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Pope Pius XII's Apostolic Exhortations on the Ideal Film

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 22, 2015

Recently the Catholic Artists Society shared on its Facebook page a link to two Apostolic Exhortations of Pope Pius XII, given in 1955 to representatives of the film industry (Italian and international, respectively). I had never heard of these documents before, and was intrigued that a Pope had taken the time to write at length about the art of cinema (taken together, the two addresses take up about twenty pages).

Still, I clicked the link with some trepidation, knowing full well that the papal office carries with it no special expertise in matters of art. I was pleasantly surprised as it became obvious that Pius XII had a sincere interest in film, as well as a sensitivity to the demands of the art form and to its unique way of affecting the human psyche.

The two documents make up a continuous line of thought regarding the properties of the ideal film; the first outlines a series of considerations some of which are left for the second.

The Power and Responsibility of Filmmakers

Pius XII begins by noting the great influence the cinema wields on people’s feelings, ideas and lifestyles, especially among the poor and young people. For this reason, he says, there needs to be a study of the medium so that it “may be directed to the improvement of man and the glory of God.”

After a brief yet intriguing discussion of the reciprocal relationship between the technique and the art of film, each of which feeds on and demands more of the other, he reflects on the psychological and suggestive power of the medium. Film draws the viewer into another world, in which he in some way identifies himself with the actors he sees and makes their concerns his own, as well as projecting his own concerns onto them. This capability and its inevitable popularity makes film a powerful instrument, “in itself most noble,” but which may influence men for good or evil.

For this last (social, not artistic) reason, he concludes that the cinema cannot have complete autonomy or be made “dependent on purely economic instruments.” It follows that public authority has the right to intervene if necessary to protect “the common civil and moral heritage”; however, Pius prefers to appeal to filmmakers themselves to judge according to sound principles and reject whatever “debases human dignity.”

To this end, Pius introduces the notion of “the ideal film.” This seems like a dangerous idea at first, since we are speaking of art, in which each new work must be made according to its own unique rules. However, Pius is not interested in usurping the duties and privileges of the artist, and so he recognizes this difficulty. Rather than blundering heedlessly into the discussion with the danger of encumbering artists with arbitrary aesthetic guidelines, he firsts asks the important question of whether there is such a thing as an ideal film at all.

The relativity of such considerations to the demands of each individual work notwithstanding, he argues that there are indeed at least some very general guidelines which may be proposed. He therefore outlines the discussion as follows:

We think the ideal film must be considered under three aspects:

1) in relation to the subject, i.e., the spectator to whom it is directed;

2) in relation to the object, i.e., the content of the film;

3) in relation to the community, upon which, as We have already noted, it exercises a particular influence.

In this overview I will focus on the first two aspects and leave the third for interested readers to explore for themselves.

The Ideal Film in Relation to the Spectator

Pius lists a number of qualities which the ideal film must offer to the spectator. Absolutely and universally necessary is respect for man: “For there is indeed no motive whereby it can be excepted from the general norm which demands that he who deals with men fully respect man.” Film should not only avoid debasing man but positively uplift him to a higher “consciousness of his dignity.”

The ideal film should also approach man with “loving understanding” – that is, with a knowledge of the various conditions in which man finds himself, so that a film that is directed for those of a particular age, class or profession adapts itself to their needs. It must have a sense of reality, but not reproduce reality mechanically.

(This last piece of advice reminds me of the great director Werner Herzog’s insistence that “Facts do not constitute truth.” Speaking to Stephen Colbert about his documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog said that if factual correctness were the measure of truth,

the book of books in literature then would be the Manhattan phone directory -- four million entries, everything correct. But it dusts out of my ears and I do not know: do they dream at night? Does Mr. Jonathan Smith cry in his pillow at night? We do not know anything when we check the correct entries in the phone directory. I am not this kind of a filmmaker.

To be fair, Herzog was trying to justify his use of mutant albino crocodiles in a documentary about ancient cave paintings, but it's still a good point.)

The ideal film, for Pius, should offer fulfillment of whatever it promises and know how to satisfy whatever legitimate desires the spectator brings to it, deep or superficial – whether relief, instruction, joy, encouragement, or stimulus, depending on the type of film it is.

Here Pius XII takes up the question of whether film can legitimately aim to satisfy man’s desire for mere relaxation or escape from his troubles, even in a relatively superficial way. I find it interesting that it even occurred to him ask such a question, since this is clearly the reason most people watch movies and the reason most films are made. That Pius doesn’t simply take this for granted shows that he takes as the starting point for his discussion that film is a form of art, capable of great nobility. His answer to the question is worth quoting at length:

It is not to be denied that even a somewhat superficial entertainment can rise to high artistic levels, and be classed even as ideal, since man has shallows as well as depths. Dull, however, is the man who is entirely superficial, and is unable to add depth to his thoughts and feelings.

Doubtless, the ideal film is allowed to lead the weary and jaded spirit to the thresholds of the world of illusion, so that it may enjoy a brief respite from the pressure of real existence. However, it should take care not to clothe the illusion with such a form that it is taken for reality by minds which are weak and without sufficient experience. The film, indeed, which leads from reality to illusion, ought then in some way to lead back from illusion to reality with the same gentleness that Nature employs in sleep. That also attracts man, wearied by reality, and plunges him for a short time into the illusory world of dreams: but, after sleep, it restores him refreshed, and as it were, renewed, to the bustle of reality, the reality he is used to, in which he lives, and of which, by his work and his struggle, he must always remain master.

