Bond joins Pope Francis as Spectre races in Rome
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
“That was the best James Bond film ever!”
As the credits began to roll, a gentleman sitting four seats down from me sprang to his feet. Shooting his arms into the air, he spontaneously uttered this sentiment about Spectre.
No doubt the bad reviews you have read about the film don’t sound like that. But I think I know the reason why.
Spectre offers not just an epic mythology tying together Bond’s life story. It also (spoiler alert) tells the story of how Bond arrives at the point where he can abandon the ways of a vengeful assassin and instead choose a path of mercy.
I’m pretty sure the film’s bad reviews derive from this latter point. If Spectre gives us a contrarian Bond who joins Team Pope Francis at the end of the film because he (spoiler alert) gives up violence to settle down with the right girl, then film reviewers aren’t going to talk about that. That would violate the prohibition on spoilers.
Instead, critics find other reasons to complain about a film that shows Bond choosing mercy over vengeance. They roll their eyes at Bond getting an “origin story” that ties together previous Bond movies underneath one grand story arc.
But, to my mind, the story in Spectre about Bond being at war with his brother is inseparable from the path that he chooses at the end of the film. It’s not fair to complain about the “origin story” myth of warring brothers and at the same time to omit from discussion Bond’s choice for mercy.
I see the two themes as inextricably connected because of what I learned from a man whom I consider the greatest Catholic thinker of our time, Professor René Girard. Girard died at 91 years old on Nov. 4, the week that Spectre opened.
Girard analyzed the mythical themes occurring in all cultures, like the theme of warring brothers. He explained how the Gospels, in contrast, carry a unique message. Unlike all the other stories that humans tell themselves, they communicate a non-mythical message of peace, exactly opposite to all the mythologies of the world.
The Spectre movie is saturated with religious imagery as well as the theme of death by violence. One scene has James Bond attending a Catholic funeral. He stands beneath a gigantic cross that towers over him in a brightly lit space. It feels as if the Gospel of light is spreading through the valley of the shadow of death that Bond inhabits.
If that setting failed to communicate the one real alternative to the assassin’s life, later on Rome and Vatican City become the stage upon which an epic car chase plays out. The aerial shots of the chase depict Rome, the Eternal City, standing as a majestically unmoving backdrop for the petty chase snaking through it.
The cars even go roaring up to St. Peter’s Square in front of the Basilica. I almost expected Pope Francis to make a walk-on cameo.
The religious images foreshadow and contextualize the choice Bond makes at the end of the film on behalf of Gospel mercy. As René Girard has emphasized in his scholarly life’s work, humanity is faced with the choice of either real Gospel peace or the rationalizing violence of world mythologies.
The warring brothers theme in Spectre places the James Bond mythology unmistakably into the universal mythical genre. A filmgoer who has read Girard’s books will be stunned by how many classic Girardian themes are woven into the film’s violent crises. Suffice it to say that Spectre has them in spades.
In any case, the upshot of an in-depth Girardian analysis of Spectre would simply be the conclusion Pope Francis himself offered that same week, on Nov. 5 at Thursday morning Mass at Casa Santa Marta.
In his homily, Pope Francis observed, “The attitude of Jesus is to include. There are two paths in life: the path of exclusion of persons from our community, and the path of inclusion. The first can be little, but it is the root of all wars. All calamities, all wars, begin with an exclusion. One can be excluded from the international community, but also from families, from friends: how many fights there are! And the path that makes us see Jesus and teaches us Jesus is quite another; it is contrary to the other path: it includes.”
Just as Girard did, so too Francis observed how God’s message is one of inclusion, “against the exclusion of those who judge, who drive away people, persons: ‘No, no to this, no to that, no to that…’; and a little of circle of friends is created, which is their exclusive environment.”
“We with our weaknesses, with our sins, with our envy, jealousies, we all have this attitude of excluding which, as I said, can end in wars.”
Next to the gentleman who leapt to his feet with joy at Bond’s conversion to mercy, I would say that the words of Pope Francis (which are echoed in Girard’s life’s work on the mythologies of violent exclusion) were the week’s best review of Spectre.