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Monday, 15 June 2015 12:27

A widescreen vision

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Fr Peter Malone msc150Father Peter Malone msc who recently celebrated the golden jubilee of his ordination as Missionary of the Sacred Heart has just published an engaging memoir which gives an insightful glimpse of growing up as Catholic in a pre-Vatican II Church, on religious life and his engagement with the world of cinema.

Missionary of the Sacred Heart, priest, teacher, author, lecturer.

These are just some of the ways of describing the long and varied ministry of Fr Peter Malone, who celebrated the Golden Jubilee of his Ordination last month. Throughout those 50 years he has maintained a passion for movies and has developed an internationally respected expertise in cinema studies.

At age 75, Fr Peter has just published an engaging memoir ranging across the many aspects of his life: An Ever-Widening Screen (Connor Court Publishing, 520 pages, $49.99). I spoke with him recently about his life and latest book, and began by asking him what had prompted him to write a memoir.

‘I realised my life consisted of many different strands; that it may be worthwhile to reflect on them, for myself, family, friends and others. I’m a man of a certain vintage, mainly of Irish heritage. I grew up as a Catholic in a pre-Vatican II Church.

I took up the call to a religious congregation from the late 1950s and to the priesthood from the mid-1960s. For many years I worked in religious formation in my congregation and taught theology and Old Testament studies as part of the Melbourne College of Divinity. But, in different ways throughout the years, there was always the cinema strand: reviewing, writing, seminars and then taking up a leadership role in the Catholic Church’s international organisations for cinema and communication.’

Woven into the various stories of Fr Peter’s personal experiences are insightful accounts of the circumstances of the times, whether it be in the social setting, changes taking place in the Catholic Church, or the world of cinema.

In addition to writing thousands of movie reviews since 1968, Fr Peter is a pioneer in exploring movies from the perspective of religion and spirituality, and among the many books he has written and edited are several related to cinema. His role became international with his appointment as president of OCIC (the International Catholic Organisation for Cinema and Audio-Visuals) from 1998 to 2001.

I ask Fr Peter whether the commonplace belief that the relationship between the Catholic Church and cinema is antagonistic is due to the often combative role of the Catholic Legion of Decency in the United States.

‘Yes, the Legion of Decency was founded in 1934 as part of a campaign to “purify” cinema, and for decades it played a powerful role in the censorship of movies. But while Hollywood has a historical perception of the Church based on that, in Europe it was a very different story.

‘As early as 1936, in his encyclical Vigilanti Cura, Pope Pius XI presented a more well-rounded appreciation of the significance and power of cinema, so in Europe the relationship between filmmakers and the Church has been much more dynamic and positive.’

I suggest this sounds similar to the way the Vatican has in recent times been an early adopter of new means of social communication, such as Twitter and YouTube.

‘Yes, cinema is widely held to be the most influential art form of the 20th century and the Church needs a place in the midst of that. Both OCIC and Unda (the International Catholic Association for Radio and Television) were founded very early, back in 1928. In our time, St John Paul II was also a great supporter of engagement with media and communications. In 2001, the Catholic international organisations for film (OCIC) and radio and television (Unda) were merged to become the World Catholic Association for Communication, known as SIGNIS.’

Fr Peter served as president of SIGNIS from 2001 to 2005, living in London and experiencing the cinema culture there. He considers himself a film reviewer rather than a film critic.

‘My role is to mediate the movie to its potential audience; to give readers a sense of whether this is a film they will enjoy or find interesting. This is the approach adopted by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting (ACOFB), whose reviews are published on the Catholic Bishops Conference website. The displeasure some have expressed at some of the reviews we have published comes from a belief that we should primarily be telling Catholics what films to see or to avoid.’

The latter part of Fr Peter’s book includes details, both amusing and bracing, of correspondence he and his successor as Director of the ACOFB, Fr Richard Leonard SJ, have been engaged in with those wanting a more censorious approach to movies.

Some also believe that movies the ACOFB considers should always feature positive characters and storylines, or at least characters who are redeemed in some way by the end. This is not the approach of Fr Peter and his colleagues.

‘We understand, for example, the importance of what we have come to call de profundis films.’ The reference is to the opening of Psalm 130: ‘Out of the depths, I cry to you; O Lord, hear my voice.’ Hence the ACOFB and SIGNIS have from time to time released statements about new release movies that are controversial, but which Fr Peter and others consider have something to offer thoughtful Catholics.

‘This gives an opportunity to be proactive and positive even while critical with reference to the film itself rather than hearsay. We try to adopt and encourage a “robust sensitivity” to cinema. The Church needs to engage intelligently with artistic culture.’

Such an approach has also characterised Fr Malone’s dealings with the media generally.

‘In interviews with the media, I have found a positive response 99.9 per cent of the time. If you discuss professionally, not defensively, and join in a conversation rather than an argument (which still allows for some controversy), you get media respect. The exception is generally when journalists are annoyed because you don’t give them the intolerant Catholic rant they are hoping for!’

We finished our conversation with my request for Fr Peter’s recommendations of movies that feature priests. This is his list:

Calvary (2014)
Of Gods and Men (2010)
Shooting Dogs (2005)
Keeping the Faith (2000)
Black Robe (1991)
The Mission (1986)
Mass Appeal (1984)
True Confessions (1981)
On the Waterfront (1954)

Photo courtesy of Fiona Basile.

This article was written by Kevin Mark, a book editor and reviewer who has worked in publishing for many years and is based in Geelong.

First published in Kairos Catholic Journal Vol. 26, Issue 10, 7 June 2015. Used with permission.