Sunday, April 20, 2014

Religious Films

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema examined religious films. Here is a look at some of the pictures mentioned on the show as well as a few others.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

Produced during the silent era, The Passion of Joan of Arc had a torturous history. After being censored upon its release, the original negative was destroyed in a fire. Director Carl Theodor Dreyer created a new negative out of alternate footage but this too was thought to be lost until a complete print was found years later in a mental asylum. The movie was restored and a new musical score was featured on the Criterion Collection release.

The Robe (1953)
Dir. Henry Koster

The Robe was an early entry in Hollywood’s trend of religious and historical epics in the 1950s and 60s. This film is unique in its approach. Rather than telling the story of Jesus, the story focuses on a Roman tribune, played by Richard Burton, who oversees the crucifixion of Jesus. Burton’s character is wracked with guilt and eventually joins the Christian cause, culminating in a confrontation with Emperor Caligula.

The Ten Commandments (1956)
Dir. Cecil B. DeMille

Perhaps the de facto entry in the genre of religious films is Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. This film tells the Exodus story with Charlton Heston as Moses. Along with his titular part in Ben-Hur, Heston would be forever linked with the Moses role. This film is one of the most successful motion pictures ever made and when its box office gross is adjusted for inflation it still ranks among the top ten domestic releases of all time. The enduring popularity of The Ten Commandments is partly due to its annual television broadcast. The picture has been shown on the ABC network on or around Easter nearly every year since 1973. In 1999, ABC did not televise it (ironically, the same year that the film was added to the National Film Registry) and the network received numerous complaints, so they’ve kept it on the broadcast schedule ever since.

King of Kings (1961)
Dir. Nicholas Ray

In a period of epic productions, one of the most ambitious was 1961’s King of Kings. The film dramatizes virtually all of the familiar events in the Gospels and provides subplots for some of the supporting characters. As an amusing bit of trivia, the crucifixion scene had to be re-shot because preview audience disapproved of actor Jeffrey Hunter’s hairy chest.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
Dir. Pier Paolo Passolini

In the heyday of Hollywood’s religious and historical epics it was considered a given that movies about Biblical stories were to be made on an epic scale with huge casts, elaborate sets, and a grand musical score. They were also very safe and nonpolitical with any challenging elements filed off. As this trend began to wane, Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Passolini directed The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Passolini was a writer and filmmaker whose work was politically charged and frequently controversial. Shot in black and white and filmed in a gritty cinema verite style, Passolini’s Jesus film stripped away the gloss of Hollywood films and presented Jesus as a Marxist prototype who spoke against the powerful and the wealthy. This film was influential on Martin Scorsese and its impact can be seen in The Last Temptation of Christ.

The Exorcist (1973)
Dir. William Friedkin

Moviegoers don’t usually associate the term “religious film” with the horror genre because the term is usually taken to imply safe, family friendly pictures or stories that reaffirm traditional values. But The Exorcist is very much a religious picture. At the center of the story is a priest struggling with his vocation and he achieves a reaffirmation of faith through a direct confrontation with evil. The Exorcist was made with the cooperation of Catholic clergy and in fact some of the priests of the supporting cast are played by actual men of the cloth. The release of The Exorcist spurred an increase in church attendance and spiked the demand for exorcisms.

Godspell (1973)
Dir. David Greene

Godspell is perhaps the strangest telling of the Christ story ever filmed. Based on the off-Broadway production, the film reinterprets the Gospel of St. Matthew through the lens of the counter culture of the early 1970s. The film plays out very much like a stage production, although it is cinematic enough. Godspell is pretty lightweight and it does not reveal very much about the Gospel but its playfulness and weirdness make it worth a look.

Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Dir. Norman Jewison

Released the same year as Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar began as a very popular double LP concept album by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The album was transformed into a successful stage production which was finally adapted into a motion picture released in 1973. The film was directed by Norman Jewison, who had previously directed the 1971 feature film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, but Jesus Christ Superstar was quite different in its style from other screen musicals before and since. The film is like a stage production, beginning with the cast and crew arriving in the desert by bus, unpacking their costumes and props, and then putting on the show, only to pack up and leave (minus the actor playing Jesus) after the crucifixion. The film is a bizarre artifact of the psychedelic era but it remains one of the most popular Jesus films ever made.

The Message (1977)
Dir. Moustapha Akkad

Although Christian stories dominate religious filmmaking in the west, filmmakers of other backgrounds have attempted to share their own stories. The Message (aka Mohammad: Messenger of God) tells the story of Mohammad and the rise of Islam, culminating in the Prophet and his followers securing Mecca as a Muslim holy site. Telling a cinematic story about Mohammad is uniquely difficult because Islam forbids depictions of the prophet and his immediate family. The filmmakers solved this by telling the story through Mohammad's uncle Hamza (Anthony Quinn) and his adopted son Zayd (Damien Thomas). At other moments, Mohammad’s presence is insinuated off screen or represented in the first person as through Mohammad were the camera. Despite attempts to respect the beliefs and traditions of Islam, misinformed word spread that the film was going to slander the religion. As a consequence, The Message was banned from some Middle-Eastern countries and in March 1977 three buildings and over 100 people were held hostage in Washington, D.C. by a group of Muslim gunmen, who demanded, among other things, that The Message be banned from U.S. theaters for being sacrilegious. Although the film was not banned, theaters did pull the film and future screenings were limited due to fears of further violence.

Life of Brian (1979)
Dir. Terry Jones

Monty Python consistently made religion a target of their features and skits, but the film Life of Brian, which satires the Gospels through a man who is mistaken for the Messiah, faced protests both in Britain and in America. High profile religious organizations and religious figures complained that Life of Brian was offensive and ridiculed the story of Christ. In Britain, the film was banned by several town councils although that just resulted in moviegoers traveling to cinemas in neighboring communities to see it. Director Terry Jones has suggested that Life of Brian is not blasphemous, as it does not lampoon actual religious figures, but it is heretical because it does criticize the use and abuse of religious authority by various groups.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Dir. Martin Scorsese

Adapted from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ is a movie with a reputation for being shocking but for some viewers the most shocking thing about it may be how earnest it is in its intentions. The filmmakers do take liberties with religious tradition and theology but those liberties are taken for the purpose of examining the relationship between earthly desires and higher callings. For many years the controversy has overwhelmed the content, but The Last Temptation of Christ is one of the most interesting religious films ever made.

Dogma (1999)
Dir. Kevin Smith

Religious films are not renowned for their humor. In fact, they tend to be quite humorless and self-serious. But filmmaker Kevin Smith, who had directed Clerks and Mallrats, decided to apply his unique brand of comedy to religion with Dogma, a mash-up of fantasy adventure, theology, and scatological humor. In the premise of the film, a lapsed Catholic, who works in an abortion clinic, is given a holy mission by the Voice of God to stop a pair of renegade angels from inadvertently undermining the Almighty and negating all existence. Despite its silliness, the movie has a sharp sense of humor and a few terrific performances by Linda Fiorentino, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon. The movie caused some controversy at the time of its release in 1999 with Smith receiving hate mail and death threats. Smith was flabbergasted by the controversy, pointing out that protesters were getting upset about a movie that featured a rubber poop monster.

The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Dir. Mel Gibson

The Passion of the Christ caused the biggest domestic kerfuffle of any major theatrical release since the turn of the century. The controversy centered less on the actual content of the film than it did on the personal foibles of director Mel Gibson and a debate ensured over whether the film was anti-Semitic. A close viewing of the film reveals this accusation to be toothless but The Passion is inherently part of the complicated history between Catholicism and Judaism, one explored in the book (and subsequent documentary) Constantine’s Sword by James Carroll. Unfortunately, the controversy over The Passion has obfuscated the fact that it is an extraordinarily well crafted piece of cinema despite the way it fetishizes the violence.

Samsara (2012)
Dir. Ron Fricke

The title of Samsara refers to a term in Buddhism meaning “circle” or” wheel” and it describes the idea that people are stuck in an cyclical existence of ignorance. The same term is also used in Hinduism and other Eastern religions to describe similar concepts. This picture is a collage, not a story, and it is best understood as a cinematic poem. The filmmakers of Samsara illustrate the concept of their title on a truly epic scale by juxtaposing imagery of geography, architecture and industry to a slow, meditative score. Samsara’s unconventional style and panoramic view of space and time means that it may not be suited for mediocre mainstream interests but it is a stunning piece of work.

Noah (2014)
Dir. Darren Aronofsky

Darren Aronofsky’s contemporary retelling of the flood story familiar to Christian viewers from the Biblical book of Genesis is an ambitious production. The picture is unlike other Hollywood blockbusters and in many respects Noah is an independent feature made on the scale and scope of a Hollywood blockbuster. It suffers from some storytelling flaws but those defects are far outweighed by the filmmaker’s accomplishments. This movie does what retellings of myths should do – reimagine them in a new way and make the story relevant to contemporary viewers.

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