The Presentation of Evil in Movies and on Television

A Study Conference at the School of

Social Communication of the Pontifical

University of the Holy Cross

Seventy professionals in the field of audiovisual entertainment, from 12 countries of Europe and the Americas, gathered in the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross to discuss the presentation of evil in movies and on television. The framework was the international seminar “Rethinking Fiction in Film & TV” organized by the School of Institutional Social Communication from December 3 to 5, 2009, under the heading “Moral evil on the screen: dramatic requirements and pathologies.” Taking part were academics, critics, screen writers, and producers. The seminar was especially oriented towards dialogue, with brief addresses and ample time for debate.

In the first lecture, Professor Jaime Nubiola from the University of Navarra spoke on “The Wounded Imagination.” He offered ten keys to improving creativity in our time, suggesting many of the ideas that would be taken up in later sessions. Among other things, he emphasized the need for showing the contrast between the attractiveness of imaginary evil and the horrific and inhuman reality of real evil, and for trying to seek new and captivating ways of presenting the good. He stressed the need to use our imagination to discover how daily life can cease being monotonous and boring and become a passionate adventure through the discovery of the novelty, joy and beauty of everyday things.

Two of the round tables were dedicated to the formation of script writers. Taking part were representatives from the master’s programs in script writing at the University of the Andes in Chile, the Catholic University of Milan in Italy, and the University of Navarra in Spain. All agreed in pointing out that evil is a factor in human conflict and that no story can be portrayed without including conflict. The important question is to learn how to dramatize evil properly. The difficulties faced by instructors and students in this area of teaching, so closely related to conscience and professional creativity, are obvious to everyone. Not only technical and commercial aspects are involved, but also vital concerns that present a view, whether adequate or not, of human dignity. Many of the students in these courses were script writers for both television and the cinema, whose works may be viewed by millions of spectators.

Two other sessions centered on producers of programs. Luca Manzi, creator of a successful television series, and Jordi Gasull, who showed clips of three films currently in the post-production phase, spoke about their experiences as script writers and producers who seek to work with a Christian outlook in a world that often doesn’t know how to harmonize the demands of the industry with those of human dignity.

Professor Armando Fumagalli, from the Catholic University of Milan, spoke about how to present conflicts when the protagonists in the stories are “good” people, making reference to his work as a consultor on various television miniseries. Experience was also at the basis of the contribution of the producer Ángel Blasco, who explained some complex situations he had encountered and then made suggestions on how to solve them with responsibility and prudence.

The representation of evil was the subject chosen by Professor Juan José Garcia-Noblejas from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. His presentation was entitled, “Let Medea kill her children, but not onstage please,” in which he compared two movie adaptations of Euripides’ tragedy, by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Lars Von Trier respectively. Professor Garcia-Noblejas went back to the original meaning of the concept “obscene” (as used in the classical Greek theater) and stressed that, in artistic presentations, there are things that one can and should show in public and others that should remain offstage to safeguard human dignity. The important question is not so much what one shows as how one shows it.

Professor Eduardo Terrasa (University of Navarra) spoke on “The sense of guilt in contemporary film: sin and redemption.” He centered his talk on the films of the director Clint Eastwood, and specifically on four of his recent movies: Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Gran Torino. According to Terrasa, in all of these movies Eastwood dealt effectively and sincerely with the “problem” of evil, but only in the last one did he succeed in giving a solution.

On his part, professor and film critic Alberto Fijo insisted on the importance of reading in the critic’s formation. The aesthetic, ethical, and anthropological evaluation that one has to make of a movie requires subtle distinctions and nuances, and these distinctions arise from culture, formation, and reflective experience in life. Therefore he said that his principal mission as professor is to get his students to read, to help them to think, to reason, and to marvel at beauty.

The film critic Jerónimo José Martín also agreed on the need to respect the intelligence and good taste of the spectator, avoiding any sensationalism. He stressed that one should always emphasize the positive aspects of films and be clear about the negative aspects, but without taking perverse pleasure in them.

Although the discussion was chiefly about the cinema, there was also a session dedicated entirely to television entitled “The possible worlds of television series.” One of those taking part, producer Sara Melodia, showed the first clips from a miniseries on Pope Pius XII produced by the company she works for (Lux Vide).

The spectator was the protagonist of the last day of the seminar. In a round table dedicated to “The role of the spectator,” Professor Carmen Sofia Brenes from the University of the Andes emphasized the active role of the person watching a film. The stories, she said, challenge the spectator to grasp the meaning of what is being narrated and see its practical and personal applications. Another session was centered on the experiences of websites, magazines, books, and radio and television programs dedicated to advising viewers on the huge amount of audiovisual material now available. This function includes providing criteria for learning to appreciate good films and for recognizing ones that are more worthwhile.

In this regard, the critic Ana Sanchez de la Nieta presented an original proposal on film as a way back to the humanities. She said that the use of audiovisual material by adolescents and children is often hurried and fragmentary. Appreciation for narration, for consistent development, and for the psychology of the person has been lost. In a society of “impact” where there is no place for patience, good films are viewed as boring and good literature is set aside. According to Ms. Sanchez de la Nieta, the disappearance of stories coincides with the decline of the humanities, so much so that the loss of the capacity to tell and listen to stories will mean the loss of our own humanity. The path to restoring the humanities includes teaching people to watch and enjoy good movies, to “consume” stories, entering into other countries, mentalities and lives and developing the capacity for observation, contemplation and understanding of other people.

Before concluding their work, the participants in the seminary had a get-together with the Chancellor of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Bishop Javier Echevarría, who encouraged them to work with optimism, in spite of the difficulties. He asked them to be a leaven to restore human dignity and Christian transcendence to films and television. Recalling what he so often heard from St. Josemaría, the Prelate of Opus Dei said that the world of cinematic creativity is also a place where one needs to seek one’s own sanctification and that of society.

At the end, the three days of activity seemed too short. But the many questions that remained unanswered assured that future editions of the seminar would have much to consider. Meanwhile, a web page (repensarlaficcion.com) has the texts of the presentations and other articles of common interest.

Romana, n. 49, July-December 2009, p. 336-338.

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