Essay: Confessions of a Christian film critic


“Son of God,” starring Diogo Morgado. (Casey Crafford/20th Century Fox via Associated Press)
Ann Hornaday
Movie critic April 12

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic. View Archive

It may come as something of a surprise for Washington Post readers to learn that these are the words I silently invoke every time I sit down to write.

It would surely shock the gentleman who recently e-mailed to castigate me for the “evil” review I wrote of the film “Son of God," the screen adaptation of the “Bible” TV miniseries. “You will have much to account for the day you meet God,” the e-mailer wrote. “It is now evident you cannot write a review without your personal biases surfacing. That is not professional.”

My correspondent’s words stung — not only because something I had written had caused such obvious distress. In just a few short sentences, he summed up the tensions, contradictions and fleeting moments of grace I have experienced as a film critic who also happens to be a practicing Christian.

The truth is, my angry e-mailer had good reason to assume I’m not religious. I don’t make a habit of professing my faith in my writing — a reticence I chalk up to denomination and profession. A cradle Episcopalian, I grew up within a tradition that’s notoriously chary of proselytizing; as practitioners of that most mainline of mainline Protestant denominations, we tend to prefer evangelizing through our lives and actions rather than showier protestations. (This shyness can also come perilously close to hiding our lights under bushels, but that's a theological discussion for another day.)

I don’t hide the fact that I attend church regularly — in fact, I’ve been fairly active in my Baltimore parish for the past dozen years, as a member of our pastoral care committee, as a Eucharistic visitor and as a Sunday School teacher (a fact that will surely strike terror into the hearts of those readers who weren’t so crazy about my “Noah” review, either). One of my favorite balancing-work-and-faith moments in recent memory was rushing back from doing a Sunday morning show interview about the Oscar race in order to deliver Communion to a congregation member who wasn’t able to attend church that day — a morning that invited some choice moments of reflection on God and mammon, if not in that precise order.

But my resistance to invoking God, Jesus Christ and matters of the spirit in my writing also has to do with something the “Son of God” e-mailer correctly identified: the journalistic habit of not allowing my personal biases to surface, thereby inappropriately using my work as a religious platform and alienating those readers who don’t share my faith or have no faith at all. Those individuals have every right to read a movie review or essay without feeling sermonized, excluded or disrespected.

Still, I believe that work — like every other aspect of daily life — is both a venue and a crucible for exploring and expressing our deepest values. I take to heart the exhortation of the British mystic and writer Evelyn Underhill — one of my spiritual heroes — that work should be “part of the creative apparatus” of the Holy Spirit. How to live into that reality and still be inclusive, accessible and — please, God — free of scolding, self-righteous sanctimony?

Rather than quoting Jesus, the prophets and the Bible in my reviews, I’m more likely to couch my Christian faith in language having to do with humanism, transcendence and cosmic mystery. But even those safely secular work-arounds are proving challenging this year, which has already witnessed a bounty of Christian-themed movies: “Son of God,” “Noah” and “God’s Not Dead” have all been hits at the box office; “Heaven Is for Real,” which opens Wednesday, is predicted to meet with similar success and “Exodus: God and Kings,” starring Christian Bale as Moses, is set for release in December.

As a critic, my first obligation is to assess each of these films not as theology (an exercise for which I’m supremely unqualified), but as a piece of commercial entertainment, whether the form it takes is a mass-market spectacle or a more niche-oriented product that preaches to the choir. After praying, I always ask myself three questions about any movie I’m writing about: What was the artist trying to achieve? Did he or she achieve it? And was it worth achieving? The beauty of that framework is that it allows me to set pure subjectivity aside, the better to judge every film on its merits; the answers get a little dicier, however, when I’m asked to analyze an explicitly Christian film. At that point, my beliefs inevitably come into play, whether I interpret the Old Testament as a divinely inspired but not necessarily literal text in “Noah,” or whether I feel that the starchy, simplistic approach of “Son of God” failed to capture the most subtle and powerful elements of the Gospel of John.

In some cases, my aesthetic taste and spiritual temperament have fused so seamlessly that it’s difficult to tell which is which: I abhorred Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” far preferring Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” — but I usually tend to be repelled by sensationalism and fetishistic violence, and attracted by more expressionistic, even experimental endeavors. I tend not to be a fan of the earnest literalism of films like “Son of God,” but I have a well-documented soft spot for such satirically ribald (and, by my lights, sincerely devout) comedies like Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” I was gratified that church­going was portrayed as an everyday part of life rather than a condescending punch line in the films “You Can Count on Me” and “Lars and the Real Girl.” I can’t prove it, but I definitely saw grace at work in the otherwise secular film “The Visitor,” by Tom McCarthy, as eloquent a testament one can find to the hospitality and sacred fellowship Christ exemplified throughout his ministry.

If it’s a challenge to write about Christian films as a Christian, it can be just as problematic to review nonreligious films, especially the bad ones: The humility and loving kindness I try so hard to cultivate in my daily life doesn’t hew to the snark and downright cruelty that can be the occupational hazard of the reviewer’s job. Where I’ve become much more unforgiving, however, is in depictions of violence. As a student of film history, I know that violence is a long-standing, even essential element of cinematic grammar and audience catharsis; as a Christian, I find it increasingly difficult to accept portrayals of brutality that are glib, meaningless, played for laughs or cynically nihilistic. As Underhill wrote, “We cannot begin the day by a real act of communion with the Author of peace and Lover of concord, and then go on to read a bloodthirsty newspaper at breakfast.” If a bellicose tabloid is enough to give peace-lovers a case of indigestion, they should try watching a Quentin Tarantino film on an empty stomach.

Conversely, I’m constantly on the lookout for films that lift up our capacities for connection and mutual understanding — not as sentimental, schoolmarmish morality plays, but as an artist’s genuine healing response to a broken and confused world. Anything that seeks to honor or nourish or at least acknowledge our fumbling, feeble, quietly heroic attempts to help get each other through the heartbreak and suffering of life will always earn at least a nod of gratitude from me.

Even if, for reasons formal or philosophical, that gratitude doesn’t translate to a full embrace of a particular film, I’ll continue to meditate on the right spirit and words with which to write about it. Every Sunday I join millions of other churchgoers being sent forth with the call to “Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.” Every Monday, I prepare for a week of entering darkened theaters, watching screens flicker to life, and praying that I can embody that love and service with clarity, compassion and discernment. Just as every movie represents a unique contribution to our common cultural life, for better or for worse, every review I write gives me a chance to be new creation, too.

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