PRINCETON, N.J. — In the exotic film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the earnest Chinese heroes use ancient wisdom derived from sacred traditions in their battle against forces of evil in the world.
In the romantic "End of the Affair," a woman (Julianne Moore) makes a promise to God in order to save the life of her lover (Ralph Fiennes) during wartime, setting off a series of events that culminates in a divine miracle.
In the comic "Dogma," two fallen angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) think they've found a loophole in Roman Catholic dogma that will allow them to escape their punishment and reenter heaven.
While none of these movies have equaled the profits of Hollywood blockbusters, all have played in a substantial number of American theaters within the past couple of years, suggesting that audiences have an interest in films with religious themes.
Various factors played a part in their commercial viability, to be sure. Two were made by filmmakers with large followings - Neil Jordan and Kevin Smith - and "Crouching Tiger" provides large doses of action and adventure. All earned enthusiastic reviews from critics, and sparked lively discussions among moviegoers.
They are exceptions to the rule, however. While a high percentage of Americans consider themselves religious, neither Hollywood nor major "indie" filmmakers take much interest in religious subjects.
Smaller companies do make specifically religious films, aimed primarily at evangelical Christian or Morman audiences. But these get most of their exposure outside large cities, and their theatrical runs serve largely as promotional tools for future release on video.
Does the scarcity of religious movies result from a lack of interest on the part of filmmakers and audiences? Or is there something about cinema that leads it to shy away from the spiritual?
Some observers feel cinema is less than ideal for exploring religious or spiritual subjects. According to one argument, contemporary audiences expect so much spectacle, escapism, and star power for their ticket money - note the popularity of "Gladiator" and "Cast Away," for just two recent examples - that sky-high production costs lead studios to avoid anything too thoughtful or controversial.
Another argument holds that movies are materialistic by their very nature, which makes them unsuitable for exploring spiritual themes. The acclaimed French filmmaker Francois Truffaut believed this, pointing out that nothing can be filmed unless it's physically present in front of a whirring movie camera.
Truffaut's colleague Jean-Luc Godard believes precisely the opposite, however, stating that a combination of different shots can evoke ideas and intuitions not present in the shots themselves. Godard has used this insight to propel his own movies with religious overtones, such as "Passion" and "Hail Mary."
Godard's ideas played a major part in a recent gathering of critics and scholars at Princeton University, devoted to the possibilities of religion and film. Although the participants had varied perspectives, there was a shared conviction that freethinking filmmakers have opened up many avenues for spiritual cinema that have yet to be recognized as widely as they deserve.
The intersection of film and religion was celebrated in a keynote talk by San Francisco filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky, who makes pictures that don't tell stories or contain conventional characters and dialogue. (A look at another filmmaker interested in spiritual issues, Stan Brakhage, appears on page 19.)
While this unconventional career choice reflects his views as a serious visual artist, it also grows from his feeling that most commercial movies waste their potential for conveying humanitarian values and spiritual ideas.
Dorsky's movies generally show brief views of places and objects in the everyday world, edited into an evocative series that might be likened to the stanzas of a poem or the melody lines of a song.
He says the basic ingredients of film itself - the illuminated screen, the quality of projected light, the magic of different shots and cuts - can induce a "devotional" attitude, helping us peer more closely at the physical world and thereby gain a glimpse into the spiritual realm.
"Something beyond the [story] of a film can produce health in the audience," Dorsky says. "Or the opposite, since nothing makes you feel more vile than a vile [commercial] film." He believes a worthwhile movie can produce a contemplative mood that can be "a gateway to freedom, transparency, vastness."
Other participants in the gathering pointed to movies that had stirred their own spiritual interests. Tony Pipolo cited commercial Hollywood classics like "Seventh Heaven" and "All That Heaven Allows," showing how their directors (Frank Borzage and Douglas Sirk) used camera angles and lighting to evoke a sense of spirituality that sneaks up on viewers instead of preaching to them.
"Making a film is a profound act," Dorsky said. "When you put people in an auditorium and turn out the lights, you can do anything you want with them. This must be respected."
A program called 'The Wonder of Film: The Cinema of Nathaniel Dorsky' will be presented this Sunday and Monday at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor