WHY HOLLYWOOD NEEDS A SPIRITUALITY OF ITS OWN
Barbara Nicolosi Looks Through a Window of
VALENCIA, Spain, MAY 27, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Is there
life for Christian cinema in the wake of "The Passion of the Christ"?
Barbara Nicolosi thinks so.
The founder of Act One, a Christian scriptwriters
group in Hollywood, gave an overview of the movie-and-television industry,
and the hopes she sees for the Church in its mission of evangelization.
Here is an excerpt of an address she gave at the Catholic University of
Valencia in mid-May.
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Reasons For Hope From Hollywood
by Barbara Nicolosi
I do not often have the opportunity to speak to
audiences that bring together both sides of my personal reality as both a
Catholic and a filmmaker. Sadly, there have been far too few of this kind
of discussions in the Catholic Church. For many reasons, including a kind
of intellectual elitism, Catholic scholars have been slow to appreciate
the power of cinema as both an art form and as a means of evangelization.
I will talk today about a few recent movements in the
secular entertainment industry, and how these might be positive for the
Church. I want to demonstrate why the Church should embrace this art form
as a powerful gift of God, using as an example "The Passion of the
Christ." Then, I will suggest some areas in which the Church can help
In January 2003, I got a call from a woman who was
recently profiled in the Writers Guild of America magazine as one of the
top 10 women in television. As the executive producer and head writer on a
hit TV show, this woman belongs to an elite club of people on the whole
planet. Her prime-time CBS show gets a weekly audience in the States of
around 20 million people, and globally probably twice that many more.
The gist of her call to me was that after 20 years of
a completely secular life in mainstream show business, she wanted somebody
to talk to her about Jesus. She said to me in our first meeting, "Frankly,
I'm just exhausted with unbelief. I just can't keep it up anymore."
The attack of 9/11 certainly played a role in this
woman's search for meaning, as it has for countless others particularly in
the American entertainment industry. But beyond the simple urge to seek
answers to the murderous hatred of Islamic terrorists half a world away,
this woman was reflecting a positive sea-change that is sweeping through
the American baby-boomer generation in general, and the Hollywood
entertainment industry in particular.
After 40 years of being ravaged by the license of the
Sexual Revolution, and just as many years rejecting any and all connection
to any authority
whether it was the Church, state, or just the simple wisdom of the ages
there is a growing exodus in search of rest. They are exhausted with
unbelief and its ideological stepchildren: hedonism, cynicism, alienation,
This exhaustion is being manifest on the sound stages
and in the executive offices of Hollywood as a new openness to spiritual
themes. A friend of mine is the creator of this season's biggest new
television hit "Joan of Arcadia." When she pitched the idea to CBS, she
said to the network executives with some trepidation, "Now, there is a lot
of God in this show." The executives shocked her by replying with
enthusiasm, "God is good. We like God." Believe me, even just four years
ago, God was not "good" at CBS or any other major network offices.
All of the major prime-time dramas have been
exploring more and more overt religious themes. Any prime-time special
that features any kind of religious angle is certain to garner good to
The cinema side has also been experiencing a
spiritual awakening. "Bruce Almighty" was one of the top five movies of
2003. "A Walk to Remember," a positive portrayal of a Christian teen-ager,
brought in a huge profit at the box-office. And of course, the box-office
success of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and now "The Passion of the
Christ" (which, in Hollywood, we all just call, "The Movie") are the stuff
of industry legend. Other recent films while not being overtly religious,
do demonstrate a profound rejection of the lies of postmodernism. Films
like "In America," "Lost in Translation," "Changing Lanes," "In the
are just a few examples of this new exhaustion with the legacy of
From a creative standpoint, this is a happy trend for
filmmakers like us who unite our passion for cinema with a passion for
God. Any producer can get a hearing from Hollywood right now if they say,
"I have a movie for the audience who loved 'The Passion.'"
Of course, part of this is because nobody in
Hollywood understands who the audience for The Movie is, and what it was
about The Movie that they so loved so much. One studio executive confessed
his frustration about "The Passion" at a recent party I attended. He said,
"I don't get it. Aren't Christians the people who hate violence in the
movies? Well, this movie is a two-hour execution, and they like it?"
