NEW YORK — Religious subjects are coming to the screen more frequently these days, and not everyone is happy with the form they're taking. This week brings two contrasting examples that should generate some lively discussion.
"The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc," by French director Luc Besson, presents itself as a celebration of a martyr's faith but shows more interest in the violence and hatred that surrounded her life. "Dogma," by American filmmaker Kevin Smith, presents itself as a foul-mouthed satire but winds up making unexpectedly smart points about the value of religion as a living force.
The Messenger takes its cue from the long Hollywood tradition of biblical epics and "hagiopics," as some critics call them, dramatizing the lives of famous saints. Joan of Arc has received many treatments, and the results have often been undistinguished, even with major stars like Ingrid Bergman and gifted directors like Otto Preminger.
With the melodrama "La Femme Nikita" and the fantasy "The Fifth Element" in his list of credits, Besson is hardly the first director you'd think of for a thoughtful exploration of the courageous French teenager whose "voices" led her to assemble an army, defeat her country's English invaders, and perish at the stake rather than renounce the justness of her cause or the authenticity of her divine guidance.
True to form, Besson reveals his agenda in an early scene where Joan watches helplessly as her sister is murdered and raped (in that order) by an English soldier. The film doesn't maintain this level of nastiness for all of its 140 minutes, but spectacle is much higher on its priorities list than insight. It doesn't help that Milla Jovovich plays the heroine with a bravado more closely resembling movie-star charisma than saintly fortitude.
John Malkovich's fey Dauphin and Faye Dunaway's steely Yolande D'Aragon add touches of conviction, and Dustin Hoffman shows up for a few minutes as Joan's conscience. Still, only a handful of isolated scenes - when Joan is overwhelmed by the bloodshed her army has caused, for instance - suggest that the filmmakers have anything on their minds beyond exploiting the story's action-adventure elements. There's little on the nature of inspiration, the challenge of interpreting revealed wisdom, and the tension between worldly actions and spiritual ideals.
Dogma has been stirring up controversy ever since its May premire at the Cannes filmfest. It arrives in theaters today from Lions Gate Films, which acquired the movie after Disney vetoed distribution by its Miramax subsidiary. Protesters have already raised an outcry against its irreverent story - about two fallen angels hoping to reenter Heaven by exploiting a loophole in Roman Catholic dogma - and its steady stream of sexual humor and four-letter language.
Moviegoers offended by raunchiness will be especially outraged by its presence in a picture that takes religion as its central theme. Some are hailing the film as a rare attempt to grapple with faith-related issues in a way that might attract a large, young audience, though, and filmmaker Smith has been outspoken about his longtime status as an active churchgoer. His claims of sincerity are bolstered by insightful moments in "Dogma" itself - as when a character criticizes negative creeds that make religion a burden rather than a blessing, or when another says religious "ideas" are more valuable than "beliefs," since ideas can blossom and mere beliefs constrict.
However the arguments over "Dogma" play out, more religiously oriented films are on their way. "The End of the Affair," adapted by Neil Jordan from Graham Greene's novel, begins as a sexually explicit love story and ends as an affirmation of divine intervention. "Holy Smoke," by Australian filmmaker Jane Campion, pits Harvey Keitel as a psychological "deprogrammer" against Kate Winslet as a cult member. "Genesis," by Cheick Oumar Sissoko, transports the biblical story of Jacob and Esau to West Africa. "Kadosh," by Amos Gita, poignantly tells of two Israeli women trapped in unfulfilling marriages to men gripped by religious and political conservatism.
Together such releases point to a growing discourse about religion in the public square of popular cinema. Earthy characteristics may lead some observers to wonder if the good aspects of this trend outweigh its problematic side. But expression related to faith takes a huge variety of forms; there must be room for all of them in a genuinely free marketplace of religious ideas.
*'The Messenger' and 'Dogma,' both rated R, contain large amounts of violence, vulgar language, and sexual or scatological material.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society