French penguin film sparks US religious skirmish

21st September 2005, Comments 0 comments

WASHINGTON, Sept 19 (AFP) - From the Pledge of Allegiance to abortion and the siting of stones inscribed with the Ten Commandments, secularists and the religious right have fought bruising battles for the American soul in recent years.

WASHINGTON, Sept 19 (AFP) - From the Pledge of Allegiance to abortion and the siting of stones inscribed with the Ten Commandments, secularists and the religious right have fought bruising battles for the American soul in recent years.

To this lengthening list, another can be added: the penguin.

The cause is a French wildlife documentary, 'March of the Penguins', which has been the surprise blockbuster of the American movie summer.

The feature-length film by Luc Jacquet recounts the heroic life of the Emperor penguin, a species that battles against extraordinary conditions in Antarctica.

Blizzards, gales and a chill reaching to -40 degrees C are only a few of the obstacles thrown in the penguins' way.

After laying their single eggs, the females trudge in single file to feeding grounds 110km from their breeding site.

For two months, the male sits on the egg to keep it warm and let the chick hatch, awaiting the return of the female bringing food for their offspring.

Only when the mother returns does the father then make his own trek to the distant coast to ease his own hunger.

Like audiences elsewhere, Americans have applauded this film, entranced by its photography and stunned by the flightless birds' epic fight.

But "March of the Penguins" has become more than a wildlife hit -- it is on track for becoming the most politically contested movie in America since 'Fahrenheit 9/11', Michael Moore's take on President George W Bush's war on terror.

Little do they know it, but the penguins have been seized upon by conservative Christians as a parable of family virtues, a role model for men, an argument against abortion and convincing proof that Darwin was wrong.

The movie is "the motion picture this summer that most passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child-rearing," film critic Michael Medved told The New York Times last week.

For devout Christians, he suggested, "This is the first movie they've enjoyed since 'The Passion of the Christ'. This is 'The Passion of the Penguins.'"

'March of the Penguins' has taken at least US $37 million (EUR 30.4 million), making it the most successful French film in America after the US $66 million (EUR 54.2 million) reaped by Luc Besson's English-language sci-fi movie 'The Fifth Element' in 1997.

One Christian organisation, the 153 House Churches Network, raves over the film as proof of the glory of God. It is organising workshops in which families are invited to homes and cinemas to see the film.

Christians can be inspired by exemplary "dedication, cooperation and affection" between the mating penguins and the loyalty and perseverance of the father, says Mari Helms, reviewing the movie on www.christiananswers.net.

Rich Lowry, editor of the right-wing publication the National Review, urged young conservatives to check out the documentary.

"It is an amazing movie. And I have to say, penguins are the really ideal example of monogamy," he said last month.

Anti-abortionist campaigner Jill Stanek says the nurturing penguins were a stinging lesson to women who contemplated a pregnancy termination.

"I remembered last year's March for Women's Lives in Washington, DC, when pro-aborts gathered to bolster their right to kill babies," says Stanek, in a column on WorldNetDdaily.com. "I thought maybe a penguin movie analogy would help people understand."

Secularists point out that emperor penguins have a freewheeling sexual life and that homosexuality among penguin species is quite common.

"These penguins get around. They switch mates with each new mating season, which makes for some pretty slutty birds -- and change the operative question from 'What Would Jesus Do?' to 'Who Would Jesus Do?'" notes Sheerly Avni on www.alternet.org.

A deeper question is whether the penguins survive as a result of evolutionary pressure or divine will.

"It is hard not to see the theological overtones in the movie... Beauty, goodness, love and devotion are all part of nature, built into the DNA of the universe," said Maggie Gallagher, a columnist with yahoo.news.

But, Washington Post columnist George Will asked, "If an Intelligent Designer designed nature, why did it decide to make breeding so tedious for those penguins?"

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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