Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Last year was the first year I didn’t do a recap of the Oscars after the ceremony, and you know what? It was glorious. Part of it was the fact that very little that happened was unexpected (seriously, I correctly predicted 20 of 24 categories this year), while part of it was, “What’s the point, really?” Instead, I posted a blog I had been working on about “Star Wars.” My time was much better spent doing so.

This year, I want to talk about religion, and particularly, films with a religious subject matter. Now, I’m not a religious person myself– I would consider myself “spiritual, but not religious.” I do believe in the existence of God, but I don’t subscribe to a particular religious mindset, despite years spent going to a local Presbyterian church when I was growing up. And while my own time in church was a positive time, I am wary of the idea of organized religion because of it’s ability to be corrupted by influences more politically-motivated rather than spiritually-driven, and also because of people who use the pulpit, and the power it can have, for selfish means.

The same can be said for religious films. It was actually 15 years ago that “The Omega Code,” a film made by Christians, following a religiously-driven narrative, was released, and actually made a big splash at the box-office. It wasn’t a blockbuster (nor was it a good movie), but it proved that there was an audience for such films, and two years later, a sequel (“Megiddo: The Omega Code 2”) was released. It didn’t do well. In the interim, an adaptation of the Christian best-seller, Left Behind, came out, and though it wasn’t successful in theatres, it did spawn two sequels, which were direct-to-video.

In the past six months alone, the theatre I work at has shown five movies with a religious/Christian theme, including this weekend’s “Son of God,” which is nothing more than a reworked version of footage used in last year’s “The Bible” miniseries in TV. And this coming month brings three more– “God’s Not Dead,” “Heaven is for Real” (directed by “Braveheart” screenwriter Randall Wallace), and Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah.” There’s even a re-adaptation of “Left Behind” in the works, with Nicolas Cage starring. It’s a good time to be a Christian when going to the movies.

Or is it? I haven’t seen all, or even any, really, of the Christian films the theatres have shown over the years (let alone the past six months), and there’s a reason for that, and it doesn’t always have to do with my lack of religion, so to speak. In the Christian films I HAVE seen over the years, the stories are contrived and cliched; the performances feel forced; and the technical qualities in the filmmaking aren’t exactly that good. From an outsider’s perspective, the filmmaking makes it difficult to get into the story, and sometimes, the blatantly evangelical nature of the story is disengaging, even off-putting. But does the filmmaking craft matter to the choir these films are made for, or is the message all that matters?

This disconnect with quality is a problem. I admire the success Georgia’s own Sherwood Pictures has had at the box-office with “Facing the Giants”, “Fireproof”, and “Courageous”– it’s a great, positive message for independent filmmakers –and actually own the first two myself, but all of them suffer from the negatives I listed above, in one way or another, and none of them are going to hit my Top 10 list at the end of the year. And other films, like “October Baby” and “To Save a Life”, aren’t much better, and pale in comparison to even Sherwood’s modest, average efforts. Even though Christian stories, and themes, have been a part of film history since the silent era, it’s become a niche market, unable to really attract top-tier talent, even after the monumental success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” ten years ago. Some might say it’s a result of Hollywood liberalism, but how do you explain the hundreds of millions of dollars studios are gambling on “Noah” or Ridley Scott’s upcoming “Exodus,” especially after Scott had a misfire with his underrated 2005 Crusades epic, “Kingdom of Heaven”? Studios have been trying to court Christians for years, but the results have shown, ultimately, that it’s not exactly worth their time from a financial perspective, although to be fair, they don’t always put their best foot forward. (Of course, when they do, like in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” or Kevin Smith’s “Dogma,” it doesn’t help that the Religious Right attacks the film with closed-minded rage and aplomb, but that’s for another article.)

