bring about a deeper knowledge and study of humanity” — though it adds that such depictions must always be “subject to moral restraint, lest they work to the harm rather than the benefit of souls, particularly when there is question of treating matters which deserve reverent handling or which, given the baneful effect of original sin in men, could quite readily arouse base desires in them” (IM 7).

An obvious example that violates this principle is any form of pornography, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines as “removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties” (CCC 2354). However, the Catechism does not condemn, for example, nudity as such, which Christian culture and art has historically found to be potentially legitimate. This doesn’t mean that nudity raises no moral issues — it does — but it’s more complicated than “nudity = bad.” (For more, see “What Are the Decent Films?”)

Not all films worth watching and worth recommending for anyone will appeal to all audiences. The 1995 Vatican film list includes a number of important films that many devout Christians might never want to see. But I think informed Catholics ought at least to know about them, and be able to recognize that there may be significant value in something they personally prefer not to see. In my work I try to cover both films of widespread appeal to many Register readers as well as some films that not all will want to see, but many may be interested in knowing about. (See my recent review of the Romanian abortion-themed film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, for example.)

No critic can offer a one-size-fits-all approach for all committed Christians. I can’t, and have never tried to, tell anyone what to think or watch, or make definitive pronouncements about good or bad movies. I’m not the Pope; I’m not even the pope of movies. There is no pope of movies. Even the Pope isn’t the pope of movies.

What I can do, and do my best to do, is this. I try to offer readers a responsible take on every film I see, one informed by serious reflection on historic Christian belief and Church teaching, along with enough information about the film itself and my thought processes in reviewing it to allow readers to arrive at their own conclusions and make an informed choice about whether they want to see it. I hope my work is a starting-point for readers thinking about films, not an ending-point telling them what to think.

I hope my writing sparks new lines of thought or new ways of looking at films after seeing them, that my efforts to articulate how I look at a film are helpful to others seeking to sharpen their own critical skills. Of course I hope it’s fun to read. Also, if you prefer my takes to the Academy’s, I won’t mind.

Tags: Decent Films: Movies & Morality, Film Criticism

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Mail: Re: Faith and Film Criticism

My husband and I were in a local Catholic book store and came across the title Movies that Matter written by a Jesuit. it is a series of film critiques on different modern movies through a Catholic lens. He is very interested in the book and wanted to take it home immediately, but a few of the movies in there seemed a little oddly chosen. so, first I wanted to contact you to see if you were familiar with the book and could give any guiding pointers on it.

As well, we would like to know of any other books similar to it that you do recommend. My husband is a long-time film buff and I wrote my thesis for the bachelors in theology on Evangelization through film. I would love to see his criticism take on a more Catholic bent; I know that that would make it a deeper, even more thought-provoking analysis. Thanks very much!

While I’m not very familiar with the book you mention, I’ve spent some time looking it over, and it does indeed appear to be deficient in regard to Catholic teaching. Interestingly, at times the author seems too lax (an obvious example being Philadelphia, the discussion of which falls gravely short of an adequate treatment of Catholic teaching), but at other times is arguably too judgmental (to call the protagonist of Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle” a “fraudulent minister… deluded by his own charisma” strikes me as a ham-fisted oversimplification).

Beyond that, even when the films are well chosen and the discussion is adequate, the chapters are so brief and superficial as to be hardly useful. (What can you really say in a few hundred words on The Godfather AND The Godfather Part II, or the Three Colors trilogy?)

Fun fact: I happened to notice the phrase “vexed issue” recurring in the book at least three times, always in conjunction with the phrase “for some/many Christians” (two references to “a vexed issue for many Christians” and one to “For some Christians… a vexed issue”).

For the record, the author’s three “vexed issues for Christians” are nonviolence (“the vast majority [of Christians] are not pacifist”), homosexuality (“many maintain a hard line against the homosexual ’lifestyle’”) and “women in leadership roles,” i.e., ordained ministry (“Because of the way tradition has been appropriated, women have been excluded from ordination or ministerial commissioning”).

In other words, “vexed issue” appears to mean something like “issue regarding which the Church’s teaching and the historical Christian understanding is vexing to me.”

I’d take a pass on the book.

I can’t think of a book in this vein by a Catholic author that I would particularly recommend (which isn’t to say there isn’t a good one out there). Right now my favorite book on movies from a Christian point of view is my friend Jeff Overstreet’s Through a Screen Darkly.

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Mail: Re: Faith and Film Criticism

With regard to your statement that there is no pope of movies (in “Faith and Film Criticism: The Challenge of the Catholic Critic”), I recall discussing a film I had seen with a priest in Boston, a member of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary (an order that puts its commitment to the Magisterium in writing).

The priest said, “The Catholic Church teaches authoritatively, has always taught authoritatively, and will always teach authoritatively, that the visual arts… (pauses for dramatic effect) are a grey area.”

That’s classic. Not 100 percent accurate, but classic. I’ll definitely be quoting that one. Thanks for sharing.

