Morally Offensive Favorites

Wood chipper.

If you’re like me, those two words are inextricably linked to the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film Fargo. Despite the violence and gore, it’s one of my favorite movies, for it contrasts good and evil in an intensely memorable and surprisingly nuanced way.

Plus, it’s a substantial “grown-ups” movie that I can recommend in good conscience because it has an acceptable rating from the bishops—an “A-IV” to be precise.

Bishops? Ratings? Conscience? Let me explain.

After I became a Catholic, I discovered the U.S. Bishops’ movie rating system. Formerly the Office for Film and Broadcasting, today it is part of the Catholic News Service. Somewhat akin to the better known MPAA ratings (G, PG, PG-13, R), the bishops’ system itself has changed little over the years: A-I films are for families and general audiences; A-II, for adults and adolescents; A-III, adults only; and A-IV, also adults only, but with reservations—today, this rating has been replaced with L, “limited adult audiences only.”

Then, there is the “O” rating—“morally offensive.” No bishop, no pope, no official church document demands that Catholics avoid “O” rated films. Nevertheless, life is short, and the list of movies we can watch is long, so years ago I decided (and then, after marrying, my wife and I decided together) to skip any movie that garnered an “O” from the bishops. We can’t watch every movie anyway, and even if the bishops got it wrong from time to time—rating something “O” when an A-IV would do—the deprivation wouldn’t represent a tremendous loss. It seemed like a pretty simple system.

But, alas, not so simple.

I saw a lot of movies before I became a Catholic, and it turns out many of them had received “O” ratings. Some of them—the 1989 nihilistic Heathers for example, and various slasher films—deserved the “O”. I’d never want to see them again anyway, and I certainly wouldn’t want any of my kids to sit through them.

But other “O” films were, well, pretty good in my opinion, and a few even played minor roles in the development of my moral consciousness. But a deal is a deal, and we had committed ourselves to banning “O” films in our home—no matter how much I’d love to watch a few of them with my now grown kids.

So, it is with some awkwardness and chagrin that I present to you my list of favorite “O” rated films that I wish I could—but won’t—watch again with my teenagers:

[1] The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966): Sure it’s violent, and, sure, there isn’t much difference between the bad and the ugly on one hand, and the good (Clint Eastwood) on the other. But there is a moral framework in this spaghetti-Western universe, and its ambiguities ring true—perhaps nowhere better than when the “ugly” outlaw confronts his brother-turned-priest regarding the fate of their abandoned mother. 

Deer Hunter movie image[2] The Deer Hunter (1978): Another violent one, but one of the best Vietnam War films ever made—actually, one of the best war movies ever made, period. The progression from ordinary life to wartime madness, and then back again to “ordinary life” is devastating. The Deer Hunter graphically underscores the reality that killing and death are only one part of the tragedy of war—and not even always the most tragic part.

[3] The Road Warrior (1981): The first sequel to Mad Max (1979, another “O” film), The Road Warrior is a post-apocalyptic version of an Eastwood Western. The lone gunman in this case is Max (Mel Gibson), still reeling from the loss of his family, who comes to the rescue of a community of innocents besieged by a band of neo-savages.

Mad-Max2 TheRoadWarrior[4] Blade Runner (1982): Based on a story by Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner presents a bleak vision of our future, and, more importantly, raises significant and troubling questions about our present—namely, what it means to be human, particularly as we become increasingly dependent on technology.

So, if we’re going to stick with our no-O policy, what’s the purpose of this exercise? For one thing, I’m almost certain my kids will go ahead and watch all these films when they’re out from under our house rules, and I want them to have a record of why I always thought they were worthwhile, despite the “O” ban.

But the bigger point is this: Why are these films, and others like them, saddled with the “O” rating in the first place? Why, for instance, does Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner merit an “O”, but his equally dark and violent Alien (1979) only an A-III? And why an “O” for The Deer Hunter, and not for Apocalypse Now (1979)? The bishops don’t review the films themselves—lay movie critics, presumably following the bishops’ guidelines, actually do the reviewing—so there’s no magisterial authority involved in the ratings. But even so, it does seem like the ratings themselves are somewhat arbitrary, giving rise to doubts regarding their value and credibility.

