Where Have You Gone, Frank Capra?

Movies are capable of inspiring people to good, and every so often, there are still movies being made that celebrate virtue.

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All the talk surrounding the Academy Awards lately reminded me of something a pope once wrote:

Everyone knows what damage is done to the soul by bad motion pictures. They are occasions of sin; they seduce young people along the ways of evil by glorifying the passions; they show life under a false light; they cloud ideals; they destroy pure love, respect for marriage, affection for the family.

The quote didn’t come from Pope Francis, Pope Benedict or Pope John Paul II. These words were written by Pope Pius XI in 1936. One wonders what he would have said about the motion pictures that were released in 2017.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties,” and by that definition, at least one of this year’s Best Picture nominees could easily be considered pornographic. Well, maybe not easily. For some reason, classifying something as “pornographic” is one of the toughest litmus tests in America, and people are often mocked for using the term. Some insist that only a fuddy-duddy would classify an R-rated movie as pornographic. (As in: “Graphic nudity, maybe. Strong sexual content, maybe. But pornography? Give me a break!”) Yet, as I read parental advisory on IMDB, I couldn’t help but wonder what element of pornography was absent.

There is also the concomitant argument that “movies are art,” which is essentially the argument that art somehow absolves otherwise-pornographic elements, or raises them to the level of artistry. Pornography, however, is not art; real art shines a light upon truth, whereas pornography is nothing but lies told in darkness. There may be skill involved in making such productions, but it reminds me of Aristotle’s comment in the Poetics about “the art of telling lies skillfully.” Nevertheless, “art” is the last refuge of the pornographer.

Some of this year’s nominees—including the winner for Best Picture, The Shape of Water—were also violent, gory and sadistic. Common Sense Media summarizes the violence in that film as follows:

Stabbing, bleeding. Severed fingers. Lots of blood. Bloody hand print. Bloody wounds. Attacking creature with a cattle prod. Guns/shooting, with resulting wounds and some deaths. Car crash. Creature eats cat; bleeding, headless cat shown. A character rages. A jump scare. Reattached fingers rotting/character rips them off. Throat slashing. Some hitting/bashing with objects.”

Capra-esque, it ain’t.

This movie earned Common Sense Media’s violence rating of four—one shy of the most violent rating. (Another best picture nominee, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, earned all five.)

Considering that these movies are deemed the best and finest that Hollywood can produce, one wonders if there is any sadism or perversion that Hollywood considers off limits. And yet, movies such as these are not lacking viewers. By box office receipts, the original Fifty Shades of Grey had one of the most successful opening weekends of any movie ever released in the month of February. In its first four weeks of showings, the latest Fifty Shades movie has earned approximately 350 million dollars worldwide.

Regarding violent and/or pornographic films and media, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications once observed that the “production and dissemination of these materials could not continue if there were not a market for them, so those who use such materials not only do moral harm to themselves but contribute to the continuation of a nefarious trade.”

Perhaps that observation should be our takeaway from all this. When it comes to Catholics and movies, not only should we be avoiding morally offensive films in the first place, but we should stop financially supporting these films. Make the quiet boycott of refusing to buy a ticket for morally offensive movies. Guard your eyes and your wallet simultaneously.

Must a Catholic avoid all movies then? Of course not. As Frank Capra illustrated in productions like It’s A Wonderful Life, movies are capable of inspiring people to good, and every so often, there are still movies being made that celebrate virtue. To the Pontifical Council’s point, insofar as the film industry is dependent on the machinations of supply and demand, we should financially support good movies.

As Paul, Apostle of Christ is released in the coming days, Catholics are going to have a chance to support what looks to be both a good movie and a great movie. Let’s demand tickets for this film. In addition, how about buying tickets for a couple or family who otherwise couldn’t afford to see it? It’s our chance to tell Hollywood that there is still a part of the world that wants to see good movies—that while we will not spend money on smut, we will be ticket buyers for good films. Or, as St. Paul put it, we will “not be overcome by evil,” but rather, we will “overcome evil with good.”

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