Part of the reason I was inspired to write this wasn’t just the influx of religiously-themed movies I’ve seen come through the theatre of late, but because of the curious case of “Alone Yet Not Alone” and the Oscars. To recap: when nominations were announced in January, the Best Original Song category included the titular song from a Christian film called “Alone Yet Not Alone.” On the day, it seemed like a genuinely bizarre happenstance: the song is a hymn-like effort, and a nice enough song, but the film was an unknown quantity; it’s actual release is not until April of this year, though it did, supposedly, get the minimum qualifying run in 2013 for Oscar consideration. Immediately, red flags were raised, and it was discovered that one of the song’s composers, a member of the Academy’s Music Branch, had emailed members of the Branch asking them to consider his song, a violation of Oscar campaigning protocol. As a result, the nomination was rescinded. Now, the question of what should constitute “inappropriate campaigning” when it comes to Oscars is a subject in and of itself, but this is just one of the most recent examples of the perceived lack of quality in modern Christian cinema that makes it difficult to take the sub genre seriously for movie buffs.

There has to be some way that filmmakers and Christians can come together, serve each other’s desires, and thrive and be successful in a way that expands the tent, so to speak, rather than contracts it. “Gimme Shelter” may have had Vanessa Hudgens, Rosario Dawson, and James Earl Jones, but that doesn’t make up for a story that speaks only to the faithful, and production value that looks like a student film. That’s part of why I’m optimistic about Randall Wallace directing “Heaven is for Real”: here’s a film with a very Christian story, directed by an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, starring an Oscar nominee in Greg Kinnear, and distributed by Sony, even if it’s a subsidiary studio. Yes, it could suck (Wallace did write “Pearl Harbor,” after all), and yes, it’ll probably be treacly and overtly sentimental, but it seems like a positive step in the right direction for an industry to bring it’s weight, and it’s craft, to an audience that deserves to have films that speak to them, and are well made, while not alienating people who don’t see the world quite the same way they do.

All of that being said, below is a list of films, with religious themes and subjects, I consider some of my favorites.

1) “The Last Temptation of Christ”– Martin Scorsese’s harsh, provocative adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel explores the story of Jesus as that of a man for whom divinity was a process, not a given. It’s a profoundly moving, human portrait by the Roman Catholic filmmaker.

2) “Andrei Rublev”– Andrei Tarkovsky’s big, broad epic about the Russian icon painter, which looks at the artist’s role in society through trials and tribulations within Russian history, and Rublev’s own life. Made during the Cold War, Tarkovsky’s startling, spiritual film is the antithesis of what the Soviet Union stood for at the time, and as a result, was deeply cut by the censors, and didn’t get released until three years after it’s completion. (On a personal note, I think all of Tarkovsky’s films contain a spiritual center religious people would find deeply satisfying, but don’t tread lightly into his movies– it’s not the easiest trip to make.)

3) “Into Great Silence”– A 162-minute documentary showing life within a brotherhood of Carthusian monks in the mountains of France. Compared to it’s running time, few words are said, but a great deal is said visually about the devotion to God, and a simple life, these monks display.

4 & 5) “Dogma” and “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”– Two wildly controversial comedies that look at questions of faith, and the absurdity of religious dogma, through the witty world views of some of the most singular comedic voices in movie history.

6) “God in America”– Six hours is hardly enough time for PBS to explore all of the nuances of religion’s place in American history, but by looking at specific times, and events, it gets to the heart of what is still a complicated issue.

The second tier of favorites come from all manner of cinema and sources. They include: one guilty pleasure of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation (“A Walk to Remember”); a Korean work about the Buddhist faith, as told in many seasons, and a single location (“Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring”); three more documentaries, including a hilarious essay skewering religious belief (“Religulous”), a genuinely objective look at the Evangelical movement and their kids (“Jesus Camp”), and a heartfelt look at one man’s faith-based journey around the world (“The Cross: The Arthur Blessit Story”); an iconoclastic look at a start-up religion post-WWII, through the experiences of a mentally unhinged veteran (“The Master”); a story of holding on to one’s faith when faced with unimaginable evil (“The Exorcist”); Bergman’s classic tale of a Crusade knight playing chess with Death (“The Seventh Seal”); and finally, Mel Gibson’s brutal vision of the Passion, which wasn’t the deeply felt religious experience some had in watching it for me, but is a genuinely moving film nonetheless (“The Passion of the Christ”).

Thanks for listening, and Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle
www.sonic-cinema.com

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