3 Moving Pictures: Film and the Formation of Imaginative Priests

Dr. Robert Alvis

In the iconic opening scene of “Citizen Kane,” the audience is transported to the bedside of Charles Foster Kane, a dying media mogul who holds a snow globe in his outstretched hand. After uttering perhaps the most famous last word in cinematic history – “Rosebud” – he expires, and the snow globe rolls from his hand and smashes on the floor below.

The rest of the film follows a journalist named Thompson, who is determined to understand the internal forces that inspired Kane’s ruthless pursuit of money and influence. He suspects Kane’s final word might provide the key. As Thompson interviews those who knew the man, Kane’s life is retold in a series of flashbacks. Thompson ultimately fails to untangle the riddle, but the filmmakers let the audience in on the secret: Rosebud was the name of Kane’s childhood sled.

The sled and the snow globe were mementos of Kane’s early childhood, which was materially poor but rich in maternal warmth and carefree play. After coming into sudden wealth, Kane’s mother sent him away for a proper education, and Kane never recovered from the emotional damage of this rupture. For all of his business triumphs, he could not master the art of connecting to people and building life-giving relationships.

Rosebud is just one example of a motif commonly found in movies and storytelling more generally: an innocuous clue, often overlooked, that holds the answer to the mystery at the center of the plot. This motif has something to teach us about how we approach the training of priests. The Catholic Church has invested a tremendous amount of thought and resources to develop a comprehensive program of priestly formation. Nearly every question is answered; every essential skill is honed; almost nothing is left to chance. This formation program reliably produces competent priests.

Yet one of the qualities that often distinguishes truly great priests – a vibrant imagination – is not usually addressed in any intentional way. Various resources for cultivating the imagination exist, but some of the most effective ones are often overlooked or casually dismissed. In this essay, I will offer some reflections on one such resource: the movies. While their popular appeal is readily calculable, the capacity of movies to exercise the imagination and contribute to the formation of seminarians is rarely given its full due.

In emphasizing the importance of cultivating the imagination, by no means do I intend to disparage the current model of seminary formation. This model is carefully calibrated to prepare men for the heavy demands contemporary priests encounter. For decades now, Catholic dioceses in the United States have been faced with the challenge of serving the needs of a burgeoning Catholic population with a dwindling cadre of priests.

With fewer priests available for service, each active priest is called to master the full range of skills required to run a parish well. In addition to his sacramental duties, he must teach the faith, counsel those in need, manage the human resources at his disposal and oversee the many details of parish administration.

He must apply these skills within an ecclesial context that in many respects is growing more complex. The contemporary lay faithful are generally more educated and articulate compared to earlier generations, and they are also polarized over a range of theological and social issues. Meanwhile, the global reality of the Church increasingly is being felt at the local level, giving rise to linguistic and cultural fissures within Catholic communities that can widen into chasms without proper management.

He must also operate in a cultural context that, in many respects, is hostile to the priesthood. Celibacy is widely perceived to be an unhealthy lifestyle, and causal connections are routinely drawn between celibacy and the scandal of priestly sexual abuse. No priest can escape the resulting shadow of suspicion.

Aware of the challenges priests face, the bishops and those directly engaged in priestly formation have created a lengthy and exhaustive process designed to refine the character of candidates for ordination and invest them with the knowledge, skills and temperament they will need for successful ministry. Before stepping foot in seminary, candidates first submit to a battery of psychological tests that can bring to light any underlying issues that need to be addressed in formation.

Once enrolled in seminary, they can expect to spend many years in academic study, first in philosophy, then in theology and related disciplines. Many will be called to study a language and culture other than their own in order to minister to a diverse population. To hone their capacity for pastoral work, seminarians undertake a series of ministerial assignments, and they are presented with feedback on their performance and opportunities to process their experiences with peers and mentors.

Seminarians are also called to participate daily in the communal celebration of the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours, to meet regularly with a spiritual director, and to follow a regimen of private prayer. Such practices are designed to deepen their spiritual lives and to equip them to offer spiritual guidance to others.

To enhance their understanding of celibacy, seminarians are instructed in the historical development and theological foundations of the practice, its relationship to human sexuality more generally, and practical strategies for living a celibate life with integrity. Attention is increasingly being paid as well to basic life skills and effective techniques of parish administration.

