“Hail, Caesar!”: A Divine Comedy?

Note: This movie review is part of a continuing series of articles on Catholicism and art.

I’m resistant to current movies as a rule, vastly preferring the old classics, but I recently decided to take a chance on Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar! I had heard of the film’s religious subtext and was intrigued by the fact that a number of Catholic commentators had much to say about it.  The Catholic News Service (CNS) critic John Mulderig was ambivalent at best about Hail, Caesar!‘s religious content, going so far as to say that the film could possibly be viewed as offensive.  Another headline blared ominously: “The Coens swipe at religion.” On the other hand, the Catholic conservative columnist Ross Douthat hailed Caesar as “the best Catholic movie of the decade,” and Bishop Robert Barron followed not long after with a thoughtful video analyzing the religious themes in the film.  Another critic called the movie a “Passion play,” while yet another wondered whether it was “the most Catholic movie ever made.”  Rather like Christ himself, Hail, Caesar! seemed to elicit wildly varying reactions from every corner.

After seeing Hail Caesar! twice, I heartily concur with Douthat and Barron’s positive assessments.  The Coen brothers’ delightful film is a deceptively lighthearted, subliminally profound send-up not only of Golden-Age Hollywood but of the entire cultural world of mid-20th century America — but with an especially keen angle on the religious texture of that era.  Hail, Caesar! takes place at a Hollywood movie studio, the fictional “Capitol Pictures,” in the early 1950s.  The film’s central figure is Eddie Mannix, the studio’s “fixer” (problem-solver).  As played splendidly by Josh Brolin, Mannix is the moral anchor of the film.  What’s more, Mannix is a practicing Catholic who goes to confession and prays the rosary, and these activities are presented without mockery.  As stated, this is an affectionate view of classic Hollywood, and Mannix’ role as studio fixer is magnified to something nearly heroic.  Throughout the film we see him quelling potential scandals before they erupt, protecting young starlets’ virtue, fending off temperamental directors, and shielding stars from the predations of vulture-like gossip mongers.hail caesar 4

The more astute reviewers noted that there is a priestly or even Christ-like aspect to Mannix’ ministrations around the movie studio, that his name could be read as “Man X” (i.e., man of the cross), and that Capitol Pictures could even be interpreted as an allegory of the Church, with all its saints and sinners.  Indeed, the cross is the presiding symbol of the film, a crucifix being the first thing we see at the very start of the movie.  The movie is furthermore bookended by two visits to the confessional on the part of Mannix, who is conscious of his own (minor) sins to the point of scrupulosity; his slightly exasperated priest tells him that maybe he goes to confession too often!

Soon, however, Mannix faces a quandary.  A man from Lockheed Aircraft wants to lure him from his Hollywood job to go work in a high executive position in nuclear testing — a position with saner hours and saner people.  Should Mannix take it? Or should he stay faithful to his mission with the Hollywood crazies he knows so well? Should he join the utilitarian world of industry or remain in the world of art and creativity, the “dream factory” which he loves?

hail caesar 3Swirling around this central dilemma are a panoply of colorful plots involving various actors at Capitol Pictures and the movies they are making.  Chief among these “movies within a movie” is Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ, a biblical-historical epic centering on a Roman centurion who comes to believe in Jesus.  Capitol Pictures is suddenly in jeopardy when the witless lead actor in the film is kidnapped by a cell of Communist subversives.  Here the film really comes into full gear: the portrayals of these fatuous Marxists are worth the price of admission.

Suffice it to say this is a complex and richly entertaining film, one that — as the title suggests — explores Caesar and Christ, God and mammon, belief and myth-making, Christianity and capitalism and Communism.  Why did some critics — albeit a minority — perceive it as irreligious? Partly, I think, because of a lack of historical perspective.  The Coen brothers are very culturally and historically literate, and we need to look at their film in the context of the era in which it’s set.

