Films of Praise
These past couple of months have been somewhat interesting in the religious spectrum; where the confirmation of a new Pope started, the inauguration of the Archbishop of Canterbury soon followed. These are marked events in the religious calendar for many believers for they represent the beginning and hopeful prosperity of a new era. Nevertheless, whilst these events understandably dominated the news and general media for a prolonged period of time, there was another story somewhat squashed amidst the grandeur and weight of their happenings. This is, of course, the story that Qatar and Iran are planning on making more films about the Prophet Muhammad. It’s a highly controversial area, not just in cinema, but the world thereafter; the depiction of any form of Muhammad is greatly antagonistic to the Muslim world.
This anger and hatred towards the portrayal of the Prophet on camera wasn’t helped back in September 2012, when Nakoula Basseley Nakoula made his now infamous 14-minute film, Innocence of Muslims, which was lambasted for pretty much everything shown on the screen. He single-handedly became the most despised filmmaker on the planet for a good couple of months, receiving more death-threats than the creators of South Park did after their similar fiasco. Obviously, it’s a touchy subject that continually threatens to get wildly out of control. This isn’t aided or abetted by directors who uncontrollably berate an already sensitive culture, but it does inevitably make one look back in retrospect at the ways in which filmmakers have attempted to represent religion on the big screen.
Through the ages, cinema has often associated itself with religion. The former possesses the innate ability to capture the latter’s inherent ideals through the idea of an outwards-in perspective; the lens acting as a looking glass through which we can make individuals judgements, but also through which we can view and admire the director’s handiwork. Sometimes the response is assuring, sometimes it is hostile, but it almost always arouses discussion and debate, which in turn converts a passive audience into an active one.
With so many important films on a religious theme it was always going to be a subjective task as to which are the most integral. But there are some which demonstrate the medium’s power in forcing upon the viewer a willingness to seek out opinions other than their own. Here are some examples:
Der Golem (1920, d. Paul Wegener, Germany)
Der Golem features one of cinema’s most iconic characters, but is far more than the sums of its parts. It took a topic deemed delicate at the time, that of Judaism, and provided enough ambiguity that people have conspired to unravel its mysteries to this day. Is it a sympathetic description of the oppression Jews faced throughout Europe, being forced into their dank, dark holes, or is it a slightly more sinister take on the witchcraft-esque tendencies of the Jews, another paranoid idea about them casting spells over other races? Only Wegener knows, but it was one of the earliest films to elicit such a profound response from both public and critics alike.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, d. Carl Theodor Dreyer, France)
Nowadays The Passion of Joan of Arc consistently graces the upper echelons of various prestigious film ranking lists. However, despite the near-universal acclaim since its release, the film was originally severely edited by the French government on behalf of the Archbishop of Paris. Taking a decidedly nationalistic stance, it was deemed that Dreyer’s position as a non-French, non-Catholic filmmaker had not been beneficial to the final cut. Meanwhile, the infamous scene of Joan being mocked and tormented by English soldiers led to a ban in Great Britain. It takes a brave director to go against the countries his film would most relate to.
Brigham Young (1940, d. Henry Hathaway, US)
Brigham Young details the journey its titular character had to go through in moving his people, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (i.e., the Mormons), across country to their eventual resting place of Salt Lake City, Utah. Much of the plot chooses to focus on two of the group, Jonathan Kent and Zina Webb, as we are exposed to the trials and tribulations of the everyday Mormon under the tutelage and direction of Young. The film prompted much discussion upon release, but it’s to be commended for taking a religious group that many deemed irrelevant and perpetually antagonistic in their beliefs and creating something that favourably highlights their faith onscreen.
