Movies about Saints my way

Temptation

Salvador Dali’s Temptation of St Anthony

With the Golden Globes finished, and the Academy Awards around the corner, I wanted to publish this long overdue. I often find Catholic Saints film a bore. For fifth grade catechesis, maybe, but not much for inspiration in my faith. For Greater Glory & There Be Dragons pushed the Action and Intrigue. They attempted to make Saint stories suitable for Big Budget / Big Screen Cinema. In 2014, we had Biblical epics picked up by Directors who may have been atheists. The Gospel According to St Matthew, directed by atheist, marxist, homosexual Pasolini, is on the Vatican’s list of top faith films.

While many Catholics dream of big budget, suround sound, 3-D, nationally screened Saint films, I wonder what could be lost. Some saints might get their action sequences. Most saints are dealing with interior dilemmas that just cannot be communicated in the same manner as Big Budget / Big Screen Cinema. You might have to talk to directors who have dealt with smaller scale, intimate portrayals, accompanied by character development. On the one hand, you might limit the audience. On the other hand you might reach an audience (that wouldn’t waste their time on a cheesy sentimental saint film) for an intelligent, thoughtful, artfully crafted film experience around a particular saint.

Classic Film Biopics often portray the subject’s life through a series of episodes. Contemporary Film Biopics typically center around a crystallizing event in the subject’s life. Unfortunately, most Saint films tend to rely exclusively on the classic biopic style. For example, Lincoln dealt with the passing of legislation, rather than entire series of episodes of his life. While the Song of Bernadette (1943) attempts her entire life, Bernadette (1988) captures the apparition event. Most Saint or Pope movies employ the Classic Episodic style Biopic.

Finally, they are portrayed as spiritually unconflicted and morally uncomplicated. That is not always a bad thing, but that would not work for many of the subjects that I haveselected. When I speak of character development, there has to be a mountain in the heart that is moved by faith. There has to be some sort of challenge that they are to face, and that is more meaningful and inspiring than watching a subject never flinch in the face of adversity. I am sure that some people would like to see movies about miracles, stigmata, or zapping fireballs at pagans (see Patrick below), but were we to be approaching stories of human persons becoming saints, it might be the most effective and powerful method. Besides, when you are focusing on covering 60 years in 100 minutes, you miss a the emotion, or you miss the passion

For my proposed ideas, some I have thought about for the past several years. A few have suggestions for a director. I have no interest in suggesting actors, so that it is clear that this list is meant to emphasize how having a skilled director could do a lot more for a film than having some attractive faces.

Augustine
One of my saint film disappointments in recent times was Restless Heart about Augustine. As an Augustinian, I certainly had high hopes. The central theme of Augustinian Friendship as a communal discovery of Truth was absent. The sort of personal conversations among confidants was missing. Sometimes I wonder if you had a director like Richard Linklater, you might be able to capture some of the banter which is essential for a film portraying Augustine. It wouldn’t hurt to also have an Augustinian scholar brought on board to consult, as they do in many other historical pieces. We are, after all, entrusted by the Church with the Spiritual and Theological Legacy of Saint Augustine.

Martyrs
Almost any group of martyrs in the history of the Church could be portrayed as a compelling drama for the big screen. Unfortunately, most Catholics filmmakers are more interested in making something that is okay for children. Films have been made portraying violence while minimizing gore, this would not be that hard. I do think of Cecilia, Felicitas, or Perpetua as possible protagonists if we are dealing with early Rome. Alfonso Cuaron, of Gravity and Children of Men has taken on complicated nuanced dramas, and I could see something like this being taken on by him.

Antony of Egypt
Lets face it, the early desert monks don’t look good on a vintage kitsch prayer card. They are not pasty-skinned enough, dainty blonde enough. Think, weathered face, squinty eyed (Clint Eastwood). The Temptation of Antony is one of the oft-repeated paintings throughout art history, and I wonder what an intelligent film director would do with it, and add his twiest. Because, let’s face it, a film like this could subvert the modern cultural paradigm which sees temptation as either insurmountable or as pleasurable. Out of the other ideas mentioned, this one wouldn’t lend itself easily to lighthearted humor. David Fincher and Tim Burton are two completely different director’s, who would take this in very different directions, but could do something awesome with it.

Francesco d’Asis
Many people’s visions of Francis are as a gleeful sprite gracefully prancing around Assisi singing like Snow White to the little birdies. They completely miss the fact that he left behind his urban dandy of a cloth-merchant old man for the callous hands of a wild and rugged stone chapel. Francis was a short man, kind of like X-Men’s Wolverine. I do believe that a Francis movie can find a good way of mixing playfulness with manliness. After seeing Prince Avalanche, something I would like to find in a Francis movie, David Gordon Greene might be able to pull something similar.

