There’s been no shortage of big screen entertainment based on the Christian story – especially in the years immediately after 9/11 and the Anglo-American adventure in Iraq. What exactly is/was their appeal and what is the measure of their success? Are they just for the faithful and the fervent? David Robertson surveys the field.
A damp Wednesday afternoon finds me in a city centre cinema. It’s unnaturally busy but as the lights dim the usual soundtrack of rustling sweet papers and slurping juice is replaced with the gentle popping of opening Tupperware and the rattle of vacuum flask lids. This is an unusual cinema audience.
Minutes into the film an ear is hacked off.
Sandwiches are forgotten and tea grows cold as, for the next two hours, we are subjected to unrelenting gratuitous brutality, torture and bloody gore. Flesh is torn in a hyper realistic scene of scourging, bones are broken and ultimately the victim, weak and frightened, dies of suffocation and hematohydrosis.
There is soft weeping and whispered commentary but no one moves, even as the credits roll. Transfixed, this largely devout audience has watched The Passion of the Christ, a story that they all knew of angst and doubt and pain but none have never witnessed a visual affirmation of the terrible suffering Jesus endured, in such a controversially shocking and violent manner. Eventually a man with a crutch makes his way into the aisle and genuflects, as best he can, in front of the silver screen.
The Filmmaker and the Fervent.
The Christian Church’s mission to preach the ‘Good News’ has always involved the best means of available social communication; the letters of the Apostles were read aloud and re-copied, the stained glass windows of great churches conveyed the mysteries of the faith to the illiterate and the earliest use of the printing press was in Monasteries. Marconi first demonstrated radio to his Pope, causing the largest radio station in the world to be situated in the Vatican. So we shouldn’t be surprised to now find Christians using film, television or social media to reach out, sermonise and preach. Pope John Paul II had even suggested Catholics should actively embrace any form of media to convey the Christian Message. He called it The New Expression.
But is it such a New Expression or is there already something easily identifiable as a ‘Christian’ film?
Euro-American cinema has always been interested in Christianity. For over a hundred years, since Pathés Vie et Passion du Christ (1903), audiences have been encouraged to look at Jesus and his life. The ‘catechism-in-pictures’ as André Bazin, the revered French film critic, called these early films is the oldest style of an identifiable genre and plays an important part not just in cinema history but in the whole history of the portrayal of Jesus. Before film the depictions of Christ in art had been purely objective. If we look at the paintings of El Greco (for example ‘The Agony in the Garden’) we’re invited to ‘gaze on Him and behold the man’ but not in any way to identify with Him. El Greco like painters before, and since, constrained by their faith (or perhaps limited by their medium) keeps an objective distance; portraying Jesus as mystical and unworldly.
At first filmmakers also adhered to these unwritten rules with their simple tableaux but gradually western cinema could, and would, start to explore the subjectivity of Jesus. By the time Cecil B DeMille made The King of Kings (1927), the biggest but the last of the silent biblical epics (in fact the last Hollywood life of Jesus until the sixties!), audiences had become quite used to filmmakers expecting them to identify with Jesus as a protagonist.
But tastes change and it would be the thirties and forties before Hollywood’s Catholic minority discovered a new and remarkable tool for some subtle propaganda. There was the emergence of the Priest’s story. The stern, but compassionate, Pat O’Brien’s Good Shepherd coping with Jimmy Cagney’s recidivism while tending to unruly flocks in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and the ‘cool’ Priest with his love of music and sport portrayed by Bing Crosby in Going my Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) both of whom easily outshone dour Protestantism. Alongside this hagiographies became an important part of the type. Saint Bernadette of Lourdes was not new to film, from 1909’s Bernadette Soubirous et les Apparations de Lourdes to 1935’s La Vierge du rocher, but the screen adaptation of Franz Werfel’s fictionalised account, The Song of Bernadette (1943), was a box office triumph for Twentieth Century Fox and would earn Jennifer Jones an Oscar for her portrayal of Bernadette. Vision and miracle for the mass audience . . . through the vision and miracle of the movies.
Again, though, societal mores change and by the late seventies and eighties things were not good for the pious in a cinema where everything was open to contempt, including their faith … ridiculed by the ‘Oh God’ series and the risible Catholic school romp Heaven Help Us (1985), satirised by Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) and embroiled in controversy at the perceived blasphemy of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). There were still serious Christian films being made; Moses-the Lawgiver (1975) The Mission (1986) and Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire (1987), but it was the ones with the skewed themes that attracted attention and, in the days before the multiplex, screen space.
The turn of the century however became once more a good time for Christians to go the cinema to see serious, considered expositions of belief. The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), listed by The Guardian as a derivative religious thriller, combined courtroom drama with a Priest’s story and with films of the life of Mother Theresa of Calcutta and of the three beatified, vision witnessing, children of Fatima (a remake of 1959’s The 13th Day) Lucia Santos, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, there was still even an opportunity to witness the stories of the recently sanctified on screen. But Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) directed by him and made by Icon, his production company, led the way. It graphically portrayed the last days of Jesus’ life and it was a game changer.
I contend it is nothing new to see the Christian message on film but what became new in the 21st Century was the way Christian films were made and most importantly marketed.
The Passion of the Christ had a production budget of $25 million and an advertising budget of $10 million. It was released in 2004 and had another limited release for Easter 2005. Worldwide its box office gross was in excess of $600 million, a record for any “R” rated film. The first day DVD sales were in excess of 4 million copies.
