Does Hollywood get religion right? Critics’ reactions vary

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Does Hollywood get religion right when it makes movies? The answers are almost as diverse as the cinematic fare coming to mall multiplexes.

"Some people do their homework and get it right; other people exploit it," said Paulist Father Frank Desiderio, head of Paulist Productions and overseer of the Humanitas Prize.

"If you mean the studios, then no they don't," said Barbara Nicolosi, who runs the Act One screenwriting program for Christians who aspire to a Hollywood career. "Studios are not in the habit of hiring people of faith to either write, direct or be in any creative capacity for projects that involve religion."

"In the old days, Hollywood would bend over backward not to offend," said Harry Forbes, director of the U.S. bishops' Office for Film & Broadcasting; Forbes defined "old days" as "from the dawn of sound through the '60s." While that era may have been inaccurate by portraying "an overly idealized view of religious types," he added, "that is preferable to a disparaging view of religion, as you often get today."

In separate telephone interviews with Catholic News Service, Forbes, Nicolosi and Father Desiderio offered their views on Hollywood's successes and shortcomings in portraying religion on the big screen.

The interviews were prompted by the impending release of The Da Vinci Code, a movie based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Dan Brown, a work criticized for its treatment of Catholic figures and institutions.

"Hollywood knew there was money to be made from striking that grand religious chord" in films such as "The Robe," "Ben-Hur," "The Ten Commandments," and Bing Crosby's "Father O'Malley" movies, "Going My Way" and "The Bells of St. Mary's," Forbes noted.

A modern example of a positive portrayal of faith, Forbes told CNS, is "Ladder 49," a 2004 film about firefighters and the bonds they share.

It had "a fairly extraordinary, for this day and age, portrayal of a Catholic societal subculture, where everyone in that film -- all blue-collar working-class firemen -- were clearly Catholic. Throughout the film many of the rituals, from baptisms to weddings ... , were very nicely dramatized," he said.

"There was one particularly heart-stopping moment when Joaquin Phoenix walked into Mass on Christmas Eve after a fire, and it was a beautiful moment," Forbes added. "It couldn't have lasted more than 20 or 30 seconds, but it made you forget how little of that there is in movies today."

Father Desiderio said Barbara Hall, the Catholic woman who created "Joan of Arcadia," which ran on CBS for two seasons, was "the best recent example of someone who got it right." He also pointed to James Cromwell's guest appearance a few years ago on NBC's "ER" as a chronically ill bishop and Rita Moreno's nun-social worker character on the old HBO series "Oz" as two examples where Hollywood got it right.

But he said there are also significant failures, including the recent NBC drama "The Book of Daniel," in which the Episcopal clergyman of the title has an Italian Catholic priest as a friend. "He needs a favor and he goes to the Catholic priest, and the Catholic priest goes to the Mob and gets the favor -- which I found offensive, as an Italian Catholic priest," Father Desiderio said.

Nicolosi said ABC missed "the entire theological heart of the Moses story" in its recent miniseries "The Ten Commandments" with its cursory treatment of the first Passover. "The people who make this movie, they don't believe this stuff and they don't get the most important stuff," she said.

Even the film blockbuster "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which was "very good for what it was," Nicolosi said, "didn't pack the punch it could have" because the screenwriters "didn't get Aslan," a lion character viewed by readers of C.S. Lewis' novel as a Christ figure.

Nicolosi said she dreaded the May 19 release of The Da Vinci Code, and on her Web log has advocated an "othercott." Rather than simply boycott the movie, she has exhorted others to see Over the Hedge, the only other movie getting nationwide distribution that is opening the same weekend as Da Vinci. Over the Hedge is an animated offshoot of the newspaper comic strip about woodland critters' encounters with creeping suburbia.

"We choose not to prejudge it before it comes out," Forbes said of The Da Vinci Code. "Anyone is within their rights to get into high dudgeon about the book," he added, for its treatment of theology "couched as fact."

"The movie's going to come and go," Father Desiderio said. "I've got my opinions on (Da Vinci novelist) Dan Brown's agenda, but there are so many people who've written anti-Dan Brown books they don't need me (commenting on it)."

Copyright (c) 2006 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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