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As spiritual films bring in the bucks, Hollywood gets more religious

By Robert W. Butler
Sunday, January 3, 2010; E09

It's everywhere at the multiplex these days: religion. Or if that word makes you uncomfortable, you can go with the more general "spirituality."

In movies as varied as the dead serious "The Road," the uplifting family picture "The Blind Side," the biting comedy "The Invention of Lying" and even James Cameron's sci-fi opus "Avatar," issues of faith and morality and mankind's place in the universe are all the rage.

Not all of these movies embrace religion. Some question human gullibility. Some ask for evidence of a higher purpose in what often seems a random universe. But whether they encourage prayer or doubt, they're all part of the zeitgeist.

But why now?

"There are two schools of thought about that," said Greg Wright, an editor at HollywoodJesus.com, which examines popular culture from a religious perspective.

"The more paranoid elements of our culture tend to think Hollywood has a proactive agenda, that producers have a grand scheme to use movies to shape the thinking of audiences. I don't subscribe to that school.

"I believe that Hollywood gives audiences what audiences want to see. If people don't want to see movies with certain messages, they won't buy tickets.

"So if there's a trend out there, it's one reflecting what people are already thinking and feeling," Wright said.

No coincidence

And what are we thinking?

Sister Rose Pacatte, who reviews movies for the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles, said it isn't mere coincidence that a new animated version of Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" came along in 2009. The film was released in the wake of an economic crisis fueled by greedy self-interest on an unprecedented scale, she said.

"Being a good man of business will not save your soul. That's an essential message of 'A Christmas Carol' and one emphasized by this version," she said.

Dickens's tale may have little to say about God and Jesus, but it stresses charity and the dangers of poverty and ignorance, she said.

Other current films, while not overtly religious, stress the idea of human beings as dependent on one another and responsible for one another's well-being.

Pacatte pointed to "Up in the Air," in which George Clooney plays a loner whose job is to fire downsized employees and who has attempted to insulate himself from all human commitment.

"In some ways it's a modern 'Christmas Carol,' with Clooney's character becoming a bit more human, becoming more aware of himself and others," Pacatte said.

"Avatar" depicts humanity as a rapacious race represented by a soulless corporation and largely incapable of appreciating the simple ecological spiritualism of an alien race.

A runaway hit, too

Of course, some films put religion front and center.

"Of these films, 'Blind Side' has the most evangelical world view," said Mark Moring, senior associate editor at Christianity Today. "It's a movie based on real people who are devout Christians and whose faith clearly played a big part in their reaching out to this young homeless man and turning his world around." That "The Blind Side" has become a runaway hit should further encourage Hollywood to deal with religious themes, Moring said.

"When 'The Passion of the Christ' came out in '04, it showed Hollywood they could make lots of money with in-your-face spiritual themes. It taught them they don't have to be afraid of going with religious if not specifically Christian ideas. 'Blind Side' reinforces that," Moring said.

Wright at HollywoodJesus.com said, "The market dynamics of film are just beginning to sort out what happened in the wake of 'The Passion of the Christ.' Given that film production cycles can take several years, I expect to see more religious-themed films in coming months."

Not all of these will be big-budget Hollywood productions. Wright noted the box-office success of the low-budget "Facing the Giants" and "Fireproof," two unabashedly religious dramas made by Sherwood Pictures, which is affiliated with a church in Georgia.

"We're finally getting some decently crafted movies aimed at the faith audience," Wright said. "In the wake of 'Passion,' lots of titles were rushed to market to take advantage of the religious audience, and they just weren't very well written or produced. It's taken a while to get the quality."

Most likely the big studios quickly will lose interest in faith-themed subject matter, Wright said.

"Hollywood is all about cycles. This one will pass," he said. "The films that really matter, that actually have something to say, are the indie titles that sneak into the Hollywood distribution system or make their way to home video or the film festivals.

"That's where the real future of spiritual movies is -- with niche independent filmmakers who are finding distribution channels that work for them. Hollywood will always have a huge appetite for big tent-pole films. But that leaves an opportunity for others to make more modest movies about things that matter," Wright said.

Big-screen offerings

Recent or upcoming releases with religious themes:

"The Road": Earth is dying. In the wake of an undisclosed disaster, a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) wander a barren land, searching for sustenance and avoiding roaming bands of cannibals. Unrelentingly bleak, this cinematic version of Cormac McCarthy's novel is about one man's attempt to preserve what's left of humanity's goodness and innocence in his child. Though the film is never openly religious, many see it as a spiritual quest; McCarthy has spoken of his book as a sort of Christian allegory.

"The Lovely Bones": Life after death? It's a given in Peter Jackson's adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel about a murdered teen (Saoirse Ronan) who, from the afterlife, continues to watch over both her family and her killer (Stanley Tucci).

"The Invention of Lying": Ricky Gervais's comedy unfolds in an alternate universe where everybody compulsively tells the truth. But one man learns how to fib, and before long he's telling whoppers. In an effort to placate his unhappy fellow men, he declares that the world is run by a big man in the sky. He codifies rules of behavior and writes them down on the lids of pizza boxes. (What . . . no stone tablets?) And, having no defense against prevarication, everyone believes him. This comic parable on the origins of religion is biting, but Gervais's beaming delivery softens the blow. (No longer in theaters; due on DVD this month.)

"The Book of Eli": Denzel Washington plays a lone man fighting his way across post-apocalyptic America to protect a sacred book that allegedly holds the secrets to saving humankind.

"Legion": God has lost all hope in humankind and sends his legion of angels to Earth to bring on the Apocalypse in this supernatural action thriller. In a remote truck stop diner named Paradise Falls, the archangel Michael (Paul Bettany) joins a group of strangers to defend the diner's waitress, who may be pregnant with the Messiah.

"The Last Station": The eternal battle between spirituality and materialism is waged in the soul of acclaimed Russian author Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), who is torn between his own need for transformation and the demands of his wife (Helen Mirren) and disciples.

"A Serious Man": The Coen brothers retell the biblical story of Job, relocating it to the late '60s Minneapolis suburbs of their adolescence. A Jewish college professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) finds everything in his life -- from his marriage to his car -- going down the tubes. In the original, God and Satan strike a deal to see how much grief one man can absorb before renouncing righteousness. This being a Coen brothers effort, God is nowhere in sight. Misery is just a universal fact of life; you'll survive only if you can laugh at it. (No longer in theaters; due on DVD in February.)

"A Christmas Carol": Charles Dickens wasn't particularly religious, but he sure knew how to punch our spiritual buttons. This computer-animated retelling from director Robert Zemeckis (with Jim Carrey as a superlative Scrooge) doesn't diminish Dickens's message: Devote your life to the almighty dollar (or pound sterling) and you'll spend eternity in the chains of your own making.

"Avatar": James Cameron's futuristic epic is about the efforts of humans to exploit the mineral wealth of a distant moon. Problem is, it's already occupied by blue-skinned primitives who believe that everything on their world -- animals, plants, the very dirt they walk on -- is imbued with spiritual power that must not be disturbed. Human greed vs. spiritual enlightenment: a timely theme.

"The Blind Side": In the holiday season's unexpected sleeper hit, a homeless boy (Quinton Aaron) is adopted by a wealthy Memphis family (Sandra Bullock is the force-of-nature mom), and with the family's love, dedication and disposable income, the kid raises his grades and becomes a terror on the football field. It's the true story of Baltimore Ravens lineman Michael Oher, and writer-director John Lee Hancock lets us know that the family's charity is rooted in their Christianity. Hollywood movies rarely know how to handle persons of faith; this one does.

-- McClatchy Newspapers

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