The arbitrary nature of some of the USCCB ratings is further underscored by the tempest that accompanied the release of Brokeback Mountain in 2005. This sexually graphic film originally received an “L” rating, but it was changed to an “O” after a series of complaints were lodged with the bishops. And that raises a question: If protests can lead to a rating change, how much confidence are we to put into any given rating, or even the entire system itself?

The Hurt Locker movie imageAnd, while I’m at it, one more question: What about The Hurt Locker? It is a phenomenal film about war and warriors, and the winner of the 2009 Oscar for Best Picture and has never been rated by the USCCB. Why not?

Come to think of it, maybe it was a fortuitous oversight (or omission), at least for me. The distressing violence—and the associated, equally distressing ennui—at the heart of The Hurt Locker might have earned it a bishops’ “O” rating. In that case, I wouldn’t have taken the opportunity to view it with my teenaged son. But with no rating, I felt free to watch it with him, and it proved to be a terrific film that also provided a rich vein of reflection and conversation in the days that followed.

So, out of respect for the bishops, we’ll keep using the USCCB rating system, as imperfect as it may be, and we’ll maintain our ban on “O”-rated movies in our home. Still, I’ll be on the lookout for more oversights and omissions. Rich veins of reflection and conversation are in short supply these days.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared May 16, 2013 on the “Clinging to Onions” blog of Richard Becker and is reprinted with permission.

Richard Becker


Richard Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He blogs regularly at God-Haunted Lunatic.

  • TMJC

    You’ve raised questions I have posed myself about the rating system. As a life long Catholic and cinephile (almost got my degree in film studies until I realized I couldn’t stomach being around the film students in my film classes!), I have seen a great many movies – all types of movies – and I have never given much thought as to whether I should see something based on that system because I would have missed out on some really worthwhile art; your example of Cimino’s film The Deer Hunter is an excellent example. I also do not approve of the system being manipulated because of pressure from people who may want to quash the movie because they don’t like a certain aspect of the film; your example of Lee’s film Brokeback Mountain is another excellent example.
    Technically, if someone were to film a hyper-realistic version of the Old Testament, it would have to receive an “O”. Many thought Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ was a religious snuff film. And, hey, last night I watched a newborn baby flushed headfirst down a toilet. I don’t see the news getting an “O” rating.

  • Jambe d’Argent

    My morally offensive favorite (although not a movie): Luke 16: 1-13.

  • Tony

    It’s one thing to read about a thing, and another to see it portrayed. That is why the Greeks relegated things like Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon or Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia to reportage of what had happened or what was happening; it’s the origin of the idea behind the Latin “obscaenus,” literally, what should happen off the stage.
    There are images I don’t want in my memory. I think that the Godfather movies were brilliantly done, but if they had never been made, we would not be suffering so great a loss, especially seeing that for every Godfather there have been a hundred movies that are both “obscaenus” and sheer trash.

  • Gail Finke

    Steven Greydanus used to be my favorite film reviewer for this very reason. The bishops’ rating system is okay as far as it goes but doesn’t really deal much with the merit of films as art, so I take them as a general guide only. I’m not a big film-phlle, so a lot of what is lauded as “film art” leaves me cold, but if you’re going to give “Fargo” an “O” — please!!!! Just knock it off. Like all the Coen Bros. movies, it’s intensely but viscerally religious. If you haven’t seen S.G.’s site, check it out! Most of the reviews are old (he’s now in school to become a deacon) but very helpful as has his own scale for artistic merit and morality.

    • Mrs Decentfilms

      That decentfilms guy is still reviewing, just not as much. Check him out on FB and Twitter, and also his cable show Reel Faith. 🙂

      • Gail Finke

        Oh I know! But he is still my “former” favorite reviewer because he’s not my go-to guy anymore as he reviews so few movies. His reviews are always a welcome treat!

