Brazil's Bishops Versus Filmmakers

Brazil's bishops try to censor artists using Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer statue.
Copyright: Christ?

Tall and tan, august and ecumenical, Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer statue is a national monument. Since 1931, it has stood with open embrace on the granite crown of Corcovado mountain, an icon as Brazilian as Maracana Stadium and the vanishing bikini.

Don't tell that to the bishops. In a land that boasts the world's biggest flock of Roman Catholics, litigious clerics and a habit of turning public goods into private possession, statuary is statutory. The archdiocese of Rio, which has proprietary claims on the art-deco monument, is touchy about how the Redeemer is portrayed and quick to take on offenders, real or imagined.

Ask Jose Padilha. In the acclaimed Brazilian director's forthcoming contribution to "Rio, I Love You," a series of short feature films, a hang glider pilot gets the boot from his girl and catches a thermal to take his case to a higher authority. The jilted beau goes on to rant about his personal problems, urban squalor and life in general, and, getting no reply, gives the Redeemer an up-yours sign and flies off.

Moviegoers may never see the scene. Earlier this year, Padilha sent the script to the Rio archdiocese, mostly as a courtesy. He was well into the film shoot when the Curia got back to him. The archbishop said no.

Padilha, who directed the re-make of "RoboCop" and the "Elite Squad" movies, was steamed. "Can the Catholic Church use the image of Christ the Redeemer to bully cultural producers?" he wrote in a newspaper article last month. But with a production deadline looming, and fearful of a drawn-out lawsuit, he pulled the scene.

Brazilian media pounced. Artists, eggheads and the hotel association all spoke out, venting about religious "censorship." Rio mayor Eduardo Paes jumped in: "The Christ [statue] belongs to the archdiocese, but the icon belongs to Brazil and to Rio," he said. "There are limits to everything."

Finally, the church relented, lifting the ban on the controversial scene. But the 11th-hour decision leaves Padilha little time to re-edit the short. Some Brazilians charge that the bishops were bluffing, arguing that the Christ statue, one of the new Wonders of the World, is located in a national park and, hence, belongs to all Brazilians. The archdiocese countered that the monument also stands on a chapel, where the padres run the show.

The row over the Redeemer has wider resonance in Brazil, where the line between private and civic life is often blurred, and usually contentious. A decade or so ago, talented Brazilian writers began to unearth the tales of some of the country's little known historical giants. Then the rich and famous -- and their less luminous heirs -- caught on and started dragging biographers and publishers to court, to "cash in on the boneyard," as a publisher once told me. Their message: history belongs to the litigants.

Authors pushed back, igniting a national revolt, which led to a public hearing before the Supreme Court. Now the book ban appears to be lifting as celebrities and their scions have called off their lawyers.

Not yet the bishops. While Padilha fought and finally beat the archdiocese, that he needed its blessings at all only underscores the problem. The mere threat of legal action has chilled creativity by driving artists and directors to self-censorship and second-guessing the church. Changing that will take more than prayer.

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