The Catholic Film-makers

The Catholic Film-makers

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Featured Photo: Jim Morlino (l) and Daniel Rabourdin on location in France.

Film is the future. As anyone who works in social media can tell you, the present and future generations will learn primarily through video​  – online and on TV.

But what does this mean for catechesis? As education moves into the Video Age, REGINA asked several well-regarded Catholic film-makers in Europe, the United Kingdom, North America and Australia about their experience. This candid, roundtable interview – the first in a two-part series – is the result.

REGINA: It’s pretty clear that the present and future generations will learn primarily through video​ — online, on TV. Do you think the Catholic hierarchy is aware of this?

JIM MORLINO/USA: If they are, it would seem to me they have certainly not made it a priority.  Who is doing the communicating these days?  EWTN, Church Militant, Word on Fire, the Knights of Columbus, independent film makers – I do not know of a single major film initiative backed by the USCCB, or the Vatican – I could be wrong.

STEFANO MAZZEO/UK: I'm not sure that the hierarchy are fully aware of the opportunities presented by video, online or on TV to evangelise. In the past of course the Church used all the media aids it had available. Leading artists produced some of the greatest paintings of all time as learning aids, also great altarpieces, statues, beautiful frescos — in fact all the visual aids needed to help evangelise and teach the faith. We had and still have some of the finest music for praise and to aid devotion, and music is also very important to film.

The Church has not used television and film very well, and secularists have taken over the media. Many secular producers, directors and scriptwriters in the West have used the media, particularly television to become socially engaged. They have been extremely successful in changing society, including the undermining of the family.  They have used drama, current affairs programmes, and news, to create a multi-layer media platform to directly influence people's knowledge, values, and beliefs, often to the determent of Christianity. Therefore, they acted in an interventionist manner in the debates of today to the negation of natural law.

 

“I think that while many faithful Catholics have taken up the challenge and embraced the new mediums and formats to share and inform (such as Church Militant TV) , the Catholic hierarchy have been VERY slow off the mark and have failed to make any substantial impact.” – LIAM FIRMAGER, AUSTRALIA

LOIC LAWIN/FRANCE: Indeed, video plays a significant role in our modern society. Many dioceses and communities have understood that and resort to this media. However, we often see a lack of care in the production of those videos. In the effort of the Church to support the New Evangelization, the hierarchy should become aware of the strength of this media when used efficiently. This is not just a matter of quality but also creativity.

THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL KNEW THAT IN ORDER TO CHANGE SOCIETY THEY NEEDED TO UNDERMINE CHRISTIANITY and they developed what is known as Critical Theory.  Critical Theory drew upon Marxism and used the media to undermine virtually all the building blocks of western society, especially Christianity and the family. The Catholic Church had the Vatican II document Inter Mirifica as a blue print on how to use the latest media; unfortunately many of the hierarchy do not appear to have read Inter Mirifica and many Catholics seem to follow something like a nebulous ‘spirit of Vatican II' which sometime seems little different from Critical Theory.” STEFANO MAZZEO, UK

TOM DUNN/USA: I think the Catholic hierarchy is becoming more and more aware of this all the time.  I was recently part of a small group discussion with our new bishop here in San Diego, and he identified a primary challenge, not just for our diocese, but across the country, of reaching the 20-40 year old Catholic.  He indicated that it is a high priority amongst many of the Bishops he has spoken to. The most effective way of reaching this demographic is through the use of video and online content.  I think the main obstacle for them is knowing exactly what to do and who will do it for them.     

JOHN SOARES/USA: Audio/visual media, and I mean cinema primarily, is the art form of our age. It’s the only art form that literally combines all other major art forms at some stage of its production. While I do believe the Church's leadership is aware of this, I have no way of being sure whether or not they are capable of knowing what that means or how to use it.

DANIEL RABOURDIN/FRANCE & USA: Yes, but I think that most do not know how to respond to this change of communication. Or they respond in 2015 as the world used to respond in 1980. And we are almost all guilty of the same fault. Something keeps us from creating good art as Catholics.  The Protestants understand at least how to fund smart modern evangelization which includes film art. Catholics may have to give respect to culture, the art and pay a lot more for that and have a desire to evangelize. And before I continue let me state what I think too often is being produced:  we produce preachy, not natural, propaganda-like films. We do not allow ourselves to be artists who are Catholics. We are first Catholics who force themselves to be artists.