There is a warning for us religious filmmakers in
this moment. While this new openness to spiritual truths is an exciting
opportunity, it also carries a huge creative challenge.
The fact is, movies about transcendent realities,
that are not really great works of art, tend to be really, really
terrible. Movies about faith and spirituality that are not haunting and
profound, tend to be insulting over-simplifications. Movies about the
conflict between good and evil that are not intense and grueling, tend to
be sickeningly sentimental and easy. Movies about the search for meaning
that are not probing and insightful tend to be laughable and pretentious.
This kind of movie is best made by those who are
mature as filmmakers and believers. One of the reasons "The Passion" is
such an overwhelming film, is because it has both technical mastery and
profound content. Despite Hollywood's eagerness to serve "the audience of
'The Passion,'" we aren't going to see another film like it until we see
another filmmaker who, like Mel Gibson, actually believes this God stuff.
Not what things look like
Another reason for hope in Hollywood is related to
the search for the spiritual, which comes down to a rejection of the idea
of a completely material universe.
A hundred years ago, the greatest American poet,
Emily Dickinson, made a journey through doubt and materialism to come to
the conclusion, "This World is Not Conclusion." She was talking about more
than simply the notion of immortality. She meant that reality goes beyond
the stuff we see, the material things that surround us. There is an
artistic movement crowding in on Hollywood which is pushing this idea more
and more. It is changing cinema, or in many ways, restoring cinema to its
roots in the lyrical, poetic imagery of the Silent Screen.
I call this movement the "Don't Show How Things Look,
Tell Us What They Mean" Movement. It is being driven very much by a young
crop of directors who made their way into the business through the music
video world. Music video is all about what things mean, as opposed to how
The best music video directors freely distort real
colors, shapes, dimensions and points of view, in an effort to complement
and interpret a song. Rejecting the gritty demand for realism of the
baby-boomer filmmakers, these young filmmakers are pushing for a cinematic
lyricism that could mirror and echo the emotional power of music. Films
that reflect this movement include "Donnie Darko," "Levity" and TV shows
like HBO's "Carnivale."
The films we are starting to see from this new
generation tends to reject the suggestion that limitless sex leads to
freedom or happiness. They tend to have a sadness about relationships that
is appropriate considering what they have been through as the children of
"sexually liberated" parents. My friend, screenwriter Craig Detweiler,
calls these filmmakers "a generation in exile, singing sad songs of
Jerusalem." Films that exemplify this movement are "Lost in Translation"
and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."
This is a great opportunity for the Church. We are
all about the sacramental sense in which everything we see points to a
reality we can't see. Chesterton said that, "The secular writer is
confined to what he sees. The Christian writer speaks about what is really
It is for us to respond to this new generation of
filmmakers yearning for meaning. We need our theologians and then
educators to translate the "theology of the body" for the creative
community, so they can bring it to their art, and then expand our
understanding, in the way that Pope John Paul II has called art "a source
Power of "The Passion"
Undeniably, the release and astounding global success
of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" has been the most significant
event for the Church in Hollywood and in cinema probably ever. "The Movie"
has everybody in the industry rethinking many long-standing assumptions
about the global audience.
It has many people in the Church rethinking their
long-held assumptions about screen violence and the potential power for
good of cinema. It is outside my scope to spend too much time here on
this, but I do want to run down some of the ways the movie is opening
doors in Hollywood and in the Church that could be very positive in the
Three days before "The Passion" opened in the States,
the industry trade magazines predicted, "This movie might even make $30
million in its first week." Actually, the movie made $27 million on its
first day. It went on to make $127 million in its first week.
The main impact of the film in the industry is that
it has created an awareness that there are huge numbers of people out
there who went to this movie, but who generally don't go to the theaters.
How to get "the audience of 'The Passion'" back to the theaters is now an
agenda item for all the studios. Of course, they don't know what we
Christians want to see, but they will be open now to create product for
our consumption. This is probably good.
