Movies and the message

Movies overtly about religion, like 'The Passion, don't open every weekend. But spiritual themes often crop up in film. Think 'Groundhog Day' and 'Cool Hand Luke.'

After months of controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," it might seem as though filmmaking and religion simply do not mix. But a visit to your local video store would prove otherwise. Throw a dart and you're likely to hit a movie that deals with some aspect of religious thought: redemption ("Groundhog Day"), self-sacrifice ("Cool Hand Luke"), what hell must feel like ("Barton Fink").

Contrary to the latest hype, religion is not something relegated only to screenplays that feature bearded men and stone tablets. More often, filmmakers are feeding a desire for spirituality through symbolism or simply by conveying their own questions about the human experience.

"It seems to me that Hollywood is perhaps more aware of how people look for and are attuned to faith ... and they play to that more," says Bryan Stone, a professor of evangelism at Boston University and author of the book "Faith and Film." "For example, trying to throw in a lot of different religious elements or scenes or symbols, I see that more and more. And, of course, the 'Matrix' was a height of this thing, in terms of throwing in Christ figures."

It's a practice that's likely to continue, given that more Christian screenwriters are aiming to address the issues of the day in less overtly religious ways, and that audiences are fans of the approach. Moviegoers and scholars are increasingly intrigued by the hidden meanings in films, looking for them where most people might not typically think to check.

"Groundhog Day" falls into that category. The 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray as a weatherman who has to keep repeating the same day over again was recently included in the series "The Hidden God: Film and Faith" at New York's Museum of Modern Art. It was an easy choice for curators, as Christians, Jews, and Buddhists all see elements of their teachings within its jokes. God is not mentioned, but the lesson of the unusual sentence handed to Murray's character by an unseen force resonates with viewers. "It is about a man who cannot live, who cannot progress, who cannot move in life unless and until he loves. You understand that you can only live if you love. That's what the film is about," suggests Antonio Monda, an organizer of the series and a film professor at New York University.

Other films where he says that "God is the lead and you don't know it" include Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors" - which subtly explores whether God exists - and the sci-fi classic "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." That film, he suggests, "is about someone who comes from heaven and ... gives a meaning to your life."

"I see the film as prayer," he says, "Thank God for giving us this; thank God for saving us."

That people can find almost any movie religious doesn't surprise Professor Stone. In addition to the existential depth in many films, the aesthetic experience they provide can be moving. "Music and paintings already help us encounter beauty and lift our spirits or help us face the tragic. Put those all together in a movie and ... it's bound to be something that actually becomes religious for people."

But he says the practice can seem less appealing if used by religious groups to further an agenda, something he sees happening more often. "If a film lays bare the human condition in such a way that one's faith can dialogue with that, that enriches the faith. But sometimes I think it's just sort of hijacking movies to try to find ways of communicating one's own message."

Not all movies require a theological looking glass, however. Direct references to theology are featured in recent films such as "Dogma" and "Keeping the Faith," for example, to say nothing of earlier works such as "The Ten Commandments" and "The Last Temptation of Christ." Some recent movies put out by the Christian community have found commercial success, such as the apocalyptic thrillers "Left Behind" and "The Omega Code."

The expanding religious genre may need yet another subcategory when Mr. Gibson's film about Jesus' crucifixion debuts next week. "In many ways this movie is Mel Gibson's act of worship to Jesus," says Barbara Nicolosi, a former nun who is director of Act One: Writing for Hollywood, a screenwriting course for Christians. She calls his movie, which she's seen, "sacred art," explaining that it mimics the experience Roman Catholics have in church when they contemplate each point on Jesus' route to his crucifixion. "I really think we need to refer to the movie as the Stations of the Cross," she says.

"The Passion" is different from the kind of films 90 percent of the students who come to her training program want to make. "These are young Christians coming into the Hollywood industry. They just want to brood over their life and say what they want to say, and they want to do it in an artistic way" she says.

Besides reaching a wider audience, that tactic makes sense financially, as it can be tough to get movies about weighty issues made in an era when easy-to-export action films are the norm. Gibson is using about $30 million of his own money to bring his vision to the big screen, for example, and Robert Duvall spent $5 million on "The Apostle," his critically praised 1997 movie about a flawed evangelical preacher, which earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor.

The effectiveness of religious material - hidden or not - hinges to a large degree on the director. "The content of the film is not as important as is the vision of the filmmaker," says James Wall, a Methodist clergyman and senior contributing editor at The Christian Century magazine, who cites directors Krysztof Kieslowski ("Blue," "The Decalogue") and Martin Scorsese ("The Last Temptation of Christ" and "Bringing Out the Dead") among those who successfully convey a spiritual vision. Mr. Wall describes Kieslowski's ability to impart the idea that life includes a dimension of the transcendent, that "there is a moral center, which if moved away from, brings retribution, or potential for redemption," says Wall.

Monda agrees a filmmaker's understanding can affect a film's message, comparing the Wim Wenders movie "Wings of Desire" to Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life." "Frank Capra was a devout Catholic who really believed in angels, and you can feel it. While for Wenders, they are beautiful creatures with wings. [That's] the kind of New Age religion that I don't like," he says.

In the case of Jesus, it can be especially difficult for filmmakers to adequately represent both the Nazarene's humanity and divinity, says Stone. That's why he prefers films that feature Christ figures to those that try to explore Jesus' actual life, even ones that in his view are well made, such as "The Gospel According to St. Matthew." "I think 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,' or 'Cool Hand Luke,' are the best films to get across the actual power of Jesus' message," he says.

Both are set in institutions where a character who is an outsider of sorts tries to combat some oppression, thereby helping to redeem others. Paul Newman's character in "Cool Hand Luke" "sticks up for the everyman, and gathers a community together, and through his own death and suffering is sort of a model for them that things can be different, [that] they don't have to put up with things the way they are, which," Stone adds, "really is the message of the Christ."

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