Easter came around awfully quick this year, didn't it? I was all set to blog a new "Great Directors" post to tie in with the holiday, but I forgot that Easter came in March, and we've already had a post about Carl Theodore Dreyer. I still feel like saying a little on the subject of religion in films, since Easter is probably the most blatantly religious celebration that's still widely observed in the United States. Christmas has become an exercise in commercialism for the most part, but there's still quite a lot of spirituality attached to Easter – well, ignoring the elements that were lifted from the worship of pagan fertility goddess Eostre, like the bunnies and the eggs.
But on the subject of religion in film, in the mainstream we've seen a drastic reduction in religious themes of any sort being explored by our most prominent filmmakers. Go back to the early days of cinema, and there were many directors like Bergman, Dreyer, and Bresson, who wrestled with belief and faith onscreen. Hollywood used to love religious epics like "Ben-Hur," "Exodus," and "The Ten Commandments," and it was common to see nuns and priests and other religious figures at the center of Hollywood crowd-pleasers like "Boys Town," "Song of Bernadette," "A Nun's Story," and "Lilies of the Field," to name but a few.
In the modern day, you still occasionally get a "Machine Gun Preacher," and Tyler Perry's movies have always been Christian-friendly entertainment, but otherwise, the faith-based film has become a niche, and not a very well-regarded one. The public tends to associate films that explicitly talk about religion with the insipid, overly wholesome Christian church-approved entertainments aimed at kids, or message films that try to push a certain agenda. After a few notable scandals in the 80s and 90s, religion has become an extremely unpopular subject with serious filmmakers, because it is simply too controversial to deal with in an honest manner, with any artistic integrity. Remember all the fuss around Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ"?
Hollywood will still occasionally turn out a "Passion of the Christ" or a "Prince of Egypt" to try to cash in on the Christian audience, but it's not the audience it used to be. In the US, the church has become more and more unpopular over time, atheism is on the rise, and secularism is the norm. Sure, you still see priests and nuns and many faithful believers in the movies, but religion itself tends to be downplayed. Terence Malick's "Tree of Life," for instance, clearly featured Christian characters, and had heavy existential and philosophical themes, but you can't really categorize it as a religious film. Hollywood will take pains to avoid offending Christian moviegoers, toning content that is critical of the church in films like "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" or "The Golden Compass," but there's no assumption, as there used to be, that Hollywood films are for a default Christian audience.
Look at the recent "Life of Pi," which was largely about the main character exploring and questioning the basis of his faith. The film did not take any particular stance on which religion was correct, showing the titular Pi trying out Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam in turn. Ultimately, the film's spirituality was handled in very broad, general terms, and is ultimately more of an allegory for faith than anything else. Or then you have "The Sessions," an independent comedy about a severely disabled man who is religious, and wrestles with the question of whether using the services of a sex surrogate would be considered a sin. The treatment of extramarital sex is very light and positive, and the religious dilemma is a minor obstacle in the grand scheme of things. However, the inclusion of the protagonist's religion and his consultations with a friendly priest are exceptional, not for how they are handled, but for being brought up at all.
The success of the History Channel's recent "Bible" series has lead to a minor rush for more Christian-themed projects in development, despite some controversy about some of the content, like the suspiciously familiar-looking depiction of Satan. I expect some of these projects will move forward, but many will run afoul of the same problems that all of the recent ones have – questions of accuracy, sensitivity toward other religions and cultures, suspicions regarding evangelical intentions, and finally the worry that the media n question could get hijacked into the culture wars. Religion is one of those topics that has become a major polarizing force, and it often seems like it's impossible to say anything substantive about Christianity or Islam without starting a fight.
It's a shame, because there's such a wealth of material involving religious themes, and some of the old epics really could use a fresh perspective. I've always enjoyed the Bible epics and the more thoughtful, existential films about crises of faith, even though I'm firmly atheist. I understand that religion is a big part of the human experiences, and our films ought to reflect that.