Monday, May 31, 2021

The Juggling Bookie: Christianity in Movies

 At the time the NZ Catholic’s film critic, Graeme Evans, reviewed Dogville, I hadn’t seen the movie. Nevertheless I was puzzled about his claim that “conventional religion is now regarded as box office poison,” and that the only way in which film-makers can present religious content is by disguising it, and ‘conning the audience.’ 

Well, I’ve now seen the movie, been surprised, shocked and amazed by it, and perplexed that anyone could miss the point that the main character, Grace, suffers increasingly as she offers (Divine) grace to the most ornery collection of villagers you’ve ever seen. (People have missed the point, however: some reviewers saw it as an attack on America.) 

Dogville, which hasn’t been widely distributed in NZ, requires its audience to spend most of the film thinking about what they see. No easy three-point sermon here. 

In the last couple of decades, theology has increasingly been debated in movies, many of them made in Hollywood. 

Leaving the oddball Christian connotations of The Matrix trilogy aside, there are plenty of other movies dealing with religion, God and spirituality, often with a Christian perspective.    

Some of them are fantasies, such as Jim Carrey’s two movies, The Truman Show and Bruce Almighty.    (Carrey’s Liar, Liar is another moral movie.)  

I delighted in the way God was presented in Bruce Almighty. His He has sense of humour is infinitely more subtle than Bruce’s, He has wisdom, wit and compassion, and you have no doubt He knows what He’s doing. 

Then there’s Brother, Where Art Thou?, which in spite of being based on Homer’s Odyssey, not only has a river baptism scene early in the piece and a redemption scene much later (in the midst of a Ku Klux Klan meeting, no less), but sports a one-eyed prophet (Cyclops – he turns up in Dogville too) who sets the main character thinking very seriously about God’s providence.    

The peculiar Keeping the Faith dramatizes the moral dilemmas of a Rabbi and a Catholic priest.   The Rabbi comes off as the lesser moral character, seeming to have no compunction about making mad passionate love to a woman he’s not married to, while the priest actually struggles to overcome the same temptation.  

There’s the very strange Dogma, which for all its crazy casting, foul language and off-the-wall moments, still asks solid questions about why humans are offered grace, and why Christ should have died for them. (God appears in two guises in this one, alongside angels, demons and a very strange toilet monster. Don’t ask.) 

And there’s The Man Who Sued God. If you can get past Billy Connelly’s foul-mouthed leading character, you’ll find the film is interested in matters much deeper than whether the insurance notion of ‘an Act of God’ has any real meaning.  

Finally, there’s Signs, in which Mel Gibson makes a better case for belief in God, perhaps, than he does in The Passion. 

Disguised or not, con-job or not, spirituality no longer seems to be box-office poison.

A scene from Dogville

This piece was written for The Juggling Bookie column in the New Zealand Anglican magazine,Taonga, in 2004, but possibly not published at the time. 

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