Australian Fr Leonard SJ on the Golden Compass: "Compass Off Course"

Our Australian Catholic Bishops Conference film reviewer has had a good look at the Golden Compass film (which I still haven’t seen). I can’t find his review anywhere on-line, so I am giving it here in full. Incidentally, it is interesting to compare this with the reviews the film received in the states, and to have a look at the criticism of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) film reviewer by Fr Thomas J. Euteneuer, the President of Human Life International. Incidentally, the USCCB withdrew the review initially released by its office. See story here.

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (December 21, 2007)

Compass off course

by Fr Richard Leonard SJ, Director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting. He is available for media comment on 0409 120 928.

For well-informed Catholics, The Golden Compass can easily be taken as a direct and nasty attack on the mission and ministry of the Catholic Church.

For those who have little or no background with ecclesiastical jargon The Golden Compass can simply be understood as a very complex, expensive but mediocre piece of fantasy entertainment.

Given the sudden shocks, thundering soundtrack and convoluted storyline, this film is certainly not for children under the age of 15. I am amazed the Australian censors have only given it a PG rating.

But should adults see it?

The author of the book upon which this film is based, Philip Pullman, is an avowed atheist. His novel is a much more explicit attack on the role of organised religion and Catholicism in particular in the way he perceives that they promote faith over scientific reason.

It is entirely to director/screenwriter Chris Weitz’s credit that the all-out assault of the book is not replicated in this film. But there is still plenty on the screen from which Catholics can take offence.

The baddie in The Golden Compass is “The Magisterium”. Though Catholicism does not have an exclusive claim on this term, it is usually applied to the teaching office of the Roman Catholic Church. It comes from the Latin word “magister” meaning authoritative teacher. The words magisterial and magistrate come from the same source.

In the film, The Magisterium exists because people “need them; they keep things working by telling people what to do”. And in the weakest of concessions it is admitted by the cruel Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman) that they give the orders “in a kindly way, to keep them out of danger”.

The Magisterium’s headquarters is a Kremlinesque building with bell towers where clerically and episcopally clad officials, wearing pectoral medallions, are called “My Lord” as they try to suppress the truth. And what’s the truth?

The truth is that people might find out that there are other beings in other worlds who do not need The Magisterium, and that these beings do not have a daemon, Pullman’s archetypal animal equivalent of a Christian soul.

Most contemptible of all, however, is how The Magisterium keeps the poor in line by sending out “gobblers” who abduct poor children and transport them to “experimental stations” in remote places where they “help children grow up” by forcibly performing operations on them to separate their bodies from their souls.

The allusion here, to the tragic and sometimes criminal stories of the abuse of children in Catholic institutions, is as ham-fisted as it is affronting. In Pullman’s world nuns and brothers dehumanised all the children in their care at the behest of The Magisterium.

It is easy, therefore, to see why some Catholics think that in the wake of The Da Vinci Code, The Golden Compass appears to one in a series of attacks on the nature of Christian faith and a further punishment for the very few people who did unspeakably criminal things toward the vulnerable.

This reprehensible assertion provides no concession to the fact that, outside government, the Roman Catholic community is the most significant provider of education, healthcare, welfare and pastoral care in the world.

Given its star power The Golden Compass has had very disappointing returns at the box office in the countries where it has opened. I am unconvinced that those who called for a boycott of the film can take much credit for that. In a free and democratic society adults can see what they like, but, equally, Pullman and Weitz have to take responsibility for the atheistic allegory they present here for public consumption.

I think the main reason The Golden Compass has not done as well as some might expect is that given its reported US$200m budget, it is not anywhere near as good as the many and better examples of the science fantasy genre which are around at present.

These other films explore metaphysics, metaethics, other worlds, other beings and transcendence without resorting to thinly-veiled attacks on Catholicism in particular, which, for all its many shortcomings, does much more good than harm on any given day.

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