Sunday, February 26, 2017

Movies, TV shows, plays are probably about the worst venues of presenting history there are

No, I  didn't know that Steven Spielberg is planning on making a movie about the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by the agents of Pope Piux IX in 1858, refusing to return him to his family, raising him as a Catholic because a servant girl had secretly baptized him when he was an infant.  If, and it being a Hollywood, movie presentation of history, IF Spielberg and the fine playwright Tony Kushner were faithful to the historical record, I'd say, sure, go for it.  And, make no mistake about it, Kushner is about my favorite living American dramatist.  But, it being a Hollywood, movie presentation of history, I can't say that I've ever seen one of those that is faithful to the historical record so it might count as a first.  Even Kushner felt it desirable to bend history in Lincoln to make the history of that time into a movie and if he did that I'm not waiting up nights for even someone of his ability to turn this history into an accurate movie.  Movies, TV shows, plays are probably about the worst venues of presenting history there are.   Adding to the problem is that there are at least two, opposing and distinct lines of historical record in the Edgardo Mortara case which won't both fit into a feature film.

It was tempting to ignore the taunt but there are some interesting questions and points that writing about it raises, so I will.

I certainly am in favor of condemning what Pius IX and his henchmen did, kidnapping a child from his parents on the pretext of a secret baptism of the child was disgusting and worthy of the condemnation that it got at that time and ever since.  It is certainly a shameful episode in 19th century Catholic history.   I've written about it in the past and pointed out that it does show that the use of one term, anti-Semitism for that and similar act to force Jews to convert to Catholicism or Christianity and the biology-based genocide of the Nazis, the pogrom of Stalin, etc. are certainly not the same things.   English so often gets into trouble when we use the same words for things which are really not the same, especially true among the mid-brow, unthinking type of person who mistake the movies for a history lesson.

You have to draw a distinction between presenting a movie as if it were history and the use of historical personages to represent truth other than historical truth.   Even when put into a movie, that can be not only artistically valid but can present truth.  Kushner did that brilliantly in Angels in America, the movie scene of Al Pacino as the putrid, by then delusional Roy Cohn on his death bed and Meryl Streep as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg is one of the greatest pieces of acting I've ever seen in a movie.  I couldn't fault that kind of abstracted use of historical figures which no one but the stupidest of viewers, who probably wouldn't see that kind of movie, would mistake as the truth.

I don't know what Kushner and Spielberg will do with the story, I don't know if I'll see the movie, I'm even more allergic to cinematic "history" than I am to Hollywood productions, in general.  They might do it.  In which case, let Pius IX stand condemned for what he did, which was indefensible. But it does raise a lot of interesting questions, even taking that into account.

Considering who it is who brings this up to me, overnight, I do have to wonder why it is the highest of high crimes to do what Pius IX and his henchmen did, to take a Jewish child and turn him into a Catholic when it would clearly be perfectly OK with him to take a Jewish child and turn him into an atheist.

Why is what Pius IX did considered a terrible crime which blackens Catholics and Catholicism, today, whereas atheists who alienate Jewish children from their religion  are considered to be performing a great and noble act?  It's not as if Catholicism doesn't share a huge amount in common with Judaism, the entire Jewish Bible, for example.  By a huge number, the largest category of those who take the Jewish scriptures seriously, as divine teaching, are Christians, Catholics, alone, accounting for more than a billion of people who fall into that category.  And the central figure in Christianity was a Jew who taught as a Jew, his named followers all being Jews, as well.  Atheism, on the other hand, doesn't have that in common with Judaism.  The Holocaust, the 20th century pogroms in the Soviet Union were largely an atheist, anti-Christian phenomenon.

Lots of people used the event, at the time and now,  to push their own agendas, Catholic and anti-Catholic.  That is the primary use of it, now.  Within the Catholic Church, now, I can't imagine that just about anyone would do anything but condemn the kidnapping.   I can't imagine more than a tiny, fanatical Ultramontanist faction doing anything but condemn it, entirely. Let me clarify that I'm unaware of any such Ultramontanist faction actually existing, it would clearly be in opposition to the official teaching of the Catholic Church, now.

Edgardo Mortara died a Jew who was a Catholic Priest in good standing in Belgium in 1940.  If he had lived even a year or two, it is entirely likely that the Nazis would have murdered him for being a Jew as they murdered St. Sr. Edith Stein.  Though they certainly killed lots and lots of Catholics, lay people, nuns, priests, for being Catholics, too.

Considering Mortara is the central figure in the actual history, there is a question of how much what he said about himself and his own case should determine what is said about it, now.   Certainly, what he said, himself, as an adult, years and decades after the death of Pius IX in 1878 can't be ignored or discounted.   I'm not aware of him ever sharing the commonly held opinions of condemnation of his kidnapping and rearing as a Catholic intended for the priesthood from his infancy.  I have no idea how you deal with that so as to come to an ultimate conclusion as to what it means.  It is certainly a reasonable assumption that if he hadn't been so kidnapped and reared, he wouldn't have been a Catholic priest who supported Pius IX.  But, since he was, how do you discount his own opinion of his own life?   I don't know that.  I don't know how even the great Tony Kushner can turn that into theatrical, never mind cinematic truth.   I doubt it is possible to do that.  How can you make history or even honest drama out of someones' life while ignoring what they said about it?

Update:  I looked back over my notes from the time I wrote on this and I'm going to say that there is no way to honestly deal with this story in a movie unless you pointedly deal with the impossibility of squaring what Mortara thought of his own life as opposed to other peoples' opinions of it.  You can condemn the initial act of kidnapping and probably should but his entire life isn't that one act. Turning his entire life into the black or white conclusion that the movie industry demands would have to squeeze it into falsification.


  1. I haven't seen "The Silence" (if I even have the title right), and I'm not sure I want to; but I'm sure Scorsese made a film recognizing the complexity of religious faith (although I'm not sure, from the trailers, he didn't put a thumb on the scales, to my way of thinking. Then again, maybe the trailers mislead (no surprise there); or maybe Scorsese is faithful to the source material. I just don't know.

    But I would trust Scorsese a bit more with this story. Having seen "Lincoln," I don't look forward to this production. Spielberg did "Amistad," too, and I'm not sure he did such a good job there. "Saving Private Ryan" has, frankly, rubbed on me, it was such a WWII movie, rather than a movie from the perspective of some 50+ years later about that war. And "Lincoln" didn't impress me, in the end; it was too theatrical, too dramatic, too pat and simple. It needed to be an "art" film, but it was pure Hollywood.

    I would expect as much out of this film as I would out of a film about Galileo, which if that imagined film told the historical truth, it would be damned as a whitewash and a series of lies written at the behest of Opus Dei. So, yeah, I'm just gonna give this one a wide berth.

    1. I can say I have never seen a Spielberg movie I liked but I don't tend to like Hollywood movies. I agree, absolutely, Scorsese is far better.

      "Private Ryan" was an Indiana Jones movie. It set off my other, deadly allergy to Tom Hanks.

      I hate it when people believe the movies are history. And I'm convinced that whenever the movies deal with history, at least half if not most people will mistake it for history. Even people with advanced degrees in the sciences and the arts, pretty much everyone except real historians do that in discouraging numbers.