  • Willam Nat

    Good article. I also found the opposite: films that received too high of a rating. I’ve read reviews that gave an adult rating because of the use of the F word, but had scenes so morally offensive that an “O” was appropriate. Use of the F and S words is not as bad as a scene that teaches homosexuality is morally right!

    I think the bishops should come up with a team of experts to review these movies. One person just doesn’t cut it.

  • CathosMom

    The best site for reviewing movies is, it explains every element of a movie: sex, violence, language and then explains in detail what is in each category. I am a 55 year old female and I use it all the time to protect my soul!

    • 11onmyown

      I second Kids-in-Mind, it is my go-to. I have often disagreed with the USCCB reviews, even though I try to avoid the “O.”

  • Fides

    Good points sir. Well done. Keep this type of analysis coming. We need to read this type of analysis on a daily basis on a myriad of topics.

  • Fides

    Good points sir. Well done. Keep this type of analysis coming. We need to read this type of analysis on a daily basis on a myriad of topics.

  • Alecto

    I love good films and I’m a sucker for any faithful adaptation of Jane Austen, whose very insightful, comedic novels are too often depicted on screen as predictable romances (e.g., Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley). Perhaps the beautiful 1995 version of “Persuasion” with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds is the best among them. Other favorites: “Ridicule”, “Tous les Matins du Monde”, “Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring”, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”, “Cousin Bette”, “Moliere”, “Onegin”, “Dr. Zhivago”, “Barry Lyndon”, “Breaking Away”, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “Wings of the Dove”, and “A Man for All Seasons”. I rarely go to movies now because the writing is so bad, and directors/producers seem to believe that special effects substitute for plot, theme or character development, basically the screenplays consist of grunts, cursing or unintelligible dialogue. I’m also a big fan of Downton Abbey, I love that soap!

    I would love to see an intelligent, well-written adaptation of Balzac’s The Black Sheep.

  • RDPaul

    The bishops reviews are hopeless, they do a disservice to their teaching authority by giving their name to womanish reviewers who equate violence with moral offense. Violence is morally offensive when separated from objective moral standards, such as the principle of self-defense and just war, that being said even offensive violence is only morally offensive in art when portrayed as morally ok or neutral! Promoting offenses against or depraved indifference to human life is one thing, accurately portraying war, and the other consequences of sin, either in a historical or fictitious manner is another. In contrast, human sexuality is beautiful, but that beauty is made ugly when voyeuristically put on exhibit for all to see, and this is particularly offensive when the acts and attractions are portrayed are disordered or immoral.

    • Chris

      “Womanish”? What does that mean? Are you somehow superior?

      • RDPaul

        Womanish, not too much of an insult if you are a woman, problematic if you are male. It suggests someone who is blinded by the normalacy bias of the soft life and the comforts of home and who acts as if ignoring the violent realities of human history will somehow preserve you from them. It is this line of thought that suggests that removing weapons (and even tiny replicas of weapons) from places will some how protect people from those who have malice in their heart. Likewise violence, even immoral violence, is not morally objectionable in cinema simply because it is violent as simply removing discussion of the reality of violence does nothing to prevent it.

        Esto Vir!

        • Rick Becker

          Your comments put in mind Chesterton’s defense of violent fairy tales: “The timidity of the child or the savage is entirely reasonable; they are
          alarmed at this world, because this world is a very alarming place.
          Fairy tales, then, are not
          responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of
          fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the
          ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already.
          The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an
          imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to
          kill the dragon.”

          When I recommend movies to other parents, I always include my own assessment of three factors: Blood, skin, and language–i.e., the amount of violence, sex, and foul vocabulary. As my own kids can attest, I have a high tolerance for violence in the movies (for reasons you and Chesterton enunciate), a moderate tolerance for F-bombs and other bad language, but a very low tolerance for graphic sex scenes, regardless of MPAA or USCCB ratings.

          Depictions of violence in film can be helpful and instructive as you (and G.K.) have described. Cinematic sex is virtually always some form of pornography, and is included primarily to sell tickets, mainly to men. Can you think of exceptions?

