Is Prometheus on the “Index of Forbidden Films”?

Contrary to widespread media opinion, neither the Pope nor "the Vatican" writes movie reviews.

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.

Anti-Catholicism—the last acceptable prejudice, and one that is usually paired with atheism, the last superstition—dies 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 knee-jerk condemnations.

The dishonest distortions required to propagate this myth were on display again last week. Witness the headline in The Hollywood Reporter, “Official 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 than Prometheus!”

But in fact the only story here is that Gaetano Vallini of L’Osservatore Romano—not the Pope in the Vatican—thinks 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 World Report.

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About Christopher S. Morrissey 34 Articles
Christopher S. Morrissey teaches Greek and Latin on the Faculty of Philosophy at the Seminary of Christ the King located at Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC. He also lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University. He studied Ancient Greek and Latin at the University of British Columbia and has taught classical mythology, history, and ancient languages at Simon Fraser University, where he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on René Girard. He is a managing editor of The American Journal of Semiotics. His poetry book, Hesiod: Theogony / Works and Days, is published by Talonbooks.