The Pope: Wild about "Harry"

A survey of the Vatican's fickle taste in recent movies

By Vincent Rossmeier
Published July 15, 2009 12:16PM (EDT)

The Vatican has given two thumbs up to the latest cinematic installment of the Harry Potter series. The positive review comes as somewhat of a surprise considering that in the past the Church has accused the Potter films and books of being corrupting, “distorting Christianity” and even called poor young Harry the Prince of Darkness. Yet, the Papacy thinks "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" gets that whole good vs. evil, battle for the soul of mankind debate just right this time around.

The Church has a tangled, fraught history with Hollywood’s offerings. The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops has a whole site dedicated to evaluating whether films are appropriate for Catholics, including their Top 10 films for every year since 1965. While the Vatican’s condemnatory reactions to movies generally make for splashier headlines, the Church also has often embraced important films throughout cinematic history -- including some titles you might not expect.

In 1995, during Pope John Paul II's time at the head of the Church, the Vatican released the  modestly titled list “Some Important Films” that honored a wide-range of cinematic classics. The list broke down films into three categories: religion, values and art. At the time, John Paul II said of film, “The Church’s overall judgment of this art form, as of all genuine art, is positive and hopeful … We have seen that masterpieces of the art of film making can be moving challenges to the human spirit, capable of dealing in depth with subjects of great meaning and importance from an ethical and spiritual point of view.”

Included on the Vatican’s list were “A Man for All Seasons,” “Andrei Rublev,” and “Ben-Hur” for the religion category; “Gandhi,” “Chariots of Fire,” “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “Schindler’s List,” and “On the Waterfront,” for the values column; and “Citizen Kane,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Modern Times,” “8½,” “Fantasia,” and “The Wizard of Oz” for art.

Yet, undeniably, as in the case with the previous Potter films, the Church has been far less receptive to some movies during its history. Here’s a recap of six of the more memorable recent denunciations the Vatican has made of films.

“Angels & Demons” (2009) -- The Vatican banned the creators of the latest film adaptation of Dan Brown’s conspiratorial novels about the Church from shooting within its grounds or any church in Rome. That probably didn’t come as a shock to anyone considering the the Church wasn’t exactly receptive to “The Da Vinci Code.” Archbishop Velasio De Paolis, the leader of the Vatican’s Prefecture for Economic Affairs, alleged that Brown had “turned the gospels upside down to poison the faith” and said that “It would be unacceptable to transform churches into film sets so that his blasphemous novels can be made into films in the name of business.” That the film’s director, Ron Howard, responded to the ban by accusing the Vatican of enacting a plot to stifle the film probably means Howard shouldn’t be holding his breath on being named a saint anytime soon.

“The Da Vinci Code” (2006) -- It wasn’t a shock that the Vatican vehemently denounced “The Da Vinci Code” -- yet how Dan Brown hasn’t received a special place in Hell for his sentence composition remains a mystery. The Church reacted strongly against the film’s suggestion that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and eventually had children with her and that the Opus Dei sect of Catholicism covered up the relationship. The Vatican went so far as to call for a boycott of the film.

“The Golden Compass” (2007) -- The movie adaptation of Philip Pullman’s bestselling novel “Northern Lights” was released just a few weeks before Christmas, but the Vatican showed the film no holiday cheer. An editorial in the Vatican newspaper, l'Osservatore Romano, criticized the movie for being “the most anti-Christmas film possible” and for bleakly imagining a world without God -- though to be fair, the film did imagine a world populated by Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. The Church even had condemnatory words for Pullman, as the editorial stated, "In Pullman's world, hope simply does not exist, because there is no salvation but only personal, individualistic capacity to control the situation and dominate events.” Though Pullman’s book does focus on a fictional church-like organiztion that experiments on children in order to explore the origin of sin, the film’s director Chris Weitz removed this material. Yet, it didn’t prevent the Church’s criticism.

“The Passion of the Christ” (2004) -- Mel Gibson’s ode to Christianity’s savior greatly pleased former Pope John Paul II, though Gibson pulled a private showing of the film at the Vatican. After viewing the film, Pope John Paul II reportedly endorsed it and said, “It is as it was." Yet the film did cause its share of controversy within the Church, splitting Catholic conservatives and liberals. At issue was the film’s depiction of Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ death, which some Jewish organizations alleged was anti-Semitic. Catholic reformists denied collective Jewish guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion, while more conservative members of the Vatican defended the film’s depiction of events.

“Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (2007) -- The Catholic Church has a long memory. During her reign in the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I of England frequently clashed with Rome. Perhaps that’s why the Vatican reacted so antagonistically to the 2007 film about her life. A Vatican historian called the movie “distorted anti-papal travesty," adding “a film which so profoundly and perversely falsifies history cannot be judged a good film.”

“The Magdalene Sisters” (2002) -- After winning top honors at the Venice film festival,  “The Magdalene Sisters,” which depicted the brutal abuse Irish women endured at a Catholic-run asylum for "fallen" women, the Vatican lashed out at the film denouncing it both in the Vatican newspaper and on the radio.

Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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