Aleteia logoAleteia logoAleteia
Saturday 01 April |
Saint of the Day: The “Apostles of Picardy”
Aleteia logo
separateurCreated with Sketch.

Can an Atheist Make a Really Great Film about Faith?



Randall B. Smith - published on 11/04/14

Film won't brook the "tender mercies" of propagandists

Need an idea for Lenten almsgiving?

Help us spread faith on the internet. Would you consider donating just $10, so we can continue creating free, uplifting content?

Make a Lenten donation here

I had the great pleasure of re-watching the 1983 Academy Award winning film Tender Mercies starring Robert Duvall the other day, in — of all places — Waco, Texas, in a lovely First Baptist Church that was only about 65 miles from the place where the movie was filmed. The film was shown as part of a conference put on by the wonderful people at Baylor University’s Institute for Faith and Learning and featured, after the movie, a discussion with the director, Bruce Beresford, a man who has directed something like thirty films, among which the most notable are the great Australian classic, Breaker Morant (1980) and the Academy Award winning Driving Miss Daisy (1989).

"Tender Mercies," for those who haven’t seen it, is a truly wonderful film, impossible to recommend too highly. Along with being one of the five best movies ever made about Texas (yes, there was an official vote on this), it is also considered one of the best movies ever made dealing with the fundamental questions about providence, the meaning of life, suffering, and faith. I won’t get into the story too much other than to say it deals with a washed up, down-and-out, former country singer, portrayed perfectly by Duvall in an Academy Award winning performance, who slowly finds his way back to sobriety, sanity, faith, hope, and love. The screenplay, which also won an Academy Award, was written by Horton Foote, who is perhaps best known, along with being one of Walker Percy’s best friends from childhood, the writer of the screenplay for the 1962 film "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the 1985 film "The Trip to Bountiful" — both, along with "Tender Mercies," beautiful films dealing with important questions about the nature of life in all its fullness and complexity.

Beresford tolerated, but didn’t seem to have a great deal of patience with, the sort of long, drawn-out questions the academics in the crowd tended to ask. Several times he simply looked out at the questioner from his chair on the stage and said very plainly: “What’s the question? I don’t know what the question is.” Poor man. Not being accustomed to academic conferences, he didn’t realize that the “question” period is often not about asking questions. It’s about giving members of the audience a chance to deliver mini-speeches of their own disguised as a question.  

There was, however, a very interesting and somewhat revealing exchange that occurred when the formidable and fearless Fr. Bill Miscamble of Notre Dame, a fellow Aussie, asked Beresford to comment a bit on “religious” dimensions of "Tender Mercies." “Religious?” asked Beresford, seemingly taken aback somewhat by the question. “They’re not really religious questions, are they?” he said. “They’re just questions these characters ask. A lot of people ask these sorts of questions. But they’re not really religious, are they? I mean, there aren’t really any answers.” He couldn’t really see "Tender Mercies" as having any sort of “religious” meaning or implications at all.

It’s strange that the director of one of the best films dealing with the struggles of faith could be so blind to the implications of his own film. Did he really not see any of the religious dimensions of the film, even though several of the most important scenes take place in a Baptist church and even though the lead character’s baptism is one of the most touching and moving in the whole movie? He just didn’t care to see any of these things as “religious,” as it turned out. For him, these were just the sorts of things these characters — the ones crafted by Horton Foote — did. Their words and actions seemed “honest” to those characters, but he hadn’t really reflected on the nature of their faith convictions at all.

I don’t tell this story to be critical of Beresford. (Well, perhaps just a little; I mean, he didn’t see the religious dimension at all?) The important point is how good a director he was and how he serves as an important role model for others. Here was a man who, although he didn’t share the Christian faith of his characters, made a great movie about faith. Indeed, I think a key to the movie’s excellence is that the director didn’t set out to make a “Christian” movie; he was simply making an honest movie.  

A “Christian” director, by contrast, might have “tarted up” the movie and overplayed the Christian elements, producing the kind of schmaltz we often get in “religious movies.” Beresford didn’t do that, and as a result, there isn’t a false note in the whole movie. There were plenty of places where he might have played up the emotional pathos, but he resisted and let his fine actors play it straight each time. He was simply being true to the characters and to the story. And fortunately there was an honesty to the characters that was the result of an excellent screenplay by Horton Foote (one that had been rejected, Beresford told us, by thirty previous directors, suggesting, once again, just how shallow Hollywood has become).  

