“The Witch” has The Satanic Temple? “Risen” has the Pope.

“The Witch” has The Satanic Temple? “Risen” has the Pope. February 4, 2016
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Maybe there really is a cinematic holy war going on.

Just a day after The Satanic Temple announced its endorsement of horror film “The Witch,” Sony Pictures announced that Joseph Fiennes, the star of their new religious thriller “Risen,” has met with none other than Pope Francis. Both “The Witch” and “Risen” hit theaters on February 19 courting what I assume are very different audiences.

A lot of movies do this — as Peter Chattaway said, the man playing Jesus in the upcoming “Ben-Hur” remake also met the Pope. Also, they’re remaking “Ben-Hur,” which is a cause for another sad post.

Like TST’s endorsement of “The Witch,” the Pope’s meeting with Fiennes gives the movie the approval of a certain “side.” Sure, it’s technically not Pope Francis endorsing the movie, but there’s a tacit approval. I doubt he’d meet with the cast of “The Witch,” just as I imagine Pope John Paul II didn’t meet with Willem Dafoe when he was filming “The Last Temptation of Christ.” This isn’t news; it’s a photo op. It’s marketing for Sony to say, “see Christians? We’re making a respectful movie about Jesus. It’s safe! You can trust it!” And I’m sure Sony loves having this tool to use just a day after “The Witch” — again, opening the same day — was described as “a satanic experience.” Now there’s a narrative for websites to follow. Good vs. evil. It’s going to get a conversation going. It’s going to drive up pageviews. Heck, why do you think I scribbled this up on my lunch hour?

But here’s the thing: just because the Pope met with Ralph Fiennes doesn’t meant the movie’s any good, anymore than the TST’s endorsement of “The Witch” means it’s dangerous or evil. Christians approve of a lot of movies that have turned out awful — all the blessings in the world can’t make the Kirk Cameron oeuvre palatable. And while “The Witch” will likely benefit financially from the controversy and discussion, my fear is that it’s going to scare away people who might really need to see it. From what I’ve heard, the film is a serious (and seriously scary) examination of the effects of ultra-strict fundamentalism. I think there’s a topic rife for discussion there, and I think the horror genre could be a good venue for that. Likewise, I think “Risen” could be interesting. My hope is that it’s actually played as a straight thriller, not a preachy movie. Not an attempt to convert. But a movie that examines the circumstances around the resurrection and what that would mean for a Roman guard. There’s an interesting story at play and I’m curious to see what the film’s all about; I plan on reviewing it here.

I think the marketing for these two films has taken an interesting turn. Unfortunately, I don’t know that it’s a good one. “The Witch’s” endorsement will draw in crowds but keep away exactly the people who might need to wrestle with the effects of extreme fundamentalism. And the Papal endorsement of “Risen” risks giving the film approval and acclaim that we don’t know if it deserves. In the end, it could be another crappy movie that people gather around because it affirms their beliefs (the same could also be said for “The Witch.”). While it’s fun to talk about the circumstances surrounding the films’ release, I hope we can also discuss them as movies and truly engage the art. One of the greatest powers of cinema is its ability to unite; these marketing tactics isolate and divide.

However, I do appreciate the irony that Fiennes’ other big religious role was as the titular character in 2003’s “Luther” — a man who I don’t think got on too well with Catholic higher-ups.

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