Religion is a part of most human endeavors, and it has worked its way into films for many years. When it comes to how modern cinema meshes with religion, there are many ways they tie together.
According to religious studies professor Stephen Lloyd-Moffett, there are at least three kinds of religious films, including “inspirational” films, films focusing on religious questions in a secular way, and films in which religion is the backstory for a character.
“The ‘inspirational’ film intends to dramatize the events of a religion or followers without much criticism,” Lloyd-Moffett said. “Every religion has them.”
These films are often ones that repeat religious stories in order for people to see the message in hopes of converting them. It is a way to reach a modern-day audience that would rather watch movies and TV than read, and another way to get the message across.
Films that tackle a religious idea or question from a secular viewpoint “are usually the Hollywood films, though rarely the big blockbusters,” Lloyd-Moffett said.
Finally, there are films that use religion as the backstory for a character in order to explain why they act the way they do in the film.
“These are usually the worst at portraying religion, because they have to rely on stereotypes because they do not want to develop any real religious depth,” Lloyd-Moffett said.
So how do these ideas show up in modern films? The question is complicated and could fill quite a number of books on the subject. In the interest of time and space, I’ve put together a small collection of films that not only reflect these ideas but are also excellent films in their own right.
1. “Baraka”: This film deals with humans in their natural environments, depicting how they live. It deals with life, death, war, fear and how religion interplays among all these ideas.
“‘Baraka’ is one of the best films ever made; it tells a story without narration,” Lloyd-Moffett said. “It lets the images speak for themselves.”
When it comes to characterizing “Baraka,” it seems to fit most into the category of films that tackle religion from a secular viewpoint – but this isn’t a perfect fit. The film lets the viewers decide what conclusions to make, for although it places the images together in a specific order, the viewer is free to take them at face-value as beautiful pictures or look deeper into their complex meanings.
An example of this is a series of scenes within the movie showing high-rise apartment buildings. These were interesting in and of themselves – and then the film cut to large towers of crypts at a graveyard. I reconsidered my architectural observations and started thinking about how we are crammed next to one another in both life and death.
2. “Jesus Camp”: This film is about a Christian children’s camp, but it also deals with the relationship between religion and politics.
“Much of the film focuses on how politics and religion are blending not just at the camp but in this whole country,” said Brenda Helmbrecht, an English professor who teaches a class on documentary films. “At the camp, these children are regarded as future voters who will ultimately be responsible for guiding the nation to righteousness.”
Helmbrecht said when the children are told they are part of God’s army in the film, they don’t necessarily grasp this concept. They do, however, trust the adults in their lives and want to do the right thing according to their religious beliefs.
“If anything, I felt sad for these children in that they are not being taught what I think all children need to learn: how to think for themselves and make their own choices,” Helmbrecht said.
When I first watched this movie, I felt almost frightened that these children were being taught intolerance at such a young age. It was an unsettling idea to me in many ways.
“I think that if viewers find the images (convey a feeling), it’s because of something they bring to the film, not something the film brings to them,” Helmbrecht said.
In retrospect, I can see this idea is true. My past experiences and personal viewpoints about religious intolerance led me to feel unsettled by this film, but other viewers would get an entirely different perspective based on their own experiences. “Jesus Camp” and a lot of the other movies here are excellent in that they don’t force the viewer into a single perspective; they allow them some wiggle room for their own interpretations.
Once again, I feel that this film fits loosely into the category of films that tackle religion from a secular perspective. But, like “Baraka,” as a documentary it also has the purpose of informing the viewers about a topic.
3. “Bend it Like Beckham”: Although this may not top everyone’s list of good movies, it does fit into Lloyd-Moffett’s third category of films (those that use religion as a back story for a character’s motivations). In the film, the main character, Jess, wants to play soccer but battles her family’s traditions and values, which are centered on their Hindu religion.
Lloyd-Moffett’s idea that these films never reach any true depth of religion holds true throughout the film. The audience is told that Jess’s family won’t let her play soccer, because “she’s Indian.” She can’t date her Irish coach, because “she’s Indian.” And while these ideas set up a very nice conflict for the film, they don’t really explain why she’s forbidden to do these things.
I’ve always considered this film to be secretly about family values more than religion. The truth is that Jess is prevented from doing these things because of her family’s morals, attitudes and traditions. These do reflect their religion, but that is not always why her parents are upset. Several times in the movie, her parents seem to be more disappointed in her for lying to them than for breaking with their religious convictions.
She is encouraged to follow her family traditions, but mainly so she still fits in. Her family wants her to be happy, and to them, “happy” means conforming so she won’t feel left out. At one point in the movie, Jess’s sister asks her if she really wants to be the only one in the family with a non-Indian husband, the one everyone stares at during family functions. The idea isn’t that she cannot see her love interest because he’s Irish but that she may feel odd because she won’t really fit into the family if she does.
Religion here is the easy answer for why the characters act the way they do. But when you dig deeper, this film has a really good message about family and happiness.
4. “One Night with the King”: Here is a classic inspirational film that deals with the story of Queen Esther of Persia, a Jew who essentially saves her people from annihilation.
Although this is loosely a love story between Esther and the king, it is mainly about Esther’s faith and being true to who she is. Esther is a strong character who finds her strength from her faith and fights to keep Persia from persecuting Jews. Based on a religious story, this film essentially champions the cause of the religion and shows the Jewish faith in a good light.
The problem this film runs into is stereotyping. This happens often in films, and in this case, Jews are represented as peace-loving, innocent people about to be persecuted for no reason except blind hatred. According to Lloyd-Moffett, stereotypes show up often in films because they are an easy way out.
“These movies often create a false image of a religious type and then show how this image is compromised,” he said. “As such, it is often not useful for reflecting the true nature of religious life.”
5. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”: This film fits into the category of having a religious backstory that explains the character’s motivations. Indiana Jones is out to find the Holy Grail, not because he wants it, but because he has to do so to find his father, and later, to save it from the Nazis. Throughout the film, Jones treats the Grail as something halfway between an archaeological curiosity and a burden. He doesn’t really believe the story but understands that his father and the Nazis do.
Throughout most of the movie, the religious aspect is there simply to explain why Indiana gets into boat chases, fiery situations and escape scenes. It’s a common thread that ties together all the really appealing action scenes but doesn’t have any depth.
Where this film moves away from this category and gets really good is in the end. Indiana has a moment where he “finds religion” and has to truly believe in order to save his father’s life. The academic, detached search for this object becomes a true holy quest, where he has to use faith along with logic to succeed.
I love that the religious motivation behind the characters – the Grail – is something different to everyone. To Indiana, it is a way to save someone he loves; to his father, it’s the ultimate test of belief; to the Nazis, it is just treasure. This film is great because it adds a special little twist and keeps itself more interesting than most of the films fitting into this category. It actually explores the idea of faith and what one needs to truly believe in order to succeed, but this belief is different for every person. In that way, it reflects real life and in many ways keeps away from the stereotypical examination of faith.
These films are by no means the only good examples of how religion plays into modern film, but they are personal favorites. They each fit a certain category of religious film but have their own unique way of doing so. The idea Helmbrecht raised – what you get out of a film has more to do with you than the film – is true of all these films, and explains why they appeal to me. I like them because something in them strikes a chord with me. Every person is different and will find a different meaning or emotion.
Perhaps one reason why films deal with religion as often as they do is that it is a common thread throughout much of humanity. Whether you believe or don’t, religion is something about which everyone has an opinion. Because of that, filmmakers can be almost guaranteed to reach every member of an audience.