In the midst of the silly battles over “Noah,” Liel Leibovitz has a superb piece on the Tablet website about how the best movies always have a religious component.
As is often the case when we strive to talk seriously about popular entertainment, we’re asking all the wrong questions. Rather than fretting about whether Hollywood gets religion—it does, gloriously so, and to great effect—we should wonder why, given its stratospheric success with religious-themed films, is Hollywood so reluctant to give its audiences what they so clearly desire.
This, first and foremost, is a question of definitions. Who’s a religious person? And what kind of film might he like? To hear marketers, in Hollywood and beyond, tell it, a religious person is someone whose cultural horizon begins with Genesis and ends with Revelation, some sort of sniggering simpleton who grows suspicious unless his entertainment features swords, sandals, and the heroes he’d read about in Sunday School. This lazy and skewed approach is no less offensive than the efforts to market products to women simply by slapping on pink packaging, and no less ineffective: Women, like religious people and members of minority groups and the young and the old and people with terrible nut allergies and anyone else who was blessed with the breath of life, are complex and nuanced people whose tastes and predilections run far deeper than a single, simple note.
I like the way Liebovitz understands that movies like “Groundhog Day” and “2001” are religious movies because they engage us in the deepest questions of meaning and purpose. People of faith — whether those who are confident in their beliefs and affiliations or those who are seeking a better understanding of our connection to the infinite — are drawn to stories that explore those themes, and not just reiterations of Bible chapters.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Bible stories were a staple in Hollywood, with big, star-studded, prestige movies like “King of Kings,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “The Bible,” “The Ten Commandments,” and “Song of Bernadette.” It is interesting to think about why that changed. There are a lot of theories and the answer probably encompasses most of them. The controversy over “Noah” is at least one indicator of at least one of the reasons. As mainstream audiences have shown less interest in explicitly religious films, those who strongly identify as observant are
This year, in addition to Son of God and “Noah,” we will also see Christian Bale as Moses in “Exodus.” I hope that both self-described faith-audiences and those who do not define themselves that way will give these films a try — and look for the spiritual themes and inspiration in whatever movies they attend. The wonder of the Bible is that it gives us so much to ponder, and it can be a joy to share the way it speaks to each of us, even if those ways are different. I hope these films get more people interested in reading and discussing the Bible and considering its lessons more deeply.