This past year, I started hosting movie nights for our teens and some of their friends, with the goal of helping them to become discerning users of film. These evenings are an extension of our homeschooling—educating the whole person. We only watch classic black-and-white films where the images, acting, and script develop clear characters to evaluate from a Catholic perspective. I start with an introduction to the movie and pause the film a few times to discuss the action.
I call it “watch and stop” and started this method with my children when they were young. Developing minds need to pause and reflect on what they are sensing. Reading books allows this, but uninterrupted viewing does not. I saw how passively watching almost any film—at a theater or on television—risks soaking in messaging and modeling of behavior. Audiences, especially the young, may well start to adopt opinions Catholics should not share. Art should elevate us, not diminish our intellects.
Take Roman Holiday. Released in 1953, the film follows a young, frustrated princess as she runs off from her duties one night while in Rome to see how others live. She meets a cynical but decent reporter who thinks he might get rich off her story but, in the end, chooses otherwise. The film has a breezy, carefree air and clever writing. Many viewers consider Roman Holiday a fun, romantic period piece of an innocent time. In fact, anyone I have asked has generally watched it more than once and loves the escape to a happy story. The reality is different.
To be clear, the movie is very watchable for teens and, given appropriate consumer training, a valuable lesson in how people should treat each other. But why do I say the movie is not just an innocent lark?
First of all, it was ghostwritten by a Communist Party member under orders to insert into scripts situations, words, or actions that would cause audiences to question norms of behavior, particularly for men and women. Communist Party doctrine encouraged divorce, fornication, and women taking the roles of men and abandoning child-rearing to the state. Communist countries had followed these practices for years and were promoting them in the West to soften it for conquest. The screenwriter was previously convicted of Communist subversion and moved to Mexico after serving time in Kentucky. He continued to provide scripts to Hollywood for years. This was the very early 1950s we are considering, before much more provocative content became common.
Roman Holiday begins with the princess, played by Audrey Hepburn, questioning her role. The movie adds questions about norms. The questions lead to actions. Several scenes, acted in light humor, broke taboo and could have led to sin. Later movies would have taken the scenes to the next step, proving the success of the Communist plan. For example, the princess was drowsy from sedation by her keepers and winds up staying at the reporter’s apartment out of expedience.
Later, the princess cuts her hair, an act of defiance against not just her royal status but her womanhood. The western world in the post-WWII period hosted an escalation of going against norms. Trousers on women were increasingly common—but not in this movie. It would have been too obvious a message and, at that time, distasteful to audiences. Bobbed hair, first popularized in the post-WWI Roaring 1920s, was making a comeback.
In the film, the male hair stylist initially insists on not cutting such beautiful hair. He treats the princess like a classy girl, not knowing anything about her except her sartorial choices. After he cuts the long tresses to short curls, he hits on her to go dancing. Shortly after the haircut, the reporter and princess comically pilot a scooter, putting them into close hugging postures. More on scooters later.
One line in the movie that clearly seems inserted for psychological effect takes place at a cafe. It is the morning after the princess has slept over and before the above hijinks. When the princess starts to consider the potential scandal of their encounter, the man slyly says, “I won’t tell my parents if you won’t tell yours.” This was probably a coup for the Communist writer because at that time all ages watched the same movies. While in the minds of parents this line was just adults being playful, it put in the minds of children and teens the notion of deception making forbidden acts acceptable.
Secondly, Gregory Peck, playing the decent-enough reporter on-screen, was having an affair off-screen. His marriage was “on the rocks,” and he was out of town. In fairness, he did later marry the woman with whom he was cavorting. Nonetheless, this was adultery and understood to be occurring by others on the set. Life was reflecting art.
Thirdly, the movie was a trendsetter. Most fans of the movie say that watching the film is just fun, and no one changed their life because of it. On the contrary, this movie became iconic and did influence young adults for a decade. Scooters skyrocketed in popularity. These new vehicles whisked riders away from the eyes of the neighborhood in ones and twos. In England, scooters allowed travel to nightclubs and drinking places after transit hours ceased. Neat Italian suits for men and bobbed hair with neck scarves for women became enduringly popular. They were living free like Peck and Hepburn. Life was mimicking art.
So why did I show the film? I wanted to focus on the theme of using others for gain, accepting responsibility, and social order in society, as well as to discuss the choices of the characters—how certain individual behavior gives scandal to the community. The loyal staff works urgently to find the momentarily irresponsible princess. The reporter sees her humanity and drops his mercenary plans. The princess comes to herself, as a prodigal daughter, and returns to take on her role in society with an adult air.
Appropriately viewing Roman Holiday (or almost any well-crafted film), with brief reflections on the action, allows our Catholic teens to absorb lessons, not just be entertained. As a parent and an adult Catholic, it is important for me to take every opportunity—even when playing—to teach our children to be discerning in human matters and to form them as great disciples. That makes life even more fun.
[Image Credit: Unsplash]