Religion ready for its close-up

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By Piet Levy
Saturday, January 22, 2011

Celebrity sightings and up-and-coming indie flicks are a given at the annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, but this year something else is drawing attraction on the red carpet: faith on film.

A small but noticeable number of films at Sundance - where crossover movies such as "Reservoir Dogs" and "Little Miss Sunshine" broke into the mainstream - tackle issues of religion, spirituality and faith.

Out of 120 Sundance features scheduled to be shown at the festival, which runs through Jan. 30, a dozen are overt stories about religion or chronicle protagonists largely defined by faith, says John Nein, senior programmer for the festival.

"There are definitely more films [exploring spirituality] that ended up in the program this year than in years past," he said, noting an uptick in the number of submissions that touch on religious themes.

Christianity is a central theme in most of the films, including the star-studded satire "Salvation Boulevard," featuring Pierce Brosnan as a popular preacher who frames a born-again Christian follower for a crime, and the riveting documentary "The Redemption of General Butt Naked," about a Liberian warlord-turned-preacher facing the loved ones of people he killed.

The Italian film "Lost Kisses" centers on a Sicilian community's reaction to a 13-year-old girl who may perform miracles. Two films explore Christianity and Islam, with "Kinyarwanda" set during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the documentary "Position Among the Stars" tracing the lives of an impoverished family in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The Japanese movie "Abraxas" focuses on a depressed Zen monk who reconnects with punk rock, and the bizarre American comedy "The Catechism Cataclysm" centers on a priest who loves heavy metal music.

Three American narrative features - "Martha Marcy May Marlene," Kevin Smith's horror film "Red State" and Vera Farmiga's directorial debut, "Higher Ground" - are concerned with cults and religious sects on the fringe.

Religion, of course, isn't totally new territory for Sundance - previous festival fare included "Saved!," "Jesus Camp" and "Shape of the Moon," a precursor to this year's "Position Among the Stars." Most Sundance religious fare tended to be satirical or derisive - with "Saved!" a prime example - said Dick Staub, author of "The Culturally Savvy Christian" and a columnist for Religion News Service, who has participated in the Windrider Film Forums around Sundance, that bring together directors and audiences to talk about faith on film.

William L. Blizek, founding editor of the Journal of Religion and Film and professor of philosophy and religion at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said religion may have a higher profile at Sundance this year because "religion has become a much more visible part of our culture."

"Now that you've got a culture that is more open to the discussion of religion, you get more movies'' exploring religion, he said, citing former presidential candidate Mitt Romney (R), President Obama and others who are defined in the public's eye by their faith.

With more openness toward religion, there is more freedom to make movies about it, some Sundance filmmakers say.


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