Faith and (art)works
Catholicism is the common thread connecting a sculptor, a director, a poet, an actress, and a playwright in Cristian Murphy’s documentary Masterpieces. Released in 2019, it marked the 20th anniversary of now St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists.” The letter remarks, “Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.”
While the film has a special poignancy for artists, it serves as a guide for all looking to more deeply integrate their faith and the particular vocation to which they are called. The viewer is struck by the organic way the different artists harmonize their faith and craft throughout the work. Murphy, being a Catholic artist himself, sees his faith as a source of creative inspiration, so he does not get caught up in the novelty of a Catholic that is also an artist. Instead, he delves into the mystery of this call that Catholic artists have, which ultimately gives the documentary its depth and dynamism.
Madison Mitchell is the actress the film highlights. In the documentary, she discusses how her parents set a solid faith foundation in her life by always going to Mass on Sundays even on performance days. Still, she struggled to articulate the connection she felt between her faith and her craft for some time. Mitchell mentions, “I think when I connected my artistic career/ vocation with the spiritual aspect, it maybe was happening more subconsciously before I had the language to identify it as that.”
St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists” helped her express this connection more eloquently. Mitchell continued, “When I first heard and read St. Pope John Paul II’s “Letter to the Artist”... I was like, that’s me! … I felt like, it’s not weird, it’s not crazy. This is a call, and it’s a vocation. And that really gave me this boost of [being able] to totally identify myself as a Catholic artist, and that’s wonderful, and I love it.”
Talking with Murphy, he recognizes that many young Catholic artists struggle with reconciling their faith with their drive to create. Murphy related, “I made [Masterpieces] as a letter to the 18-year-old version of myself. That is the movie I wish I had when I was 18 when I was discerning everything in life. There are so many great movies out there about if you are discerning priesthood and if you are discerning sisterhood and all of those things… We struggled to find anything that spoke of the layperson that wants to create… So that was kind of the backbone of [the film]."
The fact that there is a felt need for documentaries such as this is telling. Our generation grows weary of organized religion as countless studies on Mass attendance and faith surveys show. This not only affects those leaving the faith but also influences the living faith of those remaining as the relationship between religion and secular culture becomes more tenuous. On the positive side, it is more clear that following Christ is a conscious choice made each day. This can give a deeper sense of purpose and camaraderie to those remaining (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers...”) To fellow contrarians, this is excellent!
A fragile relationship between faith and secular cultures comes with inherent difficulties as well. T.S. Eliot notes some of these difficulties in his essay, “Notes towards the Definition of Culture”. Eliot sees religion and culture as naturally co-dependent. When the relationship begins to disintegrate, “Religious thought and practice, philosophy and art, all tend to become isolated areas cultivated by groups in no communication with each other. The artistic sensibility is impoverished by its divorce from the religious sensibility, the religious by its separation from the artistic.”
In the context of film, we see this play out in the modern “Christian movie” market that, without mentioning specific films, many see as an impoverished artform. While he is careful to not cast a blanket statement over all Christian movies, Murphy explained, “[It seems to me] that some of the Christian movies, I won’t say all, but some of them are a bunch of people who are taking advantage of the… Christian audience that wants to watch something good. And I really get offended by that… And they’re lining their pockets with millions of dollars off of this industry.”
Murphy’s film, while clearly Catholic throughout, has little relation to these. He credits the documentary format as being part of this distinction. He also has a broader view of what a Catholic film is. He discussed several films that, although not made by Catholics or even Christians, have inspired him. Murphy believes that these films, in their honest depiction of human life and reality, point towards hope and inevitably Christ.
St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists” shares a similar message. While the ideal of artists must be a true depiction of goodness and beauty, the late pope recognizes that this road often leads through, “the valley of the shadow of death.” St. John Paul II observes, “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”
A new vision
Murphy’s love for drama began at a young age and started blossoming as he attended film classes. Murphy explained, “When I was in high school and college, I took some classes… and I just fell in love with editing… [I realized that] this is really powerful… how image and sound and all this can just come together to give someone an experience. It is really moving, and I just fell in love with it. So any chance I got from then on, I would pick up a camera and try to make something.”
Murphy spent time on film crews but decided that he was not called to study film formally. He went to school for business and got a Master’s degree in ministry and religious education. He previously taught theology and currently works as director of campus ministry at his alma mater besides running his film production company Dark Roast Films. Here, he is able to maintain creative control and be selective about the projects that he undertakes.
A recently completed project has been one of his favorites and highlights what he loves about film. Murphy commented, “My grandma-in-law, she just turned 90 years old, and she is a great-great-grandma… She has eight children. All of the children are still alive and very involved in the family… Her family is still so all invested, and this grandma is still the nucleus of everything… I was asked by my mother-in-law to put a film together about her… It ended up being this 17 minute film about her… And to share that with them, and to watch it with them… And to watch with grandma, and to see the emotion, and how all of their stories and all of their feelings towards this one human came together into this piece that we are all able to have and experience… I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it, but that’s what [film] can do.”
He just finished the script for his next project entitled Windows, which is a drama about a young musician. Although not as explicitly religious as Masterpieces, he has found a home amidst the resurgent creative milieu of Catholic artists. Murphy concluded, “I’m really excited to see what the Church is doing with art. I feel like, maybe I am just waking up to it, but I also feel like there really has been a new renaissance of just great artwork and great materials and resources that are bringing people to their faith in authentic ways. And it is really exciting to be a very very small part of that. And I am really excited to see what happens moving forward and to see how many people are stepping up to the plate and taking ownership of their faith and their craft. It is an exciting time to be doing this stuff.”
More information on Cristian Murphy’s film production company can be found at https://www.darkroastfilms.org/, and more information on Masterpieces can be found at https://www.masterpiecesthefilm.com/. Masterpieces can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video and Formed.