And does it matter? Indie and foreign filmmakers who take religion seriously have the ardor and the talent to engage disillusioned moviegoers.
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Over at Crux, Steven D. Greydanus has written a pretty bleak two-partessay around Hollywood’s portrayal of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular in the last 15 to 25 years.
Christian iconography in Hollywood, Greydanus argues, is generally “linked to murderous violence or outright villainy” – there is certainly no shortage of examples to support his case – while positive depictions of Christian identity are limited to indie, foreign, and horror films. “Here is a sobering question,” Greydanus writes. “Has there been a single substantial, positive depiction of Catholic faith or identity in a major Hollywood non-horror film in the last 10 or 15 years?” He gives a few modest examples, but his answer is basically no. Between 2000’s Return to Me and Scorsese’s upcoming adaptation of Silence, Greydanus doesn’t see too much worth celebrating.
But this assessment feels unnecessarily grim. Greydanus doesn’t mention the recent explosion in Biblical epics, and it’s not clear why. It seems like any even-handed survey of Christianity in cinema over the past 15 years should at least mention The Passion of the Christ, which paved the way for Noah (read Greydanus’ own glowing review here), Exodus: Gods and Kings, and a slew of other Biblical or Bible-era films (some better than others).
Also, Greydanus doesn’t mention that two of the most successful (and most expensive) trilogies in recent memory sprang from the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien, who described The Lord of the Rings as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”
Still, in terms of how Catholicism fares in Hollywood – as a living tradition with priests, sacraments, and vocations – Greydanus has a point. There is a whole lot less to celebrate in this department. Occasionally, there appears a Warrior or Les Misérables which portrays the faith substantially and positively. But in general, Hollywood either deals with Christianity negatively or doesn’t deal with it at all. Christians increasingly feel like their only option is two-dimensional non-starters like God’s Not Dead.
But this raises a second interesting point: Why should we worry about what Hollywood is doing when Hollywood is dying?
Derek Thompson wrote an excellent piece for The Atlantic about why 2016 is on pace to be the worst year for movie attendance since before the 1920s. Like so many other industries, Hollywood is stuck in old habits (as its treatment of religion shows) in an era of disruptive changes. It may boast the latest in special effects, but a self-perpetuating and self-defeating “sequel machine” continues to produce major flops and drive away younger moviegoers. In short, Hollywood is in a “creative funk.”
The assumption driving Greydanus’ argument seems to be that a deeper engagement of faith by Hollywood would be a good thing, because that’s where people are, and that’s where so many attitudes about the world are formed.
But if Thompson is right, that assumption is wrong on both counts. People – especially young people – are going to the movies less and less, and if they do, are really only there to cheer on their guy as he navigates through another round of explosions and gunfire.
The upshot is that people are spending more time in democratized and user-oriented platforms, where risk-takers – including risk-takers who take religion seriously – can better compete with Hollywood blockbusters.
Greydanus mentions St. Vincent (2014), Calvary (2014), and Of Gods and Men (2010) as three examples of indie films which present the Catholic faith in a substantial and positive way. But the list goes on. There was the kindly priest of Brooklyn (2015) (in his review, Greydanus writes that Brooklyn presents the Church as “an unobtrusive but essential institution”); the churchgoing detective and repentant criminal in The Drop (2014); the fascinating character study The Jewish Cardinal (2013); three foreign dramas centered around nuns (Ida (2013), Marie’s Story (2014), and The Innocents (2016)); top-notch documentaries from the Grassroots Films team (The Human Experience (2008), Child 31 (2012), and the upcoming Outcasts); and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011),
With all of this going on in the indie and foreign worlds the past several years, it’s difficult to feel too disconsolate about the state of Hollywood. These cinematic outsiders reflect the scrappy energy of the New Evangelization, where new ardor, methods, and expressions can reengage and reenergize disillusioned moviegoers. The relationship between film and faith outside of the Hollywood mainstream is not a footnote to the story, but a new story.
It may not be comfortable or easy terrain, or rake in millions upon millions of dollars in ticket sales – but stories of faith continue to be told here, and continue to be told well. And if current trends continue, it’s the future of filmmaking itself.