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Hollywood finds religion, but not everyone sees the same light

A scene from "The Passion of the Christ" depicts the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In the 2-2.5 years since Mel Gibson's "The Passion" galvanized the c...

Hollywood finds religion, but not everyone sees the same light

A scene from "The Passion of the Christ" depicts the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In the 2-2.5 years since Mel Gibson's "The Passion" galvanized the c...

Nearly two hours into "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" - Andrew Adamson's adaptation of the C.S. Lewis classic, the second-highest-grossing film of 2005 - something unexpected happens: This dutiful, occasionally dull, PG-rated family film comes blazing to life. It conjures up a harrowing, unforgettable nightmare right before our eyes.
We watch from the horrified perspective of the two Pevensie girls, Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell), as Aslan the Lion (voiced by Liam Neeson) treads heavily through the forest, making his way to an altar presided over by the White Witch (Tilda Swinton). Aslan has agreed to sacrifice his life to allow the four Pevensie children to carry on the fight for the enchanted land of Narnia. But surely he wasn't expecting this: winged and horned creatures leering at him, waving flaming torches in the air and chanting for his death. "Let him first be shaved," the White Witch snarls ruthlessly. Aslan is knocked to the ground and bound and gagged, lying there helplessly as he's swarmed by the Witch's henchmen and shorn of his fur. The bloodthirsty chanting turns even louder and scarier, until the White Witch raises her knife and plunges it deep into Aslan's body.
When Narnia was released by Disney in December, it was widely remarked upon that the studio employed the same public relations firms that targeted and drew Christian moviegoers to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." It's impossible to determine how much of that marketing translated into box-office dollars, but, clearly, the studio did something right: "Narnia" earned US$291 million in the United States alone (and US$741 million worldwide), far outclassing such holiday-season behemoths as "King Kong" and "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire."
What was much less remarked upon, however, was that the best parts of the film were also the most explicitly Christian - the scenes that bravely and beautifully brought home Lewis' very intriguing Jesus Christ allegory. A few scenes after Aslan is murdered, his corpse vanishes as a vast crack opens up in the altar where he was slaughtered. A moment or two later, with Lucy and Susan Pevensie looking on in awe, he steps out of the early-morning sunlight, as triumphant horns blare on the soundtrack. Just try to fight the lump in your throat: Aslan has emerged the martyr who dies for others' sins and whose resurrection transforms his uncertain apostles into true believers.
"The Chronicles of Narnia" isn't necessarily what you'd expect from a mainstream studio production - Hollywood usually steers far clear of the topic of religion, lest it offend even a single potential ticket-buyer. But a funny thing has happened in the 2-1/2 years since Gibson's "The Passion" galvanized the culture: Issues of faith have become a consuming preoccupation in Hollywood. In addition to "Narnia," we've also seen theological undercurrents in movies like "Million Dollar Baby" and "Walk the Line." And on Friday comes Ron Howard's adaptation of Dan Brown's runaway bestseller "The Da Vinci Code" - an espionage thriller that explores a hidden connection between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
It's not just studio pictures that are reckoning with these themes. From the indie world, we're also starting to see any number of dark, prickly movies that are direct responses to the popularity of "The Passion" and to the increasing political power of the Christian right in the United States: among them, last year's potty-mouthed documentary "The Aristocrats"; the drama "The King" (opening on June 9 in the U.S.), about a mysterious young man (Gael Garcia Bernal) who wreaks havoc on the life of a Texas preacher (William Hurt); and the satire "Forgiving the Franklins," about a group of fundamentalists who are transformed into sexual libertines.
Will moviegoers on both sides of the secular/faithful divide be offended by some of these movies? Certainly. Will others be plainly inspired by them? Very likely. But even if individual reactions vary widely, it's hard to deny the originality, verve and, indeed, passion on display here. And for those of us who brood about the staid, increasingly flavorless nature of the contemporary movie scene, this injection of religion into the multiplexes might just be the answer to our prayers.
