because there's no nihil obstat Fr Peter Malone argues that although several new releases with
Catholic themes will offend some, they do reveal genuine, if
misplaced, religious yearnings of the post-Vatican II generation PERHAPS IT was the build up to the millennium with odd religious expectations in some quarters, but the US has produced three movies that have reached our screens recently and have caused some consternation. They are End of Days, Stigmata and Dogma. End of Days is certainly a millennia! story, taking its cue from a reading of Revelation 20:7 and a prospect that has tantalised the minds of writers and artists! the 1,000 year reign of Satan. This time Satan is to impregnate a specially chosen young woman who will give birth in the year 2,000 to his demonic offfspring. This is not a new idea and in movie terms, it was the key theme for Rosemary's Baby more than 30 years ago. But the movie is another action adventure designed for Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is he who will confront Satan, engage him in a battle of wits and faith, save the woman and save the world by sacrificing his life. With a movie like End of Days, the audience is meant to see it as a far-fetched melodrama, momentarily plausible on the surface, but an occasion for Schwarzeuegger as the side of good combatting a rather suave Gabriel Byrne as the side of evil.
The action genre combines with the police investigation genre and so the audience expects fights, chase* ,split-second rescues and special effects and especially explosions. Many audiences, especially older audiences who do not go to the cinema much, would rather give this kind of movie a miss. It is too loud, too much angrily confrontational, with too much violence and coarse language. However, a younger audience with a different sensibility who watches this kind of action movie much the same way as the older audience might have watched cowboys and indians when they were young, does not take it too seriously and enjoys it as another slam-bang show. However, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a Catholic and Warner Brothers, the producers, did ask a Catholic agency in Los Angeles to advise them on some of the Catholic and Church detail that the screenwriters had chosen as the setting for their millennial plot. When asked what the movie was about, unfortunately the film makers declined to comment, losing an opportunity to have some input into a popular movie and give it a more authentic feel. Taking as their cue speculations from Revelation 20:7, the film makers wanted to explore some issues of faith and loss of faith.
Schwarzenegger's character is a security guard, a former policeman, whose. wife and daughter have been killed, and who has lost his faith. Confronted by Satan in a scene reminiscent of the temptations of Jesus in the Gospels, he is tempted to help Satan. But he does not and, in an apocalyptic finale where the devil becomes the dragon of the Apocalypse, hc realises, as he looks at the crucifix, that all that is left to
him is faith.
The movie is not meant to be a theological treatise and the screenplay delves into some of the odder aspects of the history of the church, medieval orders who were dissolved because of satanic connections, secret writings that imagined all kinds of disasters and the reign of Satan. And it potboils them all together for a movie entertainment for action fans with something of a subtext about the struggle between good and evil, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and the need for heroes who have faith and who sacrifice themselves in the way of Jesus.
THESE, comments have tried to put End of Days in some perspective and context. One of the problems of putting this kind of imaginative fiction on screen is that it is available to everyone around the world. That is how movies are marketed.
Some will hear of the subject and be alarmed thinking that the Church is being used or mocked (and sonic have responded in this way). Some who think that Church subjects should be treated only in serious and respectful drama will feel a need to denounce something that seems less than serious and sounds as if it is not respectful of the Church. Some fear that antiChurch feeling is so strong these days that this kind of film is part of an attack on the Church.
This is where the Catholic press can play a role. But the role must be played credibly, seeing the movie for what it is rather than what is feared it might be, and giving readers helpful advice on how to view and *read' the movie. The danger for religious reviewers is overplaying the defensive rote and making
unverified assumptions about attack.
Attack was not the intention of End of Days. The US Bishops Conference reviewer saw it as a cynical use of religious themes in a violent show and classified it as "Morally Offensive". Another Catholic office might just as easily classify it as "Morally Unobjectionable" while letting people know that it is has some violent sequences and has the incarnation of Satan as its theme. Recently. I took part in a screening of End of Days and a discussion seminar sponsored by the Catholic Communications Office of Kuala Lumpur that led to an exchange of views on representations of evil on the screen, risks in using biblical texts that could be interpreted fundamentalistically as well as the use of Catholic iconography, especially the crucifix, to give visual
impact to themes of heroism, self-sacrifice and Christ figures.
