A look at Christian faith in cinema by Alex Miller

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Insight is delighted to welcome guest contributions from people with a heart for faith and film. When Alex Miller approached us, we were happy to oblige. Alex is a film and television blogger with a passion for classic cinema, living and working in London.

Since the introduction of major cinematic productions, religion and faith have been popular themes in films. Beginning with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 French film The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’ Arc), filmmakers have used cinema to depict the various facets of spirituality. While most of these cinematic depictions have mainly shown a Hollywood representation of certain religious-based historical events, Rotten Tomatoes points to quite a few films dealing with the issue of faith that have emerged over the years.

Historical themes

Initially, religious and faith-based cinema was focused on historical accounts of religion. Whether it was the story of Moses in The Ten Commandments or the events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus in the popular and controversial Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ, movies about religion and religious figures have been staples on the Big Screen. During the 1950s and 60s, filmmakers who delved into religion portrayed their characters in a more pious, serious light. Award-winning cinematic successes like The Nun’s Story, Ben-Hur, and The Greatest Story Ever Told dominated box offices and garnered both critic and public acclaim. However, the radical 1970s ushered in a whole new type of film about faith.

Jesus as rock star

img0266AThe free-spirited, peace-and-love nature of the 70s spawned a unique portrayal of biblical events and characters — Jesus Christ being the leading man. In 1973, the religious rock musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell captivated audiences with their revolutionary, unconventional take on the life of Jesus and his disciples. In these rock opuses, Jesus and his cohorts were portrayed more like the hippies and radicals of the1970s.

Christian sub-texts

Since the 1970s, Hollywood has moved beyond using blatant religious themes in its movies, instead opting for a more subtle approach to presenting aspects of faith in film. Ironically, many of these movies have come from two masters of the sci-fi and horror genres. M Night Shyamalan, who was catapulted to fame for his 1999 blockbuster hit The Sixth Sense, has a long history of using themes of faith and belief systems in his films. His 2002 movie Signs, for instance, questions the loss of faith and spirituality after a tragedy, with its main character renouncing both his religion and position as a priest after his wife is brutally killed in a car accident. From the costumes, make-up, and hair to the dialogue, religion-based rock operas of the era used the progressive views and values that were popular at the time to show a more sympathetic, realistic, and benevolent side of Christ. While certain religious groups reacted negatively to both films, they were met with great praise by most of the public. That included critics who gave both movies glowing reviews.

In addition to Shymalan, horror guru Stephen King has brought religious ideologies to the ‘big screen‘ through movies like Carrie, The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. While the religious themes in Carrie centre around the over-zealous nature of certain religious people, the other two films use faith to pull their protagonists out of the dark realms in which they momentarily exist.

Current trends

While not as direct as other spiritual Hollywood films, modern movies like Pay It Forward and Atonement consider the connection between humanity and faith as they both explore believing in the inherent goodness of mankind — a popular belief system in most organised religions. In Pay It Forward, a young boy sets out to prove that each of us can make positive changes in other people’s lives one favour at a time. Although the film was seen as clichéd to some critics,  this picture was generally held in high regard for its strong faith in the general decency of society.

Atonement, which according to US website Box Office Mojo was a ‘box-office smash‘, goes deeper spiritually: it examines how we deal with redeeming ourselves after committing inconceivable sins. This introspective film explores how we carry our sins and indiscretions and assuage ourselves of guilt.

Whether used in a historical depiction or as a way to explore humanity and the natural inclination of individuals, faith plays a pivotal role in cinema: recommendation websites like Picturebox prove that films based on Christian themes embedded in movie culture. No matter how you view spirituality, films about faith can transform the way you view yourself, those around you, and life as a whole.

Product links (UK only)

Film: Carl Theodor Dreyer,  The Passion of Joan of Arc DVD (1928), Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, André Berley
Film: Cecil B DeMille, The Ten Commandments DVD (1923), Theodore Roberts, Charles de Rochefort, Estelle Taylor (not available at Amazon UK)
Film: Cecil B DeMille, The Ten Commandments DVD (1956), Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter
Film: Bill Boyce, John Stronach, The Ten Commandments DVD (2007), Ben Kingsley, Christian Slater, Elliott Gould
Film: Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ DVD (2004), Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Maia Morgenstern
Film: Fred Zinnemann, The Nun’s Story DVD (1959), Audrey Hepburn, Peter Finch, Edith Evans
Book: Kathryn C Hulme, The Nun’s Story DVD (2012), Filiquarian Legacy Publishing, paperback
Film: Fred Niblo, Charles Brabin, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ DVD (1925), Ramon Novarro, Francis X Bushman, May McAvoy
Film: William Wyler, Ben-Hur DVD (1959),  Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd
Book: Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1996), Wordsworth Classics, paperback
Film: George Stevens, David Lean, The Greatest Story Ever Told DVD (1965), Max von Sydow, Dorothy McGuire, Charlton Heston
Book: Fulton Oursler, The Greatest Story Ever Told (2013), Nabu Press, paperback
Film: Norman Jewison, Jesus Christ Superstar DVD (1973), Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman
Film: David Greene, Godspell DVD (1973), Victor Garber, Lynne Thigpen, Katie Hanley
Film: M Night Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense DVD (1999), Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette
Film: M Night Shyamalan, Signs DVD (2002), Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin
Film: Brian de Palma, Carrie DVD (1976), Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving
Film: Kimberly Peirce, Carrie DVD (2013), Chloë Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Gabriella Wilde
Book: Stephen King, Carrie (2013), Hodder Paperbacks, paperback
Film: Frank Darabont, The Green Mile DVD (1999), Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse
Book: Stephen King, The Green Mile (1999), Orion, paperback
Film: Frank Darabont, The Shawshank Redemption DVD (1994), Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton
Book: Stephen King, ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’ in Different Seasons (2012), Hodder Paperbacks, paperback
Film: Mimi Leder, Pay It Forward DVD (2000), Kevin Spacey, Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt
Book: Catherine Ryan Hyde, Pay It Forward (2007), Black Swan, paperback
Film: Joe Wright, Atonement DVD (2007), Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Brenda Blethyn
Book: Ian McEwan, Atonement (2002), Vintage, paperback

Note: These links lead to product pages at Amazon.co.uk. Six per cent of any sales made via these links is paid to Insight Film Festival.

If you prefer to buy titles from UK independent bookshops, please use the My Local Bookshop search engine hosted online by The Booksellers Association.

Insight’s guest blogger policy

The Insight Film Festival publishes articles to our blog from guest bloggers on an ad hoc basis. The Festival is delighted to publish a range of views on the themes of film and faith, but the personal views expressed in such blog articles do not reflect the views and opinions of the Insight Film Festival itself, which is an organisation that comprises individuals of many different faiths and none, all of whom have their own personal views and opinions on films, faith and other subjects.