The Pope does not
write movie reviews. The Vatican is not
keeping a list of prohibited films. But you’d never know that from
reading the secular press.
last acceptable prejudice, and one that is usually paired with atheism, the last superstitiondies
hard in the mainstream media, which persistently keeps alive certain ridiculous
clichés about the Catholic Church. One favorite media
myth about the Vatican is that it is stuck in the Dark Ages and is staffed
with a killjoy Inquisition that sour-facedly watches new movies and issues
The dishonest distortions required to propagate this myth
were on display again last week. Witness the headline in The Hollywood
Vatican Newspaper Criticizes Prometheus for ‘Mishandling’ Delicate
Questions”, and its accompanying sub-title: “With the criticisms, Prometheus joins a list of films the Vatican dislikes that
includes The Da Vinci Code and Avatar.”
Never mind that the only person ultimately responsible for
what appears in L’Osservatore Romano is its
controversial editor, Italian layman Gian Maria Vian. The Vatican newspaper
is allowed to operate with wide latitude in its editorial judgment, which in
recent years has dabbled
in pop culture reviews that have no magisterial standing whatsoever.
(Even so, that still doesn’t prevent the secular media from
going bananas every time “the Vatican’s official newspaper” publishes a pop
culture review. Right away, like clockwork, you can expect a misleading
headline about what “the Vatican” or “the Pope” has decreed about The Beatles
or The Simpsons or Bob Dylan or The Blues Brothers.)
Rather, what is especially egregious this time around is not
the recycling of the old myth about how the Vatican has nothing better to do
with its time than maintain an Index of Forbidden and Approved Pop Culture
Phenomena. It is rather that the story about Prometheus completely
misrepresents the review that actually appeared in L’Osservatore Romano.
The review itself, which appeared in Italian, consists
mainly of a bland plot summary. But a mere handful of sentences that softly
criticize the film were spun in the English language media to give the
impression that the Vatican was issuing an angry condemnation of the film.
Yet this is a pure fabrication. The Italian review didn’t
contain any criticisms about the movie that haven’t already been aired
elsewhere by secular movie reviewers: for example, that Ridley Scott didn’t
live up to the expectations set by his other films; that the script tells a
story that is too convoluted; it doesn’t have enough thrills and surprises; it
needs more work where it is lacking in explanations; and so on.
Yet that didn’t stop Eric J. Lyman from inventing a story
with his piece in The Hollywood Reporter.
Lyman begins with this: “The Vatican’s official newspaper attacked Ridley
Scott’s Prometheus, taking issue
with the film’s premise about the origins of mankind and saying it is ‘a bad
idea to defy the gods.’”
Lyman makes it sound like the Vatican objects to the film’s
theory that life on earth was started by aliens. But the review takes no such
stance. The review just says that the story’s idea was not very well executed.
It simply says that the film artistically “mishandles the
delicate questions raised by” its premise. Moreover, the phrase “a bad idea to
defy the gods” is an English translation only of the headline given to the movie review in Italian.
Lyman distorts the fact that the review itself only uses
this phrase to explain the movie’s title. The phrase describes only what the
reference to the figure of Prometheus from Greek mythology means. But Lyman
rips the phrase out of context and pretends that it is taken from the mouth of
the Magisterium, as if it were condemning the movie because it attributes the
creation of life here to aliens and not to God.
Now, surely that would be a colorful news story: “The Pope
says, ‘Science fiction comes from the devil! Your impious stories attribute to
aliens what should be attributed only to God! You are asking for it! The real
lesson you should learn from the Prometheus story is, ‘It is a bad idea to defy
the gods’! God is going to get you! Anathema!’”
But that is not the true story here. Lyman misrepresents the
Italian review and invents a false story. I guess he figured no one would look at the
Italian review, translate it, and fact-check his work. Why bother, when
everybody already knows how to distort the facts and fit them into an
anti-Catholic narrative about the Vatican’s antediluvian mindset?
So, the L’Osservatore Romano review was a boring plot summary mixed with a few limp criticisms.
Nonetheless, many media outlets quickly picked up on Lyman’s disingenuous
story. The Huffington Post
consolidated the distortion into a sound bite, trumpeting in its headline: Vatican
Criticizes Prometheus, Says It Is ‘A Bad Idea To Defy The Gods’. Cavan
Sieczkowski turns the spin into conventional wisdom and opens her piece with
this: “The Vatican's official newspaper has criticized Ridley Scott’s Prometheus saying that it is ‘a bad idea to defy the gods.’”
From there, lots of people reacted to the story and vented
about how the silly Vatican missed the point of the film. But the Vatican did
no such thing. All that happened was that English bloggers got backwards a
story in the Italian media because reporters invented a story to fit one of
their favorite myths about the Vatican.
Look, if people think (contrary to fact) that L’Osservatore
Romano is the voice of the Vatican, then
they missed the real story here, which is that the paper’s reviewer chose to
endorse the artistic qualities possessed by the sci-fi horror film, Alien. The only possible interesting takeaway from what in
my opinion is a sleep-inducing Italian review would be this: “Even the Vatican
thinks Alien is a better movie
But in fact the only story here is that Gaetano Vallini of L’Osservatore
Romanonot the Pope in the Vaticanthinks
that Alien is a better movie than
Prometheus. And that’s not much
of a story.
Yet I can tell you this much: if you want to read an
interesting Catholic analysis of the mythical infrastructure of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, look no further than Catholic