On an Easter Sunday, at the close of the last millennium, St. John Paul II read his Letter to Artists dedicating it “to all who are passionately dedicated for new epiphanies of beauty.” His message:
“Society needs artists. The world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair.”
At the time of this letter, it had been over 30 years since Venerable Fulton Sheen had infiltrated thousands of homes with his Emmy-winning NBC show. It had been over 70 years since the New York Times called The Passion of Joan of Arc a masterpiece “making worthy films of the past look like tinsel shams.” And it had been over 50 years since some of the world’s greatest actors including Gregory Peck, Grace Kelly, and James Dean joined a radio rosary hour broadcasted from Hollywood.
Catholicism used to be an integral, shape-shifting part of filmmaking and media. We belonged in Hollywood because we had an important truth to share, and the artistic capacity to do it. Yet, the decline of practicing Catholics in the Western world has had a diminishing effect on its artistic depiction in film. Many modern Christian filmmakers imbue holiness through sanitized popcorn flicks depicting Christianity as an obvious conclusion to life’s 90 minute long difficulties. Great filmmakers of the past didn’t feel the need to be religious salesmen, and thus were free to be what the world needed them to be: artists.
At the time of St. John Paul II’s letter, millennial artists were no more than playground thespians, but we have come of age and are prepared to answer his call for a cultural “epiphany of beauty.”
Over 75 of the greatest Catholic filmmakers, designers, marketing professionals and artists from all across North America are looking for a Catholic artistic revival through their project, 8Beats, a feature length anthology of short films on the 8 Beatitudes. The teams come from an over 1,700-member Facebook community of Catholic artistic professionals called Catholic Creatives. Eight regional teams will produce and distribute 5-12 minute, short films inspired by the themes of the eight Beatitudes that carry within them, as the 8Beats producers anticipate, “depth of meaning which agnostic, humanist, or Christian can encounter.”
Rejecting the corny convention of religious films, our generation grew up with these filmmakers’ hope to depict the human spirit in all its lowliness: the raw, the disordered, and of course, the redeemed.
The 8Beats producers explain their mission saying, “We’re not focusing on a moralizing religious message, but will instead seek to portray authentic, flawed characters and narratives that embrace brokenness instead of running from it.”
It’s a subversive mission. Can a Catholic filmmaker grapple with unrepentant sinners and irresolute endings without inadvertently glorifying it? Can they rely on unresolved mystery in a script to convince an audience of God? These questions make the choice of the Beatitudes all the more appropriate. They seem to echo the holy contradictions Christ taught in His sermon. How can the meek, the poor, the hungry, the mournful, know anything other than the misery of their present moment? This is a mysterious truth Christ believed we could comprehend, and it’s this mysterious truth that is beautified by art.
This is an ambitious goal. The anthology may be a groundbreaking success or laughed out of every film festival in Hollywood. But regardless of what happens, this is the rumbling of a great Church renaissance.
Let us welcome a revival of films where priests are the protagonists. Let us show that the hills are alive with the sound of music. Let us make films that show Satan is not a figment of our imagination. Let us be artists of integrity serving a culture asthmatic for truth. Let us stare undeterred at the chaos of life on earth and fearlessly seek to portray things as they are, and not as we wish they were. Let our voices be heard in Hollywood, because we have the best story, and this world needs to hear it.
Casey McCorry is a digital associate for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a documentary filmmaker, wife and mother.