I never thought I would live to see Jesus,
beautifully and devoutly rendered, carrying his cross on network
television. I was astounded every time I saw a commercial for The Movie
run at any hour of the day. I was at a restaurant with some friends one
night and they had a television over the bar. Suddenly, an ad for "The
Passion" came on, and everyone in the bar fell silent in a weird kind of
awe and respect. I started to cry.
Beyond the power of the film itself, "The Passion"
brought God out of our churches and into the center of mainstream culture.
He was front and center, in his most compelling posture as Lamb of God,
and many millions of his sheep heard his voice
some for the first time.
Undeniably, this has been an opportunity for dialogue
and evangelization that the Church has rarely experienced before. As the
Pope has said, "The Church would be sadly remiss" if she were to ignore
the potential of the cultural marketplace, and I would add especially
after "The Passion" phenomenon.
What's needed from the Church
Last year, I was interviewed by the magazine of the
Writers Guild of America. The reporter asked me, "What do Christians bring
to the table in Hollywood, such that, we non-Christians would miss if you
It is a great question that Christians in every
discipline need to ask themselves. "What defines a Christian as a doctor?
As a scientist? As a teacher?" If our faith is true, it has something to
say about every aspect of human life.
I have noted above, that the Church can help the
industry find real meaning for realities like human sexuality, violence,
good and evil, the yearning for the transcendent, human personhood, the
importance of the family, etc. I want to end with two specific things that
the secular industry needs from the Church, that, to answer the question
of the journalist last year, will be sadly missing from the world of
entertainment if we do not bring them to the fore.
Spirituality for artists
The first is a specific spirituality for artists.
There are very specific spiritual challenges that creative people have to
go through to bring, what the Pope calls, "new epiphanies of beauty" into
the world. Their first cross is their craft which will demand many
sacrifices of time, labor, study, isolation.
In order to bring beauty into the world, an artist
will have to descend to the darkest, loneliest places in themselves. Their
art will have more power insofar as it is, what writer Flannery O'Connor
called, "A wrestling with their angels and demons, not certain if they
will come out of the struggle at all."
Artists have to abide in the suffering of
insufficiency, that the work of their hands is never as potent as was
their original vision. Their lives will be characterized by instability,
poverty and then possibly the burden of celebrity. In an average year, a
professional actor, writer, singer or artist will face more rejection than
most people do in their lifetime. It is a lonely and painful process
especially because artists tend to be more sensitive souls as it is. Many
of them find ways to cope in drugs, sex, alcohol, because they have no
Jesus to whom they could bring their burden.
We need to help these artists carry the cross of the
vocation to beauty. We need to give them spiritual strategies, a practical
theology, ethical training and then, we have to be big enough to let them
be who they are
little crazy, a little needy sometimes, but also the bearers of many
wonderful gifts to the whole world.
An ethics of art
Secondly, Hollywood needs help from us in crafting an
ethics of art and entertainment. Without giving artists a list of "Thou
Shalt Nots" that they will just ignore anyway, we can still have an impact
by reminding them of the huge potential for good that is in their hands
through the cinema.
The cinema can make people want to be heroes. It can
connect us to each other through the pathos of drama and the joy of
comedy. The cinema can draw us into solidarity with those who suffer and
leads us to want to make a better world.
The ethical question to put to artists is, "If you
have the power in your hands to do all these good things, isn't it an
ethical problem if you choose not to do them? Isn't that the secular man's
biggest complaint against God
that he doesn't use his power to circumvent evil?"
We need to help the industry move from the famous
"right to privacy" towards a sense of sacredness for the human person that
is both the object and then the receiver of cinema. The Church could posit
a definition of healthy entertainment that would flow from the desire to
promote authentic human freedom and development. What kind of cinema helps
humans grow? What kind of cinema coarsens the human soul and retards our
The corporate machine that drives Hollywood will
never stop to brood over these questions, but the artistic community which
also has tremendous power is hungry for guidance, and has a passionate
longing to make a positive impact on the world. There are many
opportunities for the Church in this moment. The only question is, do we
have the energy, hope and pastoral love to take them?