Young Adult

This year saw the release of two biopics about two fiercely strong and independent Catholic women: Flannery O’Connor (“Wildcat”) and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (“Cabrini”). Both films had high production value, and both were well acted. One painted a living, breathing picture of a real woman and put her relationship with God where it actually was: at the center of her life. The other reduced its heroine to an embodiment of a cause and all but stripped her of her relationship with God.

“Wildcat” was an excellent movie. Maya Hawke hired her dad, Ethan Hawke, to write and direct the movie that she produced and starred in. Both of them transparently love their subject: Flannery O’Connor. They immersed first themselves and then their viewers in her writing. Voiceovers from her prayer journal and scenes from the stories she wrote are woven beautifully into the depiction of her life. The effect is a movie that draws you fully and intimately into who Flannery was. It is as harsh and gritty and full of grace as her own stories are. And it is as much about her relationship with God as it is about anything else. The movie is like a prayer — not like a clear, recited prayer — but like what it actually is to pray: to be in conversation with God in the midst of all the mess of your real life.

“Cabrini” was almost an excellent movie. Its high production value, genuinely good acting, and good dialogue put it miles ahead of the standard Christian movie. But the filmmakers have spoken in interviews about their deliberate choice to hide Cabrini’s relationship with God in hopes of appealing to a wider audience. It was released on International Women’s Day, presumably to appeal to feminists. I am very much in favor of making God and his Church as easy to get to as possible. But in hiding Cabrini’s relationship with God, the filmmakers broke one of the fundamental rules of storytelling: you have to be honest to the story you are telling. In removing Cabrini’s relationship with God from the story, they removed her central motivation and left her an inspiring but unknowable character. Meanwhile Maya Hawke, an actual non-Catholic feminist, made not just a better movie, but a more Catholic movie than Cabrini.

In discussing these two movies at the National Catholic Register, Barbara Nicolosi reiterates the recurring question of the last decades: Why is it that non-Christians invariably make the best Christian films? Maybe the answer has to do with the fact that non-Christians are the ones who are actually valuing the power and importance of beauty.

The Dostoyevsky byline “beauty will save the world” has become commonplace in pop-Catholicism and that is generally a good thing. But the glib affirmation of this line does not equal actual respect for the power of beauty. More often than not, Catholics talk about beauty as a shiny vehicle for truth. They say that J.R.R. Tolkien used “The Lord of the Rings” as a way to preach the Gospel to people who otherwise would not pay attention; a claim that I believe would make Tolkien groan in frustration. Tolkien, like all good artists, made something beautiful. And because what he made is truly beautiful, it points people to God. This distinction might feel like splitting hairs, but I genuinely think it is the reason that so much Christian “art” does not deserve the name. Beauty is not just a way of making truth more palatable. It is itself a pathway to God.

Goodness, truth and beauty are all powerful pathways to God. We might think of them as God’s glory revealing itself through our will (goodness), intellect (truth) and body/emotions (beauty) respectively. There is an inherent unity between them — anything that is actually good will also be true and beautiful. Any attempt to actually divide one from the others will result in a broken version of it; similar to how any attempt to divide the soul from the body results in destruction. But as with soul and body, they also are distinct. Beauty is just as real a portal to God as truth or goodness is. Thinking of the body as a shell which spirituality helps us to escape is a heresy and an offense against the Word, who created our bodies and was made flesh to dwell with us. Thinking of beauty as the sugar coating in which you hide the pill of truth displays a profound misunderstanding of both beauty and truth.

Everyone yearns for what is authentic, real, true. I want to be clear: all of those things are absolutely imperative for good art. You have to be ruthlessly authentic to the story you are telling or the story will fall flat. Even the wildest fantasy stories have to remain true to the interior reality of their story and to what it means to be human.

This commitment to authenticity is what made “Wildcat” great and the lack of it is what made “Cabrini” fail. Being honest to the reality of the world is actually the opposite of choosing an abstract truth to preach and superimposing it onto a story.

Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor and others like them approach the real world and the real people in it with reverence and attentiveness. The reality which God created is what shapes even their most fantastical fiction. Their work is shaped also by their unique perspective and their undeniable skill but ultimately, they trust the Creator to be visible in his creation. And he is. “The Lord of the Rings” and the stories of Flannery O’Connor actually do convert people. The fiction of Flannery O’Connor is what captivated Maya and Ethan Hawke so deeply that they made a film that is as prayerful as it is beautiful and moving.

And this, I think, is why non-Christians have been making better Christian movies than Christians have. In a word, it’s because they’ve been making better movies.