Many moviegoers are pleased to find religion playing an ever-larger role in popular films. The latest examples are an interesting bunch, suggesting that as more pictures explore faith-related issues, their treatments may become more complex, going beyond heartwarming drama to examine conflicts and contradictions in lives touched by religious matters.
The most recent to arrive is The Apostle, written and directed by Robert Duvall, a skilled and insightful filmmaker who's best known for his on-screen work in movies by other directors. Already a hit at the recent New York Film Festival, it will have a limited run next month to qualify for the coming Oscar race, then arrive in theaters everywhere early next year.
Duvall plays a Pentecostal preacher named Sonny Dewey, who presides over a thriving evangelical church in Texas with his wife and a young partner. He's clearly a sincere, devoted, and energetic man. But he's burdened with bad qualities including a dangerously nasty temper, which flares out of control when he's hit with the one-two punch of his wife's infidelity and a successful move to oust him from his ministry.
Fleeing the law after a burst of violence, he lands in Louisiana and starts life afresh. Taking on a new name, The Apostle E.F., he plants new roots and gathers a new congregation. Establishing his friendly, racially mixed One Way Road to Heaven Church in a broken-down building on the outskirts of town, he becomes an eccentric but respected figure in the area. Still uncertain is whether his past will catch up with him.
"The Apostle" paints a superbly vivid portrait of Sonny and his companions, thanks partly to Duvall's astonishing performance and his sensitive screenplay. The film is at once a persuasive sociological drama, based on Duvall's sharp-eyed research in churches, and a sympathetic view of a man whose earnest faith has not yet lifted the weight of human weakness from his shoulders.
Critical Care is being promoted as a biting satire on current issues in the health-care industry. This is accurate, but it overlooks a religious dimension that provides some of the movie's most memorable moments.
James Spader plays a young physician being trained at a major hospital. He wants to cure the sicknesses and assuage the sufferings of his sadly afflicted patients.
But the hospital administrators think mainly about two other aspects of their profession: technology and profit. The medical experts are obsessed with high-tech gizmos that allow them to treat illnesses without going near the people diagnosed as having them. The financial experts are infatuated with the checks that roll in from insurance companies - spurring more and more procedures in even the most hopeless cases.
Issues like these are the main concern of "Critical Care," which may jar some viewers with its graphic scenes of illness. Directed by the prolific Sidney Lumet from Steven Schwartz's intelligent screenplay, the film scores many sardonic points against money-driven health care and mechanical approaches to human well-being.
Yet the picture's most touching moments occur in fantasy scenes involving emissaries from the afterlife, who engage earthly characters in dialogues about the true meanings of health, fulfillment, and life itself. Couched in terms of popular entertainment, these scenes don't go deep enough to qualify as genuine religious discernment. But they add a thought-provoking dimension to a film that already has impressive credentials as one of the year's most timely social satires.
A third movie, Eye of God, focuses on a woman (Martha Plimpton) who marries an ex-convict, unaware that his new commitment to fundamentalist Christianity hasn't curbed a violent streak in his personality.
Written and directed by newcomer Tim Blake Nelson, the drama makes only superficial use of a biblical subtext drawn from the story of Abraham and Isaac. "Eye of God" recognizes the importance of religion in many American lives, however, and reminds us of the cautionary fact that Scripture can be quoted as easily by guilty characters as by innocent ones.