When a film attacks the Church, our instinct is to hit back. But,
asks Fr Peter Malone, is there a more constructive way to respond?
Cries of condemnation, especially those from complainants who have not seen the film, raise problems for Catholic communications offices. Those who do see the "offending" film and do not find it as bad as its controversy or, in fact, find it a good film, need to issue a statement that looks at the situation more calmly and objectively.
I find myself in this position as president of SIGNIS, the world Catholic association for communication, which is present in 140 countries around the world. Haying seen The Magdalene Sisters in Venice and attended the director's press conference there, it seemed important to say that the film, while continually grim, takes a hard look at the Church in Ireland of 40 years ago and that its plot is no worse than some of the terrible stories that are emerging about physical and sexual abuse by Church personnel that we read about even in the Catholic press. The film seems part of the challenge to the Church to examine its conscience, something that Pope John Paul II has been urging in recent years and which are marked by his many statements of sorrow and apology.
Controversies like this send us back to previous denunciations of the arts by Church personnel to examine whether the fights were justified or not, to see whether they were in proportion to other social and religious challenges of the times.
When Graham Greene wrote his novel of the Mexican whisky priest, The Power and the Glory, in the 1940s, it was denounced for its portrayal of a priest who drank and lived with a woman. Twenty years later Pope Paul VI told Greene what a marvellous novel it was. (One of the upcoming controversies, already aflame in Mexico, concerns a film depicting a contemporary Mexican priest with similar problems.) In recent years I have been researching the cinema controver sies over the decades as well as reviewing letters I have received denouncing reviews — the last of which told me that "Satan is using Harry Potter and now he has entered into you". People are entitled to express their opinions, of course.
But, too often the opinions are second or third hand. When I was at school, Cardinal Spellman of New York urged Catholics to demonstrate against The French Line. The focus of attention was the low decolletage of some of Jane Russell's costumes. There were many more issues worthy of Catholic protest in 1953 than what Jane Russell was, or was not, wearing.
In the late 1970s, Monty Python's The Life of Brian occasioned some media uproar, especially in North America. My predecessor in the Australian Catholic Film Office, a man of more conservative leanings, taught me a lesson in proportion. While he acknowledged the letters of complaint on his desk, he told me that when he went to see The Life of Brian for himself, he "laughed unashamedly".
Are there some guidelines that could help in assessing a film that hits the headlines and is denounced by religious people?
The principle that I have found most helpful is the distinction between "what" is presented and "how" it is presented. To say that The Magdalene Sisters is about severe nuns and their treatment of the laundry inmates does not indicate how this theme is treated. To say that Amen is about Pius XII not speaking out about the Holocaust is minimal and uninformative. This is merely "what". The answer to the "how" question determines whether the film merits censure or praise. During the last year, the Roman web news service, Zenit, has taken account of this criterion by sending out articles praising and criticising such films as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Amen so that readers may understand how the films treat their subjects.
If protesters against a film do not do their homework, they risk looking ignorant and silly. If they protest in the name of the Church, they need to have seen the film and consider their protest thoroughly so that it is not dismissed as impassioned, but thoughtless, and the dialogue between the Church and the professional world of media is cut off. My experience with The Last Temptation of Christ taught me a great deal. In the United States, several fundamentalist leaders rallied their followers to denounce the film, sight unseen, as blasphemous. Some 25,000 people converged on Universal Studios to demand the burning of the negative. However, they came in 15,000 vehicles all of which parked, for a fee, in the Universal parking lot, contributing at least $15,000 to the studio they were condemning.
In Australia, the distributors, United International Pictures, thoughtfully conferred with the chief censor, John Dick, who was, in fact, a Catholic. They decided to invite heads of all churches to a preview to discuss the classification for the film and how they saw its religious content and treatment. This collaboration led to an M 15+ certificate everywhere except in Queensland, which chose the R 18+ classification.
Only one leader, a wellknown campaigner and politician, declared the film blasphemous. The spokesman for Cardinal Clancy of Sydney thought the film somewhat boring, but not blasphemous. The film was released with minimum fuss and a good deal of fruitful discussion especially among theology students.
Something similar happened with the BBC film Priest in 1995. OCIC (the then International Catholic Organisation for Cinema, now part of SIGNIS) issued a press statement and published a booklet discussing the issues and treatment which was used in many countries from Germany (where it was read out at a press conference at the Berlin Film Festival by the bishop for media) to Taiwan, with screenings for clergy to discuss it. Unfortunately, the approach of immediate denunciation was taken by some groups in the US who threw bombs into some theatres in New Jersey screening the film.
Another factor to consider is the differing sensitivities to issues in different cultures. Iran and other Islamic countries have strict codes of dress for women and are sensitive to this in films. The Philippines is a Catholic country where the Church plays a significant role in government and is sensitive to criticisms, even valid criticisms, of the Church.
Asians have different standards for presentations of sexual intimacy on screen from the Scandinavian countries. Formulating a statement about a controversial film, whether denunciation or calm appraisal, requires an awareness of nuances of how it will be read in different cultures.
Ultimately, of course, there is no substitute for seeing the film and making an assessment of what is there rather than what is feared might be there.