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HOLY MOUSEPAD: The modern Catholic movie critic

It's a pity that the Vatican's social communications official, Archbishop John Foley, has had to call off the Sydney visit he had planned for next week. He was going to inspect the various media enterprises in the Australian Church, and there are a number in which we are more impressive than those in some other parts of the world.

One of them is film criticism.

Some might remember the priest in the 1989 film Cinema Paradiso, set in post-war Italy, who previewed the films in the village's cinema and rang a bell to indicate the kissing scenes that the projectionist was required to cut from the print of the film.

Well the Church in Australia never had the hegemony required to exercise such unilateral censorship. Instead, it used to publish film classifications in the Catholic papers. The classifications briefed Catholics on which films which were morally uplifting, or at least morally neutral, and on those likely to corrupt. It was the product of a climate of fear that was consistent with the Cold War context. On-screen sex, and often even kissing, would place a film in one of the negative categories - to be seen 'with reservations', or 'with serious reservations', or 'advised against'.

While Melbourne's Dean Frederick Chamberlain was busy classifying films, a new breed of optimistic critic emerged in the person of Fr Peter Malone MSC, who began reviewing films for his order's Annals magazine in the early 1970s, and eventually went on to head the international Catholic media organisation Signis. In these heady days in the decades immediately following Vatican II, it seemed OK to see any movie as long as you talked about it. There were positive values and Christ motifs to be identified in just about every film.

Malone succeeded Dean Chamberlain as director of the Australian Catholic Film Office, and duly abolished classifications. After many years, he went overseas and was replaced by the Jesuit Fr Richard Leonard. By this time, there was a changed mood in the Church which invited, and perhaps even required, the redrawing of boundaries. In the few years he's had the job, Leonard has established a new regime that promotes serious, responsible consideration of films which successfully demonstrates that classifications are not desirable.

The best recent example of his work is the review of Brokeback Mountain, popularly described as the 'gay cowboy love story' that opened in cinemas late last month. The problem for the Catholic reviewer is that it's a spectacular film that is destined to be long regarded a classic depiction of the human condition. But at the same time it hinges on an approving presentation of a set of acts which the Church judges as intrinsically evil. Moreover the film comes at a time in history when there is a heightened assertion of this judgment.

Leonard has faced the challenge and produced a review that arms Catholics with questions to take to the film that will not only inoculate them against moral degradation, but quite likely have them come away from the film better Catholics. He argues that the film promotes not homosexuality, but instead a 'listening to gay people's stories' which he believes is preferable to 'the personal violence that often comes from anyone's secrets being hidden in the dark'. It's the light where honesty prospers, versus the darkness is where sin festers.

It would have been difficult for him to achieve this outcome within a regime of classifications, as the US Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting discovered. While the Australian Catholic Film Office has evolved from a system of classifications, the fundamentalist classifications remain the linchpin of the system in the USA. It's not surprising that many Catholics look at the classification and ignore the nuances in the explanation that may lead them to a more mature decision. Australian Catholics, on the other hand, are forced into making a mature decision by the absence of classifications.

In the case of Brokeback Mountain, the classification system has proved a debacle for the US Bishops. After his Office initially gave the film an 'L' (appropriate for a limited adult audience), the Bishops' Conference President Bishop William Skylstad gave in to the efforts of conservative lobbyists and switched the rating to the most extreme, 'O' (morally offensive).

Some would argue that the backflip on the part of the US Bishops is nothing more than a symptom of the loss of nerve occasioned by poor morale resulting from the sex abuse crisis. But it's more than that. They're yet to move beyond an outdated mechanism towards a more appropriate system of commentary that has allowed film criticism to prosper in the Australian Catholic Church.


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