Thomas the Apostle
Christianity has existed in Southern India within a century of Christ’s crucifixion. All of the Eastern Christian Churches often appear different than what we expect Christianity to be. Having a film portraying early Malabar or Malankara Christians would, in many ways, be earth-shattering for our stereotypes of Christianity as a Western Religion. This could even be an enthralling story with Thomas as a supporting character or catalyst, rather than a protagonist. Slumdog Millionaire was a joint operation in England and India, and this would be what I would hope for with something like this, however, I wouldn’t want to see Danny Boyle (who did a work about Saints in Millions), as much as a local director.

Patrick
A few years ago, I saw a Saint Patrick movie, where he was going around zapping pagans with fire. There is a desperate yearning to make a Catholic movie into a big screen spectacle. I find my heart moved by his story, and would prefer to have something more dramatic. Years ago, there was a little Irish animated feature The Secret of Kells (2009). It portrayed a group of Christian Monks creating the Book of Kells. It had its share of fairies and folklore, and was meant to be for children. I have wondered what it were like to have short stories of some of the important Irish Saints: Cuthbert, Brendan, Brigid, and of course Patrick.

Mother Theresa
Here is someone that is still in the popular imagination among Catholics, as well as some secular humanist types. Younger Catholics don’t know who she is. I admit, that I am not a card carrying member of her fan club, and there could be a moment or two in her life that is worth capturing. I am impressed that she caused a ceasefire, she got a Nobel Peace Prize. These could be instances. It is also known that she did not feel internal spiritual consolations for the last part of her life. This is the sort of thing that works good on film. I don’t know that I have an idea of a director for this one (as I am not as familiar with her), but one person suggested Parish Hilton should be cast to play her.

Bonus: Hipster Pope Benedict
Ratzinger was forced to join the Nazi youth. He deserted, broke the law by going to the seminary, and became a priest. It could be a sort of wartime star crossed romance, except falling in love with God, and perhaps enjoying beer and having a friend cat. This wouldn’t go through the rest of his life, in fact becoming the pope would be irrelevant to this story that could be wrapped up in the climactic event of him being accepted into the seminary.

iWorship and the Analogical v Dialectic Imagination

judgmentOne time I went on a rant about iWorship. I saw the thing come up in my Google Play store. I just threw up my arms as another indication of how evangelical christian culture has for decades recycled pop culture gimmicks in order to create a family friendly bubble.

I am referring to all the media, music, books & tshirts which take an item, image, slogan, or idea in pop culture, and spin it for Jesus. While rebranding something as Christian, or Jesus, they will take the exact graphic design, color scheme, or jingle to “give God the Glory!

Nearly 2 decades ago, an LA-area rap group LPG (for living proof of grace), would spend time rapping at non-Christian venues. They went to open mics, and had a lot of street cred. On one of their records, they made the claim that you shame God with lousy art. Being prophetic while maintaining street cred, I imagine it would be difficult to gain a foothold in either the pop culture entertainment industry or the Christian media industry which had become pop culture’s hapless wannabe fangirl.

So there is, among non-Catholics, plenty of contention. The position of favor is still lopsided for superficial swapmeet knockoff media. These sort of debates just do not happen among Catholics. In addition, there are just no noticeable Catholics trying to create an alternative family-friendly media industry. Perhaps there are Catholics who like this alternative family-friendly bubble, perhaps there are self-identified Catholics without backbone who are complete sell-outs to the culture. Perhaps most Catholics don’t guess that there is a dichotomy between faith and culture, and there may be some evangelicals that presume that there is.

I have referred to the way some of these debates have played out in terms of “Whether Reform Rap Music is Valid.” There are just not debates among Catholics on what is an appropriate means to proclaim the faith. There are old Catholics who just don’t get the New Evangelization, but may still support it, and there are young Catholics looking for creative methods to Evangelize. The Dichotomy between believers and the world is not a central issue.

I do believe that some of this is rooted in Calvin. I also think some of it is rooted in what Theologian David Tracy refers to the Analogical v Dialectic Imagination. Although there are many exceptions, and things can get very complex, the Protestant Christian has traditionally put emphasis on the Proclamation of the Word of God, while Catholics (as well as Orthodox & some other non-Catholic Christians), have emphasized the Sacramental encounter with the Living God. Whereas the Analogical Imagination emphasizes the ineffable and what is beyond the senses, the Dialectic Imagination emphasizes what is immediately before you. While the Analogical Imagination keeps things open ended, the Dialectic Imagination attempts to be conclusive. The Analogical Imagination rests on a liturgical & sacramental encounter of cosmic proportions, while the Dialectic Imagination rests on a very clear and quantifiable proclamation of the Word of God.

Both have their strengths, and benefits. Set apart, the two can become problematic. Vatican II has attempted to help most Catholics rediscover the Dialectic through an emphasis on the Word of God, the accessibility of Church Documents, and the New Evangelization. Many smaller visionary non-Catholic Christian communities have attemptedto recapture Liturgy, Ritual, the Season of Advent.

One place where the chasm between the Analogical and Dialectic has reached its extreme would be Evangelical Mega-Church Christianity.

