‘Avatar’ draws controversy from the Vatican

Joe Cramer

The last couple of weeks have been nothing less than monumental for James Cameron’s science fiction epic “Avatar.” 

First, it became the highest-grossing movie of 2009, surpassing established cinematic and cultural franchises such as “Harry Potter” and “Transformers.” Following this, it earned Golden Globes for best picture (drama) and best director, earning it a pedigree both critical and commercial. Finally, it just recently surpassed Cameron’s previous box-office record breaker, “Titanic,” as the highest-grossing film of all time. For a film that is rumored to be the most financially risky in film history, despite not being a sequel or comic-book adaptation, these accolades are equally surprising and impressive. 

Yet earning the status of pop-culture phenomenon does not come without increased scrutiny. Following in the footsteps of popular entertainment such as “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons,” “Avatar” has garnered some significant criticism, both as a piece of cinema and a piece of cultural commentary from the Vatican.

For those unfamiliar with the general premise of “Avatar,” it portrays the struggle between the blue-skinned, tribal and nature-worshipping race, the Na’vi, and the antagonistic and manipulative human invaders of their planet. With its distinctly environmentally conscious  message, it has already attracted some attention on both sides of the ongoing debate over preservation of natural resources. However, and perhaps more surprisingly, it has also earned a fair share of criticism for its portrayal of nature as a deity and the pagan implications that come along with it.

According to L’Osservatore, the official newspaper of the Vatican, which occasionally enters the international entertainment conversation to address significant works in pop culture from a more ideological standpoint, the film “gets bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature.” 

The Vatican radio station continued this line of criticism, observing that in the film, “nature is no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worship.”

The Vatican’s entry into this cultural dialogue raises questions not only on religion’s role in entertainment, but also entertainment’s role in the spread of ideas throughout a culture.

 Rev. David Cregan, O.S.A., a professor in the theater department who holds his doctorate in drama, feels that the Vatican newspaper is extremely important in the function exemplified by its critique of “Avatar.” 

“It can be helpful in leading people toward the kinds of artistic projects that will enrich their spiritual lives,” Cregan says. 

This would apply not only to films with a particular influence over pop culture at any given moment, but also those which challenge or reinterpret ideas that may be crucial to the religion in general. Yet the newspaper has remained silent on recent religious-themed films, such as “The Book of Eli” and “Legion,” both of which deal with religious implications and iconic imagery in a much more blatant way than the allegorical “Avatar.”

“If the Vatican should evaluate entertainment, it should evaluate it broadly,” Cregan says. The question remains as to whether the Vatican’s main concern with the film is in its ideas, or merely, in the potential popularity of those ideas, given that the film’s popularity has spread like wildfire through the domestic and international film scene over the past seven weeks. 

Yet, the ideas themselves seem to be just as significant as the film’s undeniable popularity. 

By clearly throwing its sympathies in with the highly spiritual and naturalistic, yet unfamiliar, Na’vi, and portraying the far more recognizable humans as thoughtless corporate raiders and borderline savage militarists, “Avatar” carries an environmental and political message that is hard to miss. 

As often occurs when popular entertainment attempts to address topical issues, questions are raised concerning its place and significance within the issue, as well as its effectiveness in addressing those questions. 

Rev. Joseph Farrell, O.S.A., doesn’t see the naturalistic ideologies as necessarily in opposition with Catholic or Augustinian views.

“What I was reminded of was a passage in Book X of the Confessions of St. Augustine when he asks himself the question, ‘What am I loving when I love my God?'” Farrell says.”He goes on a search questioning nature and all created things and keeps getting the answer from them, ‘We are not your God.’   He concludes by saying, ‘They lifted up their mighty voices and cried, “He made us.” My questioning was my attentive spirit, and their reply, their beauty.'”

Farrell also found the film’s environmentalist-friendly message to be effective and well-rendered in the context of Cameron’s expensive, CGI-heavy epic, and hopes that its appeal will transcend the spectacle it puts on for its audience. 

“I like to think that with so many people watching this movie in blockbuster numbers that, even if only on a superficial level, there will be some changes in societal behavior with regard to how we treat the environment,” Farrell says. “Perhaps we could be reminded, like St. Augustine, to allow the answer of the beauty we find in creation to point us to the one who created it.”

Ultimately, “Avatar” is yet another example of the tension that will always exist between art and ideology.     When a form of popular entertainment attempts to address highly topical and divisive issues, even in an allegorical manner, it is sure to incite some criticism. Despite this, it illustrates the importance of having relevant and intelligent arguments on both sides to maintain a well-informed balance for viewers.

“Art can create perspective,” Cregan says. “But art is not doctrine.”