Punctuating the formal program of seminary formation are regular occasions for entertainment and cultural enrichment, which run the gamut from rarified encounters with high art to guilty pleasures. At Saint Meinrad, which is located at some remove from a major population center that can sustain a vibrant arts community, the seminary and monastic community take steps to attract the arts to campus. Every year, we host two theatrical performances by the National Players, a series of concerts by renowned choirs and ensembles, and gallery exhibits by visual artists. Complementing these high-profile occasions are less tony events, such as student reading circles, movie nights and even adventures with karaoke.

The significance of such programming to the seminary’s core mission is often undersold. These events are commonly understood to be refreshing reprieves from the more serious work of priestly formation. Plays, movies, concerts and the like are indeed enjoyable, but they are often much more than that. In fact, encounters with the arts have the potential to mold us in profound ways.

They lead us beyond the limits of our everyday lives, exposing us to wider registers of human emotion, thought and experience than we would otherwise have occasion to encounter. In so doing, they expand our awareness of what is possible and exercise our imaginations. The relevance for priestly ministry is clear. Truly imaginative priests are capable of entering into the lives of others, offering timely and calibrated responses to their needs and transmitting the faith in compelling ways.

Such lofty claims regarding the value of the arts and the cultivation of the imagination are nothing new. They are routinely advanced by representatives of the arts community (often in connection with the pursuit of patronage), and they are intuitively understood by aficionados. Interestingly, one can also make a case for the arts by looking to recent research findings in a number of scientific disciplines regarding how our brains work. What this research suggests is that the process of preparing a person for a successful and meaningful life is much more expansive than the educational systems we typically rely upon to complete the process.

Mainstream models of education focus on the acquisition of abstract concepts and practical skills by the reasoning individual in controlled environments. What has become increasingly clear is that the human brain is perpetually being formed. What happens outside the classroom has a major impact on what and how we learn. Also coming into focus is the social dimension of learning and the interconnections that exist between our capacity to exercise reason and nonrational and unconscious dimensions of thought. A brief review of some of these findings is in order, as it directly relates to my larger argument.[1]

The perpetual nature of brain formation is powerfully illustrated by studies on infant and childhood development. Attachment theory, a model pioneered by the English psychiatrist John Bowlby and elaborated upon through the work of a diverse array of researchers, highlights the critical importance of the bonds infants and children form with adult caregivers. These early bonds establish patterns of thought and emotional response that reverberate throughout a person’s life.

The quality of a given child’s early attachments has been shown to be a remarkably accurate predictor of how successful he or she will be in school, in relationships and in a career.[2] Another recent subject of study is child’s play.

The research of a number of observers, including the psychologist Elena Bodrova, highlights the fact that, when children play with other children for extended periods of time, free of adult regulation, the imaginative scenarios they construct and the cooperative arrangements they operate within help develop “executive function,” the capacity to control one’s impulses and emotions. Advocates of free play have been raising the alarm that today’s children, who spend much of their time either watching television, playing video games or taking lessons, are not given sufficient opportunities for cultivating essential life skills.[3]

Research into the significance of attachment and play illustrates as well the central place of relationships in the learning process. Our minds do not function exclusively at our discretion; they are hardwired to respond to other people. It is well established, for instance, that students learn more effectively when they feel a sense of connection and personal affection for their teachers.[4]

Advocates of social learning theory, such as Albert Bandura, argue that the most important factor in the development of human behavior is the observation of others.[5] Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience have brought to light the critical function that mirror neurons play in human communication. These are small circuits of cells that fire up both when we perform a given action and when we observe another person perform the same action. In other words, mirror neurons enable us to understand the actions, feelings, and intentions of others by generating internal simulations of the feelings and intentions linked to the actions of others.

As neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni explains it, “When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feeling we typically associate with a smile. I don’t need to make any inference on what you are feeling, I experience immediately and effortlessly (in a milder form, of course) what you are experiencing.”[6]

The work of mirror neurons hints at how much human brain functionality takes place beyond the conscious exercise of reason. There are, in fact, vast domains of unconscious, nonrational neural activity that inform how we perceive, interpret and respond to the world around us. Another example is supplied by the psychologists Alexander Todorov and Janine Willis, who through a series of experiments determined that humans make snap judgments about essential characteristics of people based upon the briefest of glances at their faces, easily outpacing the process of reasoned analysis.