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Mail: Re: Faith and Film Criticism; No Country for Old Men

I’m a regular visitor of Decent Films, and as a Catholic I enjoy reading your reviews.

However, I am concerned about a comment you made in your essay, Faith and Film Criticism, about No Country for Old Men. You called it “nihilistic” and “amoral.” These two adjectives certainly carry strong negative meanings. Without anything else to go by, I assume that you did not find this film very valuable, overall (you did say that was “painstakingly crafted”).

I saw No Country for Old Men in theaters and I’ve since bought the DVD and watched it several times. The reason why I’m concerned about the way you described NCFOM is that I’ve often noticed that you dismiss the significance of films that have in them a theme of nihilism. In the case of NCFOM, I agree with you that it does have a theme of nihilism (I certainly do not think that it is its only theme). But is it a bad thing that one of NCFOM’s message is one of nihilism? I think for it to be not acceptable, it would have to in some way glorify or promote it.

No Country for Old Men does nothing of the sort. Certainly, characters like Anton Chigurh are nihilistic themselves; Chigurh only believes in fate, and he sees himself as one who carries out what fate prescribes. But Sheriff Bell’s narration in the opening sets the mood of the film and lays out the film’s main message. Bell talks about how police never carried guns on duty, and he laments about how the world is changing for the worse. “The crime these days…it’s hard to even take its measure.” And talking about Chigurh’s claim that he’d be in hell in fifteen minutes, Bell says that he doesn’t know what to make of it.

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Mail: Re: Faith and Film Criticism

I wanted to let you know that I use your critiques as the major source of info for our family viewing. I know that if you have recommended it, the film will be good. I especially rely on your critiques of adult films, and have found all of your reviews right on target. Unfortunately, not all movies are available in our local rental shop. Just wanted to offer some encouragement after reading your article. :) Thanks you for the work you do. May God strengthen you.

Thanks for writing. I’m grateful for your comments.

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Mail: Re: Faith and Film Criticism

Thanks for the wonderful service you provide your readers. A friend chastised me once for spending so much time reading film reviews, questioning why I needed someone else to tell me whether or not a film was good or not. I think I understood his point. Given the disparities in taste found among film reviewers it is certainly possible that a film I regard as dreck might be considered a masterpiece by the consensus of critics (especially in cases where a film is artfully made but contains a deplorable moral message).

I answered him that the key is not to read all the critics, but to discover for one’s self a few select critics with whom you are in consistent agreement. I first suspected you fell into this category after reading your knowing review of A Man for all Seasons, a perennial place-holder in my top 20 film list. When you discover such a critic(s) then he or she becomes like a second self, working their way through all the cinematic chaff to bring you like gifts the best the medium has to offer.

Now for my question: Can you recommend any books dealing with Christianity and film? My spouse and I facilitate a book discussion group at our Lutheran church and are interested in a book dealing with the interface between faith and film. Ideally we would like a book that discusses in detail some specific films which we could then buy or rent while ploughing through the reading.

If your friend’s question were put to me, I would say that what I need film reviews for is not to tell me whether or not a movie is good, or even whether or not the critic liked it. As useful a service as that might be from a reliable source with opinions convergent with my own, it doesn’t require a whole review; a rating would suffice.

Yet I love reading reviews, even of movies I have no interest in seeing, or movies that I have already seen. It’s not just a question of recommendations or unrecommendations. In reading good review review, I feel that I have in a sense not only seen the film already (or again), but seen it through someone else’s eyes.

In that sense, a good review offers me exactly what C. S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism suggests that good art offers all of us: an enlargement of my being, an opportunity to enter experiences and ways of seeing other than my own. Just as Lewis says of Ovid and Dante, one need not agree with Roger Ebert, Stephanie Zacharek or Lawrence Toppman in order to appreciate and benefit from their well-expressed insights and interpretations.

Often enough a good review of a good film enlarges my appreciation of that film, while a good review of a poor film sharpens my skepticism or disdain of that film. Even if I don’t ultimately agree with the critic on the film, a good review may help me to appreciate another point of view, or at least prod and spur me to sharpen my own dissenting POV, so that in the end I have a clearer and more satisfying understanding of my own reasons for thinking as I do about the film.

Even better, a good review may sufficiently enlarge my perspective on films generally, or on art generally, so that the way I approach all films and/or all art has been somehow enlarged. That’s something that the actual film being reviewed might not ever have done for me.

To segue into answering your question, this is very much the sort of experience offered by my friend and fellow critic Jeff Overstreet in his recent book Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies. Jeff doesn’t just tell you whether or not he liked a movie. He offers you a seat next to him as the movie unfolds and he points out and reflects on the things that thrill, fascinate or trouble him. It’s an invitation not only to look more closely, but to ponder more deeply and appreciate more fully.

There are other books out there, such as Robert K. Johnston’s Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue and Brian Godawa’s Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films With Wisdom & Discernment, but Through a Screen Darkly is the one I’d, um, recommend.

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Mail: Re: Faith and Film Criticism

Thanks much for the great work you do with movie reviews. I really do enjoy and appreciate your reviews.

