Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #10

Re: Decent Films

Does a moral-spiritual value of +4/-4 mean the moral value is 4 and the spiritual value is 4? I have been thinking of them as separate, e.g. moral/spiritual. I have a hard time rationalizing how a movie can have a moral-spiritual rating of +4/-2 if both numbers relate to the same attribute.

Except for my confusion I like your ratings and use them to help select weekly movies for the Christian retirement community where I live.

Like many critics, I don’t really like ratings. They’re a convenience to the reader as a quick index of the critic’s opinion, but sometimes readers seem to regard the rating as the ultimate verdict on the film, and the review as the accompanying opinion clarifying or justifying the rating.

There are really too many ways for a movie to be variously good or bad, or both at the same time, for any ratings system to do justice to any film worth discussing. In my ratings system, I’ve tried to strike a balance between the complexities of what makes a film worthwhile or not and the built-in limitations of any ratings scheme.

“Moral-spiritual value” in my system is is an umbrella category, not two separate criteria. The reason for split ratings like +3/-2 is that it is often not possible to consider the moral-spiritual significance of a film as “good” or “bad” in an undifferentiated way. Movies often combine significant positive and negative elements, both of which demand to be acknowledged in their own right.

For example, I gave Juno a split +3/-2 rating. On the +3 side, I found Juno’s strikingly pro-life resonances worthy of enthusiastic acknowledgment. On the other hand, the rather uncritical treatment of teen sexual activity, divorce and remarriage and the sheer crudity of the first half-hour in particular add a problematic element to the film.

For the record, I believe the widest split rating for any Decent Films review is for Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, which I called at +3/-3. On the one hand, the film’s intense spiritual thirst, moral conflict and religious awareness are profoundly humanistic and worthwhile; on the other hand, Bergman seems to point away from religion in various ways.

The ratings at either extreme, +4 and -4, are intended to express a degree of praise or censure that is unqualified, and I don’t believe I have ever mitigated them with a contrasting rating. Thus, no actual movie would have the example you give,+4/-2.

Hope that makes some sense.

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