For many years since the birth of cinema, religious storytelling remained something of a parochial concern. Aside from notable big-screen epics like The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told, the theater was not a place for proselytizing. Even when mainstream narrative films tackled religious subjects, it was more about experiencing the grandeur and mystery of some of humanity’s oldest stories, or revealing something about the institutions behind their propagation.
All that changed with The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s graphic 2004 blockbuster about the last hours and death of Jesus. The film galvanized Christian production companies - some of which had existed for years, churning out media with varying degrees of polish - and Christians in the mainstream entertainment industry alike, and inspired commentary about the vast untapped market for entertainment aimed at evangelical audiences.
Since Hollywood is so obsessed with duplicating anything that remotely resembles a financial success, observers weren’t wrong to speculate about the emergence of a new trend. But making religious films is a trickier proposition than pandering to the mania for vampires or zombies, with even more limited commercial prospects. Until 2014, of course, when suddenly religious-themed entertainment proved to be a good investment, as micro-budgeted and quietly-marketed films like God’s Not Dead bested the returns of heathen studio efforts such as Sex Tape and Jersey Boys. Either these films are connecting with more than just the faithful, or the evangelical contingent is larger than previously thought. In any case, their surprising box office success demands a closer examination of the movies themselves.
One advantage faith-based films have is their willingness to tackle a kind of internal spiritual conflict that most American cinema wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. Heaven Is for Real attempts to dramatize the struggle of Nebraska pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) who tries to reconcile his own beliefs with a health scare that nearly takes the life of his 4-year-old son Colton (Connor Corum). Even more challenging for Todd, however, is the aftermath. While undergoing emergency surgery for a burst appendix, Colton claims to have risen out of his body and experienced a place he recognizes as "Heaven," describing the appearance of Jesus and meeting relatives who passed long before Colton was born.
Contrary to the way religious devotion is usually portrayed onscreen, Heaven Is for Real tries to reclaim the role of critical thought in religion and explores the way people react to ideas or beliefs that clash with their preferred worldview. It's too bad, then, that the subject matter is more suited to an even-keeled, white-bread Protestant sermon than a narrative film. I mean no offense to such sermons - I've heard plenty, and much prefer them to the fire and brimstone style that assumes our individual day-to-day lives resemble a kind of grandiose cosmic struggle. There's just a lot of inexplicably-produced drama and heavy-handed exposition to wade through before we get there.
The pacing is somewhat mitigated by an immensely qualified cast including Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church, and Margo Martindale, and led by Kinnear, a man who is likability incarnate and perhaps one of a handful of actors who could convincingly portray the almost unbelievably wholesome combination of a pastor/volunteer fireman/high school wrestling coach that he does here. Heaven Is for Real is pretty slight for a film that made $100 million worldwide, but its undemanding nature is likely the key to its financial success; what it lacks in vitality it makes up in pleasantness.
At the other end of the spectrum lies the campus drama God’s Not Dead, which traffics in confrontation and hysteria. Kevin Sorbo stars as an atheist philosophy professor who requires his students to sign a pledge that states "God is dead" in lieu of spending valuable classroom time debating the existence of a supreme being. When Christian freshman Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) enrolls in the class and refuses to deny his beliefs, he is challenged to convince his classmates that God does exist or else accept a failing grade.
Though clearly inspired by several recent religious discrimination lawsuits brought against universities by Christian evangelical students and organizations, the sources of the film's bias become laughably less connected from reality as it goes along. God's Not Dead is a persecution fantasy, using a glowering bully of an atheist - who, as the film helpfully points out, is also an intellectually intolerant snob, an emotionally abusive boyfriend, and an all-around horrible human being - to argue that Christianity is being unfairly attacked, despite its centuries as the foundation of political, cultural, and economic hegemony in the Western world, and enough influence to allow a micro-budget film from an unknown distributor to play multiplexes and gross over $60 million in the United States.
It doesn't help that the movie is a tonal mess with problematic subplots galore. God's Not Dead seeks only to confirm the most negative assumptions about the secular world, making it most useful as a psychological profile. In the movie's estimation, only non-Christians are the ones telling others what to do and how to live. Only Christianity liberates the oppressed - including a Chinese exchange student, the daughter of a conservative Muslim, and a liberal blogger suddenly diagnosed with cancer - with the gift of self-determination. If it wasn't so eager to accept a defensive stance, God's Not Dead could have expanded on its legitimately interesting portrayal of the Christian intelligentsia's approach to knotty philosophical questions; instead, it simply expands a rigid, combative tautology and turns religion into a zero-sum game of conformity that ought to offend Christians and non-believers alike.
Though not the highest-grossing film discussed here, Son of God perhaps illustrates the current clout of faith-based films better than any other. It attracted a considerable audience - grossing nearly $70 million - to see what is essentially a Jesus-centric edit of The Bible, the Mark Burnett-produced miniseries that aired for free on the History Channel a year ago. The film spends most of its first half turning the gospel into a kind of street magic tour, heavy on the miracles and light on characterization. It's a hyper-literal Sunday School lesson, right down to the fact that just about every word Jesus utters is taken directly from scripture.
What's more interesting is the way that Son of God portrays the established power structure - the Roman bureaucracy and the Jewish priesthood - reacting to Jesus' rise from harmless backwater prophet to the leader of a popular religious movement. The leaders of both institutions are ultimately the villains of this story, but they worry convincingly about the socio-political questions presented by this challenge to their authority.
Meanwhile, all Jesus does is win, beaming a beatific smile and projecting an eerie calm among his disciples. (The placid performance of Portuguese actor/model Diogo Morgado as Christ is about as conventional as they come.) Mercifully, the crucifixion is toned down from the bloody nightmare of The Passion and it all ends on a hopeful note. Still, with all the tools of a visual medium at its disposal, it rarely reaches a level of inspiration you couldn't get from just reading the Good Book.
Noah is the obvious outlier in this discussion - a true-blue blockbuster that arrived with lofty financial expectations and succeeded to the tune of over $350 million worldwide - starring Russell Crowe as the last righteous man in the world who’s warned of an impending cataclysm that will purge the wickedness of all humanity from the face of the Earth. Darren Aronofsky’s film is a brawny, action-oriented retelling of the Genesis flood narrative made in conventional Hollywood style not meant to satisfy any single religious audience - which is fitting, given the story's importance to the world's Abrahamic religions, as well as its similarity to stories in other faiths and cultural traditions. (That didn't stop a skittish Paramount even cautioned evangelical groups not to expect a literal recounting of the Bible story, but an artistic interpretation of its characters, events, and themes. Or, you know, a movie.)
It’s telling that Noah, more than any of these other films, inspired me to go back and learn more about its source material. Despite its inherent grimness - "The time for mercy has passed," says Noah, "and now our punishment begins" - the movie nonetheless has a flair for the exotic and the sublime. Aronofsky utilizes a pleasing blend of CGI and massive practical sets, along with Matthew Libatique’s sweeping and sensual photography, to give his film the proper epic scope. Positioning itself as a big-tent origin story for all humankind, Noah buries any moral instruction deep within two hours of pure Old Testament ownage. Whereas most faith-based films derive their identity by standing an alternative to mainstream cinema, Noah ultimately trumps them all by mimicking the look and the tone of popular secular entertainments.