The Ten Commandments (1956, d. Cecil B. DeMille, US)
Hollywood during the 1950s became obsessed with the religious epic. There are other examples which sparked interest, such as Samson and Delilah (also directed by DeMille) and The Robe, but The Ten Commandments holds a place as one of the biggest, both in terms of impact and financial success. Its tale is a popular one and most should be familiar with the basics: that of Moses (played by Charlton Heston) leading the slaves across the desert, parting the Red Sea and enabling their escape. A huge production in every respect, The Ten Commandments cast some of the biggest names in Hollywood, placed them on massive sets and gave them a script that was as appropriately immense as it was often silly. At its heart the film is a genuine attempt to capture the essence of a biblical story and relay it to the general public. In doing so it paved the way for religious epics for a long time, even if the success of future yarns couldn’t hold up to the monumental success of their predecessor.
The Burmese Harp (1956, d. Kon Ichikawa, Japan)
If ever a film wholly promoted the idea of belief being an integral part of our effort for pureness, then Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp would be it. Depicting the conversion of a Japanese soldier to monastic Buddhism following the Second World War, it offers a staggeringly impassioned portrayal of the structural rituals that belief can hold to enable hope and eventual healing of both the physical and mental tribulations of the affected. The Burmese landscape is used to emphasise the conversion in a marvellously quaint way: the architecture, landscape and statues adding to the mood of the piece, something that is absolutely engrossing throughout.
Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971, d. Dev Anand, India)
Hare Rama Hare Krishna is most interesting for its almost mocking attitude to the Western world’s shallow take on Indian and Eastern mysticism during the late sixties and early seventies. There has always been a devotional aspect to Bollywood cinema since its very beginnings in Raja Harishchandra (1913), but Anand’s film provides a more cynical spin. It presents hippy culture as ludicrous and faddish, whereas the Eastern traits of traditionally held beliefs are shown as possessing actual value, deep-rooted as they are in a highly intricate and delicate culture. It’s hard not to agree with the director’s thoughts to a certain extent.
The Wicker Man (1973, d. Robin Hardy, UK)
A mesmerising fictional account of what happens when two very different religions meet and unintentionally interact. Edward Woodward plays Police Sergeant Howie, who arrives on the Isle of Summerset to take on the case of a missing girl. A stout Christian, he is exposed to a number of unchristian acts, the main one being the openly flaunted sexuality of this community of mask-wearing Pagans. The final scene is as abhorrent as it is moving, and provides this religiously based film with an ending that feels understandable regardless of our beliefs.
The Exorcist (1973, d. William Friedkin, US)
Due to scenes of head-spinning, excessive vomiting and masturbation with a crucifix, The Exorcist is often remarked upon as being nothing more than a harrowing experience when actually it’s a damning examination of the Catholic Church. Essentially a tale of good versus evil, delve a bit deeper and it’s aiming to highlight the many dubious acts of the church. Linda Blair’s Regan provides the antithesis to Max Von Sydow’s Father Merrin allowing the narrative to take the form of a back-and-forth between two sides of religion: intellectual debate in the form of a horror film.
The Message (1977, d. Moustapha Akkad, Libya)
Too often The Message is targeted because it was financed by Muammar al-Gaddafi. When you’ve been shunned by Hollywood and anyone else, and when your film contains an integral and highly important message, you’ll most likely take most anyone’s money to get it made. Despite the financier, however, it was still wholly Akkad’s project and he proceeds to deliver a film that takes both the viewpoint of the Prophet Muhammad and provides a general introduction to Islamic historical culture and values. Nevertheless, despite representing Muhammad solely from a first-person perspective, he would still provoke the outrage of fanatical Muslim radicals who objected to The Message’s existence.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979, d. Terry Jones, UK)
Among the most recognisable of religious films, Life of Brian takes the story of Jesus and skews it into a satirical gem. What’s so inherently interesting about its reception is that the Monty Python team never intended it to be a direct hit against organised religion, because it addresses the intention of belief rather than belief itself. Of course, when you have a film that does appear on the surface to insinuate that religion is a bit of a joke, then the picketers come out of the woodwork quickly enough. It was deemed an insult to the church and several religious organisations actually attempted to have it banned, which it was, for a while, by certain countries and some town councils. Such is the nature of satire.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, d. Martin Scorsese, US)
Scorsese is best known for dealing in gritty human drama. It’s no wonder then that The Last Temptation of Christ should concentrate so heavily on the human, fleshy, emotional side of Jesus and deviate from the gospel passages of the Bible. As a Catholic too, it’s understandable that Scorsese should have both religious and theological reasons for turning Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1953 novel into a film, and this despite the fervid reaction it prompted. The most horrific response manifested itself when a French fundamentalist group firebombed a cinema that was showing the movie. This didn’t just demonstrate the often radical actions of breakaway religious groups, but also foregrounded the idea of censorship versus creative freedom: should the relevant authorities censor or pull a film because of its potential to scratch away at the sensitivities of the public?
