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The Vatican and Cinema…

A whole host of on-line news sources have jumped upon the review of Avatar which appeared in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official daily paper – though it’s been somewhat distorted as it filters through the the huge game of Chinese whispers that is the internet. The paper wasn’t exactly thrilled with the movie’s political undertones, but it acknowledged, as we all must, that it was incredibly beautiful. It’s just interesting how the Vatican’s opinions on popular culture – such as the reversal of their position on the paganism of the Harry Potter series, for example – have become an interesting point of discussion and on-line debate over the last year or so.

Look, kids! Priests can be hip, like... Ewan McGregor, right? The kids still like Ewan McGregor, don't they?

It seems like it was less than a decade ago that the only time that film journalists were discussing the Vatican was when a certain Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger emerged to condemn the Harry Potter series as a none-too-subtle attempt to convert the children of the world into satanists or a declaration decrying that Ron Howard’s The DaVinci Code was blasphemy. Such decries were predictably and understandably met with shrugs in most of the world (and with rallies and protests in the United States). This understandably has the counter-productive effect of distancing the Church from the popular culture it sought to comment on.

Being honest, it was more than a little ridiculous.

As such, it must seem like a surprise that the ascension of Cardinal Ratzinger brought about what seems to be a clear change of tack. The producers of Angels & Demons – the sequel to The DaVinci Code which ups the ante by setting its own brand of fun inside the Vatican with a plot against the Pope – were probably disappointed when the Vatican paper described it as ‘harmless’. A controversy would have garnered so much more publicity. Instead, the Church had recognised that the actual impact of that ridiculous movie would have would be minimal – actually engaging with movie would make the Church look out of touch.

That particular approach to popular culture continued throughout the year with a warm review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince which more-or-less avoided dealing with what had earlier been their stance on series. Even The Simpsons, which has never been afraid to land a few blows against organised religion – Christianity in particular – received some love from L’Osservatore Romano. It stated what anyone who had been watching the show already knew – beneath its subversive exterior, it has a warmy and friendly heart, espousing traditional family values.

In fact, the only hint of the reactive and condemning Church with which the media and film commentators are more than familiar actually came from actor Sam Elliot when he suggested that the Church had successfully killed The Golden Compass franchise in its slumber. I wasn’t entirely convinced by that logic – the box office figures probably did that on their own.

I quite like this approach from the Church towards culture. It’s just a shame that this seems to be the only vaguely progessive approach adopted by the institution in recent times – having returned to the age-old hobby of condemning lifestyle choices and refusing to engage with the realities of modern life around the world (particularly in the third world, where they hold incredible influence). So how come Pope Benedict’s tenure seems to be adopting such a light approach to cinema?

You might argue that’s not really a new approach to cinema, just one that hasn’t been as shrewdly publicised as it is being now. In March 1995, a century after ‘the birth of cinema’ and ten years before his death, Pope John Paul II announced that the Vatican was making a list of important films – kinda like what the US Library of Congress has been doing for decades. Anyway, the list wasn’t as… staid as I would have imagined – and, I imagine, as most otherfilm writers would have expected.

Admittedly the Pope complained about excessive violence and sexuality, as well as profanity – but the list contains examples of all three. Those who joke about Ratzinger’s rallying of the Church against witchcraft in popular fiction might be surprised to see The Wizard of Oz on the list – or Nosforatu, the first vampire film, or maybe even Fantasia, with it’s enchanted broomsticks. The real surprise, at least for me, was to see Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on the list. The very core of the film would seem contrary to the first principles of Catholic faith, but I can see their reasoning for including it: it encapsulates the philosophical sense of wandering and self-discovery which underpins faith.

There are some conscious moral influences on the list. For example Intolerance was selected as representative of the work of pioneer D.W. Griffith – arguably more famous for The Birth of a Nation, omitted from this list because of it’s glorification of the KKK. Still, that is a fair reason to exclude the film from the Church’s list of notable films.

Still, we’re talking about the Church’s recent attitude towards popular culture, and a huge part of that comes down to L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official newspaper. Although Ratzinger has obviously condoned this approach, the general consensus seems to be that this new attitude to cinema comes directly from Giovanni Maria Vian, who has introduced colour photographs to the paper among other attempts to make it more readable and to engage with the youth of today. Moves like absolving John Lennon for his ‘bigger than Jesus’ remark, albeit forty years too late.

Some of this smells of a less-than-sincere attempt by the newspaper to catch up with a zeitgeist which has pretty much left the Church behind. It does seem more than a little forced, like a parent wearing a baseball cap backwards or that uncle who uses the word ‘awesome’.And, as I’ve said before, this effort would be better spent convincing Samoa to unban Milk, for example. Or if – as part of their praise of Harry Potter – they’d come out and said that Dumbledore’s sexuality was okay with them. Stuff like that. But I accept that the culture section of the Vatican paper can’t really set policy, alas.

On the other hand, it’s nice to see the Catholic Church actually engage and get in touch with modern culture. I was raised Catholic and – though I’ve pretty much lapsed – I like to think I took the humanist values from it, and I think that the greatest accomplishment has been spreading that philosophy.

Actually being willing to have discussions about the philosophies underpining event films and television shows seen around the world represents a willingness to engage with the world as it stands and to contribute to all manner of philosophical discussions. Unfortunately the rest of the Church’s social teachings don’t seem to share that same willingness to adapt and evolve – and I think that that may be one of the reasons the Church has been in decline in recent years.

I don’t know, I’m just always fascinated to see how the Vatican’s opinion of this popular culture franchise or that blockbuster movie always seems to make headlines.

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