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Intersection of Theology and Film: Q&A with Sr Rose Pacatte

Intersection of Theology and Film: Q&A with Sr Rose Pacatte

Chris Herlinger interviews Sr. Rose for the Global Sisters Report:

Daughter of St. Paul Sr. Rose Pacatte, founding director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles, has long claimed a special place in the hearts of filmgoers and readers of National Catholic Reporter: She has been a film critic for National Catholic Reporter since 2009 and has reviewed films for St. Anthony Messenger magazine for 15 years.

Pacatte firmly believes theology and film often intersect. In her just-completed dissertation for a doctorate in ministry from the Graduate Theological Foundation in Mishawaka, Indiana, Pacatte was inspired by a quote from the French film critic André Bazin: "Cinema has always been interested in God."

Pacatte's doctoral project, "To Seek God's Face: Theological Approaches to Film," was written as a textbook for undergraduate film students. The study has already received acclaim: Kendra Clayton, president of the Graduate Theological Foundation, awarded Pacatte the institute's Mother Teresa Prize in Spirituality and Community Service for her work, which came with a small cash prize to be used for further study. Pacatte also holds a master's degree in education in media studies from the University of London's Institute of Education.

GSR: How do you "do" film and theology?

Pacatte: Theology means to wonder about God, or as St. Anselm put it, theology is faith seeking understanding. We all search for transcendence and meaning, and stories told through the medium of film often bring all these together. The best films reveal the longings of the human heart for God. And through the journeys people travel to discover transcendent meaning, films reveal the human heart in relation to others. Even if the name of God is not mentioned, the reality is there. So to "do" theology and film, you pay attention to the story, what the story means and how mystery and grace are revealed in humanity, in all of creation.

A perfect example for me was one of last year's Oscar winners, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." The humanity of the story about people broken yet yearning for healing and forgiveness, anything to assuage the anger, was enfolded in love. It was a truly human story, and therefore, it was truly of the Gospel.

What are you viewing right now and why? 

I saw "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again," and it was much better than I expected! I attended the international press junket for "The Nun," the latest installment of "The Conjuring" horror franchise. Let's just say it will reassure you that the devil exists.

Recently, I've been faced with a lot of superhero movies, and I'm kind of tired of superhero movies. One exception: "Black Panther" is a great movie, and that's because of the women. In a movie about the theme of people fighting exploitation, there is a lot going on with strong women at the center of the story. That is impressive. 

What about the religion genre?

So we have "The Nun," which is a horror film that takes place in a Romanian convent in 1952. It is a complete fabrication, of course, and I regret the lack of sound — even realistic — theology that could have made it a better film.

The problem with a lot of films in this genre, particularly about sisters, is the lack of theological depth or nuance. The "Novitiate" film got a lot of attention, but it assumed that a young woman could enter the convent without even being baptized. It made no sense! When something is so fundamentally flawed, I feel like, "Why should I care?" That film looked good, and it was impressively made. But having an unbaptized girl enter the convent and make it to vows? It was a real head-snapper.

I do think, in too many films, there is a Protestant sensibility about religion that misses the theological and sacramental core of Catholicism. A big difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is transcendence. That is so important to Catholics, but it's hard to portray that in film. At the same time, film is a visual medium and often, when films are made about evangelical characters in Protestant churches or settings, suddenly they require Catholic icons! 

I thought "Lady Bird" did a good job of portraying sisters in education. The portrayal of the nun who advised Lady Bird was realistic and positive. Too often, the portrayals of nuns are not good to the point where they become clichés. I thought "Lady Bird" got it right.

The baseline for the best portrayal of a Catholic sister in film to me remains "Dead Man Walking."

Then there was that film "First Reformed."

I didn't review it. It's basically a remake of "Diary of a Country Priest" but set in upstate New York instead of France and in the Protestant Christian world rather than Catholic. The premise was a little odd: a small Dutch Reformed Church that merges with a megachurch because of financial reasons. Maybe it had to. It was not a seamless movie, but then, Christianity is not seamless, either, especially in the United States. The film shows, to its credit, that Christianity has to move from the pews to the world, such as caring for the suffering and the environment.

You seem to be suggesting that filmmakers often don't know enough about their subjects when they make religious-themed movies.

The problem is that the filmmakers don't know what they don't know. The consultants or the producers just don't have enough background, and many of them are not even willing to learn what they don't know. So they fall back on familiar tropes and don't ask the right questions.

Read the full article here

(Reposted with permission of the National Catholic Reporter)

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