Avatar: What the Vatican Really Said


Recently, as I noted in a blog post at NCRegister.com, the mainstream media cocked a bemused eye at critical reactions to the film Avatar originating from the vicinity of the Holy See.

“Vatican Lashes Out at ‘Avatar’” was the headline at an ABC News story. (Of course it does. It wouldn’t be the Vatican if it didn’t “lash out,” would it?) “Avatar is being slammed by the Vatican,” adds USA Today.

In reality, coverage of the film at L’Osservatore Romano (the Vatican’s quasi-official paper of record) and at Vatican Radio was more or less comparable to the mainstream of wider critical reaction, though obviously the Vatican gave greater attention to spiritual issues than critics generally.

Gaetano Vallini’s review in L’Osservatore Romano could hardly be called a “slam.” (He ends by noting “The visual spectacle alone is well worth the ticket price,” and calls Cameron’s Pandora “exceptionally well imagined and created.” At the same time, like many critics he is critical of the emotional hollowness of the “forgettable” plot, and offers critical perspective on the film’s spiritual and political dimensions.)

Getting the straight dope should be as easy as going to the Vatican website and pulling up the English edition of L’Osservatore Romano. Unfortunately, although the Church’s teachings consistently accord the communications media great importance, her practice lags behind her principles. There is a weekly English edition of L’Osservatore Romano, but it’s spotty (the Italian edition is daily), and as far as I can tell the Vatican website offers only articles from the current issue. (You can get previous issues on CD-ROM — up to 2008.)

A priest friend, frustrated by dodgy media coverage, recently sent me his own translation of the entire L’Osservatore Romano review, as well as of a segment that ran of Vatican Radio.

Here’s the L’Osservatore Romano piece (translation courtesy Fr. Shane Johnson).

Avatar, James Cameron’s new film: special effects wrapped around emptiness, scares and harmless pantheism

Massive cost and the latest special effects in James Cameron’s Avatar, about to hit Italian theaters

Very little below the surface

By Gaetano Vallini

Lots of mind-blowing technology dazzles us, but there are few real emotions, human emotions at least, in this world of aliens which is exceptionally well imagined and created. Still, Avatar, the highly awaited film by James Cameron, which comes out in Italy on January 15, a month after the rest of the world, will not disappoint the expectations of science fiction fans. In fact, with Avatar, the most expensive film in history (over $400 million including promotion), the magic of cinema comes alive again with all its creative power.

As for the rest, the film’s relevance lies more in its visual impact than in the plot, which is forgettable. Nor is it in the messages transmitted, which are hardly new; they’re already present in the other films that the director evokes more or less openly: from Little Big Man to Dances with Wolves, from A Man Called Horse to Pocahontas. The innovative 3D, along with revolutionary performance capturing technology which captures the actors’ movements and turns them into digital animation, brings the visual experience to levels never before seen.

It starts with the quality of the backdrop in which the action takes place, with a three-dimensionality that isn’t aimed at “punching a hole” in the screen, but making the scene surround the viewer, with a depth that gets very close to reality and with better sharpness in the image quality. Cameron had this project on the back burner for ten years — the first idea came in 1995 and the project began in 2005 — because the technology wasn’t available to bring to the screen what he was imagining. And because he likes to experiment, the director didn’t limit himself to using normal CGI technology, but invented new ones.

The result is fascinating. The story takes place in 2154. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a Marine paralyzed from the waist down, is the protagonist. He’s been sent to the planet Pandora, a primordial world rich in precious material resources which humans seek to exploit. The planet is inhabited by the Na’vi, gigantic blue men, a warrior race determined to defend their own territory. There is no oxygen on Pandora, so humans can’t survive.

To get closer to the native beings, “Avatars” are used, artificial Na’vi created by scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), which can be “put on” by humans through a consciousness link. For Jake, it’s a way to regain the use of his legs and get back on the front lines. However, the Marine quickly falls in love with the native Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), and begins to understand their civilization and what they fight for, ending up going over to the side of the Na’vi to fight against the human invaders.

Cameron’s story therefore has a universal dimension to it, easily shared in its simplicity and effectiveness, since the same story has been repeated over and over in human history: violence, abuse, often culminating in genocide; the most advanced civilizations seeking to conquer indigenous cultures out of lust for power and wealth. In America, it’s a topic refracted through the myth of the frontier and the war of white men against native peoples, but which can easily be seen in other ages of colonization and even the most recent wars.

