Viggo Mortensen, the same actor who played Strider/Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, seems to enjoy getting naked in his non-Tolkien films, evincing, perhaps, certain latent exhibitionist fantasies: In Eastern Promises, he fought off, el fresco, two Russian mobsters in a steam bath; in The Road, he chucked it all to swim out to an abandoned boat to retrieve supplies for him and his son; and just recently there he was, full frontal, in a film that displays not just his body, but also some of the most anti-Catholic and nihilistic biases I have ever had the displeasure to witness, in the inaptly name Captain Fantastic.
The plot of this messy pottage of a movie, a loose re-make of a 1986 film The Mosquito Coast, which in turn was based on the (better) 1981 novel by Paul Theroux, revolves around an uber-capable Dad (I’ll just call him that, for his name matters not) homeschooling his six children in some wilderness locale, where he teaches them how to hunt, fish, rock climb, dress wounds, set broken bones, engage in hand-to-hand combat and everything else, in a darker version of Swiss Family Robinson. In the evening, they read books, with the children plowing through the “classics” according to Dad’s schedule: From Brothers Karamazov, to Lolita to textbooks on quantum entanglement.
So far, I was intrigued, and Christian homeschoolers a year or so ago were using as inspiration for their beleaguered efforts the trailer of this film, which had Dad’s eight-year old show up her two regular-high schooled loutish cousins with her encyclopedic and accurate knowledge of the Bill of Rights, a concept of which the two louts were woefully ignorant. Yet a panegyric for Christian homeschoolers this film is most definitely not: Dad also drills into his children some sort of hippie rationalistic quasi-Marxist-and-libertarian philosophy, one of the many impossible paradoxes of Dad’s muddled thoughts, for all his purported intelligence. He criticizes his daughter at one point for describing a book as “interesting,” a term too bland and vague, yet he and his children sprinkle random f-bombs and other “vague” and nonsensical vulgarities throughout.
The plot, such as it is, thickens when we hear that the family’s Mum, who is noticeably absent, has been committed to a mental hospital. According to Dad, his erstwhile wife is suffering from, and I quote from vague memory, which I hope fades soon, an “imbalance in serotonin levels, compromising her neuronal functioning.” So far, so bad, for we soon afterward hear that Mum has also now committed suicide, with the full description, in Dad’s commitment to telling the plain truth to his children, of “slitting her wrists.”
The rest of the story follows Dad and his busload of children returning to the “world” after this decade of not-so-splendid isolation to attend Mum’s funeral. From the get-go, we are barraged with a propagandistic full-out war against Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, with a not-even-trying-to-be-concealed derision. As the children witness fat people for the first time, they wonder, how can people get so obese? One of the youngsters claims innocently that they “look like hippos,” for which he is rebuked, claiming they should never “make fun of people,” that is, as they take pains to declare, except Christians, hardy-har-har. When a police officer pulls them over, suspiciously eyeing these wandering waifs, he quickly retreats off the bus when the children try mockingly to evangelize him.
So what do Dad and offspring believe? The family stops for a picnic, after robbing a grocery store as Dad fakes a heart attack, to celebrate “Noam Chomsky day,” noted linguist and libertarian socialist. When one of the (again) younger sons protests, asking “why don’t they celebrate normal feasts, like Christmas,” Dad replies (again from vague and unwilling memory): “Would you rather honor the birth of a mythical ‘elf,’ or a great humanitarian?”
One might wonder why Prof. Chomsky was described as an elf, but then, that is not what Dad meant. He asks his son to make an argument from reason, to convince and convert the rest of the family as to why they should celebrate Christmas, but the boy turns away, shamefaced at his obvious inability to do so. One of the finales has the same boy quoting Chomsky back to his Dad, now fully converted to the right and just cause, after a brief dalliance with the Christian illusion. It is curious, however, that they continue to use the Lord’s name as an invective. Why not Mohammad, or Zeus or, indeed, Chomsky himself?
