Because It Allows Me to See Everything Differently, Even “Avatar” in IMAX 3-D

Saturday was a day of contrasts. I ate lunch in Boston’s North End with Z and other friends from Communion and Liberation (CL). Over pasta with salmon, we discussed CL and its “main instrument,” the School of Community. In the evening, I had a dinner date with my sweetheart: a vegetarian meal on Long Wharf followed by Avatar in IMAX 3-D at the Boston Aquarium. I came home exhausted.

First, about the exhaustion. I had left Z’s North End home invigorated, ambling up Prince Street to my car with renewed appreciation for the charism offered by Father Giussani, founder of CL. Fr. James Martin, in his book My Life with the Saints, so instrumental in my conversion, notes that Ignatius of Loyola became a priest because of contrasts: He realized that when he read accounts of war, he felt sapped, but when he read Scripture or the lives of the saints, he felt renewed. And so was I renewed, weaving through the Saturday afternoon crowd on Prince Street while looking around for an Italian mother leaning out a second-floor window shouting, “Anthony!”

After the full-metal barrage of the 162-minute Avatar, by contrast, it was all I could do to drive safely home—over the Tobin Bridge, up Route 1, and out onto 128, thinking all the while about the film, trying to “judge my experience,” in the parlance of CL. This is the beautiful thing about Catholicism in general and CL in particular: Together (especially together) they are an invitation to see life through new eyes, though not exactly eyes of the Na’vi. (For the three of you in America who have not seen the film: refer to poster.)

I had a snap reaction to the film: It offers nature worship and romantic love as the highest values, while reveling in technology (those special effects!). Avatar’s idea of crucifixion is being confined to a wheelchair, like the main human character. Its idea of resurrection is for a paralyzed man to lie down in a tomb-like bed of electrodes and come back to life in the body of an ersatz Na’vi, by some sort of electronic mind transfer. Avatar posits an Earth that is dying and a distant planet, Pandora, where there is some sort of vague hope, although in the end that hope comes true for one and only one character, the protagonist. Director James Cameron (“The Terminator,” “Titanic”) does not exactly espouse a Catholic world view.

And yet . . . In an effort to “judge” the film, which boils down to looking for the presence of Christ in it, I realized that, for all its pantheism and enthrallment to technology, Avatar’s main character, the protagonist, is motivated by an unquenchable desire. At first, paralyzed from the waist down, he wants only to walk, and a hard-ass army officer has promised him the needed operation if he agrees to use his ersatz Na’vi figure as a sort of undercover elf. (The three of you who haven’t seen the film—are you getting confused yet?) But Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) discovers a deeper desire once he encounters the Na’vi people, and it is that desire that drives the narrative. Without that desire, no story, no humanity—just a lot of special effects and the inevitable climactic megamilitary blow-out, complete with hard-ass officer making like The Terminator for one last showdown.

It is the desire in our hearts for the divine that drives our narrative, that is the most indelible feature of our human nature. That desire is finally satisfied only in one place—not on another planet or through any kind of science-driven “resurrection”—but in Jesus Christ. That’s my take on Avatar—and why I found it not only sense-numbing and exhausting but also compelling.

My friend Z is always full of surprises. Having already worked out this post in my mind, I sent him an e-mail about having seen Avatar. His “judgment” was much more basic and beautiful. Z wrote:

Wonderful Avatar . . . However I just prefer the old movie style where the American army are the good people.

  • Soutenus

    I am one of the three. If you count my son, 10 years old — that is two of the three. LOLEnjoyed your post and review within it.I am with Z. ;-)

  • Frank

    I haven't seen it yet(but my wife and kids have). I only just now saw Becket (1964) and I haven't seen A Man For All Seasons (1967) yet either. Lets see…I might get around to it by 2050 or so. Sheesh. (PS I still have never seen Dances With Wolves which I hear Avatar is similar too. Maybe by 2030?)

  • Anonymous

    I've seen it, and my summary is this: white people bad, indigenous (sp) people good!–Aurora

  • Anonymous

    Webster,Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day, not Saturday.- Angel

  • Webster Bull

    @Angel, LOL. At least someone got the reference!

  • Sarah Harkins

    I wrote a post about it about a month ago and included some of Pope Benedict's words on this neo pantheism he sees becoming a problem in our modern world. I thought the movie was entertaining, but the tree worshiping left me unsettled. It was good to read the Vatican's reviews after I watched it and humorous to see the other critic's reaction to the Vatican reviews ;)

  • Anonymous

    Prince Spaghetti Day is consciously or subconsciously embedded within the memory of anyone living in the Boston area during the seventies. (A current tv advertisement would be a phone number jingle for floors or carpeting… 800, 231- 63__, Emp___!) It's an implant.- AngelI'm sorry, but this is so much like the Catholic Church at the same time that Mamma was calling to Anthony. Wednesday was spaghetti day because Papa didn't get paid from the factory until Thursday night. The food budget was lean until then. Friday would have been a good night to splurge on protein, but to eat meat on Friday was a guarantee to burn in Hell. It was a mortal sin. It was embedded in our souls. To deliberately eat a hamburger on Friday sent one to the same eternal punishment as a mass murderer. (It was never quite revealed as to whether or not there were various levels of heat.) If they had grown up with this, recent converts might be more compassionate and understanding to those of us who actually suffered. Children fretting that God would punish them eternally for all their sins. It was a time of FEAR, (My brother, a former altar boy, committed suicide as an adult… ) It was okay for the parish priest to help a busy mother put her sons to bed at night.CC's are viewed as cynical and although it is not spoken, somewhat frowned upon by those who have chosen the Church later in life. I am truly happy for those who can embrace something I once held as sacred. I wish I could turn back time and share it with you. May you all know only good things in your lives, but I am extremely sensitive to those who refer to CC's as if we were lepers. We all know how Jesus felt about lepers. Amen and peace to all.

  • Webster Bull

    @Angel, As for levels of heat in hell, I think Dante mapped that out pretty well. I don't experience what you're saying about CC's (Cradle Catholics, right?, or what) being lepers. But I'm learning more about their experience all the time, with great interest and affection.

  • Michelle

    I had posted this response to Sarah Harkins post on her blog:"I really liked Avatar, which I didn't think I would. I thought it was visually beautiful which, as an artist, is always a plus. :)It certainly was pantheistic, but I don't know…for some reason it didn't bother me. Maybe it's because my spirituality tends to often be influenced by nature. I try to be eco-concious (as opposed to eco-obsessed/worshipping), but not because of NATURE, because of GOD. I don't believe nature is God, but I do believe God is in nature. He created all of it in a precise way, after all. Among the Christians I grew up with (namely protestants, and it might be true of Catholics, too, I don't know) there seems to be a reaction against the "tree-huggers" to not care about creation at all. But I think that being a steward of creation is just as important. And maybe that's what Avatar made me think of. Being a steward.I find that during spring, when things are blooming in such a mystical way, I am drawn even closer to God. I smell his sweetness, and see His beauty everywhere. I think there really is some sort of spiritual connection between the earth and man. After all, Adam was created from the dust and our bodies and souls are indistinguishable. But I guess it's where we draw the line between worshipping God through and because of His creation, and worshipping creation AS God. The whole tree thing kind of made me think of the Communion of Saints – having a direct "line" to those faithful gone before. While we don't worship them, we are together in this "Tree of Life" are we not?I guess it's one of those "gleaning to truths" kind of things."