When religious communities denounce sex and violence in the movies, we usually hear about it in the press - the Baptist boycott of Disney has been well publicized, for example. But praise for good films from the religious community isn't heard as often.
Yet, the fact is, many people of faith love the art form, go to the movies often, and think about what they've seen. Since movies reflect the society from which they come, the issues they raise are often issues ordinary people grapple with at the level of faith.
Indeed, many churches organize discussion groups for interested members, and many church-affiliated publications regularly include film reviews or features on film.
Some seminaries even offer courses in film appreciation for budding clergy since these men and women may examine films with their congregations later on.
In Europe particularly, religious communities take film seriously, and a number of European film festivals offer an ecumenical prize along with a jury prize for films in competition. (Ecumenism involves efforts to further cooperation among Christian churches.)
In North America, the only film festival offering such an ecumenical prize is Montreal's World Film Festival (Festival des Films du Monde). The festival has awarded an ecumenical prize since 1979 to films that have a spiritual dimension as well as humanistic and artistic qualities.
These prizes are not meant to be awarded to doctrinaire films. At this year's festival, held from Aug. 22 to Sept. 2, the top prize went to an Iranian film, "The Children of Heaven," by Muslim filmmaker Majid Majidi.
The Rev. James Wall, editor of The Christian Century, an ecumenical weekly magazine, is also the president of North American Interfilm, the organization that supplies American Protestant judges to ecumenical juries in Montreal and Europe.
Dr. Wall says that the value of ecumenical prizes for film is twofold: "It notifies the film community that people of religious faith are very interested in film as an art form as well as a commercial product. It says that we want to identify and honor films - not that are about religion, but that resonate with the same sensibility that we find in our religious faith."
Second, the ecumenical prize speaks to people in the religious communities. "Pay attention to these particular films," says Wall, "because they have values and they resonate with concerns that are ours in religious faith. They are beautifully presented in an artistic fashion and widely available to the public."
Ecumenical juries are made up of Protestant and Roman Catholic members - usually half and half. North American Interfilm is a branch of European Interfilm. The Catholic Organization for Cinema (OCIC) supplies the Catholic jurors in Europe (including the Berlin, Leipzig, Manheim-Heidelberg, Cannes, Karlovy Vary, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Locarno festivals) and Montreal, and the two organizations have worked together since 1974 to reward fine films for their humanitarian values and artistic excellence.
Wall points out that both European Interfilm and OCIC are well funded, and many churches have full-time staff working on education about and evaluation of secular movies - making information about contemporary film available to their congregations and other interested parties.
It seems odd that none of the US competitive festivals have ecumenical juries, since the US remains a very religious country. A recent Gallup poll found that 95 percent of Americans believe in God.
One practical reason there are no ecumenical juries in the US, according to Wall, is that there are relatively few competitive festivals here. "But there is a more specific reason," he says. "We have to convince both the film community and the religious community that these are valuable projects - these juries. That means the festivals have to make space for us, and the churches have to be willing to stand behind these juries and fund them."
The ecumenical juries serve another function as well as honoring film. Protestants and Catholics work together, discussing each of the films in competition, searching for the common ground of meaning. When these groups are able to put aside doctrinal differences, they seek out universal religious values - the love of family, the intimacy of true friendship, compassion for strangers as well as friends, integrity, courage in the face of temptation, the love of goodness, the embrace of human decency, and so on.
These are the values expressed in "The Children of Heaven." And this film, like so many chosen in the past, is fundamentally concerned with the dignity of human life.
'Children of Heaven'
Speaks to the Heart
'The Children of Heaven" won the jury prize for best film as well as the ecumenical prize at Montreal's World Film Festival. An almost perfect gem of a picture, the cinematography and editing are excellent and the two young stars phenomenally talented.
The simplicity of the story is deceptive: A young boy is sent to have his little sister's shoes fixed, and on the way home, he stops to pick up potatoes for his mother and loses the shoes to the trash man. The loss of the sister's only pair of shoes is a near disaster for the two, but rather than telling their parents, they share the brother's worn-out tennis shoes until he can find a way to replace hers. Both realize that if they tell their father, he will have to solve the problem, and the poor family cannot afford the loss.
The sorrows and responsibility of childhood hang over the pair as the poignant tale unfolds with all its complications, and the solidarity between the children rings true to family life - the pair creates a world their parents know nothing about.
The ecumenical jury discussed the evident values of scrupulous honesty and reciprocity among the poor, charity to neighbors, and the compassion that prevents the children from confronting an even poorer little girl whose blind father has retrieved the shoes from the trash. But Majid Majidi's poetic realism also reveals the gulf fixed between rich and poor, even as it affirms universal humane values.
Other films briefly considered by the ecumenical panel were "A Wound of Light" by Jos Luis Garci, "Lawn Dogs" by John Duigan, "The James Gang" by Mike Barker, and "To Love" by Kei Kumai.
* M.S. Mason served on Montreal's ecumenical jury for the first time this year.