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Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema
Angela Dalle Vacche
University of Texas Press, 2008
330 pp., $34.95
Crystal Downing and Reid Perkins-Buzo
Movies can elicit profound, sometimes dismaying, reflections about the reciprocal influences of religion and society, faith and culture, belief and behavior. Rarely, however, do filmgoers consider the influence of religion on the production of film itself. Of course, some might point to the Presbyterian roots of Will H. Hays (1879-1954), whose infamous "Hays Code" (1930-68) curtailed activities both on and off the screen for decades. Students today are often shocked by the bare breasts and steamy kisses of pre-Hays Code film. Such shock often results from an evolutionary view of morality—or perhaps we should say a devolutionary view, assuming a continuous decline in ethical standards, as though all film before the 1950s reflected the clean-cut values of the Father Knows Best era.
But to explain the Hays Code by pointing to the influence of Christianity would be disingenuous. For one thing, the code required that wrongdoers be punished by the end of the movie, a convention that ignores not only the imprecatory Psalms of David—as in "Why do the unrighteous prosper?"—but also life as most of us experience it. Nor was the Hays Office initiated by people with religious interests. It began during the silent era as a public relations ploy of movie moguls, who worried not about indecency but about protests against it. As David A. Cook puts it in his History of Narrative Film, "The main task of the Hays Office in the twenties was to stave off the threat of government censorship by mollifying pressure groups, managing news, deflecting scandal, and generally discouraging close scrutiny of the industry." Though pressure groups like the Catholic Legion of Decency were often motivated by religious concerns, the Hays Office sprang from the head of mammon rather than the heart of Christ. We should not be surprised, then, that the "ultraconservative" Hays was, according to Cook, "one of the more crooked members of the corrupt Harding administration."
America, of course, ...