First, a quote from Keats’ 1820 poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn:
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
I was reminded of this poem after viewing a movie written, directed and produced by one of the first women in the industry, Lois Weber. She directed between two hundred and four hundred pictures, most of which are probably lost for good. The Library of Congress, however, has made a point of preserving what it can for future generations, which is why I was able to watch Hypocrites this week, a silent film from 1915.
Basic plot to the movie: a priest is finishing a Sunday sermon about hypocrisy (Matthew 23:28) aimed at a very bored congregation. After the congregation leaves we get a quick glimpse of some well dressed men (Deacons?) who were bothered enough by the tone of Gabriel’s sermon to suggest his resignation. Inside the church, Gabe has confiscated a newspaper from one of the choir boys that a couple were reading during his sermon earlier. He asks God’s forgiveness on behalf of the dumb lunkhead, but before he can do much else, he’s interrupted by a girl from the choir that might have a crush on him. He rolls his eyes at that, at least, then sits down to mull things over. The paper’s headline catches his eye:
It’s both a foreshadowing technique, and a nod to news stories coming out of Paris at the time. It may even (I’m guessing here) be related to the wicked tango in Paris which was a hot issue before the first World War. The Vatican went so far as to describe the dance and its popularity as, “offensive to the purity of every right minded person.” A low key version of the dance was performed for Pius X who later stated with derision that if it were ever decided to use the tango as a penance for sins, it would be “sheer cruelty.” It became known as a “whore’s dance” and it was thought that the doing of would lead to drunken “murderous brawls” and gross indecency by even the most proper of women. And, anyone who admitted to dancing this way but who was unwilling to quit the practice would never be allowed to absolve their sins. No forgiveness of sin by men of God. I found no mention of how many of God’s men may have learned the steps on their own time, though.
Back in the movie, the style of it changes and the priest’s costume turns to a Monk’s robe. Perhaps the priest has fallen asleep and is now dreaming. The rest of the movie is devoted to Gabriel the Ascetic who seeks the Truth of the world to show everyone. A noble gesture, I must say, but considering what happens to him later, not the wisest move he could have made.
Weber provides us with these quotes first.
Milton may have been referring to freedom of the press in terms of politics at the time, but we’ll let that slide. The point is, Truth is seen as a woman. Weber chose to film Truth as a beautiful naked woman whom the monk pursues. She also makes a visual point while filming that anyone can aim for the same goal if he or she is willing to make the effort and the sacrifices. Few do.
The idea of “The Naked Truth” is hardly recent. There is record of a pamphlet of the same name from 1675 that condemns the primitive church. It came out the year after John Milton died. In it is proof that Protestantism was the only approved belief in town; the Roman Church is likened to a place full of superstition which priests don’t mention until they’ve snared a new believer. This was also prior to James II’s pointless attempts at a Declaration of Liberty of Conscience and the (limited) Act of Toleration which allowed schisms of Protestantism the right to worship, but those who followed the Catholic ritual of transubstantiation or the trinity were not allowed the same luxury. (Keep that in mind for the next time you catch someone whining about persecution.)
Aren’t digressions fun? Anyway, the monk is so enamoured by Truth that he tries to sculpt her image and show off what he has found. Sadly, most of the town freaks out over the nakedness and refuses to fully appreciate his efforts. The Abbot mobs them all up into a religious fervor, I guess, and they kill the monk for even daring to assume he could bring them the truth. He doesn’t fight them at all; he martyrs himself to the greater Truth.
They didn’t really want to see Truth, not the way the monk did, anyway. She’s too naked and obvious and innocently shows her true and whole self without guilt or shame, something people are fearful of or incapable of doing.
Truth begins showing the spirit of the monk evidence of hypocrisy everywhere (Truth hurts, baby); “honest” politicians taking bribes; people acting decent when they really want to booze it up or take all their clothes off; accepting Truth only so far as it fits their own ideals.
Even love falls victim to hidden desires from both sides as neither side owns up to their true ambitions, or expectations. Truth even expects the monk to look inside his own self before he try to judge others of failing to uphold Truth. (Matthew 7:1,5 come to mind). He also has to admit to liking the girl who had a crush on him earlier, or liking the attention. Both are equally bad in Truth’s eyes since he’s be en avoiding the acknowledgment of it and thus not putting the poor deluded woman in her place, which will never be with him. Everyone’s putting an image out there that hides what’s really going on.
And as the movie ends, some of the congregation that Truth revealed as hypocrites in politics, modesty, love, or family dysfunction find the priest dead in the church and still clutching the newspaper. Then they call him a hypocrite in the next edition.
I have nothing more to add, but if you want to read more about Lois Weber and the significance of this film, read this article. It’s so interesting, I don’t have to offer up any tantalizing quotes ahead of time to prove it.