A catholic Taste in Films?

I’ve always wondered about the phrase "a catholic taste", meaning "broad". Surely the way in which the Catholic religion (like most others) prescribes and proscribes certain behaviours and materials acts to limit rather than broaden an individual’s tastes? Apparently the phrase derives from Catholicism being positioned as "the universal religion", and hence "a catholic taste" (with a small "c"), means "a universal taste". There may be a bit of "getting the problem out of the way in the title" going on, but that’s the official version.

However our two visits to the cinema in the last couple of days certainly challenge this interpretation. Although the two films are at opposite ends of almost any cinematic spectrum, there was an odd and unexpected common thread in our viewing which bears a bit of introspection.

On Sunday, we went to see Assassin’s Creed. This is an energetic sci-fi and action movie based on the video game of the same name. While it’s not a great film, some of the parkour "chase and fight" sequences are amazing. Apparently it was done under "Bond" rules: if they could find someone mad enough to do a stunt for real, they went for it. There are also some pretty impressive sets, backdrops and costumes. The core action takes place in Andalucía in time of the Spanish Inquisition, Columbus and the Moor withdrawal from Spain. Without giving too much away, the plot revolves around a long running war between the Catholic church, in the form of The Templars, seeking ways to suppress human free will, which they see as driving the excesses of human violence, and The Assassins, who oppose them in the name of freedom. The Templars’ position, paving the road to hell with the best of intentions, is a clever plot device, and leads to some surprisingly insightful discussions of the human condition, such as an exchange between two senior modern-day Templars debating whether they need further methods of mass control when Materialism seems to be working very well…

Yesterday, we went to see Silence. I suspect few people will see both films, and probably not very many middle-aged couples, but hey, we have "a catholic taste", don’t we? By any objective measure this is the complete opposite of Assassin’s Creed: a thoughtful historical piece rather than a game-inspired action fest, slow and considered rather than frenetic, emotional and psychological rather than active, arguably a bit too long and indulgent rather than arguably a bit curt at the end, Oscar-worthy rather than one for the Razzies. However, we then get an unexpected thematic resonance. Silence portrays the attempts of the Catholic church to introduce Christianity to Japan, and how after some initial success this was met by a brutal backlash under the the Japanese establishment’s own inquisition. While the Christians are portrayed as the heroes of the piece, they are shown as arrogant and wilfully ignorant of the Japanese religion, culture, language and institutions. While the Japanese inquisitors are shown to be brutal at times, they are also shown to be capable of subtlety, humanity, humour and leniency. By the end of the film, while you may be impressed by the strength of the Christians’ faith, you ultimately admire and have some sympathy for the Japanese establishment’s psychological as much as physical defence of its own culture. And that is basically the same plot line as Assassin’s Creed.

Neither of these films will become favourites of ours, but I’m glad we saw them both and I find the odd thematic similarities fascinating and thought provoking. In particular, both challenge the conceit of any religion which sets itself up as the "universal" moral guide. In this particular case, a "catholic taste in film" has turned out to have something of an "anti-Catholic" theme, with two films both challenging the very concept of universal catholicism. Go figure…

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