If there are any redeeming qualities to this film, it’s that the anti-Christian bias which runs through Hollywood is on full display, signifying not only the truth of Catholicism, but also allowing us to see behind the subversive Disney-esque mask, slipping off a bit to reveal the grinning death-head within. I read that this film received a ten minute standing ovation when presented at the Cannes film festival. At the risk of understatement, that was not the reaction I had. Then again, it bombed at the box office, showing that the people usually know more than the purported “elites.”
On a related note, I wonder if Viggo and company would have made a similar film against Islam, far more “repressive” than Catholicism, but from what I have seen, I don’t think they have the courage.
Anti-Catholicism on Full Display
Witness the climax, if it can be described as such, which has the family bursting in on Mum’s funeral, being held in a Catholic church, all dressed like flower children out of some hippie opera. Dad interrupts the priest’s sermon, offering a rather vulgar peroration on the futility of the “service” (a Catholic Mass, of course), and the injustice of burying his wife in a (bleeping) “golf course” (which is beside the cemetery), when she was, after all, a Buddhist and, in her last will and testament, declared that she wanted to be cremated and her ashes flushed down a toilet.
Hmm. Has anyone heard of compos mentis? Of course, no causal relation is even hinted at in the wife’s apostasy, her rejection of her Catholic faith, her adoption of the nihilistic religion of Buddha, and her subsequent manic depression and suicide.
During the Dad’s diatribe, banging on the casket, the soft, wan, chubby priest (in Hollywood, it seems they are always so) stands by mute, eventually gathering a few of the funeral directors to hustle Dad out the door.
Ah, yes, the beauty of pagan nihilism, full of its own form of ceremony and symbolism. Need I bore you with the rest of the film? Dad at one point walks off his hippie bus in the middle of a campground, in the scene with which I began, full frontal in his birthday suit, confronting shamelessly a poor old couple, as well as his own children.
Dad and company in the end do dig Mum up in the depth of night, transporting her remains cross-country in their bus, then, as the body burns in a beautiful lakeside setting, serenading her with an impromptu folksy homeschool version of an 1980s Guns N’ Roses anthem. And, yes, in this theatre of the absurd, they do fulfill her wishes by flushing her earthly relics, such as they are, down an anonymous airport toilet.
I am not sure of the point of all this, except to denigrate Catholicism, indeed any supernatural symbolism. The only thing extolled in this thinly-veiled piece of pagan, even satanic, proselytism, is the freedom to do and think whatever you want, with no one “telling” you so, except unbridled “reason,” a freedom unhinged from truth, for, as they would say, only freedom can make you free.
A Theological Response
Pope John Paul II remarked upon this in Veritatis Splendor:
Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values. This is the direction taken by doctrines which have lost the sense of the transcendent which are explicitly atheist. The individual conscience is accorded the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment which hands down categorical and infallible decisions about good and evil. (#32)
And as the former Pontiff makes clear a few paragraphs later:
God’s law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom; rather, it protects and promotes that freedom. In contrast, however, some present-day cultural tendencies have given rise to several currents of thought in ethics which centre upon an alleged conflict between freedom and law. These doctrines would grant to individuals or social groups the right to determine what is good or evil. Human freedom would thus be able to “create values” and would enjoy a primacy over truth, to the point that truth itself would be considered a creation of freedom. (#36)
The hypocrisy in this film is rank and fetid, for they do not draw out the conclusion of their premises, which would be utter moral anarchy: All the “trappings” of the family are Christian: Lots of children, an obvious fidelity between husband and wife (in the flashback moments), close familial bonding, the love of music, the favorite of which is Bach’s Goldberg Variations (which, like all of Bach’s music, was motivated by his love for and devotion to Christ and Our Lady). Even the “great books” they read are almost all fruits of a Christian civilization.
Of course, one might argue that pagans have some of these goods as well, but we might respond, not in the main. Our modern agnostic culture, which has more or less discarded its Judaeo-Christian foundation along with an eternal perspective on life, has consequently lost whatever moral moorings it may have had, and is not known for their plethora of children and close family bonding. Rather the opposite. Dysfunction, drugs and death abound, not grace and a flourishing, joyful home life.
