In the new film “The Way,” Martin Sheen stars as a father who travels to Europe to pick up the body of his son, who died in an accident while on a pilgrimage to the shrine at Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Grief-stricken, the father, a non-practicing Catholic, decides to undertake the pilgrimage himself, scattering his son’s ashes along the journey. And while he’s trekking, the man comes to appreciate bigger, spiritual issues.
In other words “The Way,” opening Friday, is Christian in the best sense of the term. But “there’s no in-your-face . . . presentation of the Gospel,” says Mark Moring, who writes about film for Christianity Today. “It’s show, don’t tell. It shows a man who is honest with his struggles, and who finds redemption on his journey.”
A nuanced look at Christian spirituality, as in “The Way,” seems to be in vogue these days. Contemporary films such as “Higher Ground” (a woman struggles to keep her faith in a religious community; still in some area theaters), “Courageous” (police officers turn to religion to deal with the pressures of their job; opened last week here) and even “Machine Gun Preacher” (a former dope addict accepts Christ and helps Sudanese refugees; opened last week) are, unlike in the past, dealing with issues of faith in new and interesting ways.
These movies are “a reflection of our times; it’s a scary period, people are looking for meaning in spirituality,” said Joe Pichirallo, a film producer and chair of the undergraduate film department at New York University. “Everybody’s struggling with how to find meaning in life in this postmodern era, especially when existence is so glum.”
Peter E. Dans, author of “Christians In the Movies,” added that these films “are an attempt to see how we can live this life, which is not often easy, and faith often gets us through.”
Yet this approach to Christianity is a relatively recent phenomenon. For decades, religious portrayals in cinema seemed to be defined by avuncular priests (Bing Crosby in “The Bells of St. Mary’s”), ethereal nuns (Audrey Hepburn in “The Nun’s Story”) or Biblical-era figures in bombastic tales such as “The Ten Commandments,” “The Robe” and “Ben Hur.”
Then sometime in the 1960s or ’70s, the pendulum swung the other way, and movies that were highly critical of religion appeared, whether mockingly satirical (Maj. Frank Burns and “Hot Lips” Houlihan in “M.A.S.H.”) or particularly damning of repressive theologies (the original “Footloose”).
Movies such as “M.A.S.H.” were “a successful reflection of the mindset of the times, which was very rebellious,” Pichirallo said.
“The pendulum swings from being too reverent to being completely irreverent,” Dans added. “Many of these films ridiculed Christianity, and they also started to picture the negative sides, which were there. These are all fallible institutions.”
But now the pendulum is squarely in the center. Partially, this is a reaction to the negativity of so many anti-religious portrayals. Partially, it is a recognition of a large audience’s interest in religious-themed films — driven by the enormous success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which grossed $370 million after it came out in 2004. And partially it is due to the freedom afforded by the rise of the independent film movement.
“ ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ no matter what you thought about it, put a lot of people in the seats, so there is a market out there,” Dans said. “I think filmmakers are trying to make films that are more realistic, and reaching for a broader audience, portraying Christians in good and bad ways, as one might expect.”
But Pichirallo referred to Gibson’s film, which was financed outside the studio system, as an “anomaly.” When it comes to mainstream studios, he says, “the kinds of movies they’re looking to make are aimed at the widest possible audiences, and people are wary of turning off significant parts of the audience. The freedom to do this is on the independent level, where you don’t have to gear your subject matter for a mass market audience.”
Pichirallo notes, for example, that the remake of “Footloose,” a studio production due out Oct. 14, makes “a conscious effort to downplay the critique of conservative religious people, and turns it into a rebellious youth-against-parental authority [film]. That’s a more universal theme.”
Also entering the fray are explicitly Christian filmmakers such as Sherwood Pictures, an arm of the Georgia-based Sherwood Baptist Church. Despite limited mainstream attention, films such as 2008’s “Fireproof” have grossed more than $30 million on budgets of less than $1 million. “They are getting an amazing bang for their buck,” said Moring, who also noted that for the most part, production values of Christian films “are mediocre to bad.”
Is the current interest in faith a short-lived trend? “At the end of the day, movies are about art and commerce,” says Pichirallo.The studios “are agnostic. They’re willing to take on anything if it will be profitable. “
“People will make movies about faith with or without Hollywood’s cooperation,” says Moring. “And Hollywood will always buy good movies, regardless of the topic.”
Opens Friday at AMC Georgetown, AMC Hoffman and AMC Shirlington th eaters.