“They’re starting to realize this, but I think we have a long way to go.  The Protestant churches are ahead of us in this. Basically I think it is a failure to recognize how powerful the arts are as a tool of evangelization.  As always, we stumble along making mistakes, and the Holy Spirit works through our weak efforts.” LEONARDO DEFILIPPIS, USA

“Here is what I think is happening. We suffer from a wall that stands between our faith and our true life. We pray with a lot of precision, almost with superstition, but then we do not live the real life of every second as Christians. We are no different than other people. But it is this capacity to “live” differently in the world that would allow us to produce art with a Catholic soul, not propaganda. It has to come from the gut.” DANIEL RABOURDIN, USA/FRANCE

DANIEL RABOURDIN Why does a singer with anarchist, epicurean, nihilist values touch the population to the point where everyone sings their songs?  Because this singer expresses truly and well (technique is important) what comes out of his gut. The chords of his guitar express his true inner state with passion. People relate with true emotion , even if it goes in the wrong direction.  Now do we have artists who are Catholics in all moments of their life (even if they struggle)? I think that we have few because we cultivate a wall between faith and true life.  Yes, we say graces before we eat, but then we “stuff our face”.  Our spirituality does not shape our way to live. So there is little to say about the world from an emotional Catholic point of view. Our singing goes from the intellect to the song — written without passing by the senses. It is therefore dry and tasteless. But the more we incarnate our faith in the way we eat an egg and in the way we look at the ocean the more we are able to sing the world it in a true way. And people are touched.  I think that good Christian movie making is a matter of incarnation of the faith.

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ITALIAN FILM-MAKER FRANCESCA ELIA

FRANCESCA ELIA: Italian cinema has not ever had a “religious” genre. Even though the Vatican is in Italy, there isn’t any film director who has directed a movie about Catholicism. The great movies which were shot in the Italian movie studios of Cinecittà (The Bible, Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, The Robe, etc) were from American producers in Hollywood. They shot their movies in Italy, since Italian technical background was good and shooting a film in Italy was far cheaper. Nevertheless, in Italy there was a lack in the knowledge of the Scriptures.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, the only religious film shot in Italy was the series Don Camillo, based on the books of Giovannino Guareschi and directed by the French film maker Julien Duvivier. In fact, there were no Italian filmmakers who dared to go against the Communist Party, which controlled Italian cinema. There was only one Catholic who was brave enough to face up to Communist hegemony, Don Giacomo Alberione, a priest who saw radio, cinema and television as a new evangelization method. The Pope, Pius XII, gave him his support.  One Italian film director who distinguished himself by shooting merely religious movies (such as Brother Sun, Sister Moon about St.Francis) was Franco Zeffirelli.

Then, during the Seventies, film directors like Liliana Cavani or Pier Paolo Pasolini started to deal with the theme of the religion on their movies, but they broached it in a critical way, comparing it to social issues.

“There are Catholics who have risen to this challenge, but I think the Church's hierarchy needs to be much more directly involved, and likely are trying to figure out how. The great Catholic artists of our past should be the model for this. I think lay people need to take initiative of their own, but I also think the Church should ideally be officially commissioning some of these works. And they need to be works that compete with and surpass the other works of the age.” JOHN SOARES, USA

“The irony of it all is that study after study shows that family oriented G and PG rated films make more money (on average) than PG-13 and R rated films, and yet Hollywood continues to churn out increasingly vulgar fare – so it's not just a question of money.  I think there are many in Hollywood who simply have an agenda and an axe to grind.” JIM MORLINO, USA

 

REGINA: Can you point to any innovative film work being done under diocesan sponsorship or in the religious Orders?

LIAM FIRMAGER: No, unfortunately, I cannot.

LEONARDO DEFILIPPIS: I don’t have any familiarity with this subject.

LOIC LAWIN: There are probably better examples but I recently visited the web site of the Abbey of Solesmes and I saw a video showing the abbey filmed by drones. This technology is not new but it has been really improved and is now becoming a major tool. The result is really appealing — it allows us to discover this abbey from a new perspective and reveals all the beauty of the architecture. This video made me want to visit the abbey. This is only a small example of what can be achieved.

