What Is a Christian Movie?

Barbara Nicolosi teaches screenwriting to aspiring Catholic writers at the acclaimed Act One: Writing for Hollywood. You may email her at [email protected].

(Originally published in LIGUORIAN Magazine, One Liguori Drive, Liguori, MO, 63057.)

Knights on White Horses

It is difficult to come up with a single filmmaker who, being what I call a “happy Catholic,” has consistently sought to make an appeal for the Gospel through mastery of the cinematic art form. (A “happy Catholic” is distinguished from any of the thousands of people in the entertainment industry who, under the right circumstances, would identify themselves as Catholic, but who effectively dissent from whichever aspects of the Church’s teaching are inconvenient to them or to their friends.)

Too many Christians think that the answer to the “problem of Hollywood,” is for some believers to get together, raise money and make movies like The Sound of Music. I take frustrating meetings very often with people like this. These well-intended Knights on White Horses storm into the filmmaking process without a clue of what they are doing, waste a lot of money, and then disappear from the popular culture horizon along with their mediocre film projects.

There can be no success for the Church in popular culture without a clear concept of what success would look like anyway. What is a Catholic movie? Many people think that the goal is for movies to be “non-offensive” in terms of sex, language and violence. But the problem with that standard is it only describes a void. It doesn’t give any creative guidance. A lot of Christians lauded the recent release A Walk to Remember mainly on this basis: “It didn’t have any bad language and the two teenagers didn’t sleep together.” Yes, but it was a banal, predictable story with underdeveloped characters, pedestrian acting and saccharin dialogue. In brief, it wasn’t a very good movie because of what it didn’t have.

Contract with the Audience

Before the Church can impact popular culture, we need to get “on message” as to what we really want in entertainment. The industry is listening, but mostly what they hear from us is fury, sarcasm and our own confusion. I’d like to propose some keynotes of a Christian cinema, that we can spin toward creative executives, in hopes of giving them real guidance as to what should end up on the screen.

A. Entertainment Versus Amusement

I recently asked a sit-com writer about the kind of social or moral impact he thought his show’s style of comedy had on the television audience. He replied, “In twelve years of writing for television, it never occurred to me to aspire to anything except keeping the viewer from turning the channel.” His goal has only ever been to amuse people in the sense of filling up their time. He seeks to distract them, with no view to giving them anything helpful in living out their lives.

A Catholic “contract with the audience” begins with the conviction that entertainment time is not throw-away time. The word “entertainment” comes from the French word “the work between the work.” As philosopher Josef Pieper noted, “Leisure is the basis of culture,” because in it, we find meaning that then animates the rest of our mostly mundane lives. An essential element of a healthy human life is entertainment that is re-creative; that brings to us times of awe and wonder, self-discovery and depth.

B. Sacramentality

Created with a Catholic sensibility, a movie will be haunted by the invisible world. For the believer, everything that we see is a sign of a reality that we cannot see. Paraphrasing St. Paul, all of creation points to the Presence and Nature of the Creator — so should it be with a truly Catholic film. As Jesuit writer William Lynch has noted, “Faith is the ability of the finite to lead somewhere.” Movies should give the viewers the sense that beyond all the choas and craziness in the world, there is a Loving Mind that comprehends it all, and is over it all.

Apple of His Eye

C. Connectedness

A Catholic film should be imbued with the certainty that we are not alone. It should leave viewers with the conviction that each human being was conceived of, worked out, prepared for and assigned a place in the plan. It should implicitly convey the idea that we are all connected to one another and to the One who yearns for us as the apple of His eye. Men are meant to be merciful to one another. Talents are given us to speed us all corporately on our way home to God. We should treat human beings the way we would treat any unique and precious treasure that belongs to someone else.

D. Ironic Juxtaposition of Hope and Suffering

The weirdest thing about Christians, is the way we can hold both terrible suffering and joy in our hands at the same time without any sense of contradiction. Good Friday is at once the worst thing that ever happened, and the best thing that ever happened. A Christian dramatist needs to portray sin with the same intensity as does a purely secular dramatist because, as the great Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor noted, “Redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live.” But a Christian movie would ultimately lead viewers away from cynicism and toward hope. As Auschwitz survivor Corrie Ten Boom expressed it, “We know that there is no pit so deep, that God’s love isn’t deeper still.”

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