Each year I act as moderator for two programs that take place under the auspices of the Office of Faith Formation of the Diocese of Brooklyn: an adult education course on the Catholic novel and a Friday film festival. Each program takes place twice each year, once in the fall and once in the spring. Both have been in existence at least 20 years. In the Catholic novel course the students and I have read or re-read more than 150 Catholic novels by Morris West, Evelyn Waugh, Alice McDermott, Graham Greene, Valerie Sayers, Walker Percy, Ralph McInerney and others. Through the festivals we have viewed more than 255 films, all classics or near classics. We have viewed the films of Alfred Hitchcock, William Wyler, Orson Welles, Sidney Lumet, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Ernest Lubitsch, Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang and others.
Being involved in these two programs has been a wonderful education for me and I hope for others who have attended either or both of them. There is one lady who has attended almost all the film evenings. She has received the equivalent of an excellent course on film. For me any work I have done for either program has been a labor of love.
Because I moderate both of these programs I am always looking for novels or films that in some way, even indirectly, foster the faith of those attending. I have to be careful not to just focus on the message or theme and overlook the quality of the novel or film as a work of art. Just because a novel or a film deals with a religious subject, for example the life of a saint, does not mean it is a good work of art. In choosing novels or films for the programs I am looking for a good work of art that says something significant.
Years ago the first writing that Walker Percy had published were scholarly essays about language. Believing he had something significant to say, Percy decided he wanted to reach a wider audience and so he began to write novels. Given his intention, I think there was a danger that the novels Percy would write would turn out to be more like homilies than novels. Because of his talent and skill, he avoided this danger and wrote six novels that are excellent works of art.
I think the greatest example in the movie industry of an artist who wanted to create films that contribute to viewers’ spiritual growth and yet still be films that entertain, is Frank Capra. Having been very successful in creating comedies such as “It Happened One Night” (1934) with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, Capra underwent a kind of conversion in terms of what he wanted to put on a movie screen. He wrote the following:
“My films will explore the heart not with logic, but with compassion … I will deal with the little man’s doubts, his curses, his loss of faith in himself, his neighbor, in his God. And I will show the overcoming of doubts, the courageous renewal of faith…And I will remind the little man that his mission on earth is to advance spiritually.
“And finally, my films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, and that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other.”
Some might claim that Capra exaggerated the importance of film and that he expected a film to be more powerful than it could possibly be. I am not among that group. I would never say what I think some people have said in suggesting that Capra had exaggerated the power of film: “It’s only a movie!” I think Capra’s view of movies was wonderful and I think he accomplished, at least with some of his films, what he wanted to accomplish.
Four Capra films are excellent examples of movies that are exceptionally entertaining but also say something important about how we should live. They are “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936), “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939), “Meet John Doe” (1941) and “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). Each film is a gem and I think each one, at least indirectly, gives evidence of Capra’s Catholic background. Capra claimed that just before he shot a scene, he would say a prayer. He thought people might find that hard to believe. I don’t. I think his films are clear evidence of a profound spirituality.