Monday, May 16, 2011

Catholic Church: sexy or scary?

I saw the Hollywood vampire film Priest yesterday and was amused to see its depictions of apparently Christian clergy. In Priest these clergy, male and female, have a crucifix tattoed across their brows and wear hoods and long jackets. These are impressive, threatening characters, dark with memories of their bloody part in the war on vampires, shunned by nervous laypeople. In action they are skilled martial artists, ruthless killers of the undead.

The Church to which these men and women belong dominates this post-war world, with crucifixes or sun crosses omnipresent throughout the city, along with constant reminders that: 'To go against the Church is to go against God'. This is fantasy that little resembles reality. But 'the Church' here is stylistically similar to the Catholic Church: hierarchal, celibate, and prone to wearing black.

Of course these bloodthirsty clerics have nothing in common with modern Catholics clergy, but Hollywood has a history of depicting the Catholic Church like this. A popular theme is the Church's role in dealing with occult dangers, with films like End of Days, The Exorcist and The Omen putting Catholic clergy into the front line of an eternal battle with demons. In End of Days we see Hollywood's love of a kick-ass, conspiratorial Church, as a group of Catholic zealots called the 'Vatican Knights' attempt to murder the woman destined to give birth to the Antichrist.

Catholic imagery features heavily in many vampire film, where crucifixes and holy water keep the beasts at bay. Catholicism's medieval heritage of grand gothic cathedrals and elaborate rituals serve modern fantasy-horror directors with spectacular backdrops for fighting vampires. In Van Helsing the demon-hunter is authorised to kill monsters by the Catholic Church and is accompanied by a Catholic friar-inventor, armed to the teeth with anti-occult weapons. In one scene Van Helsing dips his automatic crossbow into a font of holy water to successfully shoot down a vampire.

Hellboy features muscular Catholicism too, as Hellboy himself carries Catholic rosary (prayer) beads and his adopted father Broom is a Catholic. Even the 2009 Spanish horror film Rec2 imagines a Catholic conspiracy in which an attempt to create a vaccine against demonic possession instead causes the outbreak of a contagious zombie-like demonism.

Hollywood's attraction to Catholicism in these fantasy movies is understandable. This is an ancient, visually-impressive organisation, with mystery lingering about the inner workings of the Vatican: ripe for conspiracy theories and fantastical rumour. Folk traditions of some Catholic populations took seriously the dangers of fairies and witchcraft. Finally the Catholic Church still authorises exorcisms and supports the idea that real divine miracles can happen, intriguing concepts to these fantasy-horror film-makers.

Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code continues with the narrative of a Church struggling with internal corruption, conspiracy and fanaticism. The Church is shown as having massive political clout, even in secular France. Da Vinci Code features a mad, murderous albino monk who Church insiders use to kill enemies: that is, just having killer monks wasn't enough, they had to be albino! Often films like these talk vaguely about 'The Church' without specifying the Roman Catholic Church, skimming over the Reformation and earlier schisms that divorced a huge proportion of Christians from Rome. They also ignore the decisive shift towards secularism throughout the developed world, preferring to imagine an almighty Church still pulling strings behind the powers that be, even while church attendances continues to freefall.

All this bears no resemblence to the Catholicism I'm familiar with, which in modern Ireland is often bland and undramatic. People go to Mass, mumble the prayers they learned as a child, stand, sit, kneel, half-listen to elderly priests giving vague sermons about being good, and then go home. Most of the priests I've come across are pleasant enough, friendly and inoffensive. Far from the fist-shaking zealots of old, these guys tend to be lacking in confidence a bit, and generally advocate common sense approaches to morality: treat other people well, try to be a bit humble, forgive people who wrong you, consider your own flaws. Far from denouncing sexual activity as their predecessors apparently did, these priests tend to avoid mention of it altogether. Sex is awkward and to be ignored if possible!

Anyone, Catholic or not, can wander into a church and see what Catholic Mass looks like, for free, with no pressure or expectation to convert. The rituals that might seem odd to outsiders (like the question put to Catholic Mass-goers: 'do you reject Satan?' 'I do.' 'And all his works?' 'I do.') become unremarkable with repetition. I do hear occasional complaints of old-school priests still intolerant of other faiths and of modern hedonism, but the ones I've come across are usually polite and eager to please. No more witch-burning, Inquisitions or Crusades, and only an ever-weakening impact on public policy.

That cool image of Catholic clergy as all-powerful conspirators or the secret defence against Satan, dressed eternally in sleek black, faces an uncomfortable rival. This second depiction is less flattering, as it refers again and again to Catholic clergy as sexual predators, especially paedophiles.

In V for Vendetta Natalie Portman's character dresses as a child, all frills and pigtails, to seduce the Bishop Lilliman in order to kill him. The Bishop, corrupt to the bone, attempts to rape her before V intervenes and tortures him to death. The actual denomination of this Bishop is unclear though the Church seems to play a role similar to that in Priest, an all-powerful branch of government which, after all, has as a motto: 'Strength through unity, unity through faith'.