"The 21st century seems to be defined by religious conflict in a way that I'm utterly surprised at," says James Marsh, the British filmmaker who co-wrote and directed "The King." "After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism, you (wouldn't) have thought that the next major fault line in the world would be based on religion. But clearly it is."
As far as movies are concerned, at no point was that fault line more pronounced than in the months leading up to the February 2004 release of "The Passion of the Christ."
When Gibson first announced the project - which he financed entirely out of pocket - he was lambasted as a fool. It had been decades since such a religious-themed movie had found mainstream embrace, and certainly no Hollywood filmmaker had ever attempted a movie so curiously fastidious about historical detail - especially with its otherworldly-sounding Aramaic dialogue.
As the release drew closer, a controversy erupted: Jewish critics accused Gibson of pandering to anti-Semitic impulses. Christian viewers argued that liberal elites were trying to deny them a faithful rendering of the Gospels. By the time it opened on Ash Wednesday 2004, "The Passion" had emerged as one of those once-every-decade pop culture phenomena. Even if you didn't see it, you had a strong opinion about it.
Two-plus years removed from all the hullabaloo, "The Passion" holds up as a deeply flawed but striking and original vision, a blood-soaked nightmare of Jesus' crucifixion that almost literally pummels the audience into accepting Christ as its savior. On a purely technical and visual level, "The Passion" is leagues beyond Gibson's previous two directorial efforts, 1993's "The Man Without a Face" and 1995's "Braveheart," especially in its gorgeous opening scenes, set in a haunted blue-black forest.
And love or hate the film's repeated images of torture, it's almost impossible to tear your eyes away from the now-famous 10-minute sequence in which Christ is flogged, as bits of his flesh and blood arc across the screen in agonizing slow motion.
The success of "The Passion" (US$370 million in the United States) awakened a sleeping giant of an audience, many of whom turned out for "Narnia." It also showed that, even among nonbelievers, there is a widespread curiosity about religious subjects. That's where "The Da Vinci Code" - which was topping the bestseller lists about the same time "The Passion" was topping the box-office charts - enters into the equation. The film version won't necessarily speak to those evangelical Christians who embraced "The Passion" (some of them, in fact, will regard the story as blasphemous). But there will certainly be considerable overlap between the two films' audiences and - as was the case with "The Passion" - "The Da Vinci Code" is likely to become a subject of much debate and more than a few sermons across the country.
Maybe it's because religion had been blanched out of American entertainment for so long. In the 1980s and '90s, unless we were watching a movie by Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese, we usually had no idea what denomination the characters might have belonged to. Or maybe it's because fundamentalism has been at the heart of the most important real-life events of the past decade, from the September 11 hijackings to the ongoing war in Iraq. Religion is simply on the forefront of everyone's mind.
But whatever the reason, it's clear that audiences are now hankering for content that asks them to think about their own faith, and to see it both reflected and challenged in popular culture.
"If you're going to make art that's reflective of people's lives, you're going to have to cover religion," says Greg Garrett, professor of English at Baylor University and the author of "Holy Superheroes: Exploring Faith and Spirituality in Comic Books" and the forthcoming "The Gospel According to Hollywood." "People care about faith and how God fits in their lives. I see that in a lot more movies now. The Clint Eastwood character in 'Million Dollar Baby' is a devout Catholic who's gone to church every day for 20 years. Or even the character of Nightcrawler in the second 'X-Men,' who also talks a lot about the importance of faith."
Of course, not all filmmakers are keen on reaffirming Christian values. And not all of them are operating in the philosophical "seeker" spirit of "The Da Vinci Code," which Garrett describes as a book that appeals to those "drawn to the story of Christianity but who are put off by organized religion." In several recent indies, some filmmakers are proving embittered, frustrated, and perhaps even a little reckless. They see a film like "The Passion of the Christ" as something that only serves to marginalize the secular voices in the culture. And they worry - with a president in the White House who so publicly embraces his Christianity and who has repeatedly acknowledged his debt in getting elected to the religious right wing of his party - that the country is turning ever more theocratic.