These snap judgments seem to originate in the amygdala, a primitive part of the brain that responds to fear, and they often prove to be enduring and definitive.[7] Over the course of his distinguished career, cognitive scientist Keith Stanovich has explored the complex web of factors that inform human decision making, including the mystery of why intelligence and good judgment often diverge.[8]

Taking into account the many factors that contribute to human development, it stands to reason that much of the work of forming future priests takes place outside formal channels of education, like the classroom and ministry placements. Critical contributions unfold within the interstices of these channels, including time devoted to recreational activities and encounters with the arts. Especially fruitful are those instances of meaningful connection with other people, and when broad expanses of the mind are stimulated.

Priests are summoned to embody Christ for others. Approaching this ideal requires not only a personal and theological knowledge of Christ, but also a nuanced understanding of human nature. Understanding human nature, in turn, is in large part a matter of imagination. Imagination refers to the human capacity to operate beyond instinct and the data immediately present to our senses or stored in memory. It enables us to bend the known reality of experience into new formations, to construct parallel universes of possibility, and to venture at will throughout the limitless expanse of time and space.

Empowered by imagination, we can break the seal of our individual personhood and enter into the lives of others, intuiting their thoughts, feelings and dreams. In addition to being an individual exercise, imagination can be shared between people when it is rendered into a cultural artifact (words, images, actions, etc.).

The freshness and range of a given person’s imagination is, in part, a natural endowment and, in part, a matter of conscious development. When one considers the lives of great artists, some have manifested evidence of virtuosity at a very early age (Mozart comes to mind). Many more have devoted countless hours practicing their art and exposing themselves to the artistic production and other relevant forms of life experience that stimulate their own creative vision.

Gifted writers, for instance, have tended to be avid readers. William Faulkner offered the following advice to aspiring writers: “Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.”[9] Martin Scorsese honed his genius as a filmmaker by spending countless hours in movie theaters as a child and young adult.[10] Seminarians and priests can benefit from a similar regimen of cultural consumption. By thoughtfully considering the creativity of others, we nourish our own capacity for imagination and come to a fuller understanding of the human condition at a given moment and place.

One effective way of immersing oneself in rich streams of creativity is the movies, from the latest Hollywood blockbuster to more obscure films on the art-house circuit. Film is a relatively young art form, technically speaking, first emerging as a popular and commercial phenomenon in the 1890s.

But in another respect, it can be seen as an enhanced approach to storytelling, which is as old as humankind. Talented storytellers are valued not only for the information they share, but also for their ability to transmit it in compelling fashion. A story well told unleashes the awesome potential of the imagination, allowing us to lose ourselves in expansive realms of experience and emotion.

Its narrative force reinforces the persuasiveness of the story’s central meaning or moral. In essence, movies are very elaborate stories created through the collaboration of a team of talented people, which fuse together text, images and sound.

There are traditionalists who argue that movies stymie the imagination by providing the sound and imagery of a story that the audience would otherwise have to generate on their own. A friend of mine, for instance, who happens to be a Tolkien enthusiast, steadfastly refuses to see Peter Jackson’s recent treatment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, lest his own imagined Middle Earth be dislodged by the cinematic version.

I would counter that the aural and visual content of a good film actually stimulates the imagination, providing rich streams of data that we react to and build upon. This helps explain the popularity of movies. We flock to cinemas, not because we are too lazy to imagine for ourselves, but because we delight in stretching our imaginations beyond their ordinary capacity, and movies provide the requisite challenges.

Movies come in all shapes and sizes, and their value for shaping the imagination and contributing to priestly formation likewise varies. Certainly, the most visible films are big-budget affairs produced by the major Hollywood studios, which increasingly rely upon blockbusters to meet desired profit margins. The enormous expense entailed in making such films usually leads studios to eschew artistic risks and to rely instead upon story lines and plot devices with proven appeal to broad audiences.

