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Monday, September 26, 2016
Signis statement on The Omen
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 Today is the 6th of the 6th 06 and, in fact, the screening of The Omen today finished at 6.06 pm - so it seems a suitable moment for a statement on the film.

A preliminary observation. It has been amazing and irritating that in recent weeks we have been approached by newspapers and radio programs not so much about the film but about seemingly trivial matters. It was not for clarification of issues or the position of the Church. Rather, journalists were asking about women who allegedly don't want to give birth on the 6th of June because of what they have heard about the number of the devil, 666. And they don't want to call their sons Damien because that is the name of the devil.

People who declare they are not religious, who are sceptical about the teachings of Christianity suddenly give credence to superstitions from who knows where or seemingly religious gossip. As regards the name Damien for the devil, that was invented by writer David Seltzer in the 1970s for the screenplay of the original Omen. Nothing to do with the Bible. And there are all kinds of discussion about the symbolism of 666 (not a date, let alone a date in our times) for the early Church and the Roman Empire.

So, in the immediate wake of The Da Vinci Code comes the remake of the 1976 film, The Omen. This present version is more respectful of the Church than Code's blatant criticisms and implications, even if it opens with a bizarre-looking cleric at the Vatican observatory noting strange comets in the skies (echoes of stars over Bethlehem). The cleric hurries to inform a cardinal in Rome. The cardinal then explains recent events (September 11th, wars in the Middle East, hurricanes) to the Pope and the Curia along ultra-literal lines of interpretation of selected texts from the Apocalypse. (Actually, some very evangelical groups, especially in the US might not think them so far-fetched). One cannot imagine Benedict XVI listening to this kind of biblical hokum!

As regards the official church, there is nothing more, except a dying scene for the Pope where the Cardinal rushes to kneel by his bedside, presumably to tell him the bad news that Damien lives. And the Pope dies. There are two demented priests who have been caught up in the birth of the antichrist and have participated in having the baby adopted by an American diplomat who is the godson of the American president. Those who know the two Omen sequels are aware how significant this is for Damien's easy entrée into world politics and business. (The riff given to the beast arising from the eternal sea is that this is not meant to be taken literally while everything else is and means the turmoil of the sea of politics).

Novelists and screenwriters as we realise, particularly at this Da Vinci hypothesis and conspiracy time, invent scenarios that rely on a medley of historical facts, legends and religious images. They are fascinated by apocalyptic texts, sometimes inventing them as in Omen 3, and eager to apply them to the present. They can be imaginative 'what ifs'?,. The Omen is clearly one of these scenarios.

However. While non-Christians and non-believers can watch The Omen or dismiss it as a piece of imaginative nonsense, it is not so easy for believers to dismiss it.

One of the intriguing features of both Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), the first of the incarnation of evil films, and Richard Donner's The Omen (1976) is that they postulate the incarnation of the devil. This came as something of a shock to us in the 1960s. We had not quite imagined this scenario. But it made Catholics reflect that, if the incarnation of God was possible, then so was the incarnation of evil. With the cultural and religious questioning of the 1960s, especially with Time Magazine's take on the movements and opinions of say, Bishop John Robinson in the UK, 'Honest to God' and Paul Tillich and others suggesting in the US that there should be a moratorium on the word, 'God', with alternates like 'Ground of our being', the question was 'Is God Dead?,. This was the black-background, red-letter cover of Time at Easter 1966 (which Polanski actually used in his film, the magazine that Rosemary read in the doctor's waiting room). In the early 1970s came possession films, The Exorcist (1973) and its sequel and many derivatives. Audiences were invited to raise issues of the devil, incarnation and possession, that both fascinated and frightened people.

Is it the same today? Are we so apprehensive now with terrorist attacks, wars, earthquakes and tsunamis that we wonder about God's presence and the presence of evil, of the demonic? Does the modern fascination with religious conspiracies add its influence? Has western culture lost its knowledge of Christian roots, symbols, images and teaching that audiences are prone to believe anything without checking it critically? These are questions that the Church today has to come to grips with.

In the meantime, The Omen itself?

David Seltzer has again written the screenplay, putting the events in a 21st century context. He has also made the parents of Damien (Liev Schreiber and Julia Styles) much younger than Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. Otherwise, it is very close to the original, relying on atmosphere and eerie suspense rather than horror (although the three upsetting deaths from 1976 are repeated in the same upsetting way here and the menacing dogs are present again). A footnote of interest is that the nanny this time is a fey Mia Farrow, looking surprisingly like Rosemary of 1968 rather than her sixty years. David Thewliss is the photographer and Pete Postlethwaite has melodramatic moments as the disturbing priest, Fr Brennan.

Dramatically and thematically, the film is quite pessimistic. It looks as though evil triumphs. After destroying his family and others who helped them, Damien survives and, as in the original, he stands at the graveside of his father, hand in hand with the president, turns to the audience with his perpetual malevolent expression and then smiles. Obviously, it is all open to a sequel. For believers, fortunately, the sequel is optimistic, a sequel of grace.

For those who don't know the original, The Omen may come as a surprise. For those who appreciated the original, the surprise element is long gone, so it is a matter of looking at the plot and questions more closely.

The Omen is a reminder to those who believe in God that there is evil in our world, that is malicious and destructive. It is alarming to see it embodied in a five-year-old child.LONDON - 7 June 2006 - 1,120 words
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