“I put not stock in religion. By the word ‘religion’ I have seen the lunacy of fanatics of every denomination be called the will of God. I have seen too much religion in the eyes of too many murderers. Holiness is in right action, and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves, and goodness.” – Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
After viewing The Counselor—which, as the trailers declare, is “from legendary director Ridley Scott”—I stumbled out of the theater dazed and troubled. I was deeply disturbed, and I could no longer avoid what was undoubtedly true: I had finally lost my faith in Sir Ridley Scott. Why? Because The Counselor is the disturbing culmination of career spent attacking the Christian faith, including direct assaults on the Catholic Church.
I won’t spend time on detailing The Counselor’s misdeeds, such as a gratuitous confessional sequence, a cliché Catholic character played by Penelope Cruz, disingenuous sexual content, decapitations, and an overall cool boredom more deadening than compelling.
The film’s script is by Cormac McCarthy and perhaps Scott was looking to parlay this opportunity into a No Country for Old Men moment. “I have to pay attention to the films that are being successful now, which I may not like very much. But I have to analyze why this film is being successful. And then—I guess, in a way—try to do my version,” Scott once revealed. Not inspiration or artistic intuition, but financial concerns and marketing angles are the motivations behind choosing works. Business as usual.
Still, Scott’s visual talent is undeniable. He has successfully taken on various historical periods, from ancient Rome (Gladiator) to the Crusades (Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood) to the Age of Discovery (1492) to the 19th century (The Duellists) and far beyond (Blade Runner, Alien, Prometheus). It is sometimes said that an artist only tells one story in his life; Scott has consistently returned to the theme of an outsider defying nearly everything and everyone around him to rescue something uniquely precious to himself. This usually involves foregoing belief in the highest good, the summum bonum—God—in favor of one’s own value system. This theme, combined with Scott’s eye for the spectacular, has been just the thing to legitimize the pervasive worldview presented by Hollywood, as well as meet the tastes of modern audiences. In this regard, he has earned the “legendary” adjective.
“The congregation is the audience,” Scott proclaimed in his commentary for the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. “The larger portion of the Church has lost it in recent years in terms of actually reviewing who and where we are today.” If, as Scott seems to propose, the Church today was reviewed and updated to legitimize every perspective—to simply erase concepts of sin and guilt—would congregations really flock to cathedrals to be entertained (since they are an audience)? Would that really convert anybody? Least of all Ridley Scott?
I became interested in Scott’s work after the massive success of Gladiator in 2000. Set in 180 AD, that film appeared vaguely tolerant of Christianity simply because it makes no mention of it at all. (There is, however, a cut sequence on the DVD featuring Christians devoured by lions in the Coliseum). Maximus (Russell Crowe), the main character, is evidently a devout pagan. At any rate, he worships his ancestors and when his spirit is united with his family in the afterlife—in Elysium, where the emphasis is not on communion with the Creator but reunion with family—Scott hints that may be his own personal belief as well.
But it was Kingdom of Heaven, maybe the only movie about knights directed by a knight (Scott became Sir Ridley in 2003), that solidified Scott’s negative view of religion in general and Christianity in particular. In the film, Balian (Orlando Bloom) struggles with his faith and over the course of his journey, which includes surrendering Jerusalem to the sympathetic Saladin and his Muslim army, continues to be disenchanted with the Church, finally informing a corrupt bishop character, “You have taught me a great deal about religion.”
The screenwriter, William Monahan, seems cut from the same cloth as Scott, who flatly describes himself in the commentary of Kingdom of Heaven as “functionally irreligious,” despite being raised a Catholic. His entire commentary is smug, elitist in the worst way. One gets the sense that the word “joy” may not be in the lexicon of either Monahan or Scott. How common is this pattern of talented authors, artists, storytellers, and creators who turn away from Christianity to the point of bitter agnosticism or atheism?
When I staggered out of the theater after The Counselor, I was overcome with a feeling of hopelessness, of utter darkness, of being orphaned. Bleakness. Nihilism. Those are descriptives often associated with Cormac McCarthy—himself raised Catholic—but this could not have been the intention of the film. (One British reviewer, noting the talent involved in making the film, asked, “So why is The Counsellor such an inert, dispiriting, detached, disjointed, counterfeit, and clumsy film?”) I kept going back to Ridley Scott. In spite of his hugely successful moviemaking career, is he happy? What is he trying to accomplish?
“All people desire to leave a lasting mark,” proclaimed Cardinal Ratzinger in 2005. “But what endures? Money does not. Even buildings do not, nor books. After a certain time, longer or shorter, all these things disappear. The only thing that lasts forever is the human soul, the human person created by God for eternity.”
