• Onalee McGraw

Roman Holiday: Unveiling the Beauty of Authentic Love in a Culture of Radical Individualism

Updated: Feb 8, 2020

Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn star in this 1954 Classic Love story, Directed by the legendary William Wyler. This was Audrey’s very first motion picture and she was awarded the Oscar for Best Actress. (Poster Artwork by Tim Langenderfer)

“The beautiful stops us in our tracks, elects us, and then sends us on mission. This is true of something as simple as a beautiful book or film. In its presence, we experience, first, “aesthetic arrest,” which means our ordinary life is interrupted, halted for a time so that we can contemplate. Then, we feel somehow “chosen” by that story or movie. We say to ourselves, “Who am I that I should be privileged to receive such a gift?” And finally, we are seized by a compulsion to tell the world about what we’ve seen and heard. We become a missionary: “You have to see this movie! You have to read this book!”

-Bishop Robert Barron

Bishop Barron describes beauty in a way that shows its power to enchant. Fr. Thomas Dubay also talks about beauty: “Beauty is objective, that is, that nature, art, and brilliant ideas are splendid in themselves and not mainly because some people think them to be so.”

The objective quality of beauty as it is seen in classic cinema has the mysterious power to transport us into transcendent reality.

Now that subjectivity and relativity have come to dominate our popular culture, the rising generation is told that what they like in movies, music and art is simply a matter of preference and their desires of the moment. How wonderful to share with Millennials and Gen Z the idea that reality can be discovered through movies- the very art form that has been turned into a consumer product.

William Wyler directed more Oscar-winning performances than any other director in Hollywood history. At the American Film Institute Salute to Wyler, Audrey Hepburn credited him with teaching her the basic techniques of acting that helped her throughout her career. This was the screen debut for Audrey. She went on to become an icon of feminine beauty and grace for decades until her death in 1993 and still is today. Gregory Peck, said of her “It was my good luck to be her first screen fellow, to hold out my hand and help her keep her balance while she made everybody in the world fall in love with her.”

In the filming of the scene in front of the Mouth of Truth, there was nothing written into the script about Joe pretending to get his hand attacked. Gregory Peck did this trick on his own and Audrey’s reaction to his improvisation was so good that they kept the clip in the final cut.

The Beauty of Authentic Love

With its compelling theme of self-sacrificing romance, we get a chance to see two people who witness to us the images of enduring love that transcend time, trends and cultural eras.

We see Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck as whole persons going through an interior struggle. We can relate to them as we go through our own struggles for self-discovery, integrity, and wholeness. The film’s lasting appeal goes way beyond the charm, personality, and beauty of leading lady Audrey Hepburn. The enduring popularity of this 1950s romantic comedy says something profound about the human condition and how our imagination - even in our postmodern world - can be inspired by the Love and Responsibility shown by this couple.

Walking in beauty with classic movies like Roman Holiday can transport us to that great social and cultural space between the state and the isolated individual. In this space we can rebuild community and converse with one another as we explore the mysteries of our human condition. In our fragmented cultural and political world, the decision to rebuild civic friendship must be deeply intentional. Sharing classic movies with today’s young people needs to be more than just an entertaining evening with members of our own immediate tribe.

Our culture is in crisis. Yuval Levin presents a blueprint for rebuilding social unity in our culture. In his 2016 book The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism, he argues:

“The centralization of our political life… encourages a spirit of strife, a sense of constant combat on every front, which keeps us from simply enjoying our common life together and letting it call us higher. The simultaneous advance of a spirit of radical individualism is another obstacle to keeping ourselves focused on that commitment. It causes us to see our fellow citizens as outsiders in the world we seek to create around ourselves, rather than as friends and neighbors in communities we share.”

As Levin further argues, as engaged citizens we must examine our “Twenty-first century circumstances—to build upon our dynamism and diversity while combating the aimlessness, isolation, social breakdown, and stunted opportunities that now stand in the way of too many Americans.”

The power of classic film stories like Roman Holiday to give young people an opportunity to explore the deeper truths was documented by an educator friend of mine who agreed to pilot this film and others with a group of young men in a Houston, Texas alternative school. These high school students had never seen a black and white classic film and had no knowledge of screen legends Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Here is what one young man wrote in his post-viewing evaluation:

“How do you spell phenomenal? This program has changed the way I feel about girls. I now have respect for them. I learned also what it means to be a real man from watching Joe Bradley and how I should act in any situation.”

“I will cherish my visit here in memory as long as I live.”

Book: The Evidential Power of Beauty by Fr. Thomas Dubay

Book: The Fractured Republic by Yuval Levin

EGI Classic Movie Study Guide: Men and Women in Love

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