(Weirdly, the real Guy Fawkes was a radical Catholic who attempted to destroy Britain's Protestant parliament in favour of a Catholic monarch. This would have been a devestating act of terrorism and a blow in favour of the 17th century Catholic Church.) V for Vendatta repeats the familiar theme of a creepily powerful Christian, perhaps Catholic, Church, with the other theme of clerical perversion thrown in for good measure.

This year's Sucker Punch rather puzzlingly repeats this narrative. Sucker Punch is a mixture of events and the character's fantasies, and it's quite confusing to tell them apart. An orphan is sent by her barbaric stepfather into a lunatic asylum. At that point, however, the stepfather appears as a lecherous priest, the asylum transforms into a brothel. It is just a moment, long enough to stamp that old narrative of the abusive, hypocritical priest onto the film.

Sin City dabbles with the narrative, as the corrupt and murderous Cardinal Roark is connected by family to a corrupt senator and a murdering paedophile. The Cardinal keeps as a companion a serial killer and cannibal called Kevin, tying together the twin themes of Catholic conspiracy and child abuse.

Depictions of Catholic clergy being perverse and especially prone to raping children is understandable in films like Song For a Raggy Boy or Meryl Streep's impressive Doubt, when the drama around these crimes make up the films' central stories. There have been abusive priests in reality, and real internal Catholic conspiracies to cover the truth.

Yet fantasy-action films like Sin City need not tie Catholicism in with child abuse. The attraction for cinema probably comes from a mix of the visual aspect - Catholic clergy draped in robes and rings, signs of authority and opulence - and the pleasuable scandal of hypocrisy. Since priests are supposed to be men of God and celibate, their deviations into sexual perversion are more horrific and captivating than those of others.

All in all, depictions of Catholicism in American mainstream cinema are often weird and poor indicators of the true organisation. In some ways the cinema version is pretty cool - muscular Catholic clergy hacking heads off demons - while in others it is rather more disturbing.

It's mainly funny, though. I live in hope that one day 'priests' will look less like this:

And more like this!


  1. Who would have thought that vows of chastity would one day become badass?

  2. Buddhism and Confucianism has always got the badass shaolin monk or kung fu master treatment and thanks to inglorious basterds we finally have a cinematic sighting of badass Jews. Hinduism unfortunately only has the temple of doom (I once saw a movie which showed a Hindu temple entirely inhabited by chinese people)

  3. Hahaha, yes in Priest celibacy leads to this brooding repressed sexuality, which is always more interesting when it belongs to fit and healthy young men and women instead of friendly old dudes!

    And yes, you'll need to write a kick-ass Hindu film, perhaps involving Hindu mystics with supernatural powers... oh, wait, we're back to Temple of Doom again :P The Abrahamic religions already have their kick-ass edge, including Islam's Jihad Chic! :P

  4. Badass Hindu film's can be made quite easily provided you have a micheal bay budget and an excellent PR to appease us easily offended Indians :D, all you need is a remake of the Mahabharat or Ramayana or any stories from Hindu mythology. Personally I fear a bad-ass Jain film to be very difficult, one can't have a kickass religion if you don't believe in God and advocate strict pacifism and strict vegetarianism. Badass Sikh movies will be much easier since the religion prescribes having a sword with you at all times along with long hair and a turban and a silver bracelet plus allied to the fact that many of the sikh gurus were warriors themselves and Sikh history is filled with countless Sikhs showing immense bravery and badassery, I expect a full-length feature on Guru Gobind Singh in fall 2014 :D

  5. Fun fact: The actor who played the albino monk (Silas) in Da Vinci Code and "the priest" in Priest is the same person. He also played the archangel Michael in a movie called "Legion". His name is Paul Bettany. He is an English actor raised as a Catholic.

    Oh by the way, this movie is based on a Korean comic book series. Go figure.

  6. About the movie, when I watched it, it looked like an alternative future where the Renaissance, Reform and Enlightenment never happened. The Church continued as the dominant power and it looked like they were having a (late) Industrial Age, with all that poor people, smoking chimneys and air pollution. I don't know if I am the only person who noticed that.

  7. Yeah I noticed it was the same guy in both, didn't know he was in Legion too! It must be the pale features, makes him look a bit scary and religious :P

    I imagined that the Priest world had been modern like ours, but largely destroyed by traumatic wars with vampires. Since the priests had played a major role in defeating the vampires their authority in society dramatically increased.

    Fascinating that it was Korean! I know some Japanese street fashion incorporates pseduo-Christian imagery because of its gothic nature. Check out this video of the Japanese pop group Ali Project:

    It heavily features a Catholic nun covered in piercings and carrying a crucifix. Why? Who knows.

    It's interesting, I suppose, to see the vampire story shift to East Asia. Originally it had folk European origins, as did the werewolf. It's movement to the Far East divorces it completely from those folk roots.

  8. You've left out Lasko: Death Train.[] Catholic monks who are actually part of Pugnus Dei ("the fist of God") using martial arts skills to defeat terrorists on a train. Weird because it's a bunch of Franciscians, though the exact same premise with Shaolin monks would probably be accepted without a second hough (in the west, anyway). Truly awesome schlock.

  9. Korea has a very large Catholic population, that's perhaps why comic books are influenced by it too. A good number of Korean drama serials and movies do include some portrayals of Catholicism in some form or another as well.

  10. Great point Matreshka, that's probably a significant factor too.


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