What the producers of this film have done is to take these accidental Christian trappings, which are indeed attractive (as are all the children) and gut them of their substance, the very thing which in reality holds family life, and society, together: Christ, prayer, inviolable moral principles, a supernatural sense, living for eternity, delayed gratification, sacrificing of self. In place of these true principles is placed a mockery of prayer, immorality and sexual license, living on a purely natural level of pleasure and a vague notion of self-fulfillment. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, for when life is over, it’s over, quite literally flushed down the most convenient waste bowl.
This is much the same way that media rarely ever show all the tragedy, brokenness and emotional trauma that result from casting off God and his commandments, for that would not sell the goods. It’s always dressed up, like a Trojan horse, in the wrappings of beauty, joy and good will. What they want, I suppose, is a sort of pseudo-, even an anti-“Christianity,” without the rules and rigor, leaving one completely free.
I came across the day after watching the film an analysis by Cardinal Ratzinger from his Principles of Catholic Theology, wherein the future pope accurately describes our world’s inverted view. After pointing out that the Gospel message began with one word to the Virgin, Kaire! Rejoice!, in the “Good News” that Christ brings, most people, sadly,
[a]ll too often … compare this attractive designation—with melancholy, if not with bitterness—with our own daily experience of Christianity and the impression made on us by Christians, with the joylessness, the cramped scrupulosity, the narrowness of spirit that seems to us to be the most telling refutation of what Christianity claims to be. The feeling that Christianity is opposed to joy, the impression that punctiliousness and unhappiness, is surely a more likely explanation of why people leave the Church than are any of the theoretical problems the faith may pose today.
Films such as Captain Fantastic simply reinforce this false impression. Although the producers, actors and viewers may not be able to articulate their thoughts with the same clarity and style as Ratzinger (but then, who of us could?), and whatever their own culpability, they in all likelihood believe at some level that Christianity is just such a force of evil and slavery. Cast off its moralistic shackles, whispers the Serpent, and then thou whilst be free! Christ, the impious “elf,” the “pale Galilean” as pagan emperor Julian derisively called him, is the real liar, the enslaver, the spoiler of Dionysian joy, as Nietzsche would have it.
Yet, Ratzinger goes on to gently point out what has in fact happened, as society has followed Nietzsche’s exhortations to reject Christian morality:
A glance at any magazine stand will show us that mankind has completely freed itself of what the French called the “Catholic sickness.” There are no longer any forbidden trees. But has mankind become healthier? Has it become free? As we can read in a variety of commentaries, even the avant-garde of libertinism would deny that it has: disgust and boredom consume them—lack of freedom has increased.
As we all know, Nietzsche, whose philosophy underpins this film, died insane and disease-ridden in an asylum. Disgust and boredom indeed.
An unwitting hint of this inevitable conclusion is given in the final scene, wherein Dad capitulates to the “system” in order to keep his children, moving into a regular house, sending them to a regular school. In the drawn-out moment, we see Dad and children around the kitchen table, Dad now silently staring, as his offspring pore over their “homework” from a bland and bureaucratic system.
One should not seek for too much of a point in such a muddled mess. What we can reply is that any attempt to seek happiness and salvation outside of the truth in an unbridled existentialism, seizing all the hedonistic pleasure of life in every moment, however subtle and refined and painted in the colors of talented, beautiful children, always ends badly. As Saint Augustine would put it, to seek self to the exclusion of God, however humanly excellent, leads only to emptiness and despair, for we were made not for ourselves and this life, but for God and eternity, as Augustine discovered the long way round. At some point we must choose in a most fundamental way what City we belong to, God’s or Satan’s, the Church or the world, truth or lies, the way of life or the way of death.
For only the Truth will set us free, however much that truth may be obscured and twisted by the forces of evil.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is the funeral Mass scene from the 2016 film Captain Fantastic.