Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Catholic tastes

When I can get around to it, I like to keep this weekly commentary fresh, up to date and topical. For instance, last week I actually managed to work the very recently deceased Prince Rainier into the text. But why, quick-witted readers might reasonably ask, did I not at least work in a mention of the even more prominent Catholic head of state who passed away during the previous week?

The answer is simply that I wanted to exhibit something that rarely graces these pages: good taste. One of my few gifts is the ability to immediately trivialize any person or topic that I choose to write about. And I figured the head of the Catholic Church deserved better. Maybe these years of living in a predominately Catholic country has actually had an effect on me. So, I gave the church a period of grace, so to speak. And now, time’s up. Back to work.

It strikes me that, over the years, the Catholic Church has had an interesting relationship with the movies. Perhaps than any other religious sect, Catholicism is associated with moral judgment of Hollywood movies. This goes back to the first half of the 20th century when the church came to wield a fair amount of control over what was shown on American movie screens. As a result of sensational and sexual excesses in Hollywood movies in the 1920s, there was a backlash that resulted in the Hays Office, which was ostensibly the film industry censoring itself, and the Legion of Decency, which was established by the Catholic Church. Interestingly, the film that actually got the church energized about movies was a 1927 comedy called The Callahans and the Murphys, which exploited stereotypes of Irish Catholics. The Legion of Decency did not have any power to censor, but it used its influence to mold public opinion against movies it found objectionable. It had a complicated rating system that ranged from “A-1” (“morally unobjectionable for general patronage”) to “C” (“condemned”). Its early targets included the Marx Brothers and Mae West and, as time went on, the dreaded “C” rating went to such films as the 1941 comedy This Thing Called Love, Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid, and Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker. In 1966, in the spirit of Vatican II, the Legion of Decency got revamped and renamed as the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures.

These days the church, at the highest levels anyway, tends to stay out of the movie approval/disapproval business. There was a flurry of interest last year when Pope John Paul II seemed to be endorsing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, but the Vatican quickly emphasized its neutral stance on the movie. That particular film was a bit tricky for the church. On one hand, it was potentially a (to coin a phrase) godsend in terms of recruitment and evangelizing. On the other hand, Gibson is controversial religion-wise because he belongs to a breakaway Catholic sect that rejects certain of the official church’s modern reforms. Also, some critics tarred the film with the anti-Semite label, a delicate issue for the Vatican.

At lower levels, there are still Catholics (as well as plenty of non-Catholics) who do not hesitate to condemn movies that they find religiously offensive (as well as just offensive). For instance, a group calling itself the Catholic League tried to whip up outrage against movies like the supernatural thriller Stigmata and Kevin Smith’s satire Dogma. But neither they nor any other self-styled guardians of morality have had much impact on people’s viewing habits for some time now, as far as I can see anyway. Indeed, it can be argued that condemnation from the Catholic Church or any other moral authority is actually a potential windfall for a movie (or TV show, for that matter, as the happy producers of Desperate Housewives have found out). No doubt religious controversy played no small part in the notoriety and commercial success of 1973’s The Exorcist. (The film was also a critical success, receiving ten Academy Award nominations, two of which resulted in statuettes.) The Exorcist is one of those strange horror movies, in which it seems to be a requirement to be Catholic, or at least raised Catholic, to connect with it. After months of hearing tales (I was out of the U.S. when it was released) of how horrifying it was, complete with stories of nurses stationed in the aisles to treat fainting viewers, I was mystified when finally seeing it for myself. I didn’t find it particularly scary at all. I had seen worse on Dark Shadows. But my friends with Catholic roots all seemed absolutely terrified by it.

If filmmakers labored for years under the thumb of Catholic pressure groups, then they have certainly gotten their revenge during the past few decades. The church itself has been a subject for many a Hollywood or independent film entertainment. And I have to report that very often that the church does not fare well in the portrayal. It has indeed been a long time since we saw sentimentalized versions of priests and nuns, likes those in Boys Town, Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s. The turning point seems to have been in the 1970s. Around the time that the Italian Catholic Franco Zeffirelli was making his pious and visually beautiful follow-up to his Romeo and Juliet, the biography of Francis of Assisi, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, English director Ken Russell had already adapted Aldous Huxley’s novel The Devils of Loudin into a violent, hysterical movie about the depraved life in a convent in 17th century France. It’s been all downhill for the church on the big screen ever since.

A sampling: Frank Perry’s 1982 movie Monsignor had Christopher Reeve as an ambitious priest who rises up the church hierarchy while engaging in corruption and an affair with a nun, played by Geneviève Bujold. Norman Jewison’s 1985 film Agnes of God dealt with the sordid business of a nun murdering her own baby, although the story left room for the possibility that it was a virgin birth. Anne Bancroft was the cigarette-smoking mother superior, and Jane Fonda was the investigating psychiatrist. The low-budget 1985 film Impure Thoughts, was about four men (one is Brad Dourif), who were in Catholic school together, finding themselves in purgatory together. They go over their lives trying to figure out what landed them there. Miramax (and its parent, Disney) really discovered the power of a bit of religious controversy in 1994 when it released Antonia Bird’s film, Priest, about a young priest in Liverpool who cruises gay bars, while the rectory’s senior priest is carrying on with the housekeeper. In 1996, Edward Norton got noticed for his acting talents in Primal Fear, in which he played an altar boy accused of murdering a Chicago archbishop. Needless to say, once the whole story is uncovered, the archbishop is revealed to be less than holy.

The real winner of the let’s-get-back-at-the-Catholic-Church-in-a-movie sweepstakes, however, is far and away Darren O. Campbell for his 2001 independent film, Second Coming. In that movie, Jesus actually comes back to earth, but by the closing reel he has been murdered all over again, this time by the Vatican, which wants to suppress him and his Lost Gospel in order to preserve their own jobs and power. I don’t know if anyone in the real Vatican ever saw this movie or commented on it, but I bet they would have trotted out the old “C” rating if they did!

Is the Catholic Church now forever destined to be (excuse the imagery) the whipping boy of disgruntled moviemakers who never quite recovered from their childhood catechisms? Somehow I doubt it. These things usually go in cycles. After all, the church itself is no stranger to pageantry and storytelling. And it certainly now has a compelling story to tell, as all the saturation coverage of the Pope’s final days and funeral demonstrated.

Can it be long now before we see John Paul II: The Movie?

-S.L., 14 April 2005

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