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Hollywood and Thine 

Heaven and hell in religious movies

Wednesday, Mar 29 2000
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When it comes to exaggerated emotions, religion and movies were made for one another. Both can fill us with the oceanic feelings that the grind of everyday life forbids: exaltation, ecstasy, the sense that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Film and faith answer to the longing for spiritual transcendence that sooner or later overtakes even the most recalcitrant skeptic. At their best, they also conduct a dialogue with deity and examine the purpose and practice of existence. At their worst, they merely heighten feeling.

It’s no accident that films with religious or quasi-religious themes tend to be made by or about Catholics raised on lavish ritual and heated speculation about the afterlife. (Judaism is widely perceived as a prosaic faith grounded in the here and now, which may be one reason why Bruce Wagner‘s 1998 film I’m Losing You, in which the ritual washing of the dead rescues a screwed-up young Jewish woman from self-destruction, had such a rocky road to distribution. And Islam, mired in anti-Arab prejudice, is little more than Hollywood shorthand for terrorism.) In its time the work of even -- perhaps especially -- ambivalent sons of Rome like Fellini, Buñuel, Coppola and Scorsese overflowed with religious iconography, a passionate dialogue with higher authority and a powerful sense of sin. In a secular age, their movies became our religion. Today, to judge by the number of religion-themed movies rolling off the assembly lines in the last two or three years, Americans are rediscovering faith big time. And if they aren‘t, they will be by the time Hollywood has finished with them. The suits have read their Time and Newsweek carefully, and -- on learning that secularism is passe -- scheduled accordingly.

America, so the pundits tell us, is dumping old-time religion for a more diffuse, user-friendly spirituality, wrapped in New Age giddiness, apocalyptic excess and all manner of cult-fancying. This must be music to the ears of movie marketers. Denominational convictions divide the mass audience, while a vague spirituality, preferably packaged with ghosts and angels -- those hardy box-office perennials -- will offend none but the most die-hard atheists. In 1999 candidates for messiah popped up in the Star Wars prequel, and in The Matrix (not for nothing was the love interest’s name Trinity). The dead returned to scare us silly in The Sixth Sense, The Mummy and The Blair Witch Project, which tossed in a satanic conspiracy for good measure. And that was just the top-grossing movies. In Stigmata, Patricia Arquette‘s unbelieving soul became a battleground between saints and demons, while in End of Days Arnold Schwarzenegger saved New York streets from Beelzebub. The year’s surprise per-screen hit was the openly pro-Christian The Omega Code, an evangelical action story about a secret cipher that has the capacity to trigger the apocalypse. The movie, which left critics howling but had fundamentalist clergy plugging the film on pulpits around the country, appears to have triggered a flurry of supernatural thrillers. Later this year, in Paramount‘s Bless the Child, Kim Basinger will play a psychiatric nurse trying to save her niece from a Satanist with apocalypse on his mind. Winona Ryder is slated to be similarly tested in New Line’s Lost Souls. And Danny DeVito has signed with Warner Bros. to direct Revelations, in which an unbelieving cop takes a bullet for a cardinal and re-examines his faithlessness while on the track of the gunman.

I suppose we ought to be grateful, at least, for the drying up of the small flood of daffy, sanctimonious angels served up by A-list hunks like Nicolas Cage, John Travolta and Brad Pitt, all bent on showing their sensitive father-figure sides. What‘s replaced them isn’t much better. For the most part, recent supernatural thrillers have been standard action fare, thinly coated in a wool-gathering religiosity that delivers the requisite emotional high without asking awkward questions about the nature of good and evil. One significant exception was last year‘s The Sixth Sense, a smart and soulful little horror picture that staked no particular religious claim, but lent a marvelous new power to the meaning of ghostly. However dreadful their appearance, the dead who returned to make Haley Joel Osment’s young life wretched were merely humans who had died violent, premature deaths and, unmourned, hovered over the corporeal world until the boy moved to complete their unfinished business, and in so doing achieved his own exorcism as well as theirs.

Genuine theological interrogation of the kind that, however symbolically, powered the films of Scorsese and Coppola is a scarce commodity in today‘s movies, tailored as they are to media-defined trends and the youth demographic. Agnieszka Holland’s affecting 1999 movie The Third Miracle, in which Ed Harris‘ Catholic priest works through self-doubt by reaffirming his faith in miracles, comes close. Even I, a Jewish skeptic to whom miracle-working seems an alien and vulgar way of setting the world to rights, was moved to tears by the priest’s struggle with himself and the Church. And to a bracing laughter by Charles Haid‘s embodiment of a venal Catholic establishment corroded by politics, greed and indifference to the constituencies of the poor and the weak that it means to serve.

In the end, it may be that God, in the sense of a presence that compels us to know good from bad and practice the former, is best revealed to us not through reverent solemnity, but through the loud guffaw of the irreverent believer. For the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, black comedy was a first principle in charting the boundaries of heaven and hell. Whether he knows it or not, young Kevin Smith, who made the scabrously funny Dogma, is her true disciple. A churchgoing Catholic, Smith peopled his lurid comic-book tale with gun-toting angels, a rosy-cheeked devil, a black 13th apostle, and a stand-in for the Virgin Mary who works in an abortion clinic -- all joining in a life-or-death struggle to guard the gates of heaven and save the world from extinction. In portraying God as a female rock star, Smith wasn‘t only trying to certify his feminist credentials or thumb his nose at the religious right (though he was certainly doing both those things). He was also making the case for the image of God as a human creation that takes variable form, in the same way that Dogma’s agents of radical evil may appear as a poop monster, or an angel with bloody stumps for wings. Served up as ribald comedy, Dogma stands as the toughest-minded, most heartfelt inquiry into the human capacity for good and evil to hit the screen in recent memory.

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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