Finding God’s Voice on Film
Computer-generated images (CGI) star in many movies, providing spectacular landscapes, unearthly creatures and physically impossible feats — the pace, style and personality that formerly belonged to actors.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his meeting with artists in November 2009 in the Sistine Chapel, warned of beauty that is “superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed.”
CGI presents a triple threat to religious film: It can diminish the miraculous, overwhelm the narrative and dehumanize characters; artists are tempted to supplant genuine beauty with the temporal and counterfeit. As Benedict XVI said, “Dear friends, as artists you know well (that) the experience of beauty, beauty that is authentic, [is] not merely transient or artificial.”
CGI presents this temptation, what Benedict calls “mere aestheticism.”
With the power of CGI, spectacles can detract from true wonders, which are invisible spiritual movements. Benedict XVI, in contrast, describes the Last Judgment, saying, “Michelangelo presents to our gaze the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End of history, and he invites us to walk the path of life with joy, courage and hope.” These virtues are conditions of the soul.
So when there is an overload of irrelevant CGI, there is a law of diminishing returns. It renders miracles less miraculous because they are obviously the product of technology.
Another risk is that the narrative is downplayed, sometimes with the story and the actors accommodating the technology.
Benedict XVI warned artists against deceitful beauty that “imprisons himself within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy.”
CGI shouldn’t make viewers feel they are trapped in an arbitrary video game.
Also, CGI can be dehumanizing. Humanity is lost in crowd scenes. Israelites, Egyptians, dwarves, elves and orcs are all nameless. It is the reverse of Benedict XVI’s description of the Sistine Chapel as seeing art “face to face.”
Of course, movies such as The Lord of the Rings series and Exodus used CGI to be cost-effective. It’s less expensive to pay a graphic artist to create 10,000 CGI orcs than it is to pay a cast of extras.
Overall, in the context of religious movies, special effects used correctly enhance the narrative and characters. Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth kept the focus on the Lord. The Annunciation wasn’t used as an excuse for an overblown extravaganza; instead, it showed the “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit within Our Lady’s life. At the time, Jesus of Nazareth was understated.
In Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the CGI was inconspicuous, serving the meditation on the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, culminating in the Resurrection.
More recently, Dean Wright, who was a visual-effects supervisor for the fantastical The Lord of the Rings trilogy, showed restraint in directing For Greater Glory, focusing on the human and spiritual aspects of Mexico’s Cristero War.
St. Paul summarizes the core of Benedict XVI’s point in 1 Corinthians 1:22-23, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.”
Everything the artist does should be aimed at revealing the truth in creation. Good religious movies are centered on people and their interior journeys.
Movies can be a powerful medium to spread the faith and to enhance the faith of believers. Benedict XVI spoke of how the artistic journey can also be a “journey of faith, of theological enquiry.” A good religious movie engages the heart and the mind, keeping spirituality at its center. It isn’t reliant on external thrills.
As the prophet Elijah experienced at Horeb (1 Kings 19:11-12), “The Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake, a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, a still, small voice.”
It is not in the spectacles where one finds the Lord, but in the still, small voice. In my opinion, religious movies succeed when they respect this truth.
Anna Abbott writes from
Napa, California; she studied
art history and classical
studies in college.