But Cameron, more focused on the creation of his Pandora fantasy world, chooses a less offensive [Italian: “blando”… translated by many news agencies as “bland”, it really means “mild”, “gentle”, “less offensive”, not “bland” in the sense of blasé or boring] approach: he tells the story without going deep, and ends by falling into sentimentality. The whole thing is reduced to a simplistic anti-imperialist, anti-militarist parable, which doesn’t have the same incisiveness as other such films more committed to exploring the theme. Similarly, the subtle environmentalism gets bogged down in a spiritualism linked to nature-worship which hints at one of so many fashions of our time. Making nature-destroyers of the invaders, and environmentalists of the indigenous, seems to be an over-simplification which lessens the scope of the plot.

But, all of that aside, the film has indisputable value for its exceptional visual impact. The new frontier for science fiction cinema that Avatar has traced out is far beyond anything to date. And the record for box office take — which Cameron’s other film Titanic (1997) still holds — could be broken as well. The visual spectacle alone is well worth the ticket price.

(© L’Osservatore Romano, January 10, 2010)

Here’s the Vatican Radio transcript.

Having obtained sweeping success and stratospheric box office takes in many countries around the world, James Cameron’s much-anticipated film Avatar was presented yesterday to the Italian press, ahead of the Friday cinema debut at 800 cinemas, with distribution by Fox. The technologically sophisticated epic film, with the splendor of its never-before-seen special effects, tells the story of a man, his Avatar, and his love for an upstanding and righteous alien woman. The plot outline, nothing new, denounces once again the immoral behavior of greedy and belligerent humans set against the peaceful and tolerant conduct of aliens, ennobled by their vague pantheistic spirituality. Luca Pellegrini reports:

On the stricken Titanic, we saw horrific struggles, as humanity, understandably stricken by panic, shows its true nature: greed, pride, cowardice, arrogance, which leads to acts of shameful violence and humiliating abuse. Twelve years after having brought to the screen on the decks of the Titanic one of the most beautiful and epic stories of love, James Cameron again pushes the limits of technology and takes in head-spinning box office totals, taking the spectator to the planet Pandora, an unending wonder of flora and fauna which is cared for by the courageous Na’vi, a race of blue hominoids 10 feet tall living in peace, or rather in total and physical symbiosis with the nature which surrounds them, sustains them and defends them.

Its art and technology have made Avatar one of the most hyped and expensive movies in the history of cinema; it has amply repaid both hype and money with its billion-dollar take and unprecedented media attention. There have truly never been more surprising images, which we discover through the eyes and experience of Jake Scully. He is an ex-Marine grafted into the body of a Na’vi, his Avatar, to seek not so much the reconciliation as the submission and total annihilation of the peaceful indigenous population. Humans, in fact, have come to the planet for purely economic reasons, in order to exploit its energy resources. The lives and the beliefs of the aliens, being seen as different, count for nothing next to wealth and power.

Avatar, therefore, is a film which from the director’s point of view takes on topics of great current relevance and ethical depth, seen on a technological backdrop unsurpassed in history, thanks as well to the 3D which surrounds the spectator with amazing detail. With its simplistic, unoriginal plot of an exploited planet, vicious humanity, and a civilization unappreciated for its beliefs about to be swept away by unscrupulous colonizers, Avatar will at least be an obligatory point of reference because the visuals leave us speechless and breathless: flights on colored dragons, phosphorescent flowers which float into the air, six-legged horses which communicate empathically with their riders, colossal trees, mountains hanging in the sky, a fantastic backdrop for the Avatar’s adventures and for his slow but inevitable fascination with the Na’vi and their beliefs, along with a love affair that develops slowly between him and the king’s daughter.

But the enchantment has less enchanting motives, too: Pandora is a planet which flashes before our eyes all the pseudo-doctrines which have made ecology the religion of the millennium. Nature is no longer a Creation to be defended, but a divinity to be adored, while transcendence is emptied by incarnating itself in a plant and in its white vines which nourish spirits, branching off into real pantheism. Avatar seems harmless, and certainly is not the first to propagate the eco-spiritualist tendencies shown through the beauty of the planet Pandora; tendencies born in the Age of Aquarius and seemingly confirmed only in 2154, the year in which the story takes place.

In its jaw-dropping spectacle, Avatar could define a new genre. It is more doubtful if — aside from its special effects — it is truly an heir to the masterpieces of science fiction which have defined the history of film.

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