Critics bemoan such conventionality, and it can indeed lead to bland and predictable films. But big-budget films that become blockbusters often have more going for them than box-office receipts alone. Their capacity to attract tens of millions of viewers suggests they may be either tapping into the Zeitgeist or speaking to some enduring element of the human condition in a compelling fashion.

Seminarians and priests would do well to take notice. The success of their ministry depends in large measure on their capacity to understand their audience and to apply the light of the Gospel to people’s lives in fresh ways that educate, challenge and inspire. Hugely popular films can contribute to these types of understanding.

For the moment at least, the biggest blockbuster of them all is Avatar, a 2009 science fiction epic directed by James Cameron that has generated nearly $3 billion in revenue. The film is set in the year 2154 on the planet Pandora, which is home to both a tribe of giant blue humanoids (the Na’vi) and a rare mineral (unobtainium).

The RDA Corporation from planet Earth has established a presence on Pandora to extract unobtainium, and its ruthless methods threaten the Na’vi way of life. RDA tasks a paraplegic marine named Jake Sully to use his avatar (a Na’vi body he controls remotely by his mind) to infiltrate the Na’vi and learn their secrets. Sully comes to identify with the Na’vi, falls in love with a Na’vi princess and uses his avatar to thwart the RDA’s mission.

Despite its futuristic setting, Avatar is very much a film of its time. James Cameron has stated plainly that he used the film to call attention to a number of his political concerns, including environmental despoliation, the horrors of mechanized warfare and the excesses of amoral corporations.[11] Judging from the discourse it has generated, the film clearly has touched a nerve in the American body politic.

While observers on the political left have registered their approval of its underlying themes, critics on the right have accused Avatar of being an anti-American, anti-capitalist, anti-military and/or anti-Christian polemic.[12] Further afield, other communities have recognized their own distinctive political concerns reflected in the film. Some have identified with the oppressed Na’vi, including a small group of activists in the Occupied Territories who painted themselves blue to call attention to the cause of Palestinian statehood.[13]

In China, the film has been criticized for being just the latest iteration of the Orientalist myth, a kind of Madame Butterfly for the digital age.[14] In short, this fictional account of a future conflict on a distant planet has generated a great deal of conversation about the concerns and tensions coursing through contemporary culture, and one can learn a lot about our times by following the conversation.

In addition to being timely, Avatar is, in certain respects, timeless. This is not to say that it is a classic that will be appreciated for centuries to come; it is far too early to render such a judgment. Rather, the film elicits a sense of déjà vu: you have been here before, many times over. Like Star Wars, it is a story of a hero, who against all odds vanquishes an evil and much more powerful foe.

Like Dances with Wolves, it is a tale of a man converted by the decency of his erstwhile enemies, who goes on to defend them against his erstwhile allies. Like Romeo and Juliet, it is an account of star-crossed lovers (only in this Hollywood version they do not die at the end).[15] Some critics have called Cameron to task for this, but the fact of the matter is that storytelling is a domain rife with redundancy, and not without reason. There are certain tropes and narratives that we simply never tire of.

New iterations of plotlines encountered countless times before faithfully elicit satisfying cascades of thought and emotion, for they speak to core elements of our psychological and spiritual lives. Movies like Avatar that attract large audiences by telling familiar tales open a window to the values, expectations and aspirations that are widely shared by people across the globe. Moreover, they illustrate well a principle that guided the literary work of, among others, J.R.R. Tolkien: mythic language is a powerful and persuasive means to speak about moral truths.[16]

Opposite the blockbuster on the cinematic spectrum is the art-house film. Such creations are typically produced on modest budgets and are thus under less financial pressure to achieve mass appeal. This enables directors to embrace the role of auteur, abandoning cinematic conventions in favor of a distinctive creative vision.[17]

Indeed, the economy of the art-house film demands nothing less. The relatively small but savvy audiences drawn to such productions tend to favor intellectually substantial films with nuanced character studies and surprising plot twists. Art-house films can be splendid opportunities to exercise the imagination. When a film is placed in the hands of gifted artists facing relatively few restrictions, the results often expand the boundaries of the expected and enrich our capacity to envision the world anew.

A noteworthy example of the director as auteur is Krzysztof Kie´slowski, a leading figure in the distinguished field of postwar Polish filmmakers. After devoting his early career to making documentaries of everyday life in Poland, from the late 1970s to the early 1990s Kie´slowski directed a series of feature films that are widely considered to be some of the most influential and significant cinematic achievements of the era.

