Saturday, May 14, 2011

Good Film: Good Both in Art and Ethic

Every month at our parish we show a movie as part of the film club. This month we showed, "Life is Beautiful" (1997) directed by Roberto Benigni. It is one of Blessed Pope John Paul II's favorite films. Here is the English trailer.

It was said that when Blessed Pope John Paul watched the film, it brought tears to his eyes because it reminded him of his homeland experience in work camps and that it showed how to keep a noble joy amidst dehumanizing conditions.

The pope liked it, but what is a good movie? I remember not a few times where I got some recommendations from people about a movie they claimed was "great" and had a whole bunch of wonderful qualities, but when I watched it, it was either woefully lacking in the dialogue, meaning, and cinematography, OR it had dreadfully immoral parts in it that were an occasion for sin. On the other hand I have a bunch of Catholic nerd friends who think that we should promote ethical movies made by Catholics who are totally abhorent in their aesthetical content, what Barbara Nicalosi-Harrington, a Catholic Hollywood film specialist calls "at best, embarassing." A movie can be bad if it is terrible art or terrible situation for sin. So then,

What is a good movie?

Let me point out two things, according to Blessed Pope John Paul II, that makes for a "good" flick. In his teaching on the Theology of the Body, he has a teaching that is entitled, "The Ethos of the Body in Art and Media," (The first catechetical audience that discusses this was given on April 16, 1980) which I find is an excellent rule for discerning a good movie. He says when we look (aesthetical) upon art with the eyes, we should never separate the moral look (ethical) of the heart.

The word for look in Greek is aishanomai, which is the basis for the English word, aesthetic. This is a look of sensible quality, where a piece of art has certain characteristics of form, shape, realism, color, lighting, and meaning that a person says it is either good or bad art. Even though some might say that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," especially for a parent who appreciates the art of a child or who has some subjective reason to call a thing beautiful, there is a very real objective sense of what is considered good and beautiful. Otherwise we wouldn't be able to have Academy Awards, and certain paintings would not be sold for millions of dollars while others only claim to fame is to be fastened by magnets to the refrigerator. Because film is an art form that without certain qualities such as an intelligent and moving script, layers or subtlety of acting capability, beautiful perspective in cinematography, special effects if necessary, and others, you cannot call it a GOOD MOVIE.

On the other hand, there is also the ethical "look" of a movie. This refers to Jesus' teaching on the Sermon on the Mount where he says, "Whoever looks at a woman to desire her [in a reductive way] has already committed adultery with her in his heart," (Mt 5:27-28). Here we encounter humanity as in need of redemption, and also subject to temptation. We encounter the historical man who is still plagued by concupiscence, the lust of the flesh, who, when put in certain aesthetical contexts may easily sin when enticed by images of the body designed to portray lustful thoughts, acts, or feelings. Here too there is clearly an objective, measurable according to the science of ethics, morally GOOD MOVIE.

The trick is the combination of both of these at the same time. I have been the chaplain for university students, accompanied young people in youth groups, and a teacher of toddlers. Many times I have been asked "What is a GOOD MOVIE?" In order to come up with an objectively measurable way of combining both of these I use two measuring sticks.

1. Aesthetically GOOD MOVIE: Rotten - this is a compilation of hundreds of movie critics around the world who are added together and then averaged to a percentage. I don't know how hundreds of movie critics who make their living by allowing other people to trust their aesthical judgment on these matters could be wrong about the quality of art.

2. Ethically GOOD MOVIE - this is a service for parents who are concerned about the objectively measurable quality of the movie. It is rated on a scale from ten to one in three levels: Sex/Nudity, Violence/Gore, and Profanity. Thus a movie that could be ethically GOOD MOVIE or at least morally permissible would be a 1.2.1 while an immoral or a bad movie would be 10.9.10.

Combine both of these together, and I would challenge you to have anything but a GOOD MOVIE in both the aesthetical and ethical "look."

Yet, ultimately I find it is important is to have someone who has developed both of these looks to finally SCREEN IT and not be afraid to say NO to either scale.


  1. The question of an ethically good movie is a complex one... There are films that depict sin in a non-glorifying way that might be appropriate for an adult audience, but not for young kids or even teenagers.

    I think of films like 21 Grams or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

    In other words, I believe that the standard of "a film my whole family can enjoy together" does not cover the range of ethically good films. Cautionary tales, even some in the Hebrew scriptures, are not always G-rated.

    I think a helpful contribution to this discussion is Flannery O'Connor's essay, The Church and the Fiction Writer:

  2. I am so glad we are disgusting this issue! :]
    The younger generation--who are all about image FIRST--absolutely need things to be put together very well and for them to be aesthetically pleasing. The more I work with youth, the more I realize they won't even give you a hearing unless it looks good. They just won't. I think this has something to do with "the way of beauty." :]

  3. Great both of the comments so far reflect each of the bonum, or goods that I was addressing above. Clayton the ethic and Sr Burns the aesthetic. Hold fast to both!!! There was a movie that was released lately, called "There Be Dragons," which all my "Catholic nerd friends" are promoting and if you don't promote it watch out for the stones flying, but in reality I am hearing some horrible reviews about the thing, saying that we ought not hold that up as an example because it lacks any aesthetical value.