JIM MORLINO: Christopher Baker is doing some wonderful things for the Archdiocese of Washington, and I'm sure there must be other examples on the diocesan level, but these have yet to break out on a national, let alone international level that I am aware of.

JOHN SOARES: Most of what I've seen has been work done on personal initiative, which I think is great. Some of my favorite work has been done by Father Robert Barron (now Bishop Elect Barron.) I've always appreciated the work of Grassroots Films and Spirit Juice Studios. I've seen very little narrative work that's been done under any kind of diocesan sponsorship, but that doesn't mean that it isn't being done. 

DANIEL RABOURDIN: The French diocese in Frejus-Toulon facilitates the production of short faith messages for the web. It is made possible by an interesting situation: the diocese lends studio space in their Seminary because it has become emptier. So the place is put to good use and the crew can build a studio. The production crews are free because they belong to a lay Catholic community from Brazil (Cancao Nova). They live in community even if married and have very low salaries.

FRANCESCA ELIA: In Italy, all commercial films are funded by the State, and this is the reason why they are strongly political. The financing from the Italian Government is homogeneous and follows socio-political standards. For example, if the main issue of the period is the presence of the Chinese, Italy’s government will consider only these movies which are about the matter of the Chinese. Vatican City has a thirty-year agreement with the film-producing company Lux Vide (which has Saudi investors as well), specialized in movies about religion. They produced a series of movies based on the Old Testament and a great number of movies about the life of the Saints, such as San Padre Pio. These movies are only on TV, without being shown in the cinemas. Moreover, Lux Vide produces Don Matteo, a comedy TV series about a village priest who at the same time is also an investigator.  

“The Diocese of Frejus-Toulon in France has been creative; they identified who could provide what to create results. And it comes with sacrifices from those people who are used to making sacrifices and who give all for the Kingdom.  It also shows that we do not need the Church to give money. Everybody can be creative and participate with whatever we can offer. Even a public blessing from a Bishop has a lot of value.DANIEL RABOURDIN

“In my capacity as professor at John Paul Catholic University, I have had a number of inquiries over the past years from diocese, parishes and faithful apostolates across the county looking for graduates whom they can employ to help them create more media and establish a platform in the social media world.  Also, one only has to look to the work of Father Baron and the success of his media projects, and also of Father Roderick Vonhogen and the success of his podcast network, to see successful examples of the potential of media within our faith and its effective use. “    TOM DUNN, USA

 

STEFANO MAZZEO: Well yes of course the biggest religious TV network in the world was founded by a nun, Mother Angelica and her order the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration. And today, although Mother has turned the network over to lay people it still has priests resident along with the Friars. It also has one of the largest resources of Traditional Latin Masses which can be downloaded.

 

“DURING THE EARLY 13TH CENTURY ST DOMINIC MET CATHARS for the first time. So shocked was he by their beliefs he formed the Order of Preachers to try and help these unfortunate heretics back to the Church. The Cathars believed that contraception, abortion, homosexual acts and euthanasia were all good, as they either prevented life or ended it. Their moral beliefs are similar to today's Culture of Death as coined by St John Paul II. Mother Angelica knew how to use the media and so do EWTN, but this is just one station in a world awash with mediated militant secularism, we need an EWTN in every country. So Catholic countries do have the own TV stations and perhaps Bishops Conferences should plough more resources into video.  I would also say we need a St Dominic or Francis or Ignatius today to lead a new order dedicated to and understanding how to use the media, especially TV and video to counter the sexual revolution of the last 50 years. To bring the Gospel to a new generation of post-modern ‘Cathars'.STEFANO MAZZEO

REGINA: Stories of the saints make great cinema and have been successfully made into mainstream films in the past. What has changed in Hollywood that such stories are no longer bankable?

