Why Movies Matter

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11/29/2011

Watching movies with a critical eye can lead to important family discussions about faith and contemporary culture

by David DiCerto

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I have a confession to make: I love movies. You could say that movies are my vocation and that my work as a Catholic film critic is my ministry. Yet, I often find myself defending this position in conversations with fellow Christians, many of whom view popular culture — and the film industry in particular — with understandable suspicion.

Catholics today can reasonably ask what Hollywood has to do with our faith. The answer is: more than you may think.

Much like the early Church Father Tertullian, who asked what Athens had to do with Jerusalem and doubted the need for pagan philosophy — the pop culture of his day — in the light of revelation, so too can Catholics today reasonably ask what Hollywood has to do with our faith. The answer is: more than you may think.

Beyond mere entertainment, movies have a powerful impact on society in shaping ideas and attitudes. They are, as Blessed John Paul II wrote, “a communicator of culture and values.” In 1934, noted art historian Erwin Panofsky said that movies “mold, more than any other single force, the opinions, the taste, the language, the dress, the behavior, and even the physical appearance” of contemporary culture — a bold statement that holds true today.

In 2010, studios sold 1.35 billion movie tickets, while DVD and Blu-ray sales exceeded $6.7 billion. That’s not counting movies-on-demand or digital downloads. In an age when more Catholics are familiar with Tom Hanks than “Tom” Aquinas, we need to admit the power of film to influence even our religious culture. In short, movies matter.

The Church has always taken motion pictures seriously and encouraged the faithful to do the same. Pope Pius XI’s 1936 encyclical Vigilanti Cura charged “all Catholics and all men of good will” to elevate the cinematic landscape “with vigilant care” by being informed and educated about film, an obligation amplified in the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Media and Social Communications.

Year after year, in messages for World Communications Day, recent popes have urged Catholics to use today’s modes of communication as a means not only of self-expression, but also of evangelization. John Paul II, in his 1995 message, wrote about the duty of parents to educate their children “in an accurate reading and understanding of the films that enter their homes each day” through television and video players. With platforms for viewing movies increasing, the duty of parents is now even greater.

A critical engagement with today’s film landscape is what I — and my co-host Steven Greydanus — seek to foster through our weekly TV show, Reel Faith, hosted by NET TV of the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Sure, there’s a lot seriously wrong with what Hollywood churns out, but if we as parents tune it out completely, we risk not understanding the culture that our children face.

I’m not suggesting that every film is worth seeing — some are definitely not recommended — but as a Catholic father and film critic, I do believe that it is important for Catholics to be aware of current movies because they will be talked about around water coolers, soccer fields, schoolyards and dining tables — those everyday opportunities for evangelization. We must do more than just make sure our children avoid the “wrong” movies; we need to make time to watch movies with them and talk about plots and characters in the light of faith.

G.K. Chesterton once observed that, ultimately, there is only one subject to talk about — God — and that he was able to use any situation as an occasion for discussing the faith. I feel the same way about movies. On Reel Faith, we have used the sci-fi thriller Inception to discuss free will; the family comedy Mr. Popper’s Penguins to comment on the tragedy of divorce; and the super hero flick Green Lantern as a jumping-off point to examine universal moral law.

This month will offer a slate of holiday movies, any number of which can provide opportunities for you to discuss some aspect of your faith with your spouse, children or co-workers. Make your choice carefully, but feel free to see a movie — you may find more to chew on than just popcorn.

DAVID DICERTO is a Catholic film critic and co-host of Reel Faith on NET TV.