These films include Camera Buff (1979), Blind Chance (1981), the 10-part cycle Decalogue (1988), The Double Life of Véronique (1990), and the Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94). Kie´slowski’s films are distinguished by their weighty moral themes, their subtle portraits of both the darker recesses of the human psyche and the quest for transcendence, and an overarching mood that is at once majestic and melancholic, profound and absurd.[18]

Kie´slowski’s Decalogue cycle offers a powerful illustration of how art-house films can enlarge the viewer’s imaginative register. The cycle, developed with his longtime collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz, consists of 10 hour-length films, each of which is a meditation on one of the Ten Commandments. In his inimitable fashion, Kie´slowski interprets this mandate broadly, creatively weaving dimensions of each commandment into the dense textures of human relationships.

Just to cite one example, the third film in the cycle treats the commandment to “honor the Lord’s day.” Christians generally have interpreted this commandment as an injunction to honor Sunday by eschewing work in favor of more spiritual pursuits such as attending church, though in practice the distinction between Sundays and other days is often minimal.

Kie´slowski’s film, by contrast, is set on the night before and the early morning of Christmas, and the main character, Janusz, is faced with a dreadful dilemma. As he is celebrating the holiday with his wife and young children, he is lured away by a former lover named Ewa. She begs his assistance in tracking down her husband, who supposedly has gone missing. Over the course of their peregrinations through Warsaw, we slowly learn that, three years earlier, Ewa and Janusz had an affair that wreaked havoc on their respective marriages.

Janusz managed to reconcile with his wife, but Ewa’s husband left her, and ever since her life has been a shambles. Her loneliness is especially difficult to bear at Christmas, and in her desperation she makes a momentous vow. If Janusz remains with her until 7:00 a.m. on Christmas morning, she will interpret it as a hopeful sign that her life will get better; if not, she will commit suicide.

Janusz only learns of her vow at 7:00 a.m. In the intervening hours, and at considerable personal cost, he accompanies her on an increasingly absurd search for a husband that does not exist. He patiently endures her periodic taunts and accusations, suspended between erotic desire, guilt over past mistakes and empathy for her plight. In the end, his willingness to be present to Ewa, risking the harmony of his own family to share in her suffering, makes all the difference.

Through his act of human decency and her renewed willingness to hope, both characters honor the Lord’s day. Kie´slowski’s fresh interpretation of a venerable injunction leaves a lasting impression. I suspect many viewers come away from this and other episodes of Decalogue with a more expansive moral imagination.

Movies are more than just old-fashioned storytelling enhanced by images and sound. A key dimension of their richness is the fact that these stories are embodied by actors. When accomplished actors are paired with quality scripts well suited to their strengths, the effects are nothing short of magical. Talented actors have the capacity to fully inhabit the characters they play, bringing to the screen an exquisitely wrought being.

Viewers are given privileged access not only to the outward personas of characters, but to their inner lives as well. Lingering camera shots allow us to scrutinize their body language and micro expressions and to follow them behind closed doors, where brave façades dissolve. Such intimacy enables us to share in their struggles and triumphs to a degree that is rare in ordinary life. The more we watch top-shelf actors plying their craft, the more we enlarge the frames of reference we employ in assessing human nature and experience.

In the catalogue of thespian triumphs on the silver screen, one of the greatest is Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s portrayal of Joan of Arc in Carl Theodor Dreyer Jr.’s masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).[19] For all of the acclaim it now enjoys, this silent film was a box-office failure, and for many years it was believed that the last copies were destroyed in a fire.

Then in 1981, to the shock and delight of cineastes around the world, a nearly complete exemplar was found in a closet in a mental institution in Oslo. A sumptuous version has since been released on DVD by Criterion Collection, paired with a haunting opera/oratorio newly composed for the film by Richard Einhorn.

Even the most talented of screenwriters would be hard pressed to improve upon the actual course of St. Joan’s short, remarkable life. She was born to a peasant family in Orleans around the year 1412, in the thick of the Hundred Years’ War. Forces loyal to England controlled much of France, and King Henry V of England seemed poised to win the French crown.

