Dozens of the protesters have been charged with “interfering with freedom of artistic expression using violence,” the “violence” being defined as “praying and singing religious chants,” according to their lawyers. Three have lost their jobs when their employers noted their presence at the demonstrations in photos or videos posted on the internet.
Romeo Castellucci’s 55-minute “contemporary art” play features a blubbering old man wracked with diarrhea, whose son regularly comes to change his nappy and clean up his mess, until the incontinent father ends up covering the scene with pints of brown feces. All the while a portrait of the face of Christ by Italian Quattrocento painter Antonello da Messina covers the back of the stage.
Versions of the play differ from one night to the other. It included young children bombarding the portrait with plastic hand grenades when it played at the Festival d’Avignon this summer. All versions climax with the old man leaving the scene to climb a ladder behind the portrait, which is being torn open to violent and strident sounds, and then pouring brown liquid out of its eyes. At this point a strong smell of feces invades the theatre. The words “You are my Shepherd” then appear to cover the portrait in letters of light, with the word “not” flickering on and off to belie the statement. At the end, the portrait of Christ reappears intact.
The play was produced in Paris in two heavily subsidized theaters and will shortly be moving to the provincial towns of Rennes, Toulouse and Villeneuve d’Ascq, where more demonstrations are being organized against what is being criticized as sacrilege and a scandalous use of tax-payers’ money.
Since the first night, when unrelated groups organized protests inside and outside the theatre, and were subject to police brutality, access to the show has taken place under heavy police protection.
On one occasion, 150 people, mostly girls aged 18 to 25, were apprehended by the police as they were coming out of the busy central Metro station “Châtelet”, which is near the “Théâtre de la Ville”, to join the protest. They were then whisked away in police vans to stations in the North of Paris and charged after a two-day wait. Most police officers are reported to have indicated they were unhappy with the task and told the young Catholics that their orders had come from very high up.
A few young people bought tickets to attend the play and were promptly moved out by police when they got up and protested against the desecration of the Face of Christ.
The prayer vigils, as well as a demonstration organized on Saturday 29th October - over 5,000 attended at the call of “Civitas,” a lay movement associated with the traditionalist Fraternity of Saint Pius X - were overwhelmingly peaceful and prayerful. One isolated incident involved two students throwing eggs and engine oil at theatergoers as they entered the building.
By that time the mainstream press had already been piling criticism on the young Catholics, accusing them of violence and extremism. They are being portrayed as Christian “fundamentalists” and lowbrow reactionaries incapable of entering into an intellectual “dialogue” with the modern world of art.
Christine Boutin, leader of the French Christian Democrat Party, was quick to disassociate herself from the protesters, labeled “Catholic integrists,” alleging they had been “manipulated” by political or extreme religious movements into protesting against a play which is in no way a “sacrilegious provocation” but “a message about compassion.”
Especially discouraging for the protesters has been the fact that several bishops, including the archbishop of Paris, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, and the bishop of Rennes, Mgr Pierre d’Ornellas, were publicly interpreted Castellucci’s dung-carting “work of art” as a legitimate portrayal of human decadence and a thought-provoking show.
The cardinal, referencing a term coined by Lenin, named the protesters “useful idiots” and called for the public demonstrations to stop. Mgr d’Ornellas asked Catholics to “take time to understand” the play: while the stage-play is “provoking”, he wrote, no “christianophobia is involved” and should only help remind everyone about “the most ordinary of trivial sufferings: man’s comedown in old age” answered by the “profound manifestation of love” on the part of the son. The old man “emptying himself of his dignity” should remind us of Christ “emptying Himself ‘unto death, and the death of the Cross’”, he added.
The bishop’s text made no mention of the omnipresent feces: he asked all Catholics to see Castellucci as someone who is on a quest for God. “Dialogue between the Church and contemporary art is a necessary (if difficult) approach to evangelization”, he wrote.
Many ordinary Catholics have found this intellectualism hard to swallow. They have been asking the Church hierarchy not to brush over the fact that an image of the Saviour is being deliberately covered with what looks and smells like human feces in a heavily subsidized public play.
The protesters also felt strongly betrayed when three Catholic priests of the Paris region, a philosophy master, a TV producer, a well-known blogger, as well as a Christian pop group, co-signed an op-ed in the mainstream, strongly anti-Catholic Le Monde newspaper last Friday.
While asking for “respect” for the “symbol of Christ”, the op-ed assured that demonstrations against Castellucci’s play have given a caricatural image of Catholics when they should have been choosing to show a “desire for dialogue” instead of “withdrawal”. They added that the bishops should “have the upper hand when it comes to discerning” at what point Christian beliefs are “really being insulted”.
However, a dozen French bishops did give their written support for the actions against “christianophobia.” Mgr Centène of Vannes wrote a firm letter invoking the example of persecuted Christians in the Near and Middle East.
“I congratulate and encourage all those who, consistently with their faith, do not hesitate to act publicly, and who, although never using violence, either verbal or physical, are apprehended by the police force and kept in custody, when they demonstrate, in all justice, their disapproval of performances which are appalling beyond belief”, he wrote on October 27th to “Civitas”, the group organizing the large demonstrations in Paris, Rennes (next Thursday) and Toulouse in two weeks’ time.
Catholic journalists are analyzing Romeo Castellucci’s other works and his fascination with bizarre scenes and inverted beliefs.
On the Concept of the Face of the Son of God is said to have obvious Freudian associations with its obsessive portrayal of excrement. Previous plays include Gènesi, which shows God as an ineffectual Creator of an evil world of horror where Lucifer symbolizes art, and a trilogy from Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Heaven is a depersonalizing place in which all identity is lost to the unending boredom of eternal worship and Hell, a place where horror is rife but man is himself and finds “paradoxical sweetness”.
A former adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Minister’s Black Veil shocked the London public a few years ago with a scene showing the main character pushing shards of glass into his anus while saying the name of Our Lord. This play will shortly be showing again in Italy.
The AGRIF, (Alliance against Racism and for the respect of French and Christian identity) filed two emergency lawsuits against public authorities for having funded and displayed “On the Concept of the Face” in two Parisian theaters. Both were lost, and in both cases it was decided that no attack against Christian’s dignity and religious rights was involved.
Public disavowal of Catholic protesters by certain members of the Catholic hierarchy are suspected of influencing the decisions. But the AGRIF, which gets little or no publicity in the mainstream press, has been receiving letters of encouragement and e-mails by the hundreds.
In spite of the odds, the AGRIF is preparing for a new legal battle against Golgota Picnic, which will open shortly in Toulouse before coming to Paris in December. This show by Hispano-Argentian contemporary playwright Rodrigo Garcia is considered even more blasphemous and obscene than the Romeo Castellucci play.