Cannes filmfest spotlights religion

So many movies unspooled at this year's busy Cannes International Film Festival that it's impossible to generalize about their subjects, their styles, or their quality. But if one broad topic emerged as an unexpected theme, it was religion, treated in a great variety of ways. While this may be a coincidence, it might also signal more attention being paid to religious ideas as the millennium approaches.

It was an American movie that caused the most stir. Dogma, written and directed by the popular Kevin Smith, centers on two fallen angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) exiled to Earth for their violent behavior. Other characters include an apostle who was excluded from the Gospels because he was black, played by Chris Rock; Linda Fiorentino as a modern descendant of Jesus' family; and Alan Rickman as a seraph who fears the bad angels will escape punishment by exploiting a loophole in feel-good versions of Christianity.

Many moviegoers will be outraged by the very idea of such material turned into Hollywood comedy, and anger will hardly be soothed by the film's nonstop sexual humor and four-letter language. Indeed, the commotion has already started.

Speaking informally after the movie's first Cannes screening, Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein acknowledged that his studio's parent company, Disney, has vetoed distribution of the picture, leading Mr. Weinstein to seek a new distributor.

The American release of "Dogma" may make earlier controversies over "The Last Temptation of Christ" and Miramax's own "Priest" look tame. Weinstein defends the movie as "a wonderful way to [stimulate] talk about religion," but recognizes that passions may run high when it reaches American screens.

An ironic aspect of this uproar-in-the-making is that "Dogma" contains some constructive material. One character criticizes negative creeds that make religion seem a burden rather than a blessing. Another argues that religious "ideas" are more valuable than "beliefs," since ideas can blossom and change while mere beliefs tend to rigidify and constrict.

But the fact that "Dogma" has moments of maturity doesn't mean large numbers of moviegoers won't find it offensive. But few "responsible" films bother to recognize the existence of religion at all. Smith's fantasy is certain to place religious values squarely in the limelight in the US.

Religious ideas play a more illuminating role in Humanity, an unconventional drama by French filmmaker Bruno Dumont, whose previous movie, "The Life of Jesus," found a measure of redemption in the sometimes brutal story of a small-town thug.

His hero this time is a rural police inspector trying to solve the sadistic murder of a little girl. Clearly influenced by the great director Robert Bresson, who believes cinema can hint at spirituality by meticulously scanning the physical world, Dumont follows the policeman's slow investigation through a series of seemingly endless scenes.

Also puzzling at first is the personality of the main character, whose response to criminal suspects is not to intimidate them like the other cops, but to comfort them with displays of impulsive compassion.

The film reaches a striking new level in its last shots, presenting mysterious images suggesting that the hero's capacity for love may be enlightening him in ways his ordinary neighbors are unable to comprehend. "Humanity" is a flawed movie and in ways an exasperating one. But it got Cannes spectators talking energetically about relationships between religious and cinematic issues, and was honored on closing night with the best-director award and acting prizes for its two stars, neither of whom has performed in a movie before.

More traditional than "Dogma" or "Humanity" is The Letter, by Manoel de Oliveira, who's justly regarded as Portugal's greatest director, which earned a special prize at Cannes this year. Updated from a 17th-century novel, the story focuses on a beautiful Frenchwoman who is courted by adoring men, including a rich aristocrat she marries and a handsome rock singer who tempts her. In the end she follows the example of a deeply religious friend and renounces sensuality.

Not all viewers here understood the delicate balances struck by this richly stylized film between old and new, irony and tragedy, morality and freedom, worldliness and spirituality. But many were won over by Chiara Mastroianni's elegant acting and by the unforced beauty of Oliveira's filmmaking, which opened a pathway to the movie's deeper meanings.

Sacred, by Israeli filmmaker Amos Gita, is about two sisters caught in unhappy marriages to ultra-Orthodox men. Religion overlaps with politics when an extremely conservative rabbi encourages one of the men to abandon his infertile wife, arguing that the Orthodox community needs to increase its numbers in order to defeat not just Palestinian adversaries but Israel's secular government.

Also moving is a scene in which the husband cites biblical precedents for keeping his beloved wife despite their problems - showing the strength of his faith and love, but failing to override the political obsessions of the man who's supposed to be his spiritual adviser.

"Sacred" made a strong impression on Cannes audiences, who saw it before the recent Israeli election, reminding viewers that movies are never insulated from the social, cultural, and political circumstances in which they're made and seen. The next test of religion's growing presence in film is now at hand: Will thoughtful pictures like "Sacred" and "Humanity" find a place in commercial theaters, or will they prove too intelligent for audiences drawn to the sensational aspects of "Dogma" and the publicity that it is sure to generate?

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