Skip to comments.Join the clubbed: Catholics know pain of being bashed
Posted on 02/10/2004 5:20:54 AM PST by joobers
Join the clubbed: Catholics know pain of being bashed
February 10, 2004
BY RICHARD ROEPER SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST
Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" won't be released until Feb. 25, but it's already one of the most controversial films in history.
For months Gibson has been showing rough cuts of the movie to religious leaders in an effort to stem mounting criticism that his interpretation of the last hours of Jesus' life will foster anti-Semitism.
I'm not sure the plan is working. Last week I received a 47-page packet from the Chicago chapter of the American Jewish Committee. Titled "The Passion: A Resource Manual," it's filled with background information, essays, biblical passages and even "talking points" about the film.
From the cover letter: "As the controversy over Mel Gibson's forthcoming film 'The Passion of the Christ' continues to escalate, [we're] taking this opportunity to provide you with the enclosed resource material on the film and the concerns of the AJC toward it. It is AJC's view, after having viewed two versions of the movie, that the Gibson film represents a reassertion of hurtful and discredited anti-Jewish elements. The film is a disturbing setback to the remarkable achievements in Christian-Jewish relations over the past 40 years . . ."
I've seen the version of "The Passion of the Christ" that will play in theaters starting on Ash Wednesday -- and I'll soon share my views on the film. In the meantime, I've been pondering some other religious-themed movies I've seen in my four years on "Ebert & Roeper."
Catholicism has been represented far more frequently than any other faith. I've probably seen more films about the Catholic Church (and movies with nuns or priests as supporting characters) than all other religions put together. Just from the last four years, I could easily put together a Catholic Film Festival -- but I don't think too many Catholics would be pleased with the entries.
Crooked priests, cruel nuns
Last year we had "The Order," a laughable thriller with Heath Ledger as a rebellious Catholic priest investigating the supposed suicide of his mentor. Turns out the elderly priest died after a ritual known as "sin eating." Peter Weller plays a ruthlessly ambitious and sinister cardinal.
Then there was "The Magdalene Sisters," an excellent but unforgiving film about the real-life Magdalene laundries in Ireland. In 1964, three young women are sentenced to a convent that is nothing more than a glorified slave labor camp. For years, the girls are subjected to abuse from nuns who are no more sympathetic than Nazi guards. Equally horrible is the priest who sexually abuses a mentally impaired young woman.
In "The Affair of the Necklace" (2002), Hilary Swank is an 18th century woman determined to restore her family's good name. She has to contend with Jonathan Pryce's Cardinal de Rohan, a lecherous, despicable schemer.
The terrific "Evelyn" (2002) tells the true story of Desmond Doyle, an impoverished single father in Ireland who fought to regain custody of his three children, who by law had been placed in Catholic orphanages. The priests and nuns treat young Evelyn and her sisters with utter cruelty.
Catholic-bashing, Part II
In "The Crime of Padre Amaro" (2002), an older priest, Father Benito, has been having an affair with a local woman for years, and he has ties to leftist guerrillas and drug peddlers. When young Father Amaro (Gael Garcia Bernal) arrives, it seems like mere days before he takes up with the 16-year-old daughter of the older priest's mistress. When the girl is impregnated, the young priest takes her to get an abortion.
Another 2002 film, "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys," stars Jodie Foster as the stone-faced, one-legged Sister Assumpta, who torments her young students and calls William Blake "a dangerous thinker." (Movie priests and nuns often rail against thought. In "The Order," a cleric says, "Knowledge is the enemy of faith.")
In the leering comedy "40 Days and 40 Nights" (2002), Josh Hartnett swears off all sexual contact for 40 days and 40 nights, and if you don't get that subtle biblical reference, Hartnett's brother is a priest, and they often meet in the confessional to gab about sex.
Antonio Banderas is a combat soldier-turned-archeologist-turned- priest in "The Body" (2001), and Olivia Williams is the Jewish archeologist who discovers a skeleton that may be the body of Jesus Christ, proving that he was a mere man. (Of course, there's smoldering tension between Banderas and Williams.) Derek Jacobi is an older priest who commits suicide.
In these movies, priests are suicidal, corrupt and/or lascivious. Nuns are heartless and sadistic.
Before you run to your keyboard: yes, I'm aware of scandals, past and present, involving the church. And yes, some of the films listed above are powerful, important works based on true stories.
But a lot of this stuff is just exploitative garbage. And no other religious group gets bashed with such frequency. Can you imagine a similar number of films with Jewish leaders playing villains and moral weaklings?
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Contrast these with the magnificent, blockbuster, cast of thousands, biblical-themed films we saw growing up!
I seem to recall Martin Sheen being in some bizarre series called "Insight" (I think) back in the 1970s.
