National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

Spotlight: Watching silent films with children

BY Steven D. Greydanus

July 6-12, 2003 Issue | Posted 7/6/03 at 2:00 PM

 

Recently I watched a century-old film with my three older children (ages 8, 5 and 2). Actually, parts of the film are more than a century old, dating to 1902; other scenes were added in 1905 (see Video/DVD Picks, The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ , below).

For many mainstream movie-watchers, silent movies represent an inaccessible world into which only film experts and historians dare to tread. But children, as C.S. Lewis once noted in an interview, are “so terribly catholic” — so uncritically open to everything, from mind-numbing sing-along songs to Gregorian chant, from the crudest cartoons to the high-mindedness of Fantasia, from Barbie costume jewelry to rosary beads and holy medals.

The open-mindedness of the young obviously imposes a huge responsibility on parents to watch what their children are exposed to.

On the other hand, it also represents a tremendous opportunity to expose children to valuable and worthwhile experiences that for many of their peers will be lost, possibly forever, by the time they are teen-agers.

My children know the stories of Jesus’ life, and they loved noting details in the century-old tableaux of the 1905 Passion — the unobtrusive word that Mary speaks to Jesus before he turns the water to wine, the rooster that flaps into the lower left-hand corner of the screen after Peter's denials, the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ clothes during the crucifixion.

Because the film is silent, we were able to discuss the film freely as we watched it. And so, with Papa's guidance, we provided our own impromptu commentary track. The 8-year-old read the title cards for the other two. Even the 2-year-old watched attentively.

The 1905 Passion isn't the only silent film I've watched with my kids. They've also seen a couple of Douglas Fairbanks actioners, some Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton comedies and another early Gospel film.

With the possible exception of The Miracle Maker , I know of no life-of-Christ film that makes for more accessible and inspirational viewing for children (or rather, with children) than the 1905 Passion . Its stagy production values, exaggerated acting style and sometimes symbolic storytelling pose no obstacles to the youngest viewers. It's a pity more adults aren't able to approach such films on their own terms.

— Steven D. Greydanus