Just as importantly, however, was the fact that Beresford didn’t succumb to the usual Hollywood temptation to make these Southerners look like a bunch of corn pone hicks from the sticks. He allows them to have their own dignity. The obvious thing to do would have been to make the Baptist preacher or the members of the church congregation look small-minded or self-righteous. But he didn’t.  

His characters are neither overly sentimentalized Christians who do a lot of weeping throughout the film, nor are his Christians made to seem like intellectually vapid, emotionally disturbed throwbacks to the days of the Scopes Trial. Foote, being from the South, had too much respect for his characters for that, and Beresford, the director, had the honesty to let Foote’s characters speak for themselves without forcing his own prejudices on them one way or another. The greatness of the film, therefore, was a testament to (A) the sympathy and understanding of the screenwriter, Horton Foote, (B) the honesty and integrity of the director, Beresford, who saw the value in that screen play and told the story honestly, and (C) the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit, who can operate in utterly mysterious ways and in the strangest of circumstances

In this way, the film and its director also serves as an important model for any aspiring “Christian” film-maker who seeks to make “Christian” films. There are a number of so-called “Christian” films that have been produced and distributed over the past several years — "Fireproof" and "Courageous" are two of the most well-known, and then there’s the whole "Left Behind" phenomenon — but most of these films, though made with undoubtedly good intentions, are simply bad movies. The characters ring false. They often give sermons instead of having real conversations. And they weep like babies every six minutes, although this weeping is generally unconvincing. (Note to aspiring directors: get good actors, not Christian amateurs). If you want to write sermons, become a preacher. If you want to make movies, you have to develop a very different craft — a craft that deals with believable characters who are living real lives. And then you have to tell their story honestly.

Honesty to reality is, it seems to me, the key. Christian movie-makers should have as their first goal simply telling the truth. The same could be said, one might add, about Christian newsmen. I’m often befuddled by “Catholic” news shows that spend the bulk of their time talking about things that happened in the Vatican or to various bishops. There’s nothing more important a “Christian” news show could do in the present day and age than simply become the one place people could go and reliably find the truth — the actual news the way it ought to be told. The motto should be: “Here’s the news by people who believe in truth and who believe that telling the truth is more important than sensationalizing, creating an uproar, or making loads of money for an gigantic corporation. Why not get your news from people who believe that ‘bearing false witness’ is a grave sin?”

So too with “Christian film" makers: they should seek first and foremost simply to be excellent film makers. We don’t need more schlockmeisters, and we don’t need more pseudo-deep tripe. What we need are people who have the honesty and the ability to portray with clarity and sufficient complexity the manifold ways in which grace operates — often in very unexpected and mysterious ways — in a fallen world.    

There is one thing I wish we as an audience could have made clear to Mr. Beresford, though (and I’m afraid we didn’t): namely, that to make a movie about characters who wrestle with the fundamental questions about meaning and happiness and human destiny is precisely what it means to make a truly religious movie. Grappling with these questions and facing them squarely and resolving to live life in a new, more honest, more reflective, and more loving way is precisely what “religion” is about.  

A movie doesn’t have to have angels or heroic priests and nuns or miraculous healings to be “religious.” So please, “Christian” directors, less schmaltz and more honesty. The “message” is simple: Christ is present, but we don’t always see him. And yet his Spirit is at work nonetheless. When a director or storyteller can tell the truth about the human person, you’ll be seeing the face of Christ, and you’ll be learning the truth that Christ came to teach.

Randall B. Smith
is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.
Christian MoviesMovies
Support Aleteia!

Enjoying your time on Aleteia?

Articles like these are sponsored free for every Catholic through the support of generous readers just like you.

Thanks to their partnership in our mission, we reach more than 20 million unique users per month!

Help us continue to bring the Gospel to people everywhere through uplifting and transformative Catholic news, stories, spirituality, and more.

Support Aleteia with a gift today!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Entrust your prayer intentions to our network of monasteries

Top 10
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.