The post-World War II period saw a religious revival in the U.S.  There was at this time an emphasis on ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, and religious sensitivity.  Catholicism was becoming culturally more mainstream, thanks partly to Hollywood films and media figures like Bishop Fulton Sheen.  This side of 1950s culture is portrayed in Hail,Caesar!‘s funniest scene: Mannix convenes a board of religious advisors (a Catholic and an Orthodox priest, a Protestant minister and a Jewish rabbi) to ensure that the religious content of the biblical epic will be strictly kosher and free of offense.  The well-intentioned meeting goes haywire due to the theological differences between the Christian and the Jewish clergymen; yet the Catholic priest — presumably, the head of the Catholic Legion of Decency — gives a sound and eloquent explanation of Christ, the nature of the Godhead, and salvation.

The Coens’ film conveys the religious mix at the movie studios, in which the studio heads were Jewish but many of the men and women in the trenches were — like Eddie Mannix — practicing Catholics.  And the era was full of Catholic-themed movies (think of The Bells of St. Mary’s or The Song of Bernadette); a wag once said that Hollywood was a “Jewish-owned business selling Catholic theology to Protestant America.” Above and beyond religious differences, a moral consensus formed around what were commonly thought of as “American values” versus the values of the Communist world.  Somehow everybody got along, thanks to a moral consensus which popular media such as Hollywood existed to reinforce, not rebel against.

hail caesar 6Meanwhile, the Communist world (the “wind blowing from the East,” in the words of the film) offered an alternative vision to this Pax Americana.  Many succumbed to the vision, seeing in Communism the salvation of humanity and the way of the future.  In Hail, Caesar! Communists actually kidnap the lead actor and indoctrinate him in Marxism.  Thus the movie sets up a quite literal dichotomy of Christ versus Communism, a dichotomy which seemed all too real to many living in that era.  A sly touch: over the movie’s end credits, we hear a sung Russian version of the “Our Father” — a superordination of Christ over Communism?

One could see lurking in some of the reviews of the film — even the positive ones — a certain traditional bias against the comic genre.  Comedy is often devalued, under the supposition that it’s essentially “silly” and can’t possibly have deeper meanings; the idea of a religious comedy seems an absurd stretch.  Yet those of us who come from the tradition of Dante and Chesterton need have no such hang-ups and are in an excellent position to enjoy the wit of this film.

hail caesar 9To cut to the chase (as Eddie Mannix might say), I’m glad I took a chance on Hail, Caesar! It’s clever, classy, and features a pitch-perfect all-star ensemble cast including Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, and more.  Some press made the film sound like an irreverent Monty Python or Mel Brooks-type send-up, but that is far from the case.  Catholicism is given an amazingly positive treatment, and the movie promotes a solid “do your duty” ethic.  Although perhaps not to all tastes, Hail, Caesar! will appeal to movie fans with a strong sense of irony and a love of vintage culture — and particularly an appreciation for what was undoubtedly a healthier time in Hollywood.  The movie resurrects the feel, the rhythm and the lingo of the mid-20th century, a period that is now so remote from us in sensibility that it might as well be the Victorian era.

And in spite of its heavy irony, Caesar is ultimately a movie with heart.  True, the film exploits the comedy inherent in “selling” religion to the masses through entertainment; but cynicism doesn’t have the last word.  Indeed, the movie’s climactic scene features the Roman centurion of the movie-within-a-movie giving a sincere speech at the foot of the cross of the Penitent Thief (thus identifying himself with this biblical character) — a speech about his transformative encounter with Christ.  The members of the movie studio are all visibly moved.

The CNS review suggested that Hail, Caesar! was appropriately released in February because it’s a “Valentine” to classic Hollywood.  That’s true enough, but much more to the point, the film’s release date was apt because this is a good Easter movie.  Hail, Caesar! is nearing the end of its theatrical run, which means that we should soon have the opportunity to enjoy this highly diverting film on DVD.

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