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Hollywood rediscovers faith just in time for the Oscars

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A look at how faith and religion manifest themselves in some of this year’s crop of Oscar and awards-hopefuls.

For the most part, Hollywood seems to try to ignore God as much as possible. Outside the occasional wedding or funeral scene or possession-centric horror movie, priests, pastors and prayer are as rare as an upstanding businessman or happy stay-at-home-mom in popular film. And in some ways it makes sense: Movie makers want to draw as many people as possible to their films, and religion is inherently controversial.

But things change this time of year. This is when studios start pushing what they consider their best, most award-worthy films into the marketplace. These flicks aren’t necessarily built to make $300 million at the box office. They’re meant to be art (whatever that means in the world of film). They’re more topical, more daring, more powerful, and more provocative than a would-be blockbuster. And what’s more powerful and provocative than faith?

But how faith manifests itself in these works is all over the map. Sometimes religion is in-your-face, while at others its lurking under the surface. For every instance where Hollywood gets faith right, there’s another where it seems to miss the point.

Let’s take a look at how faith and religion manifest themselves in some of this year’s crop of Oscar and awards-hopefuls — all of which are playing now (albeit some in limited release). Oh, and a quick word of caution: All but one of these films is rated R.

 

Alcon Entertainment

Blade Runner 2049

Despite disappointing at the box office, this sci-fi sequel remains a contender in several categories. And while I’ve already written about Blade Runner‘s pro-life subtext before, there’s still a bit more to talk about.

Using its manmade, robotic “replicants” as a catalyst, the movie primarily concerns itself with the status of soul — an inherently spiritual theme. What is a soul? When do we get it? Is that what makes us special? And if we should miss the point, Blade Runner 2049 is quick to reinforce its theological preoccupation with its imagery.

Take replicant maker and prime antagonist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who presents himself as an almost godlike being — one with the power of life and death over his replicant creations, which he calls “children.” He’s bearded, dresses all in white, and his “office” is a platform surrounded by water: When he walks to the platform, he looks as though he’s walking on it. Perhaps tellingly, though, he’s blind — possibly an echo of the Gnostic concept of the demiurge. In some schools of Gnosticism, a creator-god fashioned the universe out of boredom, blind to the spiritual realm and the uppercase God above him.

 

Amazon Studios

Last Flag Flying

“Doc,” an old Marine vet, enlists the help of two of his Vietnam buddies to retrieve the body of his son, who was killed in Baghdad. Along the way, they grapple with a terrible secret they’ve kept about their own wartime experiences.

All of them deal with that secret in different ways. Sal, one of the two vets Larry brings along, has lost himself in a haze of alcohol abuse. But Richard, the other, has turned to God. He’s a preacher now, thundering God’s word from a Virginia pulpit. “I grew up, Sal,” he says. “I found life’s purpose along the way.”

While exploring faith isn’t this movie’s prime focus, Richard’s character allows for several interesting, and challenging, conversations about faith, doubt and purpose. But be warned: Richard is not a wholly sympathetic character. In him, however, we also see the sincere impact that faith can have on us, and as the movie sands down some of his harsher edges, Richard becomes more sympathetic.

 

Netflix

Mudbound

You don’t have to go to a theater to see this lyrical, brutal Netflix film. But even though it’s on TV, it’s still garnering plenty of Oscar buzz. Again, religion isn’t the point here: Focusing on two families — one black, one white — working the same patch of Mississippi dirt in the 1940s, Mudbound is all about race and war and secret desire. But God shows up, too.

Hap Jackson is a pastor of sorts, preaching to local families from a half-built church. “I go to prepare a place for you,” he says, quoting Jesus, “That where I am, ye are here also.” It’s a passage that holds deep resonance for the African-American Hap, who’s dealt with segregation and venomous prejudice all his life. But he also preaches about how one day, God will “shake these chains from our feet,” not just in the hereafter, but in the here and now. We see plenty of evidence of his and his family’s faith elsewhere, too. And when Hap’s oldest son, Ronsel, returns safely from World War II, he sneaks in during a family prayer and overhears his father pray,  “Lord Jesus, please look over my boy … wherever he may be.”

“Amen,” Ronsel finishes.

But perhaps the greatest declaration of faith comes from fellow war vet Jamie McAllan, who hails from Mudbound’s other family. A bomber pilot, he relates how his was surrounded by German planes one day: He bargained with God that, if He’d get him down alive, Jamie’d be “so good.” Just then, a squadron of Tuskegee Airmen comes, scattering the Germans and changing Jamie’s perception of race in one go. Jamie looked over and saw a black airman salute him. “I saluted back,” he says.

 

Sony Pictures

Novitiate

According to director Maggie Betts, this movie was in part inspired by a Mother Teresa biography that revealed her intense, sometimes desperate relationship with God, making Novitiate the most explicitly religious of the films on this list. It takes viewers on an intimate journey into a pre-Vatican II convent. Alas, most Catholics won’t find much to embrace in this sometimes hostile indictment of nunhood: Many of the novitiates are deeply conflicted about their faith. Some find themselves in lesbian relationships and express doubt about the God they’re about to devote their lives to.

If the film has a villain, it’d be the Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair, played by Oscar hopeful Melissa Leo. She berates and verbally abuses her young charges. But Leo’s portrait of the Reverend Mother isn’t wholly without sympathy. She’s lashing out, the film suggests, because she believes her way of life is under attack: To change, she believes, will destroy her sacred vocation. (The film suggests she’s right in a final slide, which tells audiences that 90,000 nuns walked away from their vows after Vatican II.) But in the end, the Reverend Mother accepts the change and sticks to her vows. “I made a commitment forty years ago,” she says. “And even if you choose to turn your light from me forever, I’m yours.”

 

Sony Pictures

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Denzel Washington is again in Oscar contention for playing one of the most unusual characters of his career — the frumpy, grumpy titular civil rights lawyer. And while the film itself offers several nods to religion, perhaps its most striking spiritual content is found just below the surface. Dan Gilroy, the movie’s writer and director, calls Israel an intentional “Christ figure,” according to Christianity Today.

But if Washington’s character is such a figure, he’s a complex one — one as much a sinner as he is a saint. His name really tips us off to his fragmented nature: Roman Israel begins the movie as an idealist — a true believer in higher justice in a world obsessed with money and self. You could make the case that his very name echoes that tension: After all, the land of Israel, at the time of Roman occupation, was a nation of true believers espousing values that the surrounding culture neither understood nor respected.

But the “Roman” part of his name represents the pull and eventual capitulation to that culture, too. He, perhaps like all of us, has a divided soul — one half longing to wallow in the world around him, the other half reaching for the heavens.

These films, quite obviously, don’t always understand faith the way that we do. Sometimes, their portrayal of belief and believers can make us mad. But they confirm, once again, that faith matters. It’s a powerful, beautiful, sometimes frightening force. Hollywood knows it and, for now, acknowledges it — before it’ll likely forget about it again for another year.

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