Consider the case of director Jay Floyd's "Forgiving the Franklins," which had its premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Floyd tells the story of a deeply repressed Southern Christian family: the wife and husband (Teresa Willis and Robertson Dean) have joyless sex; their teenage son (Vince Pavia) is almost certainly gay but terrified of coming out. The three of them are involved in a terrible car accident and slip into comas. But when they awake, they're reborn as libertines: The parents can't stop parading around the house naked; the son begins a torrid affair with his football coach, the details of which he's happy to share around the dinner table.
"Forgiving the Franklins" is hardly anyone's idea of elegant filmmaking: The acting and directing are clunky-bordering-on-amateurish; the Christian characters are such broad caricatures that the movie often feels like an act of shooting fish in a barrel. But there's fire in Floyd's belly, whether you agree with it or not. He believes fiercely that the leadership of the country is denying many people - especially women, minorities and gays - equal treatment. He also believes the right wing is operating out of a deep-rooted hypocrisy - that fundamentalists are rarely leading especially moral lives, even as they dictate how others should go about living theirs. This sense of exasperation pours through every scene in the movie.
"How can you not be angry with mass oppression?" Floyd asks. "Or with people telling (other) people that they're not OK the way they are? How can you not be angry with (a president who calls himself) a holy man (but then bombs) foreign countries for oil? How can you not be angry? And (the Christian right) has had the microphone in this country for six years. This movie comes out of that anger."
James Marsh's "The King" is propelled by many of the same frustrations. Set in Corpus Christi, Texas, it features William Hurt as a minister desperate to keep hidden from his flock a long-forgotten act of sexual impropriety, and Gael Garcia Bernal as the drifter who determines to expose him as a fraud. Beautifully made, slow-burning and very, very creepy (the plot hinges on murder and incest, among many other unsavory topics), "The King" doesn't necessarily argue that the Christians in the film are fakers. But it does demand that their protestations of faith and moral authority be vigorously challenged and put to the test, especially in a country that purports to value the separation of church and state.
Much like Floyd, Marsh isn't interested in making nice-nice or presenting things in a "fair and balanced" manner. He's much more concerned that secularists aren't doing enough to stand up against the political dominance of the right.
"I just read recently there was a conference that Tom DeLay was at called 'The War on Christians,'" Marsh says. "That's just preposterous. There is no war on Christians in this country. ... The whole power structure of the country has moved dramatically in your direction. So do not pretend that you're being attacked by liberals."
How will these big-screen religious skirmishes resolve themselves?
Probably not easily, or anytime soon - and for that we should be grateful. In December, New Line Cinema will release "Nativity," a family-oriented film about the birth of Jesus Christ, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, whose rocker-chick style (her previous movies are "thirteen" and "Lords of Dogtown") wouldn't necessarily make her an obvious choice for the job. (Slightly more obvious, but just as intriguing, is the casting of "Whale Rider's" Keisha Castle-Hughes to play the Virgin Mary.) From the indie leagues will come "Stay," comedian Bobcat Goldthwait's scabrous comedy that premiered at Sundance this year, about a young woman with a shocking sexual past that her religious parents and her priggish boyfriend have a hard time dealing with. "Prince Caspian," the sequel to "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," is already in pre-production, with an expected release date of December 2007.
Along the way, some feathers will likely be ruffled and sensibilities will no doubt be offended.
But if the result is more daring and audacious filmmaking, and if we begin to see more stories that reflect the way real Americans live and argue in the 21st century, the upside will be tremendous.
"I think for so long pop culture tried to be value-neutral," says Baylor University's Garrett. "But purely from a storytelling viewpoint, it makes for a more authentic narrative (to discuss religion). If we're going to understand characters, we need to know what makes them tick. And so many of us have a faith life that's central to who we are."


Updated : 2021-10-21 04:35 GMT+08:00