It has become almost a self-parodying habit of mainstream media outlets: if the calendar says the season is holy, then the headlines and activities are meant to mock and to shock. Every Advent brings theories meant to “explain” a virgin birth and brightly shining stars, and every Lent brings reruns of The DaVinci Code to cable outlets, and it’s all meant to seem daring and smart and provocative.
These efforts, by the way, sometimes incite outrage, mostly because some people are so predictably willing to be outraged when they could actually choose — like Christ himself — to be patiently instructive or sometimes even mildly amused.
In the case of Turner Classic Movies’ decision to spend the Thursdays leading up to Easter Sunday showcasing 27 films condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, the best choice might be mild amusement, with a willingness to learn something, and not least because a very media savvy (and often funny) Catholic sister will be introducing 17 of the movies.
Sister Rose Pacatte is the author of The Way: A Cinematic Retreat Guide and numerous film study guides. She is a Daughter of Saint Paul who, in keeping with that community’s charism, evangelizes through multiple platforms in modern media. She is also the founding director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies. With her lifelong exploration of media (she holds a master’s in Media Studies from the University of London), Sister Rose is eminently qualified to discuss both the history of the Legion of Decency and its effect on American Cinema, and to comment knowledgeably on the impact of film on society and, for that matter, on society’s impact on film-making.
In a telephone interview with the Catholic News Service, Sister Rose admitted she’d never seen most of the films. “They’re old,” she said, and “The hoopla and the outrage that they caused! They’re not even good movies. You can see that they’re most dominated by sex, and the Legion’s reaction to that in the context of the times — and everybody reacted, not just them.”
As with most things, context means everything. Modern films stretch limits of sexual imagery and depict ultra-violence that would once have been unimaginable not only to the Legion of Decency but to moviegoers themselves (although undoubtedly for some, objections and condemnations could make a film more, not less, alluring). Were the Legion in existence today, would their condemnations hold, or would a denounced film like 1957’s Love in the Afternoon, or the 1958 Brigitte Bardot launcher And God Created Woman be seen as an adult-themed journies that ultimately affirm traditional values? Referencing the Bardot film, Sister Rose notes, “After all [the main characters] go through — the violence, the passion — the two are going to marry and hold hands and walk into their little apartment together.”
Talking to Aleteia, the sister said, “Black Narcissus, L’Amore, M are all worthy films. Baby Doll was reevaluated in the ’80s and reclassified. L’Amore was passed by the Vatican censor before it ever got to the U.S. — this is the kind of info I am providing [with the TCM series]. I hope people will watch because this is not a takedown of the Legion of Decency but a look at history, the tension between the Church and Hollywood and how things have changed or developed.”
The headline “Catholic Nun Hosts Series of Condemned Movies” might be typical Lenten teasing from the media, but an examination of film, the Legion and society by an expert nun transcends any mischief. It may give us a great deal more to think about than a poorly wrought Dan Brown novel, particularly in the Year of Mercy, when the human journey is being examined with compassionate eyes, and especially under a sister’s guidance.
Elizabeth Scalia is U.S. editor-in-chief at Aleteia.org.