Visionary experiences in her early teens led Joan to conclude that God wanted her to lead French armies in a campaign to drive out the English occupiers, and she managed to win the trust of a number of key French lords. In 1429, she inspired French forces to a series of victories that turned the tide of battle, ultimately resulting in the expulsion of the English from French soil.

Not long after her public career began, however, Joan fell into the hands of her enemies. She was placed on trial for heresy, found guilty and burned at the stake in 1431. A subsequent investigation authorized by Pope Callixtus III exonerated her, concluding that her trial had been illegitimate. She became a national heroine in France and was canonized a saint in 1920.

In telling Joan’s story, Dreyer made a number of unconventional and commercially risky decisions. He essentially ignored her remarkable rise from obscurity and military achievements, focusing instead on her trial and execution. Instead of using an original screenplay, he largely relied on the lengthy transcripts of the interrogations Joan had to endure. Foregoing elaborate sets and period details, for much of the film the camera is tightly trained on the faces of the actors, unredeemed by makeup.

The key to the film’s power is Falconetti’s tour-de-force performance. Powerful emotions wash over her face and body in waves, and it is almost impossible for viewers to avoid being buffeted by their wake. We soar with her in ecstatic rapture, taste her intimidation before her judges and shudder in the face of her imminent demise. “You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renee Maria Falconetti,” writes film critic Roger Ebert. To watch her portrayal of Joan “is to look into eyes that will never leave you.”[20]

Another way movies can contribute to the formation of imaginative priests is by bringing past eras and distant cultures to life in particularly vivid ways. This is especially valuable for Catholics for a couple of reasons.

First, the faith emphasizes the importance of tradition as a witness to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit and a resource that informs Catholic belief and practice. Catholics are called to understand the tradition that undergirds their faith, and priests should be effective mediators of that tradition. For this reason, movies that treat aspects of the Church’s past in ways that enable believers to enter imaginatively into their tradition are especially useful.

Second, the Roman Catholic Church, as its name suggests, is universal by design. What happens in one corner of the Church should be of concern to Catholics elsewhere, and priests are in a position to promote this kind of global vision. Movies that reveal important truths about cultures different from our own challenge us to rise above the temptation of parochialism and to inhabit a more expansive world.

An excellent example of cinema’s potential to enhance our historical understanding is Black Robe (1991), a film about Jesuit missionary activity in New France in the 1630s. Directed by Bruce Beresford, the film is based on a novel of the same name by Brian Moore. We have all heard the old saw that truth is stranger than fiction. The book and film versions of Black Robe demonstrate that fiction can be more revealing than the truth contained in the historical record.

We happen to know quite a lot about French colonial and missionary engagement in North America in the early 17th century. The French were prolific letter writers and record keepers, and they were inspired by the strange and wonderful new world they encountered.[21] Working from this trove of material, Moore developed a story about an imagined missionary venture that combines a gripping plot, keen historical sensitivity and an ability to portray the inner lives of characters that feel utterly authentic. Film adaptations often fall well short of the novels that inspired them, but in this instance Beresford manages to compensate for the loss of textual detail by exploiting advantages inherent in film, including powerful visuals. The effect is mesmerizing.

The main character in Black Robe is a Jesuit priest named LaForgue, who has been sent by his superiors to reinforce a fledgling Jesuit mission to the Huron tribe deep in the North American interior. Arriving at the primitive capital of New France in 1634, he promptly wins the support of the governor, Samuel de Champlain, who arranges for a contingent of Algonquin Indians and an experienced French colonist named Daniel to accompany him on his dangerous journey through uncharted territory.

Drawing from extensive ethnographic research, the film captures the stark differences in language, dress, custom and worldview that distinguished the indigenous peoples from the French. Fr. LaForgue’s taut expressions mirror the mixed emotions that frame his relationship with the Algonquins: the contempt he holds for their “savage” culture is tinctured by love he believes he should feel for them as fellow human beings and his genuine concern for their spiritual well-being.

Through artful flashbacks, we witness how he draws upon memories of his European past to sustain his faith and identity in a context nearly devoid of recognizable markers. For their part, the Algonquins struggle mightily with the stranger in their midst. After initially finding humor in his ineptitude at wilderness survival, they are increasingly unnerved by the radical otherness of his dress and behavior.

