Arts and Culture

Religious Films

by Father Robert Lauder

Probably the first religious film that moved me deeply was “The Song of Bernadette” back in 1943. Since seeing that film, I have looked forward to seeing films that deal seriously with Christian faith. The appearance of the new film “Son of God,” which I have not seen, will probably raise all sorts of discussion about religious films and cinematic depictions of Christ. A recent piece by Michael Cieply, titled “Can God Make It in Hollywood?” in The New York Times (Feb. 23, 2014), raised interesting questions about religious films.

Cieply claims that years ago when he was producing films at Columbia Pictures, he learned how disinterested filmmakers were in tackling religious subjects. This has been the situation for decades according to Cieply. Given the paucity of first-class religious films, I suspect that he is correct. Is this because those who create films are not comfortable dealing with religious stories and themes? That might be one of the reasons that religion is treated very superficially in some films. I can recall a conversation I had with a nun who was interested in film. She said that she wished that those who create films would stop trying to depict the lives of people who take religion seriously because they “always get it wrong.”

Noting the contemporary disinterest in religious topics, Cieply writes the following:

“Earlier, Hollywood regularly courted the faithful, as far back as 1943 with the release by 20th Century Fox of ‘The Song of Bernadette.’ The film, about the miracle of Lourdes, drew 12 Oscar nominations, including one for best picture and a best actress award for Jennifer Jones. ‘Going My Way,’ ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s,’ ‘The Robe,’ ‘The Nun’s Story’ and ‘Lilies of the Field’ extended the string of religiously themed best-picture nominees, and ‘A Man for All Seasons’ won the top Oscar in 1967.

“But such films began to lose their luster with the advent of the countercultural films of the 1970s and with the rise of blockbuster events like ‘Star Wars.’ One notable exception was Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion of the Christ,’ a 2004 independent production that was a mainstream hit with its unflinching, often gory account of the crucifixion, taking in a remarkable $370 million at the box office.”

I don’t think that the films that Cieply mentions are of equal value. I love “Going My Way” and its presentation of priests may have even influenced my attraction as a teenager toward the priesthood, but it is basically a light comedy that does not delve deeply into what being a priest means. “The Bells of St. Mary’s” goes a bit more into the meaning of a religious commitment. “Lilies of the Field” is a good film, but its treatment of religion is only surface. I think “The Nun’s Story” is an excellent drama about someone struggling with a religious vocation. The last time I viewed “The Robe,” I thought it was awful.

“A Man for All Seasons” is one of the finest films ever made. I often refer to it as a “perfect film.” By that I mean that everything comes together to make a masterpiece – the plot, acting, scenery, music, direction and editing. I am amazed that the author of the original play and the screenplay was an agnostic.

I first saw “Passion of the Christ” on Ash Wednesday, the day it opened in New York. I attended with a group of about 10 people, all of whom were involved in Church work. Waiting on line as audience members from the film’s previous showing were filing out of the theatre, we noticed that people left silently, almost as though they were leaving church. At the screening we attended, the same thing happened.

That evening, Charlie Rose had four film critics as his guests on his television show. None of them liked the film. One said that if anyone wished to see “Passion of the Christ,” they had better hurry because he predicted the film would disappear quickly. Talk about misreading the public! I believe that what many critics did not realize was how starved religious believers are in our secular society to see something on the screen that speaks to their religious faith.

I think “Passion of the Christ” was flawed, but it did show that there is an audience for films dealing with religion. Will more filmmakers try to reach that audience?[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.

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