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Film and the Art of Evangelizing

A holy priest I know once defined beauty as “order with variety.” The world, however, sees beauty as relative and simply a matter of personal preference. The appreciation of beauty is so innate in the human mind that it is a wonder that many have come to consider the mundane and grotesque as “art.” But alas, our understanding of beauty has been corrupted and obscured due to original sin, and society has suffered. What the world needs now more than ever is artists who can bring back truly good works of art in all its media, creating masterpieces that are uplifting and inspiring.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating and impactful art forms of the modern era is film. Just like any other art form, though, it can be either beautiful or ugly, and in today’s chaotic world it seems that it tends toward the latter. Hollywood has churned out a myriad of “transgressive” films in the past forty to fifty years, and this has only worsened with time. But for the many awful films that Hollywood filmmakers have produced, every so often, films that reflect virtue and Christian morals come around and offer a breath of fresh air. Some of these are simpler in scale yet Christian to the core. Others are grand and spectacular. Still others use tactics for the wrong that could be effectively used for the right.

Two examples that probably best exemplify the first two kinds of films are Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, respectively. Both of these masterpieces contain creative methods and techniques that can be invaluable for Catholic film-makers.

The Passion is specifically a Christian film, and though it is simple in concept and story, it is nevertheless a timeless masterpiece of cinema. What sets it apart from many Protestant films is the profundity of its story, its realism, its emotional intensity, and its dedication to historical accuracy. Its aim is not to simply preach the Gospel through film, but rather to artistically and reverently bring the Gospel to life as a force to move our minds and hearts. It does not shy away from bloodshed, nor does it inadvertently trivialize the subject matter, as many Protestant-based films seem to do. Christ’s suffering was depicted intensely, and consequently was effective in penetrating the hearts of the audience. The fact that this film made many converts, including several of the film’s actors, speaks to the effectiveness of its creative approach in carrying out its mission.

What can be achieved artistically in The Passion can reasonably be achieved elsewhere, though no film can rival the profundity of Christ’s passion and death. One of the most striking moments of the film for me, which captivated me with its superb use of cinematics, was at the beginning of the film, when Our Lord was in His agony. The color palette of the scene, the blue and hazy atmosphere behind the yellow of the soldiers’ flames, the use of slow motion when the soldiers come for our Lord, the chilling portrayal of Satan – all these combine for a haunting and moving experience. While secular films have employed such visual techniques with great effectiveness, using them in a Christian film sets it apart from the average, run-of-the-mill evangelical film, giving it uniqueness and demonstrating that Christian films can be formidable.

The Passion was meant to spread the Gospel directly, so it was destined to be despised by the Hollywood anti-Catholic subculture despite its magnificent artistic quality. However, non-religious and fictional films can also be effective in spreading the Gospel. There are numerous films that have tried doing this, some more successfully than others. One trilogy of films stands above the rest: The Lord of the Rings.

Not specifically Catholic in its subject-matter, it is specifically Catholic in its undertones. The films give the books and their author, JRR Tolkien, due justice from an artistic and a thematic perspective. Tolkien, who was a devout Catholic his entire life, carefully interwove Catholic elements into his stories, particularly emphasizing the reality of good and evil, and these themes remain true in their essence in Peter Jackson’s re-telling of the story. Jackson’s cinematic vision nobly carries the weight of the ring.

Spectacular and entertaining, the trilogy is sturdily built on a Christian base. Perhaps the greatest strength, among the many strengths of the trilogy, is that it shows the true beauty of good and true tyranny of evil, and it steers clear of any politically correct re-interpretation. The friendship between Frodo and Samwise is pure and honest and an exquisite example of the good portrayed in the film. The darkness of evil is likewise vividly portrayed, as shown by the effects of the ring on Gollum, for example.

It is not cut and dry, as there are certainly characters who are conflicted and who change for better or for worse. But their conflict is resolved in a final and definite way either toward the good or the bad. Boromir, for example, a human tempted by the powers of the ring, seems to fall to evil. Realizing his weakness, though, he overcomes himself in the end by making the ultimate and noble sacrifice to defend what is good.

There is no gray area as to who is good and who is bad, and there is no attempt by Jackson to justify the evil or downplay the good. He keeps the lines from blurring, and this is largely what makes the LOTR trilogy so fantastic. Its honesty in treating the reality of good and evil, while seemingly a simple concept, is effective – a terrific model for many Catholic filmmakers and writers.

In contrast to both of the aforementioned, there are films that seem Christian in their theme but are really quite anti-Christian underneath. Films such as Martin Scorsese’s Silence attempt to tackle difficult subject matter, only to end up perverting the message and resolving either in anti-Catholic solutions or ambiguity. These films are a threat to Christianity but are successful in their mission primarily because of their deceptive and cunning means of attacking the heart of Christian ideals.

One film that I recently saw that did exactly this was Breathe (2017, directed by Andy Serkis), starring Andrew Garfield. The theme of the film is to have hope when all seems hopeless, and this is indeed a Christian theme. Sadly, the film (which is based on a true story) essentially tears down all that it so terrifically builds up. After hope has become a reality for our film’s polio-afflicted protagonist, Robin Cavendish, the film concludes with Robin being euthanized. His assisted suicide is celebrated as though it were the most humane solution to the problem.

The worst part about the film is that it sets the audience up to believe in hope and perseverance, only for these noble ideals to go flying out the window in the end. From the beginning, it creates a joyful sense that life is worth living despite adversity, yet at the end, this idea diminishes so as to make way for the film’s true mission.

What is perhaps the biggest shame of all is that the film’s idea of mercy is embodied in a convincing and emotional ploy that plays on a sort of half-truth: that love is sacrificial – and to kill oneself for the “well-being” of friends and family is justifiable. To say the least, the film had great potential, being both clean and devoid of any profanity or sexual obscenities. But while it is considered a success by numerous critics, praised by the Observer’s chief film critic, Mark Kermode, as “less a labour of love than a celebration of life,” its impact can be credited only to a sly delivery that deceives the audience, enticing viewers to accept a devious message wrapped in an appealing package.

I point out Breathe mainly as an example of how many Hollywood films are influential through their subtlety and to show why it is important that Catholic filmmakers, writers, and actors involve themselves in countering this anti-Christian culture that is being pandered to audiences by Hollywood. Catholics can fight back by practically beating Hollywood filmmakers at their own game, using the same subtle tack used in Breathe but instead with a noble and Christian cause, a cause that does not peddle emotion to the audience, but imparts the truth to them. Breathe starts off on the right track. In the hands of a good Catholic filmmaker, a movie like it could end up with an inspiring and moral resolution – one that focuses on people’s eternal salvation rather than catering to their fickle sentimentality.

Whether it is the stunning cinematic techniques and profound story told through The Passion, the grand and noble-minded masterpiece of LOTR conveying the nature and reality of good and evil, or the subtle techniques of the almost inspiring Breathe, something can be drawn from each of these films to inspire Catholic artists to create edifying and beautiful cinematic works of art. There is a vast, beautiful world for Catholic filmmakers to open up to audiences if only more would use the resources of inspiration and creativity available and apply them to Catholic thought.

There is a reservoir of Christian influence largely left untapped – and thus unable to nourish the human spirit, which so desperately needs God. Catholic artists can be the ones to tap into it.

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