Drawing upon their own religious resources, including dream analysis and the advice of a shaman, they conclude that  Fr. LaForgue is a source of bad fortune. Despite their promise to Champlain, they abandon him midway on his journey. The film’s compelling treatment of the tense, layered relationship between LaForgue and the Algonquins offers a memorable and fine-grained portrait of the challenges inherent in cross-cultural missionary encounters. Few resources are more effective at allowing one to enter imaginatively into such an encounter, thereby illuminating one of the most significant features of the history of Christianity in the modern era.

Finally, another advantage film offers in cultivating the imagination of priests is its communal dimension. From time immemorial, the phenomenon of storytelling has been social, with storytellers enveloping groups of people into shared imaginary worlds. This helps explain why the rise of the novel as a popular mode of storytelling was initially so controversial. Some observers feared that the solitary nature of reading drew individuals away from their natural communities.

Movies helped reinvigorate the practice of storytelling as a social experience. The immense popular interest in the medium led to the building of a vast infrastructure of movie theaters, often large and ornate, and for decades the dominant mode of screening films was to crowds of people in public spaces. The popularity of theaters has since been eclipsed by technology that allows for inexpensive home viewing, but even in this more intimate context most people watch movies with family or friends.

Watching movies together contributes to the cultivation of community and to the collective imagination that nourishes community life. By sharing the emotional journey a good film offers, and then reminiscing about it afterward, we reinforce our connections with other people and bring our identities and worldviews into greater conjunction. These are positive processes that dovetail naturally with the proper work of priests.

A great example of how movies can contribute to community and the collective imagination is Frank Capra’s masterpiece, It’s a Wonderful Life. Released in 1946, the film was something of a box-office disappointment, but it was rediscovered in the 1970s and has since become a much-beloved cultural institution. Its denouement takes place at Christmas, and for this reason countless families and communities have made a tradition of watching it during the Christmas season.

The film’s idealized portrait of small-town life and its happy ending has led some to dismiss it as a frothy entertainment, but in reality it is a serious film that deals with weighty themes. In one of the best roles of his storied career, Jimmy Stewart stars as George Bailey, who as a young man is ambitious to leave his hometown of Bedford Falls to see the world and achieve great things. He repeatedly puts off his anticipated departure for the good of others, including his brother, his family’s savings and loan company, and the people of Bedford Falls in need of affordable credit.

After falling in love with a childhood friend, George starts a family and becomes a pillar of the community. Bedford Falls thrives on account of his selfless dedication to others, but his thwarted ambition continues to fester and, in a moment of financial crisis, he contemplates suicide. At this point, his guardian angel intervenes, and he allows George to experience what the world would have been like had he not been born.

It is a nightmarish vision: his younger brother dies in a childhood accident, the town druggist is ruined for accidentally poisoning a client, his family business folds, his wife becomes an old maid, and his hometown succumbs to economic and moral decay under the thumb of a ruthless slumlord. George decides to continue living, and events quickly conspire to solve his problems. The curtain falls on a joyous gathering of family and friends around the Christmas tree.

The enduring appeal of It’s a Wonderful Life rests, in part, on the fact that it explores a moral dilemma endemic to human existence. For a society to function, each individual member is called to curtail his or her personal desires. The benefits of this grand, unspoken bargain are real, but so are the costs.

In other words, we can all relate to George Bailey. His joys and frustrations resemble our own. George’s tour through a world bereft of his contributions allows the viewer to explore vicariously a widely held fantasy: what would happen if I abandoned my obligations in favor of my desires? That imaginary exercise, ultimately, is cathartic. Without having to say a word, the families and communities watching the film ritually reaffirm the respective sacrifices they make for the common good.

The superb German drama The Lives of Others (2006) tells the story of Gerd Wiesler, a fictional officer of the East German secret police. Assigned by his superior to spy on a prominent East German novelist and his actress girlfriend, Wiesler is gradually transformed by the experience. He comes to understand that his superior is motivated by base desires rather than genuine security concerns.