I was wondering if you know of any site that reviews books in a systematic way yet with a Catholic perspective, just like you do with movies… Many times we walk into Barnes & Noble and find some interesting looking books but cannot tell if they contain some hidden poison. It would be nice to have some sort of decentbooks.com. Please let me know if you know of any.

Thanks for writing, and for your kind words.

Yours is the #1 most frequently asked question I get, not only as regards books but also music, video games, Websites, you name it.

Unfortunately, I have no good answer. I’ve run across a site or two that might have a few book reviews, but in terms of sites dedicated to systematic book (or music, video games, etc.) reviews, nope, I’m not aware of anything out there I can recommend. [If any readers know of sites they’d like to nominate, please let me know.]

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Mail: Re: Faith and Film Criticism

Just wanted to take a moment to express my appreciation for the time and effort you have put into this website. I have not read anywhere close to all posted reviews yet, but those I have read have generally been very well thought out and observant. I should perhaps point out that I am NOT Catholic, but I am a Christian (one who for that matter spent twelve years in a Catholic school!) and I appreciate the spiritual angle that your reviews take on all subject films.

I also want to commend you on taking all aspects of artistic expression into account… one weakness of many very well-meaning Christian reviewers is the tendency to cast blanket condemnations on essentially any film made for adults, or for that matter any movies that fall within certain genres such as fantasy, action, etc. Your reviews seem to be more sensitive to poetic license, which in my opinion is a gift from God in itself.

Having said that, you understand that there are things we as Christians should not tolerate. It is this well-roundedness that helps your reviews stand out. I will not say I agree with all your assessments, but I certainly appreciate them and hope your site is around for a long, long time. Thank you for your time and God Bless.

Thanks for writing, and many thanks for your kind words. I’m gratified that you find my work worthwhile on a variety of levels.

As for not agreeing with all my assessments — well, I don’t know that I agree with all of them myself, and certainly I don’t expect anyone else to! As a critic, my role, as I understand it, is not to be an arbiter of opinion, to make pronouncements on films that readers are expected to take for granted.

I do think it’s my role to present an informed and responsible point of view on a film, and in so doing to give readers relevant information about a film that may be useful either in deciding whether or not to see a film, or in helping them sort out their thoughts about a movie they have seen.

I sometimes say that the role of a critic is not that of a judge, handing down authoritative judgments that are binding on readers, but rather that of a lawyer who seeks to present a particular construal of the facts as compellingly as possible. It is the reader who is the judge, or perhaps the jury, and decides whether he has made the case persuasively or not.

Hopefully, my reviews help deepen readers’ reflections on a film, not necessarily by helping them to see it my way, but by offering a point of view that may prod new lines of thinking about their own ideas. In some cases, this may mean being clearer about why they disagree with me! Certainly I’ve had conversations with friends and read reviews that have had precisely this effect on my own opinion, and I’m very grateful to those who have thoughtfully argued other points of view, since without them I never would have come to so clear an understanding of my own perspective.

Of course, I happen to think I’m right more often than not, and I hope my case is persuasive to most of my readers most of the time. But I don’t by any means think one has to agree with a review in order to find it worthwhile.

Also, of course, I hope the reviews are enjoyable to read.

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Mail: Re: Decent Films

Just wanted to say that I truly appreciate the yeoman’s work you’re doing with this site. I have longed for someone who could do intelligent movie reviews with an eye towards their metaphysical and theological implications. Too many times reviewers who purport to discuss theology do little more than count dirty words and “naughty” parts. In particular, I have to admire how you really cut to the heart of AI: Artificial Intelligence (among others). That’s a film that continues to intrigue me for a variety of reasons. And your take on the Twilight Saga is just memorable!

Thanks for the encouraging comments. Yours may be the first correspondence I’ve received to call out my work on both A.I. and Twilight. Is there any connection? Hm. Both are about troubling relationships with a seemingly ideal but non-human character whose love is perfect and eternal. But A.I. raises serious questions about this relationship and its consequences, while in Twilight all the difficulties are only to further celebrate the love that overcomes all obstacles.

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Mail: Re: Decent Films

I’m just writing to congratulate you on your great job at Decent Films! I have to admit that, although officially I’m a member of the Orthodox Church, I’m not really passionate about my faith (Whether this is a good choice or not, only the future can tell). As a result, I never expected to enjoy reading film reviews that even took the moral factor into account. But — what a surprise! — I bumped into your blog! I find your articles extremely accurate, providing the reader with a big amount of details about each movie, a joy to read, and although there are times when I disagree with your opinion (for example, I loved Million Dollar Baby), your arguments are always solid and clearly presented. You are one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve come through for a while! Keep up the splendid job, and don’t give up!

Thanks for writing, and for your encouraging comments. I have to admit that, although I’m a member of the Catholic Church, I am really passionate about your faith, i.e., Orthodoxy, which I deeply admire and respect. I’m gratified that you find my work helpful and enjoyable to read. I love what I do, but I certainly couldn’t keep it up without generous responses like yours to let me know that I’m on the right track.

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