Six Damn Fine Degrees #75: Religious movies are (not) dead

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

I remember that as a kid I found the Biblical dramas of the 1950s fascinating. I didn’t watch all that many of them, but I remember movies that drew me in with gladiatorial combat but kept me engaged with Technicolor melodrama and righteous men and women sacrificing their lives for some greater good – which in those films always meant God in the end, and more specifically, a bearded, male, white God with just the right blend of being stern and being kind, someone inbetween Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck. I was raised Catholic in a place where Catholicism wasn’t particularly strong or particularly strict, so while we did go to church once or twice a year and while I did receive First Communion when I was 8 or 9, I didn’t get much of a sense of the metaphysical from Sunday School. My religious education at the time derived from old movies – oh, and from Jesus Christ Superstar and from Oh, God! Book II. My sense of the eternal was hippies singing and dancing to showtunes in the desert, George Burns’ ironic smile, and Richard Burton and Jean Simmons looking heavenwards while celestial choirs sing and the credits roll, moments before they are eaten alive by lions.

I don’t think I watched any other religious films after the age of 10, and we also didn’t much go to church after that time, except for a carol service or two around Christmas. God and the saints didn’t much figure into my life as a budding fan of cinema. The closest I got was probably when watching Monty Python’s Life of Brian as a teenager. I did hear of the occasional film with religious themes, though most of them were historical dramas as much as they were religious, such as Roland Joffé’s The Mission or Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe. Religious characters were more frequent in TV miniseries, such as the scheming Jesuits in Shogun.

When The Last Temptation of Christ came out in 1988, I was aware of it and of the scandal surrounding the film. I was probably intrigued, but I was also 13 and lived in the countryside. Cinemas existed in the city, whereas I saw most of my movies on TV and off of tapes (first Betamax, later VHS) recorded by my uncle in England. The closest the latter got to religion was probably when he sent us Star Wars – which pre-teen me became as religiously fixated on as so many kids in the late ’70s and early ’80s, never mind Jediism as a mock religion.

When I finally turned into the ravenous cinephile that I am now, I was in my early 20s. At that point I’d caught up with Martin Scorsese’s films, probably starting with Goodfellas and Taxi Driver, and I decided to order The Last Temptation of Christ on DVD and finally find out what all the fuss was about. This was the first film I’d seen in a long, long time that could be called Biblical drama, but it was far removed from The Robe or The Ten Commandments. More than anything else, it was a film whose notion of religion was adult – not just because of the sex scenes (which, in hindsight, were remarkably tame), but because Scorsese obviously looked at religion as something worthy of being treated earnestly and seriously – but not po-facedly. The biblical characters his film presented me with were human beings with human needs and urges, and Jesus wasn’t excluded from this. The film was about struggle, with faith, with God, with a world in which the metaphysical mattered, but not in an infantile Sunday School way. Scorsese’s Jesus may have looked like the cheesy cliché, a handsome white dude with light hair and blue eyes, but as portrayed by Willem Dafoe he was haunted, he suffered and bled. Sacrifice was no longer a matter of looking into Technicolor god rays while angels sang their angelic little hearts out, and the camera didn’t look away genteelly while martyrs died off-screen.

These days, when people talk of religious movies, they usually mean the kind of tacky evangelical junk that is insulting both on intellectual and religious grounds, films such as the God’s Not Dead series, which equate religion with a certain brand of capital-C Conservatism with a generous helping of victim complex. Their Jesus follows the prosperity gospel and votes Trump, their Holy Land is the Bible Belt of the United States, their Jesus probably looks and acts like Kevin Sorbo. (Disappointed!) These are films that aren’t meant to challenge but to confirm, in the most facile, self-serving way possible. But that doesn’t mean that films such as The Last Temptation of Christ no longer exist. There are directors that consider religion to be a topic worthy of thought and criticism, that make films that the audiences of God’s Not Dead may well consider blasphemous, as they did with Scorsese’s iconoclastic Jesus flick. I was ambivalent about John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, but there is more serious thought, and more talent, in its little finger than there is in 99% of all films made in the last ten years that would consider themselves ‘religious’. And obviously the Godfather of Taking Religious Struggle Seriously in Movies himself made a film not too long ago that was centrally about belief and struggle and sacrifice. Martin Scorsese’s Silence may not have received the same kind of attention as the film of his that scandalised Christian groups and TV evangelists in the late ’80s, but again, it is a film for which religious belief is neither simple nor easy. It is most definitely not the melodramatic vision of faith that would star the likes of Victor Mature in a toga. If there is a place for religion in movies, I hope there will be more films like Silence or The Last Temptation of Christ. Sunday School was a long time ago. I definitely don’t need to go to the movies to relive it.

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