One of the best TV events I recall with a Catholic context involved a couple episodes of "The Fugitive" in which Dr. Richard Kimball (David Janssen) helps a nun.
"The Flying Nun" and "Father Dowling" never really grabbed my attention for some reason...
I suppose the episodes of Buckley's "Firing Line" (particularly the conversations on faith with Malcolm Muggeridge) were pretty good.
The comedy farce in the '70s "Soap" had a priest character involved in an affair with a woman. And "Barney Miller" did an episode where a guy was possessed. Mildly amusing. "The X-Files" had Dana Scully as a lapsed Catholic.
My choice would be Jesus of Nazareth
The only one I can think of is "Brideshead Revisited," from the early '80s. There probably were other ones, like the nun movie with Whoopi Goldberg, but they were obviously forgettable.
It seems very rare that there is ever anything on U.S. television (not counting EWTN) that depicts Catholic life in any realistic way that I am familiar with as a Catholic. I'll qualify that by saying the extremist liberal priest in "Nothing Sacred" was close but not quite as scary as the real McCoy.
Although there is a liberal, modernist spin to it, I did like Michael Anderson's 1968 The Shoes of the Fisherman. Oskar Werner does a good job with playing the Teilhardian theologian, Fr. Telemond. The look on David Janssen's face when he realizes the conclave has elected a Russian pope is classic.
The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)
Cast: Anthony Quinn, Laurence Olivier, Oskar Werner, David Janssen
Director: Michael Anderson Running Time: 160 minutes
A Pope contends with the prospects of nuclear world destruction in this Cold-War saga of religious faith and international politics. (Anthony Quinn) plays a Russian priest who has spent 20 years in a Siberian labor camp. When Russian and Chinese relations deteriorate, Russian Premier Kamenev (Laurence Olivier) releases him and he is made a cardinal. Kamenev wishes to have a representative at the Vatican in Rome for future political situations. When the Pope (John Gielgud) dies, a series of events makes the Russian priest the first Pope from a communist country. Taking the name of the saint who spread the gospel to Russia, he becomes Pope Kiril Lakota. He often leaves the Vatican in disguise to mingle with the people to remain in touch with the poor and the needy. When millions of Chinese face starvation, the Pope offers to sell the riches of the church on order to feed the hungry, and he asks that all wealthy countries do the same. David Janssen is the television reporter stationed in Rome whose wife (Barbara Jefford) receives counseling from Kiril, unaware he is the Pope. In a symbolic gesture, Kiril offers his crown as a down payment in an attempt to bring world peace and end the starving of millions. Although a fine drama with a competent international cast, the movie failed at the box office to recoup the 9-million-dollar production costs.
~ Dan Pavlides, All Movie Guide
Her life had some sharp reverses, but the film shows many different sides of the Catholic culture of the time. The film is excellent - it doesn't bash, it doesn't romanticise.
Cast: Jennifer Jones, Charles Bickford, Gladys Cooper, Vincent Price
Director: Henry King
Categories: Drama, Historical Film
Running Time: 156 minutes
The Song of Bernadette is a reverent recounting of the life of St. Bernadette of Lourdes. As a teen-aged peasant girl growing up in the tiny French village of Lourdes in the 19th century, Bernadette (Jennifer Jones) experiences a vision of the Virgin Mary in a nearby grotto. At least, she believes that she did. The religious and political "experts" of the region cannot accept the word of a silly little girl, and do their best to get her to renounce her claims. Bernadette's vision becomes a political hot potato for many years, with the authorities alternately permitting and denying the true believers' access to the grotto. No matter what the higher-ups may think of Bernadette, there is little denying that the springs of Lourdes hold some sort of recuperative powers for the sick and lame. Eventually, Bernadette dies, never faltering in her conviction that she saw the Blessed Virgin; years later, she is canonized as a saint, and the Grotto of Lourdes remains standing as a permanent shrine. The 20th Century-Fox people knew that The Song of Bernadette would whip up controversy from both the religious and the agnostic. The company took some of the "curse" off the project with a now-famous opening title: "To those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. To those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible." Jennifer Jones' performance in The Song of Bernadette won her the Best Actress Oscar in 1943. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide
One amusing note: Camp horror film actor Vincent Price does a great job as the skeptical, anti-Catholic secular humanist mocking the miracles of Lourdes.
Fascinating, especially now. And very nice opening. Send it to Mel.
I found this column while looking for something else.
Roeper has gone on rants about “anti-Catholic” films before. In 1996 his column about “Primal Fear” had the same theme.
Isn’t Catholicism the wealthiest and most powerful Christian religion? Isn’t it synonymous with guilt and atonement? Could that be the reason for it being a popular subject of films?
Aren’t Catholics big on telling stories about their personal experiences in Catholic schools and churches? I am not Catholic, but I have heard and read a lot of stories told.
Roeper is a poster boy for mediocrity.