More importantly, the loving relationship between the writer and actress and the richness of their artistic milieu leads him to recognize the poverty of his own life. To protect the pair, Wiesler uses his insider status to thwart the investigation he was assigned to advance. This betrayal ruins his career, but on a personal level he realizes a more authentic existence.

Wiesler’s transformation is an apt metaphor for the contributions movies can make to priestly formation. Good movies transport us beyond ourselves, allowing us privileged access into the lives of others. Our own worlds and imaginative capacity are enlarged in the process. Many popular films can instruct us regarding the way humans think and the issues of momentary or perennial human concern. More artistic films challenge us to imagine the world anew. Other films provide virtual passage to distant cultures and bygone eras. In these and other ways, movies offer seminarians and priests a wider perspective on the human condition and the art of effective communication.

  1. An accessible and entertaining introduction to some of this research can be found in David Brooks, The Social Animal (New York: Random House, 2011).
  2. For more on attachment theory, see Klaus Grossmann, Karin Grossmann and Everett Waters, Attachment from Infancy to Adulthood: The Major Longitudinal Studies (New York: Guilford Press, 2006).
  3. Alix Spiegel, “Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills,” National Public Radio, February 21, 2008, accessed March 22, 2011, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=19212514.
  4. Deborah Stipek, “Relationships Matter,” Educational Leadership 64, no. 1 (September 2006), 46-49.
  5. Bandura, Social Learning Theory (New York: General Learning Press, 1977).
  6. “The Mirror Neuron Revolution: Explaining What Makes Humans Social,” Scientific American, July 1, 2008, accessed March 24, 2011, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-mirror neuron-revolut.
  7. Willis and Todorov, “First Impressions: Making Up Your Mind After 100-Ms Exposure to a Face,” Psychological Science 17 (2006): 592-98.
  8. In 2010, Stanovich was awarded the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for his book What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought (Yale University Press, 2009).
  9. Qtd. in M. Thomas Inge, ed., Conversations with William Faulkner (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1999), 68.
  10. For an enlightening window into Scorsesi’s obsession with movies and the distinctive cinematic vision that emerged in the process, see Martin Scorsese and Michael Henry Wilson, directors, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995).
  11. See, for example, Mekado Murphy, “A Few Questions for James Cameron,” New York Times, December 21, 2009, accessed April 4, 2011, http://carpetbagger.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/12/21/a few-questions-for-james-cameron/.
  12. See Tom Shone, “James Cameron Hates America: The Conservative Attack on Avatar,” Slate, January 14, 2010, accessed April 4, 2011, http://slate.com/id/2241542/.
  13. Robert Mackey, “‘Avatar’ on the West Bank,” New York Times, February 16, 2010, accessed April 6, 2011, http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/16/avatar-on-the-west-bank/.
  14. Dave Itzkoff, “China Sees ‘Avatar’ (and Criticizes It, Too),” New York Times, January 11, 2010, accessed April 6, 2011, http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/11/china-sees-avatar-and criticizes-it-too/.
  15. Many observers have commented upon the influences that shaped Avatar. See, for instance, Mark Feeney, “‘Avatar’ Is Powered by Many Influences—for Better and Worse,” Boston Globe, January 10, 2010, accessed April 8, 2011, http://www.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2010/01/10/avatar_is_powered_by_many_influences__for_ better_and_worse/.
  16. For more on Tolkien’s vision and method, see Richard L. Purtill, J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2003).
  17. Auteur is French for “author.” Its use in connection to cinema reflects the idea that movies can rise to the level of high art, reflecting the authorial vision of the director. This idea first emerged in France in the 1950s among filmmakers and critics associated with the New Wave movement.
  18. One of the best introductions to Kie´slowski’s approach to filmmaking can be found in Danusia Stok, ed., Kieślowski on Kieślowski (Faber & Faber, 1995).
  19. Legendary film critic Pauline Kael argued that Falconetti’s portrayal of Joan “may be the finest performance ever recorded on film.” Kael, 5001 Nights At the Movies (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982), 449.
  20. Ebert, “The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928),” rogerebert.com, February 16, 1997, accessed April 20, 2011, http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19970216/REVIEWS/ 401010350/1023.
  21. An excellent introduction to this material can be found in Catharine Randall, ed., Black Robes and Buckskin: A Selection from the Jesuit Relations (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010).


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