The Challenge of the Catholic Film Critic

Steven D. Greydanus shares his thoughts and observations on Catholics, film and Catholic film criticism.

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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.

In general, though, top awards and nominations went to films that underscore the moral distance between Hollywood and my own faith-informed 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 list.

At least, that’s my take. Not all adult Catholics agree. Even among active and devout Catholics, my opinions are sometimes found too harsh, other times too lax. On the one hand, some thought I was too critical of ultraviolent R-rated films like 3:10 to Yuma and Apocalypto, which they 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 engaged 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 Catholic thinking at all. One Register reader, responding to my 2007 Top 10 (“And the Winner is … Life?” Jan. 20-26), spoke for many when she wrote:

“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. … 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 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 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 analysis 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 Register coverage of controversy among Catholics over positive reviews from a Catholic source of one or two of the above-mentioned films rightly highlights the problem of critics overlooking or minimizing important moral issues in films.

At the other end of the spectrum is 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 — failed to pass, in his words, the “dog poop test.” He used the vivid metaphor to illustrate how a bit of grossness can ruin otherwise worthy fare, like nasty stuff mixed into cookie dough.

Yet we consume small amounts of impurities all the time; drinking water, for example, contains traces of arsenic. It only has to be pure enough, not totally pure, to be fit for consumption.

Why did Amazing Grace fail? Apparently, according to one founder, the sticky point is not language (several instances of “God” and “hell” as well as “ass,” 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 adding 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 Catholics 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. The truths of Church 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, No. 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, No. 28-29). This has been reiterated by Vatican II (Inter Mirifica, No. 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” (No. 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” (Vigilanti Cura, No. 6) and a salutary form of diversion and recreation (No. 21-22).

Vatican II 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 (Inter Mirifica, No. 12), and encouraged efforts to promote “production and showing of films that have value as decent entertainment, humane culture or art” (No. 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 wannabes.

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 II 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” (Inter Mirifica, No. 9, italics added).

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” (Inter Mirifica, No. 11), but must also be safeguarded from what “may be harmful to them at their age” (No. 12). In making age a factor, the council decree implies a distinction between what is harmful, period, and what may be harmful to children at their age but harmless 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” (No. 10).

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 Register readers 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 well-formed and properly catechized Catholics. I can’t 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 Catholic 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. I hope that my efforts to articulate how I look at a film are helpful to others seeking to sharpen their own critical skills.

Also, of course, I hope it’s fun to read — and I hope you find my picks more reliable than the Academy’s.

Register critic Steven D. Greydanus has a master’s degree in religious studies from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and a bachelor’s in media arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York City.