When a group of devout Evangelical non-denominational Christians get together and make a movie, they hope to create a movie with major box-office appeal. Christians gather at special screenings hosted by Churches/Christian Communities across the country. Critics of film dismiss the movie. Christians consider it the manner of the world to “hate Jesus” or “hate Christians” or whatever.

While most basic students of film know that what makes film true art is the ability of a filmmaker to tell a story with a wide variety of strong images. Instead, the Dialectic Imagination proclaims. It does not conceive of communicating itself through images, symbols and emotions as much as by explicit words. It does not imagine the possibilities that are crafted subtly and expressed with nuance on film.

Although anyone with a balanced imagination will make room for a variety of expressions, some Evangelicals might believe that it is good to proclaim Jesus explicitly. That if Jesus name, or the Sinner’s Prayer, or the right formula of the Proclamation of our Salvation is omitted, somehow people will not come into a personal relationship with Jesus. If it is not spoken, it cannot be heard. The analogical imagination will admit that there is much that can be heard without having to be spoken.

To continue, a mega Church might have a Cross. Crucifixes, Statues, frescoes, mosaics, and the like or generally forbidden. Jesus is not venerated with the eyes, therefore nothing as heartfully enthralling as the Sinai Christ could occur in a Mega Church. You might get this. But most likely, you will have powerpoint Praise & Worship lyrics over altered images of grandiose nature.

My home parish, the San Gabriel Mission has stations of the Cross painted by the local indigenous of the 18th century. Jesus had brown skin, and the Roman Soldiers wore the armor of Spaniards. A Catholic Church in Lagos & A Catholic Church in Nagasaki will look very different, but they will both attempt, with what is sensible to the locals to reflect in wonder at the possibilities of the Divine. A Mega-Church outside of Austin TX & a storefront Pentecostal community in Baldwin Park CA may appear as different structures, but are still the same humdrum structures. Neither admits a structural purpose to communicate a unique wonder of the possibilities of the Divine.

iWorship can only bud in a lopsided Dialectic world. Swap meet knock off Christianity is nourished where no credence is given to art, imagination, or poetry. That’s why there are many non-Catholics who love Jesus madly and refuse to take part in these shenanigans, while also recognizing that the Secular Pop Culture is not as antagonistic towards Christianity as they were told.

But for all the Catholics reading my post, wonder if they are in danger of getting lost in Analogical Reasoning? Hardly.

My experience is that many American Catholics have become lopsided and thoughtless Dialectics. The Analogical is so absent today, that I can’t even think of the dangers of it’s extreme unbalanced realization. Many Catholics have tossed out their Analogical Imagination, with it’s mystery, poetry, and ineffability for clear expositions of Doctrine & Morals. Many Catholics have forgotten brilliant fiction Flannery O’Conner, Graham Greene & Evelyn Waugh, and opted to experience their faith exclusively through the Catechism, Theology of the Body, or the Blogosphere. While I am glad there is still interest in Tolkien, Peter Jackson’s Hobbit has banalized the masterpiece. In the same way, most Catholics are too timid of contamination to thoughtfully engage in art, film or music.

American Catholics are desperate to have it all spelled out conclusively, and are quick to banish as heresy, heterodoxy, or vaguely suspicious anything without a preface stating absolute obedience to the Magisterium. It is as if the standard ageless profession of faith cannot be taken seriously these days, because some Catholics have failed to keep it. Likewise, they are so jaded by modern failures in art, that they imagine truth or beauty exists in some scientifically quantifiable medium that ought to be revived, such as baroque or polyphony. Unfortunately, they are not always doing so to be captured by the magnificence & beauty of long forgotten forms of liturgical worship, as much as they are looking for an objective standard by which to crusade against and banish folksy washed-up-flower-child-happy-clappy-Masses.

To an even greater extent, Catholics that dismiss dogma, are radically Dialectic. They dismiss the dogmas traditionalists defend with their own dogmas of modernism, peace, tolerance or social justice, that are primarily Dialectic. Dialectic Reasoning too often relies on antagonism. Our faith is only consequently antagonistic with the flesh, because it is primarily a love affair with the Incarnate Son of God.

Yet, the Dialectic Imagination is not in itself awful. It has become the exclusive obsession of Evangelical Mega-Church Christianity, and sometimes among American Catholics. Even in our faith, it has it’s time and place, and is not hierarchically subservient to the Analogical Imagination. The two can be mutually complementary, but the Analogical Imagination is all too often dismissed. It may very well be that an academic work by a Catholic on the faith be subject to the CDF, but it would seem a categorical error to subject an artistic work on the faith to the CDF.

I once read a quote that “Atheism is having a broken imagination.” I think that many Catholics have a broken imagination if they can only imagine Dialectical. If you find the thought of the Analogical Imagination terrifying, you might be a child who can’t swim in an ocean. No one who has masterfully explored the ocean would blame the terror exclusively on the ocean as much as the child who can’t swim or navigate it with the proper equipment. The Analogical Imagination is always a little risky compared to the Dialectic Imagination’s risk management. However, the Dialectic Imagination is still a very small world often unbalanced of wonder as the Analogical Imagination.