The final essential quality of the ideal film with regard to the spectator is that it must aid man on his path to goodness. It is all too easy to make films that appeal to “the lower instincts and passions which overthrow man,” and even to receive critical adulation for doing so; yet to lead man to the good through the medium of film requires “outstanding artistic gifts,” for it is not a matter of mere moralizing.

The Ideal Film in Relation to Its Content

In so far as the film has reference to man, it will be ideal in content to the extent that, in perfect and harmonious form, it measures up to the original and essential demands of man himself. Basically, these demands are three: truth, goodness, beauty -- refractions, as it were, across the prism of consciousness, of the boundless realm of being, which extends beyond man, in whom they actuate an ever more extensive participation in Being itself.

Clearly the ways in which a film may lead us into deeper participation in Being are infinite in variety insofar as Being itself is infinite; this makes an exhaustive discussion impossible. Nonetheless Pius XII describes some ways in which films may rise to this challenge depending on whether they are documentaries or works of fiction.

One of the important questions is whether “every matter capable of representation [may] be accepted by one who sets before himself the ideal film.” It seems that certain things would not be depicted in the ideal film for moral or social reasons, or at least that there are subjects which must be treated with special care. Pius focuses on two issues in particular: the depiction of religious subjects and the depiction of evil.

Even in films whose subject is not religious, Pius urges that the religious element should not be neglected – that is, films ought not “offer the spectator a world in which no sign is given of God or of men who believe in and worship Him, a world in which people live as though God did not exist.” Aside from the fact that this would leave out an important part of reality, Pius points out that it is only natural for films to have at least some slight religious element, because most people believe in God and practice some religion.

Here I think Pius’s advice may benefit from being given the widest possible interpretation (admittedly, perhaps wider than he intended). The fact is that there are more and more people today who do not believe in God and do try to live as though He did not exist. I would argue that a good film does not necessarily have to make explicit reference to God or to religion, or to present characters who believe in either. God can be present in His absence; and indeed, it is in reality impossible to live as though God did not exist, since His existence influences even the lives of unbelievers. For this reason even an unbeliever making a film about unbelievers, if he is perceptive and honest in his depiction of purely human affairs, may end up testifying to the Divine, even if indirectly or negatively.

Nonetheless, Pius is not advocating religious propaganda. He is aware of the unique difficulties of portraying religious subjects. Some religious phenomena are by nature impossible to depict, at least directly. Other religious phenomena ought not to be depicted, out of piety and reverence.

But for Pius, the greatest difficulty facing writers and actors is that of avoiding “artificiality and affectation, every impression of a lesson learnt mechanically - since true religious feeling is essentially the opposite of external show, and does not easily allow itself to be ‘declaimed’.” He keenly observes that even good intentions often fail in giving religious subjects “the stamp of an experience truly lived and as a result, capable of being shared with the spectator.”

The Depiction of Evil

The vast majority of films deal with and depict evil in one way or another; how to go about this is no small problem for the conscientious filmmaker. We can hardly understand human life if we turn a blind eye to evil, but there is a difference between recognizing evil in order to cure it and making evil “an object of spectacle and amusement.”

Yet Pius understands why filmmakers and artists in general so often depict evil; he sees the “irresistible fascination in giving artistic shape to wrongdoing, in describing its power and its growth, its open and hidden paths, and the conflicts it generates or by means of which it advances.” He notes as well the artistic usefulness of evil in making good stand out more clearly.

We must conclude with Pius that the depiction of evil in art is wholly legitimate, provided that it does not depict evil for its own sake, or in an approving or corrupting way, or present it “to those who are not capable of controlling and resisting it.” On the contrary, the depiction of evil – even of its temporary victory – should serve to deepen our understanding of life and of good.

Even the Scriptures depict evil in a way that is both artistically and psychologically fascinating, yet in such a way that “mature persons” will not be lured or confused. When presented with such depictions, “the serious reader becomes more reflective, more clear-sighted, his mind, turning inwards, is led to say ‘take heed lest you too be led into temptation’ (cf. Gal. 6, 1) ‘if you stand take heed lest you fall’ (cf. I Cor., 10, 12).” Films can depict evil to the same effect.

Since film (whether cinema, television or digital) is as much the defining art form of our time as it was in the day of Pope Pius XII, his advice to filmmakers has lost little of its relevance. Indeed, the need for such counsel has arguably grown at pace with the decline of the film industry’s moral restraint since the 1950s.

Though Pius was not a filmmaker or an expert on film himself, his high esteem for the medium gave him the humility not to make judgments or give advice beyond his competence. This, combined with his knowledge of human nature, allowed him to offer some insights that are universally valid, yet do not violate the freedom of the artist to make ever new paths into the mystery of Being.

Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Feb. 23, 2015 10:22 PM ET USA

    Pope Pius XII was the best pope in my lifetime. I consider him to be a saint even though his detractors manage to cow the Church into delaying his canonization. Pope Pius XII pray for us!