  • Matthew B. Rose

    The current USCCB rating system was an outgrowth of the Legion of Decency formed in the 1930s. The Legion of Decency was an attempt to support the (then) recently founded Production Code (aka the Hays Code) put out by
    Hollywood in response to complaints of the immorality in movies (the forerunner of the MPAA rating system). Movies were labeled A) “Morally unobjectionable,” B) “Morally
    objectionable in part”, or C) “Condemned” by the Legion of Decency.
    During the ‘30s and ‘40s, many films that received a C rating were
    either not released or, if they were released, did poorly in theaters.

    As Americans became less hesitant about morality in films (some time in the 50s/60s), movies that were declared “Condemned” turned into box office hits. The MPAA formed the earliest incarnation of our current rating system in reaction to this change. The Legion of Decency tried to inform Catholics which movies should be Condemned, but as the turmoil of the 60s and 70s errupted in the US, many turned a deaf ear to the Legion.

    The Legion’s cause, however, was taken up by what is today called the USCCB, who adapted the rating system to mimic the MPAA system.

    Thus we have A-I, etc.

  • Emilio Perea

    I seem to remember that the unintentionally hilarious (to anybody who had read the book) Gone With The Wind received a “C” rating, presumably because an Irish Catholic girl like Scarlett wouldn’t behave that way.

    • Bono95

      Maybe Scarlett’s from Northern Ireland 😀

  • Gina101

    Don’t need any rating. From Blade Runner to Mad Max, bleh, all depressing, dark and disturbed guy movies. 😛

    • Newark

      is it sensable to view this type of film as, oh, something like humor? The Mel Gibson films mentioned had me, as they say LOL. Can you imagine the droppings of pigs generating electricity for a small city? Funn-ey.

  • misterheche

    Pope Francis will lead the Church into a new era of evangelization, and lay Catholics will be instrumental in that effort.

    In addition to prayer, penance, fasting, and confession, the viewing of
    spiritual films can help in providing the necessary “fuel” and
    knowledge needed to engage in the secular culture.

    Pius Media, an on-line Catholic film rental company has an abundant
    number of films that would be appropriate for spiritual viewing.

    Beyond spiritual interest, if your family, like mine, is also interested
    in family-friendly videos, including children’s videos, classic movies,
    and movies with a Catholic theme, I highly recommend that you check out
    Pius Media, which operates just like Netflix, with video rental by mail
    and multiple subscription packages.

    Plus, by supporting Pius Media, we feel like we are supporting a good cause.

    I should also note that I have no connection to Pius Media; I just like to pass on good resources when I find them.

    More details about Pius Media here:

  • Tony

    Here’s my rating system. I don’t waste time watching movies made after 1968, unless I know what they are all about. The tenth best movie made in 1939 would be a greater work of art than the best movie made by any of the big studios in the last ten years. Or twenty.

    • Rick Becker

      Actually, I’m sympathetic to this, but I have kids. Fortunately, we’ve been able to help them develop a taste for the Thin Man movies and Frank Capra, but they still want to see the new stuff coming out. Hence, the USCCB.

  • Angelite49

    They are recommended guidelines, not edicts from on high. See what you want, but keep in mind your own personal conscience, and moral and spiritual life. And exercise good judgment where your kids are concerned.

    • Rick Becker

      Yes, I know they aren’t edicts, and I certainly agree with you about conscience and personal values. However, there just isn’t enough time to preview every movie before other family members (especially younger ones) watch them, so it’s either no new movies at all (see Tony’s comment below), or reliance on some trusted third party for recommendations. Steven Greydanus’ is great, but he only reviews selectively. The USCCB reviews almost everything and it’s at least a starting point.

  • givelifeachance2

    Your use of the term “bishops” for the USCCB is misleading and incorrect. Also, Pope Benedict made a serious case for people to ignore bishops’ conferences in favor of listening to their *individual bishop*, using as a evil example the weak witness of the bishops’ conference under Hitler, which gave cover for individual bishops to submerge their individual authority.