The Catholic Counter-Reformation in film


Martin Scorsese’s film Silence, which is due to be released today in the Vatican, belongs to a small sub-genre of historical films exploring the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the global movement to renew and expand the boundaries of the Catholic faith between 1545 and 1796. The Counter-Reformation is usually described as Rome’s response to the Protestant Reformation, but it was a great deal more than a denunciation of Protestant doctrines as heresy and a campaign to re-convert European Protestants. Although these were both aims of the Counter-Reformation, the reinvigorated Church of the Council of Trent also looked out, beyond Europe, to the opportunity to spread the Catholic faith worldwide. Assisted by the fact that three Catholic European nations – Spain, Portugal and France – were burgeoning global powers, the Counter-Reformation Church embarked on a remarkable project to spread a single faith (and the baroque culture that accompanied it) to the furthest corners of the globe.

However, the reach and ambition of Counter-Reformation missionaries exceeded even the imperial ambitions of Spain, Portugal and France, and the missionaries frequently went beyond the limits of previous European exploration. They also understood that it was necessary to adapt the message of Christ to local cultures, and were even prepared to challenge the secular imperialist attitudes of the Catholic powers. By far the most successful film about the Counter-Reformation mission was Roland Joffé’s The Mission (1986), set in what is now Paraguay in 1750, when the Treaty of Madrid transferred the area from Spanish to Portuguese control. Whereas slavery was by then illegal in the Spanish Americas, the Portuguese permitted it under the secularising government of the Marques de Pombal. The film is about the Jesuit mission to the Guarani people and the Portuguese destruction of the Jesuit missions, which are portrayed as enlightened and sympathetic to the indigenous people. The film highlights some of the paradoxes of the ‘Catholic Enlightenment’ of the eighteenth century, which adopted a humane attitude to the rights of indigenous peoples but also deferred increasingly to secular governments. In this sense, the film is really about the unravelling of the Counter-Reformation’s global religious and cultural project as national governments increasingly asserted their imperial will.

Another less well-known film about the Counter-Reformation mission in the New World is Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe, which is also about a Jesuit mission to indigenous people but set this time in seventeenth-century New France, the vast swathes of North America (part of which are now Canada) that belonged to the French crown until lost to Britain in 1763. Black Robe resembles Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the Jesuit priest Fr Laforgue ventures further and further into the wilderness and away from Christian civilisation. Black Robe seems to have been an effort to capitalise on the success of The Mission but never achieved the same profile – undeservedly so, in my view.

Masahiro Shinoda’s 1971 adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence was the first attempt to tell the story of the Jesuit mission to Japan in film. Set in 1639, the novel and film (and the 2016 re-make) address the failed attempt by Jesuits to re-establish Christianity in Japan, which had previously been favoured at the end of the sixteenth century but was then brutally repressed by the shoguns. The two versions of Silence are, as far as I am aware, the only films about the Counter-Reformation mission in Asia, which was a project just as immense and ambitious as Catholic missionary efforts in the New World. Portuguese colonial possessions such as Goa and Macau were the springboard for exploration deep into China, Korea and Japan.

When it comes to the Counter-Reformation in Europe, cinema has tended to focus on a characteristically early modern obsession: exorcism. The story of the ‘Devils of Loudun’, the mass demonic possessions that affected an Ursuline convent in the French city in 1634, has been the subject of two films: Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) and Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels (1961), which transfers the action to a convent in seventeenth-century Poland but is essentially based on the events at Loudun. There is also a sense in which William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) is a film about this aspect of the Counter-Reformation. Priestly exorcism was a distinctively Counter-Reformation preoccupation, and although the film is set in the present day and based on a case from 1949, the exorcist in the film imitates the seventeenth-century Jesuit Jean-Joseph Surin who ended the Loudun possessions by accepting possession himself.

It is surprising, perhaps, that more films have not been made about the Counter-Reformation, especially the Counter-Reformation mission which features remarkable stories of pioneering exploration. The concept of mission also allows for deep explorations of themes of religious doubt, cultural interchange, slavery and colonialism. However, the intense religiosity of the Counter-Reformation seems to have put off as many directors as it has encouraged to tackle this period. If Scorsese’s Silence is a success it could, like Joffé’s The Mission, inspire one or two other films about the era. A film about the Jesuit mission in Maryland, spiritually and ethically compromised by its entanglement in slavery, would be especially welcome.

One reply on “The Catholic Counter-Reformation in film”

I also think the Jesuit involvement is interesting. I am reading letters of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who, while not a missionary as such, displayed the same zeal and incisive intellect found in some of these Jesuit undertakings. We are seeing the movie this evening…

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