Often described as an act of faith on Mel Gibson’s part (in more ways than one) The Passion of the Christ is up there in the top twenty most profitable films of all time. It was a marketing phenomenon with church congregations block booking cinemas to view it. Education packs, promotional tools, church resource DVDs, even ‘signed movie posters for church charities’ were all part of the successful drive that took Icon’s film from expectations of a limited theatre release to a debut in over 3000 cinemas and becoming the biggest deliberately Christian film ever. Icon’s slate isn’t just about Christian films but it is informed to an extent by Christian values and we should bear in mind this wasn’t Icon’s first foray into telling the story of Jesus’ life. They had partly financed The Miracle Maker (2000) a successful British-Russian animated film so they were acutely aware of the vast potential market.
Disney is always aware of a potential market and their first adaptation of C S Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), is claimed as an allegorical/oblique Christian tale and is a film that may point us toward a modern twist of the genre. It took $6.7million in its first weekend, the biggest December opening since The Lord of the Rings; The Return of the King. It very quickly grossed $450 million against an estimated production budget of $180 million almost half of which ($80 million) was spent on marketing. And though the sequels were less critically acclaimed they, between them, still grossed 1.5 billion dollars.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe provoked a storm of controversy but not from the usual critics of Disney, the Evangelical Right. The biblical subtext coupled with the special effects/fantasy laden appeal was seen as a blatant attempt to cross over and win both a Secular and a Christian audience. Just look how much had been spent on marketing. Taking their cue from Icon and Icon’s distributor Newmarket Films, Disney hired Christian marketing groups to handle the film and Catholic Outreach used 150 co-ordinators across America to help promote it. Dennis Rice, publicity Vice President for Disney, maintained that ‘grass roots’ outreach to Christian groups had used up less that 5% of the film’s marketing budget. But $4 million is still an awful lot to spend on people who don’t usually watch your sort of films and boycott you because you allow gay-orientated events in your theme parks. Though Disney might claim artistic merit before audiences the religious aspect of C S Lewis’ work was not lost on them but the controversy was whether we should we really applaud Disney for embracing his books, with its veiled allegory, hidden parables of Christ’s love and, some suggest, a subtle incitement to Holy war? Or worse, if it was just a means towards an end; the capture of an audience that has been missing to them recently and, that cinematic Holy Grail, a returning series like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings? Unfortunately for Disney the subsequent Chronicles of Narnia were so bland that even with everything from Santa Claus, talking beavers and a resurrected lion (not even Harry Potter was allowed resurrection!) it might be said that Disney failed both their old Secular and their new Christian audience.
Notwithstanding the quality of the films we shouldn’t be surprised at the alacrity with which American right wing Christians have changed their attitude towards Disney. C S Lewis is revered among evangelists for his creed of clean living, muscular Christianity. That was what was filling cinemas.
I have no problem with the obvious or overtly Christian film but here I suggest there is an oblique aspect to the genre that we must look at; films with more subtle aspects of spirituality and life affirming messages, like Luc Jaquet’s The March of the Penguins.
An 80 minute documentary about life in one of the most inhospitable places in the world The March of the Penguins grossed in excess of $111 million worldwide in 2005. Distributed by Warner Brothers a successful limited release in the summer led to a cinema wide release a month later.
The US film critic Michael Medved described The March of the Penguins as; ‘the motion picture that most passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing’. He added (and Americans don’t do irony) that; ‘this is the first movie American Christians have enjoyed since The Passion of the Christ.’
Christianity Today International annually publishes a list of over one hundred films which suggested that Christians ‘attending to their individual consciences and proceeding with caution and discernment, would do well to encounter, meditate upon, and discuss.’ The list has included Rosetta, The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Mission (all, obviously, spiritually illuminating) but also To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (all, apparently, thought provoking) and Schindler’s List, Hotel Rwanda, and Stalker (all, perhaps, conscience pricking). In previous years The Shawshank Redemption and Field of Dreams have also featured in this, rather, contentious list.
It seems that Christians are ready to claim most films; not just the ones that champion justice, portray the wages of sin or appeal to our desire for salvation. Anything with integrity, hope, or healing is fair game to be adopted as spiritually significant.
I would argue that most film pitches (with the occasional exception) are, by their very nature, life affirming. Some might even be described as spiritually significant; the universal human condition, the wealth and truths of human existence, the nature of man and how he relates to his world . . . all these are core religious ideas and core film ideas. And if we refine the story towards the basic tenets of religious fundamentalism; in the beginning it was good, then it was bad, but now God (or Mohammed, Scientology, Islam, Buddha, Ronald Macdonald or Chief Brody) can make it good again then we can match most recent films to that essential mythic.
Mel Gibson’s Hollywood clout and Hollywood money meant he could indulge his own “catechism in pictures”; in the almost extinct language of Aramaic (subtitled), violent and as bloody as he liked, under cover of religious piety. He describes himself as a traditionalist Catholic, an ultra-orthodox sect of Catholicism that rejects modernist church reform, and said that he wanted to promote faith, as well as hope, love and especially forgiveness through The Passion of the Christ. Even though, it fell to one critic to describe it as “the most controversial film of all time” just ahead of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and it has courted accusations in some quarters of anti-Semitism.
Gibson’s particular faith, there is no doubt, had influenced some of his other films; Signs and We Were Soldiers (2002). But with The Passion of the Christ he carried on the long historical tradition of Christian film making in that, though there is the element of subjectivity, his depiction of the Crucifixion takes us back to the Stations of the Cross, El Greco asking us to gaze upon Jesus and witness his suffering, and to a man still kneeling in the aisle as a cinema empties slowly round him.