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.