Can Ridley Scott, creator of incredible cinematic vistas and worlds, scale down to the “only thing that lasts” before it’s too late? In August 2012, his only living brother, director Tony Scott, jumped to his death off a bridge in southern California for reasons still unknown. After their mother’s death in 2001, both brothers dedicated the films they released that year to her: Spy Game for Tony, Black Hawk Down for Ridley. Whatever Scott’s personal life has entailed, he has spent his energies on his work—his overflowing output proves that. But something seems missing. I never saw that as clearly in all his films as I did in The Counselor. Why, at almost 76 years old, would one spend time producing such a film—a work summed up by the Guardian as “Blah bloody blah”?
In 2012 Scott did a revelatory interview with Esquire while promoting Prometheus. Of all of Scott’s films to date, Prometheus generated the most chatter about his religious views and beliefs (or lack thereof). The main character, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), wears a cross around her neck and makes choices based on her Christian faith, but this is just a point of departure for a foray into a sci-fi world you have to see for yourself, if you have the stomach for it.
The interview is troubling on many levels. Scott and the Esquire interviewer, Eric Spitznagel, litter their dialogue with expletives, especially when mentioning God. The whole piece is specifically anti-religious, yet Scott divulges: “I do despair,” he said after a “long pause.” He continues:
Scott: That’s a heavy word, but…how can you not despair at what’s happening in the world, how we’re represented as human beings? The disappointments and corruption are dismaying at every level. And the biggest source of evil is of course religion.
Esquire: All religions?
Scott: Can you think of a good one? A just and kind and tolerant religion?
Esquire: Not off the top of my head, no.
The Esquire interviewer then proposes Scott take on a biblical work.
Esquire: Maybe the Virgin birth? No movie’s ever told that story with enough gloopy, viscous afterbirth.
Scott: No, I’ve got something else in the works. I’m already doing it. It’s called Moses.
Indeed, for as much as Ridley Scott loathes any kind of religion, he cannot separate his work from the Judeo-Christian tradition, even if the themes and characters possess perverse understandings of it. The Moses project is now entitled Exodus and will feature Christian Bale; it is set to be released in December 2014. “I’m an atheist, which is actually good, because I’ve got to convince myself the story works,” Scott rather ironically told the New York Times in an interview promoting The Counselor. The interviewer quipped, “Maybe this project will change your perspective on religion.” Scott’s reply? “If I go over budget, definitely.” Yet in the same interview, he also conceded that he’s “really intrigued by those eternal questions of creation and belief and faith. I don’t care who you are, it’s what we all think about. It’s in the back of all our minds.”
As if Exodus wasn’t enough religion for an atheist to tackle, Scott’s IMDb page indicates a project currently in post-production titled The Vatican, evidently a pilot for Showtime, starring Bruno Ganz as “The Pope.” Ganz is best known for playing Hitler in Downfall and is a member of the Scott repertory in The Counselor. The Vatican’s logline on IMDb reads: “Explores the relationships and rivalries, in addition to the mysteries and miracles, behind the Catholic church.”
Ridley Scott, for whatever reason, turned his scorn upon “organized religion” a long time ago. Yet he cannot deny how much it has influenced his incredible successes as a popular filmmaker, and that it continues to spark a search inside him for truth and meaning. This is an invitation, then, for Ridley the man, not just the commercially successful filmmaker, to simply spend some time with the greatest storyteller of all time. To surrender the façade he let success build around him and to meet Christ not as a myth motif for a movie, but as One who knows him better than he knows himself. “Just say yes to Him?” Peter Kreeft asks in his classic “Culture Wars” speech. “You never know what he’d do with you!”
I write this, I suppose, as an invitation not only for Scott but for myself to do the same. To start with, perhaps, Psalm 139: “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.” And then maybe meditate on Luke 15, beginning with the lost sheep. “Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep” (Lk 15:6). And as Pope Francis reflects on the passage, “It is God who rejoices. God rejoices not in the death of the sinner but rather he be restored to life.” This is the “just and kind and tolerant religion” Scott and the Esquire gentleman cannot seem to locate.
There are deleted scenes found on the director’s cut edition of Kingdom of Heaven (a truncated theatrical cut tanked in 2005) that feature a withered penitent crawling across the barren plains on his knees to Damascus (not Jerusalem, of course), like pilgrims do today in Guadalupe or other holy places. It didn’t do anything to advance the plot, which is why Scott cut it. But in it nevertheless hints at a latent desire for healing, for repentance.
Could you imagine if Ridley Scott’s talent was put towards one of the great stories of metanoia—Peter or Augustine? Perhaps Exodus will ignite the man to change, to experience his own “burning bush” moment.
It would be a story greater than his best films.