FRANCESCA ELIA: Hollywood looks for politically-correct movies because it has a mass demand; that’s why it has no more interest in shooting films entirely dedicated to Catholicism. The greatest example is the movie Cristiada, starring Andy Garcia. Even though this film had an enormous success, the Vatican itself criticized it, saying its Catholic connotation was too strong. For that reason, not one Italian distribution company released it, except for Dominus, which is private. For me, nowadays it is absolutely necessary to employ the great mass media to spread the Truth, even because pictures are far more effective than words. The majority of priests are no longer able to explain the Gospels in an effective way. And, when Italian TV broadcasts Bernadette, the 1943 movie with Jennifer Jones, it attracts a huge audience.

LEONARDO DEFILIPPIS: The culture has changed.  For many years, when Catholics were immigrants, they were not accepted in mainstream society.  As Catholic immigrants became more prosperous and successful, culminating in the election of Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, they achieved social acceptability in a culture that was fairly compatible with Catholic teaching. Divorce, contraception and sex outside of marriage were frowned upon by other religions as well, and generally Americans shared the same values. In addition, a certain exotic romance was associated with Catholic saints and religious characters, which made their stories in Hollywood films attractive, even to Protestant audiences.  Now, however, Catholics are isolated in their world view from the rest of secular society.  We live, essentially, in a post-Christian era, where values are treated, in the very least, as backward, and at worst as destructive of progressive ideas of freedom and individuality. But, in spite of this, the hunger for truth in the human spirit endures. 

“The strength and conviction of the saints continues to attract people, in spite of the prejudices of society. So, actually, I think the time is ripe for really honest portrayals of saints.  People no longer see saints in films as the ultimate fulfillment of the society in which they live, but rather they see them for who they really are – radical, courageous heroes who are not afraid to stand up for what they believe, and die for it.  Young people, especially, are bored with sports, entertainment, and political heroes. They’re looking for something more – something that gives life true meaning and brings true and lasting happiness.  Only Jesus Christ can do that.” LEONARDO DEFILLIPIS

 

The Song of Bernadette won four Oscars, but that was way back in 1943, in a “kinder, gentler time” when faith, and Religion were not only tolerated in Hollywood, but celebrated.  I don't want to whine or play the victim card here, but I can only assume it must be a simple reflection of the state of the current culture: the rise of modernism, relativism, and the consequent de-emphasis of religion in general, and Christianity in particular.  European and independent film makers continue to produce hagiographic works (Restless Heart, Anthony, etc.)  but when Hollywood decides to do a big budget, A-list  “Religion” film, the results are often mixed (Noah, anyone?).”JIM MORLINO

“Some films about saints are still produced but they are mainly for TV. It is obvious that those films are becoming more and more rare in the movie theaters. The lives of saints are very inspiring and can make great stories but you cannot ignore the role that Faith played in their lives. Their lives are testimonials of Faith. I guess this is why the mainstream industry is no longer interested in carrying those projects out.” LOIC LAWIN/PARIS

 

“Hollywood is fundamentally driven by ticket sales. It is not their failing nor indeed a concerted effort to expunge Catholic themes from the big screen, but our disunity as Catholics and our loss of collective identity which has harmed its theatrical potential. Hollywood is still very much willing to explore biblical-themed films – but takes a wholly amoral approach to faith- based films. If they feel it has the potential to translate into $$$ … then the next ‘Song of Bernadette’ is just around the corner.” LIAM FIRMAGER

JOHN SOARES: I don't believe that the stories of the Saints are no longer bankable. What I think is really going on there is that “Hollywood” is generally run by people who range from being hostile toward religion to utterly ignorant of it. This doesn't mean they don't see the possibility for making profits off of religiously themed films. I have some modest experience in this business that tells me that the studios would make anything if they thought it would make them some money. Even if it told a story that challenged their own outlook.

TOM DUNN: The stories are still bankable, but what is lacking is an executive willing to take a gamble on them.  Filmmaking is such a high risk venture that no one in management is interested in taking a chance on something that hasn't been done successfully in decades.  That is why sequels and superheroes are so prevalent – they bring with them a built- in audience.  It's not like sixty years ago when the studios were making hundreds of more films a year and film could be completely made within a few months. Today it takes close to a year and a half and north of sixty million to make the average film.  There's no room for risk.  It's mostly about money and hitting the numbers and doing what has worked in the past.  

