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A 'Spotlight' on how films about the Catholic Church went from praise to judgment day

A 'Spotlight' on how films about the Catholic Church went from praise to judgment day
Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, center, and Brian d’Arcy James play Boston Globe journalists documenting sex abuse by priests in "Spotlight." (Kerry Hayes / Open Road Films via AP)

Sadistic nuns. Pedophile priests. Criminal coverups within the Roman Catholic Church. It seems Catholicism can't win at the multiplex these days. In based-on-fact films such as 2013's "Philomena," 2002's "The Magdalene Sisters," last year's "Jimmy's Hall" and the don't-take-it-too-seriously "The Da Vinci Code" from 2006, the Catholic Church comes off as a totalitarian institution sucking the joy out of its parishioners, willing to resort to murder to hide its secrets.

This year, a new film takes the church to task. "Spotlight," from Open Road Films and starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber and Rachel McAdams, tells the true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered a clergy sex abuse scandal in the local archdiocese. It shows the church as a powerful force willing to do almost anything — transferring priests from parish to parish, covering up out-of-court settlements, pressuring the paper to tone down its coverage — to protect the sexual predators in its midst.

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It wasn't always this way. For years the Catholic Church was portrayed in a highly favorable light. Priests were kindly Bing Crosby types (1945's "The Bells of St. Mary's") or tough but compassionate and socially conscious, a la Spencer Tracy in 1938's "Boys Town." And a whole slew of sometimes stern, but generally kindly, nuns were often played by hall of fame beauties like Ingrid Bergman ("The Bells of St. Mary's"), Audrey Hepburn (1959's "The Nun's Story") and Deborah Kerr (in 1957's "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison").

This disparity is the result of the Motion Picture Production Code, which set moral guidelines for the industry and was in force from the 1930s until the 1960s. Hoping to avoid government censorship of movies, studio heads adopted a set of strictures written by Father Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit priest, and Martin Quigley, the Catholic editor of the trade paper Motion Picture Herald. The code was then administered for many years by another Catholic, Joseph Breen.

"In the early days of the code, one of the functions was to mainstream the church, because as late as 1928, being Catholic was sort of a disqualification for being president," says John Mulderig, assistant director of media reviews for the Catholic News Service. Mulderig was referring to Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith, whose Catholicism was a major issue in his ill-fated run for office. "Part of the production code," adds Mulderig, "was that religion and clergy could not be shown in a negative light."

"Every Hollywood film from the 1930s to the late 1950s, Catholics were super influential in keeping the movies clean and accurate," adds Colleen McDannell, a professor of history at the University of Utah and editor of the book "Catholics in the Movies." "So all of these movies, the scripts were read by an Irish American Catholic [Breen] and censored, and anything that was inaccurate was changed."

That wall of censorship eventually crumbled for a number of reasons. One was the fact that foreign filmmakers, not restricted by the code, could make challenging movies about religion and the church, which were then seen in American art houses. Roberto Rossellini's "L'Amore," a 1948 anthology film featuring a segment in which Anna Magnani plays a disturbed peasant who thinks she is the Virgin Mary about to give birth to Jesus, opened to great controversy in the U.S. It generated a legal case that eventually wound up in the Supreme Court, which declared film an art form subject to 1st Amendment protection. And director Luis Buñuel's "Viridiana," a 1961 feature in which a novitiate descends into debauchery (the film ends with a suggestion that she is about to engage in a ménage à trois), won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

But it was the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, which began to gain steam in the late 1980s, when the production code had been replaced by the current ratings system, that really opened the floodgates. One of the first works to handle the subject was "Judgment," a 1990 TV movie starring David Strathairn as a Louisiana priest accused of molesting his young parishioners. That was followed by "The Boys of St. Vincent," a 1992 Canadian TV production (shown theatrically in the U.S.) about boys being molested in a Catholic orphanage in Newfoundland.

"This is the biggest scandal to hit the Catholic Church; it's the biggest story out there," says Sister Rose Pacatte, a film columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, referring to these and other films about the sexual abuse issue. "This is not Hollywood being mean to the church; it's Hollywood telling the truth."

McDannell emphasizes that many of these current films are coming out of Ireland, a country in which, she says, "the Catholic Church was aligned with the government, and it was destructive. In the U.S. it was a minority religion; there is no 'Magdalene Sisters' story in the U.S.," she says of the film about abuses at the church-run workhouses for "fallen" women in Ireland.

In terms of power dynamics, however, "Spotlight" details a situation that is about as close as the U.S. will ever come to re-creating the Irish experience.

"Going to Catholic school, I understood how relevant the church is, and I think people understand Boston is an Irish Catholic city, maybe the most Irish Catholic in the country," says Tom McCarthy, the director and co-writer (with Josh Singer) of the film. It is an outsider, a Jewish editor from Florida, who decides the Globe must take on the church.

McCarthy's film, which plays like a contemporary version of "All the President's Men," shows, says Pacatte, "the strength and integrity and authenticity of real journalism when it's done without an agenda. They went looking for a systemic problem and they discovered it. They did the church a favor, because they called us to be true to who we are."

"The story became so big there was no denying the problem," adds McCarthy. "There was no response from the church. It was so well-reported, it was definitive, and people had to wake up and say this is happening."

But is it piling on? Has film done a 180-degree turn and decided that the Catholic Church is now the source of all evil? "There is a certain degree of animus against the church, which might lead to some sensationalism," says the Catholic News Service's Mulderig. "It's almost gone into an assumption where a priest in the '40s would have been taken as a positive character, now he's a negative character."

"Since the sex abuse scandals, there will never be a movie about the church that does not address them," says book editor McDannell. The scandals "touch a basic and fundamental fear we all have," she adds, "that someone you trust will turn that trust around, and no one will believe you. What a nightmare."

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