Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #4

Re: Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

I had the opportunity to read your review of Elizabeth about a week ago. I will start this by stating that I am a Catholic of 55 years. I did watch the film in question, as well as the other films referenced in your review. I think what really bothered me was your blatant attack on the quality of the film and the acting based overwhelmingly on your assumed role as “defender of the faith”.

While obviously a work of fiction and not a documentary, one cannot deny the presence of the Inquisition in Spain and elsewhere in Catholic Europe at the time of the first Armada. There is also sufficient evidence that Phillip was preparing the Armada to invade England. You seem to feel that there is no reason to portray the Catholic Church’s role in any of the terrible things that were taking place in the 16th Century.

I was particularly amused at your discomfort at the portrayal of the fictional “Sea Hawks” or the real-life privateers preying upon unsuspecting Spanish Galleons on their way back to Spain with riches stolen from the Native Americas. Do you deny that those riches were being used to fund the Armada? I notice that you make no mention of the estimated 7 million Native Americans killed in present day Latin America by the Spanish Conquest. All of this done with the blessing of Catholic priests and representatives of the King of Spain and the Pope.

Let’s face it, the Catholic Church, Spain, England, the United States, Russia, Nazi Germany, and many other powers have terrible things in their history. We have made Germany face their past and apologize. It’s a shame the Catholic Church can’t face their past in a more honest manner. Perhaps if our faith was more capable of this, the current pedophile priest catastrophe would have been addressed in a more timely and effective manner. I wonder if you would also object to any honest portrayal of that crisis in a film.

I would like to think that our faith would survive without the censorship of the National Catholic Register. I personally would prefer to recognize the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them. In the end, I guess that Americans should be happy that England prevailed in the pivotal historic battle. What would have happened to the Anglo Saxon system of jurisprudence, the Magna Carta, and modern democracy as we know it today?

In the end I would say that I thought the acting of Blanchett extremely powerful and moving and the cinematography fantastic. But then, I just watched the movie for the art that it was, and not as a potential threat to my Catholic faith.

I was right with you, more or less, until your penultimate paragraph, in which you lost me entirely by trotting out “the c‑word”… Censorship.

Actually, you were starting to lose me in the preceding paragraph by somehow working in the abuse scandal (and wrongly calling it a “pedophile priest” scandal), and comparing the Church’s need to face its past and apologize to post-Nazi Germany. (Never mind that the Catholic Church has offered more apologies in the past half century than all the other powers you named in their combined histories. As much as needs to be done in the Church, more apologizing is hardly the most pressing need.) As regards Nazi Germany, perhaps you are familiar with Godwin’s law?

In film-criticism terms, though, the “censorship” charge almost qualifies for a Godwinian corollary clause in itself. It’s such a loaded and (in the present context) over-the-top claim that I’m not surprised to find that the only specific issue from my review that you address, Hollywood’s historic portrayals of English privateering, is only tangentially connected with the film in question.

What is one to make of your claim that “I think what really bothered me was your blatant attack on the quality of the film and the acting based overwhelmingly on your assumed role as ‘defender of the faith’”?

Apparently, blatant attacks on the quality of the film per se are not what bothers you, or you would have your work cut out for you, given its dismal reception by critics at large. I beg your indulgence while I rub it in: Over 70 percent of critics at Rotten Tomatoes, and nearly three-quarters of “cream of the crop” critics, panned the film.

Even the few critics who did like it didn’t like it a lot. According to Metacritic, not a single critic surveyed was willing to cough up more than a 75% rating (i.e., three stars out of four), and only a couple even went as high as that. Most were much lower, with half a dozen 40% reviews and even a couple in the 30%–33% range. Metacritic’s averaged score for the film is below 50%.

Judging from its limp box-office performance, viewers haven’t liked it much better; it looks to earn about half what the original did, despite the vastly increased star power of Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush. The clear consensus is that the film is mediocre at best (though of course anyone is welcome to hold a contrary opinion).

You say you watched the film “for the art that it was.” So did I, and like most critics, I found it wanting as art. I have no problem giving a positive star rating to a well-made film I find objectionable or problematic on moral or spiritual grounds; recent examples include Million Dollar Baby and Brokeback Mountain. To those I would willingly add the original Elizabeth, its own anti-Catholicism notwithstanding (though I probably wouldn’t recommend it overall). The sequel doesn’t make that cut.

It seems your objection, and presumably your claim of “censorship,” is somehow bound up with what you call my “assumed role as ‘defender of the faith’” (scare quotes yours). Whose “assumption” is it, anyway? I haven’t called myself that; the phrase appears nowhere on my site, and if you comb my writing for snippets of “mission statement” content, the mission that emerges is “film criticism informed by Christian faith,” which has a strikingly different resonance from the mission statement you made up for me.

Apparently, it is all right for critics like Stephen Whitty to call the film on its anti-Catholicism, because he isn't writing as a Catholic. Does that mean that women critics must not object to misogynism in a film? Is that “censorship” too? What if an American critic objects to anti-Americanism in a film, or a black critic objects to racism?

You are over 50 — almost old enough to remember what movie censorship really was, and certainly old enough to know what I am talking about when I point out the obvious: There is no Legion of Decency and no Production Code Office. The number of Hollywood producers with my number on their speed dial consulting me on how to tailor scripts and scenes to suit Catholic sensibilities is zero. Zero also happens to be the number of cities and theater chains that refuse to play movies panned by me, as well as the number of dioceses in which parishioners take an oath not to see that same class of films. Other relevant statistics, including the number of boycotts, letter-writing campaigns and protest marches I have organized or called for, as well as the number of actual boycotts, letter-writing campaigns and protest marches that I am aware of my reviews having inspired, are in the same zero range.

All to say, you should know better than to go around waving loaded words like “censorship.” You could poke an eye out.

I am happy to agree with your assessment that the faith of the Catholic Church, founded by Jesus Christ upon the rock of St. Peter, would survive quite nicely without my modest efforts. It probably would have survived without your letter to me too, yet you still felt it worth writing.

You say you didn’t watch the film “as a potential threat to my Catholic faith.” Putting aside the ambiguity and problematic implications of the word “threat,” is the compatibility or lack thereof of a film with your Catholic faith not a relevant issue for you? Do you check your faith at the theater door?

The Church, in Inter Mirifica and elsewhere, specifically calls for Catholic critics to undertake the kind of criticism I am trying to do. How well I’m doing it is of course another question. If you don’t appreciate my efforts, that’s fine with me. If you think the thing itself isn’t worth doing or is somehow positively disreputable, maybe you need to study your faith more.

P.S. I’m not enough of a history enthusiast to hold strong opinions on the historical questions you raise. It’s enough to note that whether the Spanish galleons were carrying stolen treasure is one question, and whether English piracy during peacetime was justified is another.

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