Some of the current movies, seen by younger audiences with sensibilities that the film-makers are catering to, lead to discussion about Church and religious issues that do not arise in ordinary conversation.
This has been the case with Stigmata. the subject of an interesting review (CH 21/1, p.8) by James Abbott.
Stigmata was imagined as a horror movie and should be viewed according to the conventions of the horror genre rather than as a
drama. It has echoes of 1973s The Exorcist. Once again, it had church advisers although I wish that they had checked further on aspects of the apocryphal gospels and their status in the Church. The final words of the 'movie are quite misleading about the gospel of Thomas. On the other hand, the filmmakers have done their
homework on the phenomenon of the stigmata (as is evidenced in the dialogue with discussions about St Francis of Assisi and Padre Pin).
What they have done is to combine investigations into Gnostic writings with Vatican Curial zeal for the institution of the Church, to highlight a more interior religion (and conclude that this was what Jesus said in the hidden Gospel).
Plot wtsil they have taken up, as did End of Days, the difficulties of belief and unlaelief in our world. By some strange coincidences, a young hairdresser in Pittsburgh receives the stolen rosary of a dead translator of the hidden text, who now uses her to make the truth known. He was a Franciscan friar and so uses the stigmata in her body to gain attention. Well, you may nod and smile at the plotline but that is the nature of this kind of fiction. The unbelieving girl goes on a journey of suffering and some discovery of faith.
AS IN A Morris West novel, some of the Church officials can leave a lot to be desired in their ecclesiastical ambitions and their consequent behaviour
and the cardinal in this movie has such an excess of zeal
and loyalty that an exorcism he performs almost turns into a killing. Sensationalist stuff, but the stuff of melodrama, whether it be a story about politicians, the police or any organisation. This raises an important issue of how to deal with movies (or any art, high or popular) that disturb because of their subject matter. It is always important to make a distinction between what is presented and how it is presented. Any human experience or theme can be the `what' of art. Where we are challenged and where the religious press and Catholic media offices have to do their work is in evaluating how the topic is presented, in context, and how it relates to standards, values and morals.
THIS IS especially the case with Kevin Smith's Dogma. Some protests have made it sound like the worst in blasphemy: although it appears that many organised protests are of concerned Christians who have heard about the "what", but have not seen the film tu evaluate how it is presented. (The
Universe, Jan 9th 2000, p.19, has two reviews as well as an interview with the director.)
Unlike End of Days and Stigmata, Dogma is intended as a religious comedy about serious issues of faith, religion and Church. It is called a "comedic fantasy", a "what if.. . ?" In this case, it is about two rebellious angels (one responsible for God's punishments in the Old Testament) who want to go back to heaven. Devils and angels come to earth to prevent this, as it would reverse God's plans and unmake the universe. (And this is all to happen in New Jersey.) Along the way, the two angels wreak some havoc on evil people. A saviour is chosen and guided by angels to stop the two. The synopsis sounds oddball, and so it is. But it is the American-style humour, the satire, the repartee, the inmovie references make us realise that this is a movie from the younger generation of movie-maker. Writer/director Kevin Smith is in his 30s, a product of Catholic upbringing after Vatican II, reflecting the questions that younger, and questioning and dissatisfied Catholics ask.
Some of the ways might be provocative and even
frustrating to older Catholics who would like to put the younger ones straight at once and clarify their somewhat mixed-up expressions of doctrine or their perceptions on moral issues. But the questions are being asked, and asked and in good faith. If they are merely dismissed as being offensive, the Church is alienating a generation that is sincere while sometimes annoying. This is not to say that every Catholic ought to see these movies. In movietaste terms, many will not want to see them. But it needs to be acknowledged that, with all their delving into strange or esoteric areas of belief, or with all their cheeky, black hum-oured or
half-truth half-error way of putting things, these movies are not con-spiracy material but man-ifestations of searches for values and for faith. Sometimes the searchers stray into byways and dead-ends. But they are still searching.
Fr Peter Malone is the President of the International Catholic Organisation for Cinema, and a member of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications