I was only 10 years old the first time I watched The Godfather in 1972. My mother, brother, and I took our theatre seats during the scene where the movie producer wakes up in bed, notices that he has blood on himself, and realizes that his prize horse’s head has been cut off and put into bed with him as a warning from the mob. The Godfather was a sensation, a "must see" movie that ran for months in theatres throughout North America. Everybody, it seemed, had seen the movie or would ask you, "Have you seen the Godfather yet?"
It was a very graphic movie for its time: coarse language, graphic violence, partial nudity and sex scenes. For a kid like me who had only seen sanitized television shows and "clean" movies at the theatre, The Godfather was shocking. In those days, you could enter a theatre at any time during the movie and watch it as many times as you liked. We watched the rest of movie and then stayed to watch the first part that we had missed. The movie is so well made that it completely drew me in. For a few hours, I had left my childhood world of bicycles, baseball and comic books and entered the violent, dangerous world of organized crime.
There must have been about half a million Italians living in Toronto at that time. And, of course, The Godfather was about Italian mobsters. So, after watching the movie, I began to believe that every Italian in the city was either a mobster or was somehow connected to mobsters. I went to an Italian wedding reception, soon after watching the movie, and I was truly scared that someone with a machine gun might come in to the banquet hall and shoot everyone to pieces.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that I had lost a good part of my innocence simply by watching The Godfather. The world no longer seemed as safe and people no longer seemed as good. Since then, I have watched many, even more graphic movies, and I wonder, what effect have these movies had on my psyche?
We all know that traumatic, shocking events can have powerful effects on us; however, I’m convinced that these events experienced vicariously through the media can also profoundly affect us. Most people probably don’t believe this. When we see a warning on TV that reads, "The following program contains graphic violence, nudity, sexual situations and obscene language that may not be suitable for younger viewers or may be offensive to some viewers," we usually think, "Let’s just get on with the show. These warnings do not apply to me. I’m a mature viewer." For most of us, these warnings only wet our appetites and make us want to see "the bad stuff."
Graphic sex and brutal violence get the ratings up. Hollywood seems to know that even mediocre movies can make money if they are spiced up with lots of vice. Why are we so drawn to evil? One of the great Saints of the Church defined sin as "the love of evil." Notice, she didn’t define sin as an act but as a desire. We seem to get a grotesque pleasure from witnessing evil. We feel that were are innocent of the evil we watch in movies because we haven’t done the evil and, after all, we know it’s "only a movie."
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all depictions of sex and violence and the use of coarse language are intrinsically evil. It’s how they are depicted and for what purpose that are most relevant. These things were always depicted to some degree in movies, books, and art. But compare how they were usually depicted before the late Sixties to how they have usually been depicted since and you’ll see my point.
If we want to become holy, we should remember the old dictum "garbage in, garbage out." We learn by seeing and we tend to imitate what we see. We live in a mass-mediated culture and it can be difficult at times to completely separate fiction from reality. Constantly witnessing brutal violence, coarse language, and immoral sexual behaviour – even vicariously through the media – can help make us more callous, suspicious, and vindictive, or at least, less sympathetic, trusting and caring. It can desensitize us to evil and can make us more willing to do evil.
In choosing our entertainment, we would be wise to listen to the words of the apostle, "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things" (Philippians 4:8).