Visions of Ecstasy (1989, d. Nigel Wingrove, UK)
Visions of Ecstasy is infamous for being immediately banned upon release in 1989, and only recently having been permitted for general release in the UK. Focusing on a Spanish nun, the film is essentially 18 minutes of her caressing the crucified body of Jesus Christ. It’s not so much the actual banning that places Visions of Ecstasy onto this list, but how that translates into ideas of creative freedom: underneath the furore is the question of whether it is always someone’s prerogative to create a work with any given freedom. Though not quite so provocative as Innocence of Muslims, Wingrove’s film bears similar traits in terms of its reception.
Taste of Cherry (1997, d. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran)
Kiarostami is a director who, until recently, had a tendency to delve into his native Iran, pointing out the diverse and ever-intriguing elements that make up his beloved home country. Taste of Cherry, it could be argued, is his most religious film to date in that it deliberates over the quandary of life and death in the Muslim world. A man trying to convince people to aid him in committing suicide is repeatedly turned down; understandably so, it being an act no-one would feel comfortable with regardless of the financial rewards on offer. Can we justify the man’s action? Can we understand him at all? Is the cultural barrier, and therefore the religious barrier, too opaque from a Western point of view to understand? Taste of Cherry is a film that enables the viewer to truly question the implications of actions in relation to the overall idea of good and evil within religion.
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring (2003, d. Kim Ki-duk, South Korea)
The cyclical nature of Buddhism is as intriguing an idea as it is wholly wondrous in scope. It is summarised beautifully in this 2003 film, one that manages to encapsulate the religion’s integral structure as well as its links to the natural world, as well as the idea of peace through adversity. A far cry from the director’s usual work, which is so often full of rage and aggression, it is perhaps understandable that a director such as Kim can make a film as fluid as this when he himself understands the opposite end of the spectrum. Not that there are no signs of anger; that has to be, otherwise it wouldn’t capture the unfortunate side-effects to which one can occasionally be exposed.
The Passion of the Christ (2004, d. Mel Gibson, US)
The Passion of the Christ is easily the most divisive film in Gibson’s fledging directorial career. It centres on the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life, from the Agony in the Garden to his resurrection, with a no holds barred approach to the violence of his ordeal. The main issue that arose was whether its depiction was anti-Semitic and it’s been a topic for discussion ever since with several Jewish groups asking Gibson to cut certain scenes that they deem offensive. Interestingly, the debate has been between those of the same faith, thus confirming that the idea of religion is never as black and white as we’re led to believe.
Submission (2004, d. Theo van Gogh, Netherlands)
Ending with Submission seems apt considering the repercussions and sadness that resulted from its content. Director van Gogh aimed to highlight the highly contentious issue of the treatment of women in the Muslim world, where they are taught to believe that if they stray even slightly, they deserve any form of punishment their husbands deem just. This can manifest itself in violence or even rape and it’s a situation Submission succeeds in making us appalled about. The whole idea of there being holiness in positioning women below men in the 21st century seems absurd, insulting and offensive. The film’s message, one borne of equality, led to van Gogh being assassinated by a Muslim extremist. Religion is, and will always be a sensitive and delicate topic, but like everything there needs to be someone exposing and questioning the flaws so we can progress and evolve efficiently. Such is the controversy of religion in film. Such is the need to break free from the shackles and examine the system.