Sept. 1, 2010 -- The four thieves in Ben Affleck's new film "The Town" give new meaning to the term accessorize. During a key heist, the quartet, headed by Affleck's character Doug MacRay, wear nuns' habits as a disguise and, for good measure, carry machine guns. This riveting juxtaposition is the central image of the movie's black and white movie poster. But is it making Catholics see red?
"The decision to use this image was made by the studio, in consultation with the filmmakers," said Jessica Zacholl, a spokesperson for Warner Bros. Pictures. "It was chosen for its power and impact, but it was never the intention to offend anyone."
An informal survey taken yesterday at Franciscan University of Steubenville, in Ohio – a conservative Catholic institution with a student population of 2,400 – generated a different assessment.
Bob Rice, professor of theology at Franciscan, distributed copies of the poster to 18 students in his Youth Ministry course and noted the comments. "There were some audible gasps," he said. "Students who had seen the trailer, which they had not found offensive, were surprised by the poster. They felt the poster was trying to shock."
"One student was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt but said, 'You can't help but wonder if there is some kind of anti-Catholic agenda,'" he said. "Another thought the poster was in bad taste and said, 'It doesn't seem to single out Catholics, but it shows the lack of reverence towards the faith.'"
"Some Catholics will be offended by the image of people dressed as nuns holding guns," said Rice. "A religious habit is an image of holiness and virtue, and bank robbers holding guns are the exact opposite."
"The poster suggests sensationalism and it exploits Catholic iconography," said Jeff Field, director of communications for Catholic League, a national organization that fights anti-Catholicism. "It's also silly. No one in their right mind would think that nuns would rob banks."
Patrick Keats, associate professor of English Literature at Christendom College, a conservative Catholic College in Front Royal, Virginia, finds that the absurdity of the image – nuns, whom most people think of as non-threatening, toting guns – is what makes the image non-offensive.
Despite Hollywood's "Sin City" reputation, nuns and Tinsel Town have made glorious bedfellows. Some of cinema's most iconic actresses have portrayed nuns. Ingrid Bergman played one in "The Bells of St. Mary's." So did Deborah Kerr in "Black Narcissus." Audrey Hepburn delivered an Oscar-winning performance as Sister Luke, an accomplished scientist in "The Nun's Story."
Two years ago Meryl Streep portrayed "Doubt's" Sister Aloysius, hell-bent on ridding her parish of a priest she suspects is up to no good, with Amy Adams playing a young nun. Pedro Almodovar gave us Sister Rosa, portrayed in "All about My Mother" by none other than his muse Penelope Cruz.
Hollywood has also had its fair share of faux nuns. In "Sister Act," Whoopi Goldberg played a chanteuse who, after becoming a target of mobsters, hides out in a convent and becomes Sister Mary Clarence. She even got back into the habit for "Sister Act 2."
This summer, Lady Gaga, product of a Catholic school education, donned a rubberized hooded habit emblazoned with stylized crosses for her "Alejandro" video.
And next week, Lindsay Lohan does a turn as a faux nun in Robert Rodriguez's new film "Machete," whose poster shows Lohan, in full nun's garb, suggestively licking an especially long barrel of a gun.
Some experts take a broader view of religious images and symbols which are used in the service of marketing and sales.
"The objective of movie trailers and posters is to stimulate response, so studios would naturally look for attention-getting items for them," said Jeanine Basinger, who runs the film studies program at Wesleyan University. Basinger concedes that a nun's habit paired with a gun – something you don't see every day – serves as a stimulus. But the garb, even though it's part of the movie's narrative, is a symbol detached from belief. "The religious symbol of the nun's garb isn't as sacred as it once was, so people aren't as easily offended," she said.
"At first I thought the image on the poster was repugnant, mainly because of the ugliness of the mask," said Joseph Roccasalvo, a Catholic priest, novelist and a retired professor of Buddhist studies at Fordham University. However, he nixed the habit as being offensive.
"Most modern women in the religious life who are not cloistered don't wear a habit, and most students I've taught have never seen a nun in a habit," he said, noting that, in the film "Dead Man Walking," Sister Prejean – Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for her performance – did not wear traditional nuns' garb. "At a certain point, nuns' habits stopped having a religious mystique. The only people who might possibly be offended by the poster are Catholics who are religiously conservative and who have memories of nuns wearing habits."
But it may not only be older-generation Catholics who may find "The Town" poster offensive. One student who participated in the Franciscan survey wrote that the poster makes the nun's habit "just another costume. Sad culture has reduced it to that."