  

“We live in a very sexualised society and although many saints have had large families this is not what the world is interested it. Hollywood, and most of the modern main stream media has divorced sex from procreation, families, especially traditional families no longer interest them, and are even deemed as bad. “ STEFANO MAZZEO (left, on location by the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome)

STEFANO MAZZEO: ‘Critical Theory' has taken over the mind set of Hollywood where traditional marriage is disparaged, plots are contrived to feminise men and masculinise women,  and if a script doesn't have a ‘kickass' girl as a leading lady then sometimes it will not make it off the page. It can make men feel that as we are no longer needed or wanted to protect our wives and children. Women can do it all for themselves, so men can just stay home have a beer and watch the football on TV or be patted on the head and sent out to play, and many do just this. However, I firmly believe it is possible that by the use of the Gospel and the traditions of the Church we can turn Critical Theory on its head. Take any plot and put a faithful Catholic in there and see what happens.

DANIEL RABOURDIN: Maybe because we imagine saints as uniformly sweet and tasteless. But think of Padre Pio. He could have a temper, he did not smile much, he could dress like a bum. Yet he was obedient to his sometimes harsh hierarchy.  I mean that we should be willing to create multidimensional characters. Not be afraid of showing what is imperfect so that what is perfect is believable and lovable. Then the stories would start being appealing. And we should learn from the best in the industry. Learn from Hollywood. Take classes. Respect knowledge in script writing.

“What I think is really happening is that making Catholic movies is something that Hollywood is not always exactly sure how to do. It’s a subject that they don't understand and actually stepping into that genre requires them to work blindly to a certain extent and trust others based on a simple promise that they know how to tell such a story and how to bring in that audience. The result is pretty hit and miss since I think there aren't many people in that system who really get the point behind any given religious story.” JOHN SOARES

 

BIOGRAPHIES

TOM DUNN began his professional career in 1989 on the Paramount Studios lot working for Entertainment Tonight in the post-production department. Since then he has gone on to produce and direct over a thousand television commercials, documentaries, sports, entertainment and news stories and was a producer of the 2011 feature film Redline.  In 2005 he started the film program at John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego, and currently chairs the School of Media Communications.  

JOHN SOARES is an editor at Dreamworks Animation who has spent the last seven years making over an hour and forty minutes of content for his own live action adventure web series. His work is an interpretation of his personal view of a fallen world as he sees it from inside the the Sacred Tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. He wrote, directed, produced and acted in all 13 episodes of THE DANGER ELEMENT 

JIM MORLINO is president of Navis Pictures.  His film, The War of the Vendee won “Best Director” from the JPII International Film Festival in Miami, and “Best Film for Young Audiences” from the Mirabile Dictu International Catholic Film Festival at the Vatican.  Jim and his family live in Danbury, CT.

DANIEL RABOURDIN spent a stable childhood in Provence and acquired his Masters in Thomistic Philosophy at the Sorbonnes. After 18 years as a producer with Mother Angelica at EWTN he is bringing to Hollywood the story of the massive Catholic resistance to the atheistic Reign of Terror of the French Revolution.

STEFANO MAZZEO, born in Cornwall, works for EWTN as an independent film maker. His first film Wales, the Golden Thread of Faith was a coproduction with the Latin Mass Society.  For The Crusades he won the Polish Maximilian Kolbe award. His last documentary was on the Chartres Pilgrimage.

LIAM FIRMAGER is an Australian film director who has been busily directing films, documentaries, television commercials & music videos over the past decade. He and his family are members of the Parish of Blessed John Henry Newman in Melbourne, Australia.

LEONARDO DEFILLIPIS:  Actor and producer, maker of both live and film productions, most notably the feature film Thérèse, which has been by millions of people across the globe.  Current touring productions include Faustina: Messenger of Divine Mercy, Vianney, and Maximilian: Saint of Auschwitz, and a new live drama on the first African-American priest, Father Augustus Tolton, opening this January.  Watch trailers at their website 

LOIC LAWIN: After graduating from the Sorbonne with a Master’s degree in filmmaking, Loïc Lawin started to work in the French film industry as an assistant location manager and a production assistant. Drawing on his experience, he founded the production company Les